I arrive at the Hite Institute’s MFA building in the Portland neighborhood on a cold February morning. It’s been spring-like for weeks, and it’s surprising to see ice dotting the street. Megan Bickel is still in a winter coat and hat when she greets me at the door.
“I hate that it’s cold,” she said, “but at least the weather is the way it’s supposed to be.”
Bickel is an MFA candidate in painting and shows me to the chilly concrete room on the second story that will be her workspace until she graduates in 2021. There are artifacts of an artist’s life — drips on the floor and tubes of paint spread out on tables — but the space itself is tidy. Glittering synthetic materials are folded on shelves, and I recognize the work hanging on the walls from her recent show at Quappi Gallery on Market Street. Across the room there are clear receptacles, like small fish tanks, filled with water and tiny colorful dots — like that ice cream that advertises itself “ice cream of the future” — that are hard to look away from.
“This is spherified watercolor paint,” Bickel explains when I step closer to look at the curious beads. “Spherification started in physics — I couldn’t articulate why or how they needed it, but they did, and some chef somewhere decided to use it to make fake caviar.”
The spheres are made by mixing sodium citrate, sodium algenate, xantham gum, water and are made colorful with watercolor paint.
“You drop it into a calcium chloride solution, and what happens is all the molecules get pressed together,” Bickel said, drawing some of this mixture into an eye dropper to demonstrate. The hot pink droplets congeal, or solidify, or spherify upon contact with the solution, and join a pile of pink and purple balls at the bottom of the container.
“This is just watercolor paint,” Bickel says, agitating the box. “There’s no indication of the person that made it. But presented in different ways, it allows me to eliminate specific constructs of painting. You’re interacting with all the symbols of painting, but it’s not a painting. It confuses its identity as an object.”
Bickel’s more traditional paintings also have confused identities — holographic, digital, disorienting. In her show at Quappi, Bickel included a few paintings with corners of unstretched canvas that sagged, pushing the work toward sculpture. She had experimented with forgoing the structure or framing of a painting altogether, but returned to the rectangle because it provided a structure in which to challenge other ideas, and her work has not settled into something altogether familiar.
Bickel’s employment of reflective textiles, historical references, and shifting frames continue to put the viewer in a pleasantly disorienting space. This confusion is the key to much of Bickel’s work.
“[The paintings] are joyous,” Bickel said, “but my goal is to make it difficult for the viewer to find themselves in that space or find where their body can be.” Sort of, one might argue, like digital space.
Beyond their conceptual underpinnings, the materiality of the works have the alluring draw of a glowing screen and the vertiginous feeling of non-space. “It’s an oscillation between planes,” Bickel said of her objectives in responding to the plastic materials she uses. “I try to accumulate so many layers that there’s this undeniable sense of space, just because of the amount of material that’s layered up from the surface.”
“For example,” she says as she walks me over to a large canvas on a far wall, “in this piece I started with this gray sort of triangle. It’s an attempt to interact with the textile and also cancel it out. From there there’s a lot of color theory and playing around with mark-making that has happened from 1960 forward.”
“This corner down here,” she says, “is really de Kooning-esque, there’s a lot of very masculine, abstract expressionist pushing and shoveling of the mark. And then these two and three-tone pre-blended marks are very post-digital, like interacting with hyperspace. This Titian pale hue here is very Manet for me.”
For Bickel, employing painting languages from throughout history becomes a conversation about time. A topic that concerns her in both art and life. In addition to painting on reptilian synthetics from big-box stores and spherifying paint in jars, Bickel is working on a science fiction short story that asks what future humans will think of what we’re leaving behind.
“If you think about ruins and how we have decided their value, it makes me wonder [how future generations will] value the things that we make [now]? What value will a Rothko have?”
But it’s not just a hierarchy of art that concerns Bickel. It’s also the glut — an unsustainable level of production and her own participation in it as an artist. Her use of synthetic textiles doesn’t just push against notions of painting, but against society at large, even as she implicates herself in the issue.
“Being someone who makes objects for a living concerns me,” she said. “I’m consistently producing part of the problem.” The material is also, essentially, trash. It is highly plastic, produced in large quantities, and thrown away at a high rate, none of which is lost on the artist.
“I sincerely wish that I was an artist that could work with organic materials,” Bickel said. “It’s just never been fulfilling for me. It never felt genuine.”
Looking back at her dazzling canvases, materials she describes as haptic, Bickel said, “These textiles mimic something else. There’s a deception. They’re [used] for children’s costuming or cos-play or drag outfits. It’s about cultivating a different identity and shielding your interiority with that. I’m thinking a lot about illusion and allusion and what that means within the visual realm right now — the weight of mistruth and the weight of disregard for accuracy or scientific relevance.”
While these heavy ideas are the foundation of much of what the artist makes, Bickel acknowledges that to some extent, working with this strange fabric is just more fun than canvas. “Painting on canvas always felt like a one-sided relationship, where I’m doing all the work and this other entity isn’t contributing in the way that I need it to.” She gives a short, self-aware laugh and says, “which is hugely anthropomorphizing.”
Bickel’s inspiration comes from a wide range of sources, including other artists, prolific reading, the environmental and social issues that consume her, and the role of technology in them. But if plastics and the changing weather didn’t plague her conscience, she thinks she wouldn’t paint at all.
“If there aren’t any problems,” she said with a laugh, “what am I going to complain about? I would just be a farmer.”
After a moment of reflection, she said, “Which begs the question, why don’t I just do that now? But I don’t have an answer for that.”
Support for this story was provided in part by the Great Meadows Foundation.