Tara McPherson | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Tara McPherson

The Art of Science

Apr 22, 2009 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

There seems to be an alien chirruping from deep inside Tara McPherson's phone as she fields questions about her latest book from Dark Horse Comics. The large coffee table volume aggregates her various paintings, sculptures, art prints and rock posters. "Yeah, I need to get a new phone," she titters. The incessant E.T. could possibly be one of the strangely beautiful characters that populate Lost Constellations: The Art of Tara McPherson Volume II, or any of the various iterations she's created for clients as far-ranging as DC Comics and Spin Magazine to the Knitting Factory and Nike. After receiving a BFA from Art Center in Pasadena, CA, McPherson started her career in rock poster art for musicians such as Beck, Modest Mouse, The Decemberists and Melvins, but she has slowly introduced her animated personality into the stifling world of fine art. "I still like the challengers of working in both worlds," she acknowledges from her New York City studio. Under the Radar overcame the cell phone extraterrestrials to talk about life beyond the heart-shaped hole, her love of astronomy, why she doesn't want to be a Futurama animator, and what exactly is on the syllabus for her class entitled "The Dark Side."

You're doing some work for the All Tomorrow's Parties event The Breeders are curating this year, right?

Yeah, I did the poster and all the merchandise behind it like the passes and the wristbands, the booklet and the shirts. It's just outside of London and they're flying me out there. I designed a toy named Dolby for that and also a tape cassette character. It's this limited edition thing they're doing for the event. The posters have a girl riding a flying bunny.

Congratulations on Lost Constellations II. I'm not sure if you've done this in the past, but many of the triptychs in the book use oil on birch as the medium. Are you slowly gravitating towards that medium or has it always been a mainstay for you?

I've used acrylic on birch for a really long time and I kind of made the switch to oils. I worked with oils in college but since I'm doing more fine art work-especially with my solo show last February and March at the Jonathan Levine Gallery in New York-switching to oils was a conscious decision for me because I wanted more freedom with the medium. I wanted to blend and experiment more and just go back to oils. I've always painted on birch just because historically when you go to museums and see old paintings that were painted on wood from the 12th century they're not cracked and in pretty good condition. Then paintings from the 17th century are completely cracked and all funky looking because they're on canvas. I paint on wood for the longevity of the pieces. I hope 500 years from now my art will still be around to look at.

I wanted to ask about Flat Stock 20. How are you involved?

Flat Stock 20 is the big poster convention. It's amazing it's the twentieth year, I was at the first one too. I just finished the poster for the event. It's a gathering of all the best poster artists from America and Europe. It's free to the public. That happens three times of year. There's one in Seattle during Bumbershoot, which I miss because it's during the first week of classes that I teach. There's one during the first week of September in Germany that I always go to and now they're starting to have them during the Pitchfork Festival.

How many classes do you teach at Parsons the New School for Design?

I just teach one. I used to teach Concept Illustrations but now this term I am teaching my own class. It's this elective for juniors and seniors called "The Dark Side."

What does that class entail? Do you team-teach with Darth Vader? 

[Laughs] Basically, it's showing students that there is a forum for art that is more personal and darker than the commercial world, as well as the fine art world. I want to show them those bridges are closing in as we go along. I hope my example shows that it's possible to have truly personal art that is also marketable.

Speaking of darker art, in your collection there's a piece called The Guilt Will Eat You Alive...If You Let It. I was interested in what your conception process was for that?

I had to do four paintings for a show and the theme that gallery suggested was called "Inside Nostalgia." It was about those that are alive that miss the dead and those that are dead that miss the living. For The Guilt Will Eat You Alive I've done that girl with a heart-shaped hole before but it was usually more lighthearted. I wanted to elaborate on that more and put it into a painting. Most of my posters are dark but there's a whimsical tinge to them. With the paintings I feel like I can delve in deeper and have it more personal. It was really fun to do and when I finished I wasn't really sure if it would sell because it's really fucked up. It was actually the first one to sell at the show.

I was looking through your history on your website and noticed you worked on Futurama as an intern at Rough Draft Studios. How was your experience in the animation realm?

When I was in college, I took a term off to do an internship at  Futurama. I had so much fun doing it that I ended up taking two terms off. It was such a valuable experience learning how an animation studio functions. I assisted everyone from the producers, directors, layout editors, character designers, and colorists. It was so much fun but I realized I do not want to be an animator. [Laughs] It's too repetitive. It's so not fun. It's not for me but I learned the character design element from them and how to do proper turnarounds for characters. Seeing the line quality of all the drawings really helped me too.

Tell me about your interest in astronomy. What's the importance of choosing Constellations as the name of your art book?

 I left high school early to go to public college. Their art classes were full so I ended up taking astronomy. I've always had an interest towards science. I took that class and fell in love with astronomy so much that I changed my major. I ended up taking all these astronomy classes and math too, which I hate. I was the president of the astronomy club. I loved it. It fascinates me still, but then I had this moment of realization, 'Do I really want to sit in an observatory my whole life logging data?' I flipped back to art. It was my destiny. I still have a strong affinity for astronomy so I incorporate as many space scenes into my artwork as much as I can. I feel all of my characters don't exist on this world. They're definitely from another planet or another universe. The Fractioned Second is based on Einstein's Cross theory. It's where you have a really bright object in your viewpoint directly behind a really massive object like a black hole. What happens is gravity bends the light. Einstein only theorized it but it was proven recently. So you see the original object directly in front of the black hole but you also see these four duplicities of the star in a cross formation. I took that and aesthetically decided to not put them in a cross. It's about the inability of seeing something from every angle but the possibility of it actually happening. It's a moment of time broken down.

