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Vetting a Vibe

Monica Kim Garza

Interview by Kristin Farr // Portrait by Monica Kim Garza 

The women in Monica Kim Garza’s paintings are full of joy and give zero fucks. She’s been compared to painter Paul Gaugin, whose colonizing male gaze captured Tahitian women over a century ago, but his figures appear uncomfortable, while Garza’s are carefree. The trite comparison implies that no other renowned artist has depicted women of color on the beach in over a century, and burdening today’s artists with the small handful of patriarchal art history references is mostly pointless, so let’s move on. 

MK Garza is raw. She’s portraying audacious women living life to the fullest. Some fans mistakenly think this is a political act, but the artist isn’t pushing an ideology, although she holds open the door for interpretation. She is simply painting a good vibe and trying to maintain it. 

After living in New York, San Francisco, and beyond, she eventually settled back in her home state of Georgia. Holding it down in her Atlanta studio, she is constantly surrounded by essential oils, candles, and a dozen plants. 

Vetting a Vibe: Monica Kim Garza

Kristin Farr: Do the women you paint look like how you feel, or how you want to feel? And do the locations represent places you want to be?
Monica Kim Garza: It’s always a vibe. Locations just go with the vibe, but oftentimes they are places I’ve been and am just thinking about, like my apartment or the beach. And sometimes it’s not even about the location, but about the action. 

Why is relaxation such an important priority for you?
For me, it’s about respecting your body and mind. Everything you do to your body affects your mind, and I’m into feeding my body good energy.

Tell me about your best homeopathic concoctions and your athleticism, and how these things feed your work. 
I always do honey masks. Sometimes with avocado, banana peel, or turmeric. I coat my body with coconut oil. I also like working out. It feels good. Gets the endorphins up... feel good, look good, paint good. 

What kind of music would the women in your paintings work out to?
For working out, rap or deep house, sometimes reggaeton.

Are you into basketball and weight lifting, or do you paint that type of activity with symbolic intentions?
I do enjoy watching basketball. I’m not a diehard fan, but I like sports in general. It’s amazing to see what athletes can do with their mind and body. It takes a lot of dedication to be a great athlete, and I love and respect that. I also like working out for my own mind and body. Sometimes I paint those actions because I’m genuinely interested in the act of it, as well as the new scenes or shapes I can create. Everything allows you to explore other ideas in painting when you switch scenes.

What do you love about Georgia?
When I was young, I wanted to escape Georgia. It seemed so small and country. It’s always humid here, and you feel like you are swimming through air sometimes. But all the reasons I wanted to run away are the same reasons that brought me back. I missed the humid air, the pools, the birds, the millions of trees, the peaches...

What are your general life interests?
I love nature, animals, traveling, food and music. I really enjoy the beach and mountains. I’m into the whole natty geo thing. I watch a lot of Planet Earth and stuff like that.

Ten years ago, you went to Peru, and that seems to be when your painting style started to solidify. How has your work evolved over the last decade?
I went by myself for a few months, and I really had fun exploring. The experience shaped me, and I was able to draw how I felt in a more directed way. I’ve just kept going with that, and have had moments where I concentrated more on technique, but I often find myself trying to go back to the old me. 

Vetting a Vibe: Monica Kim Garza

Tell me more about the old you. 
When I was in college, I made a lot of paintings that were super geometrically inspired. I did a lot of animals and sculptures, and so much texture. It was fun, and I miss those pieces, but I’ve evolved as a person and artist, so I’ll never be that person again. I enjoy looking at those works and drawing inspiration from that time, I guess it reminds me of who I was and where I wanted to go. 

I often think about how we can never get back to that “beginner artist” place. What are some things you notice about your college work that only your past self could achieve?
Back then, I had the same style that has evolved and led up to now, but it was more like… I literally painted everything I liked. I was super crafty and did a lot of glitter and collages. I made a lot of sculptures—ceramic and soft. When I look at them, they seem innocent and playful. I’m still a playful person inside, and perhaps more raw in my practice, but that innocence you have when you are young melts away with age, and because of that, I could never authentically recreate those moments, but I enjoy reflecting on them.

People often see your work as a political, body-positive activist statement. How do you feel about that?
It is what it is, and it ain’t what it ain’t. I’m a pretty chill person, and my work, for me, is inspired by life, not conceptual ideas relating to movements. But art should be free for interpretation, so that’s what it is. 

Vetting a Vibe: Monica Kim Garza

Do you use photographs as source imagery?
I’ve been drawing the figure so long and so much that I can see it in my mind. 

