A Shared Sense of Becoming: Monica Majoli Interviewed by Leslie Wayne

Picturing queer bodies.

Blueboy Pedro Monica Majoli1

Monica Majoli, Blueboy (Pedro), 2019, watercolor woodcut, transfer on paper, 34.75 × 45.75 inches. Courtesy Galerie Buchholz Berlin/Cologne/New York.

What does it mean to have a body? Not just a vessel of organs and bones, but a living organism that represents all of one’s vulnerabilities—psychological, intellectual, emotional, and sexual? I thought a lot about this question as I prepared myself for an interview with Monica Majoli on the occasion of her inclusion in Made in L.A. 2020: a version at both the Hammer Museum in Westwood and the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. The show, postponed for over a year due to COVID, finally opened to the public. 

—Leslie Wayne


Leslie Wayne Monica, it’s wonderful to reconnect with you following your show at Galerie Buchholz in 2019. So let’s start by talking about the work Blueboys (2016–19), which was featured in it. Besides the comparison to your mother’s painting (Pauline Khuri Majoli was my mother’s high school friend and my first painting teacher), I see a direct link to Japanese watercolor block printing, specifically Mokuhanga, developed in nineteenth-century Japan to make Ukiyo-e and Shunga prints. Were you channeling any of that when you began this project?

Monica Majoli Leslie! I’m moved that you recognize the relationship of the “blueboys” to my mother’s work. I am highly aware of the connection and indebtedness to her engagement with Henri Matisse and pattern. One of the qualities these works share with her painting is in the lightness of feeling, especially in the past thirty-five years since she began living in Paris for half of every year. Part of my reason for incorporating her sensibility so strongly in this body of work about loss is related to the challenges of the past two years as her health has been in decline. 

European, particularly French painting, has had a deep impact on my work in establishing some fundamental understanding of idealization and classicism in concert with expression and a liberty taken with form. A coolness or distance that occurs with Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres informed my early development and has stayed with me.

I credit my mother for creating a Paris home that allowed for a continual immersion in French culture, which has validated my sense that historical painting has contemporary relevance in that it continues to move, to affect. 

Blueboy Ryan Monica Majoli2

Monica Majoli, Blueboy (Ryan), 2016, watercolor woodcut, transfer on paper, 50.5 × 38.5 inches. Courtesy Galerie Buchholz Berlin/Cologne/New York.

LW Absolutely. In Bruce Hainley’s press release for your Galerie Buchholz show, he referred to your works as history paintings. They do indeed document a very particular period in time of innocent pleasures.

MM Your question about Japanese woodcut is also accurate. I went to Japan in 2014 to study Japanese woodcut only to learn that in Japan the carver and the printer are two artists, and it’s believed to take ten years to master each form! So I turned to a technique called white-line woodcut, developed in Provincetown in the early twentieth century by mostly female printmakers influenced by Ukiyo-e printmaking, but more direct in practice. I felt the complexity of directly engaging with Japanese culture as a generating source, as European artists had done in the nineteenth century, more troubling in the twenty first! Referring to Mokuhanga by way of US artists and through an American form diminished my larger discomfort with cultural tourism.

LW That’s interesting, though in my mind you made a choice to walk away from Mokuhanga because of real and practical considerations and smartly turned to a similar but revised technique and made something current and radical with it. 

I was speaking with the writer and critic Nancy Princenthal who after seeing your Galerie Buchholz show, which she found fascinating, wondered to me “whether sentimentality, and nostalgia, can be radical—Monica’s work makes it seem so; a hard thing to pull off.” I agree. My first response to that was that it takes courage to be radical. But on further reflection, I tend to think that courage is not the result of volition, but instead is unbidden, a force from within, a choice you do not have. I feel like your work is courageous in this way, that is, deeply authentic. If I may hazard some words of wisdom from Mister Rogers in this regard, “Everything human is mentionable, and everything mentionable is manageable.” Your subject matter is deeply human, but is often considered unmentionable. Do you feel courageous making your work?

