When I first met Mandy Chesney in 2015, we were both in graduate studies at The Maryland Institute College of Art. It didn’t take long for everyone in our programs to know Mandy, as her exceptional disposition fills any room with laughter and curiosity. In addition to her humor, she’s organized and outspoken about her beliefs, making her one of the most compelling and tenacious artists in Baltimore, MD.
Mandy Chesney’s interest in domestic craft and kitsch sensibilities is evident throughout her multidisciplinary practice. In her work, camp and kitsch function as a visual vernacular outside of traditional notions of fine art. Leveraging these “value-added” materials in a way that celebrates their assumed queerness and femininity brings an agency that beguiles cultural assumptions.
Mandy Chesney’s work is part of “Embellishing the Truth,” a group exhibition with Claudia Santiso, Becca Van K, Jennifer Caviola at The Yard City Hall Park through July 23, 2021. Join A Women’s Thing’s IG Live on Sunday, May 9, at 4 p.m. for a studio visit with Mandy Chesney and AWT contributor and curator Morgan Everhart.
What are your views on glitter, iridescence, and kitsch materials materials?
Mandy Chesney: I use kitsch as a visual vernacular to communicate intimacy. It is a form of common “home talk” that signals an understanding of care between myself and the viewer. I employ kitsch and craft materials as leverage to discuss any subject in ways that disarm high-brow conventions in art. My work subverts expectations by using these materials, which are often dismissed as cute, to participate in important conversations about anything from labor to the politics of gender and sexuality.
How do you approach them in your art? Could you please give an example of how one of the works in Embellishing the Truth does this?
Mandy Chesney: The piece “Harm springs from excess” is a good example of this idea. When you suggested new work for this exhibition, I immediately thought of the movie “9 to 5.” Referencing a movie set largely in an office space felt uniquely poignant for exhibiting in the shared office space of The Yard at City Hall Park. The title is pulled directly from a line of dialogue in the film which plays on the Apollonian moralization of excess that’s so common in our society.
It is loud. Glitter demands to be seen, it steals light. Glitter responds when you move your body, it has a conversation with your eyes. Glitter likes to party, it flirts with the viewer. It winks to something more behind the shine. Glitter flags subtext by its very presence in a fine art space.
The painting contains another line of dialogue spoken by Lily Tomlin’s character, Violet Newstead, to a police officer while she is posing as a medical doctor. She flips the officer’s presumed superiority by dismissively asking, “What do you think I am, a beautician?” Having worked in the salon industry for years, I connected to this bit of satire poking at misogynist assumptions about female intelligence and their reflection in the value of historically female labor. Individual words are painted in a neon color gradient on clear pieces of mylar in a style based on handwritten grocery storefront advertisements found in many American suburbs of the 1980s mixed with the 1975–1991 Barbie logo. The letterforms are bottom heavy with long elaborate tails. I positioned the phrase over eight pieces of painted mylar that create a diamond pattern inspired by the dress worn by Dolly Parton when we first see her on screen as Doralee Rhodes. Each piece of mylar is nailed to the front panel of the painting and each nail is tipped with a rhinestone. All of this is over a multidimensional glitter color field that flows into the painted mirror side supports of the painting.
I make work for folks who relish in their otherness, who want nothing to do with the standards of good taste that positioned them there.
The resulting painting has a very physical presence in the space, casting its own light on the surrounding walls and floors. Asking these two rather philosophical questions by means of such a labor-intensive and kitschy delivery method stays within the satirical sprite of the painting’s source material.
Who do you make your art for and why?
Mandy Chesney: I make work for other folks who have the good sense to have “bad taste.” Good taste has been defined by heteronormative whiteness that assumes a level of education provided by class. Good taste comes from a culture of dominance, so bad taste cannot just be different, it must be lesser. Bad taste has often been seen as queer, poor, uneducated, and non-white so the designation “bad taste” becomes another way to subjugate. Camp is self-aware “bad taste.” I make work for folks who relish in their otherness, who want nothing to do with the standards of good taste that positioned them there.
