In Conversation with Ventiko
By KOFI FORSON, SEPT. 2014
Originally taught to use a Pentax K 1000 by her father at age 9, Ventiko honed her craft while apprenticing under maestro Tony Clevenger in Indianapolis, Indiana prior to moving to NYC in 2008. Her work focuses on the (re)construction of moments not in time but in thought to express social positions on sexuality, persona and the state of the modern woman. Her graphic depictions of sexuality and femininity are out-rightly inspired by painter Artemisia Gentileschi and the sensationalism found in David La Chapelle’s photography. These photographs have been prominently exhibited internationally in Korea, London, Spain, New York, LA and Indianapolis in both art fairs and exhibitions hanging next to legends Herb Ritts, Peter Beard, Andy Warhol, Renaissance painter Titian among others. Her first solo show in 2013, Ventiko: The Other World at Coohaus art in Chelsea, NYC, received international press both online and in print.
I came across Ventiko by word of mouth. Avoiding the Saturday crowd, we met over apple pie with sour cream and a lattes within the outdoor seating area of New York City's Yaffa Café. I soon discovered that Ventiko is a woman of the sea! She is an avid surfer and much like the mermaid, she evokes natural concern for beauty in the female.
Kofi Forson: It’s a small world isn’t it?
Ventiko: Yes it is!
Forson: I believe you were present at my opening at the Sky Light Gallery in Chelsea.
Ventiko: I sure was. David La Chapelle was having an opening the same night, on the same street. I kept being drawn back to your show; it was well presented strong work.
Forson: That’s quite a compliment. New York City is such a small community of artists, seems like every one knows each other. Is there a sisterhood?
Ventiko: The sisterhood has moved to the electronic realm - we’re all blessed and cursed by social media.
Forson: Given your maneuverability, New York City as a whole certainly helps your vision as an artist.
Ventiko: It’s the various artists and people I come into contact with. You never know when inspiration is gonna hit. It can be something someone says. It can be the way someone moves. It can be anything. So for me, by taking a moment to observe others (I love to observe people, especially when they don’t know I’m doing it), I can learn so much more about myself, the human condition and human nature - it’s trite but true.
Forson: You explore this rather well in your work, the human condition, where we are at once defiant, stereotyped by sexual divinity but then there’s the ability to be seduced by pain and anguish.
What were you photographing in your earlier work before the manifestation into Baroque and Renaissance inspired art?
Ventiko: With my early props I explored recognizable archetypes, I was very literal. Later my relationship with the photographic image became more metaphorical and subtle through confrontational imagery. What I mean by that is, I’m digging deeper now. I’m looking at expectation and flipping it on its head. I’m looking at societal norms and flipping them. Through this journey I’ve been working hard at developing my own consistent visual language.
Forson: This is a crucial element of your work, the use of props. There’s a conscientious usage of the grotesque, like the carcasses.
Ventiko: Some of my favorites are heads, cow and pig heads. I’ve put them on my roof and left them there for four weeks so the rain would aid with the deterioration of the flesh. One of my neighbors put a note up that said, “Please don’t leave your trash or animal heads on the roof…” Haha… Which I thought was pretty funny. I put up a little picture of a cow and a pig. I still have these heads and carcasses in my freezer. They keep re-appearing in my work. By incorporating them in various stages of decay they show the passage of time.
Forson: There’s also the influence from the Dutch masters. How is that implemented?
Ventiko: It begins with the lighting and color palette. The Baroque and Renaissance artists influence the compositions, tone of muscles, tension, sculptural poses and also the significant gestures which keep the eye moving throughout the composition to communicate the intended message. If the viewer’s eyes never stop moving, by continuing to revisit the symbolism and archetypes hopefully they begin to penetrate just a little bit more into their consciousness, e.g. the BAM subway ad “and it just hits you”.
Forson: With all of this as a source of inspiration, who are some of the artists you draw from?
Ventiko: I really like Edward Steichen, a photographer and I love David La Chapelle. We draw our source material and inspiration from the same epochs and both have a fondness for naughtiness.
Forson: How about painters?
Ventiko: I love Caravaggio and of course, Artemisia Gentileschi. She is amazing the way she underwent torture by the sibille for a “love” affair, which permanently damaged her hands. The way she prevailed while having a tumultuous home life (a husband with a gambling problem, who she really didn’t love) while coexisting with all these male painters. She continued to incorporate herself in the work and draw from her personal experience. She continued to be honest about this work, taking it to another level, so it’s not just religious. It’s not just figurative. It actually means something (more). Everyone knows the story about her Judith(s), right?
Forson: What were her male counterparts saying at this time?
Ventiko: They were doing the same thing, but to a lesser degree. Caravaggio included himself in the compositions. And there was a painting in which the perspective of the viewer first saw the sole of a foot of an actual peasant in a chapel. Completely taboo. That painting actually was pulled down because it was so rude. It was so offensive. It was so wrong.
Forson: Can you give me another example?
Ventiko: Caravaggio was the first to show the back of an angel. As far as Michelangelo, I love the monumentalism and masculinity of his figures. Michelangelo was a funny guy: the sun and the moon (a man’s tushy) in the middle of the Sistine Chapel, nice one.
Forson: One can then speculate that your narrative has elements of religion.
Ventiko: I grew up Jewish. Then there’s the eating of the host (Jesus), my biological father was Methodist. He brought me to church, encouraged me to eat the body of Christ and drink the blood of Jesus. I was confused. The expectation was that I was born of sin. In the Jewish faith my grandparents were Orthodox. Your body determines your role. I somehow learned as a young child I had to ask questions but not to understand or agree with the answers.
