The artist on childhood insecurities and realizing no one has the answers.
Interview by Martin Lerma
In art and in life, Samantha Rosenwald is boldly transparent. The artist regularly examines her insecurities, relationships and emotions in her carefully mapped out (and remarkably detailed) works, and she is just as frank when discussing them in conversation. From her studio in LA, she spoke with Platform about her love for her dog, what she's learned in her 20s and the power of realizing no one knows what they're doing.
A lot of your work has to do with the exploration and the examination of your identity. Was it a conscious choice on your part to make identity so central to your work?
I think the best place to start is from self-experience and just thinking back. The way I think about my life and myself is very much in retrospect, even in the present. I think of an old lady version of myself hovering over me being like, “Goddamnit, those were the days! Enjoy it! You're young!” I think back on myself as a little kid and always using humor as a crutch, especially growing up in LA. I wasn't super thin or pretty or hot or born with famous parents, so I think humor was the way for me to target that, address it so other people couldn't call me fat or say I wasn’t pretty if I was mocking myself. That's always been my defense mechanism.
I’ve read that's even affected your choice of materials in certain instances, like the use of colored pencils.
Absolutely. Colored pencils were the first thing that I used. I was always drawing as a little kid. I had a little plastic workbench and I would just sit there coloring. The material sort of brings me back to those visceral moments of feeling like an outcast and using humor as a way to cope with that. But I also think of colored pencils as sort of performative. Even though it's not physically part of the visuals of the piece, for me, coloring a large canvas as opposed to using the broad strokes of a paintbrush has this manic, frenzied energy. You're just scribbling. It feels more belabored and painful in the act of trying to achieve something that is maybe referential to the old masters or referential to a more standard mode of painting using a medium that’s childlike. It reminds me of being that chubby awkward kid and infuses the pieces with an air of “I’m not good enough”, with an air of performative failure.
As you've gone on in your career and you’ve gained more recognition, does your attitude toward that change? Do you feel like you've increasingly grown out of those feelings?
No, never. I’m in therapy for it [laughs]. I think if you have those insecurities, no matter what level of success you reach, those thoughts from your childhood of not being good enough or not being pretty enough kind of haunt you even if you develop ways to cope with them. Even though I've had a lot of opportunities recently, which is great and I feel confident, the thing about my paintings is they are about failure, but I don't view them as failures. They're also about success and being a perfectionist and creating a level of perfection or beauty or intricacy and just feeling like that perfection is hollow at the end like, "What was the fucking point?"
What inspires you to begin making a specific work in the first place? Is there anything that usually sparks that for you?
A whole lot of different things. Usually, I draw inspiration from things that happen to me in my life, things that make me very mad, and then using those examples with a hint of surreality. It's sometimes be inspired by dreams I have or sometimes I wake up in the morning and I'm like, “Oh, I know perfectly how I can express this feeling.” Sometimes watching movies helps me find ways to express the rage or the sadness or the discomfort or the annoyance that I have when I don't know the symbols or the composition yet.
Do you find that processes cathartic when you do actually sit down and start making the work?
It is. I recently broke up with a guy that I was dating for two-and-a-half years. He treated me like shit. He was emotionally abusive and took advantage of me and I made this six-and-a-half foot painting of his head being decapitated like Judith Slaying Holofernes.
How do you go about expressing feelings regarding your personal relationships in your work? Does it ever become tricky if it concerns people you know intimately?
If I'm so full of rage about someone that I know intimately, then they probably know what they've done. For the most part, I'm not just gonna Taylor Swift it and explicitly talk about how this person has hurt me. I'm gonna link it back to something more meaningful or something either coated in symbology or made universal by making the meaning a little less transparent so that it's not just about specifically what has happened. It broadens it out. The more vague it is, the more interesting and the more people sit with it, the more it can be universally received.
When you're working on different projects, do you have anyone who you go to as a sounding board, or are you very private about the whole process?
I talk to my mom all the time about what I'm doing. She’s not an artist, she doesn't have an art background, but I tell her everything. As much as she's like, “You're amazing! I love you so much!”, she still knows how to ask critical questions and she’s even given suggestions that I've used in my paintings.
When you're making work, what other things do you generally have going on in the background?
The constant soundtrack of my life is my dog. She's an English bulldog and is just constantly snoring even when she's awake. That’s sort of a white noise machine. Most of the time, I'm also either listening to the same like 10 songs on rotation, or I'm watching one of my favorite shows, like Seinfeld or The Office or something stupid like The Bachelorette.
What are some of the tracks that you tend to listen to most?
