Edgar Serrano: Rumors of My Demise

Edgar Serrano, I am an Enigma, Even to Myself, 2021, 48 x 72 inches, Oil on canvas

 

Edgar Serrano is a painter whose work integrates a range of visual aesthetics, iconography, and even materials, dissolving unstable borders between popular culture and fine art, analog and digital, self and “other,” while challenging xenophobia and reductive representation through appropriation and complexity. Born and raised in Chicago, he now lives and works in New Haven, CT where he earned an MFA in painting and printmaking from Yale University School of Art. His solo show Rumors of My Demise is the inaugural exhibition at Brief Histories’ new space on the Bowery in New York. Rumors of My Demise runs through January 8, 2022.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

Where are you from, where do you live now, and how has your environment affected your work?

I am originally from the west side of Chicago and lived there until 2008 when I went away to graduate school. After graduate school I lived in Brooklyn for a few years doing art residencies and trying to maintain a studio practice. The stimulating thing about Brooklyn was how everything was mixed up, different ethnicities, different cultures, different perspectives all interwoven and in tatters but beautiful, nonetheless. This is vastly different than the environment I grew up in Chicago where the city itself is designed to keep everyone segregated, isolated, and in place.

I currently live and work in New Haven, Connecticut. Connecticut is interesting because it prides itself in being socially progressive and inclusive environment. From my experience it’s also very segregated but in this invisible and unspoken way. I grew up amongst unseen but ever-present borders that have sharpened my senses and shape my practice. Looking into different worlds, either through art history, or Saturday morning cartoons, to wider political, economic, and societal issues I am drawn to the borders and peripheries dividing these worlds.

 

Edgar Serrano, Eternal Artifice, 2018, 46 x 61 inches, Oil on canvas

 

Could you speak on how these borders and peripheries manifest in your paintings, whether in terms process, form, and/or subject? For example works like “Eternal Artifice” appear to be in a moment of flux or transition…

Recently, I’ve been interested in the hand drawn “animation smear” which depicts one quick blur of motion in a single frame and the illusion of movement found in cartoons from the Golden Age of American Animation (1920s-60s). By using video editing software, I can analyze video files frame-by-frame, isolating and excavating normally invisible moments of transition or blur.

“Eternal Artifice” for example was initially excavated from various childhood cartoon sources using my personal archive of VHS tapes and video editing software. Resulting in images that are both familiar and strange, showing well-known cartoon characters in states of transition that are usually undetectable to the human eye. Due to the speed of film and the sequential duration of these short states of transition.

In my research I found that these in-between “blur or transitional” movements in cartoons from my childhood, mirrored my own trauma of not knowing English initially as the son of Mexican immigrants and that of migrant children in detention centers. The blur acting as a state of being caught in-between two realities, flux, or a limbo state. My relationship to these images is both symbolic and contains a dark narrative subtext.

 

A few of your paintings, such as “I am an Enigma, Even to Myself,” “The Sun Doesn’t Set It Just Goes Away,” and “Encyclopedia of Invisibility” include a Frankenstein-esque figure or silhouette. Is this a self-portrait of sorts? How do you relate to this misunderstood “monster”?

I sometimes evoke the tropes and aesthetics of villains and monsters as a metaphor for marginalized identities. Cartoon monsters as abstract representations of how people might perceive me or others that resemble me. For example, the werewolf, the intruder, or the Frankenstein monster, operate as proxies. The Frankenstein monster in particular is a monster with compassion and who also suffers from a complex identity. Feeling misunderstood, he causes fear due to his appearance, and that same fear makes him afraid. This sentiment is mirrored in the social realities of contemporary America: the fear of the unknown and xenophobia. As we know through great literature and perhaps in art, humanity’s irrational perceptions and fear are the true monsters.

 

In your younger years, your visual influences were cartoons, album covers, and magazines. Since entering the formal world of fine art, what have been your more recent visual influences?

I am still interested in imagery grounded in reproductions, like cartoons, postcards, and comics. But I am also clearly interested in and responding to the political and social context around me.

Some of my visual influences range from postwar/contemporary German artists who moved from abstraction to figuration in a new way like Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Albert Oehlen, and Georg Herold.

Recently I’ve also become attentive to the inadequacy of abstraction to clearly delineate meaning, which leaves room for a fresh perspective and to make new meaning. Some of the other artists that I see as exploring this territory are American abstract artists like Rochelle Feinstein, Mary Heilmann, and Jessica Stockholder. This inadequacy leaves the door open for invention and opportunity in painting, which appeals to me.

I am also invested in Carroll Dunham’s work. As I see it, he disregards the boundaries between high and low art and gathers diverse vocabularies into one picture frame to create immediacy and impact. Ideas and feelings come from one direction and social and political conditions come from another direction. I try to approach painting from a similarly messy hinge point.

 

Edgar Serrano, Old Brown and Jaded, 2021, 30 x 24 inches, Oil, leather, and wood on canvas

 

This hinge point is interesting in relation to some of your newer work, which incorporates pop cultural imagery based in Latinx culture, including photorealistic depictions of cholos, clowns, masks, and low-riders, with art historical references, abstract forms, and materials such scrap leather and wood. What is it about the dynamic between these elements that appeals to you?

We are all molded by our environment, more so when we are young. My early life seeps into the work. But I am not interested in replicating the conditions of my upbringing. Instead, I want to infuse these memories with my present self and contemporary issues. My hope is that these dichotomies of Latinx culture and art historical references that hinge in my lived experiences demonstrate my willingness to be open and vulnerable while also leaving room for subversion.

Regarding materiality, I use wood and leather to index a kind of Primitivism which I hope also subtly conveys issues of cultural power.

I am curious about the idea of Primitivism as it relates to Modernist Art that has appropriated artifacts, carvings, and images produced by ancient native cultures. Primitivism is of course a condescending term coined by so-called enlightened civilized Europeans to refer to the art of the “uneducated and uncivilized tribes of Africa and Latinx America.” The word Primitivism presupposes a lack of evolution in these cultures and the art that they produced.

I’ve been thinking about self-taught art as a kind of primitive mask that both obscures and refracts representations of the Latinx. The kind of contemporary “primitive” masks I am talking about can be found in stickers distributed in low-income communities via vending machines that are meant to appeal to young children. I am interested in how these images facilitate identity formation as these unflattering mass mediated images circulate stereotypes within and outside of Latinx culture. In contrast, my work attempts to use these images to construct subjects that contain their own complexities and agency.

 

Edgar Serrano, Intruder IV, 2020, 36 x 36 inches, Oil on canvas

 

One of my favorite paintings (or series of paintings) in the show is “Intruder,” the first version of which appeared in your issue #25 zingmagazine project. What does this image of a hand pulling apart blinds signify to you? And why haven you chosen to make multiple versions of the painting?

For the “Intruder” series, I considered how the window has been used as a metaphor for painting: a transparent screen that offers a glimpse into another world. This series began with an image I found on the internet that I then digitally manipulated. Combining the metaphor of art as a window to the social imaginaries of xenophobia in contemporary America, the window also works as a metaphor for screen culture, translation, the flattening of information, and a border or boundary between worlds. I use the Internet as a window to an eternal present and intermediate space, separate from lived time; it offers me both a way to understand our present and a chance to see a future beyond oppressive traditions and hierarchies.

I also like to think of the window as a transitional space: It offers me both a way to understand our present and mirrors my own experience of existing in-between cultures as a Mexican American. I see the hands pulling apart blinds as abstract representations of humanity. Are we looking in or looking out?

The reason for the multiple versions is the limitless possibilities that are available by using digital image editing software. Also, my renewed interest or perhaps permission in seriality stems from recently reading, Van Gogh The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith and also The Andy Warhol Diaries. Both artists drew repeatedly from the same subject matter. Like a meme, this reliance on a single source opened the possibility to create endless and imaginative iterations from a single image.

 

-Brandon Johnson, November 2021

Margaret Lee: Summer Discutio

Installation view, courtesy of Jack Hanley Gallery

“Margaret Lee: Summer Discutio” on view at Jack Hanley, East Hampton, August 27 – September 18, 2021

 

Interview by Devon Dikeou 

 

The title of your show “Summer Discutio” seems to open up conversation—root of discutio is discussion, but “discutio” also finds itself akin to shattered, strike down, dissipate which are the opposite of discussion. Could you talk about how the title and the word discutio effects and affects the reading and making of this recent body of work.

I came across “discutio” while reading an older text, although funnily can’t remember where specifically. While prepping for this show, I found a note in an older sketchbook where I had written the word very large and circled it, which meant I should look into the meaning. And yes, while looking into the etymology, I saw this contradiction which confirmed my wanting to make my new work with this contradiction in mind. My move towards abstraction was spurred on by wanting to sit with contradictions or seemingly oppositional forces. Very simply starting with black and white, 2D and 3D not through a “verses” lens but a relational lens or a reciprocal relation.

 

There is a very pared down palette and material use in the four paintings and four sculpture groupings, black, white, silver, gray (paintings) and wood scraps, nails, and screws (sculptures). No jars or loose change, disbanded rubber bands—that junk drawer described in the press release is curated and edited to a minimal amount of variants . . . Please elucidate on these decisions.

The process of narrowing down my choices is generally how I get to making a new body of work. I’ve never been drawn to the “everything is possible” fantasy but do think if consideration and care are applied to the given parameters and context, most things are possible. Conditions are always changing and so things in the past might not apply to today, so before I start working I take an assessment. Looking through my jumble jars/drawers is a simple, highly controlled, low-stakes mental exercise in assessment. Rather than tossing the whole lot out at once or using it all at once, I dump it out and see if things start to click with the ideas I’m mulling over. In this case, it started with scrap wood. The off-cuts were already all the same size creating an instant grouping without me having to decide scale. The uniformity of those pieces of wood informed my decision to stay rigid in my pallet and material use. It is always a relief when the materials give directions so clearly.

 

Margaret Lee, Discutio #1 & 2, 2021, courtesy of Jack Hanley Gallery 

 

Installation view, courtesy of Jack Hanley Gallery

 

Previous bodies of your work take on/cite artistic movements, trends, practices as varied as the Pictures Generation, Surrealism, outright trompe l’ouille, even collage. The work in “Summer Discutio” is more staid . . . I feel like it’s channeling some era, a summer era oft thought of in terms of the Hamptons, as so many ab ex or action painters called the Hamptons their studio/home. Did locale have any influence on the work exhibited . . .

It’s hard for me to separate the location from its history and from its present form and I have mixed feelings on both, as I’ve had mixed feelings about all the other movements/trends I’ve cited previously. There is so much romanticism around painting and especially painters who have left the city. That narrative often ignores or erases previous histories as well as privileges the singular genius mythology. When given the opportunity to exhibit my work in a very specific context that perhaps I’m not 100% comfortable existing within, the process of conceptualizing, honing down ideas and the actual making of the work helps. I don’t feel the need to make that extremely personal process explicitly legible within the works themselves but hopefully materiality, form, palette and repetition come together to convey not resolution but an expanded inquiry, which I hope continues indefinitely.

 

Margaret Lee, Zebra (Huh/What), 2009

 

So this idea of context in terms of studio practice and exhibition is of a personal nature, but there is some discussion/discutio that happens naturally between conception/execution and conception/exhibition . . . what about context when a work or body of work is collected. There an artist has no idea in what context their work will be exhibited or seen, or equally importantly, in the reading of their exhibition history present, past, and future. It’s an uncontrollable known, or maybe a controllable unknown. How does the work in “Summer Discutio“ relate to say specifically, the series in the Dikeou Collection, Zebra (Huh, What) 2009-12 . . .”

Those Zebra “paintings” are works I have consistently returned to as I make stretched paintings on canvas. I think when I made those works, I was trying to set certain parameters for how my work would be contextualized and what type of conversation the works would elicit. I wanted to question value and how it is created and the role of reproduction and authenticity within that process. The zebra acted as a ruse that allowed me to work with black and white paint without having to commit to or be placed within a Painting dialogue that I did not necessarily belong or wanted to be placed. Ten years later, I still committed to working with a limited and stark palate and less concerned with controlling context. Resigned and accepting discussion does not always result in understanding and consensus.

 

Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept A (Concetto Spaziale A), 1968

 

Alberto Giacometti, City Square, 1948

 

Pedestals, well they aren’t really that are they, plinths would be more accurate. How do these plinths interface with the work . . . of “Summer Discutio”. A perfect exhibition structure to present the imperfect . . . I kinda want to see one of those nails break the plane of the surface of the plinth that presents it . . . The same goes for the white cube gallery, which seems to be a cottage, and has cottage like cut out walls that follow the pitch of the house rather than the scrutiny of the white cube . . . And one of the wall hangings is referred to as sculpture . . . Very “Working Space”/Frank Stella-ish . . . Oh and Fontana . . . Screws certainly pierce the picture plane there . . . Thoughts . . .

I wasn’t able to do a site visit to the space before making these works but once they sent me a floor plan and photos, I realized the space felt somewhat divided in two, rather than a traditional white cube. This probably led me to wanting to include pedestal works to help balance the proportions between wall space and floor space. Whether or not I was successful, my intention was to seamlessly transition from the 2D painting surface to the surface of the sculptures. The paintings sit on white walls so I wanted the small sculptures to sit on an equivalent, which to me meant white pedestals. I definitely was thinking about piercing the plane, which was more easily achieved via sculpture than painting. I’ve been thinking about holes, punctures and the objects that get placed in said holes or do the puncturing for a few years now. I guess I’m still thinking.

 

Numbers . . . Three and four . . . Do they have any significance . . . In “Summer Discutio” . . . The groupings of both paintings and sculptures literally are in groups of three or four, often the compositions themselves in the paintings and sculptures favor groupings of three or four . . . I think I even count three or four windows . . . It speaks certainly of rhythm and balance, sometimes symmetry . . . Sometimes asymmetry. Are these threes and fours lonely soldiers or walking Congress in palazzos . . . Discussing or Discutio . . .

When I number my works, I think it’s in the mindset of getting one foot in front of the other, slow and steady, one step at a time, don’t get ahead of yourself. In my earlier work, I could set myself a task of making a plaster form look exactly like a watermelon. It was very obvious when the work was done and if the transformation was successful. With abstraction, it’s such a battle knowing what I’m trying to achieve and also knowing if I’ve arrived at the place I think I was trying to get to. Start with #1 and seeing how far it goes allows me to work without setting an overly ambitious agenda or thinking in grand epic proportions. But also, yes in regard to being in relation to the windows, I try not to fight against the space where I’m to exhibit new work but to allow the space to inform my decisions. And yes also to this idea that the works are talking or in discussion with one another, especially the sculptures. There is an internal dialogue between all the objects in the space, with each other and with the environment. It would be impossible for me to transcribe into words all the back and forth that is going on but also maybe that’s not the point.

 

-Devon Dikeou

Karin Davie: It's A Wavvy Wavvy World

Karin Davie, While My Painting Gently Weeps no 2, 2019, oil on linen over shaped stretcher, 74 1/2 x 84 inches. Courtesy CHART, photo: Spike Mafford.

 

Karin Davie, originally from Toronto and now working between Seattle and New York, is a painter responding not only to the history of the practice preceding her time but also to her personal experience in the world. She was awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship Award in 2015 and was the subject of a major retrospective at the Albright-Knox Museum, Buffalo, in 2016, along with other institutional exhibitions both nationally and internationally. Her curated project
“Pushed, Pulled, Depleted & Duplicated” (with a poem-forward by John LeKay) appeared in issue #19 of zingmagazine. Davie’s solo exhibition “It’s A Wavy Wavy World” is on view through October 30 at Chart Gallery in Tribeca, New York.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

Upon entering the gallery I was met with two large scale paintings “While My Painting Gently Weeps No 2 & 4”. Each was immediately reminiscent of the surface of a moody and foreboding sea, which speaks to the title of this exhibition “It’s A Wavy Wavy World”. Did your thinking around the show change at all with the recent prolific flooding that occurred in New York as a result of the rainfall from Hurricane Ida?

The weather has become so unpredictable and dangerous because of global warming—but no, I didn’t think about this recent event in terms of my work. The imagery in these paintings comes from a deep ongoing interest in the history of art, the language of painting, issues of gender, identity, the body and landscape. My work doesn’t come from a reflexive reaction to something current in the news cycle. It’s a distillation of things that come from past and present history and my own lived experience. If I am drawn to some experience or idea, or am inspired to investigate something I don’t understand, these may develop enough urgency to make a painting. Things enter the work through a kind of osmosis. It’s filtered through my engagement with the world, sometimes pleasant, other times upsetting or enraging, and this takes time.

I currently live in Seattle, Washington. When I travel to my studio over a floating bridge which stretches across Lake Washington, I study the color and movement of the water and how it changes depending on the light and reflections. This experience of being surrounded by water, is an amazing sensation. I’m sure it has influenced my work. But I should also say, that water has an effect on me not only as an observed phenomenon, but as a metaphor for the forces of flow, unpredictability, transparency, the emotions, among others.

 

Moving further into the gallery there are four paintings featuring white squares in the middle surrounded by wavy brushstrokes and color gradients of blue, green, violet, orange and yellow. The former made me think of being underwater and looking to the surface light, while the latter resonated as cosmic or even supernatural transitory passageways, birth canals or “the light at the end of the tunnel.” Are these references on the mark, and how did you decide on the color palettes for these four paintings?

All the square paintings with intrusions have a slightly sly and humorous relationship to the metaphysical “light at the end of the tunnel” image. I wanted to play with this idea, and connect it to Minimalist painting, which is self-referential, emphasizing the medium and object-hood of the canvas, over a reflection of the outside world. These paintings push right up on representation and depictions of the body. This work is also rooted in personal experience, engaging with ideas about the self and identity. It’s a mash-up or smash up depending how you look at it (laugh). To me, they look like many things that convey transformation. For some paintings, I had a clear idea from the start what the color was going to be—certain hues of watery blues, hemoglobin reds or chlorella greens, for instance. I start by mixing up those colors, but the process allows for intuition. It’s not taken directly from observation or straight out of a tube. It may have origins from things I’ve observed in the world, and has to feel specific, but expands to involve organizing combinations of gradient colors to capture a mood or a feeling of temperature as well as creating optical movement, light and space in the painting.

 

In both cases, there is a primordial depth as relating to the sea (from which all life on our planet originates) and our own human watery origins of the womb. This is not only a space of physical abyss but also emotional, as watching the sea and contemplating our origins tends to have this effect. You’ve said the “wavy image” is a “recurring theme in my work and a metaphor for human emotions and life’s challenges–an obsession of mine.” Could you say more about this wavy image—as a symbol, a formal approach, and metaphor?

I can’t really tell you concretely why I’m compelled to paint waves or curving undulating forms, except to say that I’m driven to depict forms that relate to things in nature and the human figure. Geometric shapes contain and oppose this organic form. Perhaps we’ll find out in the future that these attractions or obsessions are all based on biology and genetics. Waves, by definition, are a disrupted transfer of energy and an action. The wave imagery can be metaphorical, but it’s not necessarily a thing itself, it becomes both a thing and an action when I paint. In my work an apparent landscape can morph into a bodily function or contour. It is this kind of “waviness” that is central to my expression. I’m engaged with the paint as a material and manipulate it into what I need to convey. My expression is embedded in the formal language of painting. In this particular work, it manifests in fields of wavy strokes in seemingly antagonistic relationship to the shaped format. It’s challenging and satisfying to work within this tight but limitless conceptual framework. These paintings have kinetic energy both optically and physically. These waves are essentially energy—they can destroy, or rejuvenate, possess darkness or light.

 

Karin Davie, In the Metabolic no 3, 2019 oil on linen over shaped stretcher 75 3/4 x 72 x 1/2 inches. Courtesy CHART, photo: Spike Mafford. 

 

Many of the canvasses are shaped. What went into this decision? I’m particularly interested in those small semi-circle notches or extensions found at the bottoms of the In the Metabolic paintings…

When I first started this recent work, making wavelike marks around the inside edges of a large square, I observed my other hand securing the paper. I liked how the fingers appeared to become a part of the image, so the first drawings included a cut-out thumb shape intruding or protruding into the square. In both the drawings and paintings, the illusory image accommodates to the shape of the stretcher bar created by perverting the square. These first images led to other formal interventions determined by the shape and scale of different body parts or the canvases themselves. For instance, in the paintings “While My Painting Gently Weeps” and “Shape of a Fever” or “Down My Spine” the bottom or side shaped edges function like a cartooned version of the wavy strokes, which sets up a slight discontinuity. They purposely don’t exactly replicate each other’s form. In these works, the painted image is not co-extensive with the canvas shape, but is not unrelated to it either. It suggests a give and take of uneasy harmony with no easy answer over whether the literal or the pictorial has the upper hand.

 

The works on paper were made 10 years prior to the paintings. What led you to revisit and expand this body of work?

The large gouache drawings in the exhibition were made before the paintings, which is unusual for me. I don’t normally make comprehensive works on paper first. I see drawing and painting as conceptually linked but different enterprises. My process is that I make hundreds of doodles in sketchbooks, like automatic writing. Sometimes, I see an image in my mind, like hearing a song in your head, and then I quickly get it down as a doodle. If something interests me further from this process, then I will proceed to painting, sculpture, etc. But the paintings have a life of their own and everything still has to be worked out in the actual painting. This can take several years, as it did in this case. Things kept changing and shifting. It took a few years to settle on the scale and form. Although the gouache drawings in the show provided a foundation for these paintings, there were many steps in between. The materiality of oil paint differs from gouache, and the scale of the drawings differs from the paintings. This changes our physical interaction and perceptions about the image.

 

-Brandon Johnson

DEVON DIKEOU: MTV ALTARPIECE

Rainer Ganahl and Devon Dikeou speak about Dikeou’s recent show “MTV Altarpiece” at Foyer-LA, an artist run space in Los Angeles, founded, operated, and curated by artist Connie Walsh. Concurrently running at The Dikeou Collection is Dikeou’s Retrospective, “Mid-Career Smear.” Both exhibitions are addressed. MTV Altarpiece closes July 31.

Interview by Rainer Ganahl

How do you feel showing one of your earliest pieces, made in 1986, for a third time? You also included it in your retrospective in Denver at the Dikeou Collection.

Showing the same work three times, MTV Altarpiece (1986 ongoing) and one image from Please (2011 ongoing) at Foyer-LA is not unusual and is part of my and many other artists practice and process, hence the “ongoing” cited in the dates in my titles. The ongoing process allows for reconsideration, re-examination . . . Originally, MTV Altarpiece was created for my thesis show at Brown and at that time MTV was at the nexus of its cultural influence . . . videos were no longer a visual illustration of a popular song featuring a band . . . The video WAS the song . . . This medium changed how music—an aural medium of music listening became a visual medium, one of watching, and how MTV profligated that change . . . And beyond musically. It was the cultural zeitgeist, the channel that caught and channeled literally how we consume culture—music and otherwise. MTV, the logo of certain period of time, was the sign, the symbol, the in-between platform representing music and all that comes with music as a visual metaphor. Now that sign, MTV, and that logo, that thing we think of associated with the letters, means different and other things, but still remains a sign, maybe even more of a sign. And the audiences have culturally shifted, and that recognition may land in the realm of nostalgia . . . It may land in the realm of MTV’s own cultural prescience.

Perhaps that is now why two different curators were so attracted to MTV . . . Cortney Lane Stell, the curator of my retrospective, Mid-Career Smear, at The Dikeou Collection, was insistent that MTV Altarpiece be recreated . . . So it was, and is displayed at The Dikeou Collection Pop-up. The Pop-up is in the old abandoned Jerry’s Record Shop on East Colfax . . . And Jerry’s was the epicenter of the Denver Music scene. Now it is a space which houses a collection of approximately 15,000 albums and is replete with all the trappings of the Jerry’s Record Shop scene, grunge, graffiti, vinyl . . . MTV fit in perfectly. Connie Walsh, an artist/curator happened to be in town and she visited MCS, keen on visiting both spaces (California and Colfax), despite her small pocket of time. In fact, I think she’s one of the few who saw both iterations of MCS at the time. Anyway, she has created a vibrant space in LA adjacent to her studio called Foyer-LA. Foyer, by definition is the room before, the room you enter, the segue that leads you in. As an exhibition space she gives that space a voice and gives the audience a preview . . . MTV found another lifeline in her space . . . So the three, 1st destroyed because it was held together with a glue gun, a tape gun, and staple gun, shown to a small audience in Providence in 1986, the second recreated for a thirty plus year career in Denver, the third a splash in Foyer-LA . . . And that last splash also includes a diminutive photo from my exhibition “Please”. . . A still life of a bouquet of flowers (Lilas et Roses, 2011 ongoing) after a series that Manet painted while dying of syphilis . . . A swan song . . . harkening back the heart of the altarpiece, the flowers in the MTV Altarpiece.

Since we are talking about your MTV Altarpiece, we must talk about the most effective distribution of music and the revolution music videos brought to people around the world. Do you think that the music got any better—we know for sure more people got richer?

I am not really much of a music anything so my reflections on it as an industry/critic won’t give much insight to anyone. The distribution probably worked like the radio . . . payola . . . But I am even less equipped to comment on that . . . I’d wanna “phone a friend” and that friend of a friend would be Sasha Frere-Jones. Beyond that, the reason I was so fascinated and still why the work holds resonance is because MTV has become more than a platform, it has become a sign . . . It is a world recognized brand like Nike, Coca-Cola, or . . . Apple. It changed our lives and how information is processed. MTV brought us more than just music . . . The first Reality TV program, The Real World, and the first death of an “Reality TV Actor” on The Real World of AIDS—the Young Vote became an important recognizable voting block leading to the Clinton Presidency, to name a few of MTV’s cultural implications . . . Whether MTV does so now is . . . Well their logo and award statue reached for the moon and literally the MTV logo has a space ship taking off as its electronic jingle pulses . . . Branson, Bezos, and Musk make good on that space bet . . .

What is your current taste in music (and why not include art in this question) and how do you think music and art and their distribution look in another 35 years?

Someone referred to a mountain radio station here in Colorado as the ’80s prom night station . . . Music does play a part necessarily in the reading of the artwork, but maybe so do John Hughes movie soundtracks . . . Which basically a Hughes movie is an MTV movie . . . In that vein, I made a playlist for the MCS, choosing songs for each piece in the exhibition, that in some sense, reflect the artwork. MTV Altarpiece’s song is “Pour Some Sugar on Me” the Def Leppard ballad that aired based on paid, call in, phone requests every day for a record run in the ’80s—all before Carson Daly’s Total Request Live . . . You access the MCS songs with your iPhone . . . It’s free.

I am curious about the aesthetic of MTV Altarpiece. To me, compared your other work, it looks really “trashy” and punk and incorporates a lot of the cultural tokens over which the American Culture landscape is still fighting. In particular when it comes to question of the incorporation of signifiers that some so-called minority immigrant communities want to claim solely for themselves?

MTV Altarpiece is not very well put together . . . At the time there was no conservation term for it, like “inherent vice,” in which the material something is made of, by its own materiality breaks down the whole conservation process and the piece itself . . . Like Lizzi Bougatsos’s ice sculpture (Self Portrait, 2012, The Dikeou Collection) . . . MTV is thrown together, but it is also reflective of the punk, trashy way graphics, videos, art, music were visually implemented in the ’80s, using color xeroxes, quick cuts, colors from spray cans . . . Packing materials . . . So yes, it’s look must seem more trashy, punk . . . I am not interested by a white cube aesthetic and throughout all spaces I exhibit, I try to challenge that aesthetic. In the California St space (MCS) all the holes in the walls of the Dikeou Collection remain, as ghosts of what’s been before, as do certain Collection pieces. In the Pop-up—that it is a record store reflects very much the place and atmosphere of MTV. At Foyer-LA, that it is an artist run space and grew out of an artist’s studio, and is a resting place to exhibit art in proximity to the studio reflects this idea, of the breakdown of the white cube, and makes and shakes ideas of what and where a gallery is and can be . . . It makes sense that this breakdown happens outside of New York, as historically this breakdown happens outside the epicenter and that it reaches more than just the art community . . . I think more along ideas of flatness, than in terms of tribe . . . How that translates among diverse communities and markets becomes more about fighting and/or absorbing the natural market mechanisms. The minute something is free, the market finds new ways to commodify it . . . Napster and Video Art in their initial stages, and more contemporaneously streaming and NFTs . . . Initially streaming was free TV and digital art, free art . . . Now there are streaming subscriptions for CNN and Discovery . . . So you pay for and get more specific and curated streamed content, or you pay for a specific moment, a zeitgeist moment, in an explosively priced NFT . . . Come to think of it CNN and MTV originally began as subscriptions in the ’80s . . . Buyers and subscribers beware.

I am an artist who does so so many things, I have invested nearly all my life in questions of class and race and politics and I still wonder who should say what to whom and under what conditions . . . And with a body of work to reflect that as varied as performance, videos, paintings, drawings, fashion lines, ceramics, multiple web sites, I needless to say, have very little means to even store a piece like this over such a lengthy period of time. Could you tell me how you did it ? Did you simply remake it, redo it from scratch or could you just pull it out of storage?

There’s a great documentary called “Scratch”, by Doug Pray. It’s about the history of DJs . . . ’70s to 2000s. And what is a DJ . . . They take a given and make something out of it . . . They spin . . . So yes, it’s made from scratch . . .

 

-Rainer Ganahl

TERRI FRIEDMAN: REWIRE

Awe/ful, 2018, wool, acrylic, cotton, metallic fibers, 45 x 64 inches 

 

Terri Friedman’s “Rewire” at Cue Foundation (September 2–29, 2020) directly engages with the psychic reality of our strife-filled current times—but rather than critiquing the subjects at hand, her work delves into the tender drama at play within individual brains and bodies worldwide. Friedman’s woven paintings are abstract, colorful, and multi-textured cross-sections of brains under the spectrum of emotion, with a gentle suggestion to consciously alter the patterns and pathways away from a default of negativity, as she states: “cultivating elevated states and happy hormones is a political and personal weapon against indulging in despair.”

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

This body of work is both a sign of the times, and a suggested antidote—to “re-wire” the brain from the current default of angst and worry. Was there any specific event or spark that initiated this series, and over what period of time were the works made?

This series is part of a larger body of work that I have been working on since the last election. I think the national unrest and political volatility sparked my own personal anxiety. My work journals the world around me and my own inner world. I’m wired for worry, but between Climate Change, the national and global uncertainty, racial inequity, the fake news, our President . . . I could go on, I just started feeling despair. My weaving became my medicine. An antidote to all the heartbreak and grief. What if I made protest posters like Sister Corita Kent with words, color, and abstraction. Tapestries that were healing, life affirming, but also agitated yet affirmative screams. Brain and cognitive science has found that the brain, which we assumed was not plastic after childhood is actually able to be rewired. This is neuroplasticity. So rewiring which is actionable is about repair. It’s optimistic.

 

The suggested connection between neural networks and weaving is made visceral through the variation of textures, sizes, and methods by which the materials are adhered—the end result being an expressive diagram seemingly composed of tissue, vessels, and other bodily matter. For this reason, did your process of weaving feeling extra charged either psychically or physically? How was it to make this works?

That’s such a great question. No one ever asks how it was for me physically or psychically to make this work. It’s actually a very important question. I am so interested in the somatic and psychological experiences of artists. Weaving can be back breaking. Such physical work. But, also immersive and meditative. Sometimes I just lose track of time. The repetition kind of puts me in a trance state. Psychically it was exhilarating. I just love working with so many textures, fiber, and colors. It is like a fiber orgy. I have accumulated so many clear tupperware boxes filled of colored fibers the past years. All kinds from naturally dyed wool to cotton piping which I paint with acrylic paint to metallic to acrylic to hemp and more. I draw out the piece ahead of time with diagrams of textures/fibers/colors/warp design and graph it out. Then I select all my fibers and begin. The pre-weaving process is lengthy.

 

You mentioned Sister Corita Kent as an influence in terms of subject, spirit, and presentation. Are there any specific artists or weaving traditions that have informed your work on a more material level?

I came to textiles late in my career, 2014. I painted and made kinetic sculptures before that. Though the connective thread though all my work has been color, body, breath, and brain. I am most informed by painters/artists (mostly women) who indulge in color and odd materials like Joanne Greenbaum, Sarah Cain, Shara Hughes, Judith Lynhares, Kathy Butterly, Rachel Harrison, Katharina Grosse, Katherine Bradford, Nick Cave, Polly Apfelbaum, Jeff Gibson, Franz West, and more. Textile artists that I look at are Sheila Hicks, Hannah Ryggen, Josep Grau-Garriga, Anni Albers, Magdalena Abakanwicz, and numerous younger living artists. On a material level, so many artists who stretch materials are interesting to me. I define craft as attention to detail. So, it’s a broad interpretation.

 

Enough, 2018, wool, cotton, hemp, acrylic, metallic fibers, 77 x 50 inches

 

Text also appears in these works in the form of single words or short phrases—often slanted toward the negative, such as AWE/FUL, E/NO/UGH, IF ONLY. Did these words arise in your mind organically (almost mirroring their presence in the artworks) or was there a process from which you arrived at them?

The words are more disbelief or antidotes to anxiety: like Pause, Awake, In/hale/ex, and more.  they can be either positive or negative. They are ambiguous. AWE-inspiring + awFUL (thus AWE/FUL). ENOUGH connotes ‘stop! enough!’ OR I am ‘good enough’ as I am. IF ONLY is regret, but also kind of romantic, living in the past, kind of naive because it’s done. What good is regret? Just move on and take action now, in the present moment. Awake is a reminder to wake up to the volatility and it’s a call to action. I like small benign or ambiguous words. Words that are spacious and give the viewer a roll in completing. I don’t want to lecture, they are more of a suggestion or direction. They blend in and are almost camouflaged. The words arise at the same time as the drawing. They are like another color or shape. I don’t illustrate the words, but I do try and have the piece emote with color and form what I am feeling. Like the burning pink, so hot and inflamed with ‘Awake’. OR the eye chart and busy anxiety of E/NO/UGH. I like abstraction and words because they feel generous and not didactic. Immersive.

 

Oxytocin, 2019, wool, acrylic, cotton, hemp, chenile, metallic fibers, 77 x 70 inches

 

One of my favorites is “Oxytocin” which is composed mainly of shades of gray, with a half-smile of rainbow drooping off the side in a way that is bleakly humorous. There is a certain messiness to these works that communicate a degree of confusion and stress, but the bright colors and titles such as “Looking for what is not wrong” indicate an underlying search for the bright side. Is perseverance part of the thesis of this exhibition?

Oxytocin is a happy hormone like serotonin and dopamine. My titles and palettes do reflect perseverance. Rewiring takes effort but is a positive action. In some ways, this work and the titles are my attempt to rewire my brain for positivity given how dark and bleak the world feels right now. And, they are remedies for the personal and national anxiety and grief. So much loss with COVID, the criminality of our government and more. Humor or delight are very important to me. I had an art history professor in college use the term ‘sickly sweet’ to talk about Chagall’s work. He did not like the work and was disparaging. And, all I could think was ‘I love sickly sweet’.

 

-Brandon Johnson, October 2020

DEVON DIKEOU: MID-CAREER SMEAR ON PAUSE

Devon Dikeou, Do I Know You?, 1991 ongoing

 

Devon Dikeou’s retrospective “Mid-Career Smear” opened at the Dikeou Collection, Denver, in February 2020. Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic forced art venues around the world to close their doors and postpone their programs. With the exhibition on pause, we reflect on the background and ongoing context of the show and work included.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

What does the “Mid-Career Smear,” a retrospective, mean to you as an artist at this point in your career?

Hmmmmmm well given the circumstances it’s hard to speak on MCS. My hope is sometime in the future we can all get out to see all the art that is out there on view (but closed at this time) and then enjoy, wonder, be inspired, because at this time it’s needed more than ever. We are living in our version of the bubonic plague . . . let’s try to think of how art influences us even if from centuries, generations before, or more currently . . . there’s Bruegel’s “The Triumph of Death”. . . which fills the well of what life might have been like. . . even as it was painted later than the actual pandemic. Other artworks in the 20th century offer a different take. Rothko’s chapel in De Menil Museum campus . . . Rothko’s architecture and paintings in the chapel reflect that along with the monumental Barnett Newman sculpture, “Broken Obelisk,” that flanks the chapel structure—all non-denominational places of solace, worship, meditation. And then there are Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post magazine covers during the Great Depression and WWII, a great example, “The Four Freedoms.” Another seminal piece is Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” made in 1967 during the Vietnam War. . . Much less Keith Haring’s AIDS awareness posters and paintings, during the AIDS epidemic: “IGNORANCE=FEAR.” Art fills a special place. A comfort, a critique, an illustration, a reflection of life’s strife, as well as moments of jubilation. My work of 30 years gets nowhere near all those aspirations but tries very hard to touch them.

 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, c. 1562

 

Keith Haring, Ignorance = Fear, 1989

 

While you were born and raised in Colorado, most of your development and exhibiting as a visual artist has occurred elsewhere, with perhaps your most formative period being in New York City during the 1980s and 1990s. Can you speak about this and what it means to show a deep survey of your work in Denver to a mostly Coloradan audience?

Well Colorado and Denver, these places, were my first tutorial. Really the Denver Art Museum and Denver Public Library were the retreats I ran too, á la Claudia in the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler. The library is where I read that book, DAM is where I saw all the art I could—from Armand Hammer’s exquisite soup tureen collection to pop paintings in the DAM Bonfils Gallery including a mesmerizing drugstore window by Richard Estes. One show is about objects, soup tureens, which are magical in a Maurice Merleau-Ponty way, even if you don’t know phenomenology. The other drew me into a window, which paintings are, a painterly window, and as realistic as can be imagined in content. What are windows, of course they are also mirrors. Manet teaches us with that in “The Bar at the Folies Bergere” and the Velvet Underground with their song “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” inspired by Warhol, then appropriated by Nan Goldin’s ‘90s slide installation of the same title. These windows, mirrors, and objects: they are “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” given and exposed to just one among many youngsters in Denver in the only Gio Ponti building in America and in my case the Eugene Field Library. The Ponti BTW is where I first applied for a group show with “old school” slides. The curators were Deborah Butterfield, Peter Plagens, and Marcia Tucker. My piece “Security Secure” was selected for the show “Colorado 1990.” Weirdly, the best thing happened . . . during the opening the lighting staff left the cherry picker in front of my installation of gates and glass, not realizing my installation was a part of the exhibition. Inbetween that gate and glass installation . . . I also ended up with a few Encyclopedia Brown books . . . all overdue. Another inbetween.

 

Devon Dikeou, Security/Secure, 1989 ongoing

 

As a collector I know you value an individual’s ability to view an artwork over a period of time and see how their relationship to the work changes—an essential notion to the Dikeou Collection. As an artist revisiting your own earlier artworks, did you find that you relate to them differently now? Any specific examples you can offer?

For sure. But also not simply because of MCS. As a publisher/editor of zingmagazine and by extension a collector with the Dikeou Collection, both kinda took over. My art practice lost its ummmph, just rested. I saw to those other two uses of my energy as part of my practice more thoroughly. And they were well-tended. So there were many zing projects that opened the way to viewing so many artists and other creatives. And the Dikeou Collection like zing was a platform to share and I hope we have . . . From time to time during this less productive period of my art practice, cause I’m such a weird archiver I’d look at some of my work from years past in the binders above the computer. Looking at images of work reminded me of my sometimes prescient ideas as a practicing artist then, all in hibernation. In those moments I was reacquainted with old friends and that re-immersed me in their boldness, i.e. the “Here Is New York” security gate series, most recently shown at James Fuentes, as well as many little bits that at the time I thought were supremely unmonumental . . . Surprisingly, little turns out to be big, just like in Alice in Wonderland. The Rolodexes are a crowd favorite . . . they almost were not included.

 

Do you identify primarily as an artist? If so, how do you believe this has affected your approach as a publisher and a collector?

Yes and no. It’s a trifecta, I think. As an artist in the mid-late ‘80s and early ‘90s I’d visit and do the gallery tour. Sometimes alone sometimes with others. Then you’d gobble up the Friday NYT and the Wednesday Village Voice. I remember a quote from VV somewhere along there, that went like this . . . “The Cindy Sherman show at Metro Pictures is like shopping at Bergdorf’s at Christmas. At Paula Cooper, the Jennifer Bartlet show which has orange painted chairs and other objects in front of the paintings, a collector was heard saying as the dealer left the room, ‘If we buy it, can we put the chair in the closet’”. It’s funny as an artist to hear or read those words. And then as always my thoughts kinda come from words, and my work didn’t really get much written attention so I started writing my own. You’d see all this amazing work of your contemporaries and why their work wasn’t being shown or collected, much less published. And that’s the genesis of both my publishing and collecting instincts. Hence both zingmagazine and the Dikeou Collection, which by the way, along with just being artist, editing is perhaps the most powerful tool one can possess in all three practices.

 

Devon Dikeou, Between the Acts, 2014 ongoing

 

Who/what have been your greatest influences over the course of your career? And how have they, if at all, influenced “Mid-Career Smear”?

I have a daily diet of 24-hour TV, but really it’s the same as everyone else. Learning, looking, curiosity, inspiration. No matter where these impulses come from . . . but most likely they come from close to home. For me that would be from my mother LSD and her friend Frank for decor and fashion, both of which are a huge part of my practice. Don’t think of decor and fashion as the frill but the set. It sets you inbetween you and the people you meet and see. My father—space and the relation to it, what a space like a parking lot could mean, and understanding what that represents . . . something inbetween big and small, commercial and other. Brother, it’s belonging and knowing you always will, cause often there are cracks. My fellow, who helps me execute, is out front when I hold back. There are many more: the homeless that pick you up off the street after tripping, other artists that feed you ideas and suggestions, edits you may not have considered. There are the teachers, Wendy Edwards, at Brown University, Ursula Von Rydingsvard at The School of Visual Arts, Mrs Emery’s after-school art at Graland, Mr Burrows at KDCD, all segues and that’s not all. . . There’s the professional curator who directs and guides and intuits your vision to fruition . . . not an easy task, and one that has taken over seven years and lots of different considerations, by Cortney Lane Stell, and she was the inbetween, behind the curtain . . . However, it’s always, always a new thing, an old thing each day . . . sometimes it’s just sleep. And sleep is something to try to look forward to . . . another inbetween space . . . be brightened because you’ve found it and surrendered if even in a small repetitive way, which is the inbetween of everyday . . . sleeping and waking.

 

-Brandon Johnson, June 2020

CHRISTIAN SCHUMANN: THE SPECTACLE OF REPETITION

Known for his signature expressionist paintings and drawings featuring cartoon-like imagery, Christian Schumann blends landscapes, still-lives, and figures in his artwork. Born in Rhode Island and raised in Texas, Schumann graduated with a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1992. With influences ranging from the underground art scene to the animation and video art realms, Schumann creates works that are at once imaginative, subversive and pop-culture infused. Schumann often combines text, abstraction, and figuration to create work that evokes a sense of imagination, and drips with an underlying political and social commentary.

Interview by Mauricio Rocha

 

What inspired you to transcribe traffic reports, as in your work “Obstacles” featured in zing #25?

I happened upon radio traffic reports on Los Angeles radio stations incidentally as I went about scanning the radio looking for anything interesting to listen to. While most stations were fairly unlistenable, the one thing that universally stood out was the distinctive obsession and personality of the Los Angeles driving experience that stood out in the traffic reports. There was an excited joy in reporting every turned-over trailer full of mangos or stray dog running along a highway. The incidents stood out so much I decided to record them as a list as I heard them.

Do you view obstacles as a negative or positive experience?

Too many obstacles can be draining and I admit I find them to be a negative, although ideally one could take a Zen Panda approach to them, waiting to see if what at first seems to be a negative ends up having a positive effect somehow. The paths of our lives are directed by obstacles to varying degrees, depending upon one’s luck and tenacity.

 

Why did you want to focus on the text and language of the reports, with no visual representation?

I think reading text describes an image perfectly well in one’s mind. I thought of writing the text as a form of poetry, not exactly concrete poetry but something akin to that. I never considered using visuals and thought of the lines and pages of text as a visual in itself.

 

I view this project as a form of poetry as well, and sort of an endless one at that. The obstacles in the traffic reveal something about the people of LA in the sense that what they carry with them, matters most to them. Do you think these “obstacles” reveal LA’s personality?

Yes, as you suggest, what physically matters most to people is what they choose to carry with them from place to place as they move. Casualties of these moves constantly end up shattered along the pavement: family photos, clothes, and mementos scattered to the wind and possibly causing terrible accidents along the way and influencing the lives of others.

In Hollywood fashion, I think there is an element of entertainment to the reports. In a city that revels in police chases that are televised as a sort of sporting event, any unusual activity that takes place on the highways constitutes a major element of everyone’s daily lives is noticed and transformed into spectacle. With a general lack of weather to report on perhaps these unusual obstacles fill in as a replacement for “dangerous” weather systems that would ordinarily maintain the interest of listeners.

 

I noticed many repeat obstacles in your work: varying types of debris (metal, plastic, wooden, glass), animals (dogs, a horse bench, a goose, a box of bees), unknown objects, furniture, and food (avocados, chocolate, carrots, grapes, red peppers, lemons). Do you think these objects are an accurate representation of Los Angeles?

In a utilitarian sense, yes, the city is revealed by its highway detritus. It almost feels like an engineering problem, a side effect of daily use which must be constantly dealt with. Los Angeles is an overburdened hub of transit for international shipping and food transport which results in the occasionally overturned vegetable trailers. Additionally, I omitted many entries in order to avoid too much repetition of the most popular items: gardening equipment, ladders, mattresses and furniture. Lawn care workers are pretty ubiquitous and there is generally a lot of mobility in people’s lives so a combination of flux and upkeep pervades the transit routes. Patterns, habit, entropy at the edges.

 

Do you have a personal connection to Los Angeles?

I lived there for six years or so with my family and our daughter was born there. I don’t currently have a great personal bond with LA apart from friends that live there.

 

Do you think the early 2000s were a different time than now?

Not really. I think all the elements that comprise our current state of affairs were in play in the early 2000s as well. If anything I am disappointed in the lack of long term change in our global societies over the past 50 years, let alone the past decade. The patterns of our world are older than we think, its obstacles presented as a spectacle of repetition and entertainment while simultaneously hindering our progress.

 

That is interesting you find the repetition of society as hindering our progress. That is true because if we keep doing the same things, how will we ever evolve into something different, or better? Do you think that our US society is too comfortable with the familiar and afraid of change?

The structures built by previous generations to inhabit provide for maximum convenience and minimum effort (providing one has funds to support it). Stepping out of these pre-existing paths requires effort, learning and a willingness to discard old things. Those are all very challenging barriers to breaking the system of patterns we all function in. It’s as though a collective neurosis is directing the continuation of increasingly pyrrhic habits of our societies in order to hide us from the reality of what lies ahead.

Take the most common element of highway debris for example: lawn care equipment. These devices are used expressly for the relentless maintenance of a centuries-old European tradition meant to imitate bourgeoise status which exploded across 20th Century American real estate development. Here we are now in the 21st Century maintaining an outmoded status ideal, which apart from being completely detached from necessary to a home environment, also creates a huge economic and environmental burden. Fertilization chemical run off, the burning of fossil fuels to power lawn mowers and their transport, the slow-moving lawn care vehicles also clogging freeways with debris. I believe that the removal of the traditional grass front lawn would have positive repercussions. The benefits would be limited but we are faced with the fact that most aspects of our lives are similarly outdated and the structures built to maintain this toxic civilization are at a breaking point. Human civilization is trapped on the global 405 of its own making.

 

What sort of obstacles do you see in society’s way in 2020?

We are our own worst obstacle.

 

-Mauricio Rocha, February 2020

NECK LOTION & NIHILISM: THE FICTION OF RACHEL COLE DALAMANGAS

After growing up between Denver, Colorado and the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee, Rachel Cole Dalamangas earned her MFA in literary arts from Brown University in 2011. She is an author who specializes in creating short works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry and is currently based out of New York City. Her work has been featured in BOMB Magazine, Bookslut, zingmagazine, among others, and explores humans’ different states of consciousness. We spoke with her to discover more about her writing process, inspirations, and the future.

Interview by Mauricio Rocha

 

Your short story in zingmagazine #25, “The Leftovers,” is centered on two elderly couples coming to accept and comprehend the final phase in their life cycle. What do you think the afterlife holds for your characters?

I was writing this story around the time my father was succumbing to terminal cancer. He and I used to go hiking all over Colorado when I was a kid and we would have lengthy, winding, abstract, unlikely conversations about the nature of existence. So I was thinking a lot about what consciousness is and what happens after we die. I think the way the four characters examine the possibilities of the great unknown reflects my agnostic worldview. I’ve always been fixated on death and dying and states of consciousness.

That said, I think reincarnation is my favorite answer. I can imagine Rose becoming an asocial small mammal, perhaps a hedgehog or a mole. Maybe Debbie is freed from the cycle of life and death and transcends into a state of being some sort of otherworldly figure. The Roberts are clearly soul mates, so I think they will have a great love affair in the next life.

 

I enjoy the philosophical aspect to the story, it has a very stream of conscious feel to it, the way the characters converse with each other and contemplate the end of the world by way of robots, UFOs, global warming or an “orange blast.” It is scary stuff but told in a light-hearted way. Do you like to play with tone and voice in your work, or is something that happens organically?

It happens organically and then I notice myself doing it so I start to do it even more.

 

Your story takes place near a dog-food factory. Being from Denver, I know that neighborhood as Swansea. Was this one of your inspirations for the setting?

It pleases me so much that you saw the Swansea neighborhood of Denver in the landscape of the story. I was imagining a nameless, nowhere-in-particular place that was an amalgamation of “left behind” places in America I’ve passed through, many of them in Colorado.

 

I noticed many uses of the color green throughout the story: turtles, a frog, a stegosaurus, teal eyes, turquoise, and even aliens. What does the color green represent for you?

Are all those things actually green? I think aliens are gray, right? Aren’t turtles really more like a bunch of different earthy brown tones? I don’t think green is symbolic of anything for me, at least not consciously. I think all that color is just what my mind’s eye conjures when I think of Colorado.

 

Photo: Levi Mandel

 

Time seems to be a prominent theme in the story, the passage of it on Earth and the generational gap between the young and old. Do you think time is something to fear or embrace?

Both. Personally, my life always feels like it’s going so slowly, but for some reason it still seems like I’m getting old incredibly fast. But there’s no choice other than to fear and embrace the passing of time. While I don’t look forward to getting older per se, I’m excited about (hopefully) being really old someday because I think I will be great at being a weird old lady. When I’m walking to work on the Upper East Side, I pass these little old ladies in their leopard print berets and big sunglasses and fuchsia lipstick and am taking notes because I’m secretly planning a fabulous wardrobe for when I’m old.

 

I love that you are already planning your future wardrobe. I look forward to being (hopefully) wiser, and more refined. Is that something you are looking forward to as well? Or do you think that’s something we can start doing today, in our younger years? 

I think what’s important specifically in terms of aging well is to drink more water and don’t forget to put lotion on your neck.

 

The squirrel in the story is funny and it pivots some of the characters against nature. How do you feel about animals and nature? 

That’s an excellent question and now that you mention it, I think the squirrel is actually the personification of my own pathetic, toothless misanthropy. When I was writing this story, I was going through a phase where I was trying out nihilism a little bit because cancer is a relevant occasion for nihilism. You can’t stop cancer. You can’t control it. It’s this slow-moving, unstoppable, gruesome, unfair, profane, meaningless disaster that happens. There’s no point and no good reason and no silver lining.

But, there’s also the realization that no matter how big or dramatic your problems feel to you personally, they are of equal relevance to a squirrel’s in the greater order of the cosmos. That sounds so negative, but it’s actually humbling and awe-inspiring to remember how small your existence really is. So for me, it’s important to be emotionally honest about difficult circumstances because sometimes life is just shit and the only way through it is feeling however you feel.

 

Your story contains moments of magical realism, where dreams and visions blur into real life. Moments like when Rob sees his brother hatch from an egg with egg beater hands, or the light Bert sees at the end of the tunnel. Do you view everyday life as magical, or extraordinary?

I think I’m interested in how the surface texture of reality has changed rapidly as a result of technology. I’m interested in how literary realism attempts to respond to an accelerated, interconnected, image-driven world. I’m also interested in how consciousness works and how the human mind constructs reality especially as technology improves at replicating the human mind and the human mind changes in response to technology.

So I like to explore states of consciousness, and I like to write narrative circumstances where alternate interpretations of what is happening are all equally possibly true and where there isn’t necessarily any need to resolve the truth.

 

How has the novel, The End of Vandalism by Thomas Drury, influenced your writing? 

Well, it’s an extraordinary work of literary realism because of how Drury cannily toys with style. The End of Vandalism isn’t a book I’m sure how to approach critically. It’s a book I keep near my desk and read a little of at random to get the prose in my ear before I start writing. There’s something very lively in the beats of wry, easy humor. It’s the kind of book that wakes me up and reminds me of how much is possible in fiction. Also, it’s one of the most hilarious books I’ve ever read.

 

Are there any upcoming projects you are working on that our audience can look forward to?

I’ve been working on a short story all year long and it’s still not done. I am probably the slowest writer in the world.

 

-Mauricio Rocha, November 2019

FILTERING DRDOVA: FILTERING THE DATA SMOG

Photo by Tomas Soucek

 

Romana Drdova is a visual artist from Prague, Czech Republic and has traveled to Seoul, China, Paris, New York and beyond studying and perfecting her craft. Her work explores different modes of communication, expression, and transparency in a “data smog” filled modern world. Using her 2D and 3D art installations, photography, fashion design, assemblage and mixed media, Drdova questions what it means to live in this day and age, how we interact with our environment, and how our surroundings impact our personal experiences. 

