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Trouble in Paradise: A Conversation with Painter Melissa Loop

Minnesota artist Melissa Loop draws attention to the complexities and double-standards inherent in fetishizing and idealizing exotic locales, exploring the consequences of tourism through the lush, layered surfaces of her paintings. In a recent conversation, we discussed the lineage of landscape painting, from Hudson River School to Peter Doig, painting and viewing art as work […]

Melissa Loop, I Turned Your Kingdom Out, acrylic and spray paint, 2013

Melissa Loop, I Turned Your Kingdom Out, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 2013

Minnesota artist Melissa Loop draws attention to the complexities and double-standards inherent in fetishizing and idealizing exotic locales, exploring the consequences of tourism through the lush, layered surfaces of her paintings. In a recent conversation, we discussed the lineage of landscape painting, from Hudson River School to Peter Doig, painting and viewing art as work and leisure, and the recent public drama that erupted around a slanted news article about her pursuit of travel as artistic research.

Jehra Patrick

On the surface, your paintings depict fluorescent and glowing equatorial landscapes. Talk about your process for finding, taking and selecting images.

Melissa Loop

My process has changed somewhat since I’ve started traveling to the places and making a whole series around one place. Before, I chose iconic photos that appeared over and over in Google images when I searched for a place. I would be specific for each thing I wanted in the painting, though — like “Hawaiian waterfall.” So I was always constructing made up landscapes that were collaged together from various photos.  I now actually go to the area I want to make work about, but what has stayed the same are the reasons that draw me to a site in the first place. It’s rather organic, in the sense that these are just landscapes that I get obsessed with, but they are also always places that are being massively affected by climate change, colonialism, tourism – they’re all in the process of being Westernized in some fashion through globalization. But they’re exotic in some way for me. When I visit a place, I am thinking about how to tell a story about the history, culture, climate, landscape, as well as the memory or dream of the place that lasts after you leave. I’m not just interested in iconic landmarks, but also the odd-shaped rocks, plants, moments that make up a place.

Melissa Loop, A Dream of a Made up Hawaiian Island, acrylic and spray paint, 2012

Melissa Loop, A Dream of a Made up Hawaiian Island, acrylic and spray paint, 2012

Jehra Patrick

To which places have you traveled? What is your criteria for selecting your destinations?

Melissa Loop

I’ve been to the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John, which was the start of my interest in the continuing colonial mindset you see behind resorts and international tourism. I’ve also been to Belize, the Mexican Yucatan near Tulum, Coba, and Chichen Itza. In less than a week, I will leave for the French Polynesia, where I will visit Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, Bora Bora, and Nuku Hiva.

I’ve been picking places that are exotic to me, which have a rich archaeological ruins, are rapidly changing or will change drastically in my lifetime because of humans and that have a history of colonialism. I’ve learned a lot from some of my previous trips, about what works and what doesn’t. When I planned my Polynesian trip, I looked for places that were not resorts per se, or even normal hotels, but rather small places that are run by Polynesians.

Jehra Patrick

And these are not lavish places, like ‘Sandals,’ I presume…

Melissa Loop

A posh paradise is very nice for a vacation, but not conducive to locating the different sites where I draw, photograph and research every morning. Each day, I concentrate on a different location on the island to study; it is actually quite physically strenuous, requiring lots of hiking up mountains, through valleys and ungroomed terrain to get to the places that tourists really don’t reach very often. In this trip, I’m really excited about all of the archaeological ruins that I’m going to visit on the islands — particularly the most important Polynesian ruins, outside of Easter Island. I’m also meeting with a woman on Huahine who is in charge of an important cultural heritage site. On my last trip, I only had one day where I didn’t completely exhaust myself, and that’s only because I got really sick and couldn’t go anywhere.

Jehra Patrick

What has been your impression of these places you have visited? How do they hold up to both your notions of exploitation? Are they beautiful and exotic? How has actually seeing these sites in person changed your work?

Melissa Loop

When I went to Belize, I had this notion that I wanted to take pictures of the shacks – the “real place” – but I realized, after I got there, that such thinking is disrespectful of their culture. I saw how proud they are of the beauty of their country. So, the work became about, essentially, the idea of memory, misconceptions, exoticism and fantasy of the place after I returned home.  Belize doesn’t get much tourism; they caught my attention because their tiny country is the only one standing up to the cruse ship companies by putting strict rules on how many cruise tourists can enter their protected areas (if at all).  I ended up leaving there very hopeful and optimistic, because of how they take care of their land and try to grow tourism in a more sustainable way.

The place I visited in Mexico was an entirely different story. There resorts are allowed to be run like a compound that you never have to leave….unless you get bored of the beach, and then you’re shuttled to some manicured ruin. Tulum doesn’t have huge resorts, but all of the beaches are currently being transformed into this long strip of luxury eco-hotels, where they keep guards at the front of the road, like gatekeepers to the beach. It was also kind of unnerving when a guy trying to sell us a tour informed us that we could stand on the coral in the water. It really makes you wonder what’s going to be left in 50 years.

