‘I Didn’t Want My Art to Come Out While I Was an Actress’: At the Venice Biennale, Rose McGowan Reflects on Her New Life as an Artist
We toured the art of Venice with the actress-turned-artist.
Rose McGowan isn’t sure how, exactly, she’s going to get into the preview day of the Venice Biennale. “Do I need a pass to get in?” she wondered. (You’re supposed to have a printed invitation and a photo ID.)
She shrugged: “Whatever. It’ll work out.”
No doubt she’s right. Still, the Venice Biennale is different from Art Basel Miami Beach and Frieze New York, where celebrities are routinely spotted walking the aisles. In Venice, the intersection of Hollywood and the art world is less pronounced, and a more refined and European sensibility reigns.
It’s fitting then, that McGowan, the former actress turned activist, is making her first major outing as a visual artist here, in a feminist group show in the Palazzo Benzon, hosted by London’s HEIST Gallery.
We met up for breakfast on a cloudy morning and set out to take a tour of four of the nine collateral exhibitions hosted around the city by the local cultural nonprofit Zuecca Projects. Among them is the HEIST show, titled “She Persists,” curated by gallery founder Mashael Al-Rushaid and art historian Sona Datta, and featuring work by Judy Chicago, Lynda Benglis, the Guerrilla Girls, Chitra Ganesh, and McGowan.
“It’s great company to be in,” McGowan said of her Venice debut. (It’s also, believe it or not, the first time Benglis and Chicago have shown work in the city.)
Although McGowan is still often identified in the press as an actress, that is a career that she has left firmly in her rear-view mirror. “I hate that they still label me as an actress. It was a very strange day job. There was lots of abuse. It’s not for the faint of heart,” she said. “I don’t identify as an actress. It’s like, please respect that.”
McGowan, of course, also helped jump-start the #MeToo movement as one of the first women to come forward with allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein. (He denies them.)
But McGowan has also reinvented herself as an artist. She starred in Indecision IV (2018), a video art piece directed by Tonia Arapovic, which was inspired by a Maria Kreyn painting and commissioned by HEIST for the Venice show. Next up, she’ll be debuting her first live performance-art piece, based on her concept album and accompanying video, Planet Nine, at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August.
“With acting, you’re doing it on behalf of someone’s imagination instead of your own,” McGowan said. In comparison, Planet Nine is about her own imagined utopia, a place of escape. “It’s a place you can go to in your mind.”
Only now, having left her previous career behind, does she feel like she can show her the artistic side of herself. “I get up to a lot of stuff that nobody knows about,” she says. “I didn’t want my work to come out while I was an actress because that just gets misinterpreted and made fun of in a way.”
The first stop on our tour was “The Parents’ Bedroom Show,” an exhibition curated by Austrian philosopher Elisabeth von Samsonow, featuring photographs by Juergen Teller and a video in a darkened installation inspired by the bedrooms of artists’ parents.
McGowan connected to the work: “It’s like the first memory of walking in on your parents having sex,” she said. “I got a shoe thrown at my head. I was 10.”
McGowan has grown comfortable sharing intimate details like these. Last year, she released her memoir, Brave, comparing her time as a Hollywood “It” girl, sexualized and commodified by the industry, to her childhood in Tuscany as part of the Children of God cult.
“By rights I should be in a sanitarium right now,” she joked.
McGowan has been widely lauded for her courage in speaking out against sexual abuse in Hollywood. “I’ve had women come up to me and say ‘It’s so different on sets now,’ and ‘thank you, I’m in the writers’ room, and I’m being heard for the first time,” she said. “I can’t say for sure, because I’m not there, but I don’t think they can ignore [abuse] anymore.”
But her outspokenness has also made her a target for online bullying. “I’ve been a target for hate for a long time,” she said.
These feelings set the stage for McGowan to have a particular response to the work at one of our next stops, in the show “The Death of James Lee Byars,” featuring a recreation of the giant gold leaf-coated mausoleum that the late conceptual artist made while dying of cancer. “I’ve been thinking a lot about death, more than usual, these past few years,” she said. “When people are trying to drive you to suicide, you think about a lot of those things.”
As the tour went on, McGowan spoke with each of the artists, asking questions about their work and their inspirations. When artist Warren Neidich asked the group for their thoughts on his show, “Rumor to Delusion,” which features a neon installation of words and phrases linked to the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, McGowan was the first to speak up, likening the floating word cloud to a neural network.
“I was a little embarrassed afterwards,” she admitted. “I was like, maybe I shouldn’t have said anything because I’m probably not as well-versed in art as these people.”
Although art is a relatively new occupation for McGowan, she’s been surrounded by it most of her life. Her father was an illustrator and artist who specialized in airbrush painting, while one of her sisters works at an art gallery in Colorado and the other one works at Hauser & Wirth.
And she’s been working for five years on the photo and video work that she plans to debut in an upcoming show with curator Stacy Engman. Later in the day, McGowan whipped out her iPhone to scroll through a few examples from it.
“It’s all projections,” she explained. For the work, she shot footage of locations such as a highway interchange and a marijuana factory, and then projects the videos across a human body. Many of the works are self-portraits.
Shortly after we part, I get a text from McGowan. She thanked me for a fun morning and confirmed that she did, in fact, manage to get into the biennale—a sign perhaps that art world, too, is ready to welcome this newcomer.
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