[Interview] with Maria Hummel

By Jackie DesForges


The art world is a seemingly glamorous place: prestigious museums, wealthy donors, a new artist always on the horizon. These types of places—where everything seems too good to be true—make the best settings for crime stories, which is why Maria Hummel has spent two books exploring the darkness that can lurk within those prestigious museum and gallery walls. In her first book in this series, Still Lives, we meet editor and aspiring journalist Maggie Richter, who quickly finds herself involved in the abrupt and mysterious disappearance of artist Kim Lord. Though Kim Lord is a fictional artist, and the Rocque Museum—where Maggie works—is a fictional institution, Hummel draws on her real experiences working in the museum world in downtown Los Angeles in the early 2000s, and the violence depicted in Lord’s work is indicative of the very real violence women face and fear in our everyday lives, especially at the hands of men.


Lesson in Red, Hummel’s new book, picks up Maggie’s story where we left her in Still Lives, and this time she finds herself reluctantly drawn back into another mystery, and another potential murder, but this time in the gallery world rather than the museum environment. The artist in question this time is Brenae Brasil, another character inspired by real performance and film artists in the Los Angeles art scene and beyond. Brenae is an extremely talented emerging art student in a school that resembles CalArts, but her life and career are cut short when she is found dead, apparently by suicide, in her dorm studio. Once again, Maggie finds herself involved in the investigation somewhat against her will, unable to stifle her desire to find justice for Brenae—a woman she didn’t personally know, but whose artwork strikes something deeply personal in her and in all of the women who see it.


I had the opportunity to speak with Hummel about Lesson in Red, and we discussed the inspiration for her characters, the power dynamics of the art world, the art that has kept us going throughout the pandemic, and the way poetry and crime fiction might actually have more in common than we realized.


Kelp Journal: Let’s start with the character who created the titular artwork, Lesson in Red: Brenae Brasil. In both Still Lives and now this book, you created fictional female artists who are each at the center of these stories. Kim Lord, the character from Still Lives who used herself as a model for her artwork, reminded me of real-life artist Cindy Sherman, and now the character Brenae reminds me of a specific artist as well, but I’d like to hear you speak a bit about your inspiration for those characters before I say whom I think she’s based on.


Maria Hummel: My inspiration for Brenae Brasil came from a number of different performance artists. When I was working at MOCA, I learned a lot about artists who filmed various performances and actions from the 1970s on. It got me thinking about the person who not only lives their art, but also records it, and the pressures that come from inhabiting a body that is a living artwork and also an object (the video version), catalogued for posterity to see. Chris Burden, for example, was a Pomona College star, probably most famous now for having a friend shoot him in the arm, but that artwork was part of a whole decade of risky actions that he did, like locking himself in an art locker and living there for five days, or performing water torture on himself and broadcasting it to a remote audience. Marina Abramović’s performance work was another inspiration point—but whom were you thinking of?


KJ: Ana Mendieta. I’m a huge fan of her photographs and films, and Brenae’s pieces reminded me a lot of those pieces.


MH: Oh yes! Around the time that Still Lives came out, I made a little Instagram series of female artists who inspired the Kim Lord character, and Ana Mendieta was part of that. She’s one of many artists looking at the female image and the female body, and how we objectify it.


KJ: I love her. And she played on those themes you mentioned, especially violence against women, and since she made herself the subject of many of her films, she retains agency in telling these stories and discussing these issues. I think artwork and crime stories often have a problem of making women objects rather than subjects. In Lesson in Red, all of your female characters have so much agency and are the forces behind the artwork and the investigation of Brenae’s death. What is your process like for writing about the very real violence that women face without running into that trope of the objectified dead girl?


