Arts & Culture News

She Speaks: Michelle Rawlings on Controversial Empathicalism

If you want to hear about Michelle Rawlings' dad, you should head over to Unfair Park. The Dallas blogosphere went into a four-alarm, screaming alert last week at the announcement that the "Mayor's Daughter" had been chosen for a solo show at Oliver Francis Gallery that, it would seem, contains a wee bit of nudity. Or, kink. Or, well, it's hard to say, because no one has officially seen her show, Empathicalism, as a cohesive collection. Perhaps it was a slow news day. Or, maybe dildos still affect a bit of pearl-clutching in Big D. So, before we delve too deeply, let us boldly say: titties, peepees, dingdongs and marital aides. There, now. Is it out of our collective system? Can we talk about art again?

Rawlings inadvertently garnered so much buzz last week that the exhibition was "awarded" the Mixmaster's first "Blingee Award" (think: Razzie) for overexposure and political hysteria. We wondered if she was granted undue attention based on her familial connection and if she could stand on her own as an artist. Having only seen snippets of her art, online and out of context, it is difficult to tell if Empathicalism -- opening tomorrow at 6 p.m. -- is part of a profoundly philosophical avant-garde movement, or ... not.

But, if you haven't yet heard of Oliver Francis Gallery, you're not paying attention. Its 23-year-old wunderkind-owner, Kevin Rubén Jacobs, is the unconventional Golden Child of the Dallas arts scene and using an artist's famous last name for cheap publicity could not seem more antithetical to Jacobs' ethos. Focused on supporting experimental emerging artists, Jacobs isn't afraid to push a few buttons, all for the good of the order, and he is known for exhibiting young artists who feel that their perspective goes otherwise unheard in the community.

Of Empathicalism, Oliver Francis Gallery says:

The show title takes its name from a musical called 'Funny Face', in which a fictional philosophy called Empathicalism serves as a stand-in for Existentialism. As fiction, the philosophy is whatever is sounds like, or seems like, it is nothing but the projection of 'seriousness'. In the movie script, Empathicalism is defined as the experience of relating to other people without the use of language. The culture of Christianity is based upon a similar humanistic impulse and insubstantial wish: the impossible attempt to empathize with the Christ, the Virgin, or other Biblical characters. Theatricality becomes an essential part of this experience.

Rather than disingenuously furthering "Mayor's-Daughter-gate," we thought we'd get a few things straight from the artist and see if we could learn more about the "why" and "what for" when it comes to Empathicalism, as a whole. See our interview with gallery owner Kevin Rubén Jacobs and artist Michelle Rawlings, after the jump.

Mixmaster: Kevin, how did you first hear about Michelle's art?

Kevin Rubén Jacobs: I met Michelle while visiting my friend Francisco Moreno at the Rhode Island School of Design in March of 2011. They are both in the MFA Painting program up there. I was lucky enough to meet several grad students in their studios with works in progress, and Michelle's left a lasting impression on me. I knew I had to keep in contact and I immediately "bookmarked" her website to keep up with her work periodically. I was unaware that her father was involved in politics. I just knew she was from Dallas and a great artist that I wanted to keep up with. This show would have happened regardless of her father's involvement with the city. She is her own person.

Mixmaster: How does Empathicalism fit into OFG's overall mission?

Jacobs: Oliver Francis Gallery's mission is to present an environment in which an artist can push their ideas into existence, while having the flexibility to be a completely experimental. Each artist takes this opportunity in their own way, and with Michelle's show Empathicalism, she has decided to take a theatrical approach to the presentation of a carefully selected portion of her work dealing with identity, intentionality and manifold-history (personal, family, art history, etc. ...). All of which, through her sensibilities as an artist, warrant un-fractured attention.

Mixmaster: Michelle, what do you feel you are contributing to the Dallas arts scene that is currently missing? Michelle Rawlings: I don't feel that I have contributed anything yet, but I would be honored if I could. In answer to your question though, I don't see a lot of artwork being made by people who really know Dallas well and know what it's like to grow up here. The work I selected for this show functions in that way, by filling that absence. It's a bit self-critical.

Jacobs: OFG's programming has been actively supporting younger/emerging artists that may, or may not, be working on an MFA or who have just recently received a post-graduate degree. I don't mean to intentionally seek graduate students or "academic" types, but a lot what they learn or are involved with are current issues within contemporary art and society. That is what I am really after. Michelle exemplifies that.

Mixmaster: Aside from the pure pornographic shock value of representing one's (mayor) father decked out in bondage gear, what challenges can a viewer anticipate from the collection as a whole?

Jacobs: Well I wouldn't say that that piece carries "pornographic shock value" hmmm.. the challenge might be just that. Assumptions are overturned through the value of context and investigation. Michelle is very conceptually engaged with her work and she is fully aware of how each piece can and might be read initially, and how it could be taken after a more thorough interpretation. Whether that is challenging or fun is really the question.

Mixmaster: Michelle, we've only seen the work online -- do you use nudity and allusions to pornography in ways other than pure shock-and-discomfort?

Rawlings: It's interesting that when a work of art is funny, it seems to be taken less seriously as a work of art.

I'm not really sure what the value is of being able to be shocked in the first place. I think there is a distinction between the ability to be shocked and the ability to be sensitive. It is the later that is important and fragile. The former, (shock), is simply extra-personal. It is nothing but the manifestation of cultural values inverted, which in and of themselves are arbitrary. Shock functions like pain but for the cultural consciousness. (The words 'right' or 'wrong' can often be replaced with 'normal' and 'abnormal'.)

However, you also use the word discomfort. I think discomfort is productive, and important, because we feel alienated in our discomfort and have to navigate our way through those feelings. Discomfort is confrontational and it forces us to think. If my work made people feel uncomfortable I would be happy.

American culture is paradoxical in that it presents us with all of these sexualized images but then moralizes sexuality itself. I feel that being brought up in the U.S., I was brought up in a culture of confusing messages. That painting, ('Pin the Macho on the Man'), was taken from a real thing I saw, it was originally a poster. I went to visit my friend in New York and she still had this poster up from a party with girlfriends she had a few days earlier. I was interested in it because it is rarer to see examples of a male being shown as a sex object. We of course see this all of the time with women, even if its not explicitly about sex. That it was an image of a man and a game played by a group of women, turned that principle on its head. I liked how hostile it felt.

Mixmaster: Do your family members feel about being featured in this way?

Rawlings: My family has never been anything but supportive and open. They understand that being an artist means you have to make what feels interesting to you, and in that way, artistic decisions are amoral. Regarding my father, It is important to me that none of this deflects back on him because he gave me the courage to go into the arts in the first place. I'm also a younger artist, and I think making explicitly personal work is a valid stage of development. Usually work artists make in school isn't seen publicly to such an extent before its even been seen by a smaller audience of artists.

Empathicalism opens tomorrow night -- January 21 -- with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. at Oliver Francis Gallery, located at 209 S. Peak St. Say hello, see for yourself and let us know your thoughts on Monday.

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Brentney Hamilton