Artist Series:
Isabel Samaras

While some artists look to fine art masters for inspiration, lowbrow artist Isabel Samaras delves beyond the classic images of Venus or Aphrodite, and replaces them with her own pop culture muses of Morticia Addams, Catwoman and Lieutenant Uhura.

I chatted with Samaras about her inspirations, and appreciation for TV icons of yesteryear.

What is your artistic background? When did you realize you wanted to be an artist? Why did you want to be an artist?
I went to school at Parsons in NYC but I was very aware of wanting to be an artist from a very early age. I drew a lot and that naturally led people (kids and adults) to constantly say "Isabel, are you going to be an artist when you grow up?" I always answered yes, without ever really thinking about it (or any alternatives). My junior year in college I did have a petite freak out when it suddenly occured to me that I'd never even considered another career and maybe I'd rather be an oceanographer! But I decided to stick with it.

What was the first thing you ever painted? What was the first art piece you ever sold?
I honestly can't remember the first thing I ever painted. I drew and painted a lot as a little kid (vivid faces with fierce, toothy grins -- I was a portraitist even then!), painted all through grade school and high school (did a lot of murals in my high school which are probably all gone now), painted all through college and have been painting pretty steadily ever since. I've laid down a lot of paint.

For a while after graduating from art school I was doing these big Symbolist paintings, usually featuring red-haired women in various states of peril. Weird stuff. Purely as an amusement, I sanded down an old tin lunchbox I'd found in Spanish Harlem and re-painted it with images that I wanted on a lunch box (Catwoman, Batman and Batgirl frolicking naked). That was the first "Lunchbox for Adults" and the lunchboxes were the first pieces I ever sold through a gallery.

Why did you decide to create portraits that mix iconic popular culture figures with classic painting themes and other themes?
In a weird way that was almost as accidental as the first lunchbox. I was asked to do a painting for an Elvis themed show here in San Francisco and it just struck my funny bone to do an assumption scene with Elvis (a crowd of little cherubs straining and struggling to lift his green, corpulent body into heaven). After that I didn't actually revisit the classical stuff for a while -- I did pin-ups and portraits for a while until I found myself reading this book, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (great book), which talked a lot about Gericault's "Raft of the Medusa," this epic painting about a real-life event in which these shipwrecked survivors on a raft ended up turning to cannibalism before they were rescued. (The painting doesn't depict the cannibalism, thank gawd.) As I was reading, it just popped into my head to populate the painting with those other famous shipwreck survivors -- the crew of "Gilligan's Island."

I liked how that piece turned out so much that I started thinking about other well known paintings and how it might be fun to subvert them as well, bringing these old images (often based on Bible stories and Greek mythology) into a more current arena by re-casting the characters with people more familiar to my generation.

What do you hope people see when they look at your art?
Well, I've said this before but I think it still holds true -- I think of the images as a sort of visual onion. What you see is sort of based on what you bring to the piece. Some people will look at a painting like "The Judgment of Batman" and just see naked women and maybe enjoy that. Other people might recognize Batman and think that's funny. Still other people (who might be Batman geeks like me) will realize that the women pictured all played Catwoman on the old 60's TV series. And still other people might realize that the painting is a direct reference to Ruben's painting "The Judgment of Paris" in which Paris is trying to decide which goddess is the most beautiful (the winner gets a Golden Apple). Because I personally favor Julie Newmar, I've already got the little cherub hovering over her head with the crown of flowers -- she's the winner in my book, the true and best Catwoman.

So I hope people looking at the paintings enjoy them as objects of beauty, mystery and humor. How many onion layers they can peel is sort of up to them but I hope they work for people who have no TV/pop culture or art history background just as something interesting, intriguing and lovely. (Even if you knew nothing of Batman or mythology, it should be a compelling image. Who are these people? What are they doing? And why?)

Because the mystery element is becoming more fascinating for me personally, I'm being drawn to casting my paintings now with "real people" (aka, non-famous, non-pop characters). It allows the viewer to bring more of their own stories to the images. The paintings remain a little more enigmatic and cryptic, and I like that.

