"Twenty-six days," Mona Superhero says to me in the bar at clarklewis, as we down the first of several screwdrivers.
She reaches up to her neck, pulls down her pink coat and rock-band tee, and flashes me a bit of breastbone—and a patch. The patch. "Twenty-six days without smoking," she clarifies. "Sometimes I used to smoke three-and-a-half packs a day! I'm frazzled. Plus I'm working nonstop getting ready for the show, and I didn't sleep well last night, and…it's been crazy!"
But a good crazy. Superhero's album art-meets-Byzantium tableaux, intricately fashioned from multicolored adhesive tapes, have made a splash in Seattle and New York in recent months, and now the artist is back in Portland, debuting 13 new pieces at Gallery 500. The onetime cabaret dancer and co-founder of Danzine magazine has matured into a focused but conspicuously publicity-shy artist, and tonight's interview is one of her first face-to-face sit-downs with the dreaded press.
WW: So where do you get all those wildly colored duct tapes?
Superhero: I've got a guy. Matt Coppo, Winston Tape Company here in town. But it's not just duct tape. It's utility tape, strapping tape, masking tape, cloth tape, copper tape, gold foil tape…I have this camouflage tape that's neat, but you can't use too much of it; it's too busy; it'll drive you nuts. Some of the tapes are rare or have been discontinued, and I have stashes of them that I hoard. I was saving this one roll for three years, using a tiny bit at a time, and I just used up the last bit of it today on a portrait of my boyfriend.
Do people get worried when they buy your pieces that the tape's going to peel off?
Yes. Everybody wants to know if it's archival. "Is it archival, is it archival?" Of course it is! There was a gallery owner who asked me that question as soon as she met me, before she even said hello. Archival, archival, I hate that word! Listen, I lay the tapes down on MDF, multidensity fiberboard, that has a vinyl coating so the tapes adhere, and after they're on, I varnish the pieces eight times. Now, should you put them in your bathroom with all the steam? No. Should you put them in direct sunlight in the middle of the summer? No. But that's common sense; you don't do that to any art.
Where are you from, anyway?
I was born in Abilene, Texas, and moved to Austin when I was 12. I also lived in Butte, Mont., and Richmond, Va., for a while. From 1993 to 2002 I was a dancer on and off. That's the period when I did Miss Mona's Cabaret Show here in Portland.
Where was that—which venue?
Different places in town. It was great. But we're not going to sit here all night long and talk about my stripping, are we?
No, I only brought it up to ask whether you feel any connection between dancing and what you do now, making art.
Hmmm. Yes, actually there are similarities between the two. It's like a total Zen experience, both of them.
Looking over your newest work in your studio, I can see you've gotten more complex in your imagery and your technique.
Thanks. I want to lavish more attention on less pieces. My dream would be to spend an entire year on a single one, make it a total masterpiece, but there's just not enough time. I've had a show every six months since I started doing this three years ago, so there's always more work to be done.
I get a sense of the fantastical in your work, a pastiche, with all the kanji characters and skeletons, the horses in white John Travolta suits…. Where do you find your inspiration for all this stuff?
From Mark Twain quotes and vintage Playboy centerfolds and old wallpaper and things I dream about: snakes and sharks and kittens…it's all candy color and butterfat! Lately, I've been getting up early in the morning to try to capture what the dawn sky looks like. I've always liked to draw faces, ever since elementary school, and I like to show people doing things, which is why I use roller-skating imagery. Roller-skating—I take it as my personal religion. I also put little icons in the backgrounds, things that represent other things.
And what about the conjoined twins you seem to return to? Do they have a certain symbolism?
It's obvious, isn't it?
I don't know about those. All I can say about them is, they're beyond my control.
They're beyond my control.
Pat MacDonald is flying in to play the First Thursday opening party at the gallery. First set 8-9:30 pm, second set 10:15 pm-midnight, Thursday, Feb. 3. Free.