“But really, what if the walls were melting”: reimagining queer spaces with Priscilla Rose Howe

Priscilla Rose Howe and Victoria McAdam discuss drawing, film and the occult.

Date 9 June 2021 Interview Victoria McAdam Imagery Courtesy of the artist and Sanc

Priscilla Rose Howe, Thirsty trees cry out for water, 2021, coloured pencil and graphite on paper, 420 x 594 mm. 

Priscilla Rose Howe’s drawing practice is inspired by the fluidity of film as a way to open up or create supernatural worlds. Across her new body of work, in a pool of mud, the night was hot (a solo presentation currently on view at Sanc in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland), the artist gambols with theatricality as an expression of her queer experience, devising other worlds ruled by intimacy and the inexplicable.

Victoria McAdam: This morning I re-read Hana Pera Aoake’s text on your recent presentation at the Auckland Art Fair. It’s a great essay, and really rich in references—from Bataille’s Histoire de l’oeil to John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs. Are these new ideas Hana brought to your work, or are these quite active touchstones for your practice?

Priscilla Rose Howe: Hana is a friend and is very familiar with my practice. Some of the references are really important. I love film—it’s definitely my biggest influence. I grew up…actually no, I should talk about Round The Twist, that’s very crucial. Have you seen it?

No.

It’s a TV series that aired in the ‘90s. It was adapted from Uncanny, a short story collection by Paul Jennings. Growing up, and even now, I have always been obsessed with ghosts and the paranormal. In Round The Twist, these kids have moved into a lighthouse, and all these spooky things start to happen. But there is no second in which these kids are like…why are we being haunted? I love that. They don’t question it, it’s just innate in that world.

Real is real. It’s not often we look around and question the validity of our pedestrian un-haunted lives.

We’re stuck in this binary logic. We eat at the table and we live in a house and it looks a certain way. Things feel a certain way. There is a very strong fear of the unknown. I’m really fascinated by realms that I can’t see. Realms that exist as a shimmer that disappears. As a culture, we’re obsessed with the physical. I mean, even me, I manifest my thoughts physically in my drawings, but I am much more interested in what I can’t see, what I can’t touch. What else is out there? Where am I going to go after I die?

Is that what you’re drawing, your experiences and imaginations of the inexplicable or unusual?

I guess so. And my drawings speak to my queer experience. I’m interrogating what things might be like if society wasn’t so heteronormative. What is a queer space? What does queer space look like? Not rainbows and that type of queer space. But really, what if the walls were melting.

Priscilla Rose Howe, Visitant, 2021, coloured pencil and graphite on paper, 420 x 594 mm. 

I find your drawings quite sexy. Is that something in the work that I’m seeing, or just me?

Hmm. I guess my only agenda is communicating otherworldliness. Exploring that through drawing. I don’t think ‘I want people to be really disgusted!’ or ‘I want this to be really horny!’ I don’t have those intentions, it just happens itself. It seems like art people struggle with that, they’re reading into it. For-instance, I draw my face over and over again, mostly because it’s practical—my girlfriend has only just started to model for me—but often it’s me, and I exaggerate my features. I have been asked if I’m examining my Jewish ancestry… which is a good question, but that’s not my intention. My way of working is intentionally ambiguous and intuitive, so you can see what you want.

Priscilla Rose Howe, As you can imagine, 2021, coloured pencil and graphite on paper, 420 x 594 mm. 

I didn’t notice that your figures share your face. The otherworldliness that you’re interested in, is that a personal other world?

Totally. I was bullied really badly as a kid, and also, like, being gay ya know? And I’ve got really bad anxiety. I’ve always been imaginative and dissociative. Since I was young I’ve chased otherworldliness, through David Lynch films, cartoons, drawing. I guess, relating it to my work, I see a lot of queer potential in otherworldliness. Freedom to exist in a disparate space. I guess I’m coming to it from a more internal imaginative lens. I’ve always been told I’m airy-fairy. I’m an Aquarius.

I’m being one of those art people reading into your work… ‘I can feel your sun sign.’ Whatever. I am very guilty of that. When you sent me pictures of the works to be shown at Sanc, my brain compulsively hyperlinked to other artworks. You’ve drawn this figure lying on their back, seen from the feet, and compositionally it’s a dead ringer for The Lamentation of Christ by Andrea Mantegna. That wasn’t an active reference?

Nope, but nice.

