How Artist Erica Magrey Turned '90s YM and Seventeen into Living Art


For Erica Magrey, a Brooklyn-based multimedia artist, teen-girl magazines from the ’80s and ’90s were bibles, as they were for so many of us. So in her latest online art project, Vistas, Magrey explores “various gestures associated with femininity, sexuality, and positions of power” she learned from back issues of YM and Seventeen by dressing up herself and several women she knows in clothes from that era, on screens accessorized with symbols of that femininity and power—make-up, pens, cutting boards, clocks—in pastels so pitch-perfect it’s almost astonishing for any of us who grew up reading those rags.

With these representations—videos of six women total, and ambient soundtracks to each—she says, “Each woman portrays an exaggerated version of herself, expressing both a desire for freedom from social expectations as well as the internalization of various behaviors, styles, and attitudes prescribed for her throughout her life.” Or, as I interpret it, a chance to re-enact and maybe even exorcise some of the bullshit we learned reading teen mags, while also celebrating the complex dreams and aspirations they instilled in us. And: a deep nostalgia for product like Dippity Do and Studio Line from L’Oreal. Sculpt your hair… any way you like it! God, the freedom we were promised…

Jezebel spoke with Magrey about the importance of YM and Seventeen back issues, what ’80s and ’90s visual cues mean for women’s identities in the 2010s and, of course, Niki and Krissy Taylor.

What was your impetus for doing this project?

I try to use my work to engage with something that I’m afraid of, and that often involves looking at how I’m representing myself—what I’m putting out there, how it is perceived, and how I can shape that. In this case, I’ve spent the last nine months reflecting on who I am at my core, after peeling back layers of influence and compromise that accompanied a romantic relationship that began when I was 16 and spanned over half of my life. In doing that, I found myself re-entering a mental space akin to one I occupied as a teenager—pumping myself up, finding immense solace and joy in friends, considering my assets. Despite the insecurities of my actual teenage experience, time-traveling back revealed a more self-assured and optimistic spirit. At the same time, the outpouring of support from friends and family during this time was extremely moving, and I felt a huge surge of love. Long story short—I got my groove back. I’d been exploring these issues while I was married too, but at times, it felt like there was a conflict there—not that I didn’t “own” my own self-image, but that it might have been subject to a degree of scrutiny that I was uncomfortable with. So ultimately for me this is about expressing authority over my own image as a woman, and as sexy, awesome, powerful, funny, and as strange as that image might be, truly owning it.

Of course the influences on the way we define ourselves are many and varied, and we absorb ideas about how to act, pose, dress, etc, from the people and images in our lives. My vision of myself as a woman when I was young was shaped by my mother, a business analyst who rocked corporate attire; my father, who loved divas like Grace Jones and Sinead O’Connor; my “cool aunt” who had wild hair and was into styles more under the radar; and many images from magazines, movies, and TV. When my dad recently discovered a huge bin of teen magazines we thought he’d thrown out, I was blown away by how the images inside were intimately familiar, like I had pored over them hundreds of times. So I think for each of us, there is this interesting blend of influences that we pick and choose from to produce this hybrid self. And I’m interested in how other women navigate that. In concocting the exaggerated versions of ourselves depicted here, it’s interesting how we resort to familiar depictions and stereotypes and then merge or clash with them.

I’m also curious about how women work in tandem with or in opposition to other women and how those relationships are depicted, and in the group shoot—in the “Rap Room”—we have a lot of fun exploring this.

Pre-Sassy, I remember teen fashion mags being controversial in those times, from a feminist perspective, this idea that they were indoctrinating us into the patriarchy and turning our minds to mush. Are you making any commentary on that? Is your perspective that they were actually empowering us in the end?

I don’t think they were empowering, no, but certainly having an awareness of the influence they exerted is empowering. There were many cases where they provided mush-mind material, like fluff articles about how to kiss and embarrassing stories about tampons flying out of purses, and they did often perpetuate ideas about softness and femininity and also ideas about female relationships to love and sex that I still, 20 years later, find a little hard to shake.

In asking the performers to pose with various products and props, I’m looking at how we have innately absorbed that physical vocabulary, and indeed, doing so was natural and immediate for all of them. We instinctively know how to interact with props and as props, even though that doesn’t define us.

So many of these looks are straight from those magazines, or at least seem like they could be—how did you work on creating looks and graphics that are so universally YM and Seventeen?

I actually feel that the looks from Vistas, though they conjure images from those eras and magazines, are set apart because they portray more mature looks than those magazines did. Many of these ensembles are more business-oriented, including shoulder pads, and feel emblematic of a slightly different vibe—perhaps of an older sister or aunt or some other role model from those eras (though now that I’ve said that, I realize that the goal of many of these magazines was to sort of be an older sister figure). I’m particularly interested in shoulder pads because of how they mimic the architecture of the male body and physically create a larger and more angular silhouette. I think there has been a lot of criticism of them over the years as being a lame attempt at empowerment, but honestly, they do kind of accomplish that for me. And I wanted the women in this piece to try that out and see whether that upsizing encouraged them to think and feel bigger.

In terms of styling, the clothing and accessories are predominantly pulled from my own wardrobe, though often combined with pieces belonging to the performers. Renata’s look is a reprieve from a recent video, which she helped come up with. Kate’s technicolor fur coat is her own, and I had it in mind when I first approached her. The rest of the clothing, the hats, and the earrings are from my personal stash. I had a couple of different looks in mind for each performer, and when they arrived for their individual shoots, we tried stuff on to see what worked and what they responded to. I wanted them to feel large and in charge, sassy, confident—whatever worked to amp them up and encourage them to perform. I didn’t specifically aim to create something that looks very 80s or 90s—it just happens that these are the appropriate images for conveying this simultaneous looking backward and forward that I’m experiencing.

How did you choose the women you included?

I approached women who were friends or acquaintances who I felt had a strong sense of self, would be dynamic in front of the camera, and/or whom I was curious to know more about. Two of the women (Doreen and Juliana) are fellow residents at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace residency. Most are in their 30s. At the beginning of the initial shoot with each performer we talked about our individual cultural, familial, and media influences (we hail from Philly, Texas, CT, Utah, France, and China), and I really enjoyed the variety of performances and perspectives that emerged. I keep thinking of other women who would be really great in this too.

How do the sound effects correspond to each woman’s site/images? Did you collaborate with the subject?

Sound is usually a really important element in my work, but I’d avoided it thus far with the online work I’ve made. I usually compose the music for everything, but I found that task very challenging for this project. This was partially because I built the project without any sound at all, and it was fully functional for me in silence. When I started to add music, it detracted too much from the strength of the performances and was often at odds with their varied rhythms. So it was really a balance trying to find something that augmented the pages, providing some character, but didn’t smother them.

The shoots were definitely collaborative. I asked a lot of the performers, wanting them to bring their own experiences into play, but also gave direction in terms of pacing, repetition, angles etc. I also gave prompts for certain segments I was looking for, asking them to strike power poses, feel sexy and confident, act as if they are selling a particular product, etc.

Who’s your fave teen model from that era? Mine is probably Niki Taylor, or old Cameron Diaz, or young Milla Jovovich and Balthazar Getty.

I was a fan of all of those, and I think Milla or Niki and Krissy Taylor would be toward the top of my list. But I was more captivated by singers as a tween, like Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Gibson, and The Bangles, and of course they all exerted their own brands of personal influence as well.

Vistas is up at NewHive now.

Images via NewHive.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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