Artists at Work: Cynthia Maughan

Fatima Hellberg

Artists at Work / 20.03.2013

Cynthia Maughan, The Way Underpants Really Are, 1975, video, 1min 17sec, black and white, sound. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

Cynthia Maughan, Coffin from Toothpicks, 1975, video, 1min 54sec, black and white, sound. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

Cynthia Maughan’s videos are remarkable lessons in self-consciousness, as mordant as they are beautifully sorrowful in their continuous negotiation of a space between irony and sincerity. Between 1973 and 1980 she made over 300 self-directed performances for the camera, staged and recorded in her studio in Pasadena, California. In these exercises, she treats the camera as a two-way mirror, for which she performs a range of personas, reminiscent of characters from low-budget horror films, monster movies and B-movie noirs. In these short video scenarios, a low-fi aesthetic and affection for the absurd gains conceptual focus through her careful use of language as a framing device and self-fulfilling speech act – with deadpan and poetic titles spelling out exactly what happens in, for example, I Tell Three Cats about Jail (1977-78), The Way Underpants Really Are (1975), and Two Sticks Mourning at Another Stick’s Funeral (1973-74).

Though her videos were screened at the Woman’s Building in the late 1970s, Maughan never fully entered into an organised and communal mode of political activity or activism. Instead she offered a wilful and subversive approach – a stubborn reluctance and ‘lazy anarchism’, as she likes to call it – that can destabilise a sense of unequivocal identity or community. After showing work in art contexts across the US and Europe in the late 1970s, Maughan’s practice increasingly migrated to punk/ DIY music venues in the early 1980s and it is only now with the Getty Research Institute undertaking an extensive digitising process of her archive, that Maughan’s entire body of work is becoming available. In this conversation with Fatima Hellberg she discusses her deliberately low-tech and nomadic relationship to image-making and her stubbornly anti-essentialist and humorous approach to a politics of representation.

FATIMA HELLBERG: Your video work tends to take on a very distinctive form; a pictorial economy where each scenario unfolds as a short exercise directly performed for the camera. Perhaps we can start with your relationship with the camera, a device which beyond its recording function also seems to have provided a form of semi-private and partially autonomous space for you.

To me, it felt as if the videos could be anywhere; it was an expansive, limitless feeling. Though I suppose the majority of the pieces take place in a rather contained space, still it felt unlimited when I was making them.

CYNTHIA MAUGHAN: Yes this was a major feature of the content, quality and style of my work. I always taped when no one else was there, which was very freeing and, I suppose, looking back, was a bit like entering another world, where I was myself, but also many other people and things; with no one there to interfere with these ‘alternate realities’. The experience was a genuine one for me, very different from any I have had working in other mediums. It also gave me control of the ‘world’. Before I got the camera I had been doing installations that included sound/music, but I was never satisfied with the results, because it was always in a real space, in the real world, so it never felt exactly like someplace else. The experience was less focused, or I had no control of the focus. To me, it felt as if the videos could be anywhere; it was an expansive, limitless feeling. Though I suppose the majority of the pieces take place in a rather contained space, still it felt unlimited when I was making them.

FH: It’s an interesting dual status you are describing there, the non-specific character of the medium on the one hand, and your sense of focus and control on the other. How did you arrive at this relationship with video?

CM: What got me started was seeing the work of William Wegman when I was in graduate school, prior to moving to Pasadena. It was 1973 and Wegman was filling in for a teacher on sabbatical at the University of California at Long Beach, where I was studying. He showed some of his early videos, casually, one afternoon, in an empty classroom. I remember seeing a short piece that involved him walking into a room with purses draped up and down his arms and legs. Then either he says, or someone else speaks the line, ‘Mom, the purse man is here’. I don’t think we ever had a conversation beyond that time, except one, when I asked him to be one of my graduate advisers and he declined, so I don’t want to overstate his personal influence. However, when he moved back East he let me buy his camera and that’s when I started making videos.