I know you have several tattoos. Are there any interesting stories attached to them?

I like to pick tattoos that will be timeless. I don't pick any tribal tattoos or anything. Like I just finished my back and it's this underwater scene with a jellyfish, a geisha and all these sea creatures. For my whole life I've been really scared of the ocean but as I get older I force myself to go swimming at the beach. I feel like I've come closer to conquering that fear. I got the jellyfish tattoo right where I got stung by one.

That gives some more meaning to the triptych The Weight of Water.

With a lot of my paintings I deal with water and with that series I wanted show it in all its forms: gaseous, solid and liquid. I wanted to capture the cycle of life. I'm still exploring that scene. There's so many connotations that water can have.

Our world is often obsessed with youth culture, some would have even gone as far as calling it neomania. How do you see your paintings as an extension of, or alternative to that, since they often depict young females?

More recently I've been depicting older females but there is that Somewhere Under the Rainbow series where the art was specifically young girls. I make a point not to sexualize them. I think a lot of artists depict younger characters in provocative [ways]. I won't name any artists but there are a lot of them out there. Where do you draw the line with that?

That's interesting that you say that because although many of your characters you paint or draw are nude I don't see them in a sexual light. It's almost as though they need to be naked to show where they are personally.

As I create more work that's intended for galleries I just feel the inclination to be the mirror for the inner world. I've always been influenced by the human form. There's so much to be said that way. Also going back to the quality of being timeless, sometimes I don't want clothing and any accessories to put my characters into a certain timeframe. I want to strip them of any artifice. You won't look at a character and go, 'Oh she's from 1999.'

I just read PopGun Volume 3 and saw the Laughing Through The Chaos Of It All [cover image you did]. Did you select that as the cover or did Image Comics?

I had to make some paintings for an exhibition and they wanted me to do the cover and I told them, "I'll do the cover if you don't art direct me and I'll do what I want." I decided to combine the projects. Their only requirement was that she had to have headphones of some sort on. I love anthologies; it's like a mix tape!

What are your plans for toys?

I have my own figure set coming out on April 23rd. That's 12 different characters of mine. They are 3 or 4 inches tall. I'm really excited about that. I've done a lot of platform toys but this will be cool to make my own. I can't wait to hold them in my hands. It will be a limited run.

How did your artwork, such as the Unicorn Girl print and your Melvins poster appearing in [the movie] Juno come about?

The producers contacted me and wanted to use my artwork for the film. They sent me the script and I said yes. I really had no idea it was going to be in such a major scene where Juno tells her best friend that she's pregnant. It's great my concept fit the scene in the film so well. It's almost like that art was made specifically for that scene.





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April 23rd 2009

She is amazing!

June 22nd 2009

I like the way showed us, the idea of drawing and the color. Lost Constellations consists solely of McPherson’s paintings, sketches, poster art…Nice post Kyle..

July 3rd 2009

I’m a big fan of her artwork too! it’s fantastic and fabulous….

July 10th 2009

Tara, This is beautiful artwork, it really speaks to me and inspires me.

rc helicopter
December 17th 2009

Really nice art works. thanks for sharing about taramcpherson.

June 8th 2010

Love this art Tara… it is pretty but there is a darker edge that makes it very interesting. The women’s faces are beautiful.

August 27th 2010

I had to make some paintings for an exhibition and they wanted me to do the cover and I told them, “I’ll do the cover if you don’t art direct me and I’ll do what I want.” I decided to combine the projects. Their only requirement was that she had to have headphones of some sort on. I love anthologies; it’s like a mix tape!
oil paintings reproductions

September 19th 2014

Hello Tara, I brought my daughter, Thea, to your appearance in Foyles-London in 2006.  Now matird into a talented illustrator and artist herself, living in vibrant Brighton - she’s due to fly across the ‘Pond’ this Monday, 22 Sept. 2014 to stay one week in Brooklyn NY. Having won tickets to NO DOUBT’s concert, Central Park - 27th Sept.  I know she’s asked you to sign her latest two books of your art. And is thrilled to have the chance to visit your gallery.
I too love your art/creations - love astronomy and work at The Science Centre, East Sussex, England. Where there are magnificent giant telescopes housed in massive domes that slide open to the night skies! (A truly on-off and fascinating place, which tingles the imagination. My hobby is art and all things creative
and have encouraged Thea to have belief in herself and her huge talent. Ver best wishes.  TRUDIE HARMAN

Tom Glassy
September 26th 2018

Some masterpieces are enough to hang them on the wall and the entire room will look different. But others, like the functional fine art pieces can be useable inside or outside the house. Spending time with the family have become more interesting and just a piece of art can start interesting conversations.

Tom Glassy
September 26th 2018

Some masterpieces are enough to hang them on the wall and the entire room will look different. But others, like the functional fine art pieces can be usable inside or outside the house. Spending time with the family have become more interesting and just a piece of art can start interesting conversations.