Talking EXTRA STRENGTH + PAIN RELIEF with K. MacNeil

K. MacNeil. Natura Morta. Image Courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Adi Berardini

K. MacNeil is a genderqueer artist, educator, and curator working in a range of media including printmaking, video, performance, and drawing. Referencing their own experience, their work addresses grief, chronic and mental illness, and the supports within the Western medical system. Their latest exhibition at home apothecary: OR EXTRA STRENGTH + PAIN RELIEF at Centre [3] in Hamilton features an interdisciplinary body of work that started as sketchbook ink paintings. As they describe, the series grew in its scope over six years, capturing the everyday objects used to manage self-care. The exhibition also addresses the resiliency needed while facing marketing schemes of care products in a capitalist society and the actions taken towards healing.

Currently residing in Toronto, ON, MacNeil has an MFA from the University at Buffalo and a BA in Studio Art from the College of Charleston. They serve on the executive board of SGCInternational and work as the College Printer at Massey College. MacNeil’s work has been exhibited internationally in Paris, France; Beijing, China; Canada, and throughout numerous institutions across the US including the International Print Center New York, the Western New York Book Arts Center, and CEPA Gallery. Additionally, they are the Hexagon Mid-Career Artist in Residence at Open Studio in Toronto. Read on to learn more about their work and the exhibition at home apothecary: OR EXTRA STRENGTH + PAIN RELIEF.

AB: Your exhibition at home apothecary: OR EXTRA STRENGTH + PAIN RELIEF addresses the wellness industry and how it treats health care as transactional and the resiliency it takes to navigate this. Can you speak more about your thinking and concept around the exhibition?

KM: The exhibition is thinking about transactional healthcare and how to be resilient in this sort of late-stage capitalist world that we find ourselves in. Developed over six years, I started this work as illustrations in my sketchbook and I didn’t think that they were going to go anywhere. At some point — after about two or three years — I just kind of kept making them. I [felt that] I need to commit if I’m going to just keep making this work and see it through to some type of conclusion.

I realized that what I was focusing on with these paintings, these sort of still lifes of objects that I was surrounded by, were an autobiographical body of work focused on what I’m using to try to take care of myself. A lot of my work has always been about mental health and stigmas and my own daily struggles with depression and anxiety. Naturally, these were all the objects that I used to treat my anxiety and my depression and various other ailments. So, it was everything from pill bottles to sunglasses and Q-tips. Sometimes it’s vitamins or band-aids and other little things like books.

K. MacNeil. Gender Dysphoria Hoodie in the Morning. Installation shot courtesy of the artist.

One of my favourites is a painting of a sweater that says ‘Awful’ on it, based on an actual sweater I own. The title is Gender Dysphoria Hoodie in the Morning. It refers to the gender dysphoria hoodie that [many] people in the trans community use to manage their dysphoria. When you’re dealing with this dysphoria, you just kind of put a big hoodie on and hide within that. That’s a way of taking care of yourself and a way of being resilient as a trans person.

I decided to take a broad lens and address everything that I use to take care of myself in all these different facets of my life. Through that, I was also examining the way these things are branded and marketed to us and the language used around them—and how interesting and problematic it can be. The way I like to think about this exhibition is a Venn diagram of what it means to self-care and self-medicate and treat yourself that’s the intersection of where all these works fall. It’s not exclusively critical of the medical industry but it’s also not exclusively favourable.

I was also examining the way these things are branded and marketed to us and the language used around them—and how interesting and problematic it can be.

It’s just trying to take a realistic look at like, for example, how I need ibuprofen and I hate how much I have to take ibuprofen, but it’s part of my life. I was recently diagnosed with chronic pain and they basically [told me] you just have to take ibuprofen all day, every day, which is what I do. And there are a couple of supplements that help, but that’s about it. It’s frustrating, but it’s also like that’s the best that the medical community has got in terms of treating that illness, which is pretty sad.  

K. MacNeil. I think my cough drops are gaslighting me. Installation shot courtesy of the artist.

Your piece ‘I think my cough drops are gaslighting me’ has printed HALLS wrappers and the messages seem to address how manufacturing health and wellness plays into toxic positivity, especially during the pandemic. Can you speak more about this piece and the interactive aspect of it as well?

The piece is a pile of replicated HALLS cough drop wrappers that were printed using a linocut block for the logo and then letterpress for the motivational pep talks that they use. The whole thing is hand-printed and handmade. I say that because a lot of people thought that they were real cough drop wrappers and a pile of garbage on the floor. It’s art—I swear.  

