The Questions We Ask Ourselves
Katie McGowan takes us through her process.
I met Katie in 2018 and quickly understood that she was an artist. I love her work because she doesn’t play pretend when she tells you what her work is about. Katie and I have talked about our pet peeves in the art world before. Our biggest is sexism, but one of our others was the way artists think an extensive vocabulary is all that you need to convince people that your work means something. Many failing to realize art means something because you make it with intention. Katie doesn’t have to grab a dictionary or persuade me to believe in her work. I can see it all on my own because she makes it with purpose. Everything she creates excites me. It makes me say “oh what has she come up with this time?” and quickly swipe my Instagram app open. She is the first person I turn to and ask “am I doing this right?" and the last person you should ever assume is less capable simply because she is a woman. I would never, but I have seen people do this, unfortunately. Our boss paired us up one day to my pleasure and to Katie’s dismay and I’ve been thanking him ever since. I am in love with her process, her persistence, and her natural talent. Reading her statement a few weeks ago I wanted nothing more than to share it with everyone right then. I could go on about her forever, but I’ll let her take it away. A Portrait of the Artist welcomes Katie McGowan.
Howdy – I’m Katie. Nice to meet you. I’m an interdisciplinary artist who’s fascinated by historic modes of imaging, democratizing art production, and using these products for social change. I graduated NYU Tisch’s department of photography and imaging in 2020; while there, I met Ava through an internship where I asked (in desperation) ‘Will we be friends after this?’ Given that I’m writing this piece now, I suppose the answer was yes. I’m now in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan getting my MFA in photography at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, a mere 600 miles away from where we first met.
I grew up in the suburbs of Houston in a gendered state of whiteness. In middle class southern Americana, I was encoded with traditionalist values of conservatism and religion. Imposing themselves on the education system, political hierarchy, and domestic spaces, these values coded my young self into ideas of limitation under the patriarchy; my future was boxed to motherhood and wifely duties. This experience is largely my stake in making. I’m defying my own expectations, learned and lived.
From Texas I moved to California, California to New York, and New York to Michigan. A nomad of sorts, I don’t have much a claim to anywhere other than the United States as a whole. Looking at my project, No Vacancy, I wanted to sort through state and national identity. Using landscape as a means of comparison, I photographed each of the 50 states to see if land could be telling of identity. More than a sick game, I wanted to find if geographic signifiers could allude to statehood and thereby allegiance.
50 images created a grid of emptiness. I sought out landscapes that were void of human interaction or structure. Spaces that hint at fields of grain and Microsoft Windows backgrounds blend to form a greater narrative on land use and pride within each of the United States. What happens when you can’t tell the difference between Maryland and North Dakota, Texas and New Mexico, Washington and Maine? More than a Steichen-esque Family of Man moment, I’m seeking critique of how our borders operate. How we abuse plentiful earth. How we say, ‘America’s full,’ when it clearly has room to welcome.
This project was done on a 4x5 Deardorff. It is ancient, heavy, and produces a lot of commentary from old white men on the road. I used this mode of imaging for a few reasons: to take back the history of landscape from men, to utilize the negative size for large prints, and to place myself into a larger history of photography. Every time I take out this camera, I’m called a ‘little lady’, asked if I know what I’m doing, and asked if the camera functions (‘No, I’m just holding this 20-pound object in Las Vegas for fun’). Beyond image making, this project became a performance of imaging. The assembly and execution of each landscape was an ordeal but offered a meditative moment of making. Each shot made space for me to be cat called and demeaned. More than photography, this project was theatre.
My practice in graduate school has shifted slightly (significantly). Thinking through ideas of borders and conceptual photography allowed me to begin digesting what I want from my work—discussion. My work is seldom about the content of the image (the empty landscape), but the story behind it (allegiance). Relying on lofty statements and text, my work almost always reads more clearly with an anecdote. Seeking a way to make this anecdote more accessible without 1500 words of wall text, I came to flags. Created through the cyanotype process, they feature text that’s appropriated and remixed from governmental documents, institutions, and propaganda. Skipping to the words I really want to say, these works offer a quick directness that might not be found in my more traditional photographic projects.
