Rachel Debuque (b. 1983, Allentown, Pennsylvania) received her MFA degree at The University of Georgia. She received her BFA from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She is currently an Assistant Professor and Foundations Coordinator of the Studio Foundations program at George Mason University. She has exhibited extensively including, New York, Croatia, and Philadelphia. She was a resident artist at Bemis Center for Contemporary Art. She will be the upcoming recipient of the Southern Constellations Fellowship at Elsewhere.
Rachel Debuque’s work involves installation, object making, and performance. She is drawn to the gray areas of existence. The ambiguity of her identity informs a sensitivity to the undefinable. She is particularly interested in space and its cultural and psychological significance. By subverting domestic imagery, she creates worlds that lies between the real and imagined. She explores the tension that exists between this dichotomy.
The spaces she creates vibrate between two and three-dimensional realms, creating a push/pull in perception. Energetic color palettes and directional lines create the illusion of dimensional space. The boundaries of space are blurred with color and pattern. Therefore, objects become less definable and are able to be reinterpreted as new cultural signifiers.
Her work evolves out of a rigorous studio practice that pairs cultural observation and experiments with color, space, and form. Objects and space become the props for world making.
Q&A with Rachel Debuque
by Sidney Mullis
What is your relationship to notions of home? When did you become curious about domestic spaces? And, how have your ideas evolved?
I grew up living with my grandfather who built his house with a mish-mash of materials and influences. It was and still is a kitsch playground. Think: red velvet couches, tasseled lamps, wall-to-wall stucco, and roman statues. He has an entire room dedicated to weapons with knives and guns lining the walls. Along with wooden sculptures of screaming eagles, there are plants crowding every window.
My grandfather was always working on the house and I loved watching the transformation. When I was 8 years old my family and I moved into our own rental. It had plain white walls and green shag carpet. I immediately became obsessed with how I could transform our new space. I was collecting pottery barn magazines and going to yard sales by myself at 8. My art making became about display and decoration.
My sensitivity to domestic space is ingrained in everything I do. In order to evolve, I have to fight against some my natural tendencies. I tend to create work that has symmetry and order. I try to challenge my inclinations by playing with lots of new materials and process. I am always trying to loosen up!
On your website you have an “Investigations” page, which display smaller experiments with space, color, and objects. Could you talk about these and how they are integral to creating larger pieces and installation?
Experiments are extremely important to my practice. It is my way of sketching. I create elements and arrange them in millions of ways until I come up with some that is interesting to me. This process can yield a series of small sculptures for an exhibition or become supportive elements for large installations. Many times, I don’t get to work in large spaces until I have an exhibition. I have to do many smaller imaginings, in order to create a plan.
How do you choose your materials? Are you wedded to any particular paint brand for your work?
Certain materials really speak to me. For instance, I have been thinking about faux fur for two years. It’s one of those materials that is wonderfully kitschy. I am finally working with it in an upcoming exhibition, but it is in a way that was unexpected. I really have to sit with materials for a while before I incorporate them. Wood is pretty consistently present in my work. It is such a versatile material and there is so much to learn about how you can push it. As far as a paint goes, I use a ton of flat house paint. I like the chalky flat look and easily transforms walls and wood.
You mention your installations are futuristic spaces. Your spaces have a largely Southwestern influence to me in pattern, color, and plant choices. Is the future the Southwest?
The Southwest is actually in my past. My partner Justin Plakas and I recently moved to Washington DC from New Mexico. The landscape was beautiful and greatly influenced my work. It had such a power and command. I never lived in a place where I could look for miles and not see another human being. I am from the northeast and my experience of the southwest was the romanticized film version. Living there provided many entry points into understanding a really complicated place. I ended up using the ubiquitous prickly pear in much of my work. I made rubber molds of cacti I found behind the local Walmart! I have to say I am drawn to the absurdity of investigating the natural wonders of the southwest behind a Walmart.
Do you have a particular family, individual, or persona that inhabit your particular spaces?
Sometimes I have a particular character that I have cooked up. But other times it’s a blending of memory, tv, or daydreams. It’s not one person in particular but the merging of many influences. My performers have connections to my identity and the lens of popular culture. I am influenced by movies, television and commercials. I use the installation as the set and performers as moving objects. Thus far many of the actions of the performances involve ritualistic behavior. Their costumes and behaviors are purposely receptive and inhuman. I am interested in the blurred lines between reality and fantasy.
You often collaborate with other artists and actors. When did you begin to introduce performers into your work?
I first started doing performance work I was the main subject in the performances. I wasn’t comfortable in front of the camera and I wanted better control over what you see in the frame. In other words, I was more suited to be a director than a performer. I would advertise for actresses/models on craigslist. I tried to be specific in my posts but even then I ended up choosing people that I didn’t initially think I wanted. At this point, I have worked with dancers, actresses, models, kids and animals. The process working with different performers and seeing how they react to my concepts has been really fun.
What is the artist collaboration named Candied Calamari?