I guess Mantegna’s other world is Christianity, it’s just mainstream. I see all these references to drawing and painting traditions in your work, but it seems they’re often inadvertent, largely filtered through film.

Yes, most of my references are films. Actually, most of all I love cartoons. Like The Triplets of Belleville. If anything, that’s the reference! Or The City of Lost Children. I recently became obsessed with this ‘90s horror called The Reflecting Skin. It’s about this boy in the ‘50s and is set in the gothic American countryside. Because his life is so shit, he imagines other realities. He sees this creepy baby corpse thing and he’s like ‘It’s an angel!’ It’s beautifully shot. He thinks the neighbour is a vampire and he is obsessed with this theory. It reminds me of my childhood, insisting there was a ghost in a nearby house or a random passerby was a witch.

Was that in Christchurch?

Yup.

Some friends of mine met you in Lyttelton recently.

At New Years! I used to live in Lyttelton, it was a buzzy vibe.

And you live in Christchurch proper now?

Yes. I live with [artist] Miranda Parkes.

I’ve had another art history thought. There is a school of painting that came out of Christchurch in the 1990s called the Pencil Case Painters which included Shane Cotton, Saskia Leek and Séraphine Pick. There is some resonance between your work and Séraphine’s, especially her earlier kind of surreal paintings.

I love her work.

I do too. The relationship between these artists and the dynamics between their work is kind of ambiguous, because they were sharing studios with one another, and their practices were developing simultaneously, but it’s hard to articulate clear formal similarities between their work. It feels to me that there is a voice emerging from Christchurch now that operates in a similar way, which you belong to. Do you have people you feel you are working alongside in this way?

Absolutely. Tyne Gordon, Grace Crothall, and others. We’re close and talk about our practices. Tyne makes these exuberant, gestural paintings and objects, Grace has an installation and painting practice exploring notions like satanic panic, and I draw. There is a subtle horror interest that bridges our practices. We like the same films and artists, but our work is very different.

I guess being across different media you can share interests but articulate them really differently.

Tyne has a very organic and spiritual practice. Grace’s is horror driven, and atmospheric. Mine is about conjuring other worlds. I guess those three realms sit alongside each other.

What’s the film with the three witches?

The Craft?

Yes, iconic. How does it end again?

The three girls turn against the main girl, who uses good magic to get rid of their evil powers. The really bad girl ends up in a psych ward. Which is actually a really scary ending.

Is that the consequence of meddling in dark magic?

Yeah, probably! I watch those movies and I’m like—that’s true! If you use dark magic on someone it’s going to come back to you.

You have to be careful what you invite into your body.

And what energy you put out into the world.

Priscilla Rose Howe, in a pool of mud, the night was hot. Installation view, Sanc Gallery, June 2021.

When I sat down to write some questions for you, before we decided to talk and see what emerged, I landed on ‘what do you know about the occult?’ I had this hunch that you know things.

Spot the witch! I’m definitely a witch. My nana is a witch. I’m so interested in that stuff. I’ve had moments where I question myself, but then I have had so many instances that are so undeniably real. It’s definitely true and out there.

By and large it feels like Auckland is not a safe place for occult activity, I don’t know if that is because life is too fast here, or cynical. I’m probably just not in the fold. But, I think of Christchurch as being somewhere that is a bit more witchy. And a bit more ghostly.

100%

Why?

There are all these morbid histories embedded in sites across Christchurch, and in the consciousness of the people, especially in Lyttelton. It’s also slower in pace and more sparse physically, perhaps that creates more room to feel and absorb energy.

Spooky. I love the Christchurch cold though.

Yeah me too, I always end up frizzy in Auckland.

Priscilla Rose Howe, inside the dust, 2021, coloured pencil and graphite on paper, 210 x 148 mm; stroney, 2021, coloured pencil and graphite on paper, 138 x 138 mm. 

Has the body of work you are showing at Sanc been created since your previous presentation at the Auckland Art Fair?

Yes, it’s a separate body of work. I’ve had a lot of fun creating it. I’ve introduced text.

Yes! The text. Where does that come from?

The phrases are taken from a phenomenology book my mum got in the ‘80s. It’s my favourite book ever. It’s got these little bits about, like, raining frogs and moving rocks. I thought I would take them out of context and see what they did. The title of the show, In a pool of mud, the night was hot, was taken from that book. It became a good entry point for thinking through those experiences, of phenomenology and queer phenomenology.

Is the content of the drawings informed by the quotes you uplifted?

