Today we’re sharing a Q & A with artist Arden Cone. Featuring richly adorned southern belles in opulent surroundings, Arden plays with traditional modes of representation in painting by combining oils with spray paint and alternative substrates to take on a tense subject matter. Arden’s work is deeply entwined with the social and racial history of the South, focusing in particular on her adopted hometown of Charleston.
A native of South Carolina, Arden attended Hollins University in Roanoke, VA where she studied painting and is currently an MFA candidate at Boston University. She has completed multiple artist residencies and her work has been exhibited in several venues on the East Coast.
What inspired you to pursue painting and what shaped your current body of work? Why did you choose painting as your medium?
For whatever reason, I gravitated towards painting as a young art student. My mother, a sculptor, had always encouraged me to draw, and painting seemed to be the next logical step.
Up until the end of 2014, this seemed like an adequate answer to the question of why I make paintings. Then, in November of that year, a critic saw my work and challenged me to think deeper. She simply asked: “Why paint?”
I had no answer. Frustrated, I abandoned oil paints and worked on a project using spray paint and hand-carved stencils. This act was liberating, and it was the birth of my current practice, a process involving stencils, spray paint, and oil paint.
I came to my current body of work through my experiences as a tour guide in Charleston. I delved into the history of the city, and, doing so, I learned about my ancestors’ social, political, and economic involvement in the young colony. Knowing that my familial ties to Charleston began in 1690 made me feel at home in the city, but it also left me ill at ease: my ancestors built an empire off of slave labor. My current body of work is a response to these conflicting feelings.
There is a play between ornate pieces of furniture and other decorative arts and elaborate women’s clothing that references the Antebellum in your work. In one painting a dress even turns into drapes, taking on a sculptural quality. Can you talk about the iconography you are building in these works?
The imagery in my work can be read as the vestiges of the Antebellum South. As iconography, the elaborately carved chairs, debutante dresses, and hoop skirts—all of which romanticize the era’s decadence—are both beautiful and problematic. Let’s face it: they are the glimmering tokens spit from a slot machine called “the peculiar institution.” Slave labor in. Tokens out.
I relate the experience to touring a house museum. Take a walk through an impeccably restored antebellum house and you’re more likely to appreciate the precious heirlooms than the slaves that made them possible. Is it okay to appreciate both?
Your current body of work, Gilt-Laden, takes on a play on words with the idea of opulence versus guilt. Can you speak to the importance of language to your work?
You’ve caught on to a subtle idea that flows through my work. Though I rarely include text in my paintings, language is a driving force. My creativity first comes to me through words and is later translated into images. My sketchbooks are filled with writings. I will stumble upon a phrase, write it down and dwell on it for hours. I write it down repeatedly, connect it to other ideas, and hope that images will follow.
You take on a tense and racially fraught subject matter in your paintings and there is a push and pull between past and present that represents a microcosm of the South. Would you speak to how this plays out in your work?
Race is a difficult matter to address, and I’ve learned a lot about the do’s and don’ts of broaching the subject. Even though art is a platform used for pushing the boundaries, certain issues must be treated with sensitivity. Because of the human crimes my ancestors committed, I’m judged as being on the wrong side of history. My ancestors left 6,000 slaves voiceless, and this needs to be rectified. As a result, I have to be careful to tell my story, not theirs.
There is a pull between past and present in my work. The imagery is past; the issues are present. William Faulkner said, “In the South, the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I’ve lived in the South my whole life, and I find this to be on point. We cannot address the present day issue of race without sorting through the rubble of our colonial sins.
Your aesthetic feels rooted in art history, with references to Impressionism and Expressionism, yet the themes you take on are contemporary ones addressed daily in the media. Can you speak to this juxtaposition?
I completed my undergraduate studies at Hollins University, where I received a very solid, traditional education in the arts. This informed much of my current painting style. I love rendering representational works, but I need to add intrigue! This is where Photoshop comes in handy. I assemble virtual collages with layers upon layers, connecting disparate images into one believable yet imaginative composition. Once I have my composition worked out, I translate it to spray paint and then oil paint. I find this to be a compelling way to talk about contemporary issues.