Holly and Ashlee Temple have just finished cleaning out their Sand City art studio, and Ashlee found a crushed ceramic plate meant for a dollhouse. Many would trash it. Instead she glues it onto a work-in-progress on the table. The broken plate addition to the white-and-pink-paper piece catches Holly’s eye; she approves.
This is typical of their collaborations on conceptual artworks, which started by trading pieces in the mail, when Holly lived in Philadelphia and Ashlee lived in San Rafael. Now Holly lives in Carmel and works as a graphic designer; Ashlee lives in Stockton and teaches theater at San Joaquin Delta College. They converge here on weekends, poring over antique-shop photos, talking ideas and painting.
For an upcoming show, they’re reviving an old series featuring pages of a 1970s Barbie coloring book they bought on eBay. Barbie has short hair and in one image is wearing pants. “We’re going to make her a true feminist,” Holly says.
In their paintings, the coloring book pages are surrounded by layers of thick paint in varying shades of white. They’ve retitled these works to reflect the political environment: “Barbie and Ken Go to Planned Parenthood,” “Barbie Calls Her Senator.” In one, Barbie is holding a bar of soap; Ashlee mulls the name “She’s Going to Clean Sean Spicer’s Mouth Out.”
The duo talked to the Weekly in advance of a May 25 opening.
Tell me about the process of working together.
Holly: If you look at our early work, it’s similar. Then 12 years ago we decided, let’s do a painting together. It’s not like we’re doing a landscape. We’re talking about ideas, then the ideas develop. And there’s a lot of layering that happens.
Ashlee: I might put down a layer, then Holly will put down a layer.
Holly: The thing about a painting is you can always cover up.
Ashlee: “Get the white paint!” That’s the eraser, white paint.
Has your work always been political?
Ashlee: I think we’re more political now than we were before. The balance is to make it a painting you want to look at no matter what it’s about. It still has to stand as a visual piece that is engaging to look on.
Holly: You don’t want just a number 45. You do want it to transcend time. It has to be something you visually want to look at, endlessly, no matter what we title it.
The test of time sounds like a different standard than being aesthetically pleasing.
Holly: Maybe it’s both. Look at pop art, and you know they all came out in the ’60s. I don’t know if you are going to look at the Temple sisters and say, “Oh that was done during the Number 45 era.”
Have you become more political as people, not just artists, post-election?
Holly: That election woke me up. I have never been this political before. I’d never been to a march before. I never called my senator before. I’ve never been this worried before.
Ashlee: If Barbie can get political, anyone can. If Barbie can call her senator…
What’s happening in your newer series, with paint, tape and old photographs showing a woman’s young adulthood during World War II?
Ashlee: It’s this idea of being ripped up and piecing yourself together. Someone might have a different feeling about that. I just enjoy looking at this. A lot of times, our art is like you’re in an attic and opened a drawer and the pieces of someone’s life have been arranged there. What is the story you go through as you examine it?
What do you want viewers to get out of the What Now? show?
Ashlee: We have to find a way to move forward. It is important we don’t give into despair and cynicism. I think all art is about that. If your art gets cynical, you’re dead; that will date it. It’s an act of creation.
Holly: If everyone created, we might not be in this mess.