Somewhat. I’d write the quotes in this small book, and when the drawing was done I would intuitively inscribe a phrase that suited it. I like working that way, coming at things with a sense of ambiguity, so there is no prescriptive meaning.

And when you were doing those drawings, was it with this exhibition at Sanc in mind?

Yes, this show has been booked since last year and was initially supposed to be in February alongside the Auckland Art Fair [which turned out to be my first solo exhibition]. Now I am working towards a show at Hot Lunch in July. And that will be another distinct body of work. That’s how I like to work.

This book that you mention, is that the central organiser for the body of work at Sanc?

Yes.

Priscilla Rose Howe. Installation view, Wet Green booth at the Auckland Art Fair, February 2021.

Did something in particular inform your exhibition with Wet Green at the Auckland Art Fair?

Not necessarily. At the time I was really interested in dynamic, hectic scenes that consumed space. Theatricality was central to those artworks. A lot of the Art Fair works were set outside, whereas many of the new drawings are interiors. The works for Sanc are more intimate.

There is a term in theatre called ‘cheating out,’ where no matter who you are talking to on stage you stand with your body and face somewhat directed at the audience. Your figures often seem to be cheating out. There is a sense of intimacy and interiority within the image, but they are also very aware of being part of a spectacle, and of their audience. They know they are being watched.

Totally. I really love Federico Fellini’s films, like Satyricon. And The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover by Peter Greenaway. Excessive, overt, theatrical films. What I take from them is that sense of self-aware theatricality.

Priscilla Rose Howe, Soirée, 2021, coloured pencil and graphite on paper, 420 x 594 mm. 

The works at the Auckland Art Fair felt particularly theatrical; complex action on elaborate sets. Vaudeville. But beyond the bodies throwing themselves around, there is something a bit sinister.

I think everything is theatrical and potentially sinister. We’re all performing in some way.

We’re performing an interview?

Absolutely. You should watch the film Santa Sangre by Alejandro Jodorowsky. It’s about a circus, it’s horrifying. But I love it’s over theatricality. I often think about this short film by Fellini based on an Edgar Allen Poe story. All the characters have this crazy, bright makeup on. But they look bored and dissociative, and completely disturbed.

Sometimes I feel like when I am anxious, I’m acting out what I think it is to look normal in that moment, but invisible clown makeup is giving me away.

Yeah, you’ve got to get offstage. Like me picking my nails and dancing naked in my room, being gross in my interior world. That’s my escape from being normal.

Perhaps the works at Auckland Art Fair were on stage, and the show at Sanc is offstage action?

Exterior and interior. There are still theatrics in the Sanc show, but it’s more intimate, and playful. There are variations in scale between the works. Small framed works and a massive work.

Priscilla Rose Howe, Fantasm, 2021, coloured pencil and graphite on paper, 420 x 594 mm. 

How time-consuming are your drawings?

Very.

They look it.

Some not as much as others. The A2 works took the longest. And it depends on my mood. Sometimes I want to see the blushing of skin tone, and sometimes I want something really immediate to appear with as little time to think as possible.

You primarily work in pencil?

Yes.

Special pencils? Do you have all your pencils lined up?

Yes, let’s talk about pencils.

Go on.

When I was really depressed in Melbourne I wasn’t making art, because, you know, I was so depressed. I bought some nice colouring pencils. I hadn’t drawn in so long because, again, I was so depressed. I became obsessed with the medium. This is cheesy but it really helped with my depression—art saved me. Jesus, definitely put that in.

Let’s do a pull quote: ‘ART SAVED ME.’

I started drawing lots of clowns and people in silly costumes. Now, I’m really into Faber Castell colour pencils. And for graphite I use a range: 9B, 6B, 4B, 2B, depending on the texture I want.

Priscilla Rose Howe, in a pool of mud, the night was hot. Installation view, Sanc Gallery, June 2021.

Do most works have all of those in them? I feel like the hair in your works is a very particular kind of mark-making that appears across all the works. Like punctuation. Long straight dark hair.

It’s ironic. There are a few curly girls in my new show.

Love to see the representation. [Editor’s note: both women are curly]

We do need it. I always start with a 2B, then add colour if I want to, which takes a very long time, then I begin to add layers. The big work is mostly 9B. It’s rougher and more expressive. It was a whole physical ordeal. I wanted a big haunting image.

I’m excited to be haunted. Thank you—you’ve given me heaps to think about.

Has anyone told you that you look like Brandi from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills?

No, is that a compliment?

Absolutely. 

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