96 There are eight in all, any special number?
MG That’s Ganesh’s number.
96 How did that come to be his number?
MG I don’t know. I don’t decide these things. I learned it on the Internet.
96 Do they have a particular order?
MG No, but they are in sets. The first four, with the rose, the chocolate boxes, and the Coca-Cola are connected by shininess, because Ganesh likes a shiny. The reflective quality doesn’t come through in the photos of the pieces without the photographer appearing in the composition, and nobody wants that. The next four share the theme of images of women offering things.
The one with the rose and Ganesh wearing a suit was the first one You can tell it’s the first because it’s the least organized visually. I didn’t really get my bearings until the second, the one with the rectangular chocolate box. I think the first ones in both sequences, the one with the rose and the one with the jelly, are slightly overworked. There’s too much going on; they’re too frenetic, and not in a fun way.
And let me tell you that finding good elephant images is more difficult than you might expect in this, the wonderful Internet age.
96 Where did you ultimately find your elephants?
MG In my pajamas, just like Groucho! This is how coffee can make me hilarious! Okay, so I found elephant patterned paper at a Michael’s craft store, some elephants came from old stock photography catalogues, and some are Hindu religious stickers. I found almost nothing I could use for this series on the Internet. What I did find there was very good images of toy elephants, but those would have required a new sequence of their own, and one not in keeping with the tone of this suite. The images I’ve made are funny because that’s the way I work, but they’re funny in their beauty. Toy elephants would have been crazy-hilarious funny, which is worthwhile, but not for this set.
96 Who is Ganesh?
MG Ganesh is the son of Parvati. He is the elephant-headed Hindu god whom you are most likely to be able to strike a deal with. He is the remover of obstacles. The kind of god who you can ask, “Can you get me tickets for this thing,” and he’ll answer “No, I really can’t” while he’s discreetly sliding the tickets to you across the counter. The lucky, easy-going granter of wishes.
He was beheaded by Shiva (long story), so he got an elephant’s head to replace it. He is often shown riding a mouse, because he’s so light in his being. He is spiritually and aesthetically buoyant enough to ride on the back of a mouse, elephant though he is.
He likes sweets, milk, flowers, which figure in these images. He has no down side that I’ve ever noticed. He’s good-natured, is generally happy to help, and doesn’t ask for much in return. Ganesh’s big holiday is Ganesh Chaturthi, which is his birthday, but he’s also celebrated during Diwali, the American Hindu equivalent of Christmas (as far as too much decoration and extensive gift giving is concerned).
96 So these are images of Ganesh and images of things one would offer to him. Is this collection an act of puja, of religious homage?
MG If you ask me, yes. I made these to thank Ganesh for his help in a rather dire medical situation, so these are in a way ex-votos or retablos.
96 Do you have a devotional relationship with other Hindu gods?
MG Not as satisfying as the one I have with Ganesh, but yes. The other Hindu gods are somewhat more demanding and a little less accommodating. They’re stricter, and they have reason to be.
You can piss off Ganesh too, I’ve seen people do it. And his answer isn’t always “Yeah, sure!” I didn’t realize the connection I had with Ganesh until I became seriously ill and his image started popping up in different contexts, always a white Ganesh, usually with gold and/or pink ornaments. On one significant occasion he was pale blue.
96 We’ve spoken now about the spiritual genealogy of these images, what about the aesthetic one? Would you categorize these as Pop Art?
MG I love Pop art, but these are only related to Pop art insofar as they’re detourned commercial art. The preponderance of images were culled from old magazines, almost exclusively ones that are usually referred to as “women’s interest,” with names like Women’s Home Companion. Many were from the forties and fifties, a few from as early as the thirties or as late at the seventies. The most interesting ones are from the war years, because their concerns would strike us today as insane: saving cooking fats, how to make your man happy using ground beef and cottage cheese, and, of course, those stubborn stains. The ideas regarding how much women were supposed to be responsible for in a house—as seen through the eyes of advertising—are endlessly interesting to me. Images of women doing the housework in high heels and stockings. There’s a lot of good, weirdly romantic imagery there. And if you want pictures of women making offerings, those magazines from the forties and fifties are the best. The women depicted there are always offering something to somebody. To their kids or to their man or to the dog. Or, if you get the right kind of magazine, to their God.
96 Let’s talk about collage. In the old days, everyone thought they could make collage, all you seemed to need was a scissors and glue. Things got worse, that is, easier, with the advent of computers and Photoshop. Looking at your work, I can see that it’s very different from the collages one usually sees, but I’m not sure how to describe the difference. Where does your collage aesthetic come from?
MG Advertising. Print advertising, popular graphic art of the seventies and eighties, which is really my prime time. Pushpin Studios, John Alcorn. The way that relates to these collages is the sense of compositional balance. If you look at the old advertising, especially the hand-drawn stuff, it’s really oddly composed, but in a very compelling way. The actual illustrations are very, very good. Hand drawing like that just isn’t done anymore. It was pretty much gone by the nineties.
Joseph Cornell was a big influence on my early work, not so much now. I have more connection with collage artists like Jiri Kolar. He influenced me in a way that may not be visually evident.
96 I think that what makes these different from the usual run of collages is that it isn’t more latter-day Surrealism. What I believe you once referred to as “Craft Store Surrealism:” a moon as the face of a watch, a man with a lizard’s head, that sort of thing. With your work I can look at them, and forget about what the images are actually of, just consider them as areas of color and shape, as abstract compositions, and they work that way, with an inner harmony and tension. How long does it take you to come up with one of these visual balancing acts, to find the right place for every piece?
MG Somewhere between ten minutes and three weeks. The one with the tiger lilies just fell together within half an hour.
96 Which one took the longest?
MG The one where the woman is presenting the jelly, and its arguably the least successful of the eight. Optimally, everything in a collage should gel, like the moment when pudding on a stove starts to thicken or like when an egg balances on its end during an equinox—that egg suddenly feels as though it were glued to the surface. A sudden centering of tension. Most of them have it, but that first one clearly doesn’t. I’m satisfied with the balance of tension in the second, third, and fourth of each set.
96 I see what you mean. That poise is most strikingly evident in the cottage cheese woman and the Coca-Cola. The fewer the elements, the clearer the balance between them.
MG The Coca-Cola one took me quite a while. It’s only six elements, and it was coming close for days and days, but it finally adhered. The cottage cheese woman also. Ninety percent of that came together in about fifteen minutes, but getting it just right took quite a bit longer.
96 How long have you been arranging objects?
MG I’ve been arranging everything I can since I was very young.
96 What’s the first thing you remember composing into a harmony?
MG I’d have to say my face. I still haven’t quite mastered that. And at sixty-two, it may be too late.
96 I’m thinking more of external objects.
MG Probably gluing things to rocks at day camp when I was seven.