Forson: You brought up the idea of how Gentileschi incorporated herself in her work. You do the same. Are you a self-muse? Do you have an alter-ego? Are you a performance artist?
Ventiko: For me and I think most people, scratch that - everyone, we all have different elements within ourselves. The performance comes constantly when we leave our homes, when we leave our sanctuary, when we go out into the world and have to interact with others. Simultaneously, everyone is in this performative state. Today I have a blue feather in my ear. I have a flowy dress. And therefore I feel I can be a bit more of the goddess. Some days I feel I have to be very toned down and very quiet. My gestures and behaviour reflect what I’m wearing, it is my costume.
Forson: Therein lies your femininity. What are your views on being a woman in this post-post feminist state?
Ventiko: I really wish I had no genitals. They’re so distracting. I want to be like a Barbie doll. There’s nothing down there. It’s just a smooth curve. That’s what I want. I don’t mind having breasts. They’re there. I hope I don’t get breast cancer because I’m not quite sure I want to have an amputation…
Forson: Are you feminist?
Ventiko: I feel that I am a feminist and I’m not a feminist. I’m quite concerned with equality and I don’t care if it’s for males or females. We all desire and deserve the same thing. As far as sex, I feel there’s such an emphasis on preference. Who cares? What you do behind closed doors is not relevant to me. I also try to explore that in the pictures - different lifestyles. As a single woman, I live it (sexuality) daily. I don’t take time to reflect on that. I’m so busy experiencing it. It is who and what I am right now. The expectation of marriage, I don’t believe a piece of paper represents happiness or the joining of two souls. Yet, I don’t necessarily think it’s outdated. There’s something sweet and endearing about customs.
Forson: In exploring sex further, it’s almost evident that you’re honoring polyamory and the LGBT community.
Ventiko: Good. Things aren’t how we were taught. I think it’s important to look at (my) upbringing, schooling and education. I grew up in the mid-west. I’m white. The majority of my teachers were white. The way we learned about our legacy is from the white European perspective. But there’s so much more in the world. There’s so much that needs to be included. By including different experiences and people, the work becomes more relevant and truer.
Forson: Your models are made up of friends, lovers or whomever.
Ventiko: Yeah, for example one of my favorite models is this woman Tangerine. She is so voluptuous and she has this really great hair. If she doesn’t tame it, it’s a massive afro. So many times Venus is represented as this curvy but thin white woman. And that’s just not accurate. So by flipping the typical stance, the pose (instead of having the head on the left from the viewer’s perspective and the feet on the right I flipped it horizontally) and with her laying on a wedding dress rather than in a wedding dress while having her dreaming but her fake eye lashes visible, it not only modernizes it, it makes it real.
Forson: There’s a strong sense of fashion in your work. Does haute couture inspire you? Is Alexander McQueen an influence?
Ventiko: Alexander McQueen was a baddass. Creativity is a solution for me, that and the execution of ideas. When my mother was suffering from breast cancer I used to sew these milk cartons onto fabric to make wearable sculptures because it was a repetitive act - zen inducing. McQueen was an influence in his embracement of the obsessive/compulsive composition. It was almost insidious… “sew, sew, sew, perfection, perfection”. Like back in the Victorian era, he sewed hair into the hem of a garment that nobody else knew was there except the wearer. Indeed there is an
appreciation of the couture design.
Forson: What is the staging process like?
Ventiko: The first thing I always do is gather inspiration. It comes from everything around me, paintings, sculptures, design etc. I create a mood board and add photos of the people who are going to be the characters, the focus the muses. Expressions, lighting inspiration (usually chiaroscuro), and my own photos allow me to focus and communicate my vision to the models, they get a sense of the energy I want to portray.
Next, I pull whatever I’m going to be working with (fabric, props, costumes etc) and organize them on the floor.
Then I lay down, close my eyes and ask to do the work I was meant to do and to honor those that came before. (Don’t judge, it works for me.) My mom says it’s called focusing.
I start with the background first and build outwards. Sometimes when I’m creating a set it doesn’t work out at all. And I have to start over.
By building out I have all these layers and I know where I’m going to place everyone. Depending on what I’m communicating, I then compose the bodies (yes, living dolls). I step back, adjust the lighting and then hop on set myself. I shoot blind, which means I don’t see what I’m shooting. To keep everyone present and in the moment I don’t use a screen or mirrors, I just direct “boom, boom, boom…” and the dolls come to life. And it’s work. From the pictures they look luscious and sexual but it is SO much work.
We shoot for ten minutes then break. Everyone then sees what the camera sees and with that comes the desire to execute their character more and into believability. The insecurities wain. I tweek the poses, shoot again and we look at them. Everybody is relaxed and wants to make the perfect shot. If we haven’t gotten it yet we shoot one more time. If the poses aren’t perfect in one frame and/or I’ve been in the image several times as different characters, Photoshop becomes necessary. (Groan...the ultimate nemesis of my process)
Forson: The voyeuristic aspect of your work is unavoidable, commentary on the media and body politics, challenging extremes of the nude body, art versus smut. Is film the next step? Your work reminds me of Peter Greenaway.
Ventiko: Aaah, Peter Greenaway. And Fellini… Where would I be without the masters? Where would I be? Time will tell. Only time will tell. WM
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Kofi Forson is a writer, POET and PLAYWRIGHT living in NYC. His current blog is BLACK COCTEAU, a mixture of philosophy and art on modern culture.