Gina DeCagna


Hometown: Cranford, New Jersey
Class: 2016
Majors: English(Creative Writing Concentration) and Fine Arts (Interdisciplinary)
Awards: Penn 2015 Fine Arts Outstanding Junior Award, 2014-2015 Kerry Sherin Wright Prize via Kelly Writers House, Penn 2014 Outstanding Award in Painting and Drawing, Penn 2014 Lawrence Shprintz Fine Arts Award for Travel, Meredith Corporation Scholarship Award for Publishing via New York Women in Communications

A Waltz with Time (This Mortal Coil), 2015
graphite on vellum, copper and steel wire
Installation view at Saxbys Gallery UPenn

I understand that you are interested in the relationship between visuality and semiotics.

Yes! Language is such a crucial factor when seeing and interpreting contemporary art. Some critics who are more concerned with conceptualism will primarily be invested in the theoretical innovation of the ideas — which we try to ascribe a particular framework of words — and less about the aesthetics. How an artist articulates a piece when first presenting it, and also how it's received and rearticulated by viewers’ understandings and subjective experiences, can determine what becomes of that piece. The discourse either carries a piece long beyond its creation or makes it forgotten. I believe visual aesthetics and conceptualism should function in tandem for an artwork to have resonating power — and that’s the challenge worth tackling.

How do you ascribe language to what you see — to what you create? How does what you see or create influence your writing?

I’m a writer in addition to a visual artist and now in my senior year at Penn, I’m very fortunate to work closely with some of my favorite professors on an honors creative writing thesis and a visual arts thesis — and I’m combining the two (finally!). For a while, by the structure of the academic system, I would have to switch gears to do the two majors — when I was working on one, I often felt that I was neglecting the other.

When I came to Penn, I founded Symbiosis, a group and publication dedicated to the interrelationship of the visual and literary arts. Through Symbiosis and my own personal work, I’ve been doing a lot of exploring concepts, themes, motifs, feelings, and urgencies in both words and visual images. It depends on where my mind is in regards to having a starting point. Sometimes, I feel compelled to jot down notes or a phrase that later becomes a poem or a critical essay, and that might later inform a visual art piece content-wise. Sometimes, I am stricken by objects or scenes or patterns (I take a lot of photos to document these), which inform my entry into creating a visual piece — through which, the language of articulation is essential.

Life Drawing / Subliminal Sensory Study #3, 2014
Charcoal on paper

About your ongoing exhibition: where do you get your inspiration?

The creative process is one of constant refiguration, rearticulation, and repair coming from pre-existing ideas and elements. So, for me, anything I encounter in my daily existence is something that can be manifested in my art. Visually, I’m often drawn to items of nature and real life.

When did you decide you wanted to become an artist? How did you get started in art? Was there a special moment or event that made you realize that you want to become an artist?

I’ve always wanted to be an artist since I was a child (and also an author, writing and illustrating my own little books). I couldn’t imagine myself doing something else and actually being happy in the long-term. When I was in high school, I became very competitive and invested in academics, which spiraled me to Penn. At Penn, I became so absorbed in the intellectual rigor and dominant pre-professional culture (which, as any Penn student knows, can get really draining), that I definitely strayed away from being an artist out of my own insecurity and worry of outward appearances — it’s so often plagued as an unsustainable career option. I’m interested in many things, so it was viable for me to take psychologically “safer” routes and hide that artist identity — I was often promoting other people’s work via Symbiosis in a more removed manner rather than being vulnerable and putting my own work out there. American capitalist culture has little room for artists unless you’re one of the few who make it big; so, artists are marginalized and young ones are left incredibly discouraged. You either quit or carry on.

My breakthrough was when I was removed from Penn while studying abroad at King's College London and traveling greater Europe. During reading week, I spent an entire day by myself in the Picassso Museum in Barcelona. In that invigorating setting, I snapped myself awake. I felt so inspired by Picasso’s early, precocious works as a child and teenager — tracing his intellectual and artistic development to later works in life — that I felt compelled to unleash my artistic urgency from the shackles. I returned to Penn with renewed energy and determination.

in ramos bracchia crescunt [arms became branches], 2015
Etching, aquatint, and drypoint

Do you admire a particular artist and why?

There are so many thousands of artists out there and each art period has considerable figures to the history and development of art. Picking one artist is limiting! I’m interested in what Artsy is doing with its Genome Project to showcase continuities in art across time periods; that’s my favorite current app transforming the contemporary art world and showing me what’s happening around the globe.

I’ll just respond with one contemporary artist I admire (who curated Ruffneck Constructivists at ICA Philadelphia): Kara Walker. I was drawn to her work when I visited her massive installation, A Subtlety, for Creative Time at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn in summer 2014. Her work has complex and potent visual, metaphorical, and historical magnetism. It metabolizes an injustice to her gender and race.

Has gender ever played a role in your artistic practice? Do you have any ideas about how to address the gender inequality in the visual arts?

I haven’t faced gender discrimination specifically in the visual art context (yet?), but I’ve also had the cushioning of student life for the past sixteen years or so. If I’m going to be a critical analyzer, then I do see that gender inequality is prevalent in almost every work sector. As the direct biological bearers, women are most frequently the primary caretakers of children and this offsets their career trajectories — while men often have steady, uninterrupted ones. When you look at statistical analysis, only women with the demographic of being white, unmarried, and without children make as much or even more than their male equivalents in the measurable variable of salary figures (because their race often puts them in positions of greater privilege and they don’t have those other domestic or motherly duties to tend to).

I can say from experience that a big disparity between men and women is in the display of confidence level. Growing up, I was often considered soft-spoken and reserved, and I realized after talking to one encouraging female high school English teacher, that withholding my ideas and voice wasn’t going to advance me in the classroom (and in life). Men are natural gloaters. Women are much more hesitant. Maybe men need to learn more humility, but I don’t think that will happen until more women continue to reverse this hierarchy that is older than dust. That might mean being loud and resilient in situations of injustice.

Among women my own age, I applaud Emma Sulkowicz for her tenacity in presenting and performing a controversial senior thesis piece that also became swept up in a legal case so hugely in the national media and public eye. I studied drawing and painting one high school summer along with her at the School of Visual Arts, so it’s been exciting to see her artistic trajectory. She used her art to confront a gendered issue of injustice that happens all too frequently on college campuses. It took the world by storm, gave agency to many women who have been silenced, and still has people talking.

A select piece from DECAY: A Choreographed Mushroom Series. 2015
Scanned photographic prints
Back to Women Artists at Penn