What are all the essential things you need to have around to feel right?
Good music and coffee. I like it to be sunny at all times, and having the temperature right is key. I don’t like being cold. I like walking around in slides and a T-shirt. That being said, I don’t like winter, but I do like jackets. I have a thing for jackets and shoes.

Current favorites?
At the moment, I love Ader Error for their jackets, coats and hoodies. This girl Tiffany Hsu (@handinfire) has a pretty sick jacket collection. Maison Margiela had great jackets in their runway too. I like all kind of shoes, from cheap to expensive. I have a lot of white sneakers. I’m big on all shoes, from sneakers, to boots, to heels, but I wear slides the most.

What are some other elements of pop culture you’re into?
Music—all kinds. I love J.Lo, of course. I also like Top Chef and Shark Tank.

Which era of J.Lo?
I’ve loved J.Lo since Selena. As a kid, I loved Selena, and when the movie came out, I discovered J.Lo and I fell in love. I love her music, dancing, and movies. I’ve grown up and I still love her. She’s great at what she does and she’s never once let go. I really respect her as an entertainer. 

Vetting a Vibe: Monica Kim Garza

What’s the last song you played on a loop?
Young Scooter—“Jugg King.”

I noticed more dinner parties in your recent paintings. Is that a reflection of your life?
Not necessarily, but I enjoy the elements of tables and food. I love fruit and fish and the shapes they create. I also like the shape of a table and how it changes with different perspectives.

What's your overall process for painting?
I normally have an idea in my mind and just paint it onto canvas and continue until it’s done. I work on about four to eight paintings on rotation because I have a lot of ideas and want to chop through them. I also can’t concentrate on one at a time.

What kind of experiments with textures or materials have you done lately?
I normally mess around with wool, foam, glitter, and sequins, but lately I have been using a lot of  yarn and rhinestones. I’ve been using glitter and different specialty papers for about ten years. I love texture and I enjoy the act of cutting and gluing.

Do you concentrate more on creating certain shapes or on the content?
The subject matter is pretty obvious and easy to me, so it’s really about everything else. Shapes and colors create the entire feeling. The beautiful, the ugly, and the “mistakes” that occur. 

I don’t think about technique so much anymore, I just try and say what I want to say with each painting and let the colors and the marks express themselves. 

Your figures now appear more gestural and painterly.
The idea of abstraction is a direction and vision I have wanted to go in for a really long time, and I am finally on the way. I am a fan of classic technique, as well as painterly strokes.

Your ceramics seem to have a folk art influence. Is that an intentional reference?
My parents collected a lot of sculptures and I always loved looking at them. They love Lladros. Also, a lot of Asian or Native American sculptures. My favorites are the big Japanese planters. The scenes on those are cool, like there is a story being told on the sculpture about war or kingdom, something like that. That influence probably drives a lot of the style I have. I feel like ceramics is the core feeling I have inside, and when I finish a piece, it’s exactly what I wanted to say, and how I wanted to say it.  

What colors are you most into right now?
Right now, blue and red, but I am always into neutrals.

What’s your dream vacation?
Ideally, outside in the sun. Some fresh food and drank in hand. I like laying by the pool or beach and letting the sun massage my body. Good music, good company, a couple deep tissue and hot stone massages. I love traveling anywhere with a nice beach, but not too overcrowded.  Anywhere with fresh fish and fruit is bomb. 

Vetting a Vibe: Monica Kim Garza

What does your apartment smell like? How many plants do you have?
Either food or candles. I cook a lot. I light a lot of candles, too. I have about twelve plants give or take… seems severe for an apartment, but I need greens inside. I love nature and it makes me feel good.

What's up with your dog?
Tito is a fatty. He’s a French Bulldog, but I actually gave him to my parents because they have a nice backyard and I felt like he deserved the space. I’m always traveling and felt he’d be happiest with them, so now I just go visit him. I don’t know how much longer I will last without a dog, but I’m content for now. I throw him in paintings because he’s funny and I want him to be remembered.

Is there anything you want to do with your art practice you haven't done yet?
Installations, more sculptural things, larger scale everything. But all in due time, I hope.

Describe the overall vibe you're aiming to achieve.
It depends, but, in general, just one that is authentic to myself.

What’s your catchphrase?
I do what I want, you do what you can.

Catch Monica Kim Garza’s work in a new group show about Georgia O’Keeffe’s legacy at Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas through September 3, 2018.