I chose to work in cyanotype for its anticapitalist nature and history of blueprinting. The necessary chemicals, Potassium Ferricyanide and Ferric Ammonium Citrate, are highly affordable and can be applied to any medium. Once applied, the cyanotype image is burned by the sun, and to make the cyanotype archival it is processed through a water wash. I would argue that this is one of the most accessible modes of imaging we have today—the sun is free use, and even tainted water can produce a good print. In my practice, I print digital negatives to act as a stencil on the cyanotype. In these, I meld the word of the Catholic Church and political state to look for their synergy. For example, citing the Texan pledge of allegiance as a mirror to the ten commandments or equating Mother Mary to a football play. I weave jokes into my trauma, leaning into kitsch and western cliché. Balancing violence with tongue in cheek commentary, I think about performance within conservative circles. Cowboy boots and pop stars at the rodeo. Good Old Boys in F150s. Baptism by Kool Aid in dire situations. These performances are my blueprints, how I was brought through my earliest years, and what I reflect on today.
In terms of process, I work in three ways: production, research, and display. The latter two have proved most important to my practice. I work with research as a protectant. Academic context becomes my foundation in less-than-ideal conversations with former teachers, family, and friends. Working with an abundance of historic anecdotes, quotes, and facts, I situate these bits of knowledge within our current climate. Connecting the past with the present, my work speaks to modern strife and the well understood, or at least recognized, tropes of America’s past (think 2A rights and policing of femme bodies, bearing arms and bare arms). While it is difficult to converse with those I painfully love about the injustices of today, making research backed works opens a door to mediating tension and starting an exchange. Truth allows the start of discussion.
My cyanotype flags find their meaning once hung. They activate in display: on a flag-pole, out my studio window, or hanging in the middle of a space, inching towards viewer suffocation. My flag, ‘This is Not Your 1984’, is a response to the 2021 Capitol insurrection. In it, I challenge the comparison of shutting down alt-right social media accounts with qualities of an Orwellian society. The snarky text reads differently in a gallery than when it hangs toward one of the wealthiest metro Detroit neighborhoods (and is requested to be removed from view). Meaning is compounded when the flag moves to Bushwick and is weathered, stained, and tattered by the gusts of the M train. Once more, the text is deepened when displayed in suburban Boston, an area not so different than the one I grew up in. Beyond researching the work and fabricating it, my practice offers much more to myself and my viewers once it is hung. Tattered. Publicly seen (or ridiculed). Thinking back to my first love of landscape, space plays such a huge role in the effectiveness of the work.
To sum myself up, I’ll say this. When working, I ask, ‘who are we memorializing?’ Questions around veneration, raising people or ideas to religious heights, and what can be considered ‘untouchable’ are at the forefront of my practice. These questions appear in the work as more concrete ideas of religion, the west, and protest, but their ambiguity and loose nature continue to inform every move I make.
I leave you with questions (surprise!):
What brings you satisfaction in your work? How do you perform in your everyday life or art practice? What are you questioning?
Read. Read those who came before you, those who are working with you, and theory of those who will come after you. Put yourself in a greater context than an Instagram feed or critique space—see yourself as part of a living, breathing, constantly moving art world (not market, world). We’re all in this web of information together, referencing and pulling ideas from one another. Embrace it.
This Newsletter is Brought to You By:
Mint Yerba Mate, because coffee isn’t cutting it anymore
Lucy Lippard’s Pink Glass Swan and other theory I didn’t read until I needed it
Every man who has ever made fun of me with a camera (yes, I’m talking to you)
Basic bitch Portra 400
Old people on Facebook, for a never-ending supply of alt-right propaganda
Our next newsletter collaborator needs no introduction, but here’s a little hint:
(while I want the next guest to be a surprise, I love this photo and could not resist using it. It would be a crime not to properly credit so click here for proper credit!)