Interview by Mauricio Rocha

 

 

Your work in zing #25, “Mapo Tofu Masks: An Asian Love Story,” explores people’s relationship with technology, food, beauty, fashion, and more. How has your time in Korea and Prague influenced your work?

I went to Seoul as a student with a scholarship and spent an absolutely exceptional time there. I learned how Korean people take care of themselves in the terms of how they eat, how they care about their skin, how important is for them to spend time together, among other things. I couldn’t have imagined how much it would influence me to stay in Korea. When I came back to Prague, where I am based, I started to understand that my destiny is to cultivate my work through this fascination and emotions that I have from Asian culture. I would say that I work like a translator of these emotions to my own language or maybe a better explanation is that in my soul is a recorded hardware with information which matches with those Asian memories. Someone might call it karma.

 

I enjoy seeing the inspiration from your environment in your work. What are some of your favorite places to visit and work in around the world? 

I like the contrast of places I’ve had an opportunity to visit. I have a special bond to China. I consider this place to be the beginning of our civilization and it will probably be associated with our demise . . . but perhaps it should be like the natural circulation of everything, life and death. In Asia I feel as my real self and calm. On the other hand, I love the hustle and bustle of New York and the openness in communicating with people, the freedom they show on the streets. This makes it extremely unique and inspiring to me.

 

Photo by Tomas Soucek 

 

The face masks you designed are an extension of your work in the magazine, provide a 3D element, and can even be categorized as an art installation. Does your artwork usually feature a combination of art and fashion?

I had to find my own way of expressing myself as a necessity. The combination of art and wearable objects that are fashionable has certainly defined me since my childhood. I am not someone who speaks loudly and is confident in verbal expression. With pictures and text I can say what I can’t verbalize and if I can wear it as clothing, then it is easier to express who I am. This is self-confidence. I always get drawn to a more complicated approach to creation, using layered meanings, but I believe it’s very similar to learning a different language. You meet, fall in love and learn from each other. During my practice I have met so many interesting people and stimuli with similar feelings and I can give them a new insight into the matter. And that’s why I do it. I want people to wear my clothes, to see it in surplus value and to be happy with them. I don’t want to exhibit only in galleries where you feel a distance to objects. I want people to have a real experience when they buy my product.

 

Do you usually take the photos in your projects yourself or weave them together as a collage?

It depends on topic. Usually I spend days to find visual material that fits to my ideas. Actually I prefer both. My favorite discipline is assemblage; it is more combination 2D with 3D objects in the space or on fabric. After that I am able to sew clothes with clearly given motives or to cut fabrics freely and the result is intuitive improvisation. Now for example I collaborate with French performer Arianne Foks on a series of coats, we are writing texts and taking photos as daily memories. The topic of our work is current and alarming subjects such a global warming, women’s rights, breaking social values, false and true, transparency etc.

 

You mention a “data smog” in our recent climate, what do you mean by this? 

“Data smog” is more metaphor than literal expression. I use this phrase as an explanation for an endless number of stimuli overloading our organs under the weight of everyday pressure that society creates. I first used this term in work from 2015 when I created protective shields against the bustle of city. They are made of plastic with headdress and you can decide if you tilt the shield down or allow people to see your face. It has a purpose: you can see people, but others can’t see you. I was confronted with controversial views from passerby. But I believe we all have the right to privacy and rest when we want it and no one can complain because I look differently than others.

 

Your work features several foods: sushi, rice cakes, popcorn, rice, gummy sharks, and marshmallows. How do you view food in this “love story” you’ve created?

Eating is very important for every culture regardless of which content it is. I used these fancy motives thanks to their easygoing narrative. There is an immediate link to Japan, infantile style or kind of perversity. I started with masks as my diploma work 2017 as a part of a bigger project with trash recycling. I spent a few months in Beijing before that, and my work was inspired by the inability to keep this incredible amount of newly made things and that which we throw away on this planet. I rented the space and opened “shop” with trash I collected for 5 months. This trash contained plastic bottles, polystyrene, all kinds of weird plastic materials . . . and I installed them at the shop. Customers could come in freely and buy it, take it, and discuss its problems. And of course, part of this project was cooking and preparing of sushi, because it’s easiest and effective. Now I am preparing my second collection of masks as a continuation of this “love story”.

 

Photo by Julie Hrncirova

 

What are some of your favorite foods?

I prefer Asian food preparation. My kitchen looks that way too. Haha. I like to discover new tastes, for example, I am currently fascinated by varieties of flavors from Laos, which I first tasted at the Lao Siam restaurant in Paris. They offer banana salads and such delicious tapioca desserts; it was an absolutely excellent experience for my taste buds.

 

I think a universality in your work is that we are all looking for love, and for food, as both are essential to our survival as humans. Would you say that fashion and art are just as essential for humans? 

I would not say that fashion and art are essential for humans. I would say that they are surplus value that we can enrich our lives and minds with. It is a nourishment for our spirit and inner world that each of us can cultivate.

 

What projects are you currently working on and what can readers expect to see from you in the future? 

I started new mask designs for 2020, now I’m preparing cuts for coats with a similar theme. In spring I have a big project based on the circulation of materials supported by the National Gallery in Prague. A great inspiration for this exhibition was staying in New York and my own work from materials that I had the opportunity to obtain at Materials for the Arts. I would like masks and clothing to be brought to the attention of as many people as possible and to make them happy and enjoyable.

 

-Mauricio Rocha, October 2019

CRAIG DYKERS: IN THE EYE OF THE OBSERVER

Since 1989, Craig Dykers has established architectural offices in Norway, Egypt, England, and the United States. His interest in design as a promoter of social and physical well-being is supported by ongoing observation and development of an innovative and sustainable design process. As one of the Found Partners of Snøhetta, Craig has led many of Snøhetta’s prominent projects internationally, including the Alexandria Library in Egypt, the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo, Norway, the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion in New York City, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Expansion in California, and the Ryerson University Student Learning Centre in Toronto, Canada. Recently Craig has led the design of the new pedestrian plazas in Times Square and The French Laundry Kitchen Expansion and Garden Renovation in Yountville.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

  

Your work as an architect is well-known. But your project “Observationalist” in zingmagazine #25 features your photography. What sparked your interest in this medium?

Photography in and of itself is not a standalone technology for observation. I use multiple methods of observing people, activity, and things. Sometimes I sketch, sometimes I commit things to memory, I might be listening to sounds around me so I have recorded audio in the past. And the way I use photography is to capture a very quick snapshot of something. If I need to move quickly, the camera can capture something that I see and allows me to continue moving. Whereas sketching and other types of technology take up more time. I would say that it’s more about capturing moments in very quick succession. It’s a form of note-taking. I don’t see these photographs as a form of artwork or a representation of the photographic medium. It’s the content that is driving it. I am not much of a photographer otherwise. It’s very important to have the right kind of camera. So as cameras became digitalized, to a certain extent it became easier to take these types of photographs. You can be walking and a take a photograph in a different direction, so you never need to hold the camera to your eyes. It’s just more relaxing. Not only for me, but also for people on the street. As soon as you put a camera to your eye it changes the context. I’m trying to capture things as much as possible exactly as they are in that moment in time without preconceptions. Free of the distraction of the camera to the subject or my own artistic intent. When you’re walking with a camera at your waist, it’s very hard to control. You’re not thinking about how to frame the photo. You just snap it. With a couple of those photographs it does amaze me sometimes when you look back at them after you’ve taken them that you’re able to capture an image that seems well-balanced or seems to be as if it were posed or at least framed in some way. I think that’s an interesting point. You can use a quick response technique to create something aesthetically appealing. There’s something about intuition, and not just of the mind but of the body.

 

“Observationalist” gathers your conceptual yet casual photos of people and things, organized in loose, and often humorous or absurd, association. Had these associations crossed your mind previously, or did it materialize more as you organized this project?

I would say more intriguing to me is not one image in itself, but the comparison of the images to each other. Many of the photographs are of humans. And many of the photographs are of objects that humans make or acquire. The artificial world and the human world being compared to one another. There are invisible strings of meanings between them. Sometimes I try to make those connections more obvious. It tells us something about intimacy, which is a challenging subject. For those of us that live in cities, intimacy is a luxury. That’s part of the thinking for those images being next to each other. Again, I don’t see these entirely as works of art or photograph. I see them as fictional narratives. I don’t very often show them. The last time I did that, by framing them and sticking them on the wall, would make it seem like a photograph, which isn’t necessarily what they are meant to be. So I printed them very, very small, about the size of a thumbnail, and in a strip, like a ribbon. From a distance it just looked like a thin colored line, but when you got closer could see they were photographs. In order to actually view them I gave people prescription glasses that I found at a junk sale. The prescriptions would different, so you would need to stand closer or further accordingly. Then you could go along and see these images magnified. There were a couple different kinds of frames. Some were horn-rimmed, and others 19th-century wire-framed. You could test out a couple different pairs. In any case, you had to get very close to see the pictures. But the point was that it was a different experience than seeing them in a gallery on a wall.

 

I can see why this would work given their sequential nature. And I can see why it worked so well for our format as a magazine, which is also sequential in nature. Each photo has its own story as well.

I love that fact that you flip through the project one after the other, and there isn’t a clear description telling you what each one is. The size of the magazine is very nice as it allowed us to use white space in the layout, which I thought was important. There’s a lot of air. And the photos obviously have stories for me. Each is quite special. One photo is of a young woman I met in Guinea, West Africa. I had been traveling through in the countryside, and part of the reason I was there was to understand better what drove people in countries like Guinea and around the world to leave the countryside for cities. We like to talk about how the majority of people of the world live in cities, over 50 percent, but I was trying to understand that statistic, because many people say it with great pride, but I thought there was something strange about that. I went out into the countryside of this place that was just stunningly beautiful, and yet so many people were leaving their villages for the capital Conakry. I was interviewing people and talked to her and she said most of the young men had moved away due to the idea of economic improvement. When I asked what this meant, she didn’t really have an answer. They go to the city looking for money, and in fact don’t find it. It is a complex situation. And all of this beauty and contradiction I read when I look at this image. These stories in my mind are not anywhere in text form, but I feel is embedded in the images somehow.

 

 

Your account from Guinea brings me to how the act of observation is integral to your design process, social interactions and how people live. As busy as you might be overseeing a big architectural office, and with other distractions vying for attention, do you make a point to set aside time for observation?

I try to as much as possible. It gets harder and harder as time goes by, but I do. And I’ve even done very unusual things. For example, I’ll fly into a place and instead of taking ground transportation of any kind from the airport to where I have to go, and I have a lot of time, I’ll walk instead. You sense a place in a very different way walking through parking lots, the leftover spaces in between parking lots, through loading docks of some strange big box building to get to another street. Crossing into some forgotten about residential district near the airport, and continuing to walk along larger roads trying to avoid dangerous situations with cars, along the side of the freeway. I’ve spent sometimes five hours walking. I’ve never had a rolling suitcase, only a shoulder bag. It allows me to be pretty mobile when I need to be. So that also allows me to observe things in a very different way. The problem these days is like many I held off on using my phone as a camera for so long, and unfortunately now am using it more and more. I liked holding a camera in my hand. It was heavier and you could feel its purpose. The phone has so many purposes, it’s just watering everything down. Furthermore, the reason you take pictures is so broad now—some for yourself, some for your friends, some for social media, some to record something you need to give someone. It’s now harder to remove the images from your phone/camera. I haven’t been carrying my camera as much as I used to and am a little sad about that.

 

An object with a single purpose infers more intention?

I want to get a typewriter too. I’m a really good typist. I learned at school at a very young age. And I learned on a typewriter. But that’s another example of an object with a single purpose. You can only write things. You can’t stop, push a key, and then browse the internet, like a computer does. So I’m thinking about reintroducing that to my life. A typewriter and getting my camera back out. This, by the way, doesn’t mean I don’t like computers and other technology, I just find that balance is important. And some of the photographs are talking about that—the difference between a handmade or authentic situation versus an artificial one.

 

During our initial meeting for this project, you told us about your collections of tchotchkes. In your essay, you say that “looking at man-made objects reveals our deeply seated motivations.” I’m curious as to how these two things might relate—collections of small, decorative objects as manifesting something deeper, and how might this relate to the photos in the project?

Well I think one of the reasons that we occupy our minds with art on all of its levels is that we want to learn something about ourselves and the people around us somehow. We want to dig deeper into our minds. Some people have dug into their mind for a long time, so they have to dig deeper. And that type of art can be more conceptual, and harder to envision what it is. But many people don’t have the luxury of digging into their minds every day, trying to understand their existence. They have to work like hell to put dinner on the table. Those people see art as something that is just letting them understand who they are and that they have some kind of significance. They don’t like to be alienated. It’s not art the way most of us would think of it, but to them it’s a form of art. An object, something that was made by someone or something else, and it tells them a little story that they can imagine. A lot of these things that I photograph, the kitsch objects that a large percentage of the world buys. And I say that, because everywhere I go, anywhere in the world, there are these things. Not just in Philadelphia, or Hamburg, or Venice. They’re in the most remote places. Clearly, they have significance for us. They tell stories of fantasy and romanticism, how we project our own desires, our own view of ourselves, into the objects that that fill our spaces. These are very inauthentic things that still are authentic, in a way. The trolls kissing on the bench are only objects, but similarly, all of us want to have that moment to have that kiss and not care if anyone is staring at us. Or it’s the ceramic dancers next to the women with similar make-up. They have the same eyes. Or the pictures of the graduates in Mexico City next to the glass figures from Krakow, Poland. The people are dressed the same, but each feels very different and special, just like all the glass animals. There’s something they are desiring, and if that doesn’t happen then maybe they will go out and buy these glass animals and fill their shelf.

 

Ultimately the meaning of these objects only comes in relation to people and the meaning these people impart on them?

That’s correct. And then the question is whether this is true for anything—conceptual art, vernacular architecture, contemporary architecture. It’s true for everything. But we just pretend there’s a civilized way of seeing things and a less civilized way of seeing things, but that’s in my opinion an artificial distinction.

 

Photo: Michael Grimm

 

In other publishing news, Snøhetta has just released a new monograph with Phaidon, covering 24 projects from the last decade and their evolution over time. Can you tell us more about that?

These are all built projects and furthermore all documented in their final forms, more so than the design process. As much as possible we try to capture images of our work with people involved. And this happens after building is completed and in operation. The emphasis is with trying to connect people with the building. And you need to think about all the levels of being, the way we exist in the world, in order to create the right environment. That is partially why I take all these pictures of ordinary people; there is value in observing ourselves doing seemingly simple things.

The projects in our book are from throughout our history and are divided into three themes to give further insight. The reason for this is that if we tried to unpack every project and all of its themes it would be hard to read. So we singled out some of the themes, for example politics in the space of society and civilization and how you negotiate that. Another is about generosity, and how if we are to socialize as creatures in larger civilization, there has to be generosity in order to survive. We try to create places that allow for that and collective ownership. The last has to do with our transdisciplinary process and how having multiple groups working together in a studio, as a collective, impacts the work. Many architects think they can do everything themselves and only need other people to tell them they’re right. We don’t do that. For instance, we have landscape architects working alongside architects, informing each other, arguing with each other, pushing the limits of what we do. We have branding and graphic design, we have product design and interior architects, all working together in a collective manner.

 

How important is publishing to Snøhetta’s practice? And did the office learn anything from the process of putting together this book that might benefit current or future architectural projects?

We have a history of not publishing. For a long time, we said, why should we publish? We design buildings. Other people can publish if they want. We didn’t want to self-author it. This was part of our feeling that we didn’t need a manifesto, but that was at the very beginning when we were younger. As we got older we realized that publishing was an important part of the process, not only for sharing our work with others, but also learning it ourselves. Because in making a book, when you are forced to put the work into words, and choose images to accompany these words, it allows you to look deeper into your motivations and the consequences of what you do. So we have started to publish more books recently. For example, two years ago we did a book on our work on the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. That book is different from our monograph because it focuses on only one type of project and our thinking behind making a museum. So we publish in part because there’s been greater demand, and the practical matter of more people wanting to understand our work. The books allow us to give them a certain degree of information. But the real value in publishing is about writing and words. Getting used to an editor, having a collaborative engagement with someone outside of the studio or our life, that pushes our thinking in many ways.

 

-Brandon Johnson, May 2019

SARAH STATON & THE INTERNET OF TREES

Sarah Staton is an artist working with the social potentials for sculpture, and balances public commissions with studio work and occasional iterations of her ongoing SupaStore project. Her project in zingmagazine “Mycology and Dendrology” celebrates the newly identified wondrous hidden underground communication networks that researchers such as Suzanne Simard are identifying through careful study in recent years. Sarah Staton lives and works in London, and is Senior Tutor in Sculpture at the Royal College of Art.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

How did you first learn about mycorrhizal networks, and what about them sparked your interest as a subject for art?

Around four or five years ago I came across a text that talked about the ways trees send nutrients and water to each other through their root networks and via the nets that fungi make under the forest. This fascinated me. I looked for more information and found the work of the ecologist Suzanne Simard who has been mapping and researching this area for 30 years—her Ted Talk is excellent. As for taking this knowledge as the subject for watercolor and ink drawings, I have enjoyed the visual correspondence between the forms of mycorrhizal networks and the diagrammatic networks that I doodle in academic meetings, which also correspond to the nets that spiders make when they have been fed various drugs. These “Spiders on Drugs” nets provided subject matter for an early set of watercolor and ink drawings. Mycorrhizal networks are a vehicle for me to go forward while go backwards as it were to revisit a visual form that resonates with me, and to do it in a slightly new way.

 

So would you say your recent drawing practice is about representing interconnection?

I would describe these drawings as pictorial representations, and a vehicle with which to enjoy the play of color and line on paper. In this particular set of drawings interconnectedness is represented, and they are a visual note for speculations on non-sapiens sentience.

 

How does this fit in with your other work?

Drawing as a way of thinking—I use drawing in a number of ways, sometimes to develop ideas and methods for making sculpture, sometimes as a kind of pictorial diary/note-making, and sometimes in small series to explore ideas. The mycorrhizal networks drawings are one such small series. I see a link with the notion of interconnection with the series “Spiders on Drugs” from 2001. The mycorrhizal network drawings also connect to an exhibition that I made in 2007, “In Situ Ex Situ,” at Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute, in which I thought about the journey living wood takes from forest to home. For this exhibition, I created sculpture from pine furniture, manipulated with digital cutting (CNC), alongside Alpine style furniture that is essentially wood dust held together with resin, tracing a kind of timeline from majestic living wood to abject reject domestic furniture.

 

It’s interesting to think of something as simultaneously a living thing and material. A transformation takes place where organism becomes commodity, not only in name from tree to wood, but also a separation in the mind where these somehow are two distinct things where origin is lost. The essay in your project expands upon this subject. Are you advocating here for sustainability or at least a consciousness surrounding the consumption of natural resources?

To take your last point first, one might say that we the humans suffer from exponential entitlement issues: our destructive domination of the animal kingdom and our planet’s resources is taking us to the point of no return. How might we step back from the brink? Considering these nascent understandings of communication networks that clearly exist between living organic matter and between living creatures whose languages we don’t understand and sometimes can’t even hear, is helping me rethink consciousness in terms of consumption of natural resources. I find these areas of discovery incredibly exciting in terms of their potential for us to change our behaviors going forward.

In terms of considering the relation between organism and commodity, I am very interested in Peter Linebaugh’s writings in which he studies historic processing of natural resources, along with the labor issues involved in these processes. His writing reveals in some detail the specifics of working with material and in the main he looks at the time before oil transformed our range of material options so exponentially. The pernicious effect of adding oil, petrol, and their by-products to our material register has been and continues to be corrosive on a devastating scale.

 

Your project in zing uses a rainbow spectrum of color that bring to mind a utopian visual aesthetic associated with the hippie culture of the 1960s. Was this in any way an influence here?

Absolutely this is a direct associative reference, the aesthetics of hippie culture, that point toward content, to name a few examples—in the UK, Oz MagazineIT and Spare Rib, in the US Bijoux Funnies, the Whole Earth Catalog—this explosive  moment post-WW2 for western counter-culture. For Millennials and Gen X-Z, the rainbow spectrum may have a different reference, signifying LGBTQIA+, the double-edged sword of identity politics?

 

What projects are you engaged with currently?

I’ve been thinking recently about the Bauhaus education model which taught through material knowledge. As we all slip behind screens, how can retain the value of this way of thinking, in education and in the wider world too? In terms of art making, I am primarily creating commissioned public artwork, which I see as a form of applied art that I approach through the filter of material in relation to site. My tendency is to create useful sculpture for the public realm, useful places for doing nothing, that can be enjoyed bodily, structures that can be sat on, or walked on or under. I am particularly interested in inherent material attributes and how they can add enjoyment, bring pleasure, for example I am working with heat retaining terra-cotta on sculpture—making spaces that can be enjoyed into the evening, when the retained heat releases back into the bodies of those who linger and languish late in the evening.

 

-Brandon Johnson, April 2019

VARIATIONS OF A DREAM: ELMGREEN & DRAGSET AND HEIDI ZUCKERMAN IN DISCUSSION

Installation view: Elmgreen & Dragset, It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry, Aspen Museum, 2018. Photo: Tony Prikyl

 

Here we speak with two contributors to zing #25 who currently share an additional curatorial crossing—Elmgreen & Dragset’s installation It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry at Aspen Art Museum (on view through May 19th, 2019), where Heidi Zuckerman serves as CEO and Director. The work itself is a display case containing a polished aluminum megaphone on a granite pedestal, which is used daily at noon by a man to shout the phrase: “It’s never too late to say sorry!” This installation and their zing project “Variations of Blue” exemplify the combination of sculpture, installation, and performance characterizing the practice of Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset, who have worked together under the name Elmgreen & Dragset since 1995. Heidi Zuckerman joined Aspen Art Museum as Nancy and Bob Magoon CEO and Director in 2005 and as Aspen Art Museum celebrates its 5th anniversary in the current Shigeru Ban building, the Crown Commons have become an architectural platform for public engagement—a context in which Elmgreen & Dragset thrive. With her zing project “…some fragment of a dream” we gain insight into what may be the beginnings of Zuckerman’s curatorial impetus, or at the least, an activation and step along the way.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry is a simple yet powerful relational gesture occurring in a public forum. How do you—both the artists and curator—feel that this work relates to its current context of Aspen, Colorado?

HZ: I am interested in Hooponopono, a Hawaiian practice of forgiveness and reconciliation. There is nothing more powerful than accepting an apology that you have not, and likely will not, receive. The placement and performance of this work in front of the Aspen Art Museum, as we approach the fifth anniversary of our building, is connected to this notion.

E&D: Guilt is global—everyone has something to say sorry for. We’ve previously shown this work in cities ranging from Rotterdam to New York to Munich, and now, Aspen. A lot of influential people visit Aspen, and we hope the work prompts everyone to reflect on the potential power of an apology, whether it be related to civic issues, personal relationships, or something else entirely.

 

A megaphone is a very analog method of amplifying one’s voice. There are not many town criers these days. Why choose this method of communication in our contemporary context?

E&D: Today, we are bombarded by a constant stream of disembodied messages that appear on various screens in the form of tweets, text messages, news reports, emails, notifications, comments, etc. The megaphone allows the physicality of an actual human body and the sound of an actual human voice to come together and be amplified in this real-time performative action, asserting the body in space and underlining the significance of the phrase that is shouted. As you mentioned, the town crier is an extremely outdated method of communication; it starkly contrasts with all the instantaneous options we now have at our fingertips. The work harkens back to this old way of transmitting information and suggests that even though certain methods have been eclipsed by new ones, there are still some messages that endure. As an object, the megaphone is closely associated with concepts like protest, authority, disruption, and control—using it in this context hopefully brings these layered associations to the artwork as well.

HZ: I am really interested in punctuation, and the megaphone is an incredibly elegant exclamation point!!

 

Heidi, when did you first encounter the work of Elmgreen & Dragset, and what appealed about their practice as a curator? 

HZ: While I can’t recall the first time I came across their work, two significant experiences were my visits to Prada Marfa (2005) in Texas and their Danish Pavilion installation, The Collectors, at the Venice Biennale in 2009. I am drawn to work that feels timely and relevant, and both of these installations took familiar things and offered new, surprising perspectives.

 

Elmgreen & Dragset’s project in zingmagazine #25 “Variations of Blue,” curated by Maureen Sullivan, focuses on the motif of a swimming pool in as documented in various installations of your work going back to 1997. What is it about pools that has kept you engaging with this subject over the years?

E&D: We’re fascinated by both the aesthetics and the social significance of pools. The idea of a private pool has in our post-war Western culture been a symbol of social status for those living in the suburbs. We first challenged this narrative at the Venice Biennale in 2009 with our work Death of a Collector, which depicted a wealthy art collector floating face-down in his pool in front of the Nordic Pavilion. More recently, our exhibition This Is How We Bite Our Tongue at the Whitechapel Gallery (2018–19) marked the first time we used a public pool in our work. That installation, entitled The Whitechapel Pool, dealt with the loss of civic space and shared values through the portrayal of an abandoned pool. We created a fictional history to accompany the pool, detailing its rise as a famed public amenity that later lost government funding and then got sold off to a private developer, who was about to turn it into a membership spa. Through our research for that show, we learned more about how the decline of public pools in the UK mirrors other cultural shifts in the past decade.

Back in 1997, one of our first sculptural works, Powerless Structures, Fig. 11, was a diving board that penetrated a panoramic windowpane at the Louisiana Museum, which is located by the sea north of Copenhagen. Inspired by David Hockney’s famous painting A Bigger Splash, the work also addressed the discourses of the late 1990s around the inclusion and exclusion of queer identities and minorities within established (art) institutions—the diving board being stuck midway between the inside and the outside of the museum. Nearly two decades later, in 2016, we began making a series of diving boards that are presented vertically and engage with the tradition of Minimal sculpture and stripe paintings. That same year, Public Art Fund presented Van Gogh’s Ear, our public sculpture of a garden pool—also displayed vertically—at Rockefeller Center in New York. It looked like the pool had been taken out of the showroom and put in this unfamiliar, urban context. The pool theme appeared again in Zero, our work for the 2018 Bangkok Art Biennale, which is a schematic interpretation of a pool reduced to its essential components, a hollow oval outline of the pool shape with a diving board and a ladder. We keep working with pools because we find them to be endlessly interesting subjects to consider on many different levels.

 

Spread from Heidi Zuckerman’s “. . . some fragment of a dream,” zingmagazine #25

 

Heidi your project in zingmagazine #25 “. . . some fragment of a dream” is centered around a collection of paperweights your grandmother gifted to you. This collection became more significant after a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago, where objects like these were presented in the context of fine art. Can you further describe this satori at the Art Institute? And how have your views on collections and collecting evolved over the years (if at all)? Finally, do you still collect paperweights?

HZ: The event you are referencing happened when I was a senior in college and visiting Chicago for the first time. The satori there were linked to a much broader awakening tied to my realization that I wanted to pursue a career in art. A conversation ensued soon thereafter with my parents when I informed them of my new path. Using Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey terminology, I now understand that time as my “burning of the boats” moment.

Once one catches the collecting bug, it’s virtually impossible to shake. So, yes, I still collect paperweights and, interestingly, in the last few years, people have started to gift me them as well. I also collect chairs, blue-and-white ceramics, books, shells, and, not surprisingly, contemporary art.

 

Finally, any forthcoming projects in the works you are particularly excited about?

HZ: The next installation on the Aspen Art Museum Commons (where Elmgreen & Dragset’s work is currently installed) is by Erika Verzutti. Verzutti will create a large-scale bronze Venus—an extension of her recent smaller sculptures incorporating organic forms that depict the Roman goddess of love, sex, beauty, and fertility. Her Venus will be inverted in a headstand. As an almost daily practitioner of yoga and a committed headstander, I am particularly excited about this upcoming project!

E&D: We have several exhibitions opening in March in Asia: two gallery solo shows and a project at Art Basel Hong Kong. We’re having our first-ever show at Kukje Gallery in Seoul, entitled Adaptations, and we’ll be presenting new works in two sections of the gallery. One section will house works that incorporate familiar elements from the public sphere, while the other will display works that focus on the human body, from abstract to semi-abstract to figurative representations of the body and some of its intimate spheres. At Massimo De Carlo Gallery in Hong Kong, our exhibition Overheated will transform the gallery into an abandoned, underground boiler room with industrial tubes of various colors and sizes crisscrossing throughout the space, along with a number of sculptural works within this basement-like environment. And at Art Basel Hong Kong, we’ll be presenting City in the Sky in the Encounters sector. It’s an imaginary city in a scaled model, installed upside-down.

After that, we’re curating a group show inspired by our favorite painter of domestic interiors, Wilhelm Hammershøi, opening at the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen in April. We’re also planning a big show at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas that will focus on our sculptural works, and that opens in September.

 

-Brandon Johnson, February 2019

MARIA ANTELMAN IS DISASSEMBLING NOTIONS OF TECH & SELF

Video Still from “Disassembler”, 2018 HD video with sound

Video co-commissioned by Pioneer Works and the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens (EMST)

 

Maria Antelman is a New York-based Greek video artist and photographer. Her work focuses primarily on the relationship between humans and technology. Her project “The Spacesaver,” curated by Melanie Flood, appears in zing #25. Antelman’s solo show “Disassembler” is on view at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn until February 10th.

Interview by Natasha Przedborski

 

Your project “The Spacesaver” in zingmagazine uses similar imagery of eyes and hands as your current show “Disassembler” on view at Pioneer Works. What is the significance of using eyes and hands in your work?

“Spacesaver” is a series of photomontages, showing hands moving in and out of screens, touching information, specifically microfilm which is what big data used to be. In the video Disassembler, hands become one with a central system that controls them, like puppet hands. Here, rural workers hands are guided by the technical specifications of a wristband that Amazon patented for their warehouse pickers. I am thinking of hands as body parts but also as tools and as extensions of our technology How do the functions of the hand change, based on the technological evolutions? One example is how digital technology requires touching a lot of screens but at the same time touching becomes a less tactile experience as all media is digital. One touches to command rather than hold a physical object or medium like film, vinyl, printed books, etc.

In terms of the eye, we live in a panopticon economy. Surveillance and data collection are the hottest industry. At the same time, our eyes have become cameras, and we desire to capture and “share” everything we see (our social personas are the accumulation of what we have captured and shared). In my eyes, the “I” is an eye and how timeless the slicing of the eye scene from Buñuel’s film Un Chien Andalou! Our eyes or cameras produce and transmit images while at the same time these functions are recorded and analyzed by other, technical cameras and eyes. Technical vision creates this new awareness. Things and objects become smart and intelligent and their gaze is upon us. We create our technology in our image and in our likeness, and then it feels uncanny when we discover ourselves in it.

 

The title “Disassembler” stems from the name of the software used to transform code into a language that humans can understand. There seems to be a similar transformation that occurs when verbalizing visuals. As a non-American artist, do you feel that describing your work or translating it into English is also part of a process similar to “disassembler”?

I grew up in Athens and at the age of 18 I went to study in Madrid where nobody spoke English or any Greek. I was fully immersed and after a few years my thinking process was in Spanish, which at that moment felt like an incredible realization. Now, I have been living and working in the US for 18 years and I think of my work only in English. English is easy to work with because it has an administrative simplicity while Spanish is emotional and Greek is complex, wise, and sculptural. I am trying to maintain a multilingual situation, switching between the three languages and their different glossological idiosyncrasies.

Disassembling a language is understanding its syntax. To understand the syntax, one has to learn the grammar. When we were taught ancient Greek in school, we were given a text which we had to translate by conveying its sense (sense for sense). The syntax of ancient Greek is very dense and precise. The grammar has many rules and more exceptions, anomalous tenses, intense archaic roots and crazy compound words. Interpreting a small phrase was like deciphering a code and then magically it’s meaning made perfect sense. That process was similar to a “disassembler.” Future projects always include taking lessons of ancient Greek again.

 

“Disassembler” also raises important questions about how far technology can go in controlling and automating our behaviors. How do you consolidate this wish for a more organic world with the use of more technologically advanced animation methods? 

Technology interprets and learns to predict our behaviors, functions and ideas. The word “organic” refers to something that has an organ (tool) that supports a living system but since synthetic organs are becoming available from biological materials, the traditional organic concept is challenged. The technological is the new nature and we are adapting organically. One of my video works in the show, The Wild West, talks about rewilding the American West by reintroducing extinct species from the distant past. It shows interiors of futuristic tech and scientific laboratories. The screen is sometimes superimposed by computer vision programming graphs, guiding the viewer’s vision and referencing machine-learning algorithms. The question is how something can be wild and designed, and how something can be controlled and become wild.

 

This duality between wild and controlled is eternally present in the art world. It poses the question of how something can be genuine if it is curated. As an artist, how does it feel to be making a piece with a specific audience in mind such as “Disassembler” which was commissioned by Pioneer Works?

I made my first video work (New Horizons) in 2002, without knowing what I was doing. It was wild and it still is the best video I have ever made. Ever since, I am fighting with myself not to control my process, but instead to recreate the feeling, the power and the result of the first creation. It was a genuine instinctive moment, almost mythological. With my practice, I am trying to get out of my comfort zone and take myself somewhere I have never been before. It is also a health exercise or mental workout with interesting ideas against existential anxiety and boredom. Then the work finds its audience, or the audience finds the work.

 

For your two pieces Darth Vader and I/Eye, what made you chose to use vintage monitors to display your work?

I think of myself as a sculptor who works with film photography and who makes electronic art works. The vintage square monitors have a body or depth as three-dimensional objects; they create a different viewing experience from the high definition flat screens with their liquid surfaces; they use an analogue aspect ratio (4/3), squarer and less widescreen.  In the I/Eye, the monitor becomes the organ which supports the eye, while Darth Vader is a monolith with a head and a body. I am interested in anthropomorphic structures and representations and analogue technology is more humanoid.

 

Your work brings us to a different time. One that is part of the past but also deeply rooted in the future. Archives and memory are the foundation for teaching us the history of the past. In what ways do you feel like memory comes into play with your work?

During my childhood in Greece, I was only exposed to antiquities. My mother was a teacher of ancient Greek and Latin and we often visited archaeological sites. I was conceived in Delphoi. Sometimes we travelled to European cities and saw Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture. The first time I saw contemporary art was as a History and Art History student in Madrid at the Reina Sofia Museum. Years later, I landed in Silicon Valley which is a science fiction experience. I was in a new planet without any old history, or reference to the past as I understood it. It was marble versus circuits and chips. Always interested in technical things, I discovered techno archeology in an old space exploration center (AMES) and the history of Silicon Valley’s first companies with their early information systems along with other local cultural oddities. The technological memory is still exciting for me, in all forms and mediums, conceptually, historically, as digital information or analogue data and becomes a point of reference. My work is the result of all these experiences, along with the memory of my grandmother’s smell, a Greek refugee from Asia Minor.

 

-Natasha Przedborski, January 2019

THE BACK ALLEYS OF DENVER'S CONTEMPORARY ARTSCAPE

Carlos Fresquez, Alley Freshener, 2018. Photo: Third Dune Productions. Image courtesy of the Downtown Denver Partnership and Black Cube.

 

Black Cube Nomadic Museum is a non-profit experimental art museum based in Denver, Colorado, that supports artists’ projects occurring outside traditional exhibition spaces. Their current exhibition, Between Us: The Downtown Denver Alleyway Project, partners with Downtown Denver Partnership and Downtown Denver Business Improvement District to transform alleyways in the downtown Denver area with installations by five artists curated by Black Cube: Carlos Fresquez’s Alley Freshener, Kelley Monico’s Alley Cats, Stuart Semple’s I should be crying but I just can’t let it show, Joel Swanson’s Y/OURS, and Frankie Toan’s Public Body. Each installation was created for its specific site and delivers its own meaning and context. Earlier this month Black Cube’s Executive Director and Chief Curator Cortney Lane Stell took me on a walking tour on a sunny Denver day . . .

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

This group of installations are situated within alleys in downtown Denver. How was the idea to position artwork in alleys conceived? Were there any historical precedents for this type of site that you’re aware of?

The idea started by an opportunity that a friend, Castle Searcy, was working on. She had proposed a mural project to the Downtown Denver Partnership, the nonprofit organization that activates Denver’s 16th Street Mall. Her proposal was to commission muralists to create “3d murals” of Colorado’s attractions and pitched them as selfie opportunities. At the same time, Castle and I were involved in another project. She raised the opportunity to have Black Cube curate the project. I felt that with the funding and interesting sites, we could do something more engaging and dynamic than murals . . . (Denver has been in a major mural Renaissance lately). That’s basically how we got started, practically speaking.

In regards to your question about historical president, I am not aware of a specific history in fine art . . . but I do know the spaces have a long history with graffiti and mural art. Denver and other cities have seen a lot of growth in this area since the ‘80s, as it has become a tool for developers and real estate owners to add a youthful funk, at a relatively affordable price tag.

 

How was this group of artists chosen? Did individuals submit proposals or were artists invited to create site specific works?

The intent was to mostly focus on a local artists approach. As the curator, we selected the artists and, after a studio visit, invited them to come up with a few ideas we could explore together.

 

The 16th Street Mall is known as a major tourist thoroughfare in Denver. During our walkthrough we encountered a family from Tennessee admiring Kelly Monico’s Alley Cats installation. How did the expected audience factor into what artists and works were chosen?

I approached the project looking for works that would be accessible to a wide audience, from those within the field of contemporary art and to passersby. Many of the works are intended to draw people in. I did this by selecting artworks that could be recognizable at first glance and also elicit a candid response such as amusement or surprise. My hope is that this method encourages viewers to think more deeply about the works in relation to public space. However, I am not sure if that is happening outside of the art community.

The public reaction to Kelly Monico’s Alley Cats installation has been very interesting to experience. Cat-lovers are literally coming out of surrounding offices and businesses to comment or ask questions. Families also love to hunt for all of the 300+ cat tchotchkes—it’s almost become a game. This installation has really shown me how wonderful it is to make public space a place for curiosity. Though, I have to say, I’m not sure that people are thinking about the work more deeply. I have yet to hear anyone question the line the artist is walking by calling attention to our desire to anthropomorphize cats by turning them into doe-eyed garden sculptures or the reference to an infestation. Another work that has garnered a lot of attention is Carlos Fresquez’s large-scale tree freshener sculpture that dangles above a line of dumpsters in a particularly pungent alley. The work regularly makes passersby laugh, but it also speaks to a deeper level as to how we care for the city and the ways we perceive alleys as dark, often overlooked, public spaces. I also love the art historical connection to other provocative public works such as Paul McCarthy’s inflatable sculpture, Tree, which references an anal plug.

 

Exhibition tour led by the Montbello Drumline. Photo: From the Hip Photography. Image courtesy of the Downtown Denver Partnership and Black Cube.

 

Interesting to hear that you feel the general populace may not be engaging with the work on a deeper level. What leads you to draw this conclusion? Contemporary art often relies on explanation to reveal its meaning, and there are placards on site to assist viewers with accessing the artists’ thought processes . . .

I have to say, though, that I don’t expect everyone to have a deep contemplative experience. It’s perfectly fine for people to not even see these interventions as artworks. For me the priority is to disrupt space, challenge the mural statuesque, and offer artists unique opportunities that are both supportive and challenging. With that said, the most common response I have seen with these works is watching people stop to snap a photo, then move on. From that I’ve inferred that most people are simply amused by the image, but that is a huge assumption. Some folks do pause to read the text panels, but it’s far more rare (maybe 1 in 30 people). I guess all of this is the beauty and challenge of showing “art in the wild” so to say. I should also mention that expecting some would desire more interaction (mostly the artists and locals who follow Black Cube), we programmed tours and artist talks. The first tour was super fun—it was led by the Montbello drumline—it felt more like a parade . . . we had such high attendance that we had to use a bullhorn to talk at each alley!

 

Given the challenge of competing with the constant information flow and demand for attention from smart phones, I’d say that someone even stopping to take a photo means something. You never know how that image sinks in or resurfaces in their mind. But the drumline-led tour seems like a great idea and successful in deepening the engagement level. Any other programming for this project and/or other upcoming Black Cube projects that people can look out for?

There are no further programs scheduled for this particular project at the moment, but the works will be on view through (at least) May of 2019. However, we have several other projects in the works. The next project to open will be in Mexico, during the first quarter of 2019 with Alejandro Almanza Pereda. He has been amazing to work with— a lot of his work tests the limits of materials (both physical and/or perceptional). We are currently exploring a few of his ideas, so it’s a little early for me to speak on the details of the project. The best way to keep up on all things Black Cube related is by signing up for our mailing list on our website blackcube.art.

 

-Brandon Johnson, November 2018

HARMLESS BOUNDLESSNESS: ANDREW CANNON, JASMINE LITTLE, & EMILY LUDWIG SHAFFER AT GILDAR GALLERY, DENVER

Installation shot, courtesy of Gildar Gallery

 

A Harmless Exercise in Boundlessness . . . (or So Far I Haven’t Killed Myself or Killed Any Other Person) an exhibition at Gildar Gallery in Denver featuring the work of Andrew Cannon, Jasmine Little, and Emily Ludwig Shaffer uses the foil of mushroom foraging as its frame. An increasingly popular American pastime that would normally find little to do with contemporary visual art betrays its avant-garde history in the activities of John Cage, mushroom lover and reincarnator of the New York Mycological Society. At this crossroads of mycology and music theory, the idea of “chance” relates a multiplicity of meanings and purposes, from the I Ching to stumbling upon a flush of maitake in the woods. In a similar way, the work in this show revolves around this intellectual framework, with the work itself taking many forms including painting, sculpture, and multi-media assemblage.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

The exhibition’s title is sourced from quotes by and about John Cage. Mushroom hunting involves identifying the conditions needed for one to be at the right place at the right time in order to find a bounty. How do you feel that your work does or does not engage with chance? And as an artist, do you ever feel that it’s necessary to set the table for ideas or a vision of new work to arrive?

AC: I don’t think about chance really—or at least not in the emphasized sense that Cage did. In terms of setting the table, I try to just work and walk as much as possible. Stay in the right place long enough—the broken clock is right twice a day or whatever. It’s less elegant than only showing up when it’s productive, but it always works eventually. I go through a few miles of forest when I walk to my studio and see fungi or don’t, and I work in my studio and make progress or don’t.

JL: Yes, I think my work involves chance, but maybe more in the sense Andrew described. It is always a surprise when something comes about in the studio—that makes painting very fun and exciting for me. And I spend lots of time trying to make all the conditions right in the studio for something to occur, but I consider this sort of cleaning, organizing, standing around, etc. as studio time even when the end result is not known. I don’t really plan my paintings, or actually, I make lots of plans for paintings and don’t really follow them. Something typically occurs in the process that seems important or more interesting than the intention I set out with, so I allow that to become primary. I have to put forth a lot of effort and intentionality in mushroom hunting too—the best conditions to find what I am typically looking for are kind of distant from my studio, but this also does not manifest in the intended manner. It’s just the starting point and creates the space required for the event to play out however it happens to.

ELS: I generally agree with the old saying that chance favors a prepared mind, but like Jasmine and Andrew, I don’t actively think about chance that much when I’m making work right now. I did a lot in the past, though, and a big part of art-making for me has been developing tools and parameters in my studio that allow space for the ideas that interest me to emerge in an organic way.

 

The consumption of wild mushrooms involves risk—of gastric distress at a minimum, and death at the most drastic. What types of risk arise for you as an artist?

ELS: I have a lot of messy feelings and thoughts about the term “risk.” In short, though, I think some artists make powerful artwork that overtly engages risk, but it’s usually by exposing threats that they or others already live with on a daily basis. Actively creating risk is an idea I more often associate with male hubris. So far, my relationship to making art is very different from artists whose work has literally killed themselves or others—even if by accident. I think anyone who puts their own time, body, emotions, effort, and resources into any endeavor is risking something, but it’s a term I feel uncomfortable or uninterested in claiming as a key ingredient in my process.

JL: I agree with Em regarding the messiness of the term “risk.” When I was younger I really liked to gamble. Lately though, I feel like I have spent a lot of time and energy to create a safe environment in which I can make work.

AC: I’ve only poisoned myself once—I had a bad reaction to some imported aspen boletes I bought frozen from a Russian grocery store. I do eat a lot of mushrooms but only occasionally is there any lingering doubt I’ve misidentified what I’ve collected though, and if there is, it adds the smallest bit of friction to an otherwise quiet hobby. Emily is right and I agree my work does not engage in any serious or mortal risks, but I think hopefully there’s always a feeling you might embarrass yourself or the real fear you’ve financially overextended yourself.

 

In this show, each of your work engages with natural forms or the idea of nature—including mushrooms themselves—abstractly, representationally, and/or literally. What does the environment mean to your practice?

JL: I have always had a strong relationship with the environment, I grew up camping, rock hunting, spending time outside. My parents were both really good at identifying plants, minerals, rocks, and spent time describing the landscape and knew a lot of narrative history associated with different places. I really wasn’t terribly interested as a child in rock hunting in Death Valley in the summer, but I appreciate that I had that type of upbringing now. Where I currently live is a really rural community in Southern Colorado and I spent a lot of time hiking and being alone in nature. I am interested in this type of activity as an experiential thing. My paintings in this show are influenced by the season and depict the plants that were out right then such as berries and mushrooms. And they also depict things you find on the forest floor like skulls and branches. The work was influenced by Dutch still-lifes, illuminated manuscripts, pattern, decoration, etc.

I was also really obsessed with smoking when I made these paintings, and my teeth, I was having all these dental problems. Anyways, I was quitting smoking so there is like this literal deterioration of my body going on, how that feels, etc. I think this sort of obsession with my physical body and death is really present in the work. And the way I paint and sculpt is always very physical, bodily. One of my favorite ceramics in the show sunk into its current mushroom-like shape naturally from being built to quickly so there is also this very literal, natural aspect that is material in my work.

ELS: When I invoke natural forms, I’m pulling from a lot of traditions like landscape and still-life paintings, but also working within common metaphors: leaves can be fingers, legs, vulvae, phalluses; potted plants are domestication, cultivation, artifice.  Most of what I’m painting now is from my imagination, so when I paint plants they’re usually stiff or plasticy and end up more like an idea or the fantasy of a plant rather than something that is observed and actually living. The garden and the greenhouse are also potent spaces for me. These feel daunting because of the amount of control and care they require, but I also see them as tender, as an exercise in nurturing or cultivating a craft and aesthetics. I think gardening/plant keeping traditions express a lot about a person or a culture, and I sometimes think about them as symbolic of desires for some prelapsarian utopia.

AC: I’d just say “yes” since my thinking about nature isn’t particularly organized and the question is too sprawling. I think a lot about nature and the image of nature, how flora get woven and encoded into culture. But I also think about painting, and fireplaces, and airplanes. I’ll look at mushrooms in Central Park and then walk into The Met and look at lacquer boxes and I try to think about it as one continuous system. One afternoon feeling.

 

Mushroom hunting calls to mind pastoral utopia. Does your work engage in the utopian? 

AC: It doesn’t, or at least I don’t throw that word around much. I do like the utopian novel. News from NowhereHerland, etc. I had a professor that would say every artwork is, for better or worse, a vision of the artist’s perfect world. That makes sense to me. I try to keep each work self-contained, its own trial world.

ELS: My mom was an architect so I grew up running around architecture firms, flipping through all the modernist starchitect coffee table books, and seeing architecture periodicals every month. I was obsessed with the different ways the architects and designers would add people, plants, and dappled light to their drawings and models for buildings yet-to-be-made. I thought they were both beautiful and creepy. These scenes were supposed to be utopian and inspire the imagination, but they were mostly stiff, unnatural, and read like a faulty promise. I don’t always think about the spaces in my paintings along these terms, but I’ve definitely explored it in some—especially from a little over a year ago when my old studio had a huge Renzo Piano building being erected outside of it.

JL: I don’t think my work is overtly concerned with utopian ideas. There is conflict, tension, and the materiality of the paint is pretty present. I have always been sort of an immediate painter and have a hard time with illusion. I think there is something utopic philosophically in my work. I am contented with a lot of different types of “successes” in individual works, like how Andrew reference earlier embarrassing yourself in the work—that is defiantly something I enjoy. I am not afraid to make something bad. Basically, I think being able to paint full-time is a crazy luxury, sort of an utopic dreamlife and political act in itself.

 

-Brandon Johnson, October 2018

HERE IS DEVON DIKEOU'S NEW YORK

Devon Dikeou, Rush Hour, Grand Central Station, black and white photograph, 1988

 

Devon Dikeou’s second solo presentation at James Fuentes, “Here Is New York (E.B. White)” features what are among her earliest artworks made as a young artist in New York City. There are two security gates paired with other security-oriented materials—glass blocks and acrylic sheeting—and an enclosed kiosk, all of which one would regularly find on the streets of New York (depending on the hour). These works set a seminal precedent exploring spaces and objects of transition, which would later find other forms and subjects as her career progressed. So with this exhibition we return to the root of things, to revisit where it all started got Devon and an era of heavy analog materiality that is changing with the sleekness of this post-digital era. “Here is New York (E.B. White)” is on view September 8th – October 7th, 2018.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

These security gates represent to you the “in-between.” Other works of yours also engage in this realm. What is it about the “in-between” that appeals to you?

John Baldessari said, “Instead of looking at things, look between things.” I ran across this quote only in the last year, which was in a book of collected quotes by artists under the table of contents’ moniker of “Advice.” And it made a lot of sense to me. Many of the series in my practice touch on this “in-between.” The curtain behind the comedian, the flower that accompanies the big picture, the chair that seats the Pope, the minimalist donation box soliciting funding, the plant in the mall that is between decoration and commerce, the jazz musician (like they often are) forgotten, the directory board announcing the exhibition. I’m interested in those spaces that are shared by all those transactional viewing experiences . . . the viewer, the artists, the gallerist, the critic. And more. What they all signify is something that I’ve always reflected on, and done and it comes down to this, which is very similar to the Baldessari directive. Look at the space between the leaves of tree, not the leaves themselves.

 

The show is titled “Here Is New York (E.B. White)”. You often use literary references to support and deepen your conceptual installations, adding a dimension of the human condition to cerebral artworks. In this instance, a quote from E.B. White. What do these titles mean to you?

There is this great bookstore called Three Lives in the Village near an apartment on Christopher where I once lived. It was and is spectacularly curated so to speak, and I maybe learned something about curating from that bookstore. It is tiny, not like the Strand—which is all inclusive, and where you can go for miles and days browsing. Three Lives had to strategically choose what to shelve, much less select or highlight. I’ve found some of my most beloved and cherished tomes there directed by the Three Lives curation, one being the slight thin paperback booklet that can be read in an hour called, Here is New York. It’s by E.B. White, who I only knew from Some Pig! and Charlotte’s Web fame. I quickly absorbed his adult message—and learned of his great, underrated legacy as a non-fiction writer—and re-examined the childhood tales I so loved. What is Charlotte, a spider, who weaves a web. What is New York, a web us flies have to navigate.

 

Security gates have come to represent a low-key quintessential part of New York street life. How else does this show find its groove in the Big Apple?

When I came to New York, it felt like a world of possibility. But it was equally dangerous as was it was joyful. Lots of artists have explored this, from Nan Goldin to the Ramones, Blondie to Robert Mapplethorpe. They had all the stages covered, so I worked on the background . . . The gates were as ubiquitous then as they are now, but a universal signifier of urban environments worldwide. The gates seemed like the perfect segue.

 

The industrial nature of the gates is representative of an engagement with functional ready-made materials positioned within a conceptual framework that characterizes some of your early works. What was the draw of these materials and subjects for you at the time?

New York. Of course, that was the platform, and I’ve been discussing this with Cortney . . . The difference between platform and medium . . . But I think the gates are the medium. And nothing can be done without Duchamp. So those gates are the Duchampian gesture/medium in and on the platform of New York.

 

Being some of your first works made as an artist in New York, what does it mean to show this work in a contemporary context—over 25 years after they first premiered?

I remember going to an exhibition at the Whitney (Breuer Building) in the ‘80s of Vija Celmins and Dan Graham. I just loved it. The wall texts kept touting a phrase which I thought odd at the time . . . “An Artist’s Artist.” I thought it was a slight in a way, because the work was incredible, those dense drawings of oceans, surface images of housing—both reflecting something immeasurable, and perfectly and specifically dated. Now these artists are larger than life as they should be, I would only be so happy to be called an artist’s artist even if it’s 25 years or more, later.

 

Finally, in revisiting older works, can you see any ways in which your work has changed? And ways in which it has stayed the same?

I am an archivist by nature, save everything, never know when you’re gonna need it . . . All things everything, a page from Warhol. But funnily enough, the gate works physically disappeared. Gone, and yet always felt like that friend you see again and pick up with as if no time has passed . . . Or a time capsule you open and greet with abandon. I’d look at the photos of the gates and long for the youth and early conviction of that other time. So it’s nice, a lovely present to see them again, to visit with these old friends, and see what as a young person and thinker I was aiming for and then as a more mature artist now, how I picked up those threads . . . And the ability to make a relation “between” them, there we go again. And so their being made again, these gates, makes me smile. Archive that, Devon.