Which one of your pieces is your favorite and why?
Well, a lot of my work is about lost or unattainable moments -- little captures instances of bliss or tenderness. It can be a cruel world, ya know? And I flat out thought it sucked how Batman and Catwoman never got to be together, or how Zira had to sacrifice herself so that her baby could live (that's "Escape from the Planet of the Apes"). So one of my favorite paintings is "Behold My Heart" because of just the gentle stillness of the moment between Zira and her child. I also love "Golden Silence" for it's size (Jeannie is life-sized in that piece) and just the playful expression she has while she's in this kind of "hunting trophy" pose with Major Nelson's head. And "Samantha and the Darrins" also has a really nice impact because of its size and just the weirdness of the imagery -- you never saw both Darrins on the screen together so I think seeing them side by side is kinda nifty. But because they're new, the work that's coming off my easel right now is really fresh to me and so of course I really love that -- I'm back into a portraiture thing at the moment, and I like the quiet mystery of pieces like "Arbiter Elegante" and the two "Gone Native" paintings.

What has been the reaction to your work? Have any of the actresses or actors you've portrayed ever contacted you about their portraits?
Well, anybody who bothers to talk to or contact me has always been very positive, with one weird exception (an odd sort of rant-ish and fairly incomprehensible email, the point of which I still haven't quite figured out). None of the folks I've painted have ever contacted me directly, and I do sometimes wonder if they'd love it or hate it. It comes from such a deep place of affection for me though and I would hope that comes through.

You seem to show an endearing appreciation for classic TV characters that hasn't been seen much in the art world. Why do you think TV shows and films from our childhood affect us so deeply?
I can't really speak for anybody else but I know these characters were a huge part of my childhood, perhaps because I was a stereotypical latch-key kid and I got to while away the hours drawing and watching TV. So there's a lot of nostalgia there and I think that kind of thing really clicks with a lot of people (look at the folks who collect toys now, things that remind them of their bygone youths, etc.). Those were simpler days for all of us and the lives depicted in these shows are also portraits of a simpler time (albiet a very artificially simpler time -- not a lot of reality poking its head into those shows!)

What inspires you to create?
Oh geez, just about everything -- monster movies, friends, other artists' work, chocolate, my family, the big cheesy world, Chartreuse, music, chocolate, comics, great weather (rain & fog really slow me to a pathetic crawl), anything obsessive, chocolate, great books and stories, looking at people's faces, taking showers, chocolate, a brisk walk down Valencia Street, washing dishes and staring out the window, emotional swells, chocolate, and talking to Marcos. Often when I've completely hit the wall ("Wah! All my ideas suck!") I can bat things around with him and he'll totally have a solution.

What other artists get you excited and why?
This has the potential to be another really long list. I'm really drawn to art that is very "craft oriented" and by that I mean there's a high level of craft involved, not that it's crocheted and covered with sequins. Things that are obsessive in their execution or subject matter -- I'm sort of fascinated by infatuations and neuroses. And it really spans the ages -- everything from van der Wyden, Campin and other painters of the 15th Century in the Netherlands, right through all the gorgeous Italian Renaissance goodness (Botticelli, da Vinci, Messina, Crivelli, Raphael), the Mannerists were amazing (talk about obsessive detail!) like Bronzino. Oh hey and why limit the Renaissance to the Italians? What about the Germans? Hans Holbein really rocks my world! The portraits, the fabrics, the textures and colors, mein gott! Things continue to be super fun in the Baroque and Rococco (Caravaggio! Rubens! Artemisia Gentileschi painting wet spurts of blood shooting out of arterial veins!) This is when one of my favorite things just starts turning up all over the place -- drapery. Big velvety looking drapery, often for no explainable reason. Painting set in a barn? Let's hang some huge red velvet drapes over here on the side! There's drapery billowing everywhere and everyone is wearing miles and miles of draped fabric. I love painted draped fabric so I'm in hog heaven with this stuff.

This list is getting silly long, but before I wrap it up I have to mention that I worship at the feet of Ingres. Even if he does paint women who look like they've been stretched on the rack. His portraits are so inspiring and lovely.

In the contemporary world, a lot of my friends are painting things that just knock my socks off, and I'm also really blown away by a the work in comics. I read way, way too many comics and there are people out there who can just draw the stuffings out of things!

