In ‘You, Only Better’, Kim Kennedy Austin examines vintage magazine illustrations and their message of self-improvement during the capitalist boom of the post WWII-era. Pulled from 1960s copies of Western Homes and Living magazine and a 1946 workout manual titled ‘Figure Fitness in Fifteen Days: Your Rx for Slenderness’, the characters in the clippings Austin has chosen cheerily model an affluent, heteronormative, patriarchal lifestyle; one that’s presented to the reader as not only desirable, but attainable in just a few simple steps. In this interview, we asked Austin about the inspiration, thematic ideas, and artistic processes behind this show.
Burrard Arts Foundation: You’ve touched on the aspirational language of magazines before; what’s similar and different about the approach you’ve taken in this new body of work?
Kim Kennedy Austin: Similarly to my most recent exhibition FAST GIRLS GET THERE FIRST – a series of text works pulled from the pages of Seventeen Magazine – I began first by selecting a time frame (the 1960’s), and going through the magazine archives page by page, issue by issue, documenting any illustrations that captured my interest. As I compile this data, I see patterns and themes emerging, and from there select the final images to use, in an attempt to articulate the emergent theme through that selection. As with previous bodies of work, the medium (in this case flocking) places limitations on my selections. Specific to this medium was time sensitivity : since the flocking fibres had to be applied before the paint-base dried, I chose images that I could complete the painting of relatively quickly.
BAF: Although you’ve worked with vintage source material, using 1960s issues of Western Homes and Living and 1940s workout routines, these ideas of self-improvement feel very contemporary, and the title is pulled from a recent New York Times article. What’s your opinion on how these kind of themes seem to be a constant refrain in our capitalist society? Is that something that interests you?
KKA: I have for a while been interested in the idea of makeovers and have been compiling a list that includes my favorite “makeover” movies, as well as a Canadian television show from my childhood The New You. I was playing with the phrase You, Only Better as a potential show title well before I made this work, and before I knew of the existence of the New York TImes article. I googled the phrase to see if and how others were using it and found the article on Dave Asprey and his Bulletproof Coffee, and data-driven diets. I don’t think it is revelatory to suggest that self-improvement and the desire to “better-oneself” (by attempting to change one’s looks and/or appearance) is connected to and fundamental to capitalism. What was interesting was to see this post-war desire for social mobility built around a new conspicuous consumption of material goods, and lifestyle trends based around fad-diets and convenience foods, especially as expressed through a locally based lifestyle magazine.
BAF: While all members of society are exposed to these aspirational messages of self-betterment, one could argue that women endure them more heavily than others. Sure enough, the topics covered in your source material, home-making and “slimming” exercises, are overtly gendered. How do these choices of subject matter play into the themes of gender and labour within your practice, and what sort of questions are you hoping to raise?
KKA: My interest in the Figure Fitness in FIfteen Days workbook was the idea of change through repetition – self-improvement through labour. I am often drawn to issues of structure and repetition in my work, and was attracted to the premise that in repeating daily exercises and following simple recipes, one could track the changes of their physique over a relatively short period of time. At the same time, I wanted to show a picture of the oppressive and restrictive nature of this marketed desire to “keep-up-with-the-Joneses”, through the construction of a “picture-perfect” home and home-life, and the achievement of an “ideal” figure.
BAF: You chose to create works in the unusual medium of faux-velvet, or flocking. What can you tell us about this medium, and how you came to choose it? What was the actual process like of creating the works?
KKA: I had been thinking about fuzzy flocked iron-on letters in relation to the 1970’s images I was seeing in my Seventeen Magazine research last year. I had also seen the process of flocking in a ceramics demonstration by a visiting artist when I was a student. I thought the fuzzy, almost embossed quality of the flocking lent itself well to the blown-out appearance of scaled-up photocopied images. The process of creating these works involved selecting the desired image, increasing the scale, and cropping out any unnecessary information. I drew the illustrations on paper, then painted them using a fine liner brush with a sticky enamel-like paint base that matched the colour of the flocking. The flocking gun is a tube-within-a-tube system that creates a puff of air to blow the rayon fibres onto the still-sticky painted base image. Once dry, excess fibres can be dusted off the final drawing.
BAF: On a more general, process-based level, how do you choose the pop-culture ephemera that often acts as a starting point? Are you intuitively drawn to the material, or are there particular attributes you look for? Do you keep inspiring clippings or images on file?
KKA: I rarely keep clippings or images on file, relying more on note keeping of interesting book titles, articles or quotations that I might want to refer to or expand upon in the future. I re-read my notebooks periodically to check for patterns or themes that emerge, or topics that might find a new resonance for whatever reason. For this exhibition, however, the inspiration for using Western Homes and Living as source material came directly from Kiriko Watanabe, Assistant Curator at the West Vancouver Museum. Kiriko recommended Western Homes and Living as useful reference when I was designing a T-Shirt for their West Coast Modern Home Tour last year. I utilized it then for its architectural renderings, but was drawn also to the hand-illustrated advertisements, and revisited it this summer in preparing for this exhibition.
BAF: Are there any contemporary self-improvement trends or messages that you find especially fascinating, strange, or amusing?
KKA: There was a time when I fell down a wormhole of Instagram and YouTube make-up tutorials. I was fascinated by how ubiquitous and pervasive the language of these videos had become, seemingly overnight. From the intros, to the “getting right into the video”, every 10 year old AMUA (Aspiring Makeup Artist) worth their salt holds products in front of their hand so the viewer can read the label, and slowly blinks while tilting their head from side to side allowing us to view their finished makeup look.
See Kim Kennedy Austin’s ‘You, Only Better’ at BAF Gallery until December 16. Find us at 108 E Broadway, open Tuesday to Saturday, noon to five.