 

-Brandon Johnson, August 2018

THE ONE, THE ONLY, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, KENNY SCHACHTER

Kenny Schachter, Kenny Mostquito, 2016, Digital c-print on plexiglas, 10 x 6.5 in

 

Kenny Schachter, art world bad-boy, bares it all in his deep-diving retrospective exhibition at Rental Gallery in East Hampton, on view through October 31st, 2018. We catch up with Kenny via text to discuss the big show, what led up to this moment, and what is to follow . . .

Interview by Devon Dikeou

 

You started curating in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s . . . I particularly remember the German show and stuff in your 1st Avenue flat. But also stuff at BACA Downtown, above 303 in the vacant Massimo Audiello Gallery on Greene St. And despite your Eulogy . . . the shows were amazing, not “a mess,” giving so many artists the platform to show at a time when there were so few. Give us the “best of” of those early shows . . . 

My second show, “Decorous Beliefs,” highlighted the worst attributes of humans: racist, sexist, and generally prejudicial behavior. You serving up blood-rare sandwiches to be devoured by the derelicts of the early ‘90s emerging art scene we called friends. Then I clocked Roberta Smith in the space one day and couldn’t believe my luck—to this day I am enamored of every word from her keyboard. When I approached her and began explaining the intent of my show, she reprimanded me in no uncertain terms without expressing an emotion: “If I needed art explained to me, I’d never leave my house.” Ouch. I’ll admit to a few tears when she departed.

 

Talk about the segue from younger artists to mid-career or older artists and the importance of working with some of the major architectural thinkers of our time.

For a good long time, say close to ten years, I couldn’t tolerate a conversation with an emerging artist. I felt they were literally sucking the breath out of my mouth; then, so emboldened and strengthened, they’d walk all over me. No joy. So first I launched personal and professional relationships with Vito Acconci and Zaha Hadid; I am in awe of talented, brilliant people and was, like a fan, simply in thrall of their company and accomplishments. Not to mention I commissioned many projects and did countless curatorial and writing projects dedicated to both. I thought maybe some of the stardust might be catching. After getting soul-sucked by young artists for decades, then as an acolyte of the greats, I needed money and began secondary dealing. I was a bad lawyer, a bad tie salesman, and a worse art dealer.

 

Who are your mentors . . . Who are your enemies ; )

My mentors or rather the people that inspired me (I didn’t get much help from anyone) are Vito Acconci, Zaha, Paul Thek, who was an example of the notion that sometimes, being too good is too bad—he was a brilliant master of many media but was simply too far ahead of his time and lived too much of the time abroad and lost support after an early career spurt. He failed miserably in life and work, only to be celebrated in death with retros at the Whitney and Reina Sofia (I advised on both and wrote regularly on his work). My enemies are anyone hypocritical, not forthright or transparent. I’m often contradicting myself so sometimes I can’t stand myself either.

 

Speak about the relationship you have with your work to the market—be it visual, critical, or otherwise . . .

I love the market. Sure it could be ruthless, hideous, disingenuous, reductive . . . but really those characteristics apply to the players. Art and money have been sexing it up for centuries, from Durer to Rembrandt to the private plane flying the handful of today’s artrepreneurs. I don’t care—I need art and I need money to make and pursue it. My writing chronicles the misfits and general commercial activity at fairs and auctions so it gives depth and meaning beyond just recording sales. I am after the behavioral dynamic of social, political, and economic interaction as it applies to art. When it comes to selling my own work, I am a nervous insecure wreck and run from the dialogue.

 

What’s the thing that surprised you about playing all these roles in the art world and how it affected all these roles, in terms of practice in general, and the retro?

I stuck to it for thirty years. It’s a miracle I never compromised and that I even have an audience. I am so humbled and surprised I can’t believe anyone reads me or looks at other stuff I’ve been up to. I always thought I was kind of unlucky, stuck in the margins, and though by nature I will always be located outside the norm somewhere, I just can’t believe how things have gone in the past five years. Now I’m an old emerging artist that is selling. At a small gallery when they are said to be under siege. I am pinching myself now.

 

You were involved from the beginning of zingmagazine . . . And have done two books with us . . . How do you go about doing a retro or exhibition vs a printed project?

For me it’s all an organic mush. It just comes out of me and I don’t differentiate from any of my pursuits, be they as far afield as selling a Picasso and making a video or curating my kids into shows and supporting their work. I have a very democratic outlook on life and relish that I’ve never had a repeating day in my life. Though sometimes I feel like I’m merely treading water and stuck in the film Groundhog Day. I must say of all the disparate things I’ve done, having this art show transformed my life, for the first time I almost think of myself a real artist. Scary—for me and you.

 

Basically, how did you get a show at Rental and what made you want it to reflect the idea of a retrospective . . . in terms of you as a curator, gallerist, artist, collector, dealer, critic, writer, person extraordinaire of the ’90s art scene. How much is real how much fiction?

No fake news here, what you get is what you get: me stripped bare, naked, humiliated, walking down main street with strangers looking at my . . . oh never mind. Making art so publicly for the first time in more than 15 years has been an extraordinary experience. I can’t even recall how Joel Mesler and I met a few years ago, but he is a younger version of me, namely a jack of all (art) trades—making, curating, dealing and gallery-ing. He’s hilarious, supportive, talented and fun, as an anti-religionist, it’s not an easy to mouth, but I’ve been blessed.

 

What’s on deck?

Family Guy, the fourth installment of exhibits I’ve curated incorporating my family (though I mostly can’t stand any of them), and works we’ve all lived with for decades, at Simon Lee Gallery in London, then another one-person show in LA in Feb at Niels Kantor during Frieze/Felix art fairs in town and then . . . more of the same. I can’t temper my crazy love and passion for looking at, thinking about, and writing on art. And now, I am afraid to disclose, making it seems to be the next area to apply myself even further. I just can’t help myself baring it and sharing it. Sorry folks!

 

-Devon Dikeou, August 2018

CORTNEY LANE STELL & MICHAL NOVOTNY: A CURATORIAL CROSSING

Devon Dikeou “Tricia Nixon: Summer of 1973” installation view

 

Cortney Lane Stell is Executive Director and Chief Curator of Black Cube, a nomadic contemporary art museum based in Denver, Colorado. Michal Novotny is Director and Curator of FUTURA Center for Contemporary Art in Prague, Czech Republic. In their first collaboration, these two organizations have partnered to host Black Cube fellow Devon Dikeou as a FUTURA artist-in-residence in Prague. This resulting exhibition, “Tricia Nixon: Summer of 1973” is on view at FUTURA through September 16, 2018, alongside concurrent exhibitions by Andrew Norman Wilson and Lenka Vitkovka.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

In collaborating to produce Devon Dikeou’s “Tricia Nixon: Summer of 1973”, each of you are coming from very different cultural and historical backgrounds. How do you see an exhibition focusing on late 20th-century American politics relating to its context of Prague, Czech Republic?

C: The collaboration is simple—it focuses on an exchange between two countries, two nationalities, two artists, and two curators. Part of the vision of the exchange is to create conversation and share in the act of giving one thing and receiving another. So, this exhibition is part of that larger project.

In relation to the exhibition, for me it is mostly about memory—Devon’s childhood recollection of two concurrent news stories . . . a gas crisis and another about Nixon’s daughter keeping a fire and air conditioner on in the White House during this time. For me, seeing the architecture in Prague oozes with historical memory, ranging from Baroque and Renaissance architecture to more contemporary additions coming from the country’s Communist era.

This sense of the haunting of the past is very present in my experience of Prague and also these artworks. It reminds me of a text-based artwork by Anthony Discenza who produced parking signs that said “this is about something that happened a long time ago that continues to affect us today.” In many ways, I think these works also touch on ongoing global, social, and political issues.

Though the stories that Devon culled together are rather obscure—especially for a Czech audience—the air in the exhibition space is opulent (literally warm and cool). This thread roves through the exhibition and gently teases out concepts of ecological challenges, service, and personal comfort—all of which are concerns that traverse national borders.

Michal, I wonder how you read all of this . . . do you catch the same drift? Does the exhibition feel American to you?

M: It feels very American. But, if not the world, at least the society I live in, has been culturally colonized by the USA, so it doesn’t feel incomprehensible. Also, American politics is very present here in the media, maybe even over-present, at least what comes to the real material, economical, locally-political impact, so for me the parallels with the current US political situation are somehow explicit. Maybe even more than they really are there.

However, I do consider the program locally, and what is important for me is that Devon’s exhibition presents something artistically familiar but also uncanny. We have a long history of conceptual art, it is still the dominant discourse, but this exhibition shows something a bit different. Maybe it’s the unnecessity to poeticize everything, there is something a bit more raw in the situation encountered. Even if it may seem narrative, it’s ultimately not-so-narrative.

 

Andrew Norman Wilson “Andrew Norman Wilson” installation view

 

Going a step further, how do you see “Tricia Nixon: Summer of 1973” interacting (nor not) with the other two concurrent exhibitions at Futura, Andrew Norman Wilson: Andrew Norman Wilson and Lenka Vitkova: Slope? Michal, is there an attempt by Futura to consider in advance how the artists/curators will align, or is this occurrence more happenstance?

M: Of course there is. It is not by chance the two American artists whose solo exhibitions we open this year open also at the same time. On the other hand, the togetherness goes also in contrast, as we hope that if people do not like one exhibition they may like the other. So Lenka’s exhibition is on purpose unpolitical, meditative, intimate, and painterly.

Between Andrew and Devon I see a lot of structural meeting points even though the formal expression may be very different. For example, in the Ode to Seekers video the image of an oil tower merging into a mosquito head piercing human skin and the two remixed pop songs one saying “if it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad” second “I don’t care, I love it” makes a nice echo to Devon for me.

C: I see the three exhibitions in a more complimentary and contrasting way, rather than the connections between them. Given that the three exhibitions are on three floors, they sit like a layer cake in my head, or perhaps like an upside-down body. Lenka, who is on the top floor, being the feet or the earthly sensibility. Her paintings have a materiality to them and are quiet, gentile, and careful (and some paintings are literally feet). Devon, who is on the middle floor, is the exterior senses—stomach, ears, and skin. Her exhibition is rooted in physical sensations and the interconnection with the sociopolitical world around us. And Andrew’s work, which is in the space Michal calls the dungeon, is rather philosophical in tone, residing in the head and projections of the world. For me the three exhibitions are lovely in their contrasts. The differences in materials and relation to the viewer are quite different. I also agree with Michal that Andrew and Devon’s works have more links between them—they are both immersive installations that share a sense of angst.

M: Yes, Cortney that’s definitely a good metaphor, also, in a way, all three exhibitions are about belonging or alienated body . . .

 

How did FUTURA and Black Cube get involved in this organizational exchange, and what is the next step?

C: Well, Michal and I first met at a curatorial intensive for Independent Curators International in New York. We have stayed in touch since then, Michal has visited Denver and helped install an exhibition back in the day when I was the gallery director at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design. Since then, we have wanted to collaborate and this seemed to be the perfect moment to do so. Black Cube’s program allows for exchange to easily happen and Michal has been doing a lot of outside curating.

M: We meet seven years ago at curatorial program in New York sharing a certain healthy skepticism towards art world functioning and somehow a peripheric position. At that time we both hadn’t served the institutions we are at now, so maybe it turned out to be a good idea to decide to stay where we were.

 

Lenka Vitkova “Slope” installation view

 

Finally, Cortney can you speak to the current state of contemporary art in Denver and what you hope for in the future? And likewise, Michael can you speak to the same in Prague? 

C: Denver’s contemporary art scene is rather small, we have one art museum and one contemporary art museum—these institutions seem rather stable and have very prominent education departments. Since the 1980s the city has had a sales tax that helps fund the larger nonprofits in the area . . . because of this we have a rather top-heavy nonprofit scene and are skimpy on most other areas of the ecosystem. This has created a super small commercial gallery scene, and even fewer artist-run spaces. My favorite part of the scene is the artists, there are some truly amazing people here . . . ranging from those that are embedded in the global contemporary art scene such as Devon to outsider artists that take use of the freedom of the West. But this is all changing as the city is going through a huge growth spurt; I imagine these changes will affect the scene in many ways, currently it seems like the biggest sign of this change is that a lot of artists are feeling the rising rent costs and consequently are moving outside of the downtown area or leaving Denver altogether.

M: Prague’s scene has changed entirely in the last 10-12 years and I dare to say FUTURA helped it. What used to be an entirely local scene operating via underground friend circle one-night event spaces is nowadays, along with Warsaw, the most developed scene in the former Eastern Block with maybe 40 subjects active in a city of 1.5 million. What I tried to create when I took over at FUTURA was a certain bridge for the international to come Prague but also for the Czech artist to get abroad. This slowly became more and more the export and also support to local artist. As the international presence becomes ordinary in Prague, we increasingly focus on supporting the local artists.

However, the scene has still one big problem and that is the absence of large functioning state institutions. There is still no museum of contemporary art in Prague and the sort of substitutes such as the National Gallery or the supposed to be Kunsthalle Rudolfinum do not replace this lack, and due to personal, political, and inner-logic reasoning, fail to be both locally and internationally respected institutions. This however also influences all the rest of an otherwise dynamic and developed commercial and non-profit scene. Artists in their 40s/50s/60s still exhibit in the alternative spaces, as there is no one to do them the proper catalog retrospective, commercial galleries have no sales to institutions, as institutions do not collect anything, and there are no coffee table books to show to collectors, as institutions do not publish anything. Non-profit spaces like FUTURA are competing in the style of low budget, often younger artist exhibitions, with museums that should be doing something else entirely on the hierarchy pyramid. On the other hand, all the scene, commercial galleries included, run on state support, which has maybe doubled over the last decade. It’s not easy securing funding—we are still only two full-time people working at FUTURA, running two venues, residency program, and doing 30 something exhibitions per year. While in most other European countries in the Western direction the state funding towards alternative art spaces is disappearing, in Czech Republic it grows every year. But I also think that in the end it is not a bad deal for the state and the taxpayers. The effectivity of labor is much higher in the small-scale operating spaces than in large institutions. The amount and quality of content we all create is definitely very cheap comparatively.

 

-Brandon Johnson, July 2018

TAKING A DEEP BREATH WITH SARI CAREL

Sari Carel was born in Israel and lives and works in Brooklyn. Her work has been exhibited internationally in galleries and venues such as Artists Space, Nicelle Beauchene, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and Dumbo Arts Festival in New York, and Tavi Dresdner and The Heder Gallery in Tel Aviv. She has recently partnered on projects with More Art, a New York based nonprofit that supports collaborations between professional artists and communities to create public art and educational programs that inspire social justice. These projects include Borrowed Light at Sunset Park, Brooklyn, in 2015, and Out Of Thin Air currently at City Hall Park in Manhattan. Out Of Thin Air is a multi-channel immersive soundscape of recordings taken from breathing workshops conducted leading up to the installation, in which respiratory illness, air quality, and environmental injustice are at the forefront. Out of Thin Air is on view through July 8th.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

How did you become interested in the breath?

My interest evolved from a few different directions that suddenly came together in this project. The first is actually a personal one. My sister, who I am very close with has been living with an incurable lung disease, lymphangioleiomyomatosis. She is also a philosopher and her diagnosis jolted her into thinking about illness as a philosophical tool. Her essays and books, as well as witnessing her harrowing experience of learning to live with a disabling and incurable illness have changed the way I think about the experience of being ill and more specifically feeling breathless, or gasping for air. Her work has showed me how exquisite breath is, and how fragile. I also work a lot with sound and its relationship to other mediums. So from a sound practice perspective it was interesting for me to zoom in on these gaps and gasps that audio engineer painstakingly try remove to enhance a recording. For this project I wanted to remove everything else and just let us hear and think about breath as a rich and layered vocabulary that is largely invisible to our noisy lives.

 

You partnered with master teacher Jessica Wolf to conduct therapeutic breathing exercises with New Yorkers living with asthma and other breathing conditions. Recordings from these exercises were used to create the public sound installation. As an artist, do you feel a social responsibility beyond traditional notions of aesthetic beauty when creating public artworks?

I come from a hands-on studio practice and am very committed to the poetics and manifold meanings that can be generated from working with materiality and imagery, in the broadest sense of the word. But over the last ten years I think there has been a steady move by me towards realms outside the art world and outside my world as well as an intense curiosity about other fields of inquiry and research.

This led to weaving other bodies of knowledge into my work, collaborating with scientists, musicians and mathematicians among others. In my exhibition Earth & Sky last year I collaborated with an ornithologist and commissioned work from a craft conservationist. These different kinds of knowledge entered the bloodstream of the work at a very early stage and present themselves very differently from each other throughout the development of the project.

My interest is not just in mining other worlds for materials but to make a series of connections and welcome a whole other set of priorities, principles and ways of thinking into the studio and into the exhibition space.

For this work I wanted to take it a step a further and to develop a work process that from the beginning is tuned into and relies on practices from other fields as well as partnerships with people outside the art world. The workshops were amalgams of a few different things: Participants learned from Jessica Wolfe methods of breathing and exercises to help them breathe in a more sustainable way. We also talked about theories of Illness and ways of thinking about breathlessness. We delved into the recording process both as participants as well as producers. Having all these different vantage points over a period of two hours and leaving with a new set of tools and new insights into breathing practices was an important part of this communal activity. The sounds generated from these actions accrued meaning and vitality in large part because they were the byproducts of doing something together, for real.

I am very occupied with the possibility of making things reverberate in more than one way. I try as an artist to push against the insularity that can sometimes run through contemporary art, and I am truly curious as to what aesthetic repercussions can be derived from and divined out of intersecting activities.

Out Of Thin Air, which was commissioned by More Art, also includes a diverse public engagement program for this very reason. Let art be the occasion for bringing together a variety practitioners, thinkers but also audiences. To have many conversations not just ones that revolve around art and to include activities that bring people together in an act of making and doing, not just talking and viewing.

 

 

The site of the installation is City Hall Park. Did being offered a platform in close proximity to the epicenter for New York City government have an influence on this project?

Finding a location that fit the aesthetics and themes of this piece was a journey in itself. When the opportunity to present it in City Hall Park I was very much tempted by exactly that, before actually doing a site visit to determine if it would be feasible and be a good physical context for the piece. Considering breath, breathlessness and air as a commons that belongs to all of us is at the end of the day inextricable from policy.

 

What was your process for arranging the breath recordings from the workshops into a cohesive, public-facing whole? Anything you valued specifically in the recordings, and any impact you wished the final product to have on visitors?

Editing the strands of sound that I gathered throughout our activities and workshops was mostly done in my quiet studio. Playing around with the materials and trying out different sequences, types of layering and valuing how things come together but also the gaps that are created between different layers that don’t quite align with each other.

I ended up making three vignettes with various gaps between them. the silence in between is just as active as the parts that are full of sonic action. it allowed for a play between foreground and background and I hope they encourage the listener to tune into the sonic environment around them in a different way. Not just hear all the sounds and noises around you but listen and take in the textures they create. The 10 minute breaks between the plays of the complete breath composition aim for a more egalitarian act of listening. Art and site mesh in a changing, open-ended way.

 

Past projects of yours have also engaged with environmental concerns. Would you consider it a foundational role of your practice to bring attention to the world around us, both natural and unnatural?

Humans have evolved within a certain context, that context is planet earth. The environment is not something outside of me. My senses, with which I perceive space, landscape, language and art would not exist as they are without it. This relational process between the human animal and all other animals in the world as well as the landscape, the air, the horizon line and even gravity itself is at the essence of who we are as sentient beings.

 

-Brandon Johnson, July 2018

SUMMER OF 2018: DEVON DIKEOU EXHIBITS IN PRAGUE

Install: Devon Dikeou, Ring My Bell, 2017-ongoing, working Milton Driveway Bell, Hose, and Anchor, variable dimensions; Devon Dikeou, Gas Shortage, 2018-ongoing, Google Image of 1973 Gas Shortage Etched in Wall Using the Sgrafitto technique, variable dimensions

 

For the past two months, Devon Dikeou has been in Prague, Czech Republic, an artist-in-residence at Centre for Contemporary Art FUTURA as part of Black Cube Nomadic Museum’s fellowship program. Curated by Black Cube’s Cortney Lane Stell, Dikeou’s exhibition Tricia Nixon: Summer of 1973 captures the essence of America during the 1970s, while drawing parallels to present-day crises and politics in the U.S. Pulling from public record and personal memory of the era, Dikeou tells the backstories of the various elements that comprise the installation and how it echoes a time from decades past as well as reflects what is happening now in our current time. Tricia Nixon: Summer of 1973 is on view at FUTURA through September 16, 2018.

Interview by Hayley Richardson

 

This is your second artist residency, the first one being at Artpace in San Antonio in 2011. What do you value the most from the residency experience?

Well residencies often imply studio. My studio is wherever I am—be that a city, a country, a locale, a room, an exhibition space, and the atmosphere—music, TV, cafés, bars, museums, other artists’ studios, and what you sense there . . . but I do come to all things—exhibitions, residencies, fairs, magazine projects, with my thoughts pretty worked out. The fun and beauty, and I guess value is when they—those thoughts—change . . . What happened in Prague is that once I got to Futura . . . There were extra exhibition spaces available, and the idea of commingling the spaces somehow became attractive, joining them in a way . . . And as my work is really about finding these pockets of in-between, the meandering spaces of Futura were just delicious . . . How could I make them more related beyond just ideas . . .

And beyond that initial response . . . I want to say . . . There’s this great story of Joan Rivers . . . She used to archive all her jokes in an old-fashioned library card catalogue manner. So, she had categories and alphabetized the jokes, and when she needed one, all she had to do was consult this card catalogue—and as time went on, this file became a massive archive . . . A whole room with the little wooden drawers, and 4” x 6” cards full of jokes for when she didn’t have one. And instead of a search engine, she searched her own search engine.

So, as I was arriving in Prague, I was looking at old legal pads which is my archive system of pieces, and I came across a piece which I thought fit really nicely with the “Tricia Nixon: Summer of 1973.” I found “Ring My Bell” (1991 Ongoing). It relates to the gas crisis of ‘73, the lines, the idea of full-service, consumption, and found object, relational aesthetics ideas of activation, and minimal ideas of composition, line, presence, and lack thereof. It seemed like a perfect pairing. And I began to connect the spaces in Futura, not just with ideas but with literal hoses, anchors, and bells—which is how “Ring My Bell” exits as a functioning gas station bell . . . Actually, back then we used to call them “Service Stations,” the attendants come to service you once the bell has rung.

Also, something happens when you get out of your element, in a residency . . . It’s why I love visiting all 17 curatorial departments of the MET . . . Or any encyclopedic museum . . . There is something inspiring about things you don’t know that well, but can appreciate, and if that can enter your practice, so much the better. In Prague, just wandering around I became reintroduced to an old technique called Sgrafitto. I just loved it, seeing it again . . . It’s wood block printing meets fresco, meets batik, meets decoration, meets architecture, the etymology of which produced the modern practice and word, graffiti. I thought why not reverse the process and use an old technique to create something nostalgic even in our contemporary mindset of 2018, from 1973, and convey something, not just technique or decor, that relates to our own encyclopedia of reference. So now we a have piece made in a residency that may or may not have ever come to fruition without the lovely coincidence/gift of Prague, Futura/Black Cube Residency.

 

The exhibition centers around the U.S. oil crisis of 1973, specifically the then-president’s daughter Tricia Nixon’s frivolous behavior during this time when the rest of the nation was subjected to rationing and conservation of resources. The installation “Summer of 1973: Tricia Nixon” features a faux fire element with marble fireplace, a modern-day air conditioner, and vintage Mickey Mouse clock radio among other objects reminiscent of that time and now. What are the backstories to the different elements of the exhibition?

I live in a loft where the heat is super old school. It’s steam, no control, can’t turn it up, can’t turn it down. When it’s hot you’re in a Russian bath, if it’s freezing, then of course it doesn’t work, and there’s no adjustment available either way. And it screams literally every time it fires up . . . Sounds like someone is breaking in . . . Nothing to be done. There is this tiny room in the loft that I like to go to and just think . . . Virginia Woolf, “Room of One’s Own” style, and sort out the start of the day . . . There I am in this blank white room with a somewhat modern window air conditioner with an old-fashioned steam heater painted silver below it. The heater starts its initial wheezing, graduates to clanking, and bangs out what sounds like Beethoven No. 9. As I was sitting there, in this tiny room, with these two elements of heat and coolness, I was reminded of that 1973 summer—old enough then to comprehend what was happening—and bling: Tricia Nixon. Which brings us to this story that I recall of Tricia turning up the air conditioner in the White House so high so that she could have a fire in one of those over-the-top fireplaces, all in the heat of a D.C. summer. Maybe it’s urban myth, but the craziness of the gesture has somehow stuck with me. And in the spirit of “if these rooms could speak,” from the cranky old loft that spoke to me that morning and reminded me of what may or may not have happened in the White House, this installation germinated . . . So we have a bricolage of White House rooms with replication of different elements from several, essentially a working fireplace, a modern air conditioner, and a clock radio from 1973, which is the radio I listened to every night before going to sleep and woke up to get ready for school. It was a Disney clock radio, and I just a bit too old to really have it, but the dial was a 3-D Mickey, and even though he’s not even my favorite character, I love it dearly both then and today plus it functions! That analog clock radio in the installation serves as the platform from which I learned about Tricia Nixon’s fireplace/air conditioner misstep, and now in our digital age plays CBS news clips from the summer in ’73, including those clips reporting on Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, the sounds of the summer in rock -n- roll, and advertisements. These elements pull the viewer into a new, in-between space, the hallway in fact, and hopefully remind/poke them to think about the relationship of the gesture of combining air conditioning and fire, as well as crisis, privilege, corruption, information, culture, time, much less space, and its value, and any art historical stuff they might have archived in their own memory.

 

Do you feel “Summer of 1973: Tricia Nixon” takes on a different meaning being exhibited in Eastern Europe compared to the United States?

Well, people say context is everything . . . I hope the three pieces speak universally to a host of different things we can all appreciate. Naturally, that appreciation will fluctuate between cultures, politics, gender, age, geography, history—art or otherwise. They say Prague is the Paris of the East, but I’ve learned from a very reputable source that Paris is the Prague of the West. Let’s see how East reads West, or is it the other way around . . .

 

-Hayley Richardson, June 2018

SITTING IN ON A CHAT WITH KRISTEN DODGE

Kristen Dodge is curator and owner of SEPTEMBER Gallery in Hudson NY. Previously operating DODGEgallery in Manhattan’s Lower East Side from 2010-2014, she decided to leave the New York City art scene and focus on building an inclusive artist community in Hudson. SEPTEMBER was founded in 2016 with a missions to serve as “an evolving platform for artists of diverse disciplines . . . committed to engaging the surrounding community, while hosting artists predominantly from Upstate to Brooklyn to Boston.” SEPTEMBER’s latest exhibition Sit-In is on view through May 27th.

Interview by Natasha Przedborski

 

Sit-In looks into the shift of function on “familiar form.” You left the Lower East Side art scene to join that of Hudson, NY. I can imagine there must be a feeling of shifting familiarity. Was your inspiration for the show rooted in any particular shifts of familiar form?

I’m committed to the idea that change is good and necessary, not just inevitable. The theme of the show is definitely reverberating the ethos of the gallery, starting with our name and branding. September is a season of change, of an impending shift. Creativity is contingent upon change—to create is to make something new. This means shifting into the unfamiliar, possibly terrifying, but definitely exciting space of not knowing. In speaking of the art “world”, this goes for artists, gallerists, curators, writers etc. And so, like the algorithm that adjusts the positioning of the letters in SEPTEMBER every time you refresh or shift pages on our website, the gallery is in a conscious state of movement and change. And yes, my life itself went through a major rejection of familiarity four years ago. And so, to answer your question, this show absolutely reflects an internal interest and approach I have to life both personally and professionally.

 

It seems that creativity blooms in that exciting space of not knowing. In the case of your show, you force the mind to go against the utilitarian view of seats and discover new functions. As a curator, do you feel yourself more drawn towards an object’s aesthetics rather than utility?

Dysfunctional is my friend. It turns out that the people I willingly surround myself with are unusually functional but see themselves as especially dysfunctional. I appreciate opposites, contradictions, subversions. So, to start with the most functional of forms and make it something else—subtly or violently so—is starting with banal and ending with exceptional. The works in the show have undergone that transformation. I am absolutely attracted to the spectrum of aesthetics from elegant to raw. That range is present in Sit-In, from Jane Bustin, Hannah Levy, and Mary Heilmann on one end to Kate Gilmore, Kianja Strobert, and Jessica Jackson Hutchins on the other end. The question of utility is raised in the context of this show, but importantly these are all artists, mostly sculptors, not designers. An inquiry into the line between design and art is an interesting topic, but not of importance in the curation of this show for me.

 

The title of the show “Sit-In” appears in a moment in time marked with protests and activist art. In a traditional sit-in, it is human bodies occupying space yet here it is the chairs occupy space. Have aesthetics and composition commodified the “Sit-in” protest and other acts of revolt?

Sit-In is a quietly organized protest against discrimination. Addressing the list of artists, there’s a point of commonality that’s in contrast to the operative, dominant call of the art “world” and our culture at large. There is a word play, yes, and a deeper injection here. In terms of the notion of a seat . . . a seat takes up space and creates a space within itself. What happens when we make room for those who haven’t found any, or enough?

Figures and figurative references are present in the works, and present by notice of absence . . . place-cards. The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago comes to mind. The exception is Barbara Gallucci’s works, which have literally hosted and held willing bodies. Her pieces have created a joyful social space and added the content of participation in the show.

 

Women are stereotypically seen as submissive and the same could said about a chair. They are both silent and even inanimate yet supportive. With the show, you put chairs and seats at the forefront. Was it in the same vein that you chose to make it an all-women group show?

Who I am, and the women I know and work with are so far from the stereotypes of what it means to be a woman. Submissive, silent, inanimate and supportive are terms from an outmoded power structure that is inevitably dying and being replaced. Creating space and putting underrepresented people in the forefront has been a priority or us and is finally becoming a wider-spreading reality. One by one.

I’d like to add that the content of individual works is not political, but perhaps the accumulation of them, and the purposeful direction of the installation offers underlying content.

 

SEPTEMBER aims to be different from other galleries. You use the terms “always” and “sometimes” instead of “represent” and “exhibited”. You seem to focus on breaking the frameworks in which concepts and objects lie. Was this always a focal point of yours?

Always 😉

 

-Natasha Przedborski, May 2018

THE MAGIC MIRRORS OF MELANIE FLOOD

Untitled, 2017, archival pigment print, 20 x 16 inches

 

Melanie Flood is an artist and curator working out of Portland, OR. Her work is photography-based and finds an affinity with other contemporary conceptual photographers such as Anne Collier, Annette Kelm, Sara VanDerBeek, and Eileen Quinlan. Flood’s solo exhibition “Mirror Mirror” at Fourteen30 Contemporary in Portland features a body of new work using studio still-life photography to examine modern femininity and the female body.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

The show’s title Mirror Mirror references a famous line from the Brothers Grimm’s “Snow White,” in which the Evil Queen asks her magic mirror each morning: “who’s the fairest of them all?” What does this question mean to you? And could the works in this show be considered answers?

I wake up to my reflection in a mirrored dresser and I look at my face. I am getting older and have fewer photos of myself now than I did a decade ago. I am less vain. I see beyond my physical appearance, unlike when I was in my twenties. For me, there’s no looking in the mirror and not having an inner dialogue about aging. Youth is paramount in our culture and is celebrated. It’s impossible for me to separate myself from growing up within the constraints of traditional feminine roles. These experiences have defined my life. It is only now as I approach 40, that the distractions of being young, fecund and beautiful have fallen to the wayside that I can see the world more clearly. It is finally a world I can attempt to make my own, I get to redefine my value.

The Evil Queen believes that power lies in beauty. As Snow White grows from a child into a young woman, she will one day replace the Evil Queen, rendering her powerless. As women age, our fertility declines, stereotypically we become almost invisible to the opposite sex, at times we are replaced. Our value is questioned. The word “fairest” as used in Snow White has a triple meaning, referencing beauty, age, and race. Being young, white, and physically attractive is a currency in Western culture. These ideals have been built on patriarchal, white supremacist foundations. I believe this is shifting, but the burden of gender roles is ingrained in female experience and further exacerbated by male expectations of how women should look and behave. It is unpopular to say, but men are also victims of this antiquated misogynist paradigm.

I see the photographs in my show as reflections, not answers. I borrow my exhibition title from a book I’ve been reading Mirror, mirror: Images of Women Reflected in Popular Culture by Kathryn Weibel written in 1977. Fashion and personal adornment are a major influence in my work as it’s such an integral part of my everyday life.

 

How has your relationship to fashion changed over the years, and what has this meant for your work?

My relationship to fashion has remained quite steady. I’ve always seen clothing as a way to express myself, to assert my individuality or later, my femininity. What has changed is what I express. I had a lot more interaction with clothes and fashion growing up than I did art. Clothing was a way to fit in with the groups of people I related to. I was very into grunge, hardcore, alternative music scenes in the early ‘90s and dressed in x-girl and Todd Oldham. Then there were raves at Limelight and Twilo and that changed my wardrobe.  As I approached my early 20’s, I began dating regularly and wanted to attract men. Sadly it seemed very normal to me to attract partners this way. Living in Manhattan during the years of Sex and the City, stilettos and form fitting dresses became my uniform. My clothes are still about expression, but also about function and comfort while supporting independent female designers/shopkeepers. My awareness of how clothing is used to reinforce ideals that minimize and attempt to control how women should present themselves has grown so has its prevalence in my work.

 

Outside of the exhibition’s title, how much influence has Kathryn Weibel’s book, or any other books, had on the work you make?

I read a lot of art theory, feminist history, and am a political junkie. Some favorites I’ve read recently include Gender Trouble: Judith Butler, I revisited Femininity: Susan Brownmiller. Consuming the news everyday, was fueling the way I had been contemplating my own experiences of dating, assault, aging, and marriage. The feeling of conservative overlords poisoning the whole planet and trying to control my body, my potential and my future was in the forefront of my mind when in the studio. I had gone back to books I read as an undergrad that were especially formative. Reading second wave feminists Betty Friedan, Kate Millet, Gloria Steinem, validated how I was feeling—this patriarchal garbage has been going on for a very long time. As much as I related to the words, they were leaving out a huge story. White feminism is problematic as it can only view the world from its own narrow perspective, it is my purview too as a white woman. I began to seek out more diverse voices. Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place: Nirmal Puwar had the largest effect on me, solidly introducing me to intersectional feminism bridging race, gender, and economics. I also love to read everything in regards to photography particularly from 2005-present. I’m currently obsessed with Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld from her New Museum exhibition and have been looking at more sculptors like Sarah Lucas: After 2005, Before 2012.

 

How do you feel your art practice has evolved since moving to the Pacific Northwest, and Portland specifically?

I was focused on my curatorial practice in New York more than my art practice. But, the curatorial practice was totally inspired by my not knowing how to have an art practice. I didn’t know what kind of work I wanted to make, but knew what I liked to look at and think about. When I started Melanie Flood Projects in Brooklyn in 2008, it was an effort to join a flourishing community I interacted with online. The emerging photography scene was really growing, but I wasn’t meeting a lot of people in person. Opening my home to host exhibitions was a way to bridge that gap, and in turn learn what it meant to be an artist. When I moved to Portland in 2010, the art scene appeared tighter knit and difficult to enter as an outsider. I lived my entire life in New York, so friends and a support system were built in. I had none of that when I relocated, it was challenging.

Everyone I met here was an artist, it was like moving to an arts commune. Everyone had a studio, they were cheap then so I moved into one too. Living outside of a commercial art hub has its advantages. The worries of competition and being visible were less important. I didn’t need a full time job because it was more affordable. I wasn’t partying anymore. I had a lot of free time on my hands and spent most of it making work that was inspired by the artists I admired: Annette Kelm, Shirana Shahbazi, Christopher Williams, Eileen Quinlan, Michele Abeles. There wasn’t much contemporary photo being exhibited or made in Portland at the time so when I showed it to be people it sparked a dialogue. I eventually met a few like-minded artists and started a crit group, and put shows together. I curated an exhibition at Worksound, a gallery started by Modou Dieng who I met through prior zingmagazine Managing Editor Sari Carel. The artists came from New York and Texas, we got a write up in The Oregonian, I felt momentum and energy again. It was different from the frenetic party/networking feeling of the shows I organized and went to in New York. Discourse and conversation are valued. The DIY spirit is so prevalent, it’s held in high regard and supported. In 2014, I reopened Melanie Flood Projects in a third floor space of a building downtown. The set-up of the building is a doppelgänger of The Dikeou Collection. I feel incredible gratitude for the community I am a part of and am deeply invested in it being recognized for its contributions to the national arts dialogue.

 

Untitled, 2017, archival pigment print, 20 x 16 inches

 

Returning to the work in the show, the staging of these objects involves a sculptural sensibility. Could you walk us through your process in creating these works?

I choose things for their formal qualities and potential referents—girly, crafty, feminine, figurative. I’m drawn to objects that are marketed toward women by their color or intended use. Exercise devices, bedazzled belts, anti-aging gadgets, pantyhose, bra inserts are a few things I used in making this new work. I never have a clear idea of what I want things to look like, but there are parameters. I made these photographs in my studio on a table top with mixed daylight from my windows and two large softboxes. The subtle lights shifts cast different color hues in each photograph that I really enjoy. After lighting, the tabletop and backdrop has to be determined before I can start working. I used the same backdrop material, a white buckram in each image whether it’s obvious or not.  It’s a starched millinery fabric used to make hat forms. The material is a subtle grid, allowing me to place fabric underneath it to let color through, or when I use plexi the buckram reflects a subtle  texture to an otherwise slick material. I have all of my props and materials everywhere. I move things around until I see something. The work is really about me seeing it more than it is about me arranging it. Usually the arrangements that are really planned out fail. I embrace chance and I’m always waiting for that moment when the chaos of making tons of combinations clicks.

What makes photography such a compelling medium for me, is how objects can be transformed when they are recorded by film or a digital sensor. The image of the toilet brush holder and silicone lips looks barely like anything in real life, it’s clumsy. When photographed the surface of the plastic and rubber become refined, slick, the reflections of light add a symmetry that makes the arrangement look vaginal and flowery. The styrofoam torso with its Paint Me sticker is highlighted on one side with a purple colored gel, again the photograph transforms the thing itself into a strangely elegant form. I see parallels between photography and how I transform myself through garments, hair styling, make up and other adornments. Eyelash extensions, brow tinting, hair dying. It’s all an attempt to highlight or hide a physical attribute, manipulate the way others see us, and how we see ourselves.

 

Finally, one photo features a book called Natural Bust Enlargement With Total Mind Power by Donald L Wilson which represents the type of dated (albeit never relevant) patriarchal mentality and form of bamboozling that got Donald Trump elected for president. How much or little have recent developments of political and social dissent, from the 2017 Women’s March to #MeToo, informed your practice?

The book was a gift from my good friend, artist Stephen Slappe who is incredible at finding oddities at estate sales. He text me a photo of the cover, “Do you want it? Yes! I do!” I was mostly curious about how Total Mind Power could enlarge my breasts and as I read I started to see the absurd side of male sexuality and its effect on mass culture. There’s a nostalgic 1970s kitsch in that book also found in Weibel’s Mirror, mirror; it made me want to add humor and awkwardness to some of the work. My mother-in-law posted that picture on her Facebook proud to share the news of my show to her friends. Then she saw that it also said “Same Penis Forever” and got a little embarrassed (she didn’t delete it).

As far back as I remember I have identified as a feminist and my work always had to do with femininity/female experiences. Prior to this exhibition, I was more reserved when it came to revealing the content in my work. I was focused mostly on my experience of the female gender as it related to memories surrounding my Mother and stereotypical rites of passage (first bra, prom, wedding dress shopping). I didn’t want to be labeled a female artist making work about being female. The assemblages were more abstract, materials and arrangements were coded. The recent public events have absolutely informed this work. Last summer I felt it really bubbling over. I was constantly feeling stressed by the stories I heard of sexual assault and harassment in the media and by my friends. Knowing that women in my life who I loved and respected voted in a man who is so clearly a predator left me furious. Replaying my own experiences left me exhausted and angry everyday. I went into this show thinking that I didn’t want my feelings to be quiet. There is still a layer of abstraction in a few of the pieces, but generally the ideas are obvious, front, and center. It’s opened up my life to have frank conversations with other women, and men for that matter that I wasn’t otherwise having on the same scale. I don’t care about being labeled anymore, they’re all constructed by a male art canon anyway. And, artists can be so narcissistic. Who is labeling me, other than myself?

 

-Brandon Johnson, February 2019

UBU TRUMP, OR HOW 19TH-CENTURY FRENCH LITERATURE PREDICTED DONALD TRUMP'S RETRO-AUTOCRATIC FUTURISM

On Friday, December 1st, 2017 Rainer Ganahl’s new play Ubu Trump premiered at the unlikely locale of Daniels Wilhelmina Funeral Home in central Harlem. Inspired by the life and writings of Alfred Jarry and following up on Ganahl’s previous text Ubu Lenin, his new work Ubu Trump is a postmodern blend of original text and derivation set in Warsaw/Washington D.C. and starring Donald Trump in the role of Jarry’s King Ubu, along with appearances by Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and Vladimir Putin. The performance can be watched in full here.

Interview by Linda Norden

 

Tell me a little bit about Alfred Jarry’s Ubu. Why did you chose to rewrite him?

Alfred Jarry was a tragi-comic modernist figure, the quintessential poet-artist who was also a self-destructive loser and died at just 34 in 1907. Yet he managed to influence literature and art for a century to come. Jarry did not really leave any oeuvre, but a bunch of writings, text fragments, plays and graphic works that were all embedded in a drug and alcohol-driven universe of crazy anecdotes, love stories, including with Oscar Wilde, and personal recklessness. His Ubu Roi (King Ubu) was not even written by him alone, but co-written with two high school friends who thought of it as a literary diatribe against an annoying teacher. Jarry ran with it from his native little French town and made it into a literary scandal in Paris. He kept changing it and changing it and produced numerous versions. Jarry clearly stylized himself as an Ubu-esque character, took on weird linguistic and behavioral mannerisms and didn’t refrain even from threatening and shooting at his critics with a pistol he carried with him called “bulldog.” King Ubu, Papa Ubu, Ubu Cocu (Ubu Cuckolded), Ubu Enchaîné (Ubu in Chains) and other versions produced by Jarry symbolized a narcistically damaged, insecure dictator who accumulated as much power as he could by any means and terrorized everybody. This all happened just before the WWI, which was essentially a colonialist war. During that war, in Zurich, Jarry’s Ubu Roi was presented at Cabaret Voltaire, which inspired me to revist this piece for my Dada Lenin project, since it can be assumed that Lenin himself—who lived opposite the Cabaret at Spiegelgasse—attended the performance. So after having already rewritten this theater play for a Ubu Lenin, it became quickly clear that I also must rewrite it as Ubu Trump, since this president resembles Ubu King in many many ways: vulgar, loud, insecure, narcissistic, brutal, and with disastrous judgment that will bring defeat upon his people and himself.

 

Why stage the Ubu Lenin play in a funeral home in Harlem? 

This play is independent of any particular presentation or site. It could be read or presented between friends at a dinner table, in bed with a lover or at a theater.

But given the fact that I’ve been living in central Harlem for more than two decades, and that I’m surrounded by morgues and churches, I started to take this option of presentation into account. I also enjoy finding locations myself. Thanks to my notary public, who runs an actual funeral home, I started to become more curious and familiar with these somehow scary, taboo places. We do not want to have anything to do with a morgue since that represents the last transitory stop on our journeys and when we enter it’s usually for a sad, tragic last moment.

I realized this funeral home could not only house a public that is mourning a private loss, but also a frustrated public that’s suffering a collective political loss. Better than churches, funeral parlors do not relate to any religious belief system. Ubu Trump as a play is very bloody with themes of murder, torture and war that build on a core struggle for power.

 

I feel like there’s a large part of the community your re-purposing—your “enterprising” use of the funeral home—might offend. People who believe in the sanctity of death. But I was very taken by this performance in that space. I’m often suspicious when a spontaneous, inspired idea becomes fetishized or over-extended. But one of the things I like best in your work is the way you find such inspired sites for each project, as something takes form in response to the very specific circumstances you respond to so keenly in your day-to-day life. Your sites always feel integrally bound up in the issues and questions they assert, because you look at the neighborhoods and communities you live in so topologically. I like thinking of your Ubu Trump project as having something to do with the way war takes form.

I owe the entire structure to Alfred Jarry’s original Ubu King, which brilliantly anticipated the series of dictators we had to endure during the 20th century, when war was omnipresent. It is stunning how this current president has representatives tell troops in the field that war is imminent while he simultaneously shrinks his diplomatic core down to almost nothing. After all, diplomacy’s function is to use means other than war.

 

How did you decide on characters, besides Trump. And did you know where you wanted play to end before you began?

There is a given textual structure that I respected and did not change the positioning of certain material, which itself seems to have elements lifted from Shakespeare and others. The main characters in Jarry’s version are King Ubu; his scheming wife, mostly referred to as Mama Ubu; and King Wenceslas on the other side. Therefore, Ubu Trump is repopulated with Ubu Trump, Ubu Ivanka, the King and Queen Wenceslas and their daughter Chelsea. We also have Putin, Jared Kushner, Michael Flynn, and other figures from the current administration. I also give prominence to contemporary sexual predators such as Anthony Weiner and Roy Moore.

 

Were you modeling your text closely or broadly on Jarry or did you do a lot of the writing yourself?

Many of the newly replaced and introduced protagonists come with lines I modified and adapted for the scenes. It is remarkable how the current president and his advisers are jamming the media stream with vulgarities and falsehoods. We are currently witnessing how public discourse that was once mediated by mainstream news sources has been replaced by social media and fake news sites. Therefore it’s not very difficult to scan for material worthy of Ubu. Jarry’s premonitory brilliance becomes more and more apparent through these boundless autocratic, proto-fascist, self-propagating revolutionaries and their rampaging disregard for the world. Make America Ubu Again. Somehow I had the feeling that I didn’t write anything at all, but merely updated it, resynchronized it with our current presidential tropes and tuned it to our attention economy of followers, sharers and likers.

 

 

I’d really love to hear what you were after in each of the characters you shaped for Ubu Trump. Would be great to hear how a certain comment or speech conveyed your sense of behavior and character.

Ubu Trump is here really a combination of Jarry’s madman Ubu King and Donald Trump’s publicly displayed idiosyncrasies, which my particular exaggerations and usage render slightly more farcical. I wanted to really decontextualize our president’s shameless, partisan, and self-serving political actionism by placing into literary-political satire. After all, reading the New York Times on Trump’s spontaneous, chaotic decision making and sloganeering already reads like Jarry. And sometimes the reality of our political time seems more authentically captured by comedians than by theory.

 

I was struck on the night of the Ubu Trump performance by the difference between the performance of the play, which felt more like a declaration, or demonstration, than a question, and by the terrifically curated gathering of art, by so many of your friends and peers, in your home, which you seemed to share as if asking “How about this?” In both cases, you seemed genuinely surprised by the size of the audience or attending group, as if these were both projects you did for yourself. But I’m genuinely curious: who do you think you do the work you do for?

I fully agree with you. Repurposing sensitive spaces can be highly problematic and easily go wrong. I try to be very sensitive and was choosing this site also because of its precarious and meaningful role in society. In Austria, where I grew up, they keep death out of view and when I first saw an actual friend on her final open display in Brooklyn, after a suicide, I was traumatized—even more so since I had never seen a dead person before. Now, death in Harlem is pervasive, given the explosive mix of racism, the high concentration of poor people in sometimes substandard living conditions, police bias, and more. But that already makes us enter the very essence of Ubu Trump, a play where horrific governance creates misery and war.

I think in both cases—my friends’ artworks in my house and this performance—I do it for myself as part of a public and imagined community. Some of my circle of friends and imagined friends are not even alive, and I might have missed them by a decade or a century or a continent. I count myself as part of my own community and I sometimes project myself onto others who are there or who I wish would be there.

 

Are there any more Ubu Trump presentations planned?  

Yes. A similar version will be staged in Berlin in January 2018 and another one in Mexico City in April. That one will appear exactly 50 years after the famously problematic Mexican Olympic games of 1968, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of street protesters. Mexicans, Trump’s wall and the ghost of the student massacre will all be making guest appearances in that iteration of Ubu Trump. I am also working on yet another version to present in London, where curator Saim Demican and I will reorient ourselves with Werner Fassbinder’s version of Ubu Roi, which he presented at the Anti-Theater in August of 1968.

 

-Linda Norden, February 2018

UNDER THE EYE OF MINERVA: SARAH STATON'S SUPASTORE

Photo: Susan Froyd

 

Sarah Staton is an artist based in London, England, whose diverse practice melds sculpture, painting, architecture, design, publishing, fashion, and technology to create objects and spaces that are simultaneously aesthetic and utilitarian. Initiated in 1993, Sarah Staton’s SupaStore started as a DIY art sale experiment that has transpired at dozens of museums, galleries, and alternative venues over the years. Over three hundred artists, ranging from up-and-coming contemporaries, unknowns, and established artists have had a piece they created for sale at the SupaStore. Her most recent installment, SupaStore Human—We are the Product, reflects how technology and automation has impacted social interaction, commerce, and manufacturing. Supastore Human—We are the Product is currently featured at Dikeou Pop-Up: Colfax in Denver, Colorado and will remain open to the public through the end of February 2018.

Interview by Hannah Cole

 

In the artist talk you gave for the opening of SupaStore Human—We are the Product, you stated that your intentions for SupaStore Human stems from the reality that technology has caused people to less frequently perform the act of going to the store—and you aim to bring it back. Could you further expand on this intention?

Within the UK at least, in recent years there has been a significant expansion in online shopping, and with this has come a shutting down of all sorts of shops from small independents to branches of national and international chains. Clearly much of this is to do with the convenience of internet shopping and home delivery negating the need for buyers to make physical journeys to the store. I would also attribute some of this phenomena to retail boredom, with cookie cutter shops selling predictable products, repeating in every shopping constellation. Other factors playing into the UK’s current slowdown might be contributed to austerity, and along with that a growing desire to tread lightly on the planet. I see all these factors coming into play and contributing to the demise of our collective desire for objects. As a human race we are clearly investing heavily in tech, but not so much in stuff. SupaStore supports the shift to build lives rich in experience over acquisition but laments the coming together of people that these simple acts of shopping facilitate.

 

There is an interesting parallel of politics, economy, and social climate between Ancient Greece and Western society today. While this observation may be considered a grim prophecy of war and collapse, political scientists such as Graham Allison have pointed out that trade and other ties between countries (such as America and China) help counteract conflict. Would you argue that SupaStore behaves as a microcosm and more inter-personal example of this theory?

I don’t know Graham Allison’s work, but I am fascinated in the history of trade, and specifically in the centuries old relation between art and diplomacy—the use of art as symbolic object to generate dialogue. And yes SupaStore as a microcosm for building networks between people has been a preoccupation since I began the project.

 

While SupaStore is your creation and features your own artwork, many other artists from around the world also have their work featured; there is an inherently collaborative and global element. How did you come in contact with these artists to participate in SupaStore? How does diversity of artists and the mediums they use as opposed to artists exclusive to one region, one art practice, etc. affect the concept behind SupaStore?

The store has traveled extensively and when logistically possible people living in the hosting cities have been invited and have got involved, this is often facilitated by the hosts at each venue. In Denver this happened with the casting workshop, in which the plaster life casts of our workshop participants’ body parts, are displayed in the store, and will then revert to their owners when the SupaStore leaves Denver.

To date, the concept for each SupaStore becomes the umbrella under which participating artists contribute, often by responding to the theme of each store. The structure of the SupaStore allows for diversity in terms of artists and their mediums, however so far the concept and the invitation precedes the participation of invited artists. Artists like any other group of humans are involved in a meta conversation and it is this meta-conversation that provides inspiration for the SupaStore subtitles. Recent preoccupations, reflected in the titles include SupaStore Air, considering the impact of cheap airlines and the consequential expansion of migrant workers crossing countries to give their labor to markets at every increasing distance from home and family. In SupaStore Human—We are the Product, we note the shift towards AI, and away from the production of objects in favor of the supply of services.

 

Mr Blobby

 

Minerva, the Greek goddess of trade, art, wisdom, and war serves as the mascot (or rather the goddess) of SupaStore. The multidisciplinary nature of Minerva is a quality integrated in your own art practice. Does this resonate with any of the participating artists featured in SupaStore Human?

This might be a question for the participating artists as they may know more than I do! However, it is clear that Minerva was rather an exponential multi-tasker, and most of the artists that I know are also very capable in more than one area of activity, often successfully combining the creation of artworks, with a variety of jobs and sometimes also managing care and responsibility for others. Could artists be said to be the role model for the neo-liberal worker in the gig economy?

 

Many artworks featured in SupaStore Human are utilitarian in the form of blankets, pillows, scarves, bars of soap, t-shirts, and books. Why does practicality appeal to you as the artist and as the creator of SupaStore?

Yes, this is interesting, because some definitions of art negate the functional. I have always liked applied arts and the utilitarian and I think this is reflected in the objects that I choose for the store.

 

Lastly, who is Mr. Blobby and what is his relationship with SupaStore?

Mr Blobby is a dubious character from 1990’s British TV, he appeared on a show called Noel Edmunds House Party, and he is pretty on the boundary between funny and grotesque. Mr Blobby emerged at the same time as the SupaStore, and he has been the store mascot for all these years. I sense that he is near retirement and it could be time he plans for his future away from the SupaStore. Our Mr Blobby was recently renamed last year as ‘Gustav’ by Asja Inzule Kaspar who is 5 years old. Asja kept amused during our install at Midway Contemporary by dancing wildly every day with Gustav Blobby and it was absolutely the most fun he has had in years.

