Monica Kim Garza’s Journey from Selling Chicken Wings to Showing Her Paintings around the World
Portrait of Monica Kim Garza. Courtesy of the artist and The Hole.
The large and lovely ladies of Monica Kim Garza’s world hold particular allure. They lounge, sunbathe, twerk, smoke, fuck, lift weights, and sip wine. They also happen to be nude or scantily clad, their curvy bodies a spectrum of browns. Their expressions are often nonchalant, holding and challenging the viewer’s gaze, and at times, even mildly annoyed by the interruption to their revelry.
For her first solo exhibition in New York, “Baguettes”—on view through October 9th at The Hole—Garza began with the concept of sharing. “I was thinking about the people you break bread with, so it was inspired by friends and shared moments of eating and drinking,” she told Artsy during a phone interview from Atlanta, where she lives and works. The artworks depict Garza’s signature women drinking margaritas in the surf, bellying up to a crowded bar, circling a dim sum table, smiling conspiratorially over an intimate cheers, and slurping spicy Szechuan noodles. Generally drawn from past experiences and nostalgia, Garza’s mesmerizing, pleasure-seeking muses are impossible to forget, and her work unmistakable.
Garza loved drawing as a child and always wanted to be an artist, but art wasn’t part of the curriculum in her “super small” Georgia town. “When I heard about people studying art in school—we didn’t have that. It was just sports,” she said, in an exuberant but gentle Georgia twang that sounds like she’s always smiling.
But Garza continued to draw, setting up still lifes and teaching herself the craft. Garza’s father has always been supportive of her passion, and once drove two hours north to the High Museum in Atlanta to bring Garza to her first art museum at the age of 18. “That might be the Mexican mentality, always proud,” said the artist, who is of Mexican and Korean descent. Garza’s mother, however, worried about financial stability. “My mom is very much like, ‘You need to succeed.’ She wanted to make sure I wasn’t wasting four years of life in art school. Meanwhile, my brother was getting his master’s in aerospace engineering.”
Garza went on to study painting and drawing at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, but didn’t enjoy her undergraduate experience. “I had taught myself based on books of the Old Masters like Titian and Michelangelo, so I was interested in learning more technique in the traditional sense,” she explained. “That didn’t happen.” Garza was also dismayed by the favoritism she saw. “Maybe this has something to do with being Asian—you have the sense that if you work hard, you’ll get a good grade. It wasn’t like that in college. You needed to have a good relationship with professors.”
After graduating in 2010, Garza remembers feeling “very lost,” she said. She taught English in Korea, backpacked through southeast Asia, and lived in Peru for a few months. But she missed artmaking and moved to New York to pursue a career in fine art. “I didn’t have a plan, and didn’t know where to start,” she recalled. “I had this job in the Financial District I really hated. I hadn’t even painted in years, so I started painting in my tiny shoebox room.”
In 2015, she designed a series of decks for the New York skateboard company 5Boro. But she was priced out of New York, forced to move back in with her parents in Georgia and work at a chicken-wing joint. “It was definitely a low point in life,” she remembers. “I was 26 and depressed, because all my friends were doing stuff and I was in my parents’ basement in my small town, selling chicken wings.” But she threw herself into painting. Later that year, Garza caught the attention of New Image Art in West Hollywood, which organized her first solo show in October, and V1 Gallery in Copenhagen, which included her in a group show in 2016.
“Six years ago, I was mixed-media crazy and hanging stuff off of canvases,” Garza recalled. She stopped working in this way two years ago when she turned to oil painting. “I left the oil paints as is because I can build so much texture with them. I didn’t want to take away from that with other media,” she continued. Garza works in layers, gradually building up her surfaces with thick brushstrokes that culminate into a tactile texture. She circulates between a number of canvases at once until the paint becomes dry enough to manipulate. “I have a lot of images in my mind that I want to get out. I wish I could set up 50 at the same time!” she laughed.
But in “Baguettes,” as close observers will note, Garza returns to the mixed-media approach of her earlier practice. Luscious globs of paint share space with yellow string that appears as mustard squirts on corn dogs, felt triangles that form cocktail umbrellas, and fluffy wool that swirls like smoke from blunts. “I missed the quirkiness and craftiness of using mixed materials,” she explained.
Garza has also been drawn to dark, moody Old Masters and 19th-century painters, like Caravaggio, Hieronymus Bosch, Francisco de Goya, Eugène Delacroix, and Gustav Courbet; in terms of modernists, she likes Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Philip Guston, and German Expressionists like Emil Nolde. It’s tempting to compare Garza’s brown female bodies to Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian women, but it’s the “normal-people bodies” of Renaissance art that inspires the forms so prominently on display in Garza’s work. “Unconsciously, I’m always painting with those images in the back of my mind,” she said. She’s also a fan of Mesopotamian art, particularly Mayan depictions of people. “I like the geometry that goes into it. A lot of the bodies are just like geometry for me, like shapes.”
Depicting people of color is something Garza does intuitively as a woman of color, which she emphasized in a later email: “I am very proud to be Mexican and Korean. I realize what I represent to others, whether it’s my intent or not, and I am so happy to represent that, because growing up, I obviously did not see many artists who looked like me. But I love the idea of art being open to whatever your interpretation is instead of being influenced by so many other factors and politics. I also strive to not be put in this box.”
Garza’s gallerist in Copenhagen even sees himself in her work, she notes with pride. “For someone on the opposite side of the world to feel what I was feeling makes me so incredibly happy,” she said. “It’s great when people can see something in my artwork that they like, even if they don’t look anything like the person in the artwork.”
Thumbnail image: Monica Kim Garza, “Spicy Schzeuan,” 2020–21. Courtesy of the artist and The Hole, New York.