MM I love Nancy’s response and yours in response to hers. I feel both are right, and I appreciate Nancy’s estimation that the work is essentially sentimental. Which it is. Sentimentality has a bad reputation, and I’ve been rightly accused of it before. I am in total agreement with you, though, on “courage” versus authenticity. When I watched the documentary on Rogers, I was struck by the quiet crying taking place in the room. For two hours, everyone, myself included, had a lump in their throats with tears welling up. The simplicity of his message combined with its depth was a startling combination. 

Anyway, I digress. Blueboys is not dissimilar from my other bodies of work in the sense that they’re all generated by need, not courage, except the nostalgia is new. I think as we age, a certain sexual urgency changes or dims, and the sense of reflecting back becomes more an aspect of our daily lives. There’s more to remember than to anticipate, not just figuratively speaking but literally!

The Blueboys are deeply nostalgic, not just for the intensity of freedom that was the burgeoning of gay liberation but also for the slowness, sensuality, and simplicity of the ’70s. I will point out, too, that both Black Mirror (2009–12) and Blueboys are looking back. These bodies of work were made in middle age. I think that with both the focus has been on stripping down to what’s been important to me personally but with a certain forcefulness specifically directed toward homosexual experience and a shared history.

Blueboy Carl Monica Majoli3

Monica Majoli, Blueboy (Carl), 2019, watercolor woodcut, transfer on paper, 66.25 × 50 inches. Courtesy Galerie Buchholz Berlin/Cologne/New York.

LW Indeed. Aging and one’s aging sexuality is such a curious experience. I remember asking my mother once if it was difficult for her to let go of beauty—she was gorgeous as a young woman—and she said, “Very!” Though she had of course so much beauty inside as a person, her external beauty was an emblem of her youth and sexual vitality, two things that our culture places huge stock in. In gay culture homosexual men place an importance on physical beauty whereas gay women seem less invested in this, as if to stick it to the male culture which has imposed this terrorism upon women since time immemorial. 

MM Absolutely, you nailed it. It’s always felt to me that this shared sense of becoming invisible to the object of one’s desire is an ache and conundrum that unites straight women and gay men. Lesbians, and I would venture straight women, share the ability to sexualize the person in totality—I say this looking at some of the coupling selections of straight women! I see the ability to form romantic-sexual desire based on the internal as common to the female psyche. But lesbian culture and sexuality is set aflame by resistance to male domination, as you’ve pointed out, and to patriarchal standards of female value and evaluation. Self-determination is intertwined with sexual desirability in lesbian culture, I think to a more concentrated degree than in other groups. 

Blueboy Ted Monica Majoli4

Monica Majoli, Blueboy (Ted), 2019, watercolor woodcut, transfer on paper, 40.5 × 59.25 inches. Courtesy Galerie Buchholz Berlin/Cologne/New York.

LW Regarding your artmaking, I don’t think of you as coming out of the ’70s feminist movement or as particularly activist, though your work, while deeply personal, does feel political. Do you see yourself belonging to a specific lineage or art historical trajectory?

MM I agree I don’t fit into any particular group, especially in regard to contemporary painting, but rather see myself as belonging somewhat to certain philosophies that in my work take on a different set of material properties than is usually associated with these movements. I feel most closely aligned with artists working within the art/life paradigm, which might be related to my responding to the particularities of my life or issues that are most central to me. Early on I felt highly identified with body-based performance to which I still feel a kinship. I think you’re spot on in sensing my work is possibly activist only in that it seeks to make central queer experience, but is not made to deliver a legible message that might move the needle of social justice exactly. Essentially, my goal is to challenge the idea of the alien, to create a condition of relation between a viewer and the subject that may seem foreign initially, but which through affect can make the case for similarity and proximity rather than distance and opposition.

LW Human experience is so particular—and peculiar in all of its manifestations, sexual or otherwise. How can we possibly try and understand this ontological mystery without letting each other in? Thank you for letting me in and for having this conversation with you!

Monica Majoli’s work can be seen in the exhibition Made in L.A. 2020: a version at both the Hammer Museum and the Huntington Library in Los Angeles until August 1.

Leslie Wayne is an artist and occasional writer and curator. She lives and works in New York and is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery where her solo exhibition The Universe is on the Inside is on view until July 2.

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