 

-Hannah Cole, January 2018

XAVIER VEILHAN'S RECORDING STUDIO OF OUR DREAMS

Photo: Giacomo Cosua

 

Xavier Veilhan is a French artist born in 1963, living and working in Paris, whose work is mostly based in sculpture and installation. Parisians discovered him in the ‘90s when he was exhibited by Jennifer Flay. Today, he is represented by Andréhn-Schiptjenko (Stockholm), Galerie Perrotin (Paris, Hong Kong, New York, Seoul), Galeria Nara Roesler (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, New York) & 313 Art Project (Seoul). His body of work now brings him to attend Venice, where he was invited by the French Pavilion for the Biennale to present his installation “Studio Venizia,” a musical space in which professional musicians from around the world create new recordings.

Interview by Geraldine Postel 

  

In your installation for the French Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, you created a studio platform and curatorial program inviting other artists to participate. What motivates the artist to escape from this irresistible desire to be the only voice in such a manifestation?

It is not generosity, nor the wish to take a step back, but the logical result of the initial concept of the project: to create a situation that involves several actors. My stimulation and inspiration came from musicians and the whole creative process around music. “Studio Venezia” has become a mix between an exhibition space and a creative lab where people come to work one after the other.

 

Usually, in your creative process, do you like to share ideas with your curators or gallery owners?

When I have the idea of new work, I start to talk about it with the people from my studio. I refine the idea by exchanging with them, and once it is defined, I begin to work on it concretely. It is only then that I share it with galleries or curators.

 

The studio has very interesting architecture. Between visual arts, architecture, and music, your installation brings together the greatest aesthetic forms of creation. What did you seek to provoke?

I did not want to compete in terms of quantity of shapes, but rather to create something soft, with almost a domestic feel to it. I want people to feel good when they enter the French Pavilion, with all their senses: from the smell of the wood to the light and acoustic design. It is very important to inform the visitors about what is going on and how they should behave inside “Studio Venezia”. The fact that wood is used almost everywhere—floor, ceiling and walls—gives the impression of being in a closed environment, like a cave, which adds to this softness.

 

You have built a studio that hides a Neo-Classical building under panels of plywood in Okoumé, wood of the tropical regions. Does this choice of material have a relationship with its musical purposes?

Traditionally, wood has always been used to build acoustic spaces, like Renaissance theatres for example. It is also linked to the fact that theatre halls and philharmonics, just like recording studios, are similar to the inside of an instrument. And last but not least, wood is cheap and very easy to handle, especially plywood. All these different reasons explain why we chose wood as the main material of the installation.

 

Have you studied composition? Do you play an instrument?

No, unfortunately not. However, if I were a musician, I would probably just be playing the music. Instead, I have created an environment to simply listen, which is a dream situation for any music lover: I invite people I am a fan of, to create new pieces right in front of me, making it possible to live exceptional moments.

 

There is a real opening of artistic practice with the integration of the musicians and an acoustic chamber where the world is invited—a very beautiful idea, this collective energy, the team spirit that invites musicians and composers of great talent and renown. Do the visitors also participate in the musical process or do they remain spectators?

Visitors cannot participate in the sense that they cannot play the music, but they are definitely participating by having an effect on musicians, which I actually had underestimated. At first, I thought visitors would have been affected by being confronted to new kinds of music, but most of them are in fact open to new experiences thanks to the context of the Biennale. On the other hand, musicians are very much affected by the presence of spectators. There is a pressure—an empathic pressure, but a pressure nonetheless—that comes from the people in the room, which turns every moment into a performance. It is very interesting because it creates a new situation where recording becomes live recording, which changes the typology of the experience inside the pavilion into something new and hybrid, between performance and studio reflexion.

 

It’s a top playlist of guest musicians, from Chassol to DJ Chloé. Many of them are French but it also includes a bunch of international artists from Lee Scratch Perry to Thurston Moore, it goes far . . . Why give an international dimension to the French pavilion?

It was not planned, it came naturally, but I am happy it occurred. Nevertheless, I think music is by essence international. The music you find in nightclubs all around the world, just like the music on Deezer, Spotify or iTunes is music before it is international music. Music transcends national boundaries, and even though musicians have their own nationality, their music is stateless.

 

Today while the show is underway, what are the highlights for you?

The other day, I was looking at Pietro, one of the mediators of Studio Venezia, moving stuff around and I realized the studio has been operational for 5 months already. It reminded me of how far we’ve come since the beginning of the project. To me every moment we live here is special in its own way. And there is always something happening, making the project emotionally very intense. I try to share a lot of these emotions on my Instagram stories.

 

The Venice Biennale is already one of the most important events of art, it is something between the Olympic Games and the World’s Fair. It is a principle of inviting a large number of countries to be represented by an elected artist / winner of a national competition that symbolizes the top of contemporary national creation. You are the gifted/chosen one of this edition and you chose to implement an installation that involves creating or performing other art pieces, an echo effect of creation in a studio. Does the art created by other artists in your studio becomes part of your work?

Yes and no. No, because the music created inside the French Pavilion remains the musicians’ property. And yes, because this music has been created and played for the first time here, which makes it belong in a way to the history of the place and the work. I am more interested in being able to share moments of creativity with musicians than in owning their creations.

 

Nietzsche has widely demonstrated that we are born from multiplicity, that the centre is everywhere. Do you think that this work shares this sentiment?

It is related in a way. “Studio V—the envelop—and the space for musical creation—the studio. On the other hand, there is the time of the exhibition—7 months—the time of each residency—a few days—and the time of the musical creation—the chronology of music in regards to its creation in the studio. These different spaces and times collide and intertwine to end up changing our perspective on music and on the format of the exhibition.

 

Marina Abramovic: In Residence in Australia and Urs Fisher at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles both invited other artists to create major exhibitions Similar to these two recent examples, your guest artists are not paid but fed, housed, washed, and in addition, they share the fabulous life experience of artists who work in community in a prestigious space. If they want to, and if the opportunity arises, they can also leave with their own musical creations to use as they choose. During a live recording for example, is there a clause that recommends attribution of production as coming from the studio Xavier Veilhan?

An important part for me is that the invited musicians are not paid. Our agreement includes the possibility to make new recordings, with the simple constraint of having an audience present inside the studio, but it is based on an invitation. There is no money involved, which I find interesting since it is different from nearly all other situations involving music. When one listens to music on streaming applications, when one buys a concert ticket, even with ads one can find on YouTube while watching music videos, there is always money involved. I want musicians to come to “Studio Venezia” with a blank page and no pressure related to money. That way they can take the creative direction they choose, without any financial obligation.

 

Here do you also play the role of producer, patron, or both?

I think I am more like a host who creates the situation. It is like being in your own house and inviting people over, which can lead to many types of exchange and creativity.

 

Do you have the feeling of multiplying yourself?

Not really. Actually, it is difficult for me to imagine what will be the result of this experience that has obviously and quite deeply changed me as a person. However, I have the feeling that it centers me more than it dislocates me.

 

You would of course prefer that the artists leave with the best memories of this magnificent experience. As a result, would you wish for them to get a mega-contract with an international producer, the creation in situ of a future chart-topping hit, or finding a soul mate? 

I would like this experience to create a link between all the musicians that have participated in “Studio Venezia”, like a community. I always give the example of universities and some art schools, like Sciences Po Paris or the Black Mountain College, that manage to make strong connections between students or former students. Twenty years after leaving school, one can connect or reconnect with people that one has never physically met but who have once studied at the same school. However, my goal is not to end up with this or that result. It would be more akin to a scientific experiment: putting two things in the same place and observing what happens.

 

-Geraldine Postel, October 2017

FLORENCE MÜLLER CURATES FASHION WITH STYLE

Florence Müller’s curatorial vision was introduced to the city of Denver in 2012 when she presented Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective at the Denver Art Museum’s Hamilton Building. As the first exhibition to highlight all forty years of the designer’s output, and Denver being the only US venue, it was an absolute showstopper that had people lining up throughout its duration, even during extended evening hours. In 2015, the DAM announced Müller as the institution’s Avenir Foundation Curator of Textile Art and Fashion. The following year she presented Shock Wave: Japanese Fashion Design, 1980s-90s, the first exhibition curated “in house” by Müller, with special focus turned to Denver’s local fashion collectors. I had the pleasure of interviewing Müller and her curatorial assistant, Jane Burke, at the DAM offices where we discussed the future of the museum’s textile and fashion department, the recent boom in popularity of fashion exhibitions, and the landmark trends that put the United States on the fashion culture map.

Interview by Hayley Richardson

 

The Denver Art Museum’s collection of textile art encompasses over 5,000 objects from Asia, Europe, North and South America, and range from archeological textiles to contemporary works of art in fiber. Under your curatorship this department now includes fashion and costume. Can you please talk about what it has been like to take this department in a new direction?

The museum had a huge fashion collection at one time, but it was deaccessioned about over a decade ago, so the idea now is to rebuild this area. It is challenging to acquire a collection that can illustrate the great couturiers and designers of the 20th century, but there is a lot to explore in the decades of the 1970s through the 2000s when you can still find very good examples of interesting designers. My goal is to make sure that the pieces acquired into the collection are seen by the public, so I coordinate acquisitions around the theme of exhibitions. For example, I acquired about 35 pieces for the Shock Wave exhibition, so they were able to be exhibited to the public right away and are now part of the permanent collection.

My curatorial assistant, Jane Burke, is currently working on an exhibition about a fashion illustrator named Jim Howard. Howard was active in New York in the 1950s through the 1980s, and did a lot of illustration for department store advertising. His archive is an excellent example of a coherent body of work with an artistic point of view on the history of fashion over the span of four decades. We hope to acquire some of his work as the museum has only a few engravings and fashion plates, so this will mark the beginning of a fashion illustration collection. I am very happy about this because fashion illustration is something that is rarely collected among fashion museums and it’s a shame because many of these items have already disappeared. Fashion illustrators were not seen as important as fashion photographers, which is one of the reasons their work was not acquired for museums. Right now, we have this opportunity to save one collection at the DAM and it’s great!

 

You have presented two exhibitions at Denver Art Museum: Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective and, as you just mentioned, Shock Wave: Japanese Fashion Design, 1980s-90s. The YSL exhibition featured environments that took the viewer inside the designer’s home and studio, or the closets of his patrons, and Shock Wave incorporated a variety of media like furniture design, photography, video, and more archival ephemera. Your curation goes beyond exhibiting clothing, it’s more about immersing the viewer within the place and time specific to the theme of the show.

Jane Burke: I think that’s a trend among museums these days, to do cross-departmental exhibitions. With fashion, you’re showing not only the garment but the person’s life, whether they’re a famous designer or a socialite, or the provenance of where the piece came from. You’re showing the lifestyle, or the era. You have to illustrate the bigger picture.

Florence Müller: When you have several types of objects belonging to different areas, whether it’s fashion, photography, artwork, and furniture like it was in Shock Wave, it’s an opportunity to catch the attention of more people. Some people may enter the exhibition who know a lot about design, but not so much about fashion. They will be attracted by the things that they understand, and then learn about new ideas related to fashion and other components of the exhibition. You can show that some movements, aesthetics, and new phenomena are not isolated. It is a way to show that fashion designers achieved great things, and were able to do so by maintaining connections with people in other fields. Shock Wave was the first fashion exhibition in the department, and it was meant to send a message that fashion is a form of art, and the Japanese designers were the best example to send that message clearly.

Jane: Florence illustrated, with the Japanese designers, that their work in fashion is so interrelated with other design concepts. Some were artists before becoming designers and their connection to the art world is strong. Rei Kawakubo from Comme des Garçons also designed  furniture at one point, and is really involved in the artistic direction of her brand from print media to photography. Issey Miyaki also operates this way. He now has a whole home line. I think fashion just intersects and overlaps naturally with a variety of mediums.

Florence: And Issey Miyaki has never called his company a couture house or fashion house. He’s always called it a studio, a design studio. He was looking, and is still looking at fashion not as just garments. For him, it is about designing ‘things,’ making ‘things.’

 

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, which you co-curated with Olivier Gabet, opened at Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris this July. It is the largest exhibition dedicated to the designer. In an article for The Guardian, author Hannah Marriot states, “The golden age of haute couture may be decades past, but we are now living in the golden age of the blockbuster fashion exhibition.” What are your thoughts about this statement?

Yes, that is exactly what is happening right now. The day the exhibition opened in Paris, there was a line around the building of people who waited all morning to get in. As for the idea that the golden age of haute couture has passed, in the 1950s, couture was meant to dress very elegant women for the café society who lived a jet-set lifestyle and attended many events and parties. It was a lifestyle very special and specific to that time and it doesn’t exist today. You don’t have the opportunity of being dressed in a very exquisite manner because there aren’t any more of these big balls or private parties in people’s homes.

The phenomenon of today, though, is this obsession with selfies and having photos shared on the internet. There is the need of doing portraits or self-portraits at every moment of your life, and everyone is concerned with their own image. You could go to a party and be photographed and suddenly your photo is spread all over the world.

In regard to fashion exhibitions, people envision what they could look like in these garments when they enter the museum. During the opening of the Dior exhibition, I did the official visit with France’s First Lady, Brigitte Macron, and afterward I did a walk-through with a famous American fashion model. I think people have a very personal relationship with a fashion exhibition, and the first thought they have is, “What would I look like if I wore this?” Then they will read the exhibition text and learn something about what they see, who made it, and what was happening in the world. People are able to relate to fashion exhibitions because they can imagine themselves wearing the clothes and being part of the story.

Jane: At the show in Paris, there was a guestbook people could sign at the end of exhibition, and Florence tells this great story about it, about how people want to dream, which was the whole point of the exhibition . . .

Florence: There was a little girl who wrote in the book, ‘I love the exhibition, so beautiful. I am 10 years old and my grandmother promised to buy me a Dior dress when I turn 18 years old.’

[Florence then quotes the visitors book.]

Florence: ‘Thank you for this magnificent travel in the universe of elegance and absolute femininity. This exhibition is wonderful. [signed] The Parisian’

‘Where is Mr. Dior to thank him for all this beauty?’

‘The dream and grace for the service of women. Thank you for this beautiful moment. Very elegant.’

It’s funny because the word I put in the title is everywhere throughout the guests’ notes in the book. Dream. It is what we see in the first collection of Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior. It was like a dream ball in an enchanted forest. This idea that, in moments of crisis, you have to use beauty and dreams to work through difficult situations. I like to play on this paradox of ideas.

The other great thing about this exhibition is that we now are in a world where everyday clothes are becoming so simple and relaxed and sometimes not very aesthetic. I think it is great to show the opposite of this, just as an example, that you can think about and create dreams in the minds of little girls.

 

Cities like Paris, Milan, London, and Tokyo are epicenters of the fashion world, each with distinct styles and histories. What would you say are the defining traits or major contributions of fashion and style from the United States?

One of the United States’ biggest contributions to fashion is the development of sportswear. It began in the 1930s through the 1960s, and was something really new for its time. People in Europe were slow to accept sportswear as fashion because they were so ingrained in the tradition of elegance and couture, and sportswear is the total opposite. In America, sportswear expressed a new way of living that is more relaxed and connected with nature, and eventually designers in Europe started to incorporate sportswear into their collections. It was fashion designed for yourself and less for show, but was still developed in a very elaborate manner. American designer Claire McCardell was an important contributor to this idea of creating sportswear that could also be elegant by mixing simple materials like cotton but with elaborate cuts, forms, and shapes.

Another other important contribution is the phenomenon of the jeans and T-shirt style, which is distinctively American. Same with motorbike jackets and everything connected with the counterculture. When this style reached Europe by the end of the 1960s it was very desirable and influential. It totally changed the way Europeans dressed.

Today I think we are in a place between the two forces of T-shirt and jeans and sportswear, yoga clothes in particular, and designer clothes and cocktail dresses. There is a road in the middle of these two extremes, which is high-end street wear, street couture, which has been a huge trend over the past several years. Girls like Rihanna flaunt this style which has an interesting mix of the two extremes.

 

In addition to being a curator, art and fashion historian, and writer, I understand that you also have created work as an artist and participated in artistic collaborations. Can you share more about this side of what you do?

A long time ago I worked in theater doing costume, makeup, and hair. Then I did photography but not for very long. I also did paintings and drawings. More recently I’ve worked with my husband Goran Vejvoda. We’ve done a lot of happenings and performances using video, choreography, costume, spoken word, and text. Really mixed medium. We did performances in Italy, France, Belgium, and England, but not in the US.

Most people in the fashion world do not know about these other things I have done. I don’t want to create confusion between my work in fashion and my work as an artist. But I use many of the elements and feelings I have from the fashion world in the happenings. The language of body, dress, the way you behave and move around a space and the way you speak, these are all different forms of communication, and by bringing them together I can create a great effect on the mind of the viewer. I did performances with Goran where I choreographed the dancers to change costumes in various sequences on stage, he did the music, and we both created the videos.

Goran and I are also working on a movie documentary about the history of sound art. We started with interviews while we traveled around the world, and accumulated all these videos and documentation. Goran is now working on the final edits and clarifying author rights.

 

-Hayley Richardson, September 2017

TIM GENTLES SEES INTO THE MERE FUTURE

Tim Gentles is a New Zealand born writer and curator based in New York. He completed his MA at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. He has written for Art-Agenda, Art in America, e-flux, Frieze, XLR8R and many other publications. Last summer, Tim was one of the six curators selected for U:L:O: at Interstate Projects in Brooklyn for his show Back Seat Driver. His dystopic show The Mere Future is on view at American Medium through August 6, 2017.

Interview by Natasha Przedborski

 

The Mere Future engages with the themes of urban progress and “erosion of the public sphere”. Was there any one moment, object, or person that specifically inspired the idea for this show?

There was no particular revelation or moment of inspiration for the exhibition. Developing the show was actually quite a natural process evolving from certain things I had been thinking about the art world and its relationship to various publics, as well as the work of certain artists who engage with these ideas. One catalyst for thinking about these issues was the ongoing dilemma of the art world’s intimate relationship with a culture industry that has increasingly made a city like New York unlivable for most people. From most artists’ point of view this is unsustainable too, and I was interested in the ways in which artistic practice has sought to be critical of art as an institution, and the ways that it has failed to live up to its promise and ideals in almost every respect.

 

I feel like bringing up the recent presidential election is inevitable these days when speaking about critiquing institutions and the failure to live up to promises and ideals. The works in the show were nearly all made prior to the most recent presidential election. Have you noticed any effect the current political climate has had on the production of work since?

In many ways Devon Dikeou’s piece in the show, Cajole, which was made in 1992 and is a replica of one of the planters that could at the time be found in the lobby of Trump Tower, was the starting point for thinking about the present day political implications of these ideas. The piece invites a cool examination of how political power is coded and assimilated into one’s environment as innocuous and embedded. The effect of last year’s election and the resulting political climate in the art world has largely been disheartening. Many rightfully feel that a renewed sense of political urgency is essential in combating the current regime and their socially destructive policies, but looking to art and one’s position in the art world to provide a platform for a leftist politics is in my opinion misguided and at worst totally hypocritical.

 

The title of the show is borrowed from Sarah Schulman’s dystopic novel in which New York’s problems have all been solved and liberalism reigns. Interestingly, the main critique in the media this year was that part of the country lived in a “liberal bubble”. Do you think that art is enabling this liberal elitism?

Art’s relationship to liberalism is complex, and it’s only been within the past couple of decades that the art world has identified with liberalism in its virtual entirety. Only relatively recently, various forms of illiberalism were firmly entrenched within art world power structures—think for instance of the impetus of much early institutional critique work, e.g. Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al., or the extreme backlash to the 1993 Whitney Biennial in contrast to the reception of this year’s. That’s not to say that the art world is now politically homogenous—it is not—but a presumed liberalism is mandated more than ever before. I think that this liberalism is often used, quite defensively, as a way of eliding a deeper interrogation of the complicity of well-meaning art institutions with inequality and injustice, as well as the class and race privilege of many of the art world’s participants.

 

If I’m not mistaken you’re not originally from the United States. What effect, if any, do you feel this had on organizing an exhibition that comments on American politics and space?

I feel pretty well assimilated into the New York City art community, and this exhibition largely reflects the concerns, as well as the cynicism and disaffection, of that world, which of course reflect in turn the political context of the United States. But to answer your question more directly, in my experience non-Americans tend to have less patience with the pieties of American liberalism.

 

Your show The Mere Future took place at American Medium. I think that the location of the gallery in the heart of Bed-Stuy is noteworthy. What do you make of having a socially engaged show on urban space and gentrification in a neighborhood undergoing gentrification itself?

A large part of the exhibition was to examine how art falls short of its utopic promise. Marc Kokopeli’s piece in the show offers the most succinct distillation of this to me, where in appropriating Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree he not only critiques a certain form of counter-cultural hippie sentimentalism, but its participatory aspect raises questions about precisely the kinds of publics that artworks actually engender. Sitting side-by-side on the tree are wishes made by children from the church next door, and name-dropping and art scene in-jokes.

 

-Natasha Przedborski, July 2017

LIKE A PRAYER: DEVON DIKEOU'S POPE PORTRAITS (SANS POPE)

Devon Dikeou is a conceptual artist whose work engages with the lines, recesses, and in between places of the art world, and the interaction of roles within. Her most recent solo presentation ’Pray For Me’ –Pope Francis I is on view at James Fuentes through July 28, 2017. Other exhibitions include Foundation Barbin Presents Redeux (Sort of) at Kai Matsumiya, New York City (2016); Please at Outcasts Incorporated, Paris (2015); Inhabiting Ten Eyck at Storefront Tent Eyck, New York City (2014); Between the Acts: Virginia Woolf at NADA Art Fair, Miami Beach (2014); Game Changer at Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, Boulder (2014; Please at The Contemporary, Austin (2013). Devon is also founder, editor, and publisher of zingmagazine and co-founder of the Dikeou Collection in Denver, CO.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

You’re not a studio artist, but this body of work came out of these antique friarlero chairs existing in your live/work space. Can you describe how the idea for this work developed?

As you know quite well, being the managing editor of zing for a kazillion years so you probably carried the chairs up, they appeared almost magically at zing HQ. Fernando bought these ten voluminous chairs and with my laissez attitude I had no idea what I was in for. THEN I saw them. They are fabulous of course, but take up the whole space wherever they are and the space at that time was my supposed studio . . . And the work that I make is very much about those in between spaces, invisible places and moments . . . And those nuanced things were being drowned by the Catholic Church . . . In what’s my “studio.” I wrestled with them even physically dragging them up and down any number of stairs any time an art person came over . . . I wished them away almost every second—this army of friarleros. . . But finally, like what often happens with me, something clicked, and I said “embrace the cheese”—so I thought: make these chairs that are stalking me into something. And then the idea just becomes very quickly what it is: each chair positioned after a Renaissance painting of a pope. We set up a photoshoot and voila! Ten photos modeled after the portraits of popes reproduced to the size of the original inspiration. Those inspirations are Raphael (two), Titian (three), Sebastiano del Piombo, El Greco, Caravaggio, Velasquez, Jacques Louis David. And each chair is rotated to almost the exact position of which those masters painted the popes in question, but without the subject or background, just an image of the armature that sets up the pictorial composition in the original.

 

This work follows the concept of your series Please by creating photographs based on historical paintings. What does it mean for you to translate a painting into a photograph?

Well the concept and practice I often employ is based on replication. I see something both in our regular everyday transactions as well as our art historical references (some more obvious than not) and I recreate them in my own manner . . . Be it a security gate from the street, the composition of which reminds me of an exquisite Barnet Newman or whose vastness makes me feel like I’m in a Monet lily pond . . . But clearly not. Or in this case, a more literal photographic sense, taking a cue from these historically important paintings and hopefully imbuing them with a bit of a chill. I was just at the Detroit Art Institute and going through its vast collection, and in the Dutch still life area/room there was this great guard who was explaining a painting in such a lovely way that I had never considered. The painting was a bouquet of flowers by Rachel Ruysch. Its background was black, dark. And he explained that was just the hardest thing to do, start from black and create light and color on top of that darkness. It was so touching, and expanding, making me think about how I come to do the things I do—which is that I often eliminate or highlight the background. In the case of Please, based on Manet’s last paintings, I’m highlighting presence, eliminating background. In Pray for Me, and even with the comedy curtains—Between the Acts—I take that thing, that main thing, the pope or the comedian and eliminate them and isolate that invisible segue or show it in a different and hopefully reinvigorating context. Of course, none of these gestures can happen without the Pictures Generation language and appropriation. My practice is indebted to them as well as lots of other art history.

 

So your process of replication is meant to present familiar objects or symbols in a new context? That reminds me not only of one of the original conceptualist gestures in Duchamp’s readymade Fountain but also Sherrie Levine’s appropriations (including Duchamp’s Fountain). Where do you see your work falling in this lineage? And what did you hope to highlight by isolating the chairs from historical paintings of popes?

Yes of course. Duchamp and his seminal gesture of creating the readymade allows for work like that of the Pictures Generation and Sherrie Levine . . . And naturally her recreating the urinal reads exactly into that . . . appropriation with a feminist touch—all that gold. Who said that statement “take an object, do something to it, then do something else to it.” Jasper Johns, I think . . . That leads the way. And I believe Robert Morris wrote an article, “Four Americans” in Art in America arguing that Pollack, Duchamp, Hopper, and Cornel were the touchstones from which our more contemporary visions stem . . . There’s some truth to that . . . all artists must react and know the fields in which they mine . . . And yes in that sense I would be following the Duchamp tradition in the Morris argument. So my gesture is related to the history of papal painting and implies appropriation—art of a more contemporary vein, while deconstructing the final visual platform and asking the viewer to make that visual and conceptual jump. And that jump can be from any position—that of the viewer, our contemporary and historical thoughts of the sitters in these chairs, the art historical references, ideas of patronage that come with citing art history and collecting, and even the parishioners and their little contributions. And how all these hierarchical conditions operate seemingly unknowingly. . . Or knowingly . . . And deposit that examination, again in the middle, Louise Lawler style, another pictures generation beauty.

 

This work was first shown as an artist’s project at NADA New York in 2014, where the emphasis was on seating at art fairs, engaging with the fair’s design and logistical dynamics—the border of fine art and functionality. But with recent political developments and the new context of a gallery space, “Pray for Me” takes on new readings. Can you speak to the pope’s chair as “seat of power,” the historical role of pope as art patron and powerbroker, and Pope Francis I’s more recent political engagements?

What’s that phrase that’s been fancied around “Truth to Power” or is it “Power or Truth”? It almost doesn’t matter . . . The chairs might act as metaphor for either. And yes the chairs were originally exhibited at Nada NYC . . . And as they are chairs as an installation address sitting wherever it may be—fair, gallery, monastery church, home (collector/patronage) studio and others . . . All of which pride themselves on both truth and power. Me I probably have neither, but I like to walk that line and examine the commercial venue, the visual venue, the critical venue and how we digest our visual, monetary, and critical metaphors . . . Truthfully . .  And talk about the transactions that occur commercially, historically, and psychologically . . . Powerfully . . . Which answer in a way, to both, and again neither, power and truth. And the chairs themselves are already loaded as is the history of papal portraits so the natural segues either happen or don’t, at least that’s my hope. And yes high and low, Pope Francis I was a bouncer at a night club, I think, and even it’s not true, just urban myth, that’s what rocks!

 

The pope was arguably at one time the most powerful person in the world. Many would argue that position is occupied now by the President of the United States of America. Are there any new revelations to draw from this body of work being exhibited under the current political circumstances of the Trump administration—where power and truth are both at stake?

I’ll start with perspective. When these paintings which the photos are based on were painted, perspective has just been understood, comprehended, is a new discovery. And the paintings themselves along with this experiment, perspective, were the record of their holinesses. Keep in mind these painters we are discussing are the most talented painters at the time and we study them as students of art history and probably have an exam question regarding each one—something to this day I’d probably not pass. Certainly, the progression that perspective represented, at that time, was groundbreaking. Now our time (can’t help but reference to Fast Times at Ridgemont High) but in “our time” when we relook at these paintings we see they have not quite got that perspective thing down . . . Some of paintings are, well, a bit screwy . . . And as one tries to replicate them now, as I have, that becomes apparent. But they are forgiven, all those luscious masters. Perspective now . . . There is this other experiment called democracy that hmmmm is perhaps going through a similar growing pain, and the power structures both in government and the idea of the Papacy as a structure of truth may be more vital or just the reverse—and give us a different perspective to our understanding of the world. Will we forgive . . . “Pray for Me” —Pope Francis I.

 

-Brandon Johnson, July 2017

REBECCA R HART IS BUILDING BRIDGES BETWEEN ARTIST, AUDIENCE, AND INSTITUTION

Rebecca R. Hart is the Vicki and Kent Logan Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Denver Art Museum. Three shows curated by Hart are currently on view in the Hamilton Building of the Denver Art Museum: Shade: Clyfford Still/Mark Bradford on view through July 16, Audacious Contemporary Artists Speak Out through August 6, and Mi Tierra: Contemporary Artists Explore Place through October 2017.

Interview by Rebecca Manning

 

With a BFA and MFA in Fiber from the Kansas City Art Institute and Cranbrook Academy of Arts, respectively, how did you became interested in pursuing a MA in Contemporary Art History, and eventually curating? How did your career evolve?

My first degree is from Williams College in art history. During my senior year, while writing a thesis on Mughal book illustration, I became curious about all Islamic decorative arts. Soon I found myself working in a Swedish tapestry studio (in the buildings that are now MASS MoCA) by day and writing my thesis at night. It opened a world to me that I hadn’t imagined. I followed my heart and spent twenty years as a fiber artist. All along I supported my studio practice by teaching and lecturing in museums.

When I was at Cranbrook most art academy students returned home in the summer. I had two daughters living with me so I stayed in Detroit. Gerhard Knodel, artist-in-residence for fiber, suggested that I volunteer at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Based on the work I did, the DIA invited me back to work as a curatorial assistant when I graduated. I was at the museum for twenty years, first in the department of twentieth century art, then when the department of contemporary art was formed in 2003 I joined it, and eventually lead it for ten years.

 

Since starting at the Denver Art Museum in 2015, what have you noticed that is unique about the arts community in Denver?

I’m always discovering new people and practices in Denver, in part because many strong, independent positions are articulated by local artists. There’s a diversity of practice, not a primary locale-centric mode as there was in Detroit. Sadly however, there’s not much attention given to promoting Denver artists in a larger arena. I wish that somehow artists could receive a fellowship, which included professional development and supported studio research; that we had a network to validate and showcase talent broadly.

 

There has been a great deal of positive response to your current exhibition Mi Tierra: Contemporary Artists Explore Place, which is on view in the Hamilton Building through October 22, 2017. What has been the most rewarding aspect of curating that show?

There was a moment just before the exhibition opened that was exhilarating. Jim and Julie Taylor hosted a dinner at The Vault for the artists, their work crews and galleries. For the eighteen months that we worked on the show, I focused on artists individually or sometimes in pairs if their installation dates or themes overlapped. At the pre-opening party spontaneous kinship formed among the artists, assistants, galleries and extended Denver family. Until then I thought of the artists as individuals and soon learned that together they became a powerful community. The potency of the individual and communal voices is one of the strengths of the exhibition.

 

 

I completely agree that the individual and communal voices are one of the many strengths of Mi Tierra. Together, your exhibitions Audacious: Contemporary Artists Speak Out, and Mi Tierra, seem to coexist rather seamlessly. As you move through the third and, then, fourth level of the Hamilton Building, the idea of categorization—groupings of works related to gender, ecologies, and ethnicities—fade away to an extent. Ultimately, the viewer is left with Contemporary art that is charged with socio-political relevancy. From Robert Colescott’s 1988 painting School Days, to Ana Mendieta’s video installation Volcán, 1979, to Jaime Carrejo’s One-Way Mirror, and Ana Teresa Fernández’s Erasure, the work is very topical. How much did you intend for these two exhibitions to converse with one and another when you were considering the experience of visitors going through both exhibitions?

The DAM’s contemporary collection has particular strength in artworks charged with socio-political commentary.  This, in part, is the result of the leadership of my predecessors, Dianne Vanderlip and Christoph Heinrich, and also because collectors like Vicki and Kent Logan believe that contemporary art comments on our times. Two years ago, after I accepted the position but before I began working in Denver, I knew that I was curating a long-anticipated exhibition of Latino artists and reinstalling the third floor galleries with a selection from permanent collection. The reinstallation was scheduled first. I wanted to learn about public and institutional tolerance for controversy so I chose “audacious” as the leading theme. Although you mention that categorizations seem to fall away, I would contend that each artist asserts their position informed by their gender, ethnicity and peer group.

While I was working on Audacious, I was reviewing artists for Mi Tierra. Strategically I assembled a group of Latino advisors who helped me reflect on the thematic veracity and political valence that each artist brought to the project. My goal was to present an offering that engaged topical issues and featured artists who I profoundly respected. Many of the artists were under contract before we knew who the presidential candidates were. The present political climate in the United States encouraged some artists to “turn up the volume” in the final installation. However, their commentaries were already embedded in the installations months ago.

 

For me, the works in both Audacious and Mi Tierra go beyond representation of contemporary socio-political issues, and seem to be actively conversing with current discourse and events. So, in a way, that conversation keeps evolving, and the experience has been different each visit—depending on what I saw on the news that day, or read that day, etc. How did current events impact or at all influence the way in which the exhibitions were carried out after their initial conceptualization? Do current events continue to shape how you think about the exhibitions even now?

When I work on an exhibition I try to write a statement of one or two sentences that distills the theme. Then everything in the exhibition is tied to that idea. I rarely change the theme but sometimes need to adjust how I’m going to address it. Along the way there are conversations with the artists, who sometimes don’t realize how their work functions, which help us both understand the project in different dimensions. Good art resonates through time and echoes across varying situations.

 

You obviously have a great deal of expertise in your field given your time as a practicing artist, your substantial tenure at The Detroit Institute of Arts, and the prestigious position you now hold as the Denver Art Museum’s Vicki and Kent Logan Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. What advice would you give to an aspiring curator?

As a curator who works primarily with living artists I see myself as a bridge builder working with an artist’s vision, institutional mandates and the need to communicate with an audience. Whenever I’m working on a project no matter who the artist is—Matthew Barney, Shirin Neshat or local artists like Jaime Carrejo and Dmitri Obergfell—I like to lead with sensitivity to their position and profound respect for their individual creative process. With Matthew, for instance, I sent him books about Detroit life written by popular authors. One scene, that I particularly liked, was realized in River of Fundament. It took only a suggestion to help Barney understand how he might translate the scene in the novel into his narrative but then I needed to let it evolve in his unique language. So to sum this up I might say: build bridges, listen respectfully and deeply, and allow each artist to express themselves in their own way. Authenticity always rings true.

 

-Rebecca Manning, May 2017

DMITRI OBERGFELL IS PROCESSING HISTORY

Dmitri Obergfell, Moonwatcher, polystyrene and steel, 2017 Photo: Wes Magyar

 

Dmitri Obergfell is a multimedia artist from Colorado. He received his BFA from Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in 2010. Obergfell has exhibited in Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles, Rome, and the Czech Republic. He currently is showing work in both the Denver Art Museum’s Mi Tierra: Contemporary Artists Explore Place, and a solo show at Gildar Gallery, Man is a Bubble, Time is a Place. Obergfell’s solo show continues themes of classicism and considers concepts of time. Man is a Bubble, Time is a Place is on view until May 6 at Gildar Gallery in Denver.

Interview by Rebecca Manning

 

Initially you studied photography and video art at RMCAD, correct? At what point did you shift into sculptural work? How does your video/photographic background inform your current practice?

I have always made sculpture. Yes, I do have a degree in photography and video art, but the program I attended encouraged exploration. One of the reasons I focused on photo/video is because I could continue my interest in other mediums. I am happy with the basic knowledge of photography I maintain as it has helped me train my eye and hone some software skills, which I use in art fabrication nowadays.

 

Could you explain the process of fabrication that went into creating your sculpture Moonwatcher?

The fabrication process for Moonwatcher is an important part of the concept. This artwork would be totally different if it were carved out of stone by hand, rather than CNC routed out of polystyrene. Moonwatcher’s Greco-Roman form is used to create a contrast between ideas of the past and contemporary means of production. Moonwatcher’s fabrication process started as a 3D scan from the creative commons of the Internet. I downloaded the 3D form and then augmented it by cutting the limbs and cutting out the negative space in the torso. After I made my changes to the form, the file was sent to a CNC router, who carved it out of polystyrene foam. I am excited to continue with this process because it has a lot of possibilities moving forward. Projects like the Institute for Digital Archaeology are inspiring because they use similar techniques to resurrect artifacts that have been destroyed in places like war-ravaged Palmyra.

 

Moonwatcher has an ancient symbol cut out of its torso, the Triple Moon, and like the figure it is cut out of, it rather instantaneously signifies to the viewer that it is something ancient. To my knowledge, that symbol is associated with pagan goddesses. Embedded in a sculptural body that basically encapsulates the male ideal form, I can’t help but think that you are getting at some sort of ideal gender binary within your sculpture. Was this at all intended? Most of your sculptural work that I have seen contains male figures. Do you consider gender at all in your work?

No that wasn’t my intention, but I see how it might be read that way. It’s an interesting interpretation and question, but I can’t say that gender is my first consideration. I have picked figures based on gesture more than gender. Keeping that in mind, there is probably to be said about how women and men are represented in antiquity. I would be remiss to pretend to know what that is, but it would be interesting to research it more.

 

Not just in your current solo show, but in general, your work seems to link different important movements or imagery in art to present day, making them, in a sense, relevant once more. You are engaging with Greco-Roman art and its pervasive aesthetic, and subverting—at times—expectations and meaning that such an aesthetic inherently carries. Because of the process in which you fabricate your work, you are also dealing with the modern concept of the readymade. How do you go about reconciling concepts and imagery that seem inherently at odds?

I don’t believe the imagery and concepts are at odds. The history of Greco-Roman sculpture extends to mass reproductions being made today. I use the Greco-Roman forms in a present-day sense, they are devoid of their original color and are often displayed with limbs missing. These reproductions present themselves as ontologically charged ready-mades, which simultaneously reinforces the Greco-Roman aesthetic and erodes its original meaning.

  

I enjoy the way you employ ancient statuary. In your exhibition at Gildar Gallery, I felt almost as if the classical aesthetic of ancient sculpture is for you so reproduced and ubiquitous that it has become a recognizable object or sign. You use other ancient and contemporary symbols throughout the show, most of which are part of works that are coated with chameleon automotive paint. What are you trying to accomplish by embedding these different symbols into one piece of art? Are you trying to build on the associations and meaning that they carry, or are you trying to render them meaningless?

I am reflecting on the the symbols’ similarities despite the different times they were created in. I like to speculate on symbols from this period that might carry the same resonance as those from ancient times. Symbols like corporate logos and emojis may become our society’s version of hieroglyphs due to their wide-ranging distribution in commercial, cultural and social settings. One symbol that interests me in particular is the hashtag, because it has been around since people were drawing on cave walls in ancient Europe. The hashtag is one of 32 symbols that were found throughout ancient caves all over the continent. Today the hashtag is one of the most prolific symbols of our time because of its significance and function in social media. It is fascinating that the hashtag transitioned from a basic form of communication in ancient caves to one of the most prevalent technological symbols. It’s hard to say what the original meaning of the hashtag was, but this form has endured time and adopted new meaning over the course of human history. It is not hard to see how contemporary symbols like the Nike swoosh might carry the same potential.

 

Dmitri Obergfell, Crushing Beers, chameleon auto paint and urethane plastic, 2017, Photo: Wes Magyar 

 

When I teach an introductory art history course I typically assign David Macaulay’s satirical children’s book, the Motel of the Mysteries, in the first week. The book is set in the future and serves as a cautionary tale to students of art history/archeology about how easily one can misinterpret objects of material culture from the past when they are removed from their original context. In the book, mundane and humorous objects are misinterpreted as objects of veneration . . . I couldn’t help but think of that text as we were walking around the space at Gildar Gallery. Among the intrinsically monumental figurative statue, and sculpted mantel, are aluminum cans which you’ve coated with chameleon automotive paint. In consideration of the dazzling surface material you’ve given these objects, and their purposeful placement in close proximity to a classical-looking sculpture, it seems like you’ve set out to give these cans an intentional significance that they don’t typically possess. Am I onto something there? Can you tell me about your intention in placing these cans throughout the gallery?

I am interested in the commonality of aluminum cans and the fact that approximately a half million cans are used a day. This level of production and consumption reminds me of Monte Testaccio. Monte Testaccio was a garbage dump for olive oil vessels that was used for 250 years during the Roman empire. It is a testament to the consumption of olive oil during that period. It is estimated to contain the remains of 50 million vessels. Monte Testaccio is so large that on the surface it now looks like a large hill in the Roman landscape, rising to 115 feet tall. At the current rate of production, it would only take 100 days to create the same amount of aluminum cans. By comparison, aluminum cans might have a similar effect in creating a legacy like Monte Testaccio, scattering future artifacts of our societal consumption across the planet.

 

When we were walking through the gallery you were talking about concepts of “deep time,” or an allusion to “victory over time,” and the title of your show deals with time, too. The title Man is a Bubble, Time is a Place, to me, evokes the idea of Vanitas and memento mori—symbolic art that serves to remind man of his own mortality. With consideration of concepts of time and mortality, I felt that your use of materials here was particularly savvy in that Styrofoam, or aluminum cans, are inherently disposable consumer materials—we discard everyday objects comprised of aluminum or Styrofoam without a thought. And yet, those objects, particularly those made of Styrofoam will never break down, and are in a sense going to outlive all whom dispose of them. In a way, this material culture, what is basically considered trash, is what will be left of our existence to posterity. Thus, your work gets at this idea of “victory over time” through use of materials as much as it does in the appropriation of a hegemonic classical aesthetic. Are you trying to make any overtly political or poignant statement through the pairing of imagery from antique sculpture with a contemporary material of a mass-produced nature? Is the juxtaposition meant to make the viewer ponder the significance of their own contribution to the infinitely sprawling expanse of history and time?

Political or poignant, I don’t know. For me this exhibition is a way to process the information I have consumed. A lot of that info is about long time arcs and eternity. I have been studying both versions of 2001: Space Odyssey, Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects, Matthew Arnold’s poem The Future, Karel Dujardin’s painting from 1663 Boy Blowing Soap Bubbles, and theories like Time Dilation. One passage I found particularly moving is from Arthur C. Clarke’s version of 2001: Space Odyssey,

“And somewhere in the shadowy centuries that had gone before they had invented the most essential tool of all, though it could be neither seen nor touched. They had learned to speak, and so had won their first great victory over Time. Now the knowledge of one generation could be handed on to the next, so that each age could profit from those that had gone before.”

The artwork is a more of a manifestation of my thinking process than a prescription for others. I see it as a presentation of information that the viewer can decipher how they see fit. The work in the exhibition isn’t encouraging people to recycle more or drive a Prius, but simply consider existence over a relatively long period of time.

 

-Rebecca Manning, March 2017

YOUR TOUCH, MARIA ANTELMAN'S COMMAND

Maria Antelman, Eyecom, 2016, courtesy of Melanie Flood Projects

 

Maria Antelman works in photography, video, and sculpture, often through the lens of technology. Her latest exhibition, “My Touch, Your Command, Your Touch, My Command” opened at Melanie Flood Projects in Portland, Oregon on January 27th and is on view through February 25th. The work, a series of collages and a video, investigates human dependencies on informational tools and how these tools in turn shape their users. This exhibition is the fifth installment of an ongoing series at Melanie Flood Projects called Thinking Through Photography, which includes a comprehensive survey of contemporary photographic practices through programming that highlights experimental and diverse approaches to image-making.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

Let’s start with the title of the show: “My Touch, Your Command, Your Touch, My Command.” There’s a clear implication of control—losing control, but also being in control. The word touch implies something sensual, almost sexual. There’s a power dynamic that flows between two sources. Am I on the right track here?

In an uncanny manner, “touch”—sensual, sexual, personal, etc—turned into a technical gesture: I-touch. We touch screens all day. There are cuddling parties where one can experience the warmth of the human touch. Perhaps a new invention can be warm, soft screens at 98.6 °F, the temperature of the body. The collages in the exhibition show hands touching microfilms, the predecessors of big data. There was a time when one could physically touch information. In digital haptics every touch is a decision which releases a code which itself becomes a command. I am thinking of the hand as a tool. The thumb and the grip were related to the industrial revolution in handling machines. The index finger is the protagonist in this revolution. In the movie E.T., the extraterrestrial has an elongated index finger. The point of the index finger lightens up when E.T. feels a connection. The title of the show refers to emotional relations of interdependence with information and network systems.

 

Why use the dated technological form of microfilms in your collages? Is this related to being physically closer to information?

I was trained as an historian, to read the present and to think about the future through the lens of the past. Mechanical apparatuses are connected to our lineal thinking—one could make sense of how a machine functions. Digital devices surpass logical thinking; they are black boxes—one cannot understand how they work. I still use analogue film cameras because I need the slow processing time in a medium that is constantly advancing technologically. Microfilm technology is based on photographic memory, light and magnifying optics. In this body of work, these apparatuses are used literally and metaphorically to bring together the analogue past with the digital present.

 

There’s an element of Orwellian dystopianism to these works—like a scene from a David Lynch film where someone is watching themselves through a CCTV or is trapped within a monitor. Is there something inherently negative about our experiences with digital technology? And conversely, is there anything that redeems this?

 

You mean Videodrome by David Cronenberg which is indeed very tech noir. Communicating translates as the act of being social but in a digital format it has this transformative power, one that possesses people. There are so many platforms and choices: reviews, comments, likes, dislikes, loves, hates, faces and cute sounds. There is no silent time, time has turned into information, and information is data, and data is the new economy. I love my digital experience, it is super sexy and fun, and feels fresh, and we are all connected, and its participatory, and sharing moments can feel so good: it’s a validation. Perhaps there was a dormant part in my brain waiting to be filled with all this information and now this part is hungry: it needs to be constantly logged in, updated, saved, downloaded, etc. We are becoming automated: codes predict and cover all our needs and desires, and we never get lost, don’t close our eyes, rarely let go. It is a very interesting self-discovery. I like it (thumbs up emoji, happy face emoji).

 

I had Lynch’s Inland Empire in mind, but Videodrome works even better. There are some episodes of Black Mirror that also relate closely. Interesting that you speak of a dormant part of the brain being hungry and developing an appetite for information. I’ve always liked to think about how technology and communication fit within the grand scheme of evolution. How human language, tools, and abstract thinking allowed us to dominate the other species on the planet. It seems that technology has developed at a faster rate than our bodies (and brains) can adapt. The sheer amount of information is impossible to fully process and retain, in part due to the lack of idle time where reflection typically takes place—when we close our eyes and let go. Are reflection and imagination the antidotes to technology’s distraction? Or is this something that technology merely deprives us of? Are there aspects of technology that we need to resist?

I think the antidote to technology’s distraction is boredom. Sheer, old-fashioned, torturing boredom. Maybe we need to remember what it feels like to be bored. Then new habits may kick in. The problem is that the overload of information is getting boring as well. But while it’s constant input becomes repetitive, social media responses still release dopamine in our brain every time we get a FB like or even better a FB love. Now information needs to evolve, so our brains, hungry and addicted to their dopamine doses, will continue to stay engaged. Otherwise, we may turn into ADD zombies looking for exciting content to suck into. Nerve is a great teenager thriller. The story is about an online “truth or dare” game with players and watchers. The code of the game knows everything about the players from their social media and consumer profiles and uses this knowledge to challenge them in extreme, personally tailored situations. The more dares, the more likes and the more money gets transferred instantly in your bank account. Digital natives live in a different world. Most young entrepreneurialism is about some digital service: an app that replaces some gesture, some decision, some desire. Perhaps, it is all about mediating and facilitating experiences. Same as wellbeing, another new industry or the economy of wellbeing. I was reading the other day about this hi-tech, luxury meditation center somewhere in the Flatiron. A short meditation session leading to a nap (all in 20min), costs $18. It takes place inside a perfectly lighted dome room, with perfect sounds, blankets and pillows. It is a place where you don’t have to put any effort in meditating, instead you walk into a meditative environment equipped with the right props and boom, you think you are meditating. It is problematic. I think digital culture is picking up so easily because people understand technical skills better than experiences.

 

Getting back to the work itself for a minute. The Spacesaver works are collages, yet a viewer wouldn’t necessarily know it (especially when viewed on a screen)—they’re very seamless. Can you talk about your process in making this series? And since the show is part of an ongoing artist series at Melanie Flood Projects called Thinking Through Photography how the work engages with photography as medium?

When I got interested in microfilms, I visited a lab where they convert bulks of paper information into microfilms, from architectural drawings to checks and invoices. I ran some tests shooting with their duplicator cameras, with my hands in the shot handling paper. Then, I took those images, in microfilm format, and looked at them through the reader apparatus. It was very confusing and disorienting: the real and its representation were slipping into each other. I tried to capture this effect in my collages: a circle of motion from inside out and in reverse. I was thinking of screens opening to more screens, like a maze where you find yourself in every screen. Media is very narcissistic. Then, I started looking at technical, user manual and marketing images of apparatuses from the 60s. A female model poses with the device, touching it in a very soft machine-erotica style. The title of Melanie’s series Thinking Through Photography is very appropriate: images are the new communication form. Alexander, my son the other day explained one of his thoughts: numbers are infinite and combinations of language are infinite, so one day numbers will replace words. I will ask him whether images will one day replace numbers. Machines already speak images.

 

-Brandon Johnson, January 2017

CONNIE WALSH'S SCULPTURE IN THE 2ND DIMENSION

Working within a wide range of media including sculpture, installation, and performance, Connie Walsh uses her work to explore the transitional space between interior and exterior, intimacy and detachment, private and public, self and other. Currently working in Los Angeles, her work has been presented in numerous exhibitions throughout the country, including solo shows at Marianne Boesky Gallery and SculptureCenter in New York. In zing #24, Walsh presents the project “interior façade,” a series of photographic pairings of interior architectural details with amorphous sculptures made of rug-hooked canvas, beeswax, and yarn. Visually intricate and immersive, Walsh’s project provides an expansive inquiry into both the divisions and inextricable connections between places of interiority and exteriority.

Interview by Emma Cohen

 

Many of your works are sculptural, or created for installation. What was it like to create a sculptural work that would be presented in the two-dimensional format of a magazine? Is something lost, or added, when the work is photographed?

I am interested in the expansion and potential collapsing of illusionistic space when using different dimensions within a piece. The project consists of both the sculptures and large-scale digital prints. The photographs are a further investigation accessing the interiors of the three dimensional space of the sculptures. This space is then manipulated and flattened and finally juxtaposed with a detailed exploration of architecture, which offers structure for the biomorphic sculptural forms. The magazine format reinforced this pairing with a central seam. I became interested in this place of contact, both in how these differing spaces inform each other as well as with how they create visual tension with their proximity. The large format prints are the same ratio as the magazine with two images making up one print with a central transitional vertical line.

I really appreciate the freedom that comes out of Devon’s approach to magazine proposals being as projects—i.e., that she offers a span of pages in the magazine to do with it what you will. It allowed me to think of those pages as a three-dimensional space to work within. I was interested in the images being “read” horizontally and vertically with a centerfold. In the magazine, the thickness of the spine blurs the transitional space between the two images implicating the possibility of actual space.

 

Did you think about the readers of the magazine and the physical ways in which they would interact with the piece when you were creating your project?

Yes. The images are all full-bleeds and the layout varies within the pages of the project. I set up a spatial sequencing of an image of the sculptures with an image of the architectural details each on its own page and at times I interrupt that with one image taking up two pages entirely—these being images of the sculptures—a centerfold. This encourages the viewer to turn the magazine while looking at the project and maybe even disorienting the space of the subject and his/her relationship to the object of observation. I was interested in shifting the viewer’s positioning and his/her ability to distinguish between the space of the interior and its relation to the exterior being outlined.

 

You mentioned the relationship of interior/exterior in this piece, and in reference to other works you have written about investigating the relationships between self/other and individual/society. Did you learn anything about these relationships when working on interior façade? How has your understanding of or attitude towards these dichotomies developed throughout your career?

In past projects I’ve combined personal events or moments with environments that suggest and heighten the place of contact, or transaction, between private and public experience. In this project I was more interested in the ambiguity of these realms—as being oppositional and in exploring the transitional space between interior and exterior, intimacy and detachment. This suspended space is both permeable and of a shifting nature. The existence of a “skin-like” interruption of contiguity un-sites the viewer’s conventional perspective.

 

How do you see the opposing pages of “interior façade” interacting with one another?

As I was creating the piece, the idea of sculptural spheres—a metaphor for what was once inside and extracted—led to a tactile inquiry into a possible interior. I created these sculptures around balls of varying sizes, but eventually the spherical forms started to collapse due to the weight of the rug hooked yarn and leave more misshapen inaccessible spaces. I then had to go within the sculptures to take some of the photographs.

As for the architectural spaces, I am currently living in a Schindler apartment. Schindler’s proportions, fluidity of space, and continuity between inside and outside are framing my family and our domesticated movements. Images of the architectural details provide structure to the images of the biomorphic sculptural forms. Photographic pairings of the sculptures with chosen interior architectural details initiates the perceptual sense that exterior is defined by the interior and vice versa.