My primary visual influences, however, came from particular objects and the movies and television I watched as a child, rather than from what other artists were doing. Most of the work at the time was set in the here and now, using a confessional mode of address and concerning the artists’ personal realities. This made for some very powerful work, but I was more interested in creating realities and exploring other times and places. I could pretend to be anywhere and anyone. I don’t think I was ever entirely ‘myself’ in any of the pieces. Some of my attempts at creating these alternate realities ended up looking less than ‘real’. In most cases I think this added to, rather than detracted from the pieces. At least I would like to think it added another absurd, or perhaps surreal, dimension to the work.

Cynthia Maughan, Hat with a Veil, 1976, video, still. Courtesy the artist

FH: I like what you are saying about this process of using video to make things look, and at times also feel, less than real. In your 1978 video Poison Tamale Pie, in which a recipe is read slowly, as if each item could be a suspect in the drama, it is not clear whether it’s the poisoned family, the newspaper and the media reporting on the death, or the narrator (you) who is perverting the truth of the story. There is a morbid sense of instability here that resonates in many works – from a subtle tinkering with reality to what appears to be a fascination with loss of reality or even insanity.

CM: Insanity both interests and frightens me… I grew up in Norwalk, California, the home of the Metropolitan State Hospital, a very large facility for people with mental illnesses. It’s been there since 1915. One Christmas when I was in grade school, probably nine or ten years old, we were taken to the hospital to sing carols, to entertain the patients. While we were singing, a member of the audience stood up, dropped his pants and urinated. We kept singing. The experience was very unsettling and I don’t remember any of us laughing, or anyone intervening. I think that was the first time I had any real idea of what it meant to be ‘insane’ and that it was something that might crop up anywhere and wasn’t just something that happened to people in books or movies or someplace far away. Later, when I was a teenager, there was a drive-in movie theatre next door to the hospital. I was there on a date one night and could see the lights from the patient’s windows. I remember wondering if the patients were watching the movie, or rather the images – there would have been no sound because that came out of little speakers you attached to your car window. I mentioned this to my date and I could tell it made him uneasy; this was our first and last date.

FH: When hearing this story, I cannot help but to think of one video in particular, The Way Underpants Really Are (1975). The video opens with a static shot of a woman (you) in a white sundress. She is, or rather you are, head- and legless, cropped by the narrow frame of the camera. After a moment of quiet anticipation you lift up the dress, revealing a pair of oversized and torn panties, precariously held together on the side with a safety pin. It’s a very dark moment, but it’s also somehow funny in its morbid play with expectation, with the way underpants ‘really are’.

CM: I wanted this work to be humorous, but I also hoped it would be somewhat disconcerting. As I lifted my skirt in the video, what would the viewer expect? A lot of other artists’ work from that period involved nudity and more sexually explicit scenarios. When it was finished, I thought that the tear and the bare skin made the woman look slightly vulnerable, which wasn’t my original intention. I also thought it looked a little bit like slightly creepy, low-budget pornography from an earlier age. The audience generally seemed to be amused and somewhat surprised, and some people did seem a little disconcerted. So I think that it was both dark and funny. It was also meant as a comment on the difference between real women and the images and expectations that popular media creates, though I was going for subtlety in this regard, rather than something more overt or confrontational.

FH: This desire to find subversive ways of communicating your intent is particularly the case in this and other feminist works such as Zebra Skin Clutch (1977–78) and Sex Symbol (1978), a video which contains a rant that is violently explicit and sexual, but culminates in the anti-climax confession that it’s all ‘a joke’.

CM: I was thrilled and excited by the feminist movement, which emerged for me in my first year in college, back in 1967. In some ways I was raised a feminist, though I don’t suppose this was my grandmother’s or my mother’s intention.

I would say I was, and am, a rather radical feminist, though being somewhat cynical and having anarchistic tendencies – perhaps more like a non-violent, lazy anarchist. Political organising and all of its compromises were always very frustrating for me. In the 1980s I played in bands and we did benefits for the National Abortions Rights Action League (NARAL) so that will give you some idea of my limited political activism.

