Zoé Blue M interview with Willa Wasserman

Zoé Blue M., Still from No!, 2017-2020, 5 min 12 sec. VFX: Harrison Fishman, Pedro Bello. Sound Design: Alex Uhler, Yuka Murakami

Tiny flowers shed tiny white petals behind two embracing figures, It must be windy in the painting, or else it’s just time for a state-change. The petals pulse irregularly through the clutch of branches at the top, and the lozenge-shaped apertures of construction netting at the painting’s base. Twinning subtly with the drained-orange polka dots of one figure’s dress and the underside of the other figure’s awkwardly twisting sneaker. Patterns embrace their like and unlike in Zoé Blue M’s Passionate Attitudes

The show, on view at Los Angeles’ The Gallery @ this November, contains a video that seems like something of a pattern archive, and which served, I learned from Zoé, as the origin for the paintings. In these, a central character undergoes trauma and fakes a public recovery, while also perhaps experiencing a desperately secret, real healing. In the final work of the series, she achieves her own disappearance from the public. 

Zoé was kind enough to take some time to answer my questions about these works and her overall practice. 

When we first spoke, you told me that the video was the impetus for the show and the paintings. Maybe we should start by talking about that? 

The video was a project that I worked on for a couple years, on and off. I was pretty close to abandoning the piece until I brought my friends (Pedro Bello, Harrison Fishman, Alex Uhler, Yuka Murakami) into the project and they helped me bring it to the finish line. Then I was working with Christopher Schwartz at The Gallery @ to find a way to release the video and thought it would be nice to make a small body of work alongside it. I suppose, once I got down to thinking about what was really at the core of the video, the ideas snowballed into the series I have today. I felt overwhelmed (in a good way) by these aspects of hysteria that I was tapping into and researching, and in that way the work kind of made itself. 

Your works are extremely self-referential in the sense that you use yourself as a model and much of the iconography is quite personal. How do you strike a balance around sharing? 

I have never considered my work self-portraiture despite the fact that the figures in the paintings are representative of myself; perhaps because some of the work is so strongly based in historical narratives that I am co-opting, or fictional narratives. For Passionate Attitudes, I was researching the story of Louise Augustine Gleizes who was a hysteria patient in the late 19th century at Salpêtrière Hospital ​in Paris. She was pretty young, and the release of her images in the hospital doubled as a medical study and essentially pornography. I was really interested in this sexualizing of stigmatized mental illness as well as girlhood and how it related to my own life. The only real story I know how to tell is my own, but I don’t think the things I am talking about or the images and patterning that I am using are unfamiliar to viewers. In that way, I hope I am relating to viewers and in the same way that I am co-opting stories, they can co-opt mine.

Past paintings have been extremely focused on this character, almost as if she is the total context. How did you decide that you wanted to bring in the Charcot photographs, which bring so much external (and troubled!) context in terms of art theory, medical and photographic history? 

Similar to what I was talking about above, adopting narratives is not totally unfamiliar territory to my practice. I would say bringing in the photographs of Augustine felt important to the work since the study of hysteria, medically speaking, is confined to a time before it was considered more taboo. But the repercussions of those studies is deeply ingrained in every way that womxn assess themselves and how others assess them to this day. We can see a lot of that in the way that we talk about the “manic pixie dream girl,” to name one. In my film, I looked a lot at the play Lady Aoi, which is from The Tale of Genji. In the play, the mistress of Prince Genji named Lady Rokujo goes wild with jealousy over Lady Aoi. Rokujo then is demonized, literally, and possesses Aoi. This sort of narrative, where women become overwhelmed by loss or jealousy that they transform into demons beyond saving, has always interested me. To consider also that they exist in the supernatural, almost to say that women who go to these emotional lengths are incomprehensible in the natural realm. 

I wonder if working with the Charcot source materials forced an intensity which is often denied to young women protagonists, no matter what they do (thinking of the catch 22 of being an ingénue). How do you navigate coding gender and age with her? 