 

Do you have any current interests or projects that you’ve been working on that you can share?

Lately I’ve been interested in memory—how selective it is and seemingly private yet it functions within a larger context. I like the idea of selective memory. I have also been thinking about a further transformation of the sculptures in the project interior façade. I’m exploring the possibility of casting the sculptures out of silver or aluminum and having it be a one off burnt out process- losing the sculptures completely—the color and tactile material—into a more permanent weighted mass. In a sense giving the empty interior cavity a solid form.

 

-Emma Cohen, September 2016

BRANDON JOHNSON ON THE LEGACY OF DAN ASHER & COLLECTING CHICAGO GANG CARDS

Upon arrival in New York in 2006 to attend The New School, Brandon Johnson also began an internship at zingmagazine. Flash forward a decade later, and we find him as Managing Editor of this curatorial publication. From promoting zing at book fairs in New York, Baltimore and Los Angeles, to a residency at SOMA in Mexico City earlier this year, Johnson has been developing a report with the contemporary art world at large. One individual in this community, artist Dan Asher, left a lasting impression on Johnson before his untimely death in 2010. Asher is the subject of Johnson’s book, Far From the Madding Crowd: Perspectives on the Life and Work of Dan Asher, published in Fall 2015 as part of the zingmagazine issue 24 special edition. Comprised of interviews with various figures from Dan Asher’s life, this book offers readers an unprecedented and intimate look at this talented yet often misunderstood artist. Also featured in issue 24 is the poster-sized reproduction of a 1970s era Chicago gang compliment card, one of many from Johnson’s personal collection. These zingmagazine projects scratch the surface for what will be continuous engagements with these unique areas of research and interest.

Interview by Hayley Richardson

 

You have two projects in issue #24: a poster titled “The Almighty Playboys” and a book, Far From the Madding Crowd: Perspectives on the Life and Work of Dan Asher. Can you give a little overview into what each project is about?

Sure! The book project, Far From the Madding Crowd: Perspectives on the Life and Work of Dan Asher, is just that: a series of interviews I conducted with people who knew the late artist Dan Asher in various capacities: art dealers, other artists, friends, and even his dentist—about forty individuals in all. Dan Asher was a prolific artist and fascinating individual, and the interviews reflect this. The text is interspersed with images I chose of Dan and his work as visual reference. The poster project “The Almighty Playboys” is an enlargement of a Chicago “compliment card” made by the street gang the Almighty Playboys in the 1970s. I own a collection of these cards, and between the weird illustrations and writing on the back, thought this one was particularly interesting on a visual level.

 

Are there any interviews that stood out to you as being particularly revelatory? Did you learn anything new about Dan that you feel changed or enhanced your perspective of him?

I learned something new from each of the interviews and each molded my perspective in a different way. It was an investigative process for me. Prior to making this book I didn’t feel like Dan’s closest friend or an authority on his artwork by any means. But I wanted to know more. So I followed the leads, and each interview added to the bigger picture, or should I say portrait? With that said, Atom Cianfarani & Maya Suess’s interview had a lot of specific information and anecdotes that weren’t really discussed otherwise. It seems like Dan opened up to them quite a bit about his personal history. Their interview added an emotional depth while managing to fill in some missing pieces of the narrative.

 

 

In 2014 you co-curated an exhibition of Dan’s work at Gildar Gallery in Denver, and now with the book it is very apparent you have a vested interest in this artist. What drew you to Dan’s life and work initially? Do you have plans to work on other Dan Asher-related projects in the future?

Being a wet-behind-the-ears 21-year-old arriving in New York, Dan embodied for me this romantic view of a downtown artist—bohemian and cantankerous, a holdover from another era. Being fond of Devon, zingmagazine, and the energy of young people, Dan just made himself present in my life. But as I began to discover his work via the pages of zingmagazine and galleries of the Dikeou Collection, my fascination grew. The work seemed so personal and had great appeal to me on an aesthetic level. Often, it attempted to capture these fleeting moments of poetic poignance. A stillness within flux. I became an advocate of his work and I am currently exploring more opportunities to do so in the future. The filmmaker Tom Jarmusch and I are currently developing program of Dan’s videos for a screening. I’m also talking to Martos Gallery, who represents the Dan Asher Estate, about organizing a discussion at the gallery during Dan’s forthcoming solo exhibition next year. Fingers crossed all works out.

 

Tell me more about the “compliment cards.” In your curator statement you share that you discovered one of these in some of your dad’s old stuff in the attic and learned that they are specific to the Chicagoland area from the 1970s and ‘80s. How were they used and what more have you learned about them since your discovery?

Yeah, I found that first one in a cigar box in our attic. Apparently my Dad’s friend from high school was a member of the Royal Capris. It’s been tough to find many reliable resources for information on compliment cards, but from what I’ve deciphered the cards were were made mainly to display pride of the gang, disrespect towards its enemies, and for recruitment. Other uses include passing them to friends or associates, “We’re throwing a party tonight at so-and-so bar. Show this card at the door.” As far as their origins, I’ve noticed that motorcycle gangs from the ’50s and ‘60s such the Hell’s Angels and Straight Satans made calling cards. For example, a biker would see a car pulled over, give them mechanical assistance, and pass them a card saying “Serviced by the Hell’s Angels”. Some of the street gangs in Chicago find their roots in greaser gangs from this era, using biker traditions and aesthetic as models. My theory is that this is where the idea for Chicago compliment cards came from, and proceeded to gain popularity among white and Latino gangs on the Northside, Westside, and near Southside of Chicago. What’s great about these cards is that they’d change hands over the course of their existence, with handwritten messages, symbols, and names accruing on the backs. With a little knowledge you can learn to read this information. Many of the O.G.s have amassed sizable collections, and will attend get-togethers with other former members where they trade original cards and sweaters. Old enemies recount their younger lives over beers. Funny how that works.

 

 

You should try to track down the O.G.s and meet them for a beer! Where have you been sourcing the cards for your collection?

One of my sources is a former member of the Almighty Gaylords, which was the biggest white gang in Chicago during the era. He built a collection of cards during his time as a member and beyond. Now lives in the Western suburbs I believe and has decided to sell off his collection. I cherry-picked a few cards off him, then ended up buying out most of the rest of his stock. My other source is a USPS mail carrier for the city of Chicago. He has a few different types of collections, including original cassette tape mixes of Chicago house music from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Apparently, he was a DJ back in the day. Told me that he came across an album of compliment cards and was selling them off. But also sounds like he had connections with former members, or played the middle man in certain ways for a friend. Didn’t really get his clarified. But a nice enough guy. Acquired some rarer examples from him, mostly Latino gangs—the Party People, Latin Kings, Night Crew, Spanish Lovers, and King Cobras, among others.

 

I think they’re fascinating relics of distinct time, place, and culture and would be appealing to a wide demographic. Any ideas for what you might do with the collection in the future?

I agree! Everybody I show them to or tell about thinks they’re pretty groovy. I mostly like them because of their specificity to Chicago, ad-hoc aesthetics, and origin in an era before my time. Although I’m a bit conflicted on any glorification of gangs in light of the gang-related violence that occurs in Chicago to this day. This is a huge, complicated problem, and is related to greater dynamics at work in our country. But I suppose this is the case with any outlaw culture – the romanticized image versus the unsavory reality. With this in mind, I’m hoping to do a release event for the book & mini-exhibition of the collection in New York this Fall, then see where else I’d be able to do something similar in other cities, whether as one-off events or as part of art book fairs, etc. Nothing set in stone yet. Going to wait until I have a delivery date for the books and then plan from there.

 

-Hayley Richardson, September 2016

GANAHL/HERMES/MARX

 

Rainer Ganahl is a conceptual artist and lover of Marxist theory, who works in mediums ranging from film to political Manifesto. He often records and makes objects of events like educational seminars, Marxist fashion shows and imitation of the life of writer Alfred Jarry. Simultaneously student and teacher, his work portrays the intersections of politics, education, language, class, history and fashion. His artistic practice is never solitary, but rather relies on collaboration and group involvement to draw connections between audience and performer, brand and consumer. Ganahl has published numerous books including Reading Karl MarxOrtssprache—Local LanguageEducational Complex, and Please, Write Your Opinions of U.S. Politics. His work has been featured in zingmagazine five times including Basic Russian (Issue 2), seminars/lectures (s/l) (Issue 15), Iraq Dialogs (Issue 19), and FONTANAGANAHL—Concept of Rage: 1960s/2010s (Issue 23). I spoke with him about his project Hermes-Marx, which is featured in Issue 24 and resides at Dikeou Pop-Up: Colfax in Denver, Colorado. In our correspondence via email, Ganahl exclaimed “MY ENGLISH SUCKS”, which really isn’t true: Rainer Ganahl writes with an elegant fire.

Interview by Liana Woodward

 

How did you first become interested in the works of Karl Marx?

As a teenager I came across Karl Marx’s early writings published in German in a beautiful light blue hardcover volume that was handy and lovely. His thinking changed my life thought. His writing has little to do with what he [eventually] came to signify, but rather with historical materialism as a philosophical position in regard to religion, to society, and to work.

 

How can we understand the art world, and the creation of art objects, through a lens of historical materialism? Where does Marx’s political philosophy intersect with art?

The short and cynical, but truth-carrying answer would be a classical one: follow the money. A more melodic or pastoral one could be: go with the pleasures and anxieties of people. The drives and truth-techniques that they develop to domesticate, cultivate, or differentiate their senses and what-have-yous. People are creatures who create and depend on tools to handle their imaginings, ghosts, fire and fears, to fight off enemies, hunger and cold, to produce pleasure and excess, fun and abundance, to fill in the gaps between misery and disease, shortage and lack.

I tell my kids that stories are made by women and men, not by some god. Ghosts and gods are nothing but stories we use to deal with fears and desires of bad and good monsters, beauty and fairies, power and its opposite, gain and abundance. In the realm of storytelling and demonstrative silence (organized noise or haptic enjoyment for the ears and eyes) we approach what later will be commodified as art.

That is Marx for pre-K and kindergarten and can produce satisfaction and arguments until graduation with curators and wealth managers, portfolio geeks, and speculators. Hence, Marx for red points and red tapes, for high heels, private jets and Basel or Hong Kong free-port storage access. Marx is really the pre-inventor of the Swiss Army Knife for philosophy and polyglot money. Viva Marx.

 

Speaking of money, can you talk a bit about how your project Hermes Marx? By silk-screening your own Marxist imagery onto the scarves you are in some way destroying their value as high-end exchange commodities. Is there some intrinsic or artistic value that you add to the scarves?

Well, as an artist I have to assign artistic value to my art works. If I don’t do it nobody else does. So yes, I do assign my ‘destruction’ or my ‘intervention’ a precondition to render a consumer object into my art. I acknowledge that the classical exchange value of the Hermes scarf is wasted with my design silk-screened over the original foulard but by doing so, I defend it as my proposed art work.

 

How do you think the magazine format changes how Hermes Marx is perceived by the viewer? Do you think the image of the object holds the same power or value that the actual object does?

No, it is not the same at all—but some art works photograph better than others and therefor what you see is not what you get—it’s either better or worse but both legitimate.

 

The scarves that you used for Hermes Marx have designs related to colonialism. How do the symbols and words you silk screened onto the scarves interact with that imagery?

There are two words I don’t change: HERMES MARX in reference to the corporate reference of the French foulard Hermes Paris. I consider the name Marx to signify an attempt to envision, demand, claim, enact, and fight for a larger more even kind of justice that is not only defined and reserved for the powerful and privileged. So all I did was exchange PARIS, the capital of the 19th century and French-speaking colonialism, with the name of a German philosopher who presented the world with the most radical ideas of justice of his time. Let me also point out that Marxism came with the symbol of the overlay of a hammer and sickle and the fist which is a part of the design that I print over the original French silk scarves.

 

Is there something in particular about Hermes Paris as a company that made you want to use their products for this project? Why not some other well-known designer?

Hermes belongs to one of the most prestigious fashion and accessory houses. They are know for making everything themselves including the production of silk and the colors that enter the product. It is truly beautiful and not necessarily cheap which makes if more coveted and impermeable to sales and other price dumping. Somehow they seemed to anachronistic even in the way they run their family biz and I think the company is still largely controlled by the family. I myself collect these foulards and truly love them.

 

-Liana Woodward, July 2016

LUCIE FONTAINE, YOU GOT SOME EXPLAINING TO DO

 

Lucie Fontaine is the type of person who will set up camp in your home and redecorate it with works collected from her very talented friends from every corner of the globe. She’s also the type of person that will use that residency as a jumping off point to pursue new projects and explore new possibilities, like the work she did for issue #24 of zingmagazine. She is, in other words, the best houseguest you could possibly ask for, the type that has something to offer and doesn’t offer it begrudgingly. In the excerpted interview included here, we discuss her work for zingmagazine, get a look at what makes her tick, and learn more about her process. She’s never asked to live with us, but if she did, we wouldn’t charge her rent. In fact, we would put her on an allowance, provide a daily turn-down service and source the finest fruits from around the world to put in a bowl on her dresser. Why, you ask. Because she deserves it. That’s why.

Interview by Oliver Nevin

 

Can you tell me what got you interested in postcards? Not that a postcard can’t be beautiful and well designed, but they are often quite mundane and painfully ubiquitous.

The starting point of the project was a show that I did in Summer 2013, in Paris, at Galerie Perrotin. I wanted to ask, what is a souvenir? Imagine when you travel, and you want to buy an object that somehow represents your experience, but it’s never real and authentic. The New York gadget that a tourist buys is something that a real New Yorker would never actually use. Or you encounter the paradox where you go to Venice and you get the real, authentic, miniature gondola and then you discover it was made in China. It’s like the souvenir becomes the tourist. It’s all about the idea of what is authenticity and what is identity and how does a souvenir interact with all of those ideas.

 

But this project is obviously different the one that you did at Perrotin. Can you explain the leap from that original idea?

That show featured about 20 artists, and then I wanted to add a new chapter to the show by asking all the artists who participated in the project, plus a couple more people, to actually write postcards to me at the zingmagazine office.

 

You really wanted to dive deeper into that idea of giving life to an experience, and looking at all of the different things that make up that experience and how the many facets of our life are related to it?

The point of the souvenir is also that it’s not so important when you are there. But it becomes important the moment you get back home. And then of course it’s also associated with the idea of kitsch, but it’s part of the different meanings of what a souvenir is. All of a sudden, we were receiving postcards that were pictures of Paris, but they were sent from California, or they were anonymous, or they had been redesigned and altered by my friends, so we were able to add a layer of fictionality to this narrative of souvenir.

 

How many did you get?

I think around 40. I want to do a show with all of the postcards but I haven’t done that yet, because the postcard is something that you show in the house, and this idea of something intimate and domestic, especially domesticity, is very important for Lucie Fontaine.

 

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a creative proclaim to strive for domesticity. Why domesticity?

It’s something that has been a part of me from the beginning. I wanted to show works in a way that was not the usual setting. The first location of the Lucie Fontaine project space in Milan was actually an old and crappy barber store, where I never changed the floor or the walls and the atmosphere of the space remained the same. I was showing the works of young artists in this outmoded atmosphere, but it felt very intimate and domestic. The other two locations in Milan were also domestic spaces. And the Lucie Fontaine Space in Tokyo was inside a traditional Japanese house. There are also plans for a domestic Lucie Fontaine space in Tel Aviv too.

 

So you have a real commitment to the domestic? To be simple and raw instead of polished?

Yes, but it’s also about playing with the rules of the game and blurring boundaries between different roles in the art world. Another time that domesticity played an important role was during the show Estate I did at Marianne Boesky’s gallery uptown in summer 2012. The space was a beautiful townhouse on the Upper East Side. My three employees were living inside the gallery and transformed it back into a proper home. I decorated each room with the things that you would normally find in a house there, including antique furniture. But they were also artworks and complied with the themes of the show. You would enter a bedroom and you could see the wallpaper and flowers. But the wallpaper was a work, and the flowers were a work and the chair was a work, but it was very subtle. And then I had friends sending pictures and postcards that were helping to build the narrative of fiction in the show. So that’s another way that the postcard was something familiar.

 

I suppose that was like reaching the pinnacle of domesticity. Your artwork was quite literally in the home?

Indeed, and it was great. The first month my employees were installing the show, so the gallery was closed. When the show opened, they decided to stay and live there while the show was open to the public. So for two months, and especially in the second month, they were waking up each morning to tidy up their rooms before 10am, because visitors were coming in to visit the exhibition.

 

I guess it’s interesting to me to get a look at how a project like this starts as this sort of inkling, or seed of an idea, and ends up growing into something real and tangible.

The first time I started handling postcards was while I was living in the Marianne Boesky gallery/home. It wasn’t really until after the show in Paris, which was about tourism and travel, that I realized I should do an entire project built around them, but the seed was planted while living in that gallery.

 

That’s quite fortuitous.

It was there that I first received some postcards from some friends, and my employees had them displayed in the entrance where there was a big mirror. Because they were all actually received at that address, I was keeping a part of the fiction of the space intact, which was fun.

 

But you didn’t have to fake domesticity. Domesticity quite literally refers to matters of and/or relating to the home. It doesn’t feel very fictional to me.

I didn’t have to fake it, just preserve it. I remember there was one artist friend, he came to visit the show one Saturday afternoon, and he said that when he first entered he thought he was in the wrong place. He said, “Oh shit, this is wrong, I just broke into someone’s home.” After he left and double-checked the address, he realized that was actually the right place. That’s exactly what I wanted.

 

Do you feel like you were able to stay true to your commitment to authenticity with the project in zingmagazine?

I do. I think it’s all about the idea of what is authenticity and what is identity and how does a souvenir play with and interact with those notions. So at the show in Paris, I wanted to install it as a bazaar. I didn’t want it to look standard, like a white cube installing, but more like overabundance, and to develop a much denser dialogue with the pieces. I think the way those postcards were assembled in the magazine really ended up staying true to that idea. When you turn the pages, you are in the postcards, surrounded by them, and I think that gives the reader a sense of being surrounded by the experience and significance of each postcard.

 

Well I’m glad you were able to achieve your vision for this project. Thanks so much for taking the time, I enjoyed the conversation.

You’re welcome, it was my pleasure.

 

-Oliver Nevin, July 2016

THE SECRET LIFE OF JEFF RIAN

 

Jeff Rian is a writer and musician, an associate editor of Purple Fashion magazine, and a professor at L’Ecole Nationale Superieur d’Arts Cergy-Paris. He has written numerous essays and exhibition catalogs as well as a regular contributor to Artforum, Purple Fashion and The Purple Journal. He is the author of The Buckshot Lexicon and Purple Years, and has written monographs on artists, Richard Prince, Lewis Baltz, Philip-Lorca di Corcia, and Stéphane Dafflon. His CDs include Everglade, with Jean-Jacques Palix, and Fanfares and 8 de pique for Alexandra Roos, and Battle Songs, with his group, Rowboat. Jeff’s most recent CD project, Météo, was released as part of zing #24. The project was curated by photographer and past zingmagazine contributor Giasco Bertoli, featuring three instrumentals and four songs written with Gérard Duguet Grasser, and recorded with Bob Coke. The music itself is minimal, with fingerpicked guitar that ranges from bluesy and percussive to wobbly and romantic, accompanied by crooning vocals, and the odd tambourine. Well-crafted atmospheric music that sticks with you. Here we shed light on Jeff’s “secret” life as a sideman.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

In contemporary art circles you are most widely known as a critic. Can you tell us how you originally got involved with music and the trajectory of that path since then?

At around age ten, guitarist James Burton, sideman in Ricky Nelson’s band on the long-running television show, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” struck me as a model. I wanted to be a sideman. My father bought me a Silvertone acoustic guitar at Sears, for $17, and a book of folk songs. I discovered I could play many of the songs almost immediately. Within a month I was in a folk trio. I was 12. My voice hadn’t change. But the two other boys I played, their voices had changed. So I was the girl voice. We played at parties, at the pool we belonged to, at school, and wherever else we could. By the time I was 15 the band had gone electric. My interests were now the Stones, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, Cream, and a group called The Band. By the time I was 18 or 19 I was the lead guitarist in a club band in Washington, D.C., a town with excellent guitarists. Playing nightly and hanging out with musicians was excellent on-the-job training. This was before disco, when live music paid real wages. Around then my worried parents sent me to take battery of aptitude tests. The tester told me to forget everything other than music, literature, and art. “Art?” I wondered. I’d flunked art classes. I knew nothing about art. I’d been to the Smithsonian Institute twice, once with my parents and once with a friend, when we were 14. He was actually interested in art. After taking those tests, it occurred to me that art would be something to study and to satisfy my parents, and might be easier and allow me to play at night and come to school late. I enrolled in the summer session at The Corcoran School of Art (which didn’t require a portfolio). In my first drawing class there were ten girls, a Marine Corps colonel, a kind of art stud named Angel, and the girliest guy I’d ever seen or met in my life—who was an excellent artist. We became friends, and I tried to copy his drawings, and not insult him when I didn’t want to hold hands. At the Corcoran I discovered an entire population I enjoyed being with. Nightclub musicians—whom I’ve played with off and on my entire life—can be insufferable if you’re interested in anything other than your ax and getting high. Artists connect to the world differently, materially and aesthetically. They too want to spend all of their time making and thinking about art. Musicians woodshed, which is what they call practicing their ax, which is very demanding. The materials and requirements of the two are very different.

I ended up at the University of Colorado, completely by accident—hitchhiking west with an old friend, with only a week off from my current playing. But ended up staying. I needed to get away, I guess. I spent several months working as the assistant to a pot dealer, got in-state tuition, and enrolled in the summer session at CU, majoring in art. In my first year there I auditioned for a band. That band transformed into a jazz group no sooner than I was hired. So I had to spend countless hours learning scales and modes and how to play them over complicated chord patterns. Through friends of the dealer, I got us gigs at a club that featured national acts—making me the bandleader. We opened for many acts, some of whom, like Weather Report, Chick Corea’s band Return to Forever, I was responsible for getting in that room. By now, studying painting, drawing, and art history, I took classes which required students to write papers—which, to my surprise, I discovered I could write the night before and get a good grade, whereas in any class in which the professor gave multiple-guess tests, I was not very good. One of my professors told me I could write. I didn’t believe him. But I was learning to think differently, and I think music helped me to understand art in the way that it is made.

Toward the end of my five years at CU, the rhythm section of my jazz band—me on guitar, plus the drummer and bass player—were hired for a little tour, playing covers. I’d played covers for years, so it was easy. We practiced for about an hour and a half, then winged it at the gigs. The first night in the hotel room, the keyboard player, Brad Morrow (also a very good guitarist; we switched on a few songs), opened his suitcase, and to my surprise it was full of books. In my musician talk—which I still can’t shake, to the point of calling my 12-year-old daughter, “Man”—I asked him: “Man, what’s in the bag?” “Ezra Pound,” he said, demurely. That was unexpected. I didn’t have any literary friends until I met Brad Morrow. We became friends then and there. (He’s now a novelist and was the founder and editor-in-chief of the literary magazine, Conjunctions.) But I’d also had it with musicians—the lifestyle and the drugs, well most of them. I took a job cleaning the engineering building at the CU (dirty floors, not bathroom, hours to read). I read in earnest. This was my last year. For years I’d been a fan of new journalist writer Tom Wolfe. Brad turned me on to literary critic Hugh Kenner. I liked their styles. My other close friend at CU Dike Blair, who’s now an excellent artist, was unquestionably the most convincing “art type” in the entire art department. Brad and Dike didn’t know each other and we all ended up in New York in the years to come. Those friendships shifted my interests toward art and writing, though I have continued to be a sideman.

For a number of years after graduation—eventually earning a Master’s degree in art history—I devoted my time to study and reading about art, though I would fit in time to practice, simply because music is my drug. It’s also a problem, which might not seem like one, because more than one interest divides you. Writing, which I came to very late, totally replaced the woodshedding needed to play at a higher level—though I’ve been lucky to have played with some very high-level players. Eventually I turned to songwriting, and working with female singers, first in New York and then in Paris, where I live now, where I’ve played on a number of records as guitarist and composer, also with some very good musicians, and improvised for films. So I continue to play, but I mostly record. And I still prefer the art world, where I’m known as a writer, which takes up a lot of my time. Yet I can’t stop playing.

There are musician-artists, but for the most part they are nothing like dedicated musicians. The worlds of music and visual art are very different in outlook, aesthetics, and way of life. I’m probably a better musician, but I’ve had a better life working in the art world.

 

Despite this fundamental difference you describe between the perspectives of music and visual arts, do you find visual art, or even specific works of art, have influenced the way you approach music on a stylistic or intellectual level? Or do you continue to consider them separately?

Interesting question. I can only offer a roundabout answer. The art world changed the way I started to think about playing music, and music influenced the way I think about art. But I didn’t realize that for quite a while.

In 1985, I was hired to work on an international exhibition in Vienna as a mitarbeiter, literally coworker, a kind of coordinator. It was the occasion of the newly renovated Vienna Secession. The show was called Wien Fluss: 1986, or Vienna Canal: 1986. The title referred to the Vienna canal, seen in the film The Third Man, so the show was about foreign connections and Viennese influence. There were no Austrian artists. I worked with Americans, Vito Acconci, Richard Tuttle, and Lawrence Weiner, and a French artist, Jean Luc Vilmouth, who recently died and is the person most responsible for my move to France. The artists in the show were supposed to do the work in Vienna. I asked the curator, Huber Winter, who has a gallery in Vienna, to invite Richard Prince to participate, which he did, happily. I felt the show needed a younger American. I’d first seen Richard’s works in maybe 1981—rephotographs of black and white ads, using Ektachrome slide film, so they had a slight tint. Maybe they were hands with watches or women looking in the same direction. I didn’t understand them at all. Dike knew Richard and gave me his number, so I visited him, and during that visit I discovered he collected first editions, mostly postwar American writers, in as good a condition as he could find. I too collected first editions, and he was the first non-literary-type book collector I’d ever met, my age, who had similar interests—though he had a pile of good copies of pulp fiction paperbacks. Richard had a mint copy of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. I had many books from the 1960s, including all of Walker Percy’s books—inscribed to me, including his first book, The Moviegoer, which Richard and I talked about. (I had to sell my books to survive when l started writing). I’d been collecting books since I met Brad Morrow, back in college, when I started reading more seriously and hanging out with literary types and going to second-hand bookshops, which were aplenty back then. I almost went into to business with Brad selling first editions. But he was better at that, and did that himself, before he started Conjunctions and writing novels. Anyway, all this related indirectly to music, which was most people’s background noise anyway. Brad also played classical guitar. Richard had been in a rock band. I’d played folk, rock, and jazz. During Richard’s visits to Vienna he and I constructed an interview—it was his idea. I came back to New York in December of 1986. Richard had given the interview to Hal Foster, then a senior editor at Art in America. They featured Richard on the cover of March 1987 issue. Our interview was the first article to feature Richard’s work in a major art magazine. Why me—an unknown—instead of a known critic? I don’t know. Ask Richard. But that’s when I started writing—first reviewing shows for Art in America, then moving on to other magazines. In the interview with Richard I brought up Marshall McLuhan and the role of electronics on sound and space and images. My idea, from the beginning, was to write about art from the perspective of touch, which I still do: how things are put together; what might influence choices of images or materials; how aesthetic issues echo the social or political environment; and how instinct and perception rule the process.

I’d given up on what was called theory in the early ’80s. Not my cup of tea. Through non-art-world friends in New York City I discovered Gregory Bateson, specifically his ideas about “patterns that connect” and logical types (the meal is a lower level of abstraction than the menu that describes it; the farther up the ladder of abstraction you go, from language and words into categories or logical types, the further away you are from the “meat” of experience). I was reading McLuhan and Walter Ong’s investigations into preliterate and print cultures and what Ong called the “secondary orality” of electronic culture—radio, cinema, and television; how advertising was contemporary folk art; and how touch and acoustics are proximity senses, a lower order of abstraction than seeing. We build a world on touch, cobbling things together, which sight, which is a distance sense, cleans up and labels in literary categories, which are very high levels of abstraction. Being a musician, and always trying to get inside music, I related to how things are built from touch. The electronic environment’s secondary orality reverts to forms of sound and touch in technologies that require the highest level of literacy bringing them to life. This, to me, was the origin of pop art—a process built from middle-class folk arts—cars, rock music, ads, etc.—from the ground up. I spent ages trying to write about art in terms that ran against literary models. It wasn’t easy. But I felt, and still do, that art is calibrated (Bateson’s word) from primary instincts. Music is very much like that, but so are things like cuisine, surfing, rock music, customizing cars. (I grew up around people who customized cars, which are extremely aesthetic, if kitschy art forms; I spent a year working as a parts man in a store called Big Ed’s Speed Shop—Robert Irwin tried to explain how hot rod cars are American folk art to an art critic from NYC, who wouldn’t have it.). Collecting is equally instinctive. Anyway, I took classes at the New School with Edmund Carpenter, who, with McLuhan, Eric Havelock, Northrop Frye, was instrumental in creating the Toronto theory of communications. McLuhan was Hugh Kenner and Walter Ong’s dissertation advisor. These were my influences. None of them, except McLuhan, were spoken about in the art world, and McLuhan wasn’t exactly an author many critics cited. They thought he was too flakey, not serious enough.

In 1988 I was asked to write an essay for Richard’s first retrospective at the Magasin, in Grenoble, and tried to write about his work in the context of electronic orality. I felt that Richard pieced together his art instinctively, based on pop art, and included his book collecting—which was a gathering of intellectual property. It was the mint dust jacket that raised the value of those first editions. Dust jackets were like album covers—artistic advertisement, very much like pop art. Richard has a masterful instinct for such connections. He played in bands, before the 1980s—when, in the art world, playing in a band was kind of taboo. But Richard could never have played in the bands I’d played in or that Brad had played in. I found that out in Vienna. Richard played me an incredible song, on my guitar—a blond Gibson 335 dot-marker, which I still have. I was very impressed. He had style but no developed skill.

Art and music were separate environments with different kinds of “sensory profiles,” to use a McLuhan/Carpenter term. They began to cross over when inexpensive home recording technology came along. Nevertheless, literary people, music people, and art people operated in different aesthetic universes, and still do. Rock music was easier for people to play and, for a while people like me who could play all the songs on the radio, made a living at it. But that was only the first step in learning to play an instrument. Folk musicians, before the sixties, were poorer than poets. Jazz musicians weren’t much better off. The success of rock music and rock festivals altered everyone’s aesthetic and sensory environment, because everyone was engaged in it. A poet like Ginsberg became visible because of his connections to Dylan and the Beatles. But writers and artists and musicians were different species. Artists didn’t suit up like drag queens or fey bikers or pirates to play on stages; they didn’t talk like musicians. Art isn’t noisy. Rock was naked. Art was nude. Musicians can’t make contemporary art. Literary types can’t either. Those differences began to blur, but only slightly with computers and home recording—and only in the 1990s with the computer technology.

I didn’t play in bands for maybe a dozen years, until the maybe the early 1990s, when my girlfriend’s coworker’s band’s guitar player got sick. I replaced him. Then we got a better band. Then I replaced the entire band. I started composing music for the singer’s lyrics—sometimes there were two female singers, which was amazing. I applied everything I learned from jazz and folk-style finger picking, separating bottom and top strings to get more dynamics. I didn’t know how to use pedals, and still don’t, so I let my fingers do that talking. It was really fun. We played the clubs.

By then I’d been writing for Flash Art and Purple. They didn’t have professional copyeditors, which allowed me to publish more and faster, but was probably a mistake because, I mean, writing is really easy for me, but I make incredible messes that need structure. Editing and rewriting are difficult in the extreme, making me wonder why I do it at all. Then, in 1995, I moved to Paris. I was working at Purple, where I had no choice but to listen to indie rock—Sonic Youth, Palace Brothers, Ween, Daniel Johnston, Cat Power, a band called Fuck, Nirvana—bands I would never have listened to earlier as I didn’t consider any of them good and all of it pop music, about style and attitude, which I didn’t care about. As a musician I wanted to listen to a good instrumentalist. But as a writer I listened differently. And after several months of immersion, I began to let go of the technique prejudice. At about that time a guy named Gerard Duguet Grasser called the magazine looking for a bass player. Elein Fleiss suggested me. I told him, and the singer he was writing lyrics for, Alexandra Roos, that I was a guitar player. That didn’t bother them. My audition consisted of playing the guitar and then being presented with some of his lyrics—my French wasn’t good at all, but I had music for two songs almost instantly. It was easy. It’s always been easy to write music for his lyrics. I don’t know why. (I worked on four albums with Alexandra on major labels.) Working at Purple and with Alexandra Roos songs started popping into my head, many of which have been recorded. I was also rehearsing with Sonny Simmons—a world-class saxophone player, and a true artist from that other world of musicians—though we never managed to form a working group.

Songwriting gave me added insight into art. I think it was Arlo Guthrie who said songs are like fishing, you just don’t want to fish downstream from Bob Dylan. Songs are like perceptions set into melodies with words. Songs write you; you don’t write them—or something like that. Songs arrive unannounced like stray animals already formed but needing care. I’ve made songs from melodies I dreamed, and from picking up the guitar and something unexpected happens with my fingers. Words follow because I’m always playing with words, idiotically for the most part. Melodies give shape to word sounds that can make sense or not. It’s a gathering of perceptions. They aren’t related to concepts—at least for me.

I don’t think I’d have had any of these thoughts had I not been a musician first. Music isn’t about material things; it’s about filling time and space. I have no materialist ambitions, except for my two kids—luckily I have a teaching job and get paid to write. The standard musician joke: What’s a musician who just lost his girlfriend? Homeless. Maybe I’d have been a more successful writer had I been able to stop playing. I couldn’t—and can’t. I’m still playing, and would like to play a lot more if the opportunity came up. I’m a divided person: writer of words, improviser of music, and songwriter.

 

That’s some heady stuff. Well, seems to make perfect sense that your album Météo found a home among artists (by way of photographer Giasco Bertoli) as part of zingmagazine. I’d like to speak more about Météo. If I’m not mistaken, météo is French for “weather”. Can you give insight to this title and how this album came together?

I was having dinner with Giasco Bertoli back in June of 2014. He’s my close friend, and I’ve made music for his short movies. I was talking about recording songs in French that I’d written with lyricist Gerard Duguet Grasser, for other albums. We’ve made many together. Giasco suggested Zing, so he contacted you. And y’all produced it, for which I thank you very much. That same June, 2014, I visited my friend, Bob Coke, a musician and sound and recording engineer, to ask him to do the recording. I played some pieces on his Martin acoustic guitar, which he recorded. Bob is a very busy guy. He was about to go on tour with the Black Crowes, I think, and would be gone for the summer and most of the next year. So I didn’t see him again until September. And as it seemed that you guys were in a hurry, and as Bob was very busy, we did two short sessions. We winged it. I recorded electric guitar and vocals—no click track, one piece after another. As a kind of atmosphere, I talked about the weather. Bob came up with the title Météo—which does mean weather—and the titles “Ionosphere,” a single track with a glitch from in his computer that we liked, and “Averse,” which means “downpour.” He spliced together bits of the acoustic guitars I’d recorded in June with September session, and mixed everything. A couple tracks—“Centre Commercial” and “Zone,” I think—are panned, with vocal on one side and guitar on the other, so it can be listened to differently, more vocal or more guitar. I pounded on the strings for the rhythm sound in “Centre Commercial.” Bob whacked a tambourine a couple times and sang the falsetto track on “Zone.” We had fun. Bob was my collaborator. Giasco was the curator, the organizer, and shot the cover photograph of the word Oui written on a window, and the goose standing on the pond at Versailles. Giasco always liked a CD I made in 2000 with sound engineer, Jean-Jacques Palix, called “Everglade”: 14 tracks, only guitar. He wanted to repeat that. For “Everglade” I had several themes, and Palix made loops I’d improvise over. Météo was originally going to be French songs. That changed as I played and time was tight. Had we had more time it would have been longer than seven pieces—three instrumentals and four songs.

 

As a non French speaker, I’m intrigued by the lyrics. Can you tell us what these songs are about?

Gerard basically writes little movies. His lyrics are very visual, like imagist poems, with a kind of dark beauty. “Pescara” and “Centre Commercial” are like traveling shots. “Pescara” is about the town in Italy. The song follows a guy on a gray night, through the town where it’s rained for a week, passing stores, weeds, trees, snails, workers, seeing the unimaginable sea between buildings, feeling in every rain drop unimaginable power, where the color becomes uniform like a marching army; his eyes fixate on a boat as he walks toward the beach when suddenly the sea appears before his eyes, the sea is there. “Centre commercial” is another traveling shot entering a town, something like in the opening of Citizen Kane, seeing signs, old plaster walls, three electric wires lining the sky, billboards, and a woman—a personage—a cashier in the shopping center, she crosses her legs as two cans crash together on the counter. In the parking lot two cops get out of the car, slamming their doors simultaneously. They walk toward the store and the cashier re-crosses her legs. That’s it. “Zone” is about a guy, a dreamer, doing nothing, watching an old film in at five in the afternoon. It’s very ironic—French ironic. Gerard doesn’t name the film (The Specialist), only the actors, Stallone, Sharon Stone, Eric Roberts. He hears a siren and sees a yellow moped. In the song’s bridge the dreamer imagines buying an old Buick, polishing the chrome, taking a break every once in a while. The refrain repeats the phrase I zone in front of the TV and count every second of my life. It’s a character type that the French imagine from American movies. “Y fait encore un peu somber “means it’s still a bit dark—a baby cries, his linen jacket itches, it’s late. The cleaning lady crosses the courtyard. He does the same. He sees what she sees, the cracks in the cement, paper wrappers, dog shit. The baby cries beautifully but the sky is menacing. The old lady stops at a door to breathe. It’s still a bit dark. Gerard and I have made many others.

 

Can you give us recommendations for other recordings of yours to investigate? And do you have any plans currently for new projects?

Since living in Paris, I’ve worked on four albums with a French singer, Alexandra Roos; Gerard was the lyricist. I’ve recorded a number of times with David Coulter (formerly with the Pogues and was recently Marianne Faithfull’s musical director) and also with sound-engineer/dance music composer, Jean Jacques Palix with whom I made Everglade, including a television documentary on William Styron, where I played solo guitar, as well as recordings I can’t remember. I played on the soundtrack for a movie about saxophonist Sonny Simmons. I made a CD of songs, called Battle Songs, produced by Richard Prince and Dike Blair, now available at tunecore.com., but originally included in a box of artists’ multiples, ten artists in all, called “The Rowboat Box,” produced by Galerie de Multiples, here in Paris. I’m currently working on a new project with a French singer/songwriter, Pierre Genre, of songs, with a lot of improvisation, which we hope to start recording in June.

 

-Brandon Johnson, April 2016

FILLING IN THE BLANKS WITH GERALDINE POSTEL

Photo: Ada Yu

 

Geraldine Postel is a purveyor of ideas. Through her company Outcasts Incorporated, Geraldine has operated in the realms of media direction for top art and fashion titles, independent book publishing, and installation production, including a series of “Ideal Offices” as envisioned by artists, writers, and interior designers. Recently, she has initiated a more traditional gallery program under the Outcasts Incorporated aegis at her space in Le Marais, with exhibitions by Paul Mouginot, Devon Dikeou, Thomas Lelu, Les Kebadian, Larry Clark & Eugene Ricconeaus, and Laurent Saksik, among others. On top of all this, Geraldine is at work on a novel that digs into her past to fetch memories of accidents of youth—both those that are happenstance, and those we provoke. Fortunately, she found the time to conceive a cerebral yet tactile and pointedly personal project for zing #24, “The Intimidation of a Blank Page”.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

Your project is probably the most conceptual of all in this issue. How did you conceive of the idea?

In 2014 I was at the height of a serious illness. I was poisoned by pharmaceutical treatment. It was impossible to concentrate or to get anything done, or even to just accept my condition. It was unbearable. This is when I got the idea for “The Intimidation of the Blank Page”. It initially came from the frustration of this state of being, the feelings of numbness I endured along with memory failure, a long period of disenchantment and depression. It was early August in Paris, and I had been struggling with the writing of my novel for five years. The wrinkled signature project went through several phases, but then I decided to run it all white, as the title indicates “The Intimidation of a Blank Page”. I remember that Devon [Dikeou] preferred that as well.

 

The project engages very closely with the material and production aspects of the magazine. Can we attribute this to your background working in publishing industry?

Evidently, I’ve had a relationship with magazines since birth. My great-grandfather had published an almanac each year during the 1920s. I suppose that my heritage in print and love for books comes from this part of my family. To arrive at this idea of blank pages and to give them a wrinkled aspect was a really fun challenge. It suddenly became my goal to make a 3-D project in a 2-D publication. How feasible it would be to do as an insert, and so on. Yes, it must be intrinsic to my relationship with magazines, my quest for the new, the creative, and the different in publishing—similar to what I have always done with Outcasts Incorporated. I love and also hate this project for the same reasons—the freedom, the message (or non-message), the consumerism, the waste of paper, the circulation, the way people can rely on pages and spreads (or not). From laughter to boredom, rage, surprise, and even disgust sometimes, you have the chance to find something in a publication that blows your mind or triggers something positive in you. If that happens, you’ll close it and say, “Hey! That’s a great magazine!” But that’s rare. Not to be flattering, as I have been involved with this project [zingmagazine] of Devon’s since 1995, but that is still the way I feel about zingmagazine. It’s always a great surprise to receive it, and there’s always great stuff that will reinforce my idea that it stands as the best pure art magazine of the last two decades.

 

The “intimidation of a blank page” seems to imply that there’s anxiety present in the act of creation. Do you feel this is true?

Hell yes. I am so full of images after all these years of constantly studying visual references. I was trying to propose something different and personal, something daring that plays on notions of the relationship to inspiration, creativity, the predisposition to do things or not. All our psycho moods relentlessly transporting us through the spectrum of emotions, along with everything else that interferes with our creative needs. Another big part is ego. I was really frustrated and wanted to do something creative.

 

 

It’s a daring act to present a project of blank pages! Does this at all speak to how the reader/viewer tends to project their own inner concerns or ideas upon a work of art?

I consider all new encounters—readers, passersby, and viewers—to be like a blank canvas in the first process of receiving images. The reader receives it, then processes it, and their emotions, experience, and knowledge will eventually give them an intuitive or conceptual answer as to whether they like it or not. It might also seem a bit humorous. In fact, that’s part of the intent—a sense of humor that should be taken seriously. I think that humor has a lot of truth in it. One should laugh at oneself more often to counterpoint our certainties and self-entitlement. With this curatorial section in zingmagazine that was generously offered to me, I acted upon that feeling. It became, “Oh yes! Let me communicate this feeling of searching for oneself in a cluttered world of images and words, when confusion takes over.” On the other hand, I hope people find pages on which to meditate upon the beauty of the random creases and whiteness of the landscapes, the feel of the volume of the paper, the ephemeral, the subtle hurricanes passing by. Yet, I have to add that in spite of how beautiful and proud I am of this section, I need to say that I also feel bad. I have a moral conflict about the use of trees—paper waste—because that matters to me. So many useless, ugly, and odious magazines are distributed in the world! What a waste of paper! What I do know is that I am not selling anything here with that piece. I am only communicating ideas. So looking at the project now, with your questions in mind, I also have these mixed feelings about myself—like facing a mirror of my own vanity, denunciations, and failures! Yet the project still stands out because it says many things without using words. That’s another dichotomy very intrinsic to my personality, which relates to this title. I need a bit more wisdom and self control. Let’s hope that will come with age and more of this kind of experience . . .

 

Despite the ambivalence you’re expressing, I’ve been witness to many positive responses to your project in particular. The moral dilemma of creating something worthy when using a material like paper is understandable as we become more conscious of our use of natural resources, but perhaps that’s the very reason why you have created a project that can only really exist in this medium?

If I had the proper time, support, and space (along with many other “ifs”) I could attempt to realize creative concepts in many other different mediums, and it would never be the same. Indeed, this section is dedicated to zingmagazine. I had a great time, it took my mind out of burden for a little while, it looks great, and I am just as glad to be able to discuss this with you today. My projects usually start with many wrinkled papers, so let’s call it a new beginning!

 

-Brandon Johnson, March 2016

JUMPING THE BRAIDED ROPE WITH FRANCIS CAPE

Francis Cape, Utopian Benches, 2013 (photo by Aaron Igler)

 

Nestled in upstate New York, Francis Cape reflects upon the local histories of Utopian Societies and their shared objects. With his project “Utopian Benches” in zing #24, Cape samples a much larger path that includes 25+ carefully measured and carved benches, a comprehensive book, and a now global dialogue about communal societies and their unique benches. Trained as a woodcarver and holding an MFA from Goldsmiths College, Cape creates various furniture installations that reference both historical and contemporary societies and their politics. Bringing these historical benches into contemporary relevancy, spaces, and dialogues, Cape makes us think about the histories of alternative, intentional communities. These benches that once lived outside of mainstream culture are brought into art spaces to remind us of idealism, orientation, and non-hierarchical conversations that can still exist in a very materialistic, hierarchical art world. Leveling us to an even playing field, Cape’s work brings forward a much forgotten history in the US and a much needed reminder that we are all after all, equals.

Interview by Madeliene Kattman

 

How did you become interested in benches from utopian communities in the first place?

It came out of what I had been doing previously, and that work started when Bush was re-elected in 2004. I decided I couldn’t continue with what I had been doing and needed to make work that somehow addressed the current situation in our country. It took a while. Initially there was work that dealt with post-Katrina New Orleans, which wasn’t just about New Orleans and the storm but also about class and poverty in America. From this, I was able to move the conversation to where I live in upstate NY. This more local body of work is called Home Front, and used something called the Utility Furniture Scheme, which was a wartime British furniture design scheme. I used it to talk about idealism, dreams for society and the relationship between idealism and material culture.

When I talked about that work to peers and students, I started getting some pushback particularly about Home Front because I was using a British model to talk about American society. So I decided I to research social idealism in America, and ended up with these Utopian Communities (the correct term is actually intentional communities). I then discovered the benches, which are the perfect symbol for communalism, in that a bench is something you sit on together, you share, it is non-hierarchical—you sit at the same level. Initially there was one Shaker bench here in the studio and it was the best thing I made in a year, so I just started making more benches.

 

Are a lot of these Utopian Communities abandoned?

The historic ones are, with the one exception of the Hutterites up in Canada who are still very active. They have been in existence since the late Middle Ages. But the historic ones in the United States, the ones we all think about—with exception of the Shakers—such as the Harmony Society, or the Separatists of Zoar, they lasted for about a hundred years. These are mostly now museum villages, so the material culture is preserved. You can travel to them—you can go to Old Economy village in Pennsylvania, you can go to Zoar village, or Amana in Iowa—and take tours. I had the privilege to go behind the scenes, jump over the braided ropes and measure the benches. The benches are now preserved by curators who are in charge of the collections, and who were very welcoming. They were happy for me to work with their collections and bring them to relevance in the contemporary world. The contemporary communities were also very welcoming and I had great visits with them. I actually continue to have relationships with two of them. Particularly with Camphill Village in Kimberton Hills. My guide who’s the art therapist has become a good friend. I stop in and see them and she stops in here when she goes to see her in-laws up in Albany.

 

So you’ve developed a relationship with the people who work there now?

Yeah, I actually had an existing relationship with the Camphill Villages, not in the United States but in Britain. My brother lived on one for a while and a couple girlfriends moved to them. So I was already familiar with them before I began making the benches.

  

Are you originally from Portugal?

You know, I was actually born in Portugal but my father is a British diplomat. So I am British, although I spent many years in places around the world.

 

How do you choose to display the benches in various art spaces?

The benches are always displayed in the same way, gathered in the center of the room in a rectangle. The reason doing that, for arranging them in the center of the room, is that in museums and churches benches are used as objects to sit on and look at other things. I specifically didn’t want that to happen with these benches because they are about themselves and so they face towards each other. So far as any of the benches have a front and a back, the front is always facing towards the center of the group and then they are aligned longitudinally in the space. Within a church they would be facing the altar at the one end, instead of which I arrange the rectangle long ways.

Within the exhibition space the benches are used to hold conversations, meetings, and discussions. The dialogue is set up so that whoever is leading the conversation sits on the benches with everybody else. It’s not like there is a panel discussion or somebody leading a lecture who is outside the group. This isn’t audience seating, this is participatory seating. While the benches were in San Francisco they wanted to mic me and the gallery director, with whom I was leading the conversation. I said you can only mic us if you mic everyone else. Ultimately, this project is about sharing and everyone being on the same level. I am very insistent upon the placement of the benches but I am less firm on the format of the conversation, as the work is about sharing. When it is shown I send out guidelines, but it’s up to each venue to do what they will as they organize the conversation during the exhibition. However, some places have used the benches as what I call uncomfortable audience seating, which is not my intention. But that’s just the same as sharing and living in a community—you accommodate other people and their views.

The benches then also exist in an exhibition booklet that is printed for each occasion. The first version of the exhibition booklet from Arcadia can be found on my website with a link from the Utopian Benches page. The booklet describes the communities that are represented by the benches in the “gathering” as I call it. The other part of the booklet is research conducted by each venue about the communal societies that are close to the exhibition site. They decide what this locality means, so the societies can be in a 100 or 200 mile radius. The purpose of this is to bring these alternative ways of living close to the audience. I want to emphasize the fact that this way of living is not something unusual that some weird people did in the past, in some other state, but that it has actually existed or does exist all over this country.

 

What are some of the conversations or programs that have taken place on top of these benches?

They have been very wide ranging. Each venue plans and executes their programs and conversations. At the beginning, I started to collect a list of the conversations but it very quickly fell apart. I encourage discussions on utopia, idealism, communal living, shared values or non-materialism, a dialogue that relates directly to the benches. There is now a European group of benches that I’ve done in collaboration with students in Lyon, exhibited for the first time last Fall. There were two conversations, with the first one about the anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon, who was born in the city where the exhibition took place. The other was led by the director of the second venue, which is a Fourierist communal site, and was about Charles Fourier who was a utopian, socialist philosopher who was also born in the same city.

 

Were the students a part of the conversation or did they facilitate it more towards audience members?

This was different. So the Utopian Benches that I showed in zingmagazine are the original, American benches. The original grouping was 20 benches, which grew to 24 then began to splinter off. Now there is one collection of 17 permanently in San Francisco and a smaller group of eight that is still touring. Meanwhile, I was approached by someone who teaches in Lyon to do a workshop with their students. I proposed that the workshop would be about European communal societies with the purpose of making a European collection of benches. So the workshop that I did with the students in Lyon included research parameters, process and discussion. The students then went and found the communities, measured the benches, and raised some financing for the benches to be made in a professional workshop. The students also participated in the construction process, which we wanted as these were design students rather than sculpture or woodworking students. They saw the project the whole way through. By the time we showed the benches for the first time, they were onto their next project, and since the exhibition was in a city about two hours away from Lyon only two of them came to the opening; but they were not a part of the conversation. The students handed it off, they shared it with the museum. I shared it with them and then they shared it with FRAC Besançon.

 

That seems really cool.

I think so too. I love the way this thing has just sort of taken off on its own. You’ve seen the book that was published by Princeton Architectural Press?

 

I was about to ask you about it. How do you feel the benches function differently from their exhibition spaces like at Murray Guy versus publication spaces like your book entitled We Sit Together: Utopian Benches from the Shakers to the Separatists of Zoar or even zingmagazine?

Well they’re all very related but the experience of walking into an exhibition of the benches is of course radically different from picking up a book or a magazine. There’s no way that seeing a photograph is the same as experiencing the artwork in itself. The book is a different but related work. It’s not a catalogue of the benches, it’s its own thing. It came out of the exhibition booklet, which is what the publisher approached me about developing. Through the book, I took it into this realm of describing the various communities through their benches. I describe the communities, their beliefs, ideology through the design, the form, and the use of their benches. The other thing that it did, because we published measured drawings of the benches, was provide information where people could actually make the benches, and use it as a teaching tool. It ultimately had the potential of establishing this community outside the gallery walls. Applying the whole Marcusian notion of what happens within the gallery walls makes no difference outside of them.

 

What is your favorite shared space and what kind of architecture and furniture does it have?

I am not a religious person, but I did grow up a Catholic and I do really respond to Gothic Churches. In England, Gothic Churches now are not Catholic, so I don’t have the experience of really using them for religious purposes myself but they are incredible. The best way to experience them is to go for evensong. When the choirs are singing, the acoustics of the church are absolutely incredible. Just purely architecturally speaking, they are amazing spaces.

But Camphill Villages also have an incredible feeling to them. It has something to do with the architecture because there is an anthroposophical sense of design or architecture that comes from Steiner that they use. If you go to these newly built communities, the buildings are unusual by our rectilinear standards. They use organic, soft shapes instead. Because of what goes on there, they attain this atmosphere that is really lovely. In terms of the material culture, like the furniture, it’s not utilitarian in the sense of having hard, Formica surfaces but it does have to be easily cleanable. Because half or more of the people that live there have special needs, it has to be simultaneously soft, organic, natural, warm feeling, while maintaining this utilitarian function. There’s a particular kind of look that comes with this special use. My first sculpture teacher had a handicapped child and they designed and built a lot of the spaces for their daughter and came up with a very similar kind of look. There would be the use of wood, but then it would be heavily varnished so it can be wiped down easily. The edges would then be softened so if somebody falls against it, it doesn’t hurt them. There’s a kind of functionality but it’s not just material function it’s a more human function.

 

What artists or woodworkers do you look to for inspiration?

