Before Tara McPherson was a successful commercial illustrator, making poster art for bands like the Strokes, Interpol, Duran Duran and Built to Spill; before having her sweetly creepy illustrations featured in Oscar darling Juno; and before preparing more than a dozen paintings and several sculptures for her first solo show opening Feb. 23 at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery, she was the vice president of the astronomy club. As a Santa Monica Community College student, she would spend weekends camping on the rocky deserts of Joshua Tree National Park, drinking beers and watching the stars until the sunrise snuffed them out of view. Ms. McPherson considered giving up art for an astrophysics degree. “But I was thinking, do I really want to be an astronomer? I’ll be alone logging data in the middle of the night,” Ms. McPherson, now 31, explained in her storefront Williamsburg studio, curled up in a paint-smudged black hoodie and turquoise-colored jeans. “But now here I sit by myself all night. Ironically enough, I’m doing the exact same thing I was trying to avoid. Becoming an artist, I didn’t realize I’d be alone so much.”
Ms. McPherson, an L.A. native who moved to New York three years ago, has been applying a painterly technique to her promotional music work since she made her first poster, in 2002. Her distinctly female-oriented aesthetic, which could be spied at rock clubs all over the country, inspired Juno producers to ask whether they could include some of Ms. McPherson’s illustrations in the bedroom where Ellen Page’s ultra-hip character confesses her accidental pregnancy to her best friend on a phone shaped like a hamburger. Ms. McPherson’s image of a stunning, alienlike woman with a heart-shaped hole cut through her chest stands out among the pop-culture-cluttered landscape on Juno’s wall.
Her work features solitary, hauntingly beautiful women with curtains of bangs and catlike eyes looking out onto supernatural landscapes. Some are intergalactic fighters, battling snakes and tentacled beasts with their bare hands. Others present their detached, cartoonish hearts in cages or on platters. In the background, sad-eyed balloons hang dejectedly out of reach. Cartoon skulls grow like cabbages out of rolling fields. Mountains have smiley-face grins. “I want [my work] to be subtly unnerving. Even if it’s cute and innocent and sweet, I want it to be just a little unsettling,” Ms. McPherson said while examining a painting of a girl with a knife piercing the crown of her head. “I think life is that way. It’s a reflection on the complexities of the situations life puts you in.”
WITH HER SOLO show at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in Chelsea, Ms. McPherson is creating some distance from her punk-rock roots even as she brings her cool-kid, comic-book edge to the gallery scene. Mr. LeVine, the gallerist, has been tracking Ms. McPherson’s progress since she graduated from college. Artists with a rogue, street-art aesthetic like Ms. McPherson, he thinks, are breaking new ground between commercial illustration and fine art. Walking the path worn by artists like Art Spiegelman and even the Sotheby’s street-art favorite Banksy, Ms. McPherson is one of the subculture-inspired punks currently making inroads to the still-stuffy art world.
“I grew up on TV, skateboarding, punk rock, tattoo, all this stuff that just gets incorporated into this kind of art,” Mr. LeVine explained. Growing up in Trenton, N.J., in the 80’s, he was a punk kid who collected comic books, record jackets and posters. He opened his gallery on West 20th Street in January 2005 to push the “lowbrow,” “pop surrealist” genre out of the streets and into contemporary art galleries. “We look at it and it has an iconography. It’s like their visual language that some people don’t see. The fine art world is so oblivious to it, despite that it’s proliferating all over the world.”
Mr. LeVine said Ms. McPherson has been working in the “ghetto of the art world,” by designing toys for companies like Kid Robot and constantly making art for other people, to sell a rock show or a concert. “Because their training is about applied art and providing imagery for other people, it takes a while for an artist to slowly evolve out of that commercial work and really transition into fine art work,” Mr. LeVine explained.
“This is going to be a very pivotal show for her,” he said. “It’s about her life. She’s dealing with the typical stuff, besides her career, of being single, being of a certain age, going through boyfriends, being into rock music. A lot of that stuff comes out with her work. She’s talking about her own struggle in a way, her own emotional struggle, her human condition.”
BORN IN SAN Francisco in 1976, Ms. McPherson was raised in Los Angeles during the rise of the rock art movement. She studied drawing, photography and stained-glass painting at her arts magnet school before taking the California proficiency test at 16 to leave high school early because she was “bored.” A year later, she enrolled in Santa Monica Community College and took an astronomy class for a math requirement and became enchanted by stars, planets and outer space. “I think it was my own little backlash against doing art for so long,” she explained. Although she abandoned the idea of a career in astrophysics, she illustrates her characters under starry skies, on other planets and in otherworldly atmospheres, often sporting large helmets like the kind astronauts would wear.
Around the same time that she decided to become an artist, she got fired from a coffee shop job after giving free food to a patron in exchange for records. Her friend helped her get a job managing a Japanese toy, animation and comic-book store in L.A., and the Asian aesthetic influenced her clean, muted painting style. She worked at the store for three years before attending the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, graduating in 2001 with honors in illustration and a minor in fine art.