Jehra Patrick

I’d like to hear bit more about your composition and creative decision-making – your paintings, in their handling, feel like amplified or fantastic adaptations as opposed to a straight plein air study of these lands.

Melissa Loop

All of the actual paintings are made in my studio in Minneapolis; I consider what I make during the trip to be notations. I am interested in what happens between seeing and experiencing a place and the gap of memory, time, fantasy, dream, and outright lying. That’s why I like to reference grand landscape painters, like Fredric Erwin Church, because they would amp up the color, rearrange details, and try to make a place as desirable as possible. The neon and extreme saturation in my paintings come from the influence of CGI and Photoshop, and the way that everything [online] seems to want to be so loud in order to be seen and noticed. But I am also fighting with the surface by destroying and creating space through spilling paint, spray painting, dripping, and sanding so that the painting will flip back and forth between the deep painting space and a reminder that it’s all just surface and paint. For me, it is kind of a metaphor for my own struggles with my participation in global change, and the sense of helplessness that I (and I think a lot of people of our generation) feel.

Fredric Edwin Church, Cotopaxi, Oil on canvas, 1855

Fredric Erwin Church, Cotopaxi, Oil on canvas, 1855

Jehra Patrick

This exaggeration in the color choices gives your work look of “vacation-ness.” What are the complications of traveling for learning vs. traveling for leisure? Is leisure still a byproduct of your research?

Melissa Loop

I suppose it depends on a person’s definition of leisure. When I and the other Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative (MSAB) recipients were catching flak for visiting places that are usually thought of as leisure destinations, it became a joke between my husband and I that you should only receive funding if your trip will be dangerous, cold and not enjoyable. There tends to be more frustration for me when I travel for research, since my main goal then is to collect information; traveling in the manner I do is not set up for that. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to go about my research with a more scientific approach on future projects, but it’s difficult since I do need to see more than one location to do my work.  There’s also a lot of stress involved, because it is research — I’m working, even if it is amazing, fun work. This upcoming trip involves 13 flights (six flights just to get there and back, because it’s so far away), six islands and seven different lodgings. That sure isn’t what I would do to myself if I wanted to relax.

Jehra Patrick

What about the “vacation-ness” of viewing your work? Is viewing art ever about taking a moment of vacation? Isn’t museum-going a leisure activity?

Melissa Loop

For me, art is a form of escapism and I love being able to create a painting that I can “escape” into; there’s definitely this duality between what I’m doing in my studio, what we do in museums, and what we do when we travel.  Paradoxically, I think that making paintings that require me to travel so much has forced me to do the opposite of escape.

Melissa Loop, Fragment, acrylic and spray paint, 2013

Melissa Loop, Fragment, acrylic and spray paint, 2013

Jehra Patrick

In looking at your work, comparisons to Paul Gauguin and Peter Doig come to mind. Do you think they were ever criticized for the type of work they do? Also, do you think they’re saying something about the places they visit in their work, or do we love them for their palettes, their application of paint and composition. In other words, does the subject matter?

Melissa Loop

The interesting thing about Peter Doig is that most of his work deals with memories of his early childhood in Canada — it’s a kind of dream landscape. Also, he lives in Trinidad, so he’s not really a visitor. But he talks about the fact that he will always be the white guy. that he can never get away from the exoticism of a place that is so vastly different from the place he came from. I think the difference between Doig and Gauguin is that Doig isn’t trying to live out or sell some sort of hedonistic fantasy. A lot of historians criticize Gauguin, because most of what he wrote about his experiences were vastly exaggerated. He went specifically to seek out this “noble savage” sort of lifestyle; the thing is, the Polynesians had been converted to Christianity by that point, and he was highly disliked for taking on so many young lovers. Gauguin was really just perpetuating a fantasy of what he wished was there, but maybe never really was, in fact. I am interested in the notion of fantasy, but I think I am coming from a very self-critical point of view; I’m not really perpetuating a fantasy, but rather presenting the fantasy that we all have of such exotic places, acknowledging its impossibility. I think both artists tap into some inner desire we share [about "paradise"], and that its part of the appeal of the work. Besides, isn’t subject merely a vehicle for content, anyways?

Jehra Patrick

True! Within your work, that content addresses the misconceptions of place – e.g., a gorgeous island that is actually a site of exploitation. Interestingly enough, when your MSAB project received coverage, many misconceptions about artists’ funding were aired in the conversation surrounding it. What are misconceptions, for artists and these places? Aren’t both a bit romanticized? Are artists still exotic? Is there a misconstrued understanding of what it means to be an artist?

Melissa Loop, Untitled, acrylic and spray paint, 2013.

