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The walls of Serena Cole's CCA studio are populated by faces from fashion magazines. The models' ferocious beauty is re-imagined with watercolor, and a certain murky darkness in their expressions and angular poses is revealed. We recently stopped by Cole's studio and got to chatting about the evolution of beauty, her historical inspirations, and her almost Pretty Women-esque high-end shopping spree.

EKG: How would you describe your work to someone who hasn't seen it?

Serena Cole: "I would say I make drawings and paintings that investigate aspects of fashion imagery that critique something about our society, and also points the finger at myself. I'm not criticizing it necessarily; I know I'm involved in the machine. I'm going at it like an anthropologist."


How has your work changed since you started your MFA program?

"One breakthrough is that I started categorizing the fashion ads I work with. I knew there were a lot of things in fashion that I was drawn to because they're so weird, opulent, and fantastical. But once I started pulling them all out, I realized there were genres to these ads. And they encapsulated different fantasies we have. It's not just an artsy photo, it's made to grab your attention and capitalize on some kind of inner fantasy. I have tons of images of women that look dead. Maybe you're flipping through a magazine, and you see it as a fashion ad. But then you start seeing them all together and you realize it's a trope. I have categories like dead women with snakes, or ambivalent mothers, or models that look like creatures."

Your work is very beautiful, but are you mostly talking about situations that aren't so beautiful?

"I'm interested in how our idea of beauty has changed. It went from glamorous, voluptuous movie stars like Marilyn Monroe, to the all American girl like Farrah Fawcett, and then the 90s heroin chic of Kate Moss, and now we've gone into an androgynous alien world. We're trying to find people that are so beyond us. That's what I think is so interesting about it: the escapism."

What's something specific that draws you to an image in a magazine?

"Now that I'm capturing the idea of categories and tropes, I'm looking for faces that embody the trope itself. I have a category of violent images like this one [see below]. Even though she's just wearing make-up, it looks like she was shot."

"They have to have an expression that's interesting. They can't just be pretty; they have to communicate something. I think it's fascinating that magazines show us eye shadow using somebody who looks like she's crying. It's really about the complication of these artistic images where they constantly have to outdo each other in order to get our attention."

"There was an editorial in Italian Vogue showing a woman in the oil fields in the South. When the oil disaster happened, Steven Meisel photographed the model kind of like a dead bird lying in pools of oil. People were really pissed off about it, but it's so fantastical and dark all the time in magazines, so it makes perfect sense for them to use something that actually happened to make this dark art."

Are the clothes and shoes in your paintings direct references to specific designers?

"Yes. Before I wasn't acknowledging it as much, but now I'm making it the most important part by naming the series after the clothes the figures are modeling, like "ecstasy in Prada." By opening that door, you can see I'm commenting on what's in front of me instead of trying to claim it as my own imagery. I didn't make up most of what I'm painting. It was already there. I'm scavenging it and hopefully trying to get you to see it in a different way."

Which historical figures inspire you, especially in regards to fashion?

"My thesis is about fashion and power, and investigating Queen Elizabeth I and how she made herself kind of inhuman in the way she dressed. The way Napolean always projected himself is similar. Image plays a huge part in power. In my thesis, I talk about the Nazis and how they designed all their outfits and propaganda in a systematized way. They thought it was positive that they were futuristic, and terrifying, and cold. It was all on purpose, and it wasn't just military stuff that's utilitarian. People like Michael Jackson have appropriated it, and I found out that Hugo Boss made the Nazi uniforms. The guys that started Adidas were in the Nazi party. Louis Vuitton only made trunks and luxury goods, but they had to work with the Vichy French, who were Nazi sympathizers, in order to stay afloat. I think most fashion houses had to cooperate with the Germans if they were European."

Do you ever go to luxury stores and handle the items you're painting?

"That's a good question. This is all fantasy for me, it's not part of my reality, and I used to just look at the images. But my advisor wanted me to really investigate. I had never been in any of those fancy stores like Prada, or Barney's, or Dior. He went with me and took pictures and made me try on the clothes. Part of me thought I'd be sullying the clothes, but I realized the part I was intimidated about was worrying that the sales people would sniff out the fact that I don't have any money, and they'd be mean to me like in Pretty Woman. But then I took control of the situation and made up a story in my head that my advisor was my sugar daddy, and even if I looked like I didn't have money, they wouldn't know if he did or not. That was how I took the power from the situation."

If your art had a soundtrack, what would it be?

"I'm a closet Goth, so I would probably say Sisters of Mercy because it's glamorous, dark, indulgent, and kind of mean."


Serena Cole's work can be seen in "Fabrications," a group exhibition at Marx & Zavattero through February 5, 2011.