Ladies of Pop: Kirsten McCrea
Between 2006 and 2008, artist Kirsten McCrea, 29, worked on “Hot Topic,” a series of 60 paintings of feminist icons featured in the song of the same name by Le Tigre.
Since then, she founded Papirmasse, a subscription-based website that provides accessible contemporary art at a low price, got involved in print-making, and is now working on a follow-up piece, “Hot Topic Redux.” For this new project, she invites people to submit their favorite feminist or counter cultural icon which could be featured in a series of 20 paintings.
We joined Kristen at her booth during the Puces Pop DIY crafts fair to talk about feminism’s bad rep, nostalgia, and the meaning of cultural memory.
You were born in Edmonton, lived in Montreal for six years, and just recently moved to Toronto. Why did you move to Montreal?
From Edmonton? You can actually write the laughter. I was 12 when I figured out I didn’t want to live there anymore. There’s no culture, it’s such a small community of people and it’s a sad situation there because the people who are creative move away and so you don’t have a strong creative community. It’s so much better here than in Alberta. I just didn’t vibe with Alberta!
What is it about Montreal that attracts artists?
I’m a big believer that economics explains a lot and I think that the cheap rent is a huge factor. I think the referendum in 1995 happened, the English fled and real estate prices crashed and it was super cheap for years. Montreal is in a situation now where rent has crept back up and a lot of neighborhoods like Mile End have really gentrified. Probably some of that appeal of cheap rent is lessening but by now it’s really established itself as a city with a great creative community, amazing music scene, amazing art scene, not just art in the galleries but also the street art scene as well. I’ve been involved with a lot of collaborative art and I have yet to see another city that has collaborative art on that same scale as Montreal. I think the city just has a reputation now that will keep artists coming to it.
You did a series of portraits of feminist icons called “Hot Topic,” based on the song of the same name by Le Tigre. What inspired you to do something like that?
I got the idea for “Hot Topic” years before I actually made it. I helped found the women’s center a the University of Alberta, and I was sitting in the space one day, and I was super into Le Tigre and I was like “Oh it would be so awesome if someone actually painted every single person in this song. Years later, when I was in arts school at Concordia, I got the opportunity to do it.
If you’re part of a culture that isn’t the mainstream, then you have to do the work to help preserve the memory of the cultural figures that have created what you love. We’re in this world that remembers manufactured pop stars like Britney Spears and Madonna, but we forget the name of suffragettes, of women who have made amazing contributions to science, athletes...There are so many people that I feel like mainstream culture would rather we forgot and so we have to do the work to preserve their memories.
What does a feminist icon mean these days?
It’s so tricky because I personally have no problem with the word feminist, but still so many people who are obviously feminist are like, “I’m not a feminist!”
It’s like, “I’m not a feminist, but those beer ads are really a problem...” You have feminist ideals but for some reason you won’t embrace the term. It’s something I’m aware of with “Hot Topic” because I talk about it as being explicitly a feminist series, but I know that I’m gonna lose some people right off the bat by saying that. Feminism isn’t cool either, so it almost feels kind of dorky to say I’m making feminist art, but my ideals are that I want to make feminist work and that series is about feminism, so I’m going to embrace the term and show people that it’s not dorky to be a feminist. If anything, the people in that series are like this list of amazing counter cultural figures who have done really cool stuff.
Is it time to coin a new term? Or should be just reclaim the old one?
There was such a huge backlash against feminism in the ‘80s, and it was, I think, in large part really successful. Do you fight back against that and try to reclaim that word and try to redefine it? People who are in the know about feminism will say that we’re in Third Wave feminism, but that doesn’t mean a lot to the general population. So then the question is, do you try to find a new word that is more inclusive, not just to gender struggles but also gender identity, race politics, class politics? I think that’s a conversation that’s going on right now, and no one has a clear answer yet, but hopefully we’ll get there because in some sense we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
You describe yourself as being interested in issues of cultural memory. What does that mean for you?
Well “Hot Topic” plays into that big time. Which cultural figures get remembered and which don’t? Leslie Feinberg is one of my favorite people from the series, and Leslie Feinberg totally helped develop a story around being transgendered and I just think the world would be so sh**ty if you were trans and living in a small town and you had no idea that Leslie Feinberg existed. For me cultural memory is a lot about who gets remembered and who doesn’t and how can we change that. Because a lot of the people who get remembered are just so lame.
Do you think our generation tends towards nostalgia?
Nostalgia is so tricky because it can be used in this really flippant way. I’m pretty interested in nostalgia right now. I was doing these series with old pieces of technology, and it’s a topic I want to look into a lot more. Nostalgia is really commercial and it’s used big time to sell us all kinds of different stuff.
You have to wonder how come certain things get this aura of nostalgia and others don’t. Like vinyl records and old phones...The rate of technology becoming obsolete is so fast now, it’s really hard to imagine someone nostalgic about a 1980s Apple computer. Who’s gonna be nostalgic about a flip phone?
The rate of technological change is so fast, can you even develop an emotional attachment to something to be able to feel nostalgic for it in the future?
How did you get the idea for Papirmasse?
I founded Papirmasse in 2008. I had graduated from art school, sort of accidentally moved back to Edmonton for eight months, and I was working a whole bunch of different jobs, saving up money so I could go back to Montreal. I was really struck by the fact that I’m obsessed with art, most people I know have a really strong appreciation for art, and contemporary art prices are so crazy, but then you go to a place like IKEA and they have all these fake paintings that are so lame and banal. There’s ten of them so you go to someone’s house and you go, “Oh I saw that Audrey Hepburn or the blue ink water swirl last week.” So I wanted to find a way for people to engage with contemporary art on a regular basis at a price that’s really accessible. And also, being from Edmonton, I’m sympathetic to the fact that if you’re not in a large urban center--which Edmonton is compared to lot of places---it can be hard to engage with contemporary work.
You’re a painter by trade. How did you start making prints?
When I started Papirmasse I thought, “OK, hand pulled prints like screen prints can be really expensive. “ I was working in a restaurant selling prints that were $2,000 each. But they were these beautiful lithographs, there were like 20 layers in each one. If you could remove the artist’s hand and use machinery instead to produce it, you could lower the price drastically. So that’s how I got into print making, out of a desire to make work that was more accessible.
Paintings are one of a kind. It has to cost a lot because it was like 40 hours to make it. I think this is another really interesting question. Is art about the image or the object? Painting would say it’s about the object, but I think what print-making says is it’s also about the image and not about being too precious about it.
I feel like I’m going more and more down the printing rabbit hole.
Article Plan Ladies of Pop: Kirsten McCrea