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Artist Aïda Ruilova Gets to the Black Heart of 50s Femininity and Death

We met up with the artist to talk about her new show 'The Pink Palace,' Jayne Mansfield, and her husband Raymond Pettibon.
February 23, 2016, 5:00am
All photos by the author

Aïda Ruilova's latest show, The Pink Palace, opened at Marlborough Chelsea and I went to it and took photos and talked to her about it. I first met Aïda Ruilova in 2009 in California while on a 12-hour double-date and interview with her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Raymond Pettibon. Aïda is talkative and outgoing while Raymond is friendly but quiet. They're both pretty activeon Twitter, and it's fun to witness their online back and forth.

Aida's opening was a star-studded affair. [Keith Mayerson](Keith Mayerson), my former SVA cartooning professor who is now a painter represented by Marlborough Chelsea, was there. We discussed David Bowie and the changing landscape of comics. He Instagrams photos he takes of the Empire State Building. I still use the lessons I learned in his class when critiquing people's work or thinking about my own.

Raymond's friend, Mark "The Gonz" Gonzalez, stood by the entrance while youngsters did floppy ollies in the gallery. I asked him what he thought about it, and he said that as long as they're having fun, that's the most important thing.

I don't know if the kids were trying to show off for the Gonz or if they had no concept that their bad skating was being benignly observed by one of the great skate deities.

I also saw this man drinking wine wearing purple gloves. Purple is the common color of the urban attention-seeker art goer. Purple ponchos and shawls, purple berets. Some people associate purple with lesbianism. Some other people associate with sexual repression. I wonder if the Joker wearing a purple suit is why Tim Burton's Batman movie made the Joker into an artist.

The majority of the pieces in The Pink Palace are collages of old exploitation movie posters combined with black velvet in the shape of flowers. There's also a giant black heart-shaped balloon, and a projection of a video in which Aïda is repeatedly jabbing her finger into her mouth.

The opening was a swell time, and a few days later I interviewed Aïda about the show. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. VICE: It's been a little while since your last show. I know that you had a child. You also mentioned that your father died. I would assume that both of those momentous life events are major themes of what's happening in the work in The Pink Palace.
Aïda Ruilova: I think this show is sort of an extension of my show I'm So Wild About Your Strawberry Mouth from a couple years ago. That show also focused on the body and its representation via images/advertisements but more as an escape from the body or as an altered state as location. The works in this show are focusing on the body and death. The materials are sort of a stand-in for the body—they're all extremely delicate and could easily fall apart. The collages are literally just hanging barely fastened to the black velvet, and I had those works purposely framed without glass so you could get a sense of the three-dimensional quality and their delicacy. My father was a surgeon. I think growing up around him and his work at the hospital, I had a different relationship to the body than most people. The interior of the body is dark, but if you light it up its pink. So there is this sort of mystery when it comes to our insides. The skin becomes the surface that binds us together.

You mentioned that the title of the show is referential to Jayne Mansfield's home, and the photo in your press release was a picture of her bedroom.
In the late 50s Jayne Mansfield bought a home that she painted pink on the inside and outside. The house was filled with kitschy pink shag rugs, pinks furs in the bathroom, a pink heart-shaped bathtub, a fountain spurting pink champagne, and a heart-shaped pool. I see the space she created as a place that represented all things feminine to her, and a sort of exaggeration of the 50s idea of femininity. The pictures of her in her home are funny and pretty amazing. But just looking at those pictures of her home makes me claustrophobic. I thought of her home as a metaphor for the body and I used the image of her bedroom for my exhibition image because of how strange it was that the bed had been covered with a black velvet cover.

When did the fascination with Mansfield start? She was a truly remarkable person who spoke five languages and had an IQ of 168.
It's funny, I remember first being obsessed with Marilyn Monroe when I was a young girl and getting both Marilyn and Mansfield mixed up. They were interchangeable for me. Different versions of the same thing… You could add Anna Nicole to that list also, I guess. Marilyn Monroe became the legitimate, Hollywood blond bombshell icon, though, in posterity, and Mansfield never really reached that legitimate stature. Shen ended up having a lot of kids and then died young in a tragic car accident. Her daughter Mariska Haritgay is on Law and Order, which is one of my favorite shows ever. She was in the backseat of the car along with her siblings when her mother was killed in the accident. My obsession with Mansfield was heightened because of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon. Anger brilliantly conflated fictional tabloid-like stories about celebrities, including Mansfield, but then would include a very real image of Mansfield's car crash scene.

Your show takes up the first three chambers of the downstairs gallery at Marlborough Chelsea. Did having three rooms to work with influence the work? Is there a three-act structure or narrative to the rooms?
I wanted the sound of my film in the back space to guide the feeling of the show. I like that idea of hearing a sound and not knowing exactly what it is, so that it leads you somewhere else. Also, the film becomes a sort of soundtrack for the entire show along with the sound of the air constantly inflating the heart.

It made me think about Disneyland, or a haunted house. The curiosity of the source of the sound leads you forward through a space. Walt Disney called this thing that lures you onward as "the weenie," like a hot dog on a stick that's used to lure a dog onward.
Wow, I never heard of the "weenie"—sounds kind of dirty. I guess you could liken that to Hitchcock's use of the term MacGuffin for the same type of thing.

It's a similar concept. In addition to three rooms, your show incorporates three mediums: the collages, the inflatable sculpture, and the large video projection. Did you plan the show knowing you wanted to incorporate this variety, or did it expand during the process of putting it together?
I shot the film first in 2014 and then worked on the collages and the last work I made was the inflatable sculpture. Once I knew the scale of the space I would be working in at the gallery, I scaled the sculpture to the space. I wanted the heart to look as if it is pushing against the walls so you could see its skin giving in to fit in the corner of the space. So it kind of mimicked the way our own skin shifts when we press against another body or surface.

The majority of your pieces are old movie posters for B-movies covered in carefully cut-out black velvet shapes resembling flowers. How did you arrive at this process? Did you have the posters already, or were you already cutting shapes out of black velvet?
I have been collecting posters and lobby cards and other film-related ephemera for years. But I didn't start actually using it to work on until a couple years ago, when I started painting on the film posters. For this show I cut into the actual posters and the process kind of gave me anxiety because the paper was so delicate since most of them are from the 60s or 70s. The cut works sort of drape over the black velvet in the frames and the florals turn into these deep voids.

For some reason I thought the velvet was on top of the posters.
The velvet is behind the cut posters—so it creates an illusion from a distance. Once you see the cut collages close up, then you notice the details and how it's put together… lots of hand work.

The giant inflatable sculpture is named Rocky. Do you feel like Rocky?
I found a Rocky poster made in Poland that had a graphic of a pair of conjoined boxing gloves to make a heart. The gloves were a gorgeous red, and I hope I can make it in red one day, but for this show I felt the black version made sense. The black version abstracts the shape of the gloves so you're not exactly sure what you're looking at until you see the sculpture dead on. Also I think the black version makes the heart have more a physiological look and makes the surface of the heart more seductive.

I watched Raymond amend the silkscreened title of your show with a pink pen, adding Ys so it appeared as he might write it out on Twitter. I heard it made the galley interns panic. How did you feel about it?
I'm so used to Ray drawing on the walls or any surface around us that it doesn't really faze me. I sort of expect it and I guess he felt he wanted to add something to the show? I wish I could have seen the gallery interns panicking—that would be funny. I feel bad though if they had to clean it up. Sorry, guys and gals, that my husband tagged the walls at my show. Thank god, my son wasn't there. He would have done the same thing.

The Pink Palace is up at Marlborough Chelsea until March 12, 2016.

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