I made just under 1,300 of them and all the phrases that are on them are phrases that I got from HALLS cough drop wrappers themselves. They’re from something called “a pep talk in every drop,” a HALLS marketing campaign that they wrap their cough drops in. And they’ve been doing it for years. The piece is installed as a pile on the floor and viewers are encouraged to take one of the wrappers with them and slowly deplete the pile throughout the exhibition. It’s a reference to the work of Félix González-Torres, who used depleting piles of candy in reference to the AIDS crisis and inter-personal relationships. I won’t get too much into his work cause there’s a lot to be said there. But I was interested in how Félix González-Torres was responding to a pandemic of his time, as I am with this work.

The idea initially came to me near the start of the pandemic in April of 2020. I had a cough, I didn’t have COVID, but I was still taking cough drops. I was opening up and reading these motivational statements when I was going through genuinely the worst month of my life. Several people I know had recently died and I had to quickly move over the border. I lost one of my jobs and just like everybody else, I was in a state of financial disarray as the entire world was ending. And it was like, what are we doing here? And this cough drop wrapper is telling me, “March forward,” “Get back in there, champ,” “Get through it,” and “Go for it.”

K. MacNeil. I think my cough drops are gaslighting me. Installation shot courtesy of the artist.

It’s a slap in the face, right?

Yeah, it was. I just [thought], “Wow, these don’t hold up so well in the pandemic.” The one that really got under my skin was the one that said, “You’ve survived tougher.” It hearkens back to that phrase that a lot of people like to say, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

It’s this kind of problematic idea that you can just withstand trauma after trauma and you’re going to be stronger for it. And it’s not always the case, but specifically with COVID, a lot of people didn’t survive tougher—a lot of people died. A lot of people got long COVID, and a lot of people’s lives were dramatically and permanently affected by this. And I think this culture of getting through it and surviving tougher is more harmful than just admitting, “Hey, we’re all going through a hard time right now.” We could use a little bit of softness instead of toughness, you know? The piece is kind of commenting on how those phrases are pretty gaslighting.

It’s also thinking about the amount of waste that’s produced by the medical industry. That’s a big part of this exhibition too, is just thinking about how much crap we accumulate from cough drop wrappers or pill bottles or random packaging. And how these things that we genuinely need to get through and to survive also come with a fair share of packaging and environmental waste that’s ultimately contributing to climate change. It was a way of encouraging viewers to take one of the wrappers home with them, instead of just mindlessly throwing stuff away in the garbage. What if we kept and took care of these things and tried to find alternate uses for them? I’ve been doing a lot of research into the zero-waste movement and trying to find how that works within my lifestyle. This is sort of my way of exploring that idea.

K. MacNeil. WITNESS MY SHAME. Installation shot courtesy of the artist.

Something that draws me to your work is how it fosters dialogue around mental illness and the stigma surrounding this. Can you speak more about how you address mental illness and mental health, especially in your piece ‘WITNESS MY SHAME which addresses how mental illness is discussed in society?

I would say that WITNESS MY SHAME and I THINK MY COUGH DROPS ARE GASLIGHTING ME have a lot in common. I was recently thinking about how it’s interesting to see this thorough line in my work because I made WITNESS MY SHAME many years ago and I didn’t think I was still working in that vein. Now I can see how that idea really stuck with me. 

WITNESS MY SHAME was a series of shadow boxes that highlighted phrases in a bold, black font that have been said to me personally, by close friends and family. I think they are phrases that you hear more frequently in response to mental health issues or chronic health issues. So, those phrases are, “I’ll pray for you,” “Just smile,” “Suck it up” and “You don’t have to talk about that right now.” Those were phrases that just shut a conversation down. If you’re trying to talk to somebody about what’s going on with you, whether it’s physical or mental illness, and the person you’re talking to doesn’t know how to respond, [they] use one of those types of phrases. It just completely shuts a conversation off—It’s their way of getting out of talking about something that might make them feel uncomfortable.

I took those phrases and I screen-printed them in these shadow boxes in this black font. And then over the top of them in the Plexiglas, I scratched several other phrases that might elicit those responses. Some of those phrases are, “I feel like I don’t have control,” “I just feel kind of numb,” “It feels like a life and death kind of thing,” “and “I can’t experience any more joy.” Those phrases came from a series of interviews I did for a sound piece, so they are phrases from other people who are experiencing mental illness trying to share what it feels like to have their mental illness.