MH: Separating of the image from the person is one thing I’ve really tried to work on with these books. And yes, the stylized image of the “dead girl” is something that is pervasive in our culture, especially in opening scenes of crime stories or thrillers. It’s the “bombshell blonde” dead on the sidewalk with rain dripping in her open eyes, that type of thing. Even in books that I enjoy reading, I think, There she is again! And it’s the image of her that is most fascinating to people, more often than the person herself. And so, the journey of Maggie, my protagonist, is in part about realizing that there is a person behind these images and these murders. Still Lives set the quest that Maggie follows in Lesson in Red: to see what happened to Brenae as more than just a dramatic story that would make a good journalistic piece. It’s important for authors in the mystery and thriller genre to keep considering what it means that the dead girl has become such a convention, and on top of that: Why is she so often a white, blonde bombshell?


KJ: Yes, crime stories have always been somewhat of a form of entertainment in some way, but I think it’s important every so often to reexamine these stories we’re consuming and consider the narratives they perpetuate, especially where women are concerned. I think it’s why Brenae’s pieces feel so visceral, even though we are just reading about them and not actually seeing them. We can imagine the performance. Was this stage in contemporary art—when film and digital media were coming into use more often—one of the reasons you decided to set the book in 2003 rather than present day?


MH: In part, I chose that time period because that’s when I lived in Los Angeles, and Los Angeles, as you know, changes so rapidly! And I didn’t want to be beholden to an LA I didn’t know. So, in part, I set the book during this time because it was familiar to me and I could pull from memory. But also, the videos in the story are a record of a certain performance and a person, and some of those videos get lost, which is important to the plot of the story. With smart phones and our now daily, constant attachment to the internet, it might be more difficult now to erase them.


I also like the way that videos have become a form of resistance in contemporary culture; for example, all of the recordings of police brutality. The video has become a way for individual people—and often powerless people—to say, “You don’t think this happens? Look. Watch it.” Part of that resistant spirit is in Brenae’s work.


KJ: So true. And even though this book takes place almost twenty years ago, that act of recording a societal truth and using video as a form of resistance still rings completely true today. I also want to talk about the power dynamics of the art world, which you show clearly in several relationships in this book: these older men who act as mentors—or who mistakenly think they are mentors—to young ingenue women artists; gallery owners and the artists they represent; Hal and Janis fighting for their versions of the LA art museum’s future. Who do you think has the most power in the art world right now?


MH: That’s a big question! Money has definitely been a huge factor in art world power structures, which is also a part of this book. I think there’s always been a class of art collector who is absolutely in it because they love art; and now there’s another group of people who are just in it for the commodity, and that latter group has changed the pace of success for artists. A lot of younger artists have had to become almost “brands” if they want to make money or be successful. Art schools have become more important, too, because they are the incubators of the next big thing.


KJ: That was a great answer for a big question! I like how this book explores the art school and gallery environments, whereas Still Lives explored the museum world. You and I have both worked in the art world, so we’re aware of the major differences that exist between these spaces, but this may be new information for some readers. Were there major differences in writing about the gallery world versus the museum world this time around?


MH: I definitely have more experience on the museum side of things, so I think there were more inner workings depicted in Still Lives. But what I was really interested in exploring in Lesson in Red—which I also witnessed at the museum—was that oftentimes there are people building shows who aren’t actually the artist, and a lot of the time the artist isn’t doing much physically. They had the initial concept and they’re taking interviews and being the face of it, but there’s this group of students or staff who are basically making the whole thing. That’s something I focused on with the student characters—how they possess the creation of Hal Giroux’s work, but not the credit for it.


They are advantaged by the power brokers of the art world, which is a classic who-you-know system, but also dispossessed by them. With Nelson de Wilde, the character who owns the gallery, I was interested in the relationship between a gallerist and their artist, and how that relationship can often be nurturing, sort of like a literary agent and a writer. There are gallerists who take this role very seriously and see themselves as essential to the artists, because they are able act almost as a coach to a player. So for me, it’s a really interesting role, because some people take it almost as a calling, whereas others treat it more as a business.


KJ: I think a lot of people picture the artist as this lone creature coming up with their own ideas and making all their own work, but often, it’s actually this whole ecosystem, especially if someone is in school or gets represented by a gallery, or joins a collective.


