American History and memory intertwine to reference the enhanced and absent body in the multiple practices of Pamela Council. Born in Southampton, New York and currently based in the Bronx, Council works in a wide variety of media including sculpture, printmaking, and performance. Utilizing humor, style, and grace Council’s examines how identity is constructed, and how adversity can be overcome through self-efficacy and an unwavering belief in the power of the individual.
IJ: What is it that fascinates you about how we construct our identities?
PC: I wouldn’t say that I’m fascinated with how we construct our identities. I am, however interested in how we deal with this shell, this case for ourselves called our bodies. I’m fascinated with the relationship between the body you live in and how you have to move in this world. And I am interested in public figures who present a unique sense of self and personal style. I’ve done work on Sweet Daddy Grace, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Al Sharpton. They all fashion themselves in a way that is authentic and exuberant. Personal style is so important for greeting or deflecting that public gaze. It can be a cloak move, a cape act, like James Brown. You ever seen someone in clothes that are so distracting that you don’t see the person? Like, don’t watch me, watch these nails dazzle. Look at this chain. You don’t see me. You see my wig. You can’t even see me anyway. Betch. It’s funny. There’s an old tale about lotioning up to keep the ash monsters at bay. It’s a myth that the gaze has a way of bouncing off of you for a sec if you’re well-moisturized. But it’s true that f you feel crusty on the inside, you may crumble. That’s part of my interest in polishing the nails, in dressing up the sculptures.
IJ: You mentioned that you were aware of being an American from a very early age, because you grew up near an Indian reservation. Can you talk about how that influenced your sense of self and being an American?
PC: Shinnecock. I grew up on what was stolen Shinnecock land in the Hamptons and I have family on the Rez. My grandfather is a bastard or adopted Shinnecock and I always knew that. There were early conversations about reparations, reservations, and the relationship between the government and identity. It was an early understanding of why everyone lives where they do, what it means to be Native, with or without recognition. All of this was in a beautiful place that gets gussied up in the summer and presents an All-American image for wealthy people “summer people”. Some of them were rich but raggedy, on that Grey Gardens shit. You can see this in my work. The fragility and closeness of this whole system, playing out in a walk through the village thrift shop and these curious found objects.
IJ: Your love of Americana is apparent in much of your work. Can you talk about what the American dream means to you?
PC: Yeah, all this evidence and artifact of American history interests me. I was resistant to the notion of history because of how it was taught in school. But I love dramatic stories. I love museums and visiting historic sites and understanding relationships. George Washington’s wooden dentures are the American Dream. We imagine it as this ancient thing, putting wood in his mouth for teeth. How quaint. But they were animal and human teeth he wore. Some of them were from his slaves. He was hooked on a red crushed cherry brandy drink and I guess they had better teeth than him. Ha! So the American Dream is this shorthand we have for history that’s like too long-too painful-didn’t read-prefer the pre-digested remolded kid’s version of history. Basically, the American Dream is the McRib, which is appealing, funny, and wickedly warped and revolting at the same time. It’s a surreal, deluding sandwich. In one of my sculptures, I have Washington’s dentures juxtaposed with this fountain that spits Purple Listerine and Grape Drink. It stinks up the whole room. Lately I like to imagine George Washington without his dentures, just gumming away in meetings and battles. Gumming! Gummiiiiiiing…..
IJ: Although your work often addresses more tragic aspects of American history, such as talking about how crack cocaine our country in the 80s, there is also this sense of beauty and optimism. Your belief in the power of the individual, and the sense that adversity can be overcome, is incredibly hopeful and empowering.
PC: Beauty and optimism is the only way. Grace. I think we all agree that adversity can be overcome. It’s kind of the agreement of living on another day. I am not interested in letting hardship, or even oppression win. Lately, I’ve really been working on compassion, especially for those people who suffer from being blinded by their privilege. I think they can overcome that plight. I say a lot of prayers for the straight white man, poor thing. When I make the velvet works, I’m interested in the “Shine Thru,” the way that light passes through the part of the fabric that’s been damaged and worn thin. I like the notion of some truth justice or some bullspit like that shining through the scabs.