Well my work is very different from others, but there are of course people who I greatly admire and in the field of furniture sculpture Doris Salcedo is huge as far as I am concerned. I additionally look to artists, Rachel Whiteread, and Andrea Zittel.

 

What is next for you and your work? Any planned exhibitions or projects for 2016?

Some of my time is still taken up with the ongoing tour of the benches in Europe. I am collaborating with the Lyon students on drawings to be shown with the benches at the next exhibition that opens in April. Then I’d like to expand this European gathering of benches by collaborating with another community of students or others to research and fabricate additional benches. And meanwhile I’m developing new work in the studio. That is still in the development stage, so too early to talk about.

 

-Madeliene Kattman, February 2016

HAYLEY RICHARDSON'S STRANGE DREAM

Spread from “A Strange Dream” with Still from Mirror Animations (1956-1957) on left and Untitled (c. 1977) on right

 

Art historian and newly appointed Dikeou Collection Director Hayley Richardson’s contribution to zing #24 “A Strange Dream” features the work of Harry Smith, a revered beat-era visual artist and experimental filmmaker, self-taught anthropologist, and explorer of esoteric knowledge. While Smith’s life’s work and interests were multi-faceted, from recording Kiowa peyote ceremonies to creating a Tarot deck for the Ordo Templi Orientis, to organizing an anthology of American folk music, his self-proclaimed primary role was that of a painter. Richardson’s past research on Smith has directed her toward this less explored (and less preserved) yet primary aspect of his work. Pulling from the collection of New York’s Anthology Film Archives, Richardson includes in her project four previously unpublished paintings and drawings among various stills from his more well-known films. “A Strange Dream” offers an entry point into the fascinating world of this cultural sage, while advocating for the primacy of his painting practice.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

You first discovered Harry Smith as an undergraduate student. Why has he stuck with you all this time, “making a racket in [your] brain ever since”?

It was a very formative time in my education, that last semester at University of New Mexico in particular. I was only taking three classes, one of which was a graduate seminar. I don’t recall how I even got into the class, but I was engrossed with the intimate, discussion-based format and how smart everyone was. At the end of the semester we presented our final projects and one girl did hers about occult and magical symbolism in the arts, and referenced this artist Harry Smith throughout her talk as a figure that was one of the last to truly understand, practice, and embed this knowledge in his work. She showed beautiful side-by-side images of alchemical Renaissance manuscripts with Harry’s abstract paintings and stills of his collage films and something just seemed to click for me, that this one artist was a conduit of sorts between the past and the future. As I progressed in my art history studies at University of Denver, I kept thinking about him and how everything he did was connected, his work in painting, drawing, film, music, spirituality, and anthropology, and it changed my way of thinking in a lot of ways. I started to see connections among the most seemingly unrelated things, which has had a tremendous impact on how I understand art and it makes many other things in my life so much more meaningful. I used the phrase “making a racket in my brain” because Harry had a bipolar personality and could be very manic/caustic, so I imagine him like this little gnome in my head getting into shit and stirring things up, reconfiguring my thought patterns.

 

This disparity in form is demonstrated in your project—works in different mediums stretch the boundaries of interconnectedness, but seem chosen for very specific reasons. Perhaps you could shed some light on the curatorial process—why did you choose the works that you did?

Harry had an incredible amount of artistic output, but sadly very little of it exists today. He destroyed or lost much of his art, and his landlords threw out most of it when he failed to pay rent while recording Kiowa peyote rituals in Anadarko, Oklahoma in 1964. This was an extremely distressful event in his life and marked a major downturn in his creative energy for about a decade. So part of the reason the images in my project seem disjointed is because so little is left of his artistic legacy. Some of his works exist in private collections; I am not sure how many. The rest of his paintings and drawings, of which there are about 50, as well as works on film, are housed at Anthology Film Archives in New York City. I was given a list of available digitized works from AFA and made my selections from there. I made a point of choosing works that had never been published, which are the four paintings. Although largely an “underground” figure, Harry was well known for his work as an experimental filmmaker, and the stills I chose are from his films that he was most recognized for, the main one being “Heaven and Earth Magic.” So it’s a mix of familiar imagery with some stuff that’s never been widely distributed before.

 

I’m particularly interested in the drawing on the torn fragment of paper. Can you speak more about how his work relates to esoteric sources? Is he working within a system of his own construction, or is the work more related on an aesthetic level?

I love that drawing as well. I saw it at AFA and I think it is drawn on a napkin, which is demonstrative of Harry’s compulsive urge to create utilizing whatever he had on hand. The drawing has a diagrammatic form, and diagrams played a major role in all of Harry’s work. When he was a young boy he would attend Native American ceremonies in the Pacific Northwest and create diagrams to correspond to the songs and dances, later he would have synesthetic experiences at jazz clubs and drew diagrams to illustrate the music, and he created elaborate diagrams while organizing and directing his films.

Diagrams are also widely used in hermetic imagery, and this particular image is like a fusion of those sources with patterns from his imagination. Similar markings also appear in the first untitled painting in the project. There is a book that came out in 1948 called The Mirror of Magic, which is a compendium of magical arts put together by Surrealist artist Kurt Seligmann. Harry was an avid book collector and I am pretty certain that he possessed this book because he seems to have pulled a lot of visual inspiration from it. In The Mirror of Magic is an illustration of celestial scripture from Athanasius Kircher’s “Oedipus Aegyptiacus” which is pretty much a hermetic alphabet composed of small circles connected with lines in various configurations. The connection between Harry’s drawing and the scripture shown in The Mirror of Magic is pretty direct, in my opinion, with Harry’s unique flourishes thrown in. Harry’s most important works have potent esoteric references, most notably his Tree of Life in the Four Worlds, which is based off the Kabbalah Tree of Life, and the album art for his Anthology of American Folk Music, which is full of that stuff, particularly Robert Fludd’s celestial monochord from 1616. His parents were Thelemites and his grandfather was a high-ranking member of the Knights Templar, and one of his earliest childhood memories was finding esoteric manuscripts in the attic of his house. He studied Kabbalah in New York under Rabbi Lionel Zirpin, was an ordained Gnostic bishop in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, was a prominent figure in the New York branch of Ordo Templi Orientis, and his friends referred to him as the Paracelsus of the Chelsea Hotel. Harry’s engagement with the esoteric in his art goes beyond just aesthetics–he lived it.

 

Your title “A Strange Dream” is very apt for this selection. Does it derive from a specific source?

“A Strange Dream” is the name of Harry’s very first film, which he created by painting directly on the film circa 1946-1948. He started making these films when he was first introduced to jazz and wanted to illustrate the music. This particular film was originally intended to go with the music to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca,” which he also made a painting after but no longer exists. If you play the song and video at the same time they synch really well. I think it’s a good title to introduce the project, as it is pretty strange and dreamy, and seems an appropriate description for Harry’s life in general.

 

Have you done any other work/projects involving Harry Smith?

I wrote my master’s thesis about Harry’s paintings. There is a lot of information out there about his work in film and music, and people would reference his paintings with admiration but no real academic research had been applied to them. He even said his “primary occupation” was as a painter, so it seemed like a necessary area to investigate further.

 

Interesting that he would say his primary occupation was painting, especially since he seemed to have destroyed many of his own paintings and was involved in so many other fields. Do you have any further insight onto why he would consider himself as such?

It was in a 1965 interview with film historian P. Adams Sitney when Harry said, “I was mainly a painter. The films are minor accessories to my paintings; it just happened that I had my films with me when everything else was destroyed. My paintings were infinitely better than my films because much more time was spent on them.” (http://www.ubu.com/sound/smith_h.html)

Yes, he did destroy, give away, or abandon some paintings, but it was in 1964 that his landlords trashed everything, except the films which he had with him or had already given to Jonas Mekas at Anthology or Allen Ginsberg for safe keeping. He went to the Fresh Kills landfill everyday to look for them. Harry started painting at a young age; he painted directly on film, and made paintings to map out the complex projection schemes for his films. Painting was the generative activity for his creative pursuits in other media.

 

Any plans for future Harry Smith curatorial projects?

I’d like to get my research published somewhere, just haven’t had the time to do that. It would also be a real treat to present a screening of his films with a live jazz band to provide the soundtrack. Perhaps someday at Dikeou Collection . . .

 

Speaking of which, you recently took over as Director of the Dikeou Collection. What can we expect there moving forward?

I started as an intern at Dikeou Collection in 2011 and am honored to be the new Director. I have learned so much and seen the collection grow immensely over the years. My main priority is maintaining the upward momentum with programming, community engagement, and exhibitions. Nothing has been formally announced yet so I won’t say too much, but there are some big projects in the works for 2016 and 2017. The collection has been open to the public for 13 years, and with the current projects we have on the table I see that we’re transitioning from a period of establishment and growth into building a real legacy, so I am hoping to introduce some new concepts that can be carried on long-term.

 

-Brandon Johnson, 2016

HOW SIMON BILL SCHALL BE ARMYED

Simon Bill seated in front of his signature oval paintings. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

English painter Simon Bill has a reputation as an “artist’s artist.” His work, which consists almost exclusively of large oval paintings on MDF board, is collected by a loyal base of fellow British artists who see the depth of consciousness and humor embedded within their often grimy surfaces composed of corn kernels, leaves, and floor varnish. The ovals are like portals into the infinite curiosity and complexity of Bill’s mind in which he pushes himself to make each one completely unlike any other that he made before. These works spring from a psychological interest in visual perception, a field he has studied in depth academically.

In zingmagazine 24, Bill flexes his skills as a writer with a short-story titled “How a Man Schall Be Armyed” about an artist who invests a good deal of money on a custom suit of armor and wears for the first time to a private viewing at a gallery. Bill’s writing integrates such an illogical scenario with real life situations and outcomes so seamlessly that it seems like he wrote this story based off personal experience. I even had to double-check to confirm that it was fiction. Bill’s psychological understanding of perception comes through in his writing and visual art, giving him the ability to convince his reader/viewer of the veracity behind the most outlandish of his creations.

Interview by Hayley Richardson

 

Your project in zingmagazine 24 is a fictional short story that is hilarious and absurd yet written in a very believable manner. The accompanying images are also funny in this context but relevant and interesting for their obscure historical value. Can you share some footnotes to this story and how you came up with it? Did the pictures inspire the text in some way?

I attached those pictures to the text especially for this ZING publication of it (it has been published once before, years ago, in an anthology called FROZEN TEARS 2003—pub. Article Press, ed. John Russell). But they are of course connected. The suit of armour described in the story is roughly contemporaneous with the pictures. They come from one of the German ‘fechtbucher’ (fight books) of the mid 15th century—basically martial arts manuals. And I chose them because they are so odd. They show a judicial duel between a man and a woman. The loser gets put to death, or they do if they haven’t been killed already in the fight.

This short story was my first real go at writing fiction. What gave me the idea was an event at which a battle from the Wars of the Roses was reenacted, and afterwards I saw a man in full armour coming out of one those portable toilets. That prompted, more or less naturally, some speculation about all the other contemporary things you could do whilst dressed like that. And since I am an artist, and have at times felt that I was doing almost nothing but go to private views, I wrote it about that.

The theme of the improbability of some actual things, like, for instance, the art world, is something that crops up regularly in my fiction. I am very interested in the strangeness of real things (and I find the weirdness of invented or fantastical worlds completely pointless). The terrific implausibility of these real things, which tends not to be evident to those of us who are involved in them, is made salient by having two such things in one context; one story—here it’s medieval reenacting as a hobby, and the contemporary art world.

 

A page from Simon Bill’s project, “How a Man Schall Be Armyed,” in zingmagazine issue 24. Drawings are reproductions from 15th century originals by an unknown artist commissioned by Hans Talhoffer.

 

A 2004 article from Modern Painters says that the first art show you ever saw was Arms & Armour at the Wallace Collection in 1964. I can’t help but wonder if that experience has any connection with How a Man Schall Be Armyed and your interest in medieval European combat. Were you always interested in art and history growing up?

I have been interested in a great many extremely diverse subjects over the years, and those have been two. Others include neuroscience, BIBA (the shop), philosophy, comedy (I used to collect records by e.g. Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce, Monty Python), swords, music (Bach and the Butthole Surfers, and I’m very interested in the shoegazing revival), and cooking. And other things . . .

 

Like in How a Man Schall Be Armyed, your book Brains (2011) also features an anonymous artist as the narrator/main character. Is this individual, in either story, sort of an amalgamation of various personalities from the art world, or reflect aspects of your own personality?

I know some writers of fiction claim that their characters, once created, are self determining, so that the author magically loses control, but if that were true more characters in books would just sit around eating pistachio nuts.

All the characters in my book (with the exception of some very minor ones) are amalgams or composites with various sources. They are drawn from other people and myself, plus a great deal about them is, of course, made up—it’s fiction.

The central character of a book is the one least free to be, as it were, themselves, because they are the character most obliged to do what the book needs them to. The unnamed protagonist of BRAINS has a set of characteristics I find funny or interesting, and is seen bringing those characteristics to a series of situations which I also find funny or interesting. It’s not meant to be naturalistic in any stylistic way, but as it happens that is more or less the way actual characters, real people that is, are formed. We are dealt a hand, somehow, and then we play it.

 

Lucky Jim, installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2014. Image courtesy of the museum.

 

Last year your solo exhibition, Lucky Jim, at the Baltic Art Center featured more than thirty of your oval paintings from 1999 to 2014. Every piece is composed with different materials and in varying styles, the only consistency being the shape of the canvas. Is there an underlying subject matter or theme that unifies these works?

As soon as I spot a characteristic common to all my oval paintings I do one that doesn’t have it. The point is to do a potentially infinite series with no one thing in common, so, in the context of the whole body of work, what gives each work its identity is just the fact of it not being any of the others. The paintings are defined negatively. This means you can’t have a typical example of my work. And this may be why so few collectors ever buy them. I didn’t think that through very well, did I.

A lot of those paintings have suffered a weird fate. The dealer who represented me, a guy in LA called Patrick Painter, has gone insane, and has put about sixty of them in a storage place in Compton. He wouldn’t even release them for the BALTIC show. I’m expecting to see my work on Storage Wars any day.

 

I read that you are currently pursuing a PhD on art and the neuropsychology of visual perception. Has research in this field influenced your own art or changed the way you experience it?

It hasn’t changed my art or changed the way I experience it. But I want to better understand how I experience it. There has been a thread within art theory that brought the psychology of visual perception to bear upon the understanding of art. I’m thinking especially of Rudolf Arnheim. Art theorists have forgotten about this, because of their strong emphasis on ‘Critical Theory’ and a culture critical approach. I reckon they are really missing out. The neuropsychology of visual perception has come on in leaps and bounds since Arnheim, and art theory folk have just ignored it. Too sciencey I guess.

 

Art, writing, and neurological studies all tie together in your practice. Do you have a specific goal in combining all these pursuits? Does one area serve as the dominating or guiding force in this scheme?

I’m an old fashioned polymath.

 

These days images seem to be superseding words as our primary form of communication. In that same article from Modern Painters you state, “language is slow to adapt to developments in art,” that “writers are stuck for words.” Being both a writer and an artist, do you often find yourself faced with this conundrum? Does criticism of contemporary art have value if its language is supposedly inadequate?

I haven’t got a primary form of communication because they are each good at doing different things. This is why I have no time for those mock innovations in contemporary art that consist only of replacing an existing medium with another one that already existed elsewhere in our culture. So, for example, ‘text based’ art is no innovation because, surprise surprise, people were already writing things down anyhow before artists came along and decided it was a new art form.

And there’s ‘time based’ art isn’t there. A characteristic unique to visual art has been that, while the other creative media such as music, literature and theatre, were all time based, painting and sculpture were not. So making visual art ‘time based’ adds nothing we didn’t have plenty of already. It’s actually a net loss.

 

You are often associated with the Young British Artists. Do you still feel an affinity with this movement/group?

We have very little in common as artists, but I do know a lot of them. That’s the whole of the association with them really. We have been in the same rooms as each other, sometimes. Plus my daughter and Gavin Turk’s daughter are best friends.

 

A page from Simon Bill’s project, “How a Man Schall Be Armyed,” in zingmagazine issue 24. Drawings are reproductions from 15th century originals by an unknown artist commissioned by Hans Talhoffer. 

 

What are some of your favorite galleries/museums/art venues? Any recent exhibitions that really caught your attention?

I love museums, although they have all been done up in recent years, so there aren’t many with that neglected, spooky, feel I used to enjoy. Most of the ones I know well are in London, but the Metropolitan in New York is amazing. You mentioned the Wallace Collection, and that’s still a favourite. The Imperial War Museum (I often think contemporary artists need to look at more things other than contemporary art). The Barbican, near where I live, has OK art shows and an amazing library. The V&A is great. In fact all the main ones in London, The British Museum, The Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, are all great. I would also recommend The Royal Armouries in Leeds, and the BALTIC centre for contemporary art in Gateshead. My friend Brian Griffiths has a good show on there now. The Museum of London has a display of knapped flints I really like.

 

Do you have any upcoming shows or projects you can share?

My novel ARTIST IN RESIDENCE comes out in May 2016 (published by Sort of Books and distributed by Faber). I’m planning a painting show to coincide with that. Not oval paintings. They will be miniatures, painted in oil, on copper plates the size of a credit card.

 

-Hayley Richardson, January 2016

ALEXIS ROCKMAN'S INVESTIGATIONS IN EARTHLY DELIGHTS AND TROUBLESOME TRUTHS

Pages from Alexis Rockman’s “Bioluminescence” project in zingmagazine issue 24, 2013, gouache on black paper, courtesy Baldwin Gallery, Aspen, CO

Technical skill and fantastic imagery make Alexis Rockman’s paintings immediately appealing to the appetites of the eye, but his nimble approach in applying scientific and historical anecdotes satisfies intellectual intrigue. The realms of the real and the surreal meet in a place where jellyfish and tabby cats live amongst sunken bridges and in abandoned buildings. These scenes, though imaginary, are informed by very real circumstances and quantitative evidence which tells us that our earth is changing in alarming yet preventable ways. Integrating with nature by traveling the globe, studying the species and environments he depicts, and sometimes using elements of the ecosystem to create his art are testaments to Rockman’s passions in conservation and environmental activism, but his work carries meaning that extends far beyond those ideals.

Rockman’s “Bioluminescence” project in zingmagazine 24, curated by the Drawing Center’s Brett Littman, depicts a dark, watery world where life generates its own light—a domain so opposite from the terrestrial sphere. These images are a continuation of his artistic contributions to the film Life of Pi, and is a series that he has expressed great joy in creating. A continuation of another series, Field Drawings, is currently on view at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York through January 18, 2016.

Interview by Hayley Richardson

 

Your project in zingmagazine 24 features watercolor paintings of deep-sea bioluminescent creatures, as well as underwater entities of your own imagination. These images share a relationship with a previous project you did when you created concept artwork for director Ang Lee’s 2012 film Life of Pi. Can you summarize how the zing project developed from your experience working on the film?

The images in zing were done in the same language as Life of Pi, with the same materials, and about similar ideas. I had such a great experience working on Life of Pi, but the studio that made it, 20th Century Fox, owned that work. I felt it would be great to revisit that type of work several years later for a show at the Baldwin Gallery in Aspen in 2013.

The work I did for Life of Pi was constructing a narrative visually for a sequence called the Tiger Vision sequence which was when the tiger, Richard Parker, and Pi are in such dire straights both physically and psychologically and spiritually that they come together and voyage to the bottom of the ocean and it’s not clear who’s who. My role was to visualize that and create a cinematic experience. I ended up making about 50 drawings that I showed at the Drawing Center several years after I did the work in 2011. These drawings, in sequence, were used as reference by animators and that became a one minute and twenty-three second sequence. The project for zing was done two years later. There were four years between the time that I first met with Ang Lee in 2009 and when the movie was finished in fall of 2012. There was an earlier version that we worked on in development and preproduction for the movie that no one will ever see because the studio didn’t approve it—they thought it was too expensive. So the Tiger Vision sequence was kind of a condensed and stream lined version of what we wanted to do initially. Ironically, I think it turned out better than what we wanted to do the first time, but getting it to happen was a bit of rollercoaster ride. Ang is a master of the long ball. It turned out fantastic. It was wonderful to see the sequence be so close to the drawings—Buf, the company that did it, did a great job.

 

The paintings are gauche on black paper, and I read that you had never painted that way before.

I started out making drawings with black ink around the characters to sort of position them in the darkness of the deep sea with no sunlight whatsoever. Then I realized why not just do the damn things on black paper?

 

There is a style of drawing in India known as kolam, which is characterized by decorative, mandala-like designs, and I noticed that one of your Life of Pi underwater paintings exhibited at The Drawing Center has a white geometric pattern in it that looks very kolam-esque. This design also appears in the movie in the Tiger Vision sequence. I am curious if any visual traditions of India played a role in how you developed this project.

That’s exactly what it is and it was very intentional. That’s what Pi’s mother character does when she’s with Pi and she teaches the pattern and the meaning to him with sand. In our Tiger Vision sequence his mother ends up beheaded by a knife fish.

 

Did any other visual traditions of India play a role in how you developed this project?

The squid and the whale composites in the Tiger Vision sequence made out of other figures. There’s an Indian tradition of having an elephant made out of many other elephants or what have you. Like Acrimboldo, but Indian.

 

You grew up in Manhattan and your mother worked at the American Museum of Natural History, where you spent a lot of time during your youth and was great place of inspiration for your artwork. Were you able to spend much time in nature, outside from the museum and the city, as a child?

I went to camp, I went to the zoo. That’s not nature, but it gave me a sense of longing. I also went to Australia. I was very familiar with things out in the world looking at National Geographic or through watching Wild Kingdom on TV.

 

You have traveled the globe to become closer with the natural environments and wildlife you depict, and you recently spent time in Michigan studying the Great Lakes region for a show at the Grand Rapids Art Museum opening in 2018. Do you travel in preparation for all your major exhibitions, or only certain ones?

I’d say if I can it’s a good idea. I just spent the last couple of days traveling around New York City, throughout the five boroughs.

 

Was that in relation to your current exhibition, East End Field Drawings, at the Parrish Art Museum in Watermill?

No, it’s for a show I am doing at Salon 94 in April.

 

Can you talk more about the East End Field Drawings exhibit, like your process in creating the work and how it all came together?

The images are made out of material from the area directly and nothing else but acrylic polymer. They’re minimal, but also very maximal in terms of being pieces from the landscape or ecosystem. They’re made out of sand or soil or leaves. The image is actually made out of those materials. For instance there’s a place called Town Line Beach in East Hampton that had a beached Leatherback Turtle. It had been dead for a couple days and gulls were eating its head. It was an amazing scene. I collected sand from underneath it and made drawings from the sand of that turtle and some other marine life that are common to that particular beach. I’ve done this for the past twenty some-odd years in different places. Tasmania, the Amazon, Madagascar, the La Brea tar pits. They are all Field Drawings, but this is a separate body of work.

 

What are some places in the world you haven’t been to yet that you would like to visit, whether for research purposes or just for pleasure?

Borneo or New Guinea, or both, amongst many other places. Burundi, Tibet, The Congo, there are so many places I would love to go.

 

I watched a video of the lecture you gave at The Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2011 and in it you covered a great span of art historical references that have informed your work over the years. Did you begin to cultivate knowledge in this field early in your career?

I’ve always loved art history. Before I decided I wanted to be a painter—I really loved art history and copied many old master drawings when I first started.

 

Your Wikipedia page says that your work “has sometimes been associated with a new gothic art movement,” which is loosely defined as “a contemporary art movement that emphasizes darkness and horror.” Do you feel your work fits with this description, or is there another current movement or direction you resonate with?

(Laughs) Yes, I saw that and don’t know what that is! I didn’t do that page. I am not against it. I’m like, “alright, whatever you say.” I like Gothic and I like horror, so why not? I’ve always gone my own way so to speak. There are many artists that I admire that might be considered that, but it’s not something we discussed.

 

You are known as an environmental activist, yet seem hesitant to consider your paintings as “activist artwork.” Can you explain why that is?

First of all it’s art. I think anything anyone does is political, that’s the position I come from. But to label something as activist artwork it really ghettoizes it pretty fast. I’m trying to juggle many things and there’s a rainbow of meaning.

 

What do you think is the best vehicle to spread the message of environmentalism to a mass audience?

Probably advertising. The skillful way they can sell alcohol to children is probably the best way to get people to care about conservation. If you can sell cigarettes to kids why can’t you get them to care about the environment? I would suggest putting an attractive person in it and there you have it.

 

Besides the exhibitions we discussed, do you want to talk about any other shows, events, or news that you have upcoming?

I have some things going on but I can’t really talk about it now. “A Natural History of New York City” at Salon 94 in April, 2016. It includes plants and animals from the history of New York City- from dinosaurs from the Cretaceous in Staten Island (145-66 million years ago) to the squirrel in our back yard in the west Village in Manhattan and in between.

 

-Hayley Richardson, December 2015

ART AND STORYTELLING FROM ALIX LAMBERT'S PINK GHETTO

Alix Lambert at London Film Festival

 

Alix Lambert is an artist, author, documentary filmmaker, and television writer who seeks out and tells the stories of people whose experiences are swept under the rug, often because they contain truths that many choose to ignore. Crime has been a consistent thread in her work for many years and has taken shape in writing, on stage, in prints and photographs, and on film. Some of her notable documentaries include The Mark of Cain (2000) where she integrated herself within the Russian prison system and delved into its forbidden tattoo culture, Bayou Blue (2011) about one of America’s most dangerous yet unknown serial killers from the South, and Mentor (2014), her most recent film focusing on the brutal systemic bullying in an Ohio high school that resulted in an alarming number of teen suicides. While she deals with serious subject-matter, Crime: The Animated Series featured on MoCATV, creatively imbues humor into difficult scenarios and showcases Lambert’s superb ability to collaborate with her subjects and as well as other artists. Her project in zingmagazine issue 24 provides a glimpse at another documentary on which she is currently working about Jon Pownall, who was murdered by one of his associates. The murder is what initially drew Lambert to the subject, but she is more interested in telling the audience about his life and work and how they come together to tell the larger story about that time and generation in American history.

Interview by Hayley Richardson

 

Page from Alix Lambert’s project in zingmagazine issue 24

 

Your project in zing 24, “Goodbye, Fat Larry,” displays a collection of images and other ephemera from the archives of deceased director and photographer, Jon Pownall. You are currently working on a documentary about Pownall, and I was wondering if you could talk more about this project and what you’ve learned about him through your research.

I met Lynda, Jon’s daughter five years ago. Working with her over the years and delving ever deeper into this story has been an experience. The story has gotten bigger and bigger, both literally—each individual character has a story line of their own, and metaphorically—the arc really does mirror that of what was happening in America. As a story expands as this one has, I have to also think about the different ways in which it can be told—as a documentary, as a narrative film, as a book, with an app . . . that has been exciting from the perspective of a storyteller.

 

I read about the app, where users could interact with episodes from the story and respond to it based on the believability of a character or relevance of information. Do you see yourself using technology like this again in the future, and perhaps becoming a trend in film development and marketing strategy?

Yes, absolutely. The app allows me to tell the story in a different way that I find to be valuable and that is different from but related to the other manifestations of the story.

 

You have said, “crime is a lens through which to look at the world.” This trajectory has taken you on some incredible journeys in achieving your creative goals, from the prisons of Russia to the heart of Middle America. Would you say there was a particular project or moment that solidified your desire to explore within this framework long-term?

I don’t know that I can pinpoint one single moment. I do think my projects kind of overlap each other—hopefully in a good way—I’ll still be thinking about aspects of my last project as I move into something new and those thoughts will manifest in the new work without my even realizing it at first. I don’t think there is much premeditation on my part in terms of what I explore on a long-term basis—I always feel like the work tells me what to do next.

 

Page from Lambert’s project in zingmagazine issue 24

 

What do you want audiences to take away from these stories?

It depends on the story—I think my work asks questions more than it has answers—so I am always interested to find out what a person has taken from it.

 

How do you know when a project/story is finished?

Of course it would be easy to tinker with something forever—but then you’d never get to work on the next thing. I guess intuition? The “story” is never really finished, but with projects I just decide—not a great answer maybe, but an accurate one, I think.

 

You work in film, photography, printmaking, performance, writing . . . the list goes on. Is there any medium that you don’t have much experience with but would like to explore?

I wish I could sing, or had some kind of musical talent.

 

I saw that you did put together an album, Running After Deer, in 2008 with musician/producer Travis Dickerson, in which you provided samples from your boxing coach. Would you like to do more musical projects that tie in with your work in other media? 

Definitely. I’ve been trying to find the time to collaborate with Travis again, and hope to do that sometime soon.

 

Collaboration is an important part of your practice. What makes an ideal collaborative dynamic for you?

I love collaborating. I get to work with so many people who I respect, admire and learn from. I enjoy when everyone is bringing different strengths to a project.

 

Last year you were an artist-in-residence at the McColl Center for Art and Innovation in North Carolina and it seems like you accomplished a lot during your time there. What did you take from that experience?

Speaking of collaborating, I met and worked with the amazingly talented Tim Grant to make a piece I had been wanting to do for a long time. That was exciting.

 

Page from Lambert’s project in zingmagazine issue 24

 

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture?

I am pleased that people seem to be more accepting of interdisciplinary work than they used to be.

 

How do you navigate between the worlds of fine art and film and television? What advice would you give to other artists who have an interest in interdisciplinary practices?

It has its challenges, but I think people are accepting interdisciplinary artists more than they used to. I hope it continues in that direction.

 

What artists, filmmakers, writers, etc. have been the most inspiring and influential to you and why?

The list is so so long, I don’t know that I can narrow it down—it so depends on what I am working on and what aspect of the thing I am working on that I am trying to learn about. I watch movies and read and look at art all the time and am humbled.

 

I am curious about the name of your company, Pink Ghetto Productions.

It was a slang term for women being marginalized in the work force. “Living in the pink ghetto” or “living in the pink collared ghetto.”

 

What do you like to do in your free time?

I’m pretty boring. I watch a lot of movies and I read books. I take long walks and long baths. I like food.

 

Besides “Goodbye, Fat Larry,” do you have any other projects or events lined up that you can share?

I am working to complete my book RESCUE. I’m working on it with the support of Jenn Joy and Kelly Kivland who run the new artist collective: Collective Address.

 

-Hayley Richardson, November 2015

REMEMBERING TO FORGET WITH DIKE BLAIR

Dike Blair, photo by Aubrey Mayer

As an artist who started his journey in the 1970s by initially dropping out of college, later earning an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and who became an arts professor at the Rhode Island School of Design and an accomplished writer, Dike Blair has had an opportune view of the contemporary creative landscape for several decades. He has exhibited his paintings and sculptures since the 1980s, and a comprehensive showing of his gouache paintings at Karma Gallery this past spring gave not only the public but also himself a panoramic perspective of how much this one area of his practice developed from 1984 until now. In zingmagazine issue 24, Blair brings together the work of four artists and hones in on their harmonious yet distinguished use of color and form in the arc of abstraction. With his range of experience I was interested in his thoughts about the past, present, and future of art and how he blends together his work in writing, painting, sculpture, and education.

Interview by Hayley Richardson

 

Your project in zingmagazine issue 24, “Ash Ferlito, Steve Keister, Bobbie Oliver, Arlene Shechet,” represents a gathering of four artists whose work you admire and “would look great together.” These are also artists you have worked/exhibited with before, but this is the first time everyone has been involved in a single project together. Any plans to take this from the magazine to the gallery?

I’ve known Steve and Bobbie since the ’70s. Arlene is a prominent artist, but I only got familiar with her work and met her in the last 5 years. Ash was in residence at Skowhegan when I was faculty in 2012. I “curated” this group for Zing (almost 2 years ago) thinking the pages are the show, but it would certainly transpose to an excellent (if I do say so myself) bricks and mortar show.

 

A page from “Ash Ferlito, Steve Keister, Bobbie Oliver, Arlene Shechet” in zingmagazine issue 24. Top left: Ash Ferlito, “Jacket,” 2013, paper mache, oil paint, wire hanger, 30 x 24 in.; bottom left: Ash Ferlito, “Big Movie Star Mouths,” 2011, oil on canvas, 78 x 66 in; Right: Steve Keister, “Tripod Plate,” 2013, glazed terra cotta, 2 1/4 x 9 3/4 x 9 3/4 in.

 

Last year you contributed to Ferlito’s Time Capsule 2014 project at the Marjorie Barrick Museum at the University of Las Vegas, in which all contributors agreed to reconvene in 2044 to open the capsule. It’s a long way off from now, but is there anything you see happening now in the creative world that could have a lasting effect on the future of art’s place in society? What do you anticipate it to be like to open that capsule?

I rather doubt I’ll be alive for the opening of the capsule, but Ash probably will, and I imagine it will be an emotionally rich experience.

As to what’s happening now, culturally, that might shape the world, it would certainly have more to do with technology than things like painting and sculpture. One of the nice things about those latter activities is that they are part of a continuum that evolves, and like evolution, there are periods of accelerated change. I don’t think we’re currently in one of those periods.

Art and technology seems a somewhat different story. In general, since more people have tools and venues to express themselves, it does seem that the web of cultural expression has gotten richer and more complex—more and more domains are created. I’m not certain about the quantity to quality issue . . . bad art can be made in any medium. And it worries me a bit that because of technology we can no longer forget. If one personifies culture, the inability to forget may not be a healthy thing.

 

That’s interesting you bring up evolution because critic Christian Viveros-Faune made a comment earlier this year saying that the art world is now in the Jurassic period, where teeth and claws are necessary for survival in the financial jungle. He suggests that development in contemporary painting has stalled, though, because artists and the venues that show their work are trying too hard to mimic what was successful in the past to please collectors. Do you think this is partly why painting and sculpture are in a “slow” period? What might be some other potential reasons?

Despite having just done so, I’m hesitant about negative judgments about the state of the art world. It’s so age appropriate for the old guy to grumble about how things were once better. Certainly more artists, particularly young ones, have the opportunity to sustain a practice. I remember other bull market periods when the art world attracted clever, lesser talents who enjoyed success and why not? There will most likely be some kind of correction, but I’m not necessarily wishing for that.

 

Dike Blair, “Untitled,” 2015, gouache and pencil on paper, 20” x 15”

 

Earlier this year Karma exhibited Gouaches 1984–2015, and, from what I understand, the paintings were exhibited chronologicallyWhat was it like seeing 31 years worth of just your painted work at once?

Yes, chronologically, and I have say, the whole experience was edifying. We organized the show and book in a very few weeks, so almost all of the work was from my studio, including stuff from the mid-80s that had sat on a shelf, untouched for 30 years. Those were covered in dust and because I made the very primitive frames with hot glue, they literally fell apart when I picked them up. Showing those first gouaches was a little difficult for me. I didn’t really know how to paint when I did them; but Brendan Dugan of Karma and Dan Colen, who brought Brendan over to my studio, were so enthusiastic about them I decided to include them. I was a little surprised that people responded so well to them.

 

Your apprehension showing the early paintings . . . does this relate to your worry about the inability to forget?

Not directly. I think most artists like to think the work they’re currently engaged in is their best. Of course that’s not always true, so one needs to delude oneself.

 

Your paintings are mostly untitled, except for a few that note a person’s name or a location in parentheses, whereas your sculptures have enigmatic titles like “a seagull suddenly submerges.” How do you name an artwork?

I think the representational don’t need titles. It’s a cocktail, or a sunset, or something. The sculpture is more enigmatic and something suggestive can encourage poetic readings.

 

How do you balance your time between making paintings and making sculptures? Do you work in the two media simultaneously or focus more on one and then switch after a while?

I have two studios. A small one in the City that is only appropriate for the small paintings on paper, and a larger one upstate where I can work on sculpture and other large projects. So I tend to work on sculpture in the summer, and paintings during the school year.

 

Dike Blair, “129,” 2014; painted wooden crates, framed mixed media. H 72”  W 105”  D 99”

 

What are some of your favorite galleries/museums/art venues? Any recent exhibitions that really caught your eye?

The Noguchi Museum in Queens is probably my favorite museum. He’s one of my favorite 20th century artists, and the space is serene. I saw an exhibition in LA of Archibald Motley’s paintings that blew my mind. Somehow I was ignorant of his work and it’s amazing. That same show, I think, will travel to the Whitney this fall.

 

You attended a number of different art schools in the 1970s and are currently a painting professor and Senior Critic at the Rhode Island School of Design. How would you compare what art school is like now to when you were a student?

Schools and the art world were obviously very different back then. Of course the scale of everything was smaller, and theory wasn’t so predominant. Professors were generally less demanding, and some (and I emphasize, only some) of them considered teaching as something like a professional grant rather than a job. I demand so much more of my students, namely attendance, than was demanded of me. I’d also note that I would hate to have had me as a student. I would have to slap me down.

 

I attended a talk earlier this year with a group of artists who founded some of the first DIY art spaces in Denver in the ‘70s, and they discussed how today’s young artists are trying to make art as a career rather than creating out of passion. Any thoughts on this statement and it how might relate to the shift in how schools/the art world operates? 

Well, I wanted an art career when I was in school in the early ’70s, also in Colorado. I think one’s approach to making art constantly changes over a lifetime. In my case my sense of accomplishment, or lack of it, was probably more of an external thing when I was young, and now it’s more internal.

 

You’ve conducted and been the subject of many interviews. What do you think necessitates a good interview, from both the interviewer and the interviewee?

One of the things I most liked about interviewing people was the preparatory homework. Of course 95% of that homework doesn’t get touched in the interview, but it’s great to get outside of oneself and really think about the subject. I think in my early interviews I wanted to demonstrate to the interviewee, almost always a person I admired, that I was smart. Well, I’m not that smart and I realized the interviews were often better when I didn’t try to be.

When interviewed, I try to be somewhat honest.

 

How do your practices in art and writing inform one another?

Well, when an artist writes, inevitably there’s a two-way bleed. However, in the mid-’90s I made a very conscious effort to segregate the studio work from the writing. I didn’t want the art to explain itself and I eschewed starting a work with a concept. I think the art I made might be difficult to write about. I’m certainly not prescribing that approach and it seems a great deal of successful contemporary stuff starts with a concept that’s relatively easy to translate into words.

 

Christopher K. Ho was asked which art critics have been influential to him, and which artists who write or engage in some form of criticism he respects. He named you, among others, in his response, and I’d like to redirect that question back to you.

Thanks for that link. Chris is a friend and colleague and I’m embarrassed I didn’t even know about Hirsch E.P. Rothko. Chris is brilliant but not one to hoist his own petard. I just ordered it.

I really don’t read much art criticism and mostly read fiction. Actually, I don’t even read much anymore and mostly listen to audio books. I would like to echo Chris in my admiration for Roger White, I loved his book, The Contemporaries, and with Dushko Petrovich, he creates Paper Monument, one of the only art magazines I read. Like Chris, I admire Rosalind Krauss, however I prefer journalistic art writing to more critical stuff. Dave Hickey’s books always grab me, and I just finished Greil Marcus’s, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs…really great. (Actually, listened to that, and Henry Rollins’s read it really well.)

 

A page from “Ash Ferlito, Steve Keister, Bobbie Oliver, Arlene Shechet” in zingmagazine issue 24. Left: Arlene Shechet, “Night Out,” 2011, glazed ceramic, painted hardwood, 45 x 13 x 17 in. Right: Bobbie Oliver, “Laguna 2,” 2013, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 40 in.

 

What else are you listening to, looking at, or reading to fuel (or perhaps escape from) your work?

The NFL season has just started. That’s an escape. I just heard the music on Jeff Rian’s CD that’s included in this issue of Zing. He’s an old friend and the music is really beautiful.

 

Do you have projects, exhibitions, or anything else coming up on the horizon you’d like to share?

I’m really excited to be doing a show at the Vienna Secession early in 2016. It will be paintings and sculpture about windows, walls, floors and doors.

 

-Hayley Richardson, September 2015

LISA KERESZI ON LOOKING BACK AND MOVING FORWARD

Page from “The More I Know About Women” by Lisa Kereszi in zingmagazine 24

 

Lisa Kereszi’s upbringing in a family whose business was in junkyards and pleasure was in biker rallies seems like an unlikely lead into a world of art and academia at Bard and Yale, but this background is what enabled her to see the world through a cognizant and experienced set of eyes. Likely possessing an acute sense of self-awareness at an early age, Kereszi was able to understand the precarious but also the remarkable aspects of her environment, making her a determined photographer who has the confidence to work alone on projects that would make others feel leery. Her project in zingmagazine issue 24 is a conceptual reflection on this upbringing, utilizing photographs taken by her father during his biker heydays. This project comes directly out of her artist book of a similar name, The More I Learn About Women, published in 2014 by J and L Books. As a new mother, Kereszi is preparing to explore the realms of family life and childhood from a different perspective than she has in the past. Lisa and I exchanged emails, in which she shared the story behind her longstanding connection with zingmagazine, her interest in sideshow culture, and experiences in photography around the world.

Interview by Hayley Richardson

 

“The More I Know About Women” in issue 24 is your fourth zingmagazine project. While it features cropped images of women’s eyes, it also speaks about your relationship with your father. Your family has had a strong impact on your aesthetic. How has their influence grown with you over the course of your career?

I’m not sure I’d say it has “grown,” exactly, but receded, deepened and changed, as I have gotten further and further away from my formative years. It’s the “You can’t go home again” Thomas Wolfe thing in play. This book was collated and created when I was expecting my child, so that new role I was about to embark on had a lot to do with the impetus and my need for making this piece. There’s a section in the book that depicts children in the rough and tumble biker world I grew up in, dragged to keg parties and hillclimb motorcycle competitions, Bike Week in Daytona, camping out in the Chevy Nomad with it’s Harley stickers on the back, while my parents went out to see Joan Jett (my favorite!) perform at the Harley Rendezvous in Upstate NY. I would never raise a child like that, although I guess it did have positive effects, but it was strange and sort of painful to go through.

 

You have cited other influences like Nan Goldin, Brassai, and Robert Frank. What other artists, outside of photography, do you connect with or feel inspired by?

Although I just bemoaned my alternative lifestyle childhood, I love John Waters, and his sincere pushing of limits. I’m not a limit-pusher, but I appreciate it and sort of live vicariously when watching characters like Divine, Edith Massey, Mink Stole and David Lochary practice their filthy behaviors. I guess I also love how he pulled this real and true underbelly of poor Baltimore into the art world’s sights, something I can relate to, being born on the wrong side of the tracks outside Philly. Speaking of which, the imagery, mood and character-creating of Bruce Springsteen’s work has always hit me right in the gut. I love David Lynch’s pure weirdness, Louis C.K.’s brutally funny honesty. I grew up on SNL.

 

Lisa (right) with Erin Bardwell celebrating the release of her book, Fantasies, at the zing office in March 2008

 

Aside from having multiple projects in zing, you have photographed numerous zingmagazine parties and your “Facing Addiction” series is part of the Dikeou Collection. Could you talk about how you first became acquainted with Devon Dikeou and the zing milieu?

I think I was probably working for Nan Goldin at the time, and she got so many invites to so many cool parties that she would never have time to go to herself, so me being a 21 year old, I took a few of them as invites to go myself! A very early zing party was one of them. I was showing at Pierogi 2000 in Brooklyn, and I think Devon just connected with the work I sent her after I learned about zing at that party. I think it might have been at a bowling alley near Union Square. There were so many fun zingparties that I can’t remember each one well on their own.

 

Some of the projects featured on your website, like Fun n’ Games and Fantasies, span several years. Are the themes of these projects thought out ahead of time as something you’d like to explore long-term, or do the relationships between certain images taken years apart emerge later on?

I think I come at it both ways. But for the most part, I’ll be interested in one specific thing that is related to a bigger concept, movie theaters or strip clubs, for example, and then I’d go seek out permission to photograph a handful, or a whole bunch, of them. It isn’t until later that they combine with pictures of Coney Island or Times Square or Florida into something bigger, like the series you mentioned, even though my interest in each of them stemmed from the same unconscious (or semi-conscious) place.

 

Can you recall a time when you felt especially challenged by your subject matter or territory?

I suppose working with family and the failed family business was at the same time both easy and difficult. But you just put your blinders on and press forward. Also, I think finding permission for locations, such as strip clubs, has been particularly challenging, on a practical level. On top of it, sometimes you get the written or verbal permission, and show up to shoot, and the message has either been lost in translation, forgotten, or was never passed down the chain of command to the gatekeeper. It can be frustrating.

 

Have you ever worked collaboratively with another photographer or other artist?

Not really; I’m a bit of a loner. I don’t even like having assistants!

 

As a photography professor at Yale you must enjoy sharing your knowledge and experience with students. What has working in the collegiate atmosphere been like for you?

It’s been like getting a second degree all over again, between the re-learning and also the constant flow of interesting people and work going through the building. You have to teach yourself more than you knew before in order to teach the students anything. You need to have something to say, too, a position, a mission, in addition to knowing the technical stuff. It’s also about helping someone find oneself than really recounting experiences, although experiential anecdotes can certainly help someone to understand how things work in the real world.

 

You had an early interest in writing before photography became your main focus, correct? What kind of writing interested you, and is it something you still do at all?

Oh, I guess I thought I’d be a poet, which is sort a ridiculous career path—but so is visual art! I had an English Lit teacher in college tell me that I didn’t have the love of language necessary to be a poet. It stung, but he was right—at the time, at least. I write a little bit now, but no poetry, just statements about work and essays about things I am interested in, photography-wise.

 

Installation shot of “Sideshow” exhibition curated by Lisa Kereszi at 32 Edgewood Gallery. Image courtesy of Yale Alumni Magazine.

 

You curated an exhibition, “Sideshow,” at Yale School of Art’s 32 Edgewood Avenue Gallery earlier this year. What was it like organizing this show? Did you learn anything new about sideshow history?

It was a great experience, a lot of work, and a long time in the making. I was inspired by the traveling show that curator Robin Jaffee Frank put together at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, which I unofficially consulted on and in which I have two pieces. “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland 1861-2008” opens at the Brooklyn Museum this November. When it was at its home museum, in order to run a concurrent show, I was given the opportunity to use the freestanding contemporary gallery at the School of Art by our Dean, the artist and curator, Robert Storr, who is as interested in the low-brow richness of sideshow and carnival culture as I am. If anything, I only wish my “really big show” (over 70 works, and a massive list of programming that included people like Ricky Jay coming to speak) was a REALLY BIG SHOW, but Storr reminded me that this was not a museum show, but one at a one-room alternative space with a limited budget. I had tried showing him a salon-style hang with over 150 works borrowed from far and wide, and I quickly realized as we installed it in January 2015 that he was right—it needed to actually be curated.

I knew a fair amount about this world and who the players were before hand, but the depth of the knowledge of these people is really truly frightening (in a good way.) Performer Todd Robbins got a preview of the show being installed when he hand-delivered his Feegee Mermaid sculpture, and schooled me on details and anecdotes about the pieces in the exhibition and the characters depicted, including artworks that I own, but knew not enough about. In the upcoming catalog, I include my curator’s notes, which explain who the people are who are depicted, so that they are fully developed human beings in a viewer’s mind. It includes background information on people like Eddie Carmel, the Jewish Giant of Arbus fame, and Mat Fraser, actor, performance artist and disability activist.

 

“Visions of an American Dreamland” is currently at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art and I am always curious how traveling shows are received by audiences in different parts of the country, especially this one with a regional specificity. Do you have any thoughts on how people might respond to it differently on the west coast vs east coast?

Well, even in Hartford, where it opened, it must have been a bit removed-feeling. That said, I think the show deals with universal and very democratic things—like the human need for escape from reality. But the big moment, in my opinion, is this Fall when it opens at the Brooklyn Museum, just a subway ride away from the real thing. It’s going to be a big show, although it reminds me, in some ways, of the work and little show I did about Governors Island, which was at the Municipal Art Society in 2004, and then shown on the island later in an old commanding officer’s house. I think about that project, because it’s about a contained, specific place, and it’s also an island of New York, for sure, but I think about the throngs who will go to see this show who have personal, historical, deeply-felt experiences from the place. That was one of the interesting things about doing that Public Art Fund project—people who lived on the island saw the show, and had visceral, personal reactions to some of the depictions of place. For me, it was like my own private photographic ghost town, but to them, a few thousand people, it was once their home.

 

As an artist who has traveled, exhibited, taught, and photographed all over the world, have you noticed any major differences in how people engage with photographers (or art(ists) in general) in different countries?

The world is a very big place, and the more I teach and meet people from all over, the more I realize how small my place really is! Each culture forms a different kind of museum-goer, who has unique background and connections to make with new work. If anything, I am more aware of how people in public react to the presence of a photographer on the street. Some are very trusting, like in Shanghai, and some are quite the opposite, like in Paris. Some places fear photography, like here, but other cultures value it and understand its importance, like in Berlin or London, I think.

 

What are some areas of interest that you would like to investigate photographically that you have not done yet, or would like to revisit?

I’m not sure I’m ready to do more revisiting than the current zing project does. Not for a while, at least. I have some ideas up my sleeve, the most pressing of which is something to do with being a new mom. It’s already well-mined territory, but I will find something new to say, hopefully. I also have a pile of junk that I have been adding to all the time—sad, little discarded things I just want to make very basic still-lifes of with a 4×5 camera, when I get my act together and set up a little studio in my office.

 

What do you have coming up in the near future?

See above!

 

-Hayley Richardson, September 2015

OLAV WESTPHALEN WALKS INTO A BAR . . .

Olav Westphalen performing “Even Steven,” at Index, Stockholm, photo: Santiago Mostyn

 

Olav Westphalen describes himself as a “provincial artist without a province.” For some this may seem like a challenging position, but he maintains it just fine by having an open mind and a sense of humor. Using cartoons and comedy as his main vehicles for creative expression, he is able to transcend cultural barriers and address serious topics in thoughtful ways that will make you laugh. Inspiration is found within the intricate web that connects art and entertainment, creativity and industry, and people and places, which enables him to forge peculiar collaborations with professional dancers and experimental musicians or pull off stunts like burning tires in the Arctic. Westphalen’s project in zingmagazine 24 draws attention to the absurdity that lurks just beneath the surface of the ordinary, and serves as a handy tool for artists and non-artists alike to grasp the power of this absurdity. He and I chatted via email about his creative influences, the art market, polar research missions, and bad jokes.

Interview by Hayley Richardson

 

Your project in zing, “A junkie in the forest doing things the hard way,” was initially an exhibition of the same title at Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois. It is interesting to compare the images on a page-by-page basis in the magazine to that of installation photos from the gallery. Can you talk about how your work fluctuates/relates to the presentation context?

I made this group of drawings, combining a super-standardized cartoon language with—equally standardized—big, gestural brushstrokes in bright colours. They had a very graphic appearance. When we showed the series at the gallery it made sense to arrange them on the wall in a kind of layout. The reference material comes from print media, so it wasn’t surprising that they suggested the printed page. That’s also why I thought this specific series was going to work well in zingmagazine.

Generally, I love printed drawings. It’s something about the tension between the accidents of the hand and the precision of the technical reproduction. What can get lost in print, though, with this specific group of drawings, is the painterly aspect of the large swaths of color you mentioned. They do affect you in a different way when seen on the wall, simply because of their size and saturation. The brush strokes are pretty silly design elements, but they are also just a square meter of cadmium red, which you will, at least for a moment, perceive as a sizeable stained surface with all the accompanying painterly connotations. This slightly perverse experience may be harder to get from the printed drawings.

The overall project (“A junkie in the forest doing things the hard way”) was a way to think about inspiration, wit, creativity, those rarefied instants in an artist’s experience, as mechanical processes, as industry. I often felt that creativity was a type of mechanism. Certain elements, relationships and criteria are brought into play. It could be a given form, like the limerick or High Modernist painting. It could be a given content, material, or several of these elements. And then, in quick succession, random data is run through this arrangement. I think the difference between the formalized brainstorm at a creative agency and a poet waking up in the middle of the night, her heart aching with a deeply felt new image, may not be a categorical difference, even if the results differ a lot.

Glenn O’Brien wrote a great text, “The Joke of the New,” in the catalogue for Richard Prince’s show at the Whitney (in 1992). In it he mentions the cartoonist’s gag wheel, an aide for newspaper cartoonists invented in the 1930s. It’s made up of three concentric discs, which you can spin to line up randomly. The innermost wheel lists 25 types of comical situations. The center wheel lists 25 standard settings and the outer wheel 50 characters. This generates over 30.000 unique gag-premises. I loved that, and I made a whole set of wheels with different types of content for myself. I’ve used them in a cartooning workshop. They worked wonders for inexperienced cartoonists. For the ones that are already doing good work on their own, the difference was less dramatic. I think they had already internalized these mechanisms and could run them below the threshold of awareness. They were probably running them all the time. You know, we’ve all met some incurable punsters. There’s one in every extended family. It’s like Tourette’s. They scan every bit of conversation for a possible double meaning. For those people every good pun comes at the cost of many embarrassing moments. I guess the difference between the tedious uncle constantly issuing awkward remarks and the professional comedian may just be selectivity, having the restraint to not blurt out all the bad ones.

I have used the gag-wheel with performance artists and it worked even better. It made a shocking difference to some peoples’ work, maybe because some performance artists overrate authenticity. They can have a bit of a rigid notion of what they are truly about. And that gets redundant. So, the cartoon elements of these drawings are all entirely generated by a set of customized gag-wheels. And they are not censored. In that way, I am totally the embarrassing relative. There are some excellent jokes hidden in the series, there are some really lame ones and there are a lot of premises that never made it to the punch line.

