Stu Mead interviewed by Steven Cerio
for SECONDS magazine no. 45, 1997
Stu Mead, master of the wiley prepubescent, slaps away at his slick, throbbing canvases deep in the Midwest – St. Paul, Minnesota, to be exact. Mead, luckily working in a community that prefers to turn a blind eye to what he does, has managed to build and sharpen one of them – there artistic visions ya read about in those fancy books. And he does it with a painting style so thick and creamy it takes a few minutes for the local grocery to dig through the sickly sweet camouflage to the tangy puerile center.
Mead dangerously acknowledges underage sexuality, and occasionally deflowers it – a forbidden act even in the wide-open world of art. But remember, the urge to depict is not an urge to act. There’s a definitive wall between the two, so just relax – it’s not newsreel footage, it’s not in your living room or your basement. It’s just in your head.
Steven Cerio: Is your work pornographic or erotic?
Stu Mead: When it’s sexual, I think it’s pornographic. "Erotic" is just a softer, more acceptable word. It symbolizes non-threatening pornography. With pornography, you picture something gross and matter-of-fact with no romance, no mood – just clinical pictures. Really, pornography is just a word covering explicit art and stories. I think the term was originally defined as "stories of, or by, harlots." That’s all it originally was. "Pornography" is used to negatively attack people, but it’s a more benign word. I just like "erotica" because it’s so ...
SC: So Penthouse?
SM: Yeah, it’s generalized.
SC: People tend to use the word "pornography" when they see women in degrading positions. You tend to glorify your women. It’s usually girls in power over the humbled man sneaking a quick glance.
SM: I think it reflects the sense of being inadequate next to this intense human being that’s making my body respond in these weird ways. When I depict a male, I’m depicting myself feeling like a schmuck next to this perfection. One enhances the other, just like strippers in old burlesque shows appeared beautiful because of the comics that performed along with them.
SC: Is that a microcosm of male-female relationships?
SM: Maybe it’s a way of countering it. Obviously, with the patriarchal structure of society, men were the bosses. I’m sure there were very few households where the father wasn’t king, but for the entertainment he’d see himself as a helpless buffoon, the victim of feminine wiles.
SC: Do your paintings display how you react to girls on the street?
SM: Oh yeah, I think so. The pictures are pretty much done without anyone in mind as an audience. When I do them, I strive towards forgetting who else would see them, so that I can pour myself into the picture. It’s always about me. Either I’m the male figure in the picture or it’s me voyeuring into a scene with females in it.
SC: With Japanese Manga, five-year-old girls have the same body as thirty-year-old girls. What age group are you depicting?
SM: Women of all ages are beautiful and I merge them together when in what I depict. I think that’s typical of men who use imaginary females in their art as a fantasy vehicle. I hate to admit it, but that’s what I do. Girls can be power figures but a woman is darker. A women in my work is – I don’t know, what’s the world – "menacing." I’m attracted to these pictures of girls because they’re shorter than me. I’m a short person so they’re somebody I could control. I’m thinking of a picture I did of a guy in a hospital room where there’s two nurses fondling each other and drinking gin. It’s the quintessential thing of being tormented by women, but pleasant tormenting. A lot of it is me reflecting the images I grew up with and have maintained throughout all my life, not having relationships with women –
SC: Do any of your paintings start as masturbatory fantasies?
SM: I’d say a lot of them do. If you look at the work I did up to four years ago, you’d see a lot of sexuality in the work – but it wasn’t predominant. In the last four years, I’ve taken more work directly from my sketchbooks and that tends to be masturbatory images.
SC: Are you a collector of pornography?
SM: Yes, I do have some. I’d hate to say "collection." In my library, I have a bunch of pornographic artwork.
SC: So you’re more into the artwork than the mass-produced magazines?
SM: Well, over the years I’ve bought a lot of magazines, that’s for sure. I have a love-hate relationship with them. I accumulate them but feel a disgust about having them.
SC: But the art books don’t give you that feeling.
SM: No, they don’t, because art has a way of – it just doesn’t have a stigma. If Leg Show didn’t have this immediate stigma, I probably wouldn’t feel that way. The thing about handmade images is that they have so much to say about the artist.
SC: How do women react to your work?
SM: Over the years, some of the strongest response I’ve gotten have been from women. Yet, my more recent work has alienated women – not that I’m trying to connect with them. (laughs) There’s plenty of grants here in Minnesota – it’s a good place for artists in that respect – and I’ve gotten a few grants over the years. I feel that because my recent work has been more pornographic, it’s been really hard for me to get through that grant process. On at least two occasions I knew of, women on these panels were completely disgusted.
SC: How does the Mike Diana case apply to you? Do you feel any reverberations from that?
SM: No. That was a case where he was prosecuted in the courts. Minnesota hasn’t done anything to attack artists in that way. This state has a long Left Labor tradition that goes way back.
SC: But don’t you think the attitudes that put him in jail exists in all cities?
SM: Sure. But here it’s a case of wanting to politely ignore offensive work and not dignify it with any kind of attack.
SC: Has anyone had you do work to their own specs? For example, "I’d like three young girls undressed, standing on the hood of a Volkswagon."
SM: I’ve never been any good at fulfilling other people’s visions. I don’t put my heart into it when it’s not my vision.
SC: There tends to be a lot of defecation going on in you pieces. Is it fetishistic or representational for you?
SM: Both. For years, when I’d draw some orgy scene in a sketchbook, there’d always be someone shitting while getting screwed. Like I said, in recent years I’ve been culling more from these private drawings. I’ve painted pictures with this scatological subject matter and come to see that it’s connected self-degradation. I’ve done pool scenes where there’s all sorts of things going on – people swimming, people drying themselves off after getting out of the pool – and there’ll be some girl crapping into a bowl while some attendant is holding it in place for her. I’m just imagining these girls crapping on this paradigm of mine.
SC: What about "Creative Children"? That to me, is a flagstone of your career.
SM: There, I wasn’t trying to make a social comment, but I was trying to show these girls are the gods of their world and are producing men out of their own poop. It’s creating a myth.
SC: Do you get feelings of guilt from doing this work?
SM: Oh yeah.
SC: But you’ve said acting out any of those images is impossible for you.
SM: Yeah, it’s impossible for me for many reasons. Growing up disabled, I know what it’s like to have a rough time of it as a kid. For me to impose adult sexuality on a kid would be impossible to do. But I do think I am a pervert.