A lot of feminist work was more ‘forceful’ and straightforward than mine. I think that it was important for those sorts of statements to be made. However, I also think that sometimes subversion works better in the long run and there is nothing like humour for putting things in perspective. Mocking and making light of things, and highlighting the absurdities of all aspects of our existence, can be very humanising and may give one a broader prospective and diminish the power of these negative forces.

Poster advertising ‘Assault Video’ at the Anti-Club, Los Angeles, c.1984. Courtesy the archive at LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions)

FH: It’s interesting that your most politically explicit work took place in a music setting, playing in a number of bands: from Auto De Fé and the Nihils to Primitive State and the more overtly feminist and queer The Shrews. You were particularly involved with punk/DIY expression, and forms that by definition have an anti-virtuoso approach to making. How do you think this link influenced your work?

CM: I got my first guitar when I was sixteen. My playing was adequate, nothing spectacular. Some years later I got a bass guitar and was better at this and I enjoyed singing. As a young teenager I was really interested in ‘authentic’ folk music; that is traditional, historical music not originally made for any commercial purpose, as opposed to the commercial ‘folk music’ people were writing in the late 1960s. I think this relates to the DIY and punk aesthetic; the idea that anybody can pick up a guitar, or sing and if it’s ‘powerful’ enough, it doesn’t have to be polished, in fact, polishing things generally takes the edge off. I started going to concerts as a teenager and, when I was a bit older, spent a lot of times in clubs and other venues listening to music. The bands I was a part of were never exactly professional; we played in artist’s lofts and alternative venues. I didn’t directly connect the bands I was playing with and the music we were making to the videos; this was separate in some way – music being my public, social world as opposed to my very private video world. I didn’t use this music, some of which I was writing, or our performances in my videos either, though I used a lot of other music in my work. At a couple of our shows I did have, on one side of the stage, a barbecue grill with a rubber roast rotating on a spit and a monitor on the other, showing an image of the rotating roast, but this was the extent of any direct band/video connection.

Frequenting thrift stores and flea markets I found a lot of records from various periods, and also collected sound effect records which I used in the videos. I used Martin Denny’s music (1950s and 60s pseudo-Hawaiian/African/tropical music) in a number of pieces. There was an exchange, or maybe influence is a better word, between these areas of music and visual art, but, as to the making of the work, these experiences were very different.

FH: It’s an interesting moment you are describing here, one where you were both extremely prolific, making hundreds of videos, whilst at the same time writing and performing in music contexts. Especially in light of the recent interest in your work, I am keen to hear more about your current relationship with video. Would you consider making more?

CM: My relationship with video now, or for the last decade, has been exciting, strange and fragmented. I am extremely grateful for the interest that has been shown in my work since the the exhibition ‘California Video’ (2008), a big retrospective of artists’ videos made in California over the last four decades organised by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.1 The Getty is also taking my work into their collection and copying the old work to viewable formats, which is exciting, and EAI is also represented my work now. I am especially interested to see their versions of the last works I did, some of which are in colour.

I have had some ideas for pieces and I am looking for a new, inexpensive camera. But I am unsure what this would accomplish, for me or an audience. Sometimes I feel as if the earlier body of work is enough, that is, I did something that started and stopped at the appropriate times. I was so taken up with this work; it seemed more like an eruption than something planned. I don’t know that I could recapture the excitement and fascination this all had for me. I am at the point of trying to decide if it’s fear or wisdom that is making me hesitate. I still do some writing and the stories and plots were an important part of a lot of my work, so that might be a way to get back to that world, though I have to say, at this point, I have no idea of what it is I might find there. Though having ‘no idea of what it is I might find there’ makes it sound like something worth doing.

In any case, I hope to get a camera and then…?

  1. The exhibition ‘California Video’ was held at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles from 15 March until 8 June 2008 and included video works by over 50 artists. See