"We’ll See What I Get Away With": CocoRosie's Bianca Casady on Her New Exhibition at Cheim & Read

"We’ll See What I Get Away With": CocoRosie's Bianca Casady on Her New Exhibition at Cheim & Read
Artist Bianca Casady
(Filip Piskorzynski)

Known as one half of the experimental band CocoRosie, along with her sister, Sierra, Bianca Casady is also a prolific visual artist whose last New York exhibition was in 2007 at Deitch Projects. Now Casady has a solo show opening June 28 at Cheim & Read, in Chelsea, where she’ll be showing a series of drawings, watercolors, and collaged works that incorporate prison themes (and perhaps a few burkas). CocoRosie will tour the U.S. and Europe this summer. Modern Painters magazine's Scott Indrisek spoke with the artist, who splits her time between New York and the South of France.

How did this exhibition come about?

My invitation into the gallery was primarily through the curator Diego Cortez. He’s a huge music fanatic and seems to pay a lot of attention to musicians who do visual art as well.

Your exhibition at Deitch Projects was an immersive environment that included a CocoRosie performance. Are you planning the same thing here?

I’m imagining a more formal presentation, but I guess we’ll see what I get away with. I tend to start to live in the space as much as I’m allowed. Usually I try to weasel the keys out of the gallery and spend some time there. A lot transpires in the days just before the show. I have a spontaneous installation process where I allow many things to change, which often freaks out the administrative people. But it’s essential that I ride out my creative process basically until the opening. Usually I try to kick the staff out as much as I can and blockade the front door. In the end it always works out fine. I can’t deal with trying to explain. People are really apprehensive about things happening at the last minute, but that’s something I’m confident about; it’s inherent in my process.

What ties the new body of work together?

The series is pretty cohesive, and I worked in a very concentrated period of time on the majority of the pieces that will be in this show. There are a lot of literal depictions of prison, but as the series develops it starts to become a more suggested space, looking at prison in a more open and metaphorical sense. Eventually the prison bars become rosebushes and floral patterns. There’s a constant striving for transcendence, even when it’s happening in the prison cell. There are also mops and brooms throughout the series — there’s a Cinderella theme, looking at different types of imprisonment, the general role of servitude, and exploring a maid’s life, a slave’s life.

Would you say there’s a narrative?

It’s not that clear. In one image there’s a reference to a back-alley abortion, although it’s more about transsexuality, depicting a home operation of a sex change. In some of the images there’s a sexual modesty, and then there’s also a flowering that happens.

Why prison?

One connection I can draw is to Jean Genet, a French writer who caught my eye many years ago, who oddly stuck around and has kept having an influence on me — in particular, his utopian depiction of prison through the homoerotic gaze. It’s definitely a romanticized prison experience.

How does race play into the drawings? Some of them feature a black male body with a white female mannequin’s head.

I gravitated toward the black male body as it’s the most familiar as a hypermasculine and villainized caricature, which is easy to imagine in jail.

Where did these images come from?

There’s some stuff I got from gay porn magazines and old wildflower books. And then I’m fascinated by different types of head apparel — hairnets, do-rags, handkerchiefs — and I love the really bad-quality images on dollar-store packages. A lot of them tend to use mannequins as the models, and the pictures are blown out and already kind of painted. There’s this anonymity with using the mannequin head that works for me. The collage-based works are the rudiments of the show. The exhibition is focused on drawing; even if there’s water and burning and techniques that aren’t technically drawing, the show is really a drawing show.

Can you tell me a bit about the photographic self-portraits that will be in the exhibition?

There’s one of me with a purple hat and a superimposed face. I’m wearing a diamond veil, an Arabian wedding-night veil. In my previous works — and probably a few will turn up in this exhibition — I was putting veils and burkas on the faces and figures that I was working on, de-villainizing certain figures by putting burkas on them, and mostly putting burkas on male figures.

Is there ever a conflict for you between visual art and music?

They’re one and the same. I feel like music was more of a surprise to me than writing and drawing. That’s the thing I least expected, to be singing in public. But it’s through the music that I’ve been invited as an artist to show my work.

In the past few years the worlds of music and art have gotten closer — like the concert the Museum of Modern Art organized with Antony Hegarty, a musician you’ve worked with in the past.

As I personally don’t find a need to have a hierarchy of mediums with myself, I’m happy about these things merging more. I’ve found that in music there’s a lot of conservatism that I don’t necessarily sense in the art world. There’s this idea of freak music — and I don’t really see that existing in the art world. There’s a more welcomed eccentricity for artists that’s not such a novelty; in music it feels like a novelty thing.

What’s happening with CocoRosie this summer?

We’re definitely going to tour Europe, and probably the States, with the Indian band Rajasthan Roots. They’re modern musicians who use traditional instruments. We were invited to a strange short performance in Abu Dhabi, and they were playing in the same lineup as us. It was a very exclusive, bizarre concert at a five-star hotel, a small audience of mostly sheikhs, on the beach. It was out there. We felt this strange new excitement to really break the law because everything was so tense. We tend a lot toward Eastern music: I play flutes from different parts of the world; Sierra plays harp; we’ve collected different Indian instruments in our studio. It felt like a fantasy: Getting together with them wasn’t like preparing with any other band. We’d tell them the key of the song but couldn’t ask them to play anything more specific than that. Often we had to change the key of our songs to the key of E, because one of the most beautiful string instruments is always in that key. I ended up switching a lot of the melodies. We had to be pretty flexible, but it was so inspiring that it was effortless. We’re playing new songs and old material that’s reworked, but it’s so transformed that it’s hardly recognizable.

Might there be a performative aspect to the Cheim & Read show?

I don’t really feel the urge to do that. I do want to play in New York, and a lot of the development of the new imaginary world in our music has been coming from creating these drawings. It’s now transpiring into our costumes and our songs. We definitely will be bringing that forward in our music, and we’re going to do a show in New York, one or two, in mid-June. There’s also the release of a new CocoRosie single and a video. It’s all very closely connected. 

This article first appeared in the June issue of Modern Painters magazine.