Artist/musician Gwynn Hermann tears down artistic barriers Sitting by the door of artist/musician Gwynn Hermann’s modest Southside apartment is an unopened birthday present: a deluxe version of the 1990s cult classic film Showgirls. It’s a disastrously entertaining film filled with memorable one-liners, unerotic sex scenes and campy overacting. Hermann chats with a visitor, laughing about what a train wreck the movie is. But then she gets serious. “You know, I love that movie but it has one of the most gratuitous rape scenes I’ve ever seen. It kind of ruins the movie for me.”
That, in a quick take, is what Hermann is all about. Both in her music — she’s the lead singer of electro-pop band Lunar Event — and in her controversial fine art photography, Hermann is both sensuous and sensible, recklessly adventurous but deeply grounded and in a conservative climate, never, ever exploitative, insofar as she defines those terms.
Hermann, 29, is both a reluctant leader and fearless champion of eroticism in art, in a way not often seen in this Bible Belt city. In her music, she comes off like a gutsy Gwen Stefani, while in her art, she’s the master manipulator: of her own image, her own outspoken views of sexuality and her sense of self-confidence.
She also speaks in long, elegant passages that give the questioner no time to interrupt. If she’s proven anything to herself over the years, it’s that if she’s given a forum, she’ll run with it as fast as she can.
Progressive parents Understanding Hermann’s work requires an understanding of the artist herself. She sees herself as a product of her upbringing.
“I was raised by progressive parents, definitely products of the ’60 and ’70; my mom was a feminist who wouldn’t let me have Barbies growing up because she thought they’d warp my self-image. My parents were also devout Christians who told me that God believed masturbation was a healthy practice. They filled my childhood with music and art and literature, all the time encouraging my every interest. I wasn’t allowed to watch much TV. My family was featured in the Evansville, Ind., newspaper because we’d set some record on the number of books checked out between us all from the local library. I had a very blessed childhood — full of love and affection and an overriding belief in the autonomy of identity.
"I was the typical art/goth/punk girl in high school, and I got harassed constantly. For a long time, I was very passive and shy, not wanting to draw attention to myself, but still insisting on dressing and looking how I wanted. I was originally into ceramics as my artistic expression; I’d attended a private middle school on scholarship that had ceramics classes. In high school, I got to take a photography class my senior year, and it changed everything for me.”
At the age of 7, she sang with a group of young girls that performed at nursing homes and hospitals. In high school, she sang in a rock band that channeled the Cranberries and the Smashing Pumpkins, to limited success. “It was my first experience as a songwriter,” she said, noting that she bailed on the band when they refused to play her material and mold to her persona.
Art was always on Hermann’s mind. She said, “I was the only person I knew in my circle of friends whose parents didn’t lose it when they found out their child wanted to go to art school.”
She had to leave her hometown of Evansville to find any outlet for her art or her ideas of expression. “It doesn’t tolerate any kind of difference from the norm and I was a girl who liked to look different and dress different, so I got harassed.”
Hermann attended Herron School of Art at IUPUI and began work on a photography degree in 1994. In those days, she said, the photography department was known for its feminist teaching staff. “Some hated it — especially the male students — and some loved it; I was in the latter category. Feminism really did change the course of the art world; it challenged the status quo, forced people to reconsider, or just plain consider for the first time, the assumptions put forth about roles of gender and identity, class and status. Feminism demanded that the voices and viewpoints of people other than old/dead white men be heard.”
Her work, even in a tolerant environment such as Herron, was controversial. “I began to make a long series of self-portraits, often nude, to the point that some of my classmates begged me to shoot something else. I did self-portrait work for two reasons. I wanted to change the poor self-image I had. I’d struggled with depression and anxiety attacks much of my life, and I got to a point where I hated myself and couldn’t trust myself, and I knew that had to change. I embraced self-portraiture as a way to kind of catch me when I wasn’t looking.”
She paused to catch her breath. “It’s hard to explain.”
But then, very little about Hermann is easy to explain.
