One recent morning in Tara McPherson’s Bed-Stuy studio, the artist’s easel was loaded with sketches of two nearly identical girls connected by a sparkling rainbow springing from inside their heads. The drawing was also on her iMac, where she had been working on a color mockup in Photoshop. A finished 12 x 12 painting, she explained, was due the following Monday for “Dreamlands,” a group show now open at Corey Helford Gallery in Los Angeles.
The image started off as an interpretation of McPherson’s relationship with a close friend. “When we’d have the same thought, we’d always be like RAINBOW!” she told me. “You know, there’s this mental connection that close friends have, almost bordering on psychic.”
McPherson, who turned 39 on Tuesday, became the “crown princess of poster art” thanks to her fantastic handbills for bands like Faith No More, Jesus Lizard and the Melvins. These days, her paintings sell for thousands of dollars. Four years ago today, she opened Cotton Candy Machine, named after the profession she listed when filling out forms: “eye candy maker.” Since some of that eye candy was printed on cotton t-shirts, she came up with Cotton Candy and added Machine for a touch of grit. The juxtaposition is true to her paintings, where sweet pastel colors are set off against a pitch-black sky. They’re at once sweet and creepy, placing beautiful female subjects in precarious situations and trippy environments.
“Tara delivers some tough messages all wrapped up in a nice candy shell with a one-two punch,” her friend, painter Lori Nelson, told me. “You’ll see a woman whose aquiline beauty calls out to you, but then, when you come closer, you see that her heart has been removed — she has a gaping hole in her chest in which you can spy the meaty cross-section of her flesh.”
“To me, she is the queen of cotton candy wet dreams,” said erotic artist Tina Lugo.
Growing up in Los Angeles, McPherson was always playing with a microscope. “Learning… experimenting…science has a lot of parallels with the art world,” she observed. After attending magnet programs in the arts at school, she enrolled in astronomy courses in college because the art classes she wanted to take were already full, and eventually changed her major to astrophysics. Though she’d end up getting a BFA in art, her “true calling,” science still informs her work, and she often flips through copies of Scientific American, National Geographic and various astronomy magazines for inspiration.
For her “Lost Constellations” show in 2008, McPherson created a three-part series called “Weight of Water” where an auburn-haired woman with a heart-shaped hole in her chest finds herself first amidst an electrical storm and then in a lake that she’s ultimately frozen inside of. “I was equating these girls to the water molecule,” McPherson explained. “The water molecule is going through this evolution, from liquid to solid, and no matter what state the water molecule is in, it still retains its integrity as a water molecule.” The idea is that we break down into different forms to function properly as our life scenarios evolve.
Her latest solo series, “Supernova,” combines deep space and characters with hollow chests and heads that emit stars and sparkles. Just as a supernova signifies the death of a star, this series portrays the cycle of creation, destruction and chaos.
McPherson planned to reprise the celestial imagery for her rainbow-conjoined girls. “The rainbow is going to be glowing, and illuminated,” she revealed.
Having transformed her Williamsburg studio into Cotton Candy Machine, McPherson now paints out of a brightly lit room in her Bed-Stuy brownstone. These days, her schedule is rigorous: her three-year-old son, Ronan, wakes up at 7am and is at school by 8:30pm. She paints from 9am to 2:30pm on weekdays, turning the weekends over to Ronan. “I love the way he slowed me down,” she said. But she also has to use her working hours more wisely now. “If I want to do the right amount of work I want to get done, I have to get started,” she said as ’70s Brazilian rock played in the background. “I have to be aware, I can’t be on the computer too much.”
The twins McPherson painted were clad in a space-age sort of uniform meant to show that they were working toward a common goal, but most of her characters are nude. “I love our bodies,” she explained. “Clothes really tie it to a specific time and place; to me it’s not important.” Still, they wear impeccable make-up, as well as face paint meant to represent “the feminization of a masculine thing” (namely, the sort of face paint metal bands wear).
Sean Leonard, McPherson’s partner in life and in Cotton Candy Machine, believes she renders her characters with depth, “the way old masters would paint.” “There’s something in Tara’s work that has so much emotion, that really connects with people in a way I think a lot of artists don’t, because they’re not trying to tap into that emotion,” he told me.
With her attraction to the human figure, McPherson speaks fondly of Renaissance masters, mannerist portraiture (she loves Bronzino’s skin tones), Japanese prints, and the way Klimt merged Japanese and Western traditions.
During her college years, she worked at an anime store in Los Angeles, where she became influenced by the works of Katsuya Terada, anime series like Ghost in the Shell and Neon Genesis Evangelion, and the output of Studio Ghibli. She was fascinated by ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Elements of Japanese folklore, including deep-sea creatures like Umibozu, permeate her work. The title of one of her projects, “Bunny in the Moon,” refers to the legend of a bunny who sacrificed himself to a hungry man (actually a deity in disguise who sent the bunny’s ashes flying to the moon).
McPherson also loves the “flatness and awkwardness” of early Christian-era paintings; working in their tradition, she’s used silver leaf to highlight the shimmer of celestial elements. “The gold for me is a little much. Palette-wise, I kind of hate yellow,” she said. Instead, her paintings show a predilection for a combination of aquamarine, teal and coral pink hues, steering toward neon. “They’re magic!” she says of the colors. “I try and vary, but there’s certain times where you’re in this pocket and you want to explore deeper into the vibe before I move on and do something else.”
“School never ends,” is how she describes her growth as an artist. She’s currently searching for a balance between leaving things flat and rendering them out for depth. “When I look at my older work, I am so frustrated with it,” she said. “Conversely, it’s very important to look to your past works, to not forget what you were drawn to back then.” She’ll even take notes on valid elements in those past works. For one thing, she wants to return to her past penchant for patterned, rather than monochrome, backgrounds.
A week after our first meeting, the backstory of the rainbow girls had changed. Instead of friends, they were now twins. In an email, McPherson said that, during some research, she had stumbled on Jung’s writings on psychic connections. “Jung met and worked with with physicist Pauli, and they discovered how synchronicity parallels certain phenomena of quantum mechanics. Specific to this piece are the ideas of quantum entanglement and this mental connectedness that goes beyond the physical. We really are just barely beginning to understand Time and Space.”
The painting is now titled “The Indestructible Energy of Synchronicity in The Space Time Continuum.” It recently sold for $3,300.