Looking for the Grotesque, on the road with Violet King
Written by Allie Monck
When asked to consider the grotesque, the strange, and the abnormal, I rarely find myself considering grandiose moments of repulsion and fear. Rather, I often recall hurrying past flattened rats on the street on my way home, watching someone step outside the subway car to take their smoke break as we zoom over the East River, and the like. These moments are bookended by a bizarre mundanity that often comes with paying close attention to one’s surroundings. How frequently do we shrug off these strange instances in order to maintain some sense of order?
A similar sense of haphazard nostalgia arose when I encountered Violet King’s photography, initially her “Goodwill Popsicle” and later work that in part constitutes a book project quaintly titled Wild Honey Pie. King explains that many of her photographs come from afternoons spent driving around the Hudson Valley with her friends, looking for something weird to catch their eye. Her work thus adopts a meandering familiarity, a notion that really anyone could happen upon a boat washed up on the shore of a forest or a frozen cube of trash in a parking lot. King also shoots almost exclusively on film, although she has had to make adjustments during the pandemic, reifying the evocative pull her photographs carry.
STP hopped on Zoom to chat with Violet about trash popsicles, her experiences growing up in Los Angeles versus moving up to Bard College in upstate New York, and making art from isolation.
Allie Monck: You submitted "Goodwill Popsicle" to the BFA Show. I remember hearing about it like, There's no way she found that, it doesn't make sense. Can you tell me more about the piece? Where you found it, how it came about?
Violet King: I went to Goodwill with my friends to see if there was anything interesting behind the Goodwill. I found this bucket and it had a huge ice cube with all sorts of stuff inside and I was like, Oh my god this is crazy, so weird. My friends and I brought it over into some good light, it was kind of hard to get it out of the bucket, we had to kick it and wiggle it a lot. It was a miraculous moment. We flipped it over, and it was this glistening monolith in the sun with all sorts of little tiny things [inside]. You keep looking at it and discover different layers and a whole little world inside of it… Tim Davis, who was my teacher last semester, was like you could totally just make these for the rest of your life, these trash popsicles, and show them in freezing cold rooms where everyone has to wear parkas or something. I was very excited about it. I went to the 99 cent store and bought a bucket and filled it with all sorts of junk I had collected throughout the week, filled it with water, and left it outside of my dorm but it wasn't cold enough that night so it didn't freeze. I left it there for a long time hoping it would get cold enough but it didn't.
AM: That's such a wild story, I can imagine all of you dumping it out and trying to arrange it.
VK: It was like a disgusting ice sculpture, it was so weird.
AM: It’s nice that it’s kind of gross, work with ice and water tends to be so pristine. How have you developed your understanding of what is grotesque, abnormal, strange? Where have you pulled from to define that for your work and your practice?
VK: There's that movie called Un Chien Andalou that is very strange. All sorts of weird dancing and then there's the famous scene, they cut the eyeball of someone with a razor blade. It's so shocking, it gets a gut reaction from everyone in the audience. So much of color photography is so aesthetically pleasing and so beautiful to look at, it's interesting to think about getting the opposite reaction from people. I haven't looked much into other people's photography on the grotesque, more of the strange… I guess the grotesque that I was working on, usually around Bard there was something weird and strange, off putting, or new to me. I found some grotesque stuff too and I'm really interested in that because it's such a strong emotion.
AM: Getting repulsed is so interesting. Being from L.A. and being back there now, versus being up at Bard, how do you feel the strange and the grotesque are different in each landscape? And similar?
VK: It's so different for me… Finding the strange in L.A. and around my area, we weren't supposed to leave the house at all, but I did anyway. I tried to do it when no one was around. I was looking into night photography, which was kind of creepy and strange, seeing the world in a way that is just so different from how you usually see it. The foliage of L.A., on my street there's these mangled cacti and just weird things that became more unfamiliar with me after going to Bard. I don't know, some weeks when I didn't go out and shoot and stayed inside, I had to make up something weird or create little situations with my seventeen year-old sister.
AM: That's interesting too, happening upon a situation versus staging one. I feel you kind of touched on this already in different ways, but thinking about the strange, there's something so mundane about it. I was wondering how the everyday and mundanity work in your art as well?
VK: When I came back here I shot this picture of a house with a white picket fence and it was so ordinary. When I showed it to my class though, I thought, Oh it's so weird! It's David Lynch, crazy! I don't know, I feel like there's no one mundane for everyone, because L.A. to me when I got back, was mundane and uninspiring. The Bard landscape, around that area, might be mundane to someone who grew up there but it's so interesting to me.
AM: That makes sense. I guess even the way you have to move around L.A. right now versus how you grew up is so different and the way we function everyday has morphed.
VK: It's giving us all worse anxiety, my social skills are gone, I'm really worried for everyone on Earth right now.
AM: That was such a poignant part of your artist statement for Wild Honey Pie that I really liked, addressing making work from isolation and being home. One thing that was interesting too, especially coming from art school, is how collaboration has shifted. Whether that be online classes or working with your sister, how isolation has shifted that collaboration for you?
VK: Not having anyone who's excited about making art together is kind of sad. I would always go on shooting trips at Bard with my friends, my friends and I would collaborate so much, especially in the last semester. With my sister I had to force her to work with me, I had to bribe her to do something. It was less collaboration and more she was a subject. Going on shooting trips alone here was so weird, I had gotten used to doing it with friends. Having to do it here, alone, during a pandemic, and at night was kind of scary. Just a completely different experience. Overall, I don't think this pandemic was good for my art, but we'll see.
AM: How’s Wild Honey Pie going?
VK: Our projects last semester, after everyone went home, were to make a book. I have a Google Slides presentation with a lot of photos from it, and I don't know how I'm going to go on… I haven't really gone through the book and edited it more, but I'm gonna do that. I'm going to drive back to school, the classic photographer's road trip across America. I'm going with friends, one of whom is also in Bard photo, so that should be fun… I hope on the drive we can inspire each other, excite each other. I'm not sure if it'll fit into Wild Honey Pie or not or if I'll just make a completely new project. I'm very excited for the future.