What are your artworks recontextualizing or exposing?
Mandy Chesney: Glitter is a particularly divisive material. Glitter is judged as frivolous in a way that is seen as too feminine, irredeemably low class, and possibly queer. Hesitance to engage with the content of the work, question the sincerity of the work, intellectual veracity of the work based on these judgments exposes the classism, misogyny, and self-limiting heteronormativity of the viewer.
You say that glitter is a divisive material. What’s the other, more celebratory side of how people view glitter/iridescence?
Mandy Chesney: It is loud. Glitter demands to be seen, it steals light. Glitter responds when you move your body, it has a conversation with your eyes. Glitter likes to party, it flirts with the viewer. It winks to something more behind the shine. Glitter flags subtext by its very presence in a fine art space.
Your artworks in this exhibition appear non-representational. What is the significance of that absence of human presence?
Mandy Chesney: My work often references the body but is seldom figurative. By not having a human form present the viewer can project themselves into the work making for an intimate engagement with the piece and removing the opportunity to fetishize the represented form. This makes the work about the body, not of the body.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or events?
Mandy Chesney: I really enjoyed making “Harm springs from excess.” With that experience in mind, my next body of work will be a series of paintings and sculptures using movies as primary source material. I’m going to be focusing on the movies Zardoz and Steel Magnolias. Both movies lean into almost impossibly kitsch articulations of the gender dichotomy. Zardoz’s hyper masculine Sean Connery dominates the screen in red thigh-high boots and a loincloth, while the high femme ladies of Steel Magnolias sit and fretfully manage their domestic spheres. I will be using dialogue, costumes, set construction, and all other aspects of the production of these films to inspire this new work. I plan to be expansive in my use of materials and media. Film has always informed my art practice and helped to develop my early love of camp and kitsch. I’m looking forward to digging into this next body of work.
My advice is to be like Dolly Parton: work hard, know yourself, be kind, and greet your detractors with humor.
What is some advice/feedback/reflections that you would like to share with other artists?
Mandy Chesney: I’ll defer to Dolly Parton, who advises that “It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world.” I think Dolly is pointing out that in a world of commercial artifice and performative social construction, to be authentically oneself is difficult. For me, it also implies that being an authentic diamond can be an affront to the fake rhinestones. She also cautions us to not let the judgment of others affect our value and knowledge of self when she says, “I’m not offended by the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb and I also know I’m not blonde.” My advice is to be like Dolly Parton: work hard, know yourself, be kind, and greet your detractors with humor.
Mandy Chesey’s work is in “Embellishing the Truth,” alongside Claudia Santiso, Becca Van K, Jennifer Caviola at The Yard City Hall Park, 116 Nassau Street, Floors 5 & 6 New York, NY 10038 through July 23, 2021. For information and appointments, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://www.morganeverhart.com/curatorialprojects
Decorative and fine art is a false dichotomy informed by a systemic misunderstanding that reality should be mundanely visible. Beauty gives us different degrees of reality and this exhibition, “Embellishing the Truth,” curated by Morgan Everhart, shares four artists’ convergences of their truths through adornment. The name of this exhibition is purely ironic because there’s nothing to hide with Claudia Santiso, Jennifer Caviola, Becca Van K, and Mandy Chesney’s work. Each artist openly welcomes the implications their materials and references have. In some cases, there is so little rejection of their mediums that the works are inherently sculptural.
In a time where we are transitioning out of our solitude and re-establishing our new day to days, we deserve to celebrate what makes us who we are and share that with others. This is a chance for us to be unabashedly ourselves like these artists are.
About the Artist
Mandy Chesney is an artist living and working in Baltimore City. Originally from East Tennessee, she received her Master’s Degree in multidisciplinary art from the Mount Royal School of Art at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, Maryland. Recent exhibitions include “My Queer Valentine” at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, VA; “Become Again” at Terrault Gallery in Baltimore, MD; and “Compact Assembly” at the Walter Otero Contemporary Art in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Mandy Chesney’s Instagram: @mandychesney