MH: It’s almost like it’s its own little feudal society! There are these hierarchies and levels that aren’t always so visible to the public.


KJ: Exactly. And like any other field, it’s not always necessarily the best or most talented person who makes it to the top—it’s the person who made the right connections or got noticed by the right person, or who persisted the longest, or—and unfortunately, we see this happen often in the arts—who didn’t suffer from mental illness to the point that it hurt or ended their career. Mental illness is as much a part of Lesson in Red as is the issue of physical violence. From the beginning of the book, we know that Brenae has died and that police have determined she died by suicide, but whether or not that’s true is one of the book’s central mysteries. And to be honest, I didn’t know which outcome I was rooting for: suicide or murder. Did you explore both options for the ending before deciding on the final version?


MH: I appreciate you saying that, because it was something I struggled with while writing the book. And I was taking into consideration the conventions of the genre, and whether I wanted to subvert them, and if so, how much. I decided on the ending probably in the second draft, but still it was one that I didn’t necessarily want to write toward. They are both tragic in different ways. Ultimately, I decided that one of the central mysteries of the book is that, no matter what actually happened, why did the people around Brenae try to cover it up? That’s another criminal part of it to me. They were trying to frame her legacy in a certain way, to pave over her voice with their own motivations and self-protection.


KJ: To me that’s so much more interesting than a crime story that follows the more traditional formula of solving the “what” rather than the “why.” This book is much more about the “why” and the “who,” and I think we learn that lesson along with Maggie as she goes deeper into this world. Maggie is a writer and that is how she approaches the other characters and situations in the book—with her writer’s brain always working in overdrive—and I know that you also write poetry in addition to fiction. The writing in this story is so lyrical, and I imagine that must be the poetry influence. I was wondering what, if anything, you get out of writing crime fiction that you don’t get out of writing poetry, or vice versa?


MH: I should answer this by first explaining what happened to me as a poet. In poetry, for years, I had been mostly writing free verse, but then I started writing in form, like sonnets and villanelles, and it got me really excited about formal structures and how they’re a kind of literary engineering. There’s certain steps or procedures with a sonnet—it has to have fourteen lines, certain lines have to rhyme—and it produces an engine for you as a writer that you can operate in your own way. And so I thought: Where is that kind of engine in fiction? The mystery genre is the most codified literary engine we have. People have expectations of how a mystery is going to go—where it starts, how it develops, where it ends. There are conventions about who and what belongs—the suspects, the detective, the red herrings. I started with the idea that I wanted to play with the procedures of genre and in particular the mystery. That was the start. What I didn’t expect was how writing mysteries would change me and the way I plotted my stories. I was always more of a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type of writer, but you can’t do that with a crime story. You have to know what happens and work backwards from there. And so I think the process of sketching out this book, which I do by hand in notebooks, kind of daydreaming out the story before I actually write it, that’s something new I’ve gained in writing mysteries that I didn’t necessarily do before in my other writing.


KJ: And my last question is more of a general one: Is there any specific artwork—in any medium—that helped you get through the pandemic?


MH: I found myself watching two things for comfort: There’s this great video that shows a walk-through of James Turrell’s massive land art in progress, Roden Crater. The magnitude of that work, it’s so much larger than life and larger than our time. And when you see someone spend decades upon decades on this one work, and how meaningful that is, it just puts a creative life into perspective and reminds you not to get caught up on the smaller things. And then I also watched videos of massive concerts and shows, just to remember what it was like to be in a giant crowd with strangers listening to music.


KJ: And just the bliss of not knowing that it would be forbidden to us for an entire year.


MH: Yes! And everyone singing a song together in one voice. And I have a fourteen-year-old son, and I so want him to see some big shows like that. It’s so transformative—almost like a religious experience. So I want that part of life to come back.


Jackie DesForges is a writer and artist based in Los Angeles with an MFA from UC Riverside. Her work has been published or shown in The New York Times, Off Assignment, Exposition Review, Matador Network, Woman Made Gallery, and more. She is currently working on her first novel and you can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @jackie__writes.