IJ: Immersing your viewer in a sensory experience seems central to your work. Not only do you engage your viewer through sight, but also through sound, touch, and taste.
PC: Sometimes the strongest images are made in your brain. I can’t do that by showing you. I can, however, do it by making a super shiny yet sticky looking surface of nail polish that you are dying to rub your fingers against. I can make your brain itch by showing you velvet that has been scraped at the surface like a scab. It reminds people of skin, but they all think they’re the first ones to connect that.
IJ: The power in your message is communicated through gentleness rather aggression, which seems much more effective.
PC: Like I was saying about compassion for the straight white man, I just really value loving. There is a lot to make you angry, bitter, or resentful, and for me, so much of art is dealing with my subjectivity and then finding a creative way to keep myself from kicking someone in the teeth. Like Mike Tyson, they got me on the [Art] to keep me from killing y’all.
IJ: Your interest in etiquette also seems to come from a place of grace, respect and kindness.
PC: I have always liked rules, structure, and language. I was an advanced math student all through school, and was a math major in college until my senior year. I live for understanding systems, algorithms, and how different mechanisms, whether in physics, business, or social life work. I love pattern. I think that putting some structure on things helps me see patterns of human interaction a little better. That’s what etiquette is. For me, it’s less about morals and more about coding.
IJ: How did the idea for your velvet sculptures come about?
PC: The Velvets are made using a process called devoré. The nap of the velvet is devoured by a chemical, which is burned and scraped away. I discovered it when I was doing these hundreds of drawings of James Brown and Al Sharpton’s shared hairstyle and JB’s cape and thought it was like a bad relaxer. It was like putting a bad perm onto a fabric that is so tacky-luxe and performative. It’s a little artistic trichotillomania, replacing my last seduction, which was nail polishing. Listen, I’m performing some obsessive, possibly self-destructive, self-soothing habits on my materials and making these figurative sculptures.
IJ: What is it in particular that resonated with you about James Brown?
PC: I was into Ali. I watched When We Were Kings and thought a lot about the men that were there at the rumble in the jungle. That led to my learning about James Brown; just a natural progression of research. James Brown: talent, problematic self-sabotaging/soothing behavior, self-efficacy, fall from grace, performer as politico, and he was funny. He was also a rules man. He had a code.
IJ: Your fascination with James Brown is also present in your performances as Sweet Daddy Grace, who influenced Brown in his attitudes and beliefs.
PC: Sweet Daddy Grace begat James Brown begat Al Sharpton. I am so interested in this homoplatonic father-son like relationship between the Godfather of Soul and Rev Al. I love the story of Al promising to wear his hair like JB’s and I made all these diagrammatic drawings of their shared hairstyle, the pompadour. That was my outlining the pact, code, and promise between them. I drew these images in velvet and had light shining through them in the shape of a cape when I made The Cape Act. I wanted to be the daddy of them all and I also wanted to show that Sweet Daddy Grace was a real person and make people aware of his American Dream story, with all his slick, thin-mustached, long nailed preacher style and his parading entrepreneurial spirit.
Pamela Council is a New York based artist that recently participated in the New Museum’s seminal event Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter. She has exhibited her work at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Williams College Museum of Art, Outpost Artist Resources, Rebuild Foundation, and the Wassaic Project. Pamela has created a commission for Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Irena Jurek is a New York based artist, writer, and curator. She has an upcoming solo exhibition with David Shelton Gallery in Houston, Texas. She has had recent solo shows with Romeo Gallery, NYC, Jeff Bailey Gallery in Hudson, New York, and with Zurcher Gallery, Paris. She received her BFA in 2004 from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her MFA in 2008 from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Michigan.