When Augustine finally escaped from the hysteria hospital, she somehow stole clothing and disappeared in male drag, never to be seen again! And in the photos of her in the hospital, though in captivity, there is a look of cheekiness about her. I like to think she knew what she was in control of, despite her oppression. As a young girl, I remember finding agency by actively engaging my masculine side. In a lot of ways it was a young girl’s way to be taken seriously or to assert independence. With age, I found immense power in activating my femininity and identifying strength in oscillating between the two often and with ease. And in terms of my own struggles with mental illness, so much feels uncontrollable, that at moments of awareness, it can feel wildly empowering to allow hysterics. In that way, and in a healthy way, it can function as a release of pressure. Painting, in it of itself, can be maddening. I find myself running around, talking to myself, laughing like a maniac, crying, etc. It’s wild! Debilitating, and freeing. 

How do you make decisions around choosing patterns/fabrics? Do you plan all of the paintings at once like a designer’s collection, or is it more piece by piece? 

Most of the patterns and fabrics come either directly from my wardrobe/textiles present in my life or through my research of specific patterning throughout history. A lot of the fits are things I wear myself! I love the way you phrased this question, it has me looking at my paintings like clothing in a closet. The way this particular series came about, many of the compositions were essentially decided for me since I stole them from the photographs. So, simultaneously, a good bulk of the work had a predetermined route that I could play off of and divert from with ease. For most of my work I have a vague idea of the path or space that I want to conduct myself within, yet, they all feed each other. One painting, once finished, can suddenly change the direction of everything else. I like to think I plan within reason, but try to leave a lot of room for play and for me to change my mind. 

Can you talk about some of your influences? 

I wish I could list a phenomenal group of artists that I look at, but unfortunately I am horrible with retaining names and crippled with the fear of neglecting someone. I look at tons of work of all natures, I generally believe it is good to operate within the idea that everything can offer something. Though I am hugely influenced by painting, everything from Ukiyo-e prints, to religious frescos, to contemporary figuration, etc; I spend much of my time taking from movies, anime, comic books, fashion, and advertisements. I’ve always really enjoyed old VFX in films, the way things appear collaged or fake, resulting in something comedic while also functioning as eerie. For my film No! I spent quite a deal of time looking at the makeup industry and (what appeared to me as) a rise in non-human depiction, empowering otherness. Nobuhiko Obayashi’s films are also amazing. Anime has a lot to offer too, with the huge variation in animation drawing, using a language that can be understood by so many different people. I really enjoy how perverted everything can be. Finding that sweet spot between being inviting and disturbing is valuable to me. 

Are screens or social media a place where you process your paintings? 

Interesting question, not 100% sure how to answer this. To deny the influence of screens and social media on my processing, I think, would be idiotic. I, unfortunately, cannot pry myself away from all the various screens. Though, I really admire those artists who can shut off, put down and be present with their work!! I am not one of those people. I would actually say that since my work obviously exists digitally, it can offer a huge disadvantage to the surface of my paintings. Not that I mind. It’s a dilemma that everyone must deal with. What has occurred in light of that is a strong desire to emphasize and diversify my surface texture and constantly try to readdress the way my hand functions in the work. I learn from every single painting I’ve made and currently am making.

Your use of color is wild and extremely unintuitive in many ways—bright colors often read as shadow. Can you talk about color? 

Color is a huge factor. Oddly, however, it is the thing I think about the least. Or rather, it is the aspect of my work that is the most intuitive. I get a lot of inspiration from films and books. Lately I’ve been really into Taro Yashima, a Japanese-American children’s book author, who makes rich illustrations. The way Nobuhiko Obayashi’s film deals with color, or the comic series RanXerox… these are some of the sources that I pull from. I love when everything has a life or vibration to it, even the shadows. Almost as if every color is a shape. I don’t have a better answer, it’s all about absorbing as much as I can and attempting to translate and redistribute that information. 

Watch Zoé Blue M.’s “No!” below:

Images courtesy the artist and The Gallery @