Collaboration, exploitation? Her close friend and musical partner of almost 10 years, Derek Osgood, sums her up this way: “She doesn’t like to be wrong and she doesn’t like to apologize,” he said. “Neither do I, which makes for some longer than normal arguments.”
Yet the two have collaborated for years and think of each other as brother and sister. “He is family to me,” Hermann said. “There’s no doubt about that in my mind.”
Even so, Osgood has learned when to push and when not to push. “We have the ability to talk without having to say anything to each other,” he said. “She’s pretty laid-back, which helps me stay calm and be able to focus. We’ve developed a method to write songs, which probably wouldn’t work for most people.”
After years of practice and aborted projects, Hermann and Osgood began booking high-profile gigs for Lunar Event in Indianapolis and beyond, sometimes opening for friends such as Mab Lab. They started as a duo, with Hermann handling vocals and Osgood running several banks of keyboards. Their album, This Transparency, received favorable reviews in NUVO and The Star. A few showcase gigs also increased their visibility.
Now, with several band members added to give additional texture to the music, the group is ready to take on the world after their new album is released this summer. “Our next record is going to put us on the cover of Spin,” Osgood said, only half-jokingly.
Lunar Event’s music follows the same provocative lines as Hermann’s art. For her, the emphasis on sexuality began during her junior year at Herron. “I did a series called Confessions of a Dirty Girl,” she said. “It consisted of images of a performance inside an S&M club in L.A. I had access through a friend of mine who performed there; she invited me to shoot her one night. I went with what I believed to be a very open mind, but I got really freaked out by the audience’s reaction to and treatment of her. They wanted to call her a ‘whore’ and a ‘slut’ and other nasty things. I wasn’t sure what I was really doing there anymore. Were my images contributing to the degradation I perceived from the audience? I couldn’t let the images stand alone when it came time to present them; I thought and wrote a lot about the experience and ended up adding some of the text to the images, so I could control how people interpreted the series.”
It was a youthful mistake, in her mind. “I was so naive then. You can’t control someone’s interpretation of your work, and I work diligently to make sure I don’t try to do that sort of thing again. The beauty of any expression is not just what you’ve put into it, but what the viewer can take from it; I never want to limit that now.”
She has encountered some resistance to her art, even among the galleries and artists of Indianapolis. “I was part of a show that billed itself as being cutting-edge art. It took me two hours to hang the art in this geometric formation. After I left, the people who were running the show took it down and hung it in this dark corner with orange construction netting over it and no lighting. They put this sign up warning minors not to look it at.”
The photos were stylized, multilayered photos of a man masturbating. “It’s amazing that you can get away with so much female nudity, but if you show a man’s ass or his cock, it’s like the world is going to end. In a patriarchal society, it’s interesting that it is that way. I guess it’s just some form of male insecurity. Male nudity is the last taboo.”
She added, “I can get my female nudes shown at any gallery, any time, any place, but my work on male nudes is often turned away.” That’s why she picks and chooses what shows in which she participates.
Erotica In her soft-spoken, almost whispery voice, Hermann defends the need for erotic art. “I firmly believe that erotica/pornography is essential to a civilized society,” she said. “We demonize people for speaking freely about their erotic desires; being honest about sex can damage your status in society’s eyes and hinder your goals and ambitions through others’ judgement. It’s like the old erotica versus pornography argument: What turns me on is deemed ‘erotica,’ but what turns you on is ‘pornography.’ These viewpoints are discriminatory and judgmental, and this pointless labeling only hinders further discussion and revelation.”
She doesn’t see her own forays into erotic art as self-exploitative, she said. After all, it is Hermann who is in charge of every aspect of it, from the lighting to the composition to the setting.
“I will admit to being somewhat of an exhibitionist,” she said. “I don’t care about regulating my public image because you can’t control it. I just can make sure I always know what I’m putting out there in terms of myself and that’s all.”
As far as being a sex symbol, “I cultivate it. I enjoy it. I like attention. I seek it out to some degree. I take a lot of care in my appearance. There is a sense of power to it and I’m always aware of it. I’m so observant when I’m out in public: watching the reactions to me and seeing how people relate to one another.”