Melissa Loop

I think there is a lot of mystery, and sometimes angst, surrounding the idea of being an artist. There is this myth that we are lazy, or don’t pay taxes ourselves (apparently), and that we are bad at what we do if we have to rely on grants to help bring projects into fruition. The truth is that most successful artists have several sources of income to make their practice work, including sales, grants, and some sort of outside income, such as teaching, freelance work, or side-jobs. I feel people tend to think that we should live in poverty until the day comes when we are “discovered,” because we would just make art anyway — it’s part of that romantic Van Gogh idea.  A lot of people seemed very upset to see my blogs and figure out that not only was I not destitute, but  I also travel a lot. But I and every artist I know and respect in this community work very hard at not only making our work, but also promoting, writing and a long list of other non-creative admin-type tasks. This is a career as much as it’s a lifestyle.

Jehra Patrick

You were recently vilified by Watchdog.org’s “Minnesota Bureau,” as well as in the public commentary, for receiving a MSAB for travel purposes (among a hundred other artists of varying disciplines.) While this is a very slanted and misleading media piece, I think it’s worth making note of the interesting conversations that cascaded from this incident, including the role of the artist as both a worker and a culture-bringer, the role of grants in support of the arts and artists, and the place of government subsidy for arts and culture. These are all huge topics, I know, but I do want to provide the opportunity to initiate some of this continued conversation.

Melissa Loop

The man interviewing me asked the question: “Do you think this (traveling to French Polynesia) a good way to spend people’s tax dollars?” which I find purposely misleading, since these projects are funded by the MSAB, a small state organization that receives a small component of the Arts and Cultural Legacy Fund. The purpose of the money isn’t to send me on a trip, it is intended to make the work after, to foster gallery shows and artist talks, and to enrich Minnesota by bringing up conversations about how we can and do directly affect people and places halfway around the world through the choices we make, with how we perceive the world to be. As an artist, it is my role to spark new conversations, present new ideas, comment and make work about the times we live in. There should be a component of art that responds to these aspects of globalization. The fine arts are integral to the Minnesota creative community and artists do create create an economic return for the state.  Artists have been supported for hundreds of years through patrons, monarchies, and the church, so I’m not sure why there is this idea that a good artist never needs support to help bridge their practice.

Jehra Patrick 

What are your big takeaways from this? What are the conversations that you and fellow artists are having around the issues of artists’ means for finding monetary support and the granting system in Minnesota?

Melissa Loop

I think this conversation has highlighted the paradox of being an artist in the Midwest: here, you can be “successful” and yet never make enough money from your work to run a studio, or to make a decent living. That’s why many artists choose to go somewhere else. The grant system is a way to help us bridge some of that gap, so we can stay here and make work.

Jehra Patrick

What about the misconceptions surrounding the granting process? Do you have any suggestions for avenues of conversation where we can continue to communicate to the public accurate pictures about the roles of the artist in their communities and the ways artists find to support themselves?

Melissa Loop

The news story did accentuate some vast misconceptions about the [Artist Initiative] program; the author of the piece likened getting a grant to winning the lottery; people seemed to think awarding public money means that they should have some sort of ownership or control over how those funds are used, simply because they’re a member of the public. I actually don’t think that MSAB is opaque — anyone can go and see the panelists who are judging the grant proposals.  A real concern I had, reading the public comments, had to do with the broader feeling that they indicated a lack of value for artists and what they do; some of the commenters aren’t interested in learning about the process for applying for grants — they’re not really objecting to that so much as they don’t seem to think of artists as really “working.”

When I started a dialogue with the news reporter about the story, he just kept asking what my project had to do with the state; I realized that we were simply having two different conversations. What I do doesn’t directly produce a certain quantity of jobs or result in a monetary outcome or return on investment – that’s not the purpose of my project. This leads me to think that there is confusion about what the phrase “impact the state” means to the general public when we’re talking about the arts. Maybe it’s about changing the language. Maybe it’s about all of us artists being vocal about what we really do: educating our families, friends, co-workers. When this all came out, I realized that I, too, create that fantasy of an artist in my blogs. I never really considered myself a public person before this, and I think defending myself against things that are not even trying to be true or balanced only serves the fuel their criticisms. But I do feel a responsibility, now more than ever, to be as transparent as possible with this project and leverage it to have the most impact as possible.

Melissa Loop is a landscape painter who mines the long history of the genre and subverts it with her fantasy landscapes. Her hyper-colored canvases with their haphazard drips, neon spray paint, jumbled digitized shapes, and rainbow-infused skies literalize the artificiality of imagined paradises and bespeak her concern for ongoing globalization, colonization, and touristic expansion in exotic locations. In 2005 Loop received her BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

See more of the artist’s work at: melissaloop.com 

Learn more about the artist’s project at: myheartisanomad.blogspot.com