An Interview with Serena Eggers

Interview by Nicole Araya
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The cloudy, mottled texture of Woman Lying on the Couch is so palpable and absorbing. What is the process of encaustic painting like?

There are a few different ways to work with encaustic. All involve using a heated palette (something like a hot plate) to melt the encaustic wax, and then applying it to your surface, usually with a brush, before it dries. Variation comes in in options like when you add the pigment—you can add oil paint (or pure pigment) to the translucent wax while you’re heating it, and apply it to the canvas pre-colored; or you can apply it translucent and then add oil paint on top. I usually do some combination of both. The other thing to play with is texture, as you were saying—that cloudiness. To get encaustic to be smooth, you have to melt it again while it’s on the canvas—I usually use a heat gun for this. (Though, worth noting, you have to be very careful of fumes especially for this part—don’t try this at home, kids, unless you get yourself a nice gas mask.) You can then use tools (I have some etching type things that I like) to push it around and make marks in it while it’s still warm, if you want to. It’s always a bit of a negotiation, like with any physical medium—the wax wants to do certain things. I think the real magic of the cloudiness comes in in the layering you can achieve with encaustic, though—what you’re probably noticing in this piece with some of the texture is layers of color inside the wax playing under different color that I added on top.

The effect of the encaustic in conjunction with the presence of the sleeping woman evokes the feel of an altered state. Where did the inspiration for this painting come from and why did you decide to use encaustic painting for this piece?

This piece was part of my thesis, a series of paintings about my relationship with my mother. It was actually the first encaustic piece I made for the series, so partially it was that I had found this medium that I thought would be expressively effective for me and I wanted to try it out. But I think I chose this scene as the first application for it because I had a feeling that it would let me get at light—particularly light and the human body—in a more vibrant and textured way than oil paint alone. I love oil paint, but in trying to build up texture with it I always find myself accruing a kind of chalkiness and density, and I wanted the body to have texture but still to glow. So this piece was hugely about just that body and conveying the presence of it, how it felt to me. For the rest of it—I was painting loosely from memory, more an amalgam of scenes than one particular moment, but I was trying to capture just the parts of that space and those memories that I felt had some emotional weight caught on them. So the thigh was important, the stomach was, it was important that I couldn’t see the face or the expression—just a mush—but the arms didn’t really matter. The sense of light from the window and the mirror mattered, and the weird little wicker on the edge of the chair, and the lampshade; but I didn’t bother picking out other details that I didn’t have feelings about.

Are Woman Lying on the Couch or Kissing Hand part of a larger series? If so, is there theme or through-line of the series that connects the individual works?

They are both part of my senior thesis, a series of paintings about my relationship with my mother. The series was called Mater Admirabilis, which is the name of a painting in my primary school that shows the Virgin Mary just having been told that she is pregnant. I kept it in Latin because “admirabilis” can mean “admirable” but also something like “to be wondered at,” with undertones of alienation. I liked the combination.

I noticed that many identifiable features of the subjects within your paintings are blurred or somehow obscured. How do you decide which elements of your paintings to bring into focus and which to blend with the surroundings?

I started to ramble about this in another answer, but my general mindset was that I was only going to paint things that I felt were emotionally resonant for me (or maybe somehow really necessary for defining what was happening); I also let things get distorted in ways that “matched” my feelings about them more. That happened in body or size distortions a lot, for example—legs kind of ballooned, because I was thinking about body image, or that scarf in Kissing Hand became absolutely huge and wild because I remember being fascinated and impressed with its texture as a kid. The only thing that I would say got blurred or left out for some reason other than my not feeling like it was very important to the story was parts of faces. I actually made the decision for each face on an individual basis, and then realized at the end of the series that I hadn’t painted a single set of clear, visible eyes. It’s one of those visual and emotional concepts that felt right and is a little hard to articulate, but I think it has to do with subjectivity and objectivity—when we can’t see the figure’s eyes or they’re clearly not looking at us, they’re sort of cut off more in their own world. When the face is more entirely eroded they start to seem like less of a subject at all and more an object. It was this distance, we’re not right in there alongside any of them. I also sometimes avoided faces so as not to over-define complex emotions.

Kissing Hand appears to have many performative aspects -- the child is standing on a stage-like surface, the woman’s red outfit is flamboyant and theatrical, and the heels, ruffles, and purse are traditionally associated with woman’s attire. How do you see performance to factor into womanhood, in this painting or otherwise?

It’s definitely well-observed that there’s a certain theatricality to the larger figure—the ruffles and heels, the lipstick. That resonates with me. It’s a little bit hard to answer the question because in this context the performative elements of the painting had to do with this specific person and psychology—a dramatic personality, perhaps performing elements of motherhood and femininity. The theatricality probably just also has a lot to do with the mother figure being kind of larger than life in the child’s eyes. I think it’s fair to say that there are performative aspects to "womanhood” generally—it’s a cultural concept that comes with a whole slew of expectations that many people feel a pressure to mold themselves to meet. But I’m not sure that I would single out womanhood as more of a tension point for performativity—at least in my work and thinking—than a whole lot of other things; mental health, social status/roles, family roles, and wealth are a few things that jump to mind as well as gender roles.

I am intrigued by how the lighting complicates the relationship between the two characters of Kissing Hand. The child’s head seems to be surrounded by a yellow light, while the child’s legs and the woman’s ruffles glow with a red light. Can you talk a bit about your choices creating the lighting for Kissing Hand?

That’s an interesting question to unpack. I think a big part of it is just that I am very conscious of lighting and was working from a half-imagined memory, so a lot of the large pieces came as dramatic impressions of light. Some of the decisions were probably visual instincts having to do with the composition (I think that accounts for the pink in the legs). But I definitely deliberately let that reddish pink scarf glow. That somehow became the center of the piece for me, I let it get cartoonish and out of control, and I let the same pink kind of infuse other parts of the painting around the edges of things—the legs, the shadow, the step, etc.—just to kind of complete the dominating presence of this pink. You can definitely read a great many things into the scarf—it’s about femininity, it’s about loudness—but those might also be reducing it. I didn’t make it glow for a specific reason, except that it became vast and important and wanted to be radiant. The child’s backlit head was a little bit more intellectually planned out—I chose yellow to make it a different light from that scarf, but also because it felt a little bit like a halo, and I was fine with that resonance. Something about innocence or purity; but also, factually, the figure in the memory is about to go into a Catholic school, so maybe a little bit playfully connecting to that. I did name the whole series after a religious painting.