What happens when you look at the piece, because you can’t see the scratched phrase super well, you have to look incredibly closely and come up to the piece and inspect it because you see it’s a bit blurry—your vision is slightly blocked. It was kind of interesting because a lot of people just walked right past the boxes and didn’t take that closer look. Then somebody would take a close look and then somebody else would take a close look and you’d see them kind of pull a whole bunch of people and [realize that] there are these phrases that are scratched on top of it. I appreciated how that happened because that’s what the piece is about. Some people are just oblivious, and they say these phrases that sort of steamroll over a conversation when you’re trying to reach out for help and other people stop and listen and take that closer look.

It’s more of a response to how people handle mental health and chronic illness in general. I think it kind of points to the stigma that it’s difficult to talk to people when they’re talking about mental health and that it’s something that we really shouldn’t even be talking about. It comes from that mentality that you should just suck it up, put a smile on, move on, and not talk about these things because it makes other people uncomfortable.

K. MacNeil. at home apothecary: OR EXTRA STRENGTH + PAIN RELIEF Installation shot courtesy of the artist.

I was wondering if you have any artists or other things that inspire you that you’d like to discuss?

I’ve already mentioned Félix González-Torres, his work is hugely influential to me. I don’t think you’d necessarily see a direct correlation when you look at my work but he’s one of those artists I’m always thinking about when I make work. He’s like the Patron Saint of printmakers. I don’t think he’s technically a printmaker, but every contemporary printmaker who is concerned with the multiple [loves him].

For this exhibition, I was also looking at a lot of painters. I technically did my undergrad in oil painting. In particular, Wayne Thiebaud: I have always been amazed at his sense of colour. Getting to see his work in person, find[ing] a subtle stroke of neon orange or a lime green underneath the form. I’ve always been fascinated by how his paintings come together and the little pops of colour that peek out. And certainly, I would say his composition is impactful on me too. I’ve spent a long time just looking at his work.

Another artist that I looked at a lot is Giorgio Morandi, a painter from Italy. His work is so lovely. It’s funny, when I would show his work to students, they were like “I don’t get it. It’s boring.” And that’s kind of what I’m interested in, the way he explores the banality of household objects. I’d say the last one for this exhibition is Philip Guston. I’m in love with the work that he does. I mean, especially the stuff he did later in life with the self-portraits and the more expressive caricatures that he was doing. But specifically, I’ve always been a strong admirer of the confidence of his painting stroke. You can tell that he just goes in, and he paints a line and that’s it, he doesn’t fuss with it. That’s something I always try to keep in mind when I paint because I fuss with things, and I want to get to the point where I’m not fussy. I want to paint a line and that’s the line.

One other artist that I wanted to mention is Shannon Finnegan. They do this piece called, Do you want us here or not which are these blue benches that they install in art spaces that say things like, “This exhibition has asked me to stand for too long. Sit, if you agree,”“I’d rather be sitting. Sit, if you agree,” and “There aren’t enough places to sit around here. Sit, if you agree.” You engage with the work by sitting on it. It’s just this brilliant and much-needed conversation about the accessibility of art spaces and public spaces in general.

Especially as someone who lives with chronic pain, I’m constantly telling people, “I’m sitting, I’m not lazy. I just have to sit, it’s just what I do.” I love those pieces because one, I wish there were more chairs everywhere in the world, and two, I think we’re on the same wavelength in terms of what we’re talking about with ableist language and spaces.

Do you have any upcoming or current projects you’d like to mention?

I’m currently an artist-in-residence at Open Studio. That residency is winding down, but I’m still working on that body of work, which is a series of etchings exploring waiting rooms and healthcare institutions. I feel like it heavily relates to this exhibition as well. 

It’s a commentary on the inaccessibility of healthcare spaces. Waiting rooms are some of the most boring places on the planet and yet there’s so much pain and trauma and suffering that happens [in them]. I’m very interested in the banality of pain and suffering and trauma and what that banality means. You sit in a room with a blank wall and generic seating that’s terribly uncomfortable for hours at a time, waiting to be seen by a doctor, and sometimes they catch your issue and sometimes they don’t.

I have this series of drawings of waiting rooms that I’ve collected over the past several years. I’m turning them into etchings, which I’m going to string together into one long, never-ending waiting room.

You can find more of K. MacNeil’s work on their website knmacneil.com and their Instagram, @kit.macneil.

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