Candied Calamari is a collaboration that I did with printmaker, Danielle Peters. We met at the University of Georgia. We both were working with actors/actresses and enjoyed constructing costumes. We created the performance installation, Mistiko at Soil Gallery in Seattle. I see collaborations as a great way to loosen up and challenge your my individual practice.
My newest collaboration is with my partner, Justin Plakas. We call ourselves PLAKUQUE (The merging of Plakas and Debuque). He has always been my “go to” for all art advice but we didn’t make art together. Recently, we were asked to collaborate for a show called “Love Child,” at Ortega Y Gasset in Brooklyn. This show brought artists couples together that typically don’t collaborate. After that, our plans and ideas have taken off! We designed a mural together that we are putting up this summer at Redux Contemporary Art Center in Charleston, South Carolina. Making art with your partner has all sorts of obvious challenges and there is a lot of trust and mutual respect needed in order to create a successful collaboration. I really admire Justin’s vision. We each have really different strengths that work well together.
You have mostly worked with young, female adults and have shifted to a young child with your most recent piece, Lemon Drop Turtle Juice/Turtle Drop Lemon Juice. Could you talk about how you cast for your work and this most recent shift?
My shift from being the performer to using actresses naturally led me to choose people I identified with personally. Therefore, I was using women who were around my age. Ethnic ambiguity is also something that I sought after for the performers in Cacti Smash, which relates to my mixed Czech/Filapina identity.
After working with women around my age I wanted to see how using a child would change things. In the initial planning, I drew upon my own childhood for main elements. The forest and the turtle are inspired from growing up in the woods at grandfather’s house. My brother and I used to catch turtles and keep them in tanks. Tellie the turtle was a particularly notable because my brother feed him chocolate Rollo candy and he died. I was thinking about these things when I created Lemon Drop Turtle Juice/Turtle Drop Lemon Juice at the Bemis Center.
Aileen Tobin who is the Director of Operations at Bemis has a daughter Fiona who is a 6 year old and half Filipino. Fiona was involved in acting in Omaha and wanted to be in the video. The video was challenging because we were working with a child and an animal. Out of the two, the turtle was way more of an issue. It was wiggling and flying all over the place (It was the fastest turtle I have ever seen). Most of our shots had to be on a platform. Fiona had to make sure that Steve the Turtle didn’t going flying off the edge. It was stressful but she did a really great job.
You recently completed a residency at The Bemis Center for Contemporary Art. Congrats!
What was it like?
It was amazing!! I met a fantastic group of artists that will be my friends for life. Working along side of the fellow residents has influenced so many aspects of how I am evolving as an artist. I have started using clay for the first time since undergraduate after working along side artists, Rebecca Morgan, Katie Parker, and Guy Michael Davis. I have fallen in love with mold making and hand building processes! My next show is primarily clay, which I never saw coming.
The staff at Bemis was also so amazing. It’s rare that artists have the opportunity to create work in such a supportive environment. The residency program manager Holly Kranker and technician Luke Severson always willing to help with whatever I needed. I feel really lucky to have spent a summer at the Bemis Center.
You recently earned your MFA from the University of Georgia in 2013. What has your transition out of graduate school been like? Have any advice for the recently graduated?
Go Dawgs! The University of Georgia was a great experience. Transitioning out of the supportive bubble was challenging. It is hard to say goodbye to a rent free studio and amazing faculty/peer support system. When I graduated, my partner received a teaching job in New Mexico, so we trekked across country. I taught part time, tutored, and continued applying for opportunities that would allow me to grow as an artist. New Mexico was beautiful, inspiring, and we met many great people but we wanted to be in a city atmosphere. We moved to Washington DC and I was offered teaching job at George Mason University. I really love teaching and GMU has been supportive of my research.
Being and artist and paying the bills has always been a hustle. Our culture doesn’t always value creativity and we have to fight for it’s place in the world. Surviving off your art is only an option for a small group of people. There are many ways to be successful and I don’t think that artists need to suffer. We need to insist on the cultural importance of what we do and learn how to be compensated for our talents. My personal definition of creative success is always evolving. I observe our rapidly changing world and look for those places where artists are needed. My advice to recent grads is to be flexible, take chances and make mistakes confidently. I have spent many wasted hours trying to avoid mistakes. Mistakes are where growth lives.
Lastly, who and/or what are large influence(s) for your work? Is there anything else you would like to mention?
I was a child of the eighties and I really love Italian design from the 80’s especially Memphis. They have really seen a resurgence in popularity in the last few years for sure. The colors and design are playful and graphic. I have also been loving Adi Goodrich’s set design.
I have been in love with Mikka Rottenberg’s work for a while. Her videos are psychological and humorous. I love Jessica Stockholder, David Lynch, Jayne Mansfield's Pink Palace, Yayoi Kusama, Mad Max:fury Road, Grey Gardens, 90s MTV, so much more. Its a hard question because I will think of so many things I should have put after I write this. I follow so many great fellow artists and design studios on Instagram…too many to name. Oh and I love storytelling in all its forms.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your work and talk with us!
To find out more about Rachel and her work, visit her website.