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1 + 1 = t.w.five

by Sura Wood

Installation by t.w.five at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design (detail)
Installation by t.w.five at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design (detail)  (Source:Henrik Kam)

Swedish figurative painter Pernilla Andersson and Brazilian photographer and screen printer Paula Pereira were working independently and had already claimed their respective aliases when they joined forces - and their pseudonyms - in 2009 to form t.w.five. Since then, the Bay Area duo, who are also a couple, have created installations exclusively made with hand-cut shapes of colored, adhesive-backed vinyl. The atypical medium they've chosen may conjure associations with childhood or dime-store craft supplies, but the themes they address with a subtle humor - architecture, infrastructure, togetherness, culture shock, technology, transportation, issues of exclusion and inclusion - are weighty.

They start with found images they project onto panels, then meticulously construct their projects by applying strips of vinyl. Their latest show, a site-specific installation at the Museum of Craft and Design that is smaller than their street murals or recent large-scale commissions for Google and Facebook Headquarters, focuses on the concept of home, a powerful symbol of self, identity and the fantasy of an ideal life that's an especially potent subject for artists who are immigrants living far from their native lands. The exhibition features portraits of a half-dozen innocuous, contemporary houses whose curtainless windows allow an unobstructed, voyeuristic view of the unfazed occupants' daily lives, hinting at untold stories lurking beyond our line of sight. A woman in pink curlers carries her cup of morning coffee; an older man in a white robe sits alone, huddled on his bed in a spare room; a father in a black anarchy T-shirt plays with his child; a sci-fi movie with a flying saucer appears on a flat-screen monitor in someone's living room. Across from these unveiled abodes, in the same small gallery, are several stacked "boxes" with uniform facades suggesting a largely vacant apartment complex.

When not at their day jobs - Andersson is a creative manager at Zazzle; Pereira teaches photography at Cal State Hayward - they're working at their Palo Alto studio, located midway between their homes in San Jose and San Francisco, and fielding a volley of questions from inquisitive journalists like Yours Truly. Below are edited excerpts of their answers.

Sura Wood: What's the importance to you of being what you've called "one non-gender neutral person making art?"

t.w.five: We both are pretty gender-fluid, and we never felt that our work specifically addressed gender roles. Our interests and curiosity are about being human. For reasons we don't really understand, it seems very important to people to know which gender category to place us in. People who know our work, but don't know us, assume we are male artists.

Why and how did you choose aliases?

Paula, who's originally from Brazil, was using t.w., which stands for "thirsty walls," while doing her street art in SF in the late 90s. Her English was pretty broken, so when she saw all the naked, plain walls she felt they looked "thirsty." Pernilla, who came from Sweden and studied painting since the early 90s in the US, felt that using "five" kept her work gender-neutral and allowed it to be seen as bold and expressive, instead of "emotional," which happened to her and many other female painters around her.

How did two self-described loners adjust to collaborating?

At first the thought of collaborating with someone was so alien to us. We were reluctant, but once we got in the gallery space, the flow was so easy and synchronized that we just continued collaborating. It has been almost nine years, and we love creating together.

You not only work together but are a couple. How does the personal affect the professional and vice versa, and what are the up- and down-sides of having a personal partnership with your artistic collaborator?

t.w.five has existed almost as long as our relationship, and we have learned how to separate the two things and stay focused and devoted to our art-making. By having art and a relationship we created a deep connection and a different sense of what it is to share a life together.

What was the genesis of the MCD installation?

We were looking for architecture that invited the viewers to be a part of "someone's every day." We both grew up in neighborhoods where it was common to keep the shades open and allow people to get a glimpse inside their homes. Doing so makes you feel included somehow, and has a huge sense of comfort. That feeling seems lost to us now.

Why vinyl?

We thought it would be fun to work in a totally different medium from the ones we knew. We love the way it looks, the way it feels, and especially love to see people's reaction when they look at our work from a distance and think it's a painting, then realize it's all tape and hand-cut.

How does the collaboration work?

We usually go home and brainstorm separately. When we meet, we show each other our thoughts for a specific project, and most of the time we have similar ideas. In the studio, we always do everything together. We work on the same pieces on different parts of it; then we switch and work on what the other one was doing. Believe it or not, we like and dislike the same things, a great plus for two people working together.

What are some of the individual personality traits, respective strengths and artistic styles that make it successful or cause friction?

Pernilla has a very painterly and expressive eye, and Paula sees things more bold and graphic. We complement each other that way. Personality-wise, we are so different, maybe due to our very different backgrounds: a Brazilian and a Swede. At this point we've lived here longer than in our own countries. We share a lot of the same stories about the joys and struggles of making a life away from home, which has made our connection even stronger.


Through May 20. www.sfmcd.org

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