 

Page from “A junkie in the forest doing things the hard way” by Olav Westphalen in zingmagazine issue 24

 

The swath of solid color across each image is another interesting element. Can you describe the purpose of the color?

The gestural over- and under-painting was meant as a parallel operation only in a formalist vernacular: a totally mechanical, repetitive way of producing these sweeping, expressive marks. I wanted them to be a caricature of abstraction. I think a lot of contemporary, neo-formalist work, knowingly or not, has that type of relationship to its historical models. I guess there was also an intended nod to an idea Mike Kelley once laid out—I think it was in “Notes on Caricature”—namely, that modernism was characterized by two opposing movements towards abstraction: a movement towards the idealized, heroic abstraction of modernist painting and a movement towards the abject, grotesque abstraction of caricature.

 

Installation view “A Junkie in the forest: doing things the hard way” at Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois, Paris, 2012. Image courtesy of the gallery.

 

You are frequently associated with artists like Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley. Which artists working today do you feel a strong connection with?

I like Mike Bouchet and his work a lot. I think Jessica Hutchins is great and in some weird way I think of her as a moral authority, even though I haven’t spoken to her in over a year. I love Alex Kwartler’s paintings. Peter Rostovsky is great and we have been friends and regular interlocutors for many years. I have learned a lot from that. I think Roe Rosen is amazing, as are Joanna Rytel and Mike Smith. I think Lisi Raskin is great. She just allowed me to borrow/develop on an idea of hers (“A rocket a day”). Lately, I have been doing music performances together with Lars Arrhenius, which has been so much fun. And of course cartoonist Marcus Weimer with whom I’ve published comics and cartoons for decades now (under the name Rattelschneck) is a real influence. But these are all people I have in some way worked with, or with whom I have at least a tenuous personal connection. I could name some household names and historical influences, like Cage and Kaprow. But also Fischli and Weiss, Rosemarie Trockel, Georg Herold (Herold much more than Polke or Kippenberger). Andy Kaufman, Nicole Eisenman, Allan Sekula (weirdly), Christopher Williams (I think he’s quite funny). But the personal connections are more important. I have realized about myself that I am basically a provincial artist without a province. I am always most intensely involved with the stuff that happens right around me, wherever that is. Even if, as was the case with Stockholm, there wasn’t a huge group of artists who shared my interests to begin with. A lot of the people I work with in Stockholm aren’t in the art world. They are comedians and film-makers etc. I convinced the philosopher Lars-Erik Hjärtstrom-Lappalainen to perform with me. You develop some type of loosely affiliated scene.

 

Your music project sounds interesting. Are you a musician? Can you talk more about this?

Ha! I am probably the least musically inclined person you will ever meet. But I like writing and I like using my voice on stage. So, my contribution to “Lars & Olav” is mostly the written and spoken word. I am pretty serious about the texts. Lars is musically very good and writes both music and texts. When we perform the sound is mostly pre-programmed, with us singing, speaking, shouting out texts live while we stand around awkwardly. It has all the quaint stiffness of a fluxus performance, but some of the beats are so well-written that people kind of start to dance against their will, or at least bob around.

 

With your history of moving around so much throughout Europe and the United States, what location would you say gave you the most inspiration, creative energy, meaningful involvement, etc.?

I guess that would still be Southern California. I had met and worked with an artist from California back in Germany, and that basically got me interested in contemporary art as opposed to comics and cartoons and perhaps writing. Because of that connection I went to San Diego for graduate school, which was probably the most formative period for me as an artist. People had an attitude towards art, very serious AND very open at the same time, which I still find really important.

 

You draw cartoons in English and German, and exhibit and perform your Art around the world. Deconstructing the barrier between artist and viewer/participant is an important element in your practice. How does having such a diverse global audience, which you engage with directly, influence your ideas and process?

I am not interested in getting rid of the artist/audience divide. I am OK with that division of labor as long as it is explicit and precisely articulated. I have done a lot of pieces in which the audience becomes actively engaged, makes a lot of the decisions and may even take the work away from me, but it was always a matter of ethics for me to make it very clear, that I was playing the role of the initiator, host, game-master etc.

When it comes to different audiences, I think one of the reasons I have been so attracted to entertainment as material and form, is that it transcends a lot of cultural specificity. But, still, sometimes you connect and sometimes you don’t. That’s where art is different from entertainment. It can be really interesting to be completely misinterpreted. Bad entertainment can be good art and vice versa.

 

There’s a video of your “Even Steven” performance at Art Brussels. And in that video you say how much you love art fairs and the market because they help artists evaluate their own work and provide the financial means to foster their ambitions. Have you always felt this way?

Well, there was irony involved. I don’t know any artist who doesn’t find art fairs at least somewhat problematic. That doesn’t mean they don’t serve an important function. You know the expression: An artist visiting an art fair is like a cow taking a tour of the slaughterhouse?

“Even Steven” starts out as a location-specific stand up comedy. So, as I was invited to perform the piece at Art Brussels at that time, I did a stand up routine about art fairs. It kind of meandered between acerbic criticism and a naïve embrace of the phenomenon. At some point in the performance I confessed that I was tired of being smart and critical all the time and that I really wanted to do something beautiful. I asked a professional dancer on stage and he danced a modern piece. It was about that contrast. Very touching. Only I couldn’t just let him dance but asked him to let me to dance together with him and then I became kind of competitive, even though I really am not a good dancer at all, which devolved into awkwardness. Still touching, but differently so.

 

What’s your opinion on the recent record-breaking auction sale of Picasso’s “Women of Algiers”?

Is it ok if I don’t have an opinion on that? I mean, it’s been quite some time now that the top end of the market has lost pretty much all connection with about 99% of living artists producing art, thinking about art, developing art, having amazing and important ideas and conversations. So, every new price record is a little bit like reading that the universe is made up of 500 more galaxies than we thought. You know, to me it seemed really, really big already. Who really cares? We read a lot about the market. But if you think about how much it is about social and monetary criteria and how little it actually deals with important questions, what a relatively small group of people we are talking about, you realize that it is quite provincial in its own right.

 

You are currently teaching at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, correct? What kinds of courses do you teach?

Yes, I am a professor in fine arts with a focus on performative practices. The school is still largely in the tradition of the European Beaux Arts model. That means I don’t teach regular courses, but I work individually with students. I have a group of 15-20 students whom I follow pretty closely in crits, group crits, study trips, exhibition projects. I do can arrange arrange seminars and workshops, but that’s usually based on my own and the students’ interests. I am finishing up a one-and-a-half-year research project on Dysfunctional Comedy, basically a series of public events and experiments on joke strategies in contemporary art. Like I said, bad entertainment making good art. We’ll publish a book about this together with Baltic Art Center. That’s one advantage of the academy, that some projects which might have been funded through that system. What else? Together with the painter Sigrid Sandström I have been doing a recurring journey, where we take students to the Swedish Polar Research Station. They meet the scientists up there. And end up making work under pretty extreme conditions. We’ll go back there this coming winter. I think the best teaching is if it’s an extension of what you would be doing as an artist or an individual anyway.

 

Have you made any work at the research station, or another place with extreme conditions? What has the response been like from students participating on these journeys?

I haven’t produced any finished work at the research station. But on another trip to the arctic, to Kirkenes on the Barents Sea, I did make a piece that kind of flopped. I had had this image in my head, before the trip, of a completely white landscape, almost like a blank canvas. And I thought wouldn’t it be great to burn a stack of tires there, so you would get this column of smoke rising up vertically, a black line dissecting the plane. When I got there the landscape was white, but with so much variation in it that this cartoon-formalist idea of the arctic didn’t really apply. I got some tires anyway and found someone with a van to drive us out to some frozen lake. When we burned the tires it got really messy and even th­­­­ough the smoke was nice and sooty and black, it never really rose up as high as I imagined. So, the video we shot made it just look like a really far-fetched and lonely act of vandalism. Afterwards we had to clean up all that scorched and melted rubber. I am not sure it was worth it.

 

With your practice involving different media and collaborations, I am curious what your usual working environment is like. Do you have a dedicated studio space, or do you have a more variable/flexible kind of arrangement?

I have an office and next to it a modestly-sized studio. Both are very close to where I live. That’s important, that I can go there whenever and not spend time in transportation. I use the studio a lot when I actually produce something, but then there are times, sometimes weeks, when I don’t really go there and just read or write or sketch and do work on the computer. Which can also happen at home or wherever. I am not a post-studio artist, but an intermittent studio artist.

 

Is there any medium that you have yet to experiment with that you would like to try, or become more acquainted with?

I just now produced a digital animation for the Thessaloniki Biennial. It is based on a series of drawings I made. I really like that malleability, that the drawings already suggest their manifestation as virtual 3D-objects in a film. I would like to use 3D-printing to translate some of the objects from that film into physical sculpture. That’s a plan.

 

Gag-wheel in issue 24

 

Being a humorist, do you have a favorite joke?

Comedy is highly contextual. It doesn’t easily survive being transferred to another situation. That’s when you shrug and say: “I guess you had to be there.” Jokes on the other hand are supposed to be portable comedy. They are like the easel-painting of comedy. They carry their context with them, or rather, they rely on such commonplace contexts that they become, relatively, context-independent. I am terrible at remembering jokes. But I once worked for a German TV-show as a gag writer and the head writer asked me the same question, what’s your favorite joke? And then proceeded to tell me his. And that joke I remember till today.

 

What was the joke?

His favorite joke went like this: There’s a guy walking out about town and suddenly he sees a penguin in the middle of the city. He takes the penguin to the nearest police station and says: Look, I found this penguin walking around on its own, what should I do with it? And the policeman says, “You have to take it to the zoo.” The next day that same policeman is out on patrol and runs into the guy who’s walking down the street with the penguin. He walks goes up to him and says goes: “Hey, what’s going on? I told you to take that penguin to the zoo.” And the guy goes: “I did that was yesterday, now we’re going to the movies.”

 

What do you have coming up in the near future?

I am working on two book projects and we’re expanding the repertoire of “Lars & Olav.” We are preparing for a performance at a club in Athens in September and decided to produce a new piece, a love story between a woman from Kreuzberg and a tour guide on Crete, titled “Eurolove.” It’ll be danceable Greek-German techno.

 

-Hayley Richardson, July 2015

JOSHUA ABELOW WANTS YOU TO CALL HIM (ABSTRACT)

From Joshua Abelow’s project “Fourteen Paintings” in zingmagazine issue 24

Creative energy and instinct runs in Joshua Abelows family, passed down through the generations from his grandmother, his mother, and then to him and his sister. Growing up in Maryland, detached from the contemporary art world, this instinctual need to create art allowed him to develop a personal style based on the purity of form, the complexity of color, inferential reasoning, and a sense of humor. Abelow’s formal entrance into the New York art scene began just as organically, when gallerist James Fuentes discovered his work on Art Blog Art Blog, which Abelow started in 2010 as a means to get his art into the world. The blog not only allowed him to showcase his artwork alongside other creative figures he admired, but also served as an extension of his practice and as an artistic exercise with a distinct beginning and end. The blog inspired Abelow’s interest in curating, a role that is still very much tied to his work as an artist. Now with a project featured in the newest issue of zingmagazine, a series of paintings recently installed at Dikeou Collection, a gallery space in Baltimore, and an upcoming show at James Fuentes Gallery, 2015 seems to be the year when all his creative endeavors will coalesce more potently than ever.

Interview by Hayley Richardson

 

Where are you right now?

I’m in a gigantic hay barn that I rented to make large paintings for the summer in Maryland, where I grew up.

 

When did you move into the barn? When did you start doing this?

I started doing it last summer. I found this barn on Craig’s List sort of by chance. I was home visiting family and was just messing around on Craig’s List to see what might be available in terms of studio space and I got lucky. Last summer was great and I couldn’t stop thinking about it so I decided do it again.

 

How big are the paintings you’re working on right now?

I’m working on a series of paintings that are 98 inches by 78 inches. Last summer I made 80-inch by 60-inch paintings and then a few other ones that were a little bit smaller than that. You know in New York, everything is so . . . you know there is a different energy out here which is kind of great because there’s obviously the space and the head space, but then there’s also, you know, there’s like ducks and chickens running around. It’s the complete opposite of working in New York.

 

Are you still working in a similar style, with your geometric backgrounds and color patterning?

That kind of geometric work is ongoing. It’s like a daily ritual and keeps me busy no matter what. But also this past winter I focused on a lot of drawing, and now some of these larger paintings are based on the drawings.

 

In your curatorial statement for the latest issue of zing you wrote a poem, and I am curious how you would characterize the interplay between your poetry and your visual artwork.

I think there’s definitely a relationship, and maybe sometimes it’s more obvious and sometimes it’s not as obvious but everything I do is connected. The poems are diaristic. I used to keep handwritten journals, but then the blog replaced that and the poems are a way for me to continue messing around with words. There was a time a few years ago that I was only painting words. The relationship between text and image continues to interest me quite a lot.

 

In the poem you say that the pictures were inspired by dancing figures in a movie. Is this a literal statement, and if so what movie was it?

It’s not really literal, it’s more metaphorical.

 

What’s the story behind the “Famous Artist” paintings in your zing project?

There’s a Bruce Nauman quote that’s been stuck in my mind for years—referring to one of his neon signs he says, “It was a kind of test—like when you say something out loud to see if you believe it. Once written down, I could see that the statement was on the one hand a totally silly idea and yet, on the other hand, I believed it. It’s true and not true at the same time. It depends on how you interpret it and how seriously you take yourself.” I did a show called “Famous Artist” in Brussels in 2012. I had never done a show in Europe and I thought the title might get people’s attention, which it did

 

We recently installed “Call Me Abstract” at Dikeou Collection, a series of 36 paintings with your cell phone number. Visitors have called this number and left voice messages for you. Have you listened to them?

Yes, I have. I’ve gotten a number of phone calls and some text messages. If I don’t pick up the phone I always listen to the message and sometimes I might respond with a text. I started developing the “Call Me” idea in early 2007. The first paintings just said “Call Me” and then I wanted to literalize that idea by painting my phone number. One time, actually more than once, a professor called me up and put me on speakerphone with his class while I was eating lunch. And you know that’s kind of the idea—to create an unexpected situation with painting.

 

“Call Me Abstract” is painted on burlap, as well as a few other of your paintings. Why did you choose to start working with this material?

I paint on burlap, I paint on linen, I paint on canvas. I’ve experimented a lot with all kinds of different materials. My work is often systematic and pre-planned, and so the burlap, because there’s a great texture to it, it butts up against the paint in interesting ways and there’s always room for the paint to do something unpredictable like bleed. I buy the stuff at Jo-Ann Fabrics and I can tell that the people who work there wonder who this guy is showing up to buy burlap all the time.

 

I was looking at some of your new work on your website where you have reproductions of modernist works by artists like Magritte, Kirchner, and Pollock with the Mr. Peanut character inserted into it. Could you discuss what these are about?

That’s a specific body of work that I produced for a show that I did with two artists in Brooklyn recently at this gallery called 247365. The show was called “Situational Comedy” and it featured work by me alongside Brad Phillips who is based in Toronto and a guy named R Lyon who lives in New York. The whole idea was to put together a show of work that might not look like other work we’ve made, or at least that’s how I was thinking about it. One of the things that was funny and interesting was that at the opening people would come up to me and say, “Hey, we know you’re in the show, where’s your work?,” and I would be standing next to one of the pieces. There’s a performative element to a lot of what I do and the conversations at the opening seemed to embody the spirit of what I was trying to do. Mr. Peanut is basically a stand in for me. I wanted to take out my hand all together and just make something from appropriated imagery. I was thinking a lot about Kenneth Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” ideas. Eliminating my hand changed the decision-making process and put more emphasis on placement and scale. Those works are really small—a little larger than postcards.

 

I’ve read that Magritte in particular is very influential on you, so I understand why you would use one of his pieces. Could you talk about the other artists that you included?

All six images that you’re talking about were taken from art books that I’ve collected over the years and those are some of the images that I keep around the studio and look at all the time. When I make drawings I often lift material from these art books. Another thing I like about the Mr. Peanut works is that they are reproductions of reproductions of reproductions so the content of the work is layered and not as straightforward as it might appear. This interest in reproduction was something I explored in my blog for five years and those Mr. Peanut pieces are strongly related to the blog, and in a way, the end of the blog because I stopped running the blog around the time of the opening.

 

Your drawings generally have a more fluid and varied appearance than your paintings, and have a distinct lack of color. To me they are reminiscent of drawings by people like Warhol, Jean Cocteau, and Picasso. The drawings and paintings share certain aesthetic tropes like the stick figure, running witch, and use of text, but they seem to be coming from a very different place in your mind than the paintings. I’ve even noticed that the paintings and drawings are exhibited separately from one other in galleries. Can you talk about the relationship, or even the dividing factors, these two mediums have for you?

Yeah, I think a lot of what you just said is totally true. In simple formal terms, with drawing, I’ve always been interested in line and gesture, and with painting I’ve always been more interested in form and color and shape. Most of the solo shows I’ve done have featured drawings and paintings but not side by side. My first show in New York was at James [Fuentes Gallery] in January of 2011 and I, very intentionally, set up a situation where I had small paintings on the left side of the room and on the right side of the room I had my drawings. The idea was to create a situation where the drawings on the right side of the room would essentially undermine or argue with the logic of the paintings on the left side and vice versa. In the drawings I was satirizing the idea of the “painter” in the spirit of Paul McCarthy’s piece “PAINTER.” I wanted the entire exhibition to function on a satirical level. It was sort of up to the viewer to come in and determine what was going on and to try to make sense of it. I’m always thinking about that kind of thing in my work – I’m always thinking about the relationship between things – the relationship between paintings and drawings, or the relationship between, say, a geometric painting next to a painting that has my phone number on it or a face or some other figurative reference. And I am interested essentially in storytelling, but a kind of abstract storytelling where the viewer really has to do legwork and get mentally involved.

 

So you’re bringing them together more? Would they be exhibited in an integrated way like that too?

Well, like the running witch that you brought up before, I don’t know if you’ve seen too many of those paintings because it’s a relatively new image that I started developing last summer and that came directly out of drawing. And even the stick man with the top hat and the funny dancing shoes, that came out of drawing, too. So there are moments when the paintings and the drawings gel and then there are moments when they dissipate and don’t look anything alike. I like that fluidity, I want there to be that kind of openness. I think of it like experimental music – rhythms going in and out.

 

You come from a family of artists. Your sister, Tisch, is a painter, curator, and blogger. I’ve noticed that her paintings have a similar emphasis on geometric formality and color interaction as yours do. Can you talk about what kind of influence you two have on each other’s work, or life in general?

Yeah. I think my sister and I were both influenced by our grandmother who is a really wonderful painter. She’s 92 years old and lives and works in West Virginia. She studied at Cooper Union back in the late ‘40s, but she never pursued a career as an artist, and I don’t think that was even an idea that would have been remotely possible for her at the time. But we grew up with some of her paintings and drawings in the house and she had her work up at her place, and I would say her work is reductive . . . it’s based on observation but it’s definitely reductive—shape, color, line. So, I would say that my sister and I are both indebted to her. My sister originally wanted to be a writer (like our mom). She went to Sarah Lawrence to study creative writing and didn’t make her way into painting until later. In fact, I think she actively avoided painting for a long time because that’s what her older brother was doing and she wanted to do her own thing. When she was a senior she took a painting class and started painting at that time and has really kept it up since then.

 

Yeah, I’m almost thinking of like this genetic thing that’s embedded in you guys, that you sort of share this aesthetic between you all that just grows through the generations. Like if one of you two had kids one day you could see it manifest again in some other way.

Absolutely. In 2013 I published a monograph called Art Fiction with reproductions of my work alongside some images by my sister and images by my grandmother. My sister and I showed our work together at a small artist run space in Philly back in 2010, and my grandmother and I exhibited together at the Prague Biennial a few years ago, and that opportunity led to a small solo presentation of her work at a gallery in Milan called Lucie Fontaine. My sister and I went over there for the opening. My grandmother couldn’t go but she was excited about it anyway.

 

In 2010 you started your Art Blog Art Blog where you posted your poems, as well as excerpts from books, information and images about other galleries, shows, and artists you were interested in. It was updated constantly; averaging 2500 posts a year and had a sizeable following. Why did you decide to stop updating the blog this past March?

You know there’s another interesting Bruce Nauman quote that I wanted to get into this interview. This one is taken from an interview he did in 1978, and he says, “Art is a means to acquiring an investigative activity.” And that kind of thinking is what got me started with the blog. Unlike other blogs, I was thinking of my blog as a form of artistic activity, and so in other words it was always intended to be an art project in and of itself so therefore it would have a start and it would have a finish. When I started it I wasn’t sure how long I would keep it up but when I hit the five year mark it felt like a good time to stop because otherwise I think I would have wanted to do an entire decade and it was too much. I felt like I made the point after five years. It didn’t really seem necessary anymore.

 

It seems like with how much you interacted with it, it seemed like something that was really part of your routine. Was it strange when you stopped doing it? Did you have to remind yourself, “No, I’m not blogging anymore. I’m not doing that today.”   

That’s a great question. The thing that’s really strange about it all is that there was a lot of nervousness on my end leading up to the end, but after I finished it I felt uncomfortable for about an hour or two. I look back and I can’t even believe I spent that much time doing it. I don’t even think about it now. It’s weird.

 

Yeah, that’s kind of surprising to me actually. I figured it would have been something that you would have been more attached to as far as seeing something and being like, “Oh, that’s cool I’ll put it on my blog. No wait, I can’t.”

Well you know what saved me was Instagram.

 

Yeah, that’s what I assumed. And that leads into my next question: Looking back at an old interview in a 2012 with Frank Exposito for James Fuentes Gallery, you mention a self-portrait you made in 2003 with a television on your head, and related the artist and the television as transmitters and receivers of information. As an artist who uses the internet heavily, especially with Instagram now, do you think the computer is now the more dominant force in this exchange, or does the television still maintain the same power you attributed to it 12 years ago? 

Hmmm, I definitely think it’s all about the computer. I think in that interview I said “television” and I meant television basically because at that time when I made that work, it wasn’t immediately following 9/11 I guess but it was in the wake of that, and I was living in New York not far from where that happened. And I think every artist and every person in New York and elsewhere was trying to grapple with what happened, and it’s like how do you make something, how do you make a painting or a meaningful artwork when an event of that magnitude has happened. So basically for a long time I was leaving my television on watching the news nonstop and I started making work again with the TV on and I was watching TV all the time while I was in the studio. But with the TV, when I said it, I meant it more metaphorically like the way we connect to technological devices to get information and having this connectivity has changed the world and continues to change the world.

 

Yeah, and I saw that when we posted “Call Me Abstract” on Instagram you were instantly engaged with it and put it on your blog right before it ended, so I thought it was kind of cool that connection was made at a somewhat crucial time because it was just really days before you ended the blog so it was kind of cool that it made it up there at that time.

It’s also, I mean, the phone number piece at Dikeou is coming right out of the same kind of logic as the painting you’re describing with the television on my head. It’s this idea, with the phone number, it’s a self-portrait in the technological age—like these numbers signify me. Even beyond that they signify New York…anybody who’s lived in New York knows that it’s the 917 number, it’s a New York phone number, there’s this relationship to the idea of “the New York artist” which is really intentional because if I didn’t have a 917 number I don’t know if I would have even…I might have made something else. I wanted those numbers to signify a bunch of different things but in the most basic abstract way.

 

Yeah, I can relate to that because living in Denver I don’t have a Denver area code on my phone number and so when I share my phone number with people it immediately brings questions like, “Oh, where’s that from? How long have you lived here,” that kind of stuff. So it is definitely tied with your identity.

Definitely. And you know I think that’s also young artists, or artists of any age I guess, who are moving . . . I mean I always say New York and I don’t know if it’s old fashioned or not but I still feel like New York is where (L.A. too) artists still want to go. You know young artists are moving there out of art school to go make an identity for themselves, you know, so this idea of a 917 number, a New York number, it’s something so many people can identify with. It’s like that same thing if you’re from Maryland or wherever and you move to New York and get a New York state driver’s license, it’s like the birth of a new identity.

 

In another 2012 interview with Matthew Schnipper for The Fader, you made a comment about there being a growing number of people who make art as a career whereas you make art out of necessity. You’ve been quite fortunate, though, to make a living doing what you love. Do you feel like the “career artists” make things more challenging for the ones working out of pure passion? How do these two types of artists interact with each other, or how do you see the differences in how they navigate the art world?

Hmm…well, I think of myself as a late bloomer. I didn’t have my first show in New York until I was thirty-four, which by today’s standards is on the late side. Many of my peers started showing way before I did and I just plugged along. Now I feel much more connected to younger artists—a lot of the artists I talk to the most are a decade younger than I am and I like that actually. If I’d grown up in New York City with parents who were in the art world and taking me to all the art openings and if I had been exposed to the world of contemporary art at a young age, then I’m sure I might not have felt that pursuing art was going to be like climbing down into a dark tunnel for the rest of my life. But in Maryland where I grew up that just wasn’t the way it was—when I told people I wanted to be an artist they just looked at me blankly and I could tell they felt sorry for me. I didn’t know anything about contemporary art or that you could make a living as an artist, really. I wasn’t thinking about it from a practical stance—I just knew that I was an artist and that I would do whatever I could to keep the world from robbing me of what I felt compelled to do.

 

Would you say that you’re surprised at all by your own success, or expect it to grow into what it’s become now?

I think being an artist is a gamble. I think what happened with me is that a real shift in my thinking occurred when I was in graduate school I stopped thinking of myself as a “painter” and started to think of myself as a person involved with art as an activity in a broader sense. I got interested in Peter Halley’s writing and I became more aware of the role that art can have on a social level. And that really opened up a lot of doors. I’m happy that I have been able to carve out a space as an artist and I want to continue to push the work forward and work hard.

 

Can you talk about your background/experience as a curator?

Curating came out of Art Blog Art Blog and Art Blog Art Blog came out of my studio-work so I think of curating as an extension of my studio. I think that’s really why I started the blog—thinking a lot about arrangements of things. The other thing about the blog is that when I first started it I was not showing my work much, I didn’t have gallery representation, I wasn’t even living in New York at the time, and so it was a way for me to contextualize my own work alongside the work of other artists and whatever else in any way that I wanted. If you go back into the archive, the first year or so of the blog is primarily images and a lot more of my own work and my own poems in there because I was trying to get some visibility for myself. It was surprisingly effective. Less than a year after starting the blog I started working with James and suddenly there were a lot of eyes on what I was doing, and so I kind of backed off a little bit on featuring my own work on the blog and became more interested in showing work by other emerging artists. It was an exciting time in NYC because the market had crashed and there was a lot of DIY energy in the air and I think ABAB captured that energy and harnessed it to an extent. I started showing work by famous artists, both living and dead, alongside someone like a 23 year old that I met in Brooklyn and did a studio visit and thought their work was interesting and it might have some kind of obvious or not so obvious relationship to, let’s say Magritte or whoever. And then I would put it online and allow the viewer to make these visual and conceptual connections. It was so amazing to feature certain artists—you know I would promote certain people on the blog and the next thing you know they’d be showing all over the place. I had a strong hand in it that, although I didn’t really expect the blog to have that much influence. That happened organically. But yeah, that’s how I got into curating.

 

Is curating something you would like to continue to do?

I’m running a semi-anonymous space in Baltimore. Right now we’re on the tenth show. It’s been interesting, it’s been a way for me to sort of crystallize a lot of the thinking that went into Art Blog Art Blog—a more focused version because the gallery is named after Freddy Kruger, and all the shows are sort of dealing with . . . there’s a kind of dark humor vibe to the shows that we’re doing.

What are you currently reading, listening to, or looking at to fuel your work?

Keith Mayerson sent me Eric Fischl’s memoir, Bad Boy, which I have been enjoying. I’m half way through it. And the chickens and ducks, those guys are the true inspiration.

 

What else do you have coming up in the near future?

I’m working on a show for Fuentes, which I think is going to be in January. I don’t want to say too much about it because I want it to be a surprise but I will say that it’s going to be a multifaceted show with an Internet component.

Last fall I did a two-man show with Gene Beery, and I interviewed him when I did my first Art Blog newspaper. Gene is a text-based painter who also messes around a little with video and photography. Gene has been a huge part of my blog—an active contributor for at least two years, and when I knew the blog would end Gene and I did a countdown—everyday he’d send me a new image that said something like “14 days remaining” or whatever with a design. Anyway, Gene is an under-recognized artist who is one of my heroes and so it’s been amazing to have this ongoing web-based collaboration with him. And last fall our collaboration was translated into a two-man show at this artist-run spot called Bodega in New York and at Freddy in Baltimore. Now we’re working on collaborative silkscreens. I don’t know where the silkscreens will end up yet but I just wanted to talk about it for a minute because I’m pretty excited about it.

 

-Hayley Richardson, June 2015

EXISTING IN BRAD KAHLHAMER'S THIRD PLACE

Bowery Nation, Installation View, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, 2012

 

Brad Kahlhamer walks the line between worlds. Or better yet is continually creating a path of his own—a “third place” where imagination and identity are joined at the hip in a patchwork of Native icons, punk vibes, pop reference, all dripping with the language of expressionist gesture. Born in Tucson, Arizona, Kahlhamer has been in New York working across mediums since the 1980s—first as a design director at Topps Chewing Gum and soon an artist in his own right navigating the energies of Lower East Side, a mythic territory since woven into his evolving visual narrative. Today we find Kahlhamer coming off high-profile exhibitions at Chelsea’s Jack Shainman Gallery and a residency at the Rauschenberg Foundation in Captiva Island, now immersed in the role of Brooklyn’s flaneur and on the verge of a trip to Alaska. Most recently, Kahlhamer contributed an essay to the catalog for Fritz Scholder’s Super Indian exhibition, opening at Denver Art Museum in October. I met Brad at his studio in Bushwick to discuss underground cartoonists, hardcore bands, the art world, Native culture, sketching, and the one dream-catcher to rule them all.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

You’re about to depart for Alaska?

Next week. I’m doing this thing called First Light Alaska Initiative. I’m one of six people who are going up to conduct workshops on two weekends. Then we are going to hold over in Anchorage. I hope to get some fishing in if it’s not too cold or iced up.

 

What are the workshops?

It’s a woman named Anna Hoover who’s taken it upon herself to create a workshop and eventually a brick-and-mortar space. She’s bringing up a number of people. One, a “gut-skin sewer,” which is the old way of making clothes out of seal intestines. There’s also a chef coming up, and a musician, all from upper Alaska and Canada. We are traveling together as a Native entourage.

 

How long are you there for?

Eleven days. That’s a pretty good amount of time. I’m going to bring sketchbooks, do a lot of thinking. Just take it all in since I’ve never been up there.

 

Now let’s return to the beginning. How did you get involved with art making?

I came to New York in the ‘80s and worked at Topps Chewing Gum for about nine years as a design director. I was working with a lot of underground cartoonists like Art Spiegelman, who created Maus which became a really big deal. Others included Mark Newgarden, Kaz and Steve Cerio—it was a full immersion in the downtown creative world of that time. But I was also making watercolors at lunchtime and scavenging for sculpture materials on the Brooklyn waterfront where Topps was located. I finally quit Topps in ’98 to go full on with my own art and it seemed like the next day I was asked to be in a show in Amsterdam.

 

You were making your own work during your time at Topps?

On and off—I was cobbling together pieces as much as I could. I was putting together these giant sculptures out of rubber tires, these kind of impossible, belligerent things—dark, bleak, and black that summed up the Lower East Side at the time. I was also playing in a band. I recall we played with the Cro-Mags and people were throwing beer cans at us. It was all part of the experience.

 

You were in a hardcore band?

Well, we were in a hardcore show at Danceteria. At the time we had a rehearsal studio on Ludlow next to Bad Brains’ space and our lead singer knew a couple people around that band. Anyways, Ludlow Street had a lot of that history. So that was exciting. In ‘96/97 I started showing with Bronwyn Keenan and her start-up gallery downtown. In ’99 I was introduced to Jeffrey Deitch who had this idea to dedicate part of his gallery to the expressionist painting that was going on at the time.

 

And you were part of this grouping?

Yes. I was seeing myself as a next generation New York painter. I had been painting brushy expressionistic oils, not a popular direction at the time. The canvasses were smallish, probably due to finances and limitations of studio space. But Jeffrey had this idea. He was seeing yet another resurgence of this type of painting and brought me into the fold. There were to be four of us—one of which was Cecily Brown (who later went on to Gagosian). I stayed with Jeffrey and did three shows. The first was in ’99, “Friendly Frontier,” which was just a great experience and made me realize a broader context of the New York art world. Jeffrey was really looking for artists who were able to conjure up and present an entire universe and there were a number of us who were doing that at the time.

 

First Blast, 67″ x 64″, oil on canvas, 1999

 

Is creating your own universe something you sought to do as an artist?

No. I’m fairly natural in my production. I try not to over-think things. The idea of mating Western, Native American mythology and history with downtown New York created a world necessary for me to exist—a world I call the Third Place. The First Place being the life I would have lived had I not been adopted and the Second Place being the life I actually do live. The Third Place was the intersection of all my passions, the artwork, and the reality I created and was living. Jeffrey recognized that a number of people had similar visions at that time and picked up on that. Really exciting time to be showing. First of all to be living and working in downtown post-’80s and second to be part of the Deitch experience. I don’t know if that sort of thing can even happen anymore—the amount of experimentation was pretty remarkable on the scale that he offered.

 

Do you feel that post-Deitch you’ve had to seek a new direction?

It was such a moment unto its own. When that all ended there was a regrouping that had to happen. The outside world was also changing in New York with the economic collapse. It wasn’t just me, it was everyone. Everyone was scrambling, It was a time of changing and shifting. Yeah, it seems like 2008 was the year referred to over and over.

 

What was your situation in 2008?

I had always been hardwired to make art since I was a kid. You can retrench but it’s not like I’m not going to be an artist. I learned a lot during that period and became more self-sufficient. It’s all worked out. Jack Shainman approached me and we’ve taken it to the next level—in Chelsea now as opposed to downtown.

 

When I was in your studio last to put together the zingmagazine project, you showed me images from Bowery Nation, which I think eventually ended up being shown at Shainman?

Jack showed that piece in October 2013 just after I joined the gallery. It had already been acquired by Francesca Von Habsberg and TBA21. Jack borrowed it for the show, “A Fist Full Of Feathers.” Super generous of him to bring it to 24th street where the New York Times and a number of others reviewed it.

 

I remember you had it shown at the Aldridge Museum prior?

Yes, I completed Bowery Nation in 2012, capping it at a hundred figures and twenty-two birds. Richard Klein brought it to the Aldridge Museum and then it immediately went on to the Nelson-Atkins and their beautiful building, and soon after to Jack Shainman’s 24th Street space in New York, and finally ending up in Guadalajara at the MAZ (Museo de Arte de Zapopan) where it’s currently awaiting transportation to Bogota. Bowery Nation is going to be on the road for a while, which is thrilling. Guadalajara in so many ways reminds me of the Southside of Tucson, which is where I grew up. So it was cool to see those figures in an environment similar to where I came from. Growing up in Tucson, I was aware of the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. Around 1975 or so, I was visiting the Heard and for some reason the Barry Goldwater collection of kachina dolls made a huge impact on me in sheer number and quality. That’s a whole cosmology unto itself. Later, in the mid-90’s, I saw a Pow Wow Parade at Crow Nation in Montana, and subsequently created this conceptual Pow Wow float, which is why Bowery Nation looks like it does. I basically assembled my studio furniture and built an improvised platform. My idea was that anyone could do this and take part in the parade. These were the intercessors and ambassadors of this creative universe. It had a noise level that I really liked.

 

Was there any specific inspiration for the individual figures?

Again, going back to the Topps Chewing Gum experience, there was the anthropomorphic nature and characterization within the comic worlds. Combining that with things I had seen in the Heard Museum—the overall human idea that the doll or figure is translating myth and history to a younger generation is a universal concept. It seems to be a natural from time immemorial. The next level of figures I showed at Jack’s gallery in “Fort Gotham Girls + Boys Club” are more involved in articulation with their own dream-catchers. Recently, I was at this incredible residency in Captiva Island, Florida at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. There was a kiln and so I started picking up clay and building forms. That seems to be a huge new direction in translating my painterly impulses into my need to build objects.

 

How do you feel your work relates to Native culture? You are clearly interested and purposefully seek it out. But there also seems to be a rift.

That’s an excellent question. I’m currently in this show called “Plains Indians: Artists of the Earth and Sky” at the Met. It’s hugely important—spanning two thousand years of Native cultural history to evolving contemporary Native work. I feel great about being in it, but it’s also making clearer my position in relation to Native culture—this kind of inside, outside thing. I’ve created this bubble for myself and the show is bringing that more into focus. It was a very direct and conscious decision that I occupy a unique position in relation to both the Native and the contemporary art worlds.

 

And it makes sense because Native culture has been so interrupted historically. You’re not trying to preserve traditional culture but instead representing this position you’ve sort of found yourself in.

In my talk at the Met, I refer to it as a “collision of cultures.” When you see the show it is fairly clear from the late 1800s on. My work is more like you’re driving along and come upon the immediacy or suddenness of a car wreck that hasn’t quite been cleared off the highway. That’s not the most typical narrative.

 

That segues nicely into your zing project in issue #23, “Community Board”—a montage of images from photos to drawings, found pieces, and video stills.

Yeah, it’s beautifully designed. I love the way it turned out. There’s an incongruity or uneasiness from image to image, much like how the Plains ledger drawings work. Spatially, in the ledger drawings, multiple events occur within one page. When you think about it, some of them are more progressive than comics today. Ledger drawings were America’s first graphic novels.

 

What are you working on now?

The sketchbooks started last summer, reconnecting to a tradition I’ve always followed. It was this idea of drawing the new orbits of creative activity around Bushwick and Williamsburg. It’s based on the older tradition of the flaneur—the Parisian artist roaming the streets and recording. I think it’s just extending the studio practice out and beyond. Having a glass of wine with dinner at night and sketching. Keeping it going. It’s really that simple. That’s the beauty and brilliance of the sketchbook.

 

Does this feed into other work, like your paintings?

Well, traditionally, that would have been the case but now I’m posting them on Instagram (@bradkahlhamer ), which led to a show at the Wythe Hotel of selected spreads in three of the penthouse rooms. Suddenly the sketchbooks have their own life. I like the public/private nature of this exhibition because it goes back to the intimacy of the sketchbook as well. It’s the grand tradition of observational drawing. I’ve always drawn the figure. The reason I sketch is to drive up the intensity of the experience and make it more known to me. It’s natural for me to not make one but 248 drawings of, let’s say, skulls for my Skull Project (2004). It comes out of music because I play by ear and it was always the idea of repetition of learning that was ground into me as a teenager.

 

SuperCatcher, 11.5′ x 11.5′ x 12″, wire and bells, 2014

 

Tell me about your latest work, SuperCatcher.

The idea was to take every dream-catcher in the United States, whether it’s on a pickup truck or in a single-wide trailer, somebody’s bicycle or baby crib, and weave them all together in a cosmos, a universe of industrial wire. The spiritual rebar for an enriched dream reactor. I’m very pleased this particular work will be hung at the 2016 grand re-opening of SFMOMA.

 

Find more about Brad Kahlhamer on his website www.bradkahlhamer.net. View his new music video “Bowery Nation” here and follow him on Instagram: @bradkahlhamer .

 

 

-Brandon Johnson, June 2015

JOURNEY EAST TO WEST AND A TO Z WITH ANDREA ZITTEL

A page from Cocktail Hours at The A-Z Brooklyn NY 1996-1998, curated by Andrea Zittel for zingmagazine 23

Andrea Zittel casts a critical yet sensitive eye upon society and its constructs. She questions the value and implementation of social design, both the psychological and physical, and aims to provide insight and solutions to these questions through her artwork. Her investigations have culminated into an incredible range of artistic output, from modular living units, egg incubators, and functional textiles, to the creation of floating islands, desert communes, and interactive public art installations. The nature of Zittel’s artwork calls for utility and interaction, but simultaneously values aesthetic autonomy and personal solitude. This dichotomous relationship between form and function, public and private, is indicative of how her work effortlessly straddles the lines between art, architecture, and design. Her project in zingmagazine issue 23 documents the usage of some her early prototypes, and provides a glimpse into her social circle of the time. Rachel Harrison, Wade Guyton, Maurizio Cattelan, Gregory Volk, Roberta Smith—these are just a few of the people who could be found in Zittel’s three-story row house on Brooklyn’s Wythe Avenue on Thursday evenings, in a time before the borough became the creative hub that it is today.

Andrea and I began to exchange emails back in March, when she was in the midst of organizing and installing an exhibition of her “Aggregated Stacks” at the Palm Springs Art Museum. In April she welcomed the first of two groups of people to her A-Z West outpost for open season in Joshua Tree, California to facilitate their personal explorations in art, life, and self. She is currently preparing for another solo exhibition, The Flat Field Works, at the Middleheim Museum in Antwerp. Her ability to maximize efficiency and productivity is something we all strive to achieve, but her capacity to do so creatively and philosophically is beyond exceptional.

Interview by Hayley Richardson

 

Your A-Z enterprise began in a small row house in Brooklyn in the 90’s, known as “The A-Z.” This was the site for the popular Thursday cocktail hours in which local artists and people from the neighborhood would gather socially and test out your new living systems. Your project in zingmagazine 23 features candid photographs from these congregations, and these photos can be seen affixed to the walls of the apartment. Your work calls into question the usefulness or function of space and day-to-day objects, so I am curious if these photographs, these memories, serve(d) an important purpose in your routine.

I know my work has often been described along the lines of functionalism—but I’m actually not so interested in practical function as I am in psychological function and things like social roles, or value systems. So The A-Z, my Brooklyn rowhouse/storefront functioned as a testing grounds for these experiments—and as a space that allowed my works a kind of autonomy from traditional exhibition spaces. Thinking about various forms, independence or self-sufficiency has always been an important focus—both back in Brooklyn and here at A-Z West in the desert where I have tried to create a center outside of any existing centers.

In trying to create a “center” in Brooklyn we created our weekly cocktail hours, which were basically open to anyone who was willing to attend. I loved the cross sections of people who would find their way through the doors, including other neighbors on the block, fellow artists and curators, critics, gallerists and then the more established artists who made the trek out from Manhattan. Back then Williamsburg was considered totally remote and peripheral to the art world in Manhattan, so I remember being pretty blown away when people like Jerry and Roberta made the trip out.

And the photos were really just a way of cataloging the journey—a sort of sentimentality of sorts. My grandma had photos of her grandkids, and dogs and horses on the wall of her ranch-home. I had photos of my friends and people who made it out to my nook in Brooklyn. As I look back at these images now I think it’s sort of amazing to see my peers and myself in these early years of infancy.

 

Are there any memories that you are particularly fond of from these gatherings that you’d like to share?

We used to try to think of fun things to do for the cocktail evenings—I remember once Mike Ballou prepared an amazing spread of raw oysters. I can’t quite remember why, but I seem to recall that he did this while wearing boxer shorts. And we found a book of personality tests, so sometimes we would drink cocktails and give each other the quizzes so that we could compare personalities. Also I had a huge 80-pound weimaraner named Jethro who we used to have to muzzle because he would go sort of crazy with all the people around. I’m still really grateful to everyone who tolerated my really annoying dog.

 

It has been 15 years since you moved to Joshua Tree and began A-Z West. Can you talk about how this endeavor has evolved since its initiation, both for you personally and for the people who have engaged with it? Has anything ever unexpectedly occurred at A-Z West that had a lasting impact on how you view the project conceptually, or how it functionally operates?

Sure—talking about the community at A-Z East, it makes me realize that in a lot of ways A-Z West has actually become very similar, though this wasn’t my intent at all in the beginning. Originally the two projects were related in that they were both meant to be places where I could make prototypes, live with them, and make them public in their original contexts. But the difference between the two was that I really wanted to have more time alone and more removal from the art world out at A-Z West. I’m never bored and rarely lonely. When I first moved to the desert I could go days without seeing anyone. The phone would ring and I would try to answer it, but find that I had lost my voice from not speaking to anyone in several days.

Now at A-Z West I have a full-on studio with a group of people who I work with. We have open season in the Wagon Station Encampment twice a year (our open season actually starts today [April 20]—and throughout the course of the day ten people are going to arrive to spend various amounts of time here) and A-Z West also has a guest house, and two shipping container apartments for people who come to work on projects. So the desert has become a really active community with lots of activity and people coming and going.

Ultimately A-Z West, similar to A-Z East, has become an entire organism that is bigger than myself and bigger than my own life. I think that it’s super interesting when this happens—and at some point I can see it growing into something that may have a life of its own that will allow me to go explore some other new context—maybe starting with something more remote all over again. (Though If I do that—I think I’ll work hard to keep the next project a little more low key!)

 

It is interesting you say this because your work has this tension between a desire to be communal and social, and a desire for isolation and escape. I think this is a universal dynamic that all people grapple with inn some way. Is this a deliberate pattern, where your time in solitude is like a hibernation period that brings forth new ideas about public/collective life?

It isn’t deliberate, or at least it isn’t something that I thought about and planned to happen—but I feel that you are completely right about this being something that we all struggle with. Trying to find a balance between private and public, individual and collective. But I have noticed that being alone for periods of time helps me to appreciate and value people more. So that is the beneficial part of being able to create distance.

 

You are currently preparing for a show at the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center, in which you collaborated with the museum’s curators and selected works from the collection to commingle with your “Aggregated Stacks.” According to the information presented on the museum’s website, your focus in on integrating your Stacks with Native American weavings. What was your thought process in selecting from the collection? Will other, perhaps three-dimensional, objects come into play in this exhibition?

The collection actually had a lot of different works that I was interested in—for instance it has really amazing Albert Frey archives that include all of his receipts and bank statements and personal photos! But the work in the exhibition really had to do with the space itself—which is a newly restored Stuart Williams bank building. It’s a really wonderful piece of mid century architecture that is strongly tied to the grid. I knew right away that a body of my own work titled “Aggregated Stacks” would tie in perfectly with the architecture—these works also are based on a grid, but theirs is more of a decomposing grid where everything is a little off kilter.

Then culling through the museum’s collection I was really drawn to the textiles. I used a lot of Native American weavings in the show, and also some mid-century table cloths and a piece that I think may have been a curtain at some point, as well as a contemporary tapestry by Pae White. All of the textiles are arranged in a gridded composition on large pieces of carpet. So the textiles aren’t three dimensional—but displaying them on the floor does alter their reading and in a sense gives them a more spatial quality that I’ve been really interested in lately.

 

In a recent series of art21 segments, you mention how the lines between art and design are continuously blurred and redrawn and that your aesthetic is constantly changing. How would you describe where you are at right now, aesthetically and along the art/design spectrum?

Even though I’m a Virgo and super practical person, I feel like my work has become increasingly existential and philosophical over the last ten years. There has been a strong graphic quality in my work from the start—and I’m still going with this, but also trying to evolve toward a new level of restraint or subtlety. And I’m sure that all of this is coming directly out of some of my changing views about life—I’ve always had strong sociological interests in things such as rules and social systems—but as I get older I find myself taking some of those questions a bit deeper into questions about reality or even consciousness itself.

 

Yes, I’ve read about how you feel rules and structure are important in generating creativity. Do you still feel this way? Can you talk more about these new questions/thoughts you’ve been having?

Yes, I totally still feel this way—I think that we can use rules to “liberate” ourselves in a sense. Sometimes when everything around us becomes totally overwhelming and oppressive the only way we can make sense of freedom is to create a set of rules or limitators for ourselves that are smaller than the larger, socially imposed restrictions.

 

-Hayley Richardson, May 2015

MARK SINK OPENS PANDORA'S BOX FOR MONTH OF PHOTOGRAPHY

Portrait by Mark Sink, 2012.

 

With a portfolio that dates back to the late 1970s and an omnipresent energy, Mark Sink has made himself a steadfast pillar in the Rocky Mountain art community. He started his career in commercial photography in New York, canoodling with the likes of Andy Warhol and the rest of The Factory crew, and now lives and works as a fine art photographer and curator in his hometown of Denver, Colorado. Mark is fully dedicated to the medium, and prefers the traditional collodion process and aesthetic to the modern convenience of digital technology. His images, typically portraits and nudes ornamented by flowers, leaves, and water, are ethereal and haunting, and harken back to the work created by his great-grandfather James L. Breese who was an early twentieth-century photographer in New York. Right now Mark is working harder than ever to make this fair mountain city a known art destination on an international level, and he does so by showing endless support for artists and the venues that show their work. He was one of the original founding members of Denver’s Contemporary Art Museum, and curates dozens of gallery shows each year.

Mark’s most ambitious project to date, though, is the Month of Photography, a biennial citywide celebration of the photographic medium started in 2004, which is in full swing right now. This year he curated twelve exhibitions, all occurring during the months of March and April. Also during MoP is a weekly happening he organizes called The Big Picture, where artists submit their work to be shown in public as wheat paste posters. Of course he was generous enough to spend some time exchanging emails with me as he dashed around to meet deadlines and attend openings during what is undoubtedly his busiest time of year.

Interview by Hayley Richardson

 

In 2013, during the last Month of Photography, you did an interview with Gary Reed where you expressed that you were thrilled with how much the event has grown but cautious to not let it get so big that it becomes a struggle to manage. You said, “I like it the way it is right now it’s big enough!” In reference to that statement, how do you feel about the way things have taken shape for MoP in 2015?

I like the size it is now. We are at max capacity . . . I do MoP myself, my wife Kristen does the posters and fliers. We don’t have major funders. I like it moneyless. It has great potential and could be a cash cow of funding . . . but money ruins everything . . . it would ruin my MoP.

 

The show you curated at Redline, Playing with Beauty, is the signature exhibition of MoP and you’ve said it took two years to put together. Working with a broad theme, you must have come across an astonishing array of work. Did you encounter anything that challenged your perspective of beauty? What kinds of trends did you pick up on that might be surprising to others seeing this show, and what kind of work didn’t make the cut?

The title was first “On Beauty.” I changed it to “Playing with Beauty”. . . partly because I really opened Pandora’s box with the subject of beauty. My mission was to present my rather serendipitous encounters with the different interpretations of beauty with the human form and the western landscape.

Not making the cut . . . I was struggling with social documentarians and making them fit . . . I had a few in line like Kirk Crippen’s (love his work) and work from Africa . . . sometimes it was purely budget and or dealing with big Blue Chip Galleries that really look down on loaning work to little ole Denver. Borrowing work from one big east coast dealer was harder then assembling the whole show.

 

The Big Picture is another stand out event for MoP in Denver, and has spread all across the globe. How do you go about selecting which pieces become part of the The Big Picture? Also, why is The Big Picture a black and white project?

We have a standard submission link . . . the submission fee pays for the printing. I pick the work . . . I am the easiest judge in the world . . . if I don’t like the work submitted I often go to the artists website to pick something . . . often I find great work they didn’t think to submit . . . they go from the barely making it in to a top image . . . I also like picking from the website cause a I have more visual and curatorial control. People send the strangest things then their blogger site has amazing things.

It’s black and white because of the Kinkos plotter machine that makes the prints . . . it was made famous by Sheppard Feiry, JR, and others. Cheap fast easy and the thin paper absorbs the paste well.

 

The history of photography is quite fascinating because it has a rich variety of processes and styles. Now, with so many cross-disciplinary approaches developing in the art world, the qualities that define a photograph are continuously blurred. Galleries hosting MoP exhibitions are showing work that is sculptural, mixed media, etc. and placing it under the photography umbrella. Can you articulate what you see happening here? Is there a new movement taking shape that has no immediate connection to the photography process but somehow relies on it on some conceptual level?

Anything goes with art photography . . . Lots of searching is happening now.

I like the direction work is going that is true to the medium, not faking another medium.

Digital has remarkable new ways of seeing very low light with highly sensitive chips . . . and projectors are strong and can shoot on mountains and buildings, laser etching..great things are happening . . . why try and look like an old Silver Print or Platinum print . . . I hate that fakey instagram filter thing . . . that has swept the app world. Just awful, it’s a reflection of our fake-ness in society.

I see a movement with the gushy romantics in still life and portraits ..the master painters of light . . . the Vemeer light. People like Hendrik Kerstens, Bill Gekas, Paulette Tavormina.

A giant movement has taken off world wide with reverse technology. Pinhole, alternative processes, and conceptual of shadow and mirror. The early lost art crew is a huge quickly growing community I am close to. I personally am going reverse . . . I am at the 1850s with collodion tintypes and heading further back to camera-less and camera obscura.

 

Yes, your work has a strong connection to the past, both in the processes you utilize and with your aesthetic, which feels reminiscent of a ghostly, bygone era. You often cite your great-grandfather, photographer James L. Breese, as an influence and you feature his work on your website. You’ve done a lot of research about him. What has that process has been like, putting together the pieces of your family history, and how has it directed the course of your career/practice?

It has been slowly trickling in for several decades. Many times it’s another researcher looking for information on another character in his circle that will fire me up to put more pieces of the Breese puzzle together. All and all it’s very exciting to bring his story into the light. It has led me into researching that period in NYC in depth. History passed him right by . . . then I will get a book like ( Camera Notes by Christian A. Petterson ) the history of Camera Notes and the Camera Club of NY and there on the first page, “The primary inspiration of the Camera Club of NY was James L. Breese.” I find it interesting how much history passes over so many . . . including women.

I use his camera and lenses for some of my work so yes it has a pretty direct play in my work. And I love simple portraits of women. That is 90% of his work as well.