Despite her protestations, she is aware of the nerves she is exposing, both artistically and sexually. “It’s a delicate balance to make work about sex, as it is with any radical political art. If your message is too extreme, you risk alienating those you most want to reach; if you focus too much on the art, you may lose the message in the aesthetics. I’m often guilty of the latter. It’s a constant struggle.”
She added, “But if you get people talking about what they need, what they desire, what they’re afraid of, that’s what is most important. I provide the stimulus; the journey is their own.”
She makes no apologies for her exploration of sexual themes.
“Sex is an integral part of our lives,” she said, “and sexual energy fuels our passions and creativity; it distills and concentrates the essential elements of our lives — to create and feel, to connect through expression.”
However, she said that sex is “the one element people understand the least about themselves, and it’s so personal. I feel I have a responsibility to the wider world with my art.
“I speak as a woman and as a human, as a person who feels everything very deeply, too much so sometimes.”
But make no mistake: Some of Hermann’s images are not soft-edged. “There’s this perception that female-made art is going to be softer and prettier and more palatable to the masses and is not going to shock people. Then there is the notion that male-produced stuff is going to be crude and vulgar. I don’t like those distinctions. I don’t believe most people fall within those stereotypes. I have a lot of visions that are crude and extreme and then there is work that is pretty and soft. It just depends on my mood. And I’m sure it’s the same for men, too. So those are very segregating terms, artistically. I just try to make work that is honest and effective.
“I don’t like the term shock value. I don’t think it’s possible to shock people anymore and that’s not my point anyway. My point is that I am a woman, I am a heterosexual woman and this is me, taking a picture of a man and wanting to show him to the world as an erotic, vulnerable being. We don’t get to see that very often in men.”
The future Hermann is optimistic about her personal future and, especially, the musical future of Lunar Event. “Musically, our sound has much more warmth to it. I’m interested in seeing how people react to our new material. I think we’ve improved so much and I can’t wait to see what happens.” She doesn’t want to make political statements in her music, though; she reserves that for her art. “That’s something that I just don’t look to music for. Music to me is more about matching my state of mind at any given time. I don’t look to music for specific information, per se; I look to it as much for an emotional bolstering. Music can change your mood. It’s a comfort imbibement to me.”
She likens the music she dislikes to the art she dislikes. “I don’t like pictures of pretty landscapes and things like that. What does it tell you? Nature is beautiful. Of course, nature is fuckin’ beautiful. I already know that.”
And while she continues to produce her music and art, she’s looking forward to obtaining a psychology degree so she can pursue her dream of being a therapist who helps people deal with their own sexuality and sexual issues.
“It is the most vulnerable position you can ever put yourself in, but people don’t seem to really know anything about themselves in that way. You can be the most sexually dysfunctional person on Earth and have a wonderful sexual experience and vice versa. You can be an emotionally well-rounded person and have a disastrous sexual experience.
“I’m more interested not in the actual physical act of sex but in portraying the ephemeral things around it. How it can make you feel, how it can change you. It’s a point of inspiration to me because there are so many things that encompass it.”
She said, “I don’t want to confine my work with sexuality to visual art. I want to devote more of my career to it. I believe that everyone should have all the tools that they need to have a happy, functioning sense of themselves in their sexual life. I’ve found that, rather than think that this is some kind of weird niche fascination of mine, I think that I can actually devote my career to it and help others.”
Ask her what, ultimately, art and life mean to her and she barely catches her breath between sentences.
“Art is a means of gaining, literally, more life — a way of extending yourself into and understanding experiences and ways of thinking that may not be otherwise available.
“Living itself is an art. You can be and should be creative in every area of your life. TV and its rabid interest in celebrity/pop culture will destroy your mind and soul; it skews you away from what’s really important, which is knowledge, friendship, love and connecting with others. Not to say that pop culture isn’t fun ... but you’ve got to feed your mind. That is crucial to happiness and vitality and your sense of self. If you let it, the world drifts in, becomes physical and palpable — more than just sensual in your experience of it. And that is art. I’m just trying to build a sustainable model for revolutionary creative living.”