Mariah Ferrari’s subject matter and glossy painting technique is specific and exacting, creating a style that is all her own. Using her unbelievable talent in painting, the artist renders arms and legs that are slippery and slick, twisting and bending in knots like ballon animals. Seductive and alluring, Ferrari’s paintings mix irresistible colors and textures with a bit of strange, as only limbs are visible—the rest of the body absent. With an interest in the body and the ways we inhabit it, Ferrari emphasizes the tactile, bringing to the surface physical touch, as her limbs beg for us to reach out and feel them to find out for ourselves if they are, in fact, as slimy as they look. The body as a subject has been a long tradition within the canon of art, yet Ferrari’s work takes this subject and still surprises us, creating compositions that creep into your mind and senses.
Based in Milwaukee, the artist earned a BFA at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she studied painting, drawing, and art history. Join us as Ferrari discusses the trials an errors in creating her distinct style and how the difficult challenge found in painting compelled her to keep going.
Tell me about your journey forming your distinct visual language.
During undergrad I started to explore figure abstraction. Using the figure felt familiar, and exploring ways to manipulate it was an accessible starting point. In my pre-painting life, I would often draw figures and portraits, so my interest in the body has continually ran deep. There is always something to say about our bodies and how we navigate the world through and with them. I began to study the figure by collaging and layering forms together to create an image. I first started by drawing arms and legs separately, cutting them out, and flipping them over. I did this so you would only see the shape of the arm or leg but no line or distinctive feature to define them as a limb. I would collage these pieces to create an abstracted image of long, moving shapes. I painted these collages a few times, but quickly became bored with those. They were based off the figure but read as abstract, and I didn’t know where I stood conceptually. After hitting that wall, I drew a lot every day over several months. I drew arms and legs disconnected and connected, full bodies intertwined, a combination of the two, and eventually found my current visual language. My collages never included faces or heads, and I never included them in my drawings. I have always been more interested in body language, and what we can express through the body. Facial cues would be too easy of an indicator of what is occurring in my images, and also leaves the painting open for a narrative interpretation. I want to leave the viewer thinking about the physicality of the body and have them reflect upon their own sensory experiences.
You are such a talented painter—it really looks like your paintings are physically slippery! When did you start painting? Did you have a specific teacher/professor that helped shaped your skill?
I started painting in my first undergrad painting class in 2016. Before then, I thought of painting to be too difficult and had no experience with the medium whatsoever. Painting was a mystery to me and I didn’t know where to start. Honestly, after the first day of painting, I hated it! But because it wasn’t easy, my interest for it grew. The difficulty was exciting, and challenge is alluring. Because of this, my love for painting began to develop. Once I started to paint, I never stopped. I also immediately began painting from observation due to my late start in painting, which taught me to see the world in new ways. I owe a lot to my two painting teachers Shane Walsh and Leslie Vansen. They taught me everything I know.
Can you discuss your interest in disconnected limbs and the fragmented body?
I create my figures as a complete whole, all limbs connected to each other within their tangle. Essentially, they are a body without a head or torso, and without the features that make up either. This breakdown of the figure is to force the viewer to focus on the one sense that remains for this figure: touch. I think of touch as a repressed sense, something constantly occurring yet taken for granted. It's easy to remember visual memories, but it’s much more difficult to recall memories related to touch. Painting and touch are interlinked in my mind, as much of my enticement with painting comes from the physical feel of it on the canvas. Another interest of mine is sentience and the questions that arise around this concept. In relation to my figures, there is the question if they experience sensation and feeling. Their interaction with the created environment hints at the answer, but also raises more questions. How do we connect to a figure without facial cues? Do we experience touch and sensation the same way as these figures or as our peers? As I reflect on my figures, I reflect on my own sense of touch and sentience, bringing attention to the sensory event of being alive.
Your work brings to mind one of my favorite photographers, Hans Bellmer, who often photographed parts of dolls. Who or what are your influences?
Sascha Braunig, Sarah Slappey, Elsa Rouy, Emma Stern, Ivy Haldeman, and Lauren Satlowski, to name quite a few! And of course, my own relationship to my body.
Can you tell me about a time that you felt was a turning point for you as an artist?
A turning point for myself was when I was selected to be in ArtMaze Magazine via open call during my undergrad. I was still unsure about what I had stumbled upon and the figures that came from it. But when I got this news, I realized that I must have something worth pursuing. That extra boost of confidence made me excited for the future and excited with the work that I was making.
Walk us through a day in your studio. What do you do to prepare mentally?
My current commute to my studio allows me time to get into my painting mindset. I bike when weather is warm enough, and when it is not (it is often not in Milwaukee) I have a half hour bus ride ahead of me. Either way, this time to myself provides space to reflect on where I left off in the studio and what I want to accomplish that day. I usually start by mixing paint and fine-tuning my palette for that day. I’m either in the process of the background or the figure, which I approach completely differently. How far along the painting is often determines whether I'll be listening to a music, a podcast, or nothing at all. Honestly, it’s hard to prepare enough for a day in the studio. Once I'm in a creative headspace, it’s unpredictable what I'll be thinking and feeling.
If you could exhibit with any artist right now, who would it be and why?
It would be a dream to exhibit with any of my influences. Female painters are important and now is our time to claim space in the art world. The women I listed before are all primarily figure based or approach observational painting in a similar way that I do. I think our varying answers to similar questions would create lovely relationships and conversation.
How has Covid-19 affected your practice and/or artistic outlook?
With all the events that occurred this past year, I needed painting more than ever. Covid-19 and the time at home that it brought allowed for a lot of space to reflect on my purpose. Painting was the only thing that kept my sanity and gave me some sense of normalcy during that time. Being able to retreat to my studio and the positive mentality that comes with it was extremely comforting and therapeutic. Painting will always offer a safe place for exploration and reflection in a turbulent world.