Georgina Gratrix



Born in Mexico City but based in Cape Town, artist Georgina Gratrix antagonizes and admires the art historical canon and our contemporary Internet aesthetic through her fleshy, abstracted portraits, still lives, and “everything in between.” She recently spoke to The Editorial’s Emily Friedman about Rousseau, LOL cats, and the tropical rainforests of Durban, South Africa.

 You’ve said you both love and loath painting. And that you’re attracted to portraiture in part because it’s “boring.” Can you explain these love/hate relationships with your medium and subject?

 My relationship to the medium of paint is a complicated one. Painting and her historical burdens: so many stogy, stoic canvases by so many important men. What makes contemporary painting particularly interesting for me is a revisionist, humorous approach that can dig at and have fun with historical representations.

So in light of this, if I were to ask you about your piece, Rousseau’s Vase, what would you say about Henri Rousseau, primitivism, and his influence on your work? 

I suppose primitivism is an influence but I’m not a stuckist. I grew up in the coastal tropics of Durban with rampant bird life and monkeys in the garden.  These memories merge into Rousseau’s romanticized ideas of a fictional exotic jungle. The work I have made most obviously in dialogue with Rousseau is My Jungle (2012). The idea was for it to be an almost life-size scale, extending to six meters in length. Here I imagined my garden and the jungle merging as one.


How much does location and place influence your work?

I spent much of my childhood in the tropics. The landscape, skies and maximalist vegetation reference an endless summer, steamy exotica. I grew up with both a parrot and a monkey as a pet, and a Maltese poodle. Location is not an immediate influence, however, the motifs of my work are embedded somehow in nostalgia for those tropics; the balmy blue-skied jungle feeling is something I can’t seem to move away from. It’s what I return to again and again.

Can you discuss the concept of hieroglyphs that you reference? Glorious kitsch and tumbler-aesthetics—cigarettes, pineapples, puppies, palm trees, smiley faces—are you building a language?

My hieroglyphs reference the age of the LOL cat, a sort of hyper-kitsch. I think of these things as an alphabet, initially unconscious, but essentially a type of code. This sort of ‘tumbler-aesthetic,’ as you call it—the repeated patterns of puppies, palm trees, birds, teeth, nipple bling—is a way of developing the alphabet. These hieroglyphs are arranged and reconfigured to become soppy maximalist objects. They are like gushy pop songs. Especially the still lives.

Georgina Gratrix_I Love You All The Time_2011_Oil on Canvas_155 x 120 cm_email

Let’s talk about portraiture. In them, anonymity appears key, but as the artist you seem to have a privileged relationship to the subject. Is this kind of intimacy between artist and subject exclusive?

There is an intimacy with the subject, but I am never just painting one person. It is actually a jumble of references, motifs of a type of woman I paint. For instance, there is the garish, too-many teethed woman. She reappears in a lot of works—some of friends, others of cover girls. I would sometimes think about Willem de Kooning’s Women, I suppose relating to high fashion über models on magazine covers as well. I think the viewer can also find these types of art historical and pop cultural reference points embedded in the work.

I love the repetition I see throughout your portraits. Why so many eyes? 

The multiple eyes in the portrait became a way to represent time; a multiplicity of self and the idea that nothing is fixed. For example, in History of Dad, the many eyes were about the nature of a father-child relationship and how they often invert into one another.

Georgina Gratrix_The History of Dad_2011_Oil on Canvas_160 x 130 cm (2)_ email
Selfie Princess 2015 email

There seems to be inherent sensuality in your portraits, with attention to the physical, bodily presence of the subject echoed by the materiality of the paint itself.

I’d say the fleshy, gunky, meaty use of oil paint in the work is consistent in all subject matter—the portraits, still lives and everything in between. It’s more of the gooey and almost comical qualities that I am attracted to in the medium. In a world of excess and kitsch and general ‘too-much-ness’ I want my work to feel the same way.

The humor in your drawings is fantastic. The Tinder Date and Bling Boy being two personal favorites. They read like sardonic trope figures; we can laugh, but also, maybe we’re laughing based on personal experience.

I know it’s often said but I do think of drawing as the backbone of painting. All those one-liners and motifs develop with the doodle.

And what is doodling to you?

Just keeping a Bic pen and some paper at hand whilst talking on the phone. When I was younger I remember spending a lot of time sitting at the dining room table drawing my mother’s flower arrangements. I think the still lives are all still somehow based upon these remembered drawings.

flowers for Irma flowers 1

Are you still working on recycling paintings? How did that practice develop? 

A recent work, The Misanthropes, was hanging about my studio for months. For some reason, it just didn’t seem successful. Then I came across a rubber Halloween mask. Cutting out the silly gooey smile and embedding it in the paint brought a new layer of goofy horror.

So recycling isn’t a primary focus of mine at the moment, but I do like the idea of bringing bits and bobs into a painting if it’s needed. At the moment I am loving working with glitter and oil paint and have been obsessively bedazzling things. A recent work, Selfie Princess, is an example of this.

What’s next?

I am working towards a September solo show at the SMAC Gallery in Cape Town. I want to bring together elements of painting, print, oils and sculptures, and I am releasing a catalogue and a coloring book to coincide with the opening. Next year, I am hopefully heading to Mexico City for a three-month residency.