Juggernaut by Tyler, The Creator. Lots of Junglepussy to get hyped up. If I'm feeling emotional, definitely Fleetwood Mac. I usually have to be in a particular mood if I'm choosing between rap, hip hop or singer-songwriter from the 80s [laughs].
There’s so much still going on with the pandemic, but is there anything that you've been hesitant to try in the past that you're really looking to do or explore once things are settled?
I wanna travel a lot. I guess the places where I have shows are always the places where I can't wait to go, but I think it would be insane to go to the Netherlands. I've never gone. I've seen pictures and it looks beautiful. I went once when I was little, but I'd love to go to back to the Amalfi coast in Italy or explore different cities within Italy. I had a show there during the pandemic in Naples and I wasn't able to go, but I've heard Naples is gritty and not the tourist Italy we know and love. That would be very interesting to see.
Is there anything you’ve heard, read or seen lately that's really stuck out to you or stuck with you?
I saw Midsommar and the folk art in that movie was so inspiring. I took so many screenshots. I try to achieve a similar thing with my paintings in that Ari Aster makes sure every scene in almost all of his movies is breathtakingly beautiful while plot-wise and subtext-wise it's so deeply, deeply fucked. I think that's super inspiring. That movie just shook my whole world. And then seeing Hereditary, another Ari Aster movie, I thought of a whole new body of work that I'm excited to start on at some point.
Is there anything you were really concerned with or thought about perhaps too much when you were younger that you've grown out of over the years?
Yes. One thing is minor and one thing is major. One which sounds minor but could be viewed as a metaphor for all of life: when doing my laundry, I don't fold my underwear. I just throw it in the drawer. I'm saving days of my life. The other thing I realized recently: adults don't know what they're doing and there's no need to feel like you're an idiot because you don't know what you're doing. If you pay close enough attention, if you're talking to a straight up 50-year-old white man, he has no idea either. He's trying to pretend like he is to impress you while you're doing the same. You might as well just admit to yourself that you don't know and just try to create real human connections with people and make jokes as often as possible. Everyone could use a laugh and no one is happy and no one fully knows what they're doing.
Isn't it such a liberating realization?
Totally. This is actually what I wrote my grad school thesis on. It’s about the way we all talk to each other in such a scripted way. Once you realize you can go on off-script and break character and just look directly into the other person's eyes and be like, “I have no fucking idea what I'm doing,” that’s where human connection starts.
Is there anything the world has embraced that you're reluctant to?
NFTs. I’m reluctant to embrace them because it seems a little bit like this Big Brother embrace of contemporary technology and culture. I'm fine with that but people are like, “This is the future. This is what art is going to be.” That's scary and seems like a fleeting trend to me. I think just like books, art is always going to be tangible at least half of the time. There's a difference between seeing a painting that's huge on a wall in front of you as opposed to you having that encounter digitized and presented to you as if you were seeing it right in front of you via a smartphone. There's no replacement for an in-person thing.
What role, if any, does digital technology or computers play in your practice?
I think technology plays into consumer culture and what's contemporary and what's covetable and what is a symbol of our times. I like to bring in symbols of our contemporary culture mixed with the dogmas of a historical culture or the trends and the symbolism in renaissance paintings, for example, as compared to contemporary signifiers of wealth or culture or beauty in our society. I'm not opposed to technology, it's just the NFT thing bothers me.
Is there anything you'd want to start over again?
My 20s. I wasted a lot of time with people who didn't treat me well. I spent a lot of time believing people that I was in relationships with making me feel like I was less than and believing it.
What do you wish you were asked more often?
You're really hitting deep right now. I guess one thing would be “How are you?” instead of “What's up?”
What’s the distinction between those for you?
“Whats up?” is more of like, “What are you doing?” “How are you doing?” is more opening up a floodgate of raw emotions. I think people think I’m funny so much of the time, but they don't realize that I am unhinged on the inside and would love to talk about it. There’s a huge dichotomy between the outside and the inside.
Do you think people don't ask the question because they're afraid to know the answer?
No, I think people don't ask because maybe I present like a namaste, chill, fun person. I’m always the go-between, the conflict resolver, the person who solves problems and cheers other people up or calms people down. It seems like I have my shit together perhaps more than I do. I think a lot of that finds its way into my work. Zaniness is definitely a key tenet of my work and the definition of zaniness is humor but humor that's riddled with an underlying frantic energy or an eagerness to please. I think zaniness is very representative of a female experience in which you feel like you have to be the emotional laborer or appeaser. It’s like you dehumanize yourself for the sake of the common good.
Is there anything about yourself you wish you could change?
I would like to stand up for myself more. I'd like to be more of a bitch in a female power type of way.