Molly Bounds and the aesthetics of imperfection

Will Meier talks to the artist about flatness, disruption and why you have to be there to get it.

When I came in to Molly Bounds’ studio at RedLine, she was working on a comic for a new local publication dealing with ideas of alternative art education, a topic with deep origins for her. Her parents studied art and wound up as so many art students do, completely resentful of the path they took, and were less than excited about their daughter doing the same. It wasn’t surprising to learn that Molly had a combative relationship with her college professors, rejecting their narrow academic mindset. When she was told not to do something in black-and-white, for example, her response would be, no, fuck you, watch.

Molly Bounds. Photo by Lewis Neeff.

Molly spends a lot of time trying to create work that doesn’t have her name attached to it. So sometime in the past couple years, when people started becoming really interested in the pop color schemes she had been developing, she instantly switched to a subtle, quiet palette. A main tangent of her work has become an investigation into what sort of power she could give those colors, but that agenda could change at any time. This defiant flexibility is why she doesn’t have or want gallery representation.

Despite her efforts, though, when I see a Molly Bounds piece, I instantly recognize it. There’s usually this powerfully feminine content, there are characteristic color combinations, sure, but the real signature is this stylized, abstracted flatness with the crystal-clear efficiency of a Lichtenstein.

This flatness comes from her background as a printmaker. After working in a high-profile commercial print shop for awhile out of college, where editions would get scrapped for a single speck of imperfection, one day she looked at her work and couldn’t help but wonder if it had become ‘commercial’. Gross.

The aesthetics of imperfection were always something she had tried to hone, and she suddenly found herself needing to find a way back to the human hand, which was all but lacking in her native medium. On the side of her printmaking practice, Molly had long been doing murals, and it was the larger scale of these and the looser gesture of the brush that drew her to her current painting practice.

She recalls seeing a David Hockney at SFMOMA, walking up to this monumental painting and noticing these pencil lines, made with the same blue drafting lead as she uses. In that line: the essence of how the thing was started, honesty about that process, an immediate moment of self-realization – you came from the same thread as a master. Coincidentally, my ‘pencil-line’ moment was at a Lichtenstein retro in Chicago. But with the Hockney or the Lichtenstein, those paintings aren’t about those pencil lines, yet they still somehow make the painting their special level of special.

What is it that’s so implacably special about imperfections in art? Is it different to land on imperfections by accident than to seek out their subtle aesthetic? What allows that to work (when it does)? Something contextual about the greater meaning of painting, or art? Or something… You can go deep here, because these are tricky questions, because in a lot of ways their outcome is a fork in the road that leads to either the best or the worst, the most courageous or the laziest, moments in paintings.

In work that is supposed to be so tight and slick and tricky that it belies its creation and it’s about its own craftsmanship, but where the artist let a tape line bleed and maybe they didn’t think someone would notice – that’s the worst shit ever. But what we’re talking about here isn’t that – it’s when maybe like some outlines are cruder than others, whatever – and those elements are embraced as natural parts of a process, incorporated into a stylistic aesthetic. Maybe it’s just an alignment of subjective preferences between Molly and I that make these moments so special, but one of my favorite contemporary painters has long been Neo Rauch, and that’s pretty much the essence of his work, those collisions where something started to stop working and he just left it and moved on to the next moment. It’s this honesty, like, okay, I didn’t really mean to do that but now it’s there. It’s admitting imperfection without the shame of trying to cover it. It’s the majority of what I’m referencing if I was to use the term ‘painterly’.

The human element, in this case, embracing vulnerabilities, is characteristic of Molly’s work on many levels. Almost all of her work depicts human figures, and almost all of those figures appear to be grappling with something vaguely familiar to us. There’s an interesting sort of honesty here, where true stories of real people are highly abstracted to their most basic representation. This is where the reductive flatness allows their messages to ring so clearly.

Molly’s reference point here comes from comics. In her personal favorite, Optic Nerve, the story at its core is about an insecure teen girl who passes out at a party and endures an embarrassment no one will let her forget about. It’s interesting to consider how frame cells would be chosen in something like this when there are so few moments of action to pace. As a painter dealing with similar themes and styles, Molly frequently escapes the constraint of having the single frame of a canvas by incorporating her mural work into painting series, hopping outside the picture plane so that the entire room is being read. It’s painting as installation, or vice versa, supposed to be read like a comic you inhabit yourself.

But it isn’t just a coy reference to comics, it’s core to her philosophy about art. It’s the painting version of a zine, of a performance piece: you have to be there to get it. Which isn’t about exclusivity, it’s about a real-life presence. Making sure the art is really there with you in space and time and can’t fully be detached from that context. She wouldn’t recreate the mural in a collector’s house, same as the collector couldn’t keep Yoko Ono in a cage cutting hair.

Molly thinks a lot about performance art. She’s really interested in choreography of the body, particularly using the body in space to enact disruption, like in a protest. Her work is admittedly not very disruptive, but she’s looking to try to enact the same sort of agency within people, a way of finding a voice, finding common ground with others you might’ve assumed you have nothing in common with.

But on the other hand, her works are sort of disruptive to the flow of everyday life, in the same way that meditation is. They’re still and contemplative, and you can reside in their humbly non-intellectual states. The goal is unlocking this quiet thing within ourselves that isn’t even directly translatable to words. And that’s where the earlier conversation about abstracting emotive content is really significant, because emotions are about as abstract as abstract gets. For a by-all-accounts representational painter, dealing successfully and unambiguously with that content is pretty cool.

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