What artistic medium do you prefer to work with and why?
I used to paint everything in acrylic and enamel on tin (tin lunchboxes and tin TV trays). I didn't think that would ever change, that I'd just find bigger pieces of tin to paint on (car hoods? machined tin sheets?). But Mark Ryden and Eric White convinced me to try oil paint -- Eric had recently made the switch from acrylic and was just euphorically happy about it. It was around the same time that I started to want to paint larger and it seemed like oil might make it easier (blending large areas of flesh perfectly was challenging for me in acrylic). Everyone seemed to think I was painting in oils already, so what the heck! Tried it out. Loved it, tho' it did feel like I was painting with my foot for a while. Any paint is wonderful, flexible, mushy, liquid, alive feeling, but oil paint is all those things cubed -- it's more flexible, more alive. And it smells kinda sexy. It's just fabulous.

But I still have to have the smoothest surface possible. So I paint on wood panels that are sanded and primed and sanded smooth. Canvas gives me the willies -- too bumpy!

What are some of the challenges you face as an artist?
Boy, what isn't a challenge? Making art is totally self-generated, so there's always The Battle of the Thousand and One Distractions. Then wondering if any idea is good enough. Followed by the fear that I'm not going to be able to pull it off the way I want to. Once a piece is complete then it's my job to get it into the hands of the person it's supposed to be with, whether that's by contacting the collector directly ("Hey I just finished something that I think is right up your alley!") or sending it off to a gallery and waiting for somebody to fall in love with it.

It seems like perhaps I set myself artistic challenges all the time too. That once I identify something that I lean on, use as a crutch, that I have to kick it away. The lunchboxes started to feel like that, so I had to try something new. Then I notice that I outlined everything in black lines -- that started as an homage to comic art but I realized it was also a great way to fudge edges, not have to deal with where things met within the painting. So I phased those out. Then the TV trays started to feel like a gimmick, so goodbye trays. Got real comfy with acrylic paint, so long acrylic paint.

Right now I'm in the process of doing less and less work using recognizable pop characters and more real life models. This is really exciting work for me because it's new and it's scary -- will people like it? I think scaring myself like that and being willing to try things and change, to challenge myself, it really key to any kind of personal or artistic growth. In a non-pompous, bombastic way.

With that in mind, what kind of goals are you setting for yourself?
I hate to say it but they're pretty vague -- I want to continue to push myself and make work that is interesting to me (and hopefully other people as well, but it has to work for me first or else it's just mindless drudgery). I don't really have career goals, tho' I suppose I should. Mostly I just create things that go out into the world and interact with other folks who decide to make them a permanent part of their lives.

What are you working on now?
A couple different things -- I've been sort of obsessed with re-visioning the Frankenstein story (what if the Bride hadn't found him scary and repulsive, what if they had fallen in love, etc.) and that's gotten me thinking a lot about "creating life" and mad laboratories and basic human instincts. So we'll see how that plays out in paintings. Recently, I worked on a giant "My Little Pony" for a charity fundraiser in NY in October 2005. (The Pony Project involves customized Ponies by a heap of exciting artists, that were exhibited at The Milk Gallery, 450 w. 15th St., NYC. Proceeds benefited Hole in the Wall Camps, a children's charity.) It was just great having this 18" tall, blank, albino white My Little Pony in my studio!

Where can people see and buy your work?
The easiest place to see it is on my website -- though I sheepishly admit it needs to be updated -- the last several months of work aren't on there! I show all over the place but I really love Jonathan LeVine Gallery in Chelsea -- Jonathan is a great guy, so I always send people there.

Jonathan LeVine Gallery
529 West 20th Street, 9E
New York, NY 10011

What advice do you have for people who want to be artists?
Don't look at what's "popular" or what other people think is great. Do what you delight in, pursue what you're passionate about. Van Gogh was great but you don't have to be miserable or crazy to make great art. Just do what you love and find ways to be happy.

Additional comments
Chocolate is good.

In addition to her web site, you can also find more of Isabel Samaras' work and interviews in such pop art books as Vicious, Delicious, and Ambitious: 20th Century Women Artists, Sci-Fi Western, Pop Surrealism, Tiki Art Now!: A Volcanic Eruption of Art and Weirdo Deluxe.

Don't forget to check out her Devil Babe's Big Book of Fun!

All paintings copyright © Isabel Samaras

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