 

Throughout your career you have maintained a strong connection to the young, emerging artists of Denver and have undoubtedly become a great resource and mentor to some of these people. As an artist who honed his craft in the Mile High City in the 1970s and ’80s, how would you characterize this generation of local artists compared to those of previous decades?

It’s a new world . . . far more instantly connected and yet the community is somewhat a bit disconnected at the same time. Great unique ideas and talent always emerges and flies off on its own wings without much help. I enjoy watching this happen.

What I am most sad about is the new generation of young artists and how they are burdened by terrible debt from school. Crazy crazy amounts. Fanny Mae in co-hoots with the franchised for profit colleges and universities saddled on them . . . debts of 100k or more from a small local state school? Please. I have become very down on the higher education system for artists . . . it’s growing anger and sadness from many directions. I know many amazing educators but the system is driving a direction of under paid teaching staff, that then draws in really low level frustrated and angry educators, generally art world drop outs. I have personally visited many art classes in our regional colleges and left appalled and depressed. It’s a bad scene that nobody seems to notice or care about.

 

I agree. The higher education system is like a train running off the tracks when it comes to keeping costs manageable for students. I’ve reviewed artist submissions for galleries in the past, and directors often want to know what schools they graduated from before even looking at their work, so it can be very challenging for hardworking artists who can’t afford a degree to even get noticed. Do you have any advice for young artists struggling with this conundrum? What are some viable alternatives for an artist without a degree to be taken seriously? 

I don’t have a degree so I am an example that it is possible to make it in the world without degrees. I wish I had an easy answer. If I had a magic wand I would trim a few nukes and put the billions into supporting art schools and students. History always looks back at the greatness of a culture by the art it produces.

 

Outside of the visual arts, what inspires you or has an impact on your work?

Walking my dog. Community gardens, getting to know your community through gardening, teaching kids . . . walking in nature.

 

You are a man who wears many hats: artist, curator, educator, community organizer…When you meet someone for the first time, and they ask “What do you do?” how do you typically respond?

Artist in general . . . During MoP curator . . . Asking a new muse to sit for me . . . a fine art photographer.

 

-Hayley Richardson, April 2015

THE WORLD MATTERS TO AGATHE SNOW

Illustration from Passenger Landscapes: Planes, Trains & Automobiles by Agathe Snow in zingmagazine #23

 

Agathe Snow’s artwork is driven by action, participation, and creating an experience. She has been synonymous with the downtown New York art scene for over a decade, but has been living in the country for the past five years. At one time it was difficult for her to be removed from the city, which is an integral component to her creative practice. She has since acclimated to her new surroundings and is inspired by the change in scenery. It has been nearly a year since Agathe participated in an exhibition, but she is currently preparing for a show that will reveal some gems that she has kept locked away for the past decade.

Interview by Hayley Richardson

 

You’ve often described New York City as serving as an extension of yourself. A few years ago you moved away from downtown to Mattituck on Long Island’s North Fork and have been raising your first child. Can you bring us up to speed on what life is like for you now?

[Laughs] It’s different, it’s very different. But I am still really close to New York City; it’s about an hour and twenty minutes so I come in and out all the time. I need my fix, obviously. It took me a while, though. My son is going to be five this summer. So the first year was really crazy and busy with shows and stuff. After about six months I would come home and feel so bad that I was not there taking care of him, so that’s when I started to get settled and got really serious about my artwork and where I was going, but still freaking out about not being in the city, not seeing people  . . . so two years into it I’m freaking out. But now it’s been about a year that I feel really good about where I am, much stronger, things matter more. I’ve learned so much, I‘ve practiced, I have much more space to work out here. The people who owned this place before were car collectors, so I have this huge studio space, tools, new materials, new space, new thoughts . . . The world matters. It’s a new me, new world! I felt so guilty never ever thinking about the future, somehow. Everything was day-to-day in New York, so all that’s changed. So I live in the countryside, I have like four acres of land. I don’t see many people, but it’s good. It’s a good thing for me.

 

Have you exhibited since The Weird Show at CANADA Gallery last year? 

That’s the last one I had. But basically, I’ve been working on this big show that’s opening at the Guggenheim this summer, where it’s works from the last ten years of my career and then there will be a screening of my 24-hour dance marathon [which took place] at Ground Zero. I always said I would put the footage of that away and do something with it in ten years because it was too fresh, too much video, too much everything, too many feelings. So I put it away in a safe. And now it’s ten years and the Guggenheim said they would love to premier the video. They asked if I be willing to show it as part of a big survey show where I would get my own space and show work from the last ten years and then premier the video. So that’s what I’ve been working on, basically, this whole year and now it’s almost ready. I have to work on a book about it that’s basically like a 24-hour movie that follows exactly the 24-hour dance marathon. It was shot with nine cameras in 2005 and so the movie screen is divided into seven blocks and you follow the action from seven different angles at all times for 24 hours. And that’s premiering this summer. So, yeah, I’ve been pretty busy with that! I am working on another show about illegal immigration that’s in September. So I got two projects so far.

 

Sounds like a really big year for you.

Yeah, I am so excited! I have so much energy, my kid is big now and goes to school. It’s a different time, and it’s nice to wrap it all up with this show, you know. Ten years, start something new. It’s good. It’s definitely a big year.

 

The imagery in your zingmagazine project for issue 23 was inspired by the blur of scenery one sees out the window of a moving vehicle, and in your curatorial statement you reveal that you had just gotten your first driver’s license at that time. Some of the images are scenic, with mountains, clouds and trees, while others appear more urban with bicycles and buildings. What areas/locations were you driving in at the time? 

I think it was Colorado, actually. Yeah. We have family in Telluride so we go there a bit.

 

Do you enjoy driving, or do you prefer to be a passenger?

Yeah, a lot! I love it, I really do. It’s amazing, and I do it a lot to get to the city. I get a lot of thinking done. My road from here to the city is straight line going east and west. It’s so powerful, but it was so scary at first. I failed my diver’s test four times. Eventually I went to the city and passed it really easily, but out here they’re making it hard, you know, because people drive all the time everywhere. It was a real nerve wracking experience, but I love it now. I love it, it’s great. It gives me power and flexibility.

 

Your artwork is usually very colorful, so it is interesting that you worked with a monochromatic palette in this project. The accountant paper is also unique. What motivated you to portray landscapes in this manner?

I usually try do something with the stuff I find around me, so the people who had the house before, the guy was an accountant. So when we arrived to move into the house, they were still burning old files from their clients. He was in his pajamas over this big burning fire, and we told him we would take care of it, I’ll use it and paint all over it. We had to throw out tons of stuff from the house, but I kept the paper, though.

I’ve always been so afraid of painting, so I had to start really slowly. I used black, black is enough for now [laughs]. I was just working with basic lines and black. I was actually using the same exact lines for the backdrop on this wall piece I’ve been doing, but with a little bit more color in the lines. It’s just enamel paint, it’s just so easy to play with. I would love to learn how to paint one day, but I’m not there yet.

 

Well that ties in to my next question. Is there any media that you don’t have experience with that you would be interested in trying?

Definitely painting, but I’m terrified of it. I feel like I need to just throw myself in puddles of paint and just move about. I’m completely terrified of it, but it’s so beautiful.

 

Can you remember one of the first things you created that you or someone else identified as a “work of art”?

It was like a little mobile thing on a clothes hanger, and I just made this cut-out thing with fake fruits. It was really fun, I love doing those, just make things that were completely useless. Then someone at the time at Reena Spaulings was like, “No don’t throw it out. We can do something with this.” So that was my first “official” artwork.

 

I heard that you studied history in college. Is this correct? What historical periods or events interest you most?

When I was in college I studied northeastern European and Russian history because growing up in western Europe it was just the most fascinating place to me, especially with the spies. My mom and her friend, they went to Russia in 1984 I think, or ’82 or something, and I was so sure they were getting messages to bring back. And then my grandparents, they went on a tour and their tour guide had given them this little ceramic bunny rabbit. And then years later I found this paper inside of it. I pulled it out and there was nothing on it. No messages. But I have always been, like, completely obsessed with it, the mystery, you know. So that’s what I studied. I like it all. The 20th century, though, is just amazing. You can just dig and dig and dig. I went to McGill University in Canada, and I had really good professors and research. I learned how to study it, write about it, approach it. It was fascinating. I loved it, but you can’t do much with [laughs]. It really teaches you to ask questions rather than give answers. You have to constantly ask questions, and as an artist I feel it’s a good way to approach what you’re doing. You’re not really trying to teach anything, just question it.

 

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture?

I don’t know . . . I don’t think there’s been enough time or enough space. I did have a group of friends in the ‘90s and the 2000s and we’re all together and stuff, so obviously things bounce off each other and elements pop in and out of each others’ works, but I don’t know if it was really a movement. But at this point I feel pretty far away from anything that would be considered a decision as being part of a group.

 

-Hayley Richardson, February 2015

RESHAPING THE ORDINARY WITH LAUREL BROUGHTON

Laurel Consuelo Broughton is the Creative Director of WELCOMEPROJECTS, a design practice that engages with everyday objects in a variety of scales and purpose. From architectural developments to couture accessories (created under WELCOMECOMPANIONS), she seeks out the underlying story that makes the ordinary come to life. She is also currently a lecturer at the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture. Laurel’s curated project in zingmagazine issue 23, THE VILLAGE, demonstrates how she sees beyond the normal functions and size of items we use on a daily basis and gives them a new narrative for us to explore. Prior to her work in architecture and design, Laurel worked as managing editor of zingmagazine.

Interview by Hayley Richardson

 

In the WELCOMEPROJECTS statement for zingmagazine issue 23, THE VILLAGE is described as “the place all WELCOMECOMPANIONS call home.” This home comes to life in the Retrospective City, “where common objects have been transformed into functional building types as suggested by their forms.” This work, in both its 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional forms, possesses a Duchampian spirit, especially with the chessboard layout and lobster telephone. How and why did the surrealist lens become so important in you?

What’s interesting about Surrealism to me is that in a number of different media it sought to create a jolt or distance from familiar things so that we could see those same things in a new way. In my work I’m interested in the same end particularly through playing with the shapes of familiar objects but creating alternate functions for them. The shapes then reappear at different scales sometimes building-sized, sometimes object-sized, and sometimes somewhere in between.

 

The illustrations for THEVILLAGE are like architectural blueprints. Do you create these types of preliminary designs for all your WELCOMECOMPANIONS items or WELCOMEPROJECTS? What’s your creative process like?

In The Village I was interested in thinking about how the shapes of certain everyday objects could if enlarged be similar in proportion to building types we are very familiar with—such as the high-rise apartment building, the office complex or corporate headquarters etc. The cordless phone becomes the high-rise apartment building and the button becomes the office complex or corporate headquarters.

As far as my process goes, drawing definitely plays a role in all sorts of different ways. In The Village the project literally is the drawings. For WELCOMECOMPANIONS drawing might be used in the beginning to explore an idea and then to convey the designs to the manufacturer and then often we use drawings in our promotional materials.

 

Storytelling is another central element in your work. Are there any particular stories that made a significant impact in your life that may have laid the foundations for how you work and conceptualize now?

I was a voracious reader as a child and I think that definitely had an affect, particularly the magical realism that you find in children’s and young adult books—like The Borrowers or even Madeleine L’Engle or The Phantom Tollbooth. In a certain way it’s that same kind of wonder that I try to instill in my work but though objects and our interactions with them.

 

Speaking of stories, what is the story behind the name of your company?

The name WELCOME came about because I didn’t want to use my own name and I also didn’t want a studio with a faux research-y sounding name. I wanted something that seemed familiar. The studio is called WELCOMEPROJECTS and so WELCOMECOMPANIONS seemed like a natural offshoot for a line of accessories.

 

You recently collaborated with director, artist, and writer Miranda July on a collection called “Classics” for WELCOMECOMPANIONS, which “takes the phenomenon of a named bag to its most extreme.” The bag, The Miranda, is simple and unassuming from the outside, but inside there are specialized compartments for eccentric things like a single almond and a tissue-sized security blanket. Who else do you think would be an interesting person to collaborate with on a super-custom namesake bag?

It’s interesting you can learn so much about someone via what they carry around in their handbag. The Miranda really evolved in the design process from being just a namesake bag to being the limited edition art piece that it is now. I’d love to know what Joan Didion or Sophie Calle carry around in their handbags.

 

What would one find inside a Laurel bag?

I don’t know that there is anything particularly unexpected in my handbag . . . up until recently I carried around a two-dollar bill that I got 15 years ago on a visit to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia. The house is full of all these customizations specifically to Jefferson’s day-to-day life- such as his bed existing in a the wall between his study and his bedroom—so that on one side of the bed he got up in his study and the on the other side he got up in the bedroom—this was in case he wanted to get up and just start working immediately.

 

You have an educational and professional background in architecture and teach at USC’s school of architecture. What new ideas or projects are you and your students currently exploring?

With my students I’m most interested in providing ways of seeing and thinking that pertain to design. Most of my studios are about getting the students think outside of pre-conceived notions or conventions.

 

Los Angeles has served as your base of operations for many years. What is it about the city that keeps you inspired, or helps facilitate your means of production?

I constantly find Los Angeles inspiring from the oddities of the built environment to the culture of narrative and make believe that originates here. It’s also still a center of production which means you can find nearby almost any material you can think of. It’s hard to imagine trying to make things in a place where every material has to be ordered and shipped in.

 

What’s on the horizon for WELCOMECOMPANIONS/WELCOMEPROJECTS in 2015?

WELCOMECOMPANIONS has a new collection launching in February called Wrong Side of the Bed, which I’m pretty excited about!

 

-Hayley Richardson, December 2014

BRADFORD MORROW ON HIS MOST RECENT NOVEL, THE FORGERS

Put a rare book in the hands of author Bradford Morrow and he will tell you about it like a sommelier discussing fine wine and handle it like a newborn kitten. Morrow has devoted his life to literature, working since his 20s in a variety of facets of the industry. After attending grad school at Yale, Morrow ran a rare bookshop in Santa Barbara, California, which he later sold in order to launch the innovative literary journal, Conjunctions.

Morrow’s seventh novel, The Forgers (Mysterious Press/Grove Atlantic, November 2014) draws upon his area of expertise, telling the story of forgers in the rare book trade. Our narrator is Will, a semi-repentant and publicly shamed forger—erudite, perhaps a bit nerdy, and sly as an alley cat. His lover Meghan’s brother, a book collector named Adam Diehl, is discovered half-murdered and missing his hands. When Adam dies, his hands and killer are nowhere to be found. As Will tries to recover his reputation from his unsavory (if esoteric) past in order to build a stable home life with the grieving Meghan, he is stalked by another forger whose abilities rival his own.

Morrow is wily in his ability to tinker with genre. The reader who appreciates finer details is rewarded with a trail of narrative lacunae the size of a pinprick and an exquisite tone that is just barely, barely uneasy. Morrow knows how to lay canvas on a frame and stretch it just until the fabric is so thin, one cannot tell whether one is looking at reality or fabrication. The portrait of Will, as he tries to put his life back in order after being exposed as a highly skilled forger, is moving. Will is both an artist and an addict, and his disgrace saturates the page. The deeper thread that drives Will is the artistic urge to have a hand (ha) in beauty and history, and thus much of the novel can be read as a series of meditations on art itself.

I met with Morrow in his Greenwich Village apartment (stuffed floor to ceiling with books) to discuss The Forgers, the idiosyncratic book trade, and what a little imagination can do to alter history.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

How did you get involved in the world of rare books, which inspired The Forgers?

Growing up as I did in a household where there were very few books, I suppose I’ve spent the rest of my life overcompensating by surrounding myself with all kinds of books, from beat-up paperbacks to rare first editions. I’ve done almost everything with a book you can do, from writing them to binding, selling, editing, publishing, translating, collecting, and teaching them. All of these are facets of my lifelong love affair with books.

My first job in a used bookshop had more to do with handling reading copies of classics from every field than with rare books, although I was always intrigued by the volumes the owner kept in a glass-fronted cabinet. They possessed a kind of magic that to this day I can’t quite explain. When I went to graduate school on a fellowship to Yale, I somehow got it in my head that rather than spending my money on typical necessities like groceries, I would acquire first editions of some of the 18th century books I was reading for class. I persuaded myself that reading them in original editions might bring me closer to the text somehow. There was a very dangerous and wonderful bookstore near campus at the time called C. A. Stonehill, and so I bought a mixed edition of Tristram Shandy in the original nine volumes, three of which were signed by Sterne for copyright purposes, as well as a set of Fielding’s Tom Jones in contemporary speckled calf, six volumes. Believe it or not, these were relatively inexpensive at the time, although I did wind up moonlighting in a pretty sketchy Italian restaurant in order to pay off my book debts. After I moved on from Yale, I got a job at a rare bookshop out in California that specialized in modern first editions and that was when I really got interested in rare books. I left the shop after a while and started my own business with some borrowed money. Before I knew it I was in my mid-20s and running a pretty substantial rare book trade of modern first editions in Santa Barbara, California. After putting a lot of effort into that business for four or five years, I sold off most of my inventory and moved to New York so I could start the literary journal Conjunctions.

 

Have you known any forgers in your dealings?

I hope not!

 

There is an element of fetishism of rare books suggested in The Forgers. Is that what the rare books community is really like?

No, not always. Scholarship is one of the leading reasons people and certainly institutions collect. Still, every book collector has his or her own reason for participating in what Nicholas Basbanes calls “the gentle madness” of collecting. The collectors I find most intriguing and even endearing are those who accumulate books—books they’ve read and cherished—because it somehow completes an essential part of their life. I have a friend whose rationale for buying signed first editions of his favorite books is to be a little closer to the author—a book that the author actually laid her hand on makes the experience more tactile or vital to him. Those who collect rare books as an investment may be involved in folly because writers go in and out of favor. Back in the early part of the last century, writers like John Galsworthy, for instance, who we rarely talk about anymore, were highly collected. So collecting books is a really tricky investment. But finally, book collecting, like collecting anything, involves a lot of personal imperative, the first and foremost of which is a visceral as well as intellectual love for what is being collected.

 

Meghan—the narrator’s lover—is the owner of a bookshop. Were characters in The Forgers inspired by personas you know from the book trades?

This is the book I had to research the least because in a way I spent my whole adult life researching it without even knowing it. In retrospect, it seems strange that it never occurred to me before to write about this milieu. So no, none of the characters in the book are drawn from a single individual in the bookselling world, but there are definitely some composites. In Meghan, I wanted to recreate a little bit of my experience with a man I knew when I was going to college in Boulder, Colorado. Dick Schwartz, proprietor of Stage House II, was a real mentor to me. Back then I didn’t have much money, so I would just take books, carefully chosen, and pay him on time when I could. One day he said to me, “Hey Brad, do you know how much money you owe me?” And I said, “Yeah, I do.” He said, “How would you like to work some of it off? Here’s a broom, go upstairs, and do some sweeping and you’ll see there’s shelving and alphabetizing to do up there.” It was as if Dick read an invisible sign hung around my neck, Will Work for Books. I can’t tell you how happy I was to sweep and shelve and pack books for shipment. That said, I tend not to base many characters on specific people. I find it a confining rather than useful approach to character creation.

 

Landscape is important in your work, and many of your stories take place in bucolic settings, but much of The Forgers takes place in New York City, where you’ve lived for decades.

I’ve lived in downtown New York now since 1981, so I didn’t have to do any particular research on the East Village or Gramercy Park. Every year I attend the New York Antiquarian Book Fair at the Armory, so, again, walking around in my mind through that show with my narrator and a nemesis of his, I didn’t even have to close my eyes to imagine it. I know what it smells like. I know the lighting. I know the dealers there. I didn’t have to give it a lot of thought. It came very naturally.

 

Bucolic settings are more characteristic of your narratives, and some of how you handle landscape reminds me of Willa Cather’s writing. You’ve written a bit about her, and like Cather, you’re familiar with and affected by both the American Midwest and NYC.

Willa Cather and I share a love of landscape. Landscape to each of us is a kind of character. Nature is interactive and often willful in our books. To me, My Ántonia is as much about the Nebraska prairielands as the pioneers who populate it. My own novels such as The Diviner’s TaleAriel’s Crossing, and Trinity Fields are much more landscape-oriented than The Forgers, in part because much of the action occurs in natural environments. In The Forgers, the nature-based scenes in Ireland are invested with a quality of interactivity between people and the natural world. For instance, images of the night sky with its wheeling stars and constellations offer the narrator a kind of magisterial, eternal counterpoint to the transient, nasty machinations of those running around in the darkness terrifying him. Though some of the most violent acts in the novel occur in Ireland, there remains for me a kind of quasi-mythological aspect to the landscape there. Whereas New York scenes and those in Montauk are very tactile and “real” and have a dimensionality, scenes in Ireland verge on nightmare. Ironic, since Ireland is meant to be a safe haven where Meghan and Will are hoping to find peace.

 

Something that interested me about the parts of The Forgers that take place in New York is the foreboding sense of being watched or followed. I thought about how cameras are now all over lower Manhattan and how the city has been a Petri dish in a way for the privacy wars. Did this mindset impact your portrayal of the city?

I heard recently that you can walk from Battery Park to Harlem and be caught on surveillance video the entire time. It’s my understanding that more and more building owners are compelled to install cameras in foyers, elevators, and front doors for fear of lawsuits if the property isn’t outfitted with surveillance.

The Forgers begins with the line, “They never found his hands,” which is prelude, of course, to a murder. I was thinking, If you wanted to deprive a forger from pursuing his questionable art, what would hurt him the most? Taking away his pens, inks, papers? He could find more of those. No, the answer is his hands. Like a concert pianist, it requires years of practice and great skill to be a master forger. So when accounting for that murder (about which I wouldn’t want to go into details for obvious reasons) I had to think about those nosy cameras, too. There weren’t quite as many of them in New York around the time The Forgers is set as there are now, but the murderer still had to find a way to get around being seen. Comes with the territory, if you want to avoid capture.

 

The characters in the book who are forging are also sort of classic examples of New York paranoids. But we’re living in a world now in which everyone is paranoid.

The forgers in the book, Henry Slader and Will, and perhaps Adam as well, have all earned their paranoia. They would be crazy not to be paranoid. What’s that line by Delmore Schwartz?  “Even paranoiacs have real enemies”? Even though Will’s past has caught up with him, so to say, and he makes an effort to reform, he must look over his shoulder, as the past is a hard thing to shake. A phrase by another author, William Faulkner, comes to mind—“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In The Forgers, that concept is very much in play in a host of different ways. For one, the whole notion of forgery involves messing with the integrity of the past, changing the past by creating ideas and objects that are supposedly a part of the past but in fact didn’t exist before. And in a world where the reliability of the so-called objective past is put in question, paranoia about what’s real and what isn’t becomes central to how life and “reality” is viewed. So, yes. Paranoia and the terror of not being in control of one’s fate are very much a part of this narrative. There’s even a section that opens with the line “Dying is a dangerous business,” followed by a brief meditation on how, when you are dead, you lose control of how people perceive who you were and what you did.  Death is open season on you, in other words. That’s classic paranoia at full throttle, I think.

 

You are sometimes labeled a mystery writer, but what especially delights me in the revelation of a mystery in your works is that you are a writer who will reward the detail-oriented reader. For example, you only name your narrator once.

I don’t really think of myself as a mystery writer, as such, and tend not to play by the traditional rules of mystery or crime fiction. I’ve always been considered a literary writer, whatever that means, but have in recent years gotten very interested in working with genre, which I consider a profoundly rich form of literature. Having said that, I do very much adore detail, and it’s just in my nature to bring my narratives to life with as much nuance and meaningful detail as I possibly can.

As for Will, he does not like his name. I was halfway through writing the book before realizing he hadn’t given his name. It didn’t take much deliberation to figure out why he didn’t, but I wanted him to offer it up, if grudgingly, just once. I thought Will was appropriate because he’s willful. Also, there’s a famous 19th-century forger named William Ireland—one of my all-time favorite forgers—who created Shakespeare (another Will) letters to give to his father. Ireland’s father was a Shakespeare scholar and collector, and since there are only a handful of bona fide Shakespeare signatures, young Will Ireland saw an opening to create some ersatz manuscripts to enhance his dad’s collection and thus please his father. He got away with it for quite a while. Some great forgers such as Ireland and Thomas Chatterton are actually collected in their own right.

 

Will, the narrator, is reliable, but as the novel progresses, the tension that develops is a did-he-or-didn’t-he-do-it thing. Of course, he’s also among other forgers who are just as suspect.

Well, the reliability or unreliability of the narrator is very similar to forging. It all has to do with imagination and making things up. If you’re good at it, you can get away with it. There’s a line in another of my books, “It takes a lot of truth to tell a lie.” If you stop and think about it, for a lie to work, it has to be mostly truth because if it’s just a pure fabrication, nobody’s going to believe that lie. But if you frame the lie in truth, people will be inclined to believe. So when people in this novel are forging, masters that they are, they know it’s imperative that their forgeries are grounded in truth. For example, to properly forge Conan Doyle papers, as we see in the novel, the forger would have to have done extensive biographical research and have an empathic knowledge of how the author’s mind worked. He would have to really know the period, work with materials that are as close as possible to the period. Nibs, ink mixtures, everything has to sing authenticity.

 

Forgery is also in a way an act of betrayal, and betrayal is also a theme of this book.

I think that when my characters, and especially in Will’s case, are making forgeries, they honestly believe they’re bettering the world. We on the outside may consider this a rather insane thought, but if you can forge an interesting document well enough, add something intriguing to the history of literature, for instance, can make something great out of the ether, then it’s not impossible to delude yourself into thinking this is a good thing. It is, I guess, an elaborate form of self-betrayal to think like that.

But betrayal has a role in almost all novels. Betrayal—in politics, in love, in business, you name it—is one of those things that humans unfortunately do. It’s an activity that sparks a crisis, which in turn can often be central to an interesting narrative. I think in The Forgers, Will in particular has the capacity to believe that he’s not doing it for the money and that he’s just doing it because he needs to. Much as I am fond of him, I’m fully aware he’s a deceiver. He’s also a writer who creates narratives that didn’t exist before. He loves going back in time and mucking with it. He adores laying claim to literary history, to biography, and bending it to his will. And if you can bend history perfectly enough, the original historical fact becomes wrinkled, complicated.

I’ve always been interested in memory and how memory is a function of an original perception that has been shaded by desire—the desire to reshape the moment that was just lived into something more palatable and fulfilling. I don’t want to play his analyst, but I do think a lot of the forgeries Will makes are, in a way, in (admittedly twisted) honor of his mother because she was a great calligrapher, his teacher and inspiration.

 

Will says at one point, “History is subjective. History is alterable. History is finally little more than modeling clay in a very warm room.” We know that Will’s character is morally shaky, but I found this train of thought about history insightful. 

The Western world’s very first historian, Herodotus, is called The Father of Lies. Why? Because he was really a writer of historical fictions as much as anything. Where he couldn’t verify, or if he needed to fill in lacunae in an account of some war, say, in North Africa, he simply made things up and approximated. Objective, verifiable fact is, in the everyday world, as rare as hen’s teeth (maybe rarer, since there might be a genetically altered hen out there somewhere with incisors and molars, who knows?). Once people armed with imagination and predisposition witness anything, it morphs. I’m not saying we’re all delusional, by the way, but we are to some degree creatures of approximation, certainly when it comes to emotions. So yeah, to be sure, one of the themes of this book is to look at the idea of what is real and what is illusion, what is authentic and what is a fabrication meant to trick the eye into believing it is authentic.

 

Which implies something intrepid about art. The Forgers is asking, in a way, what is the role of imagination in the world?

Imagination is what we use to get through the day. It funds and nourishes us. Even when we’re asleep, imagination is firing up our dreams. Imagination is the prime mover of any individual’s life. You can imagine that there is a god you will worship that is your main reason for living and breathing. You can imagine that there is no god and you’re not going to have anything to do with such a crazy idea, and you’re going to imagine a way to be ethical without having to follow an ancient rulebook. And what I find fascinating is that you can imagine yourself as being very, very innocent and a very good person, and you’re not. There are a multitude of things that shape an individual life, but imagination has to be at that top of that chain.

 

Protagonists in your books tend to behave badly in order to protect something beautiful or special or good. Will, for example, rationalizes making forgeries in a variety of ways, one of which is convincing himself that he does it in order to create a good life with Meghan—and their life together is indeed kind of lovely. I thought in a weird way that might be what art does—keeps things that are beautiful and precious and strange, and protects them for us, but sometimes at a price.

And enlivens them, because most artists I know, not just writers, work in order to share with others, the ultimate purpose being to offer a gift to someone else, probably someone you won’t ever meet, so they can share in your experience, dreams, ideas, vision, life. I’m not the kind of writer who is particularly interested in drawing the reader into embracing any philosophy or worldview but I do like the simple idea of building something as best I can, and sharing it with those who might want to commune.

If you’re a fiction writer, you’re making things up, but it’s also important to be absolutely truthful, as honest as you can be, sentence by sentence, and every word has to be the truthful word. You have to create a mathematics of truth that constitutes a book and it has to answer to itself or else it’s not going to add up. I don’t like fiction that smells like fiction. There’s a certain stench. I love fiction that makes me feel I’m truly experiencing a fact. Obviously, I’m not wedded to only realist fiction or historical fiction. I love Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, but that book is just golden in terms of the truth page by page.

 

Does this relate to your more recent tendency to write in the mystery genre?

When you think about it, everything is steeped in mystery. Many novels are crime novels in the sense that they explore the human capacity for subversive behavior, harmful behavior that goes full-bore against the grain of societal mores. A lot of fiction investigates subtle criminalities that occur in everyday life. Not necessarily robbing a bank or shooting a bodega clerk, but the moral equivalent of such rotten, even evil behavior, is often at play in the narrative arc of much fiction. Nursery rhymes, fables, and fairy tales often portray some of the most diabolical, violent, and deplorable acts humanity is capable of. London Bridge is forever falling down and don’t try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, for he’s a lost cause!

 

As for your own process, it sounds as if you tend to write quickly?

Sometimes I write very slowly. But The Forgers was white heat fast, written in a matter of months. Otto Penzler, my editor, runs Mysterious Press, and he has a wonderful series called Bibliomysteries, for which he asked me to write a short story. That’s when I got that opening line about the hands, and I asked Otto if I could write about forgers. He said, “Absolutely, just so long as there are books and there’s a murder.” Those two elements are the premise. I started with a short story last year in the spring, some pages and notes. It shot way past the 50 pages. When I finally gave it to him, I gave him 86 pages, but I had already moved on past 120 pages. I said, “This isn’t all,” and I showed him the rest, and he asked me if I could get all of it to him by the end of the year. Every day I got up and couldn’t wait to get back into the forger world, so it was done ahead of schedule. When I handed in the novel, I turned around the next day and wrote another bibliomystery called The Nature of My Inheritance, as a way of fulfilling my original promise to Otto. That one came out this past summer.

 

What are you working on now?

I’ve been working on a book for many years now that I am finally finishing. It’s called The Prague Sonata, and is a novel in which the holograph manuscript of the second movement of an unattributed, magnificent piano sonata from the late eighteenth century surfaces in New York. Its owner, Irena, is a Czech immigrant dying of cancer who passes it into the care of a young musicologist, Meta Taverner, after telling the hair-raising story of how it came to be in her hands. In 1939, when the Nazis came to Prague to establish “the protectorate,” this manuscript, which had been inherited by a woman named Otylie after World War I, was deliberately broken up in three parts to save it from Reich confiscation. Oytlie gave one movement to her husband, who perished into the underground, another to her best friend Irena, and she kept one part for herself. In short, Meta’s quest to locate the missing movements of the sonata takes her to Prague, London, and elsewhere. It’s a novel that has involved doing research in places as far apart geographically and culturally as the Czech Republic and the hinterlands of Nebraska, not to mention endless reading and consultation with experts about Beethoven and other composers from Mozart and Haydn forward. I hope to have it completed by year’s end.

 

-Rachel Cole Dalamangas, November 2014

ENTER THE WORLD OF BLAB! WITH MONTE BEAUCHAMP

Cover art by Gary Taxali; Blab World #2

 

Monte Beauchamp is the award-winning, Chicago-based founder, editor, art director, and designer of BLAB! magazine, a comics anthology first published in 1986 as a self-published fanzine, with book projects including The Life & Times of R. Crumb (St Martin’s Press), Striking Images: Vintage Matchbook Cover Art (Chronicle Books), The Devil in Design (Fantagraphics), among others. BLAB!, in its current form of Blab World,  is now a highly-regarded venue for contemporary artists working in sequential and comic art, graphic design, illustration, painting, and printmaking—a love song to these underground worlds often placed on the periphery of the visual arts. Monte teamed up with photographer Paul Elledge to produce BLAB! magazine: Inside Out, a project in zingmagazine #21 in which the artwork within BLAB! finds its way out into the cold, cruel streets of Chicago. I met Monte for the first time in 2010 at the opening of the outstanding BLAB! exhibition he organized at the prestigious Society of Illustrators in New York. I’m now fortunate to once again get to opportunity to speak to Monte about BLAB!, his project in zingmagazine, the world of print, and his newest book, Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World, published by Simon & Schuster, which features top illustrators telling the stories of sixteen monumental figures in the world of comic art and pop culture, including Walt Disney, Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz, The creators of Superman, R. Crumb, Jack Kirby, Winsor McCay, Herge, Osamu Tezuka, Harvey Kurtzman, Al Hirschfeld, Edward Gorey, Chas Addams, Rodolphe Topffer, Lynd Ward, and Hugh Hefner.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

What did you set out to achieve in founding BLAB! magazine?

There were no grand plans whatsoever. How BLAB! came about was a total fluke. One evening after work back in the mid-’80s, I began bellyaching about shenanigans taking place at work where I was employed as an art director. To help take my mind off it, my wife at the time suggested I draw a comic book, which I didn’t have the desire to do, but several days later the idea of creating a fanzine about comics flashed in my head.

I had always felt that if it weren’t for MAD magazine, the sixties counterculture may never have happened. MAD ingrained in its readers the ruse of advertising and the distrust of corporate authority. MAD‘s publisher, William M. Gaines, also issued a very fascinating line of comic books known as E.C.’s, featuring incredible page-turners such as Tales from the CryptWeird Science, and Two-Fisted Tales, which were discontinued during the great comic book witch hunt of the mid-1950s.

So I decided to contact the counterculture cartoonists themselves to see if they’d write essays about what influence, if any, MAD and the rest of the EC line had on their work. And much to my surprise nearly all of them gave the project a thumbs up; they agreed to blab about it—which in turn gave way to the title BLAB!

So I self-published a one-shot limited edition of 1500 hand-numbered copies which I schlepped around to independent record, book, and comic book stores and placed on consignment. I also placed a few ads in several comic book publications.

Not long after, I went to the post office box on a Saturday morning and it was jam packed with orders; it was like this for a good solid month and then came a lull in orders—and then four to six weeks later, the post office box again became jam packed with letters, this time with letters from fans raving about BLAB! and inquiring when the next issue would be out, which in  turn inspired me to attempt a second issue.

The same week that BLAB! #2 was printed happened to coincide with Chicago’s big summer comic book convention, so I brought a handful of copies to show around hoping to drum up sales. Kitchen Sink Press—which published the work of several of my heroes: R. Crumb of Zap Comix fame; Harvey Kurtzman, the creator of MAD; and Will Eisner, considered by many to be the father of the graphic novel—was exhibiting there so I gave a complimentary copy to its founder Denis Kitchen, who flips through it, and immediately offered me a publishing deal—which blew my mind. Right then and there we sealed the deal with a handshake.

Denis tripled BLAB!‘s press run, expanded its page count, and we also reformatted it as a square-bound, digest-sized paperback. I began adding more comic book stories by the incredible Joe Coleman, Zap artist Spain Rodriguez, and a talented newcomer—Richard Sala. I also assembled a compendium on the influence R. Crumb had on popular culture (which 10 years later was expanded into a trade paperback published by St. Martin’s Press—The Life and Times of R. Crumb). That same issue also sported a magnificent cover by RAW magazine artist—Charles Burns. Partnering with Kitchen Sink Press put BLAB! on the map; from the incredibly brisk sales, I knew we were on to something. Four years later, issue #7 of BLAB! won a Harvey Award (the comics industry’s equivalent of a Grammy) for Best New Anthology of the year.

So that’s how BLAB! got rolling; it was never something I set out to do—it was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I had no inkling whatsoever that BLAB! would take on a life of its own and evolve into the full-color, hardback compendium of comics, illustration, found graphics, and articles that it is today.

 

The Rapture, Ryan Heska; Blab World #1

 

How does a typical issue of BLAB! come together? Do you always have specific artists in mind for each issue?

Nowadays the process is very nonlinear, intuitive, one that starts with a single inspirational idea and builds from there. For example, I was walking around downtown Chicago one afternoon when a humongous storm hit. Massive gusts of wind were whipping all sorts of objects about and as I ducked for cover, off in the distance I saw a funnel of garbage swirling about in the air being sucked skyward. It was an eerie yet awe-inspiring sight, which set me thinking about The Rapture—and then a scene of people rising skyward interpreted by BLAB! artist Ryan Heshka flashed in my head. So I ran the concept by Ryan who dug the idea, and created a masterpiece. Ryan’s painting was so inspiring I began asking other artists to create “end-of-the world” scenarios that I compiled in a feature titled “Artpocalypse” for the first issue of BLAB!‘s sister publication BLAB WORLD, which in turn set the tone for the comic strips and feature that appeared  in that of volume.

 

You curated a project in zingmagazine #21 called “BLAB! magazine: Inside Out” which features various works that appeared in issues of BLAB! in different formats and mediums and photographed these in outdoor environs around Chicago. It’s sort of a magazine within a magazine—a peek into the world of BLAB! What inspired you to present BLAB! in this way?

Actually zingmagazine did. One aspect of zingmagazine that I always admired was it’s offbeat curatorial nature, which inspired photographer Paul Elledge and myself to present BLAB! in a similar fashion. Rather than shoot the artwork in a hoity-toity setting—such as a gallery—we took a less precious approach and photographed the artwork itself sticking out of garbage dumpsters, in alleys, and on the streets of Chicago.

 

Adolf’s Aberration; four-page story by Nora Krug; Blab World #2

 

Your new book Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World is a collection of biographies of 16 legendary cartoonists presented through an equally graphic medium as created by other illustrators. There’s a double curation here—first the subjects, and then their corresponding artists. How did you conceive of this idea, and how did you select each group?

In late 2007, I was fishing around for an idea for a graphic novel to produce and the media blitz surrounding the release of the final Harry Potter novel earlier that year set me thinking about the far-reaching effects fictional characters can have on the world. I began thinking of popular literature equivalents from generations before. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein came to mind as did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, followed by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan—whose successful spin-off as a newspaper comic strip set me thinking about cartoon characters of equal iconic stature. Disney’s Mickey Mouse flashed in my head, followed by Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat, followed by Siegel and Shuster’s Superman—the archetype for all superheroes. And then it dawned on me—had it not been for iconic comic characters such as these, the entire cartoon industry as we know it today wouldn’t exist. So I pitched my New York City agent on a collection of short-story biographies told in the very medium the industry itself had spawned—the comic strip—about the monumental creators who pioneered the entire cartoon medium—from syndicated newspaper comic strips to comic books, manga, graphic novels, caricatures, gag cartoons, children’s books, and animation. She loved the idea and that’s how Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World came about.

 

Any particularly difficult editorial decisions in this process?

Such a grandiose undertaking is an obstacle course, there are always editorial hurdles to get over, roadblocks to maneuver around. Fortunately my agent sealed a deal with a wonderful, seasoned editor at Simon & Schuster—Anjali Singh. Anjali, what can I say except that she is an incredibly insightful, intuitive, and brilliant senior editor who has a knack for signing fresh and original projects. For example, she brought the graphic novel Persepolis to America, which became a hit and was turned into a feature length film. Anjali turned out to be a dream editor to partner with; we really worked well together and she backed me 100% on the team of illustrators and cartoonists I assembled—fabulous seasoned talents by the likes of Drew Friedman, Peter Kuper, Sergio Ruzzier, Nora Krug, Arnold Roth, Greg Clarke, Nicolas Debon, and so forth. As Masterful Marks was nearing completion disaster struck—Anjali, along with several dozen other Simon & Schuster employees, were laid off. When the news arrived that we wouldn’t be ushering Masterful Marks into the world together, I was devastated. Completely. The very person championing my book was gone and all sorts of turmoil can happen when a book is orphaned. Fortunately, the project landed in the lap of a junior editor who got the project back on track. And then as we were completing the book, what happens? He takes a position with another publisher, and Masterful Marks landed in the lap of yet another junior editor, Brit Hvide, who did an admirable job ushering the book into print. After seven years, Masterful Marks was released this past September and received incredible accolades and reviews from the press. For example, it was included in Entertainment Weekly’s “The Must List,” plugged in USA TodayThe Huffington Post, and Library Journal. A most wonderful and totally unexpected perk was receiving a letter from Hugh Hefner (also featured in the book) stating that Masterful Marks was “… a grand compilation.”

 

Dispatches From Oblivion; four-page story by Greg Clarke; Blab World #2

 

Why do you continue to make print books in this dematerializing world of media?

Well, there’s a caveat to all of this. As long as I’m allowed to edit, design, and package visually content-driven books that I have an intense passion for, that I believe in one-thousand percent, I will continue to create books. It was a long, arduous road to get here. Looking back on the unexpected twists and turns my professional career has taken, I sometimes ponder that had I remained in advertising, I’d have a house all paid off, a hefty savings account, and my dream car—a light green ’56 Chevy with a 3 speed column shift to tool around in. Yet, on the other hand, a rewarding career isn’t always about money, it’s about the love of the game.

 

-Brandon Johnson, October 2014

THOMAS ØVLISEN’S ART OF THE CHILDHOOD MEMORY IN HARD TIMES FOR HUMANITY

The Danish artist on the “puzzle” of art and what (good) art does—and doesn’t—do for the world

What good does art do the world anyway? If you wanna save humanity, join Doctors Without Borders, is the advice of trending Danish artist Thomas Øvlisen. But if you wanna be an artist, make good art that facilitates contemplation, work hard, and don’t try to be like Axl Rose. Øvlisen’s work is a playful, sophisticated peculiarity in a market bloated with hack abstraction like so many cronuts in the gut of a gluten-free health-foodie fallen off the wagon. Øvlisen’s development of a visual puzzle is based on the raw material of childhood memories and he thus explores memory as its own experience. Moreover, Øvlisen embeds cultural criticism in his work—slyly recognizing “the square as a symbol of western culture,” for example.

With a show on the horizon at Klaus Von Nichtssagend Gallery in September, Øvlisen and I had a conversation via Skype about the state of abstract art and the state of humanity.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

You’re recognized as an abstract artist whose sensibilities are unusual to the history of abstract art.

Well. I never considered myself an abstract painter. For my degree project at RISD, I expressed abstraction as a symbol of our culture, rather than a self-referencing painting technique. You find abstract art everywhere, even on coffee mugs. So you can use abstraction as a symbol of our culture. It’s a glorified aesthetic. Since the beginning I was interested in breaking down the genres in art or ignoring them at the least, so I paid equal attention to all 5 visible sides of my paintings.

These ideas gave me an excuse for making abstract paintings. I quickly learned that I also liked making beautiful paintings or good abstract paintings, and I developed the ”satisfy my childhood memory” technique. I have always believed in good art.

 

For your project in the last issue of zing, you asked ten artists to contribute a drawing from memory of a childhood object. What is your “satisfy a childhood memory” technique?

When I started making abstract paintings, I thought about trying to satisfy, for example, a childhood memory of growing up on a lake and being in the lake and looking at the trees in the background. So I started doing these abstract landscapes that only I could identify. But when I could identify that aura and space, then I called the painting “done.” My aim was to get that feeling and that specific landscape recollected.

The people who contributed to the project in zing are artists of all genres who have influenced me and made me who I am today. I thought it was quite amazing that, Margrethe Sørensen, a woman in her seventies made a drawing on a project her father had done was she was a child. Dike Blair did an actual story on how scared he was in his first childhood memory. It’s always interesting to define drawing and obviously these artists did everything but draw. The fun thing is that the director from Los Angeles, Brian Lee Hughes who works with film, was the only one who actually did a line drawing from memory, which is what I expected to receive from everyone, and he did a great drawing too.

 

To return to another statement you just made, can you explain more about what you mean by “abstraction as a symbol of our culture”?

I think that at any given point, art is used to critique our culture, whether it’s the artist or the culture looking back in history. For example, if we want to understand what people were doing and thinking during the Renaissance, we look at the art they were making.

To me the square is very symbolic of western culture. It doesn’t exist in nature. The prime monument of what we do is put a painting over a couch in the suburbs, solidifying one’s achievement of being the happiest family on earth. It is the perfect symbol (monument) of a retarded culture (system) on autopilot. And abstraction, maybe through Cold War propaganda, has become the symbol of our freedom (coercion of others) and way of living.

 

What was the process for making your earliest works?

How I started making abstract paintings more or less happened by chance. While I was a student at RISD, I spilled black enamel paint and instead of wiping it up, I painted everything in my studio the same color. Then everything I was working on became abstract. In my degree project, the paintings were all abstract, sanded to the point of almost no paint on the canvas. The idea was a simulation of nature. The effect of the elements raging on our cultural golden calf. The paint I had spilled was enamel and I my sanding was that of the auto body shop. Working with cars or mopeds is another childhood thing.

So when I ventured into image making in my first show, I exhibited the silhouette of Monument Valley with five graphically receding stars above them ingrained in the paint layering. I quickly realized that this use of imagery on my shaped and five-sided wall works rendered them canvas-like. They were just bearers of visual identifiable imagery. The sculptural part disappeared.

Art making in school is like putting together a puzzle. So, for the Monument Valley exhibit, I had appropriated the process of an auto body shop and I had simulated the weather and the elements. I used Monument Valley as the perfect image because it is a natural landscape named “Monument” and it’s the perfect example of what is wrong with our cultural belief in dominance over nature. It’s like when we cut a big hole in the biggest sequoia and then are like, “Look! We can drive through it! But oops, it died. Hey, let’s do it to another one!”

Basically now I’m doing what I like.

I always did what I liked. I always felt it was the only thing to do as an artist. To honestly pour myself into my work. It used to be my childhood, but now I have kids and a great family and I pull from the many joys and strains in my everyday life. The process and materials are transparent. You get what you see and feel, and my works are not trying to be something else. They are not trying to create an illusion. Now I don’t really care about explaining it. I don’t see my work as something to get. I want people to experience it and like their own experience.

 

Do you think with the rise of Internet and the tech boom that progress/devolution in culture is speeding up? How does cultural speed relate to the kind of art that is produced?

For me, I’ve always focused on making really slow art. It takes a lot of time for me to make work, and it takes a lot of time for the viewer to experience it. There are so many layers of the work and the materials change with the lighting. Art can do that—give you a break. Art can do a lot more than that too. But it is a place for contemplation. I think artists are the last idealists. I guess there’s something kind of naïve about being idealist these days because it’s tough times for humanity.

 

On your blog, you do espouse opinions that imply you really do believe in the efficacy of art and its place in the world.

I really do, but I don’t try to explain that. Some artworks can just hit you with awe, but I just want to enjoy it.

 

How does art confront the terrible things that happen in the world?

It can, but I think it’s very difficult to make art that doesn’t border on propaganda. If you make work on such a big topic, it’s easy to ridicule both the art and the topic.

I sometimes wonder if I should just join Doctors Without Borders. I don’t think I could save the world through my art.

I don’t know if it’s escapism, but entertainment isn’t bad in tough times. Even if it’s just room for contemplation, and a place to free your mind from other terrible stuff.

 

Of course art is central to humanity. It’s cross-cultural and is a unique habit of our species.

It’s like smoking. There’s no tribe that doesn’t smoke. Art and smoking.

 

But I agree. I don’t think art in any direct way saves the world.

A great song can keep spirits high. Sometimes it’s just the simple things.

If I can make work in terms of the aura of the work, if I can fill my work with love and happiness, it will communicate love and happiness the other way around. There’s no way to prove that, but this is the pure essence of art for me.

 

That’s kind of an old idea of what art is—an object imbued with some sort of magic.

I also think that the whole lifespan of the object acquires aura. I don’t think that the process stops with the artist. The work takes on its own life.

The Romans and the Greeks had the idea of the muse—that genius came from the outside. The artist was considered great and honored, but it wasn’t doubted that his genius came from the outside, which I think takes a lot of pressure off the artist.

I think culture in general is still very modernist in its way of thinking. So obviously what’s more important to culture is the artist, the individual who is the genius. That’s not the way I see it and that’s one of the reasons I like abstract art. When you see my work, your experience of it is just as important as my making it. Your accumulated memory becomes a part of experiencing my sculpture. There are shapes and forms in the work that aren’t quite recognizable but that are evocative so maybe you think, “Have I seen this before?” and then perhaps you start to play with your mind trying to figure out what’s going on.

Furthermore, art is an old idea! I am not so sure art changes that much. Content and context are relative terms to experience and production.

 

On your blog, you wrote about the “idealized image of the artist in western culture.”

Mary Bergstein was my degree professor at RISD and I wrote a thesis paper about the role of the artist based on modernist writing by Emile Zola. I was engaging with the idea that the artist is supposed to suffer, which has become a financial issue. The artist is supposed to give up his entire life in order to make a masterpiece and in reality most modernist artists came from pretty middle class, upper class families. They were able to make as much as doctors.

It’s maybe easier to talk about rock stars. Nobody has to act like Axl Rose, but half of Brooklyn does. In reality, rock stars turn 25 and start doing yoga. Then by 30 they have kids. Then they go on stage and look and act like they’re 15.

It is never sexy to be an addict.

 

What is your advice for emerging artists?

Don’t do drugs. And in the end, persistence is key. If you really, really want it, just keep on keeping on. The great thing about New York is that there are many pinnacles in the art world. Gagosian is one of them, and that’s about a lot of money and hype. If you don’t care about that, then there’s luckily a lot of people who support other kinds of art.

 

You have a show upcoming at Klaus von Nichtssagend in September. What’s that about?

It’s a series of new sculptures. Simple, slanted cubes that happened really randomly and just started growing on me. They’re light and playful, and at the same time they’re heavy looking cubes. Then I have these flying buttress things that I lean up against the wall. And a few of my boards (DIY surfboards are another childhood thing). I think it’s a more calm and mature exhibition of my work. A little bit less experimental (this isn’t true, I have been told—it just feels that way to me). I’m really excited about it.

 

-Rachel Cole Dalamangas

LESSONS OF NEW YORK: KITTY BROPHY, PART I

During the late 70s, artist Kitty Brophy struggled in a male-dominated art world while falling in love with one of the rising stars of the downtown scene

EDITORIAL NOTE: Lessons of New York is an oral narrative series told in parts and based primarily on interviews with artists who were involved in the Lower East Side scene during the 70s and 80s.

Recorded and edited by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

NEW YORK, 1978

KENNY SCHARF: My first girlfriend in New York was Kitty Brophy. She went to high school with Larry Ashton, my roommate in Santa Barbara at University of California. She had just moved to New York to go to school at Parsons. Larry came to visit, and this Arizona girl, I met her and she immediately moved in with me at my apartment on 55th Street. That night we met, we went to of all places—we were pretending we were sophisticated—to The Plaza for drinks. She grabbed me under the table and she was like a crazy, fun girl. She’s a great artist.

KITTY BROPHY: I had a lot of premonitions and psychic moments when I was young. I always knew I was going to live in New York City. I knew I was going to be an artist. I knew I was going to be a model. I just knew it would all happen.

After I was accepted to all these art schools, I narrowed the decision down between Parsons and RISD. I knew RISD would be a much better school, but I wanted that glamorous New York City life. In a way, I knew I was making the wrong decision about art school, but was making the right decision about where to live and I did have an amazing life in the city.

My mom put me on a plane in Phoenix, Arizona. I was 18 years old. My aunt Mickey lived in Princeton, and her husband was a famous writer, and they picked me up at the airport and took me to my dorm and dropped me off. Mickey was an actress and had lived in New York when she was young. She saw the adventure that I was about to have and was excited for me.

Kenny Scharf was the first person I met in New York. He was this darling California guy who looked like Shaun Cassidy. We met through Larry Ashton who was a really close friend of mine in Phoenix growing up. He’s a few years older than I am. He introduced me to Kenny and it was love at first sight for me. Kenny had a blond shag and he was tan and he was so cute and he had the greatest butt.

Basically, I was living with Kenny right away. I had been living in a dorm. Have you ever seen that movie Pitch Perfect? Remember when Anna Kendrick’s character walks into her room and the Korean girl is sitting there and won’t talk to her? That was my experience. I had a Korean roommate and a Greek roommate, and they wouldn’t acknowledge me or say hello. It was just like that. It was so funny because here we were living in New York, the greatest city in the world, and these girls would just go to school and then go back to the dorm. And I was the sort of person who wanted to learn everything, see everything, do everything.

So, I started crashing at Kenny’s apartment on 55th Street. It was bizarre . . . that part of the city had nothing to do with our life, which started to be more and more downtown. He had a job nearby at a salad bar. I can’t believe the amount of food we stole from that place . . . I was an accomplice. I would come in and sit down with this huge purse and we’d just fill it up. I also had bags and we’d fill them up with food, yogurt, cases of Perrier or whatever. Once, Kenny stole a plant.

One Sunday, I went to Penn Station to take the train to visit my grandfather on Long Island. He was in town from L.A. and staying at his sister’s house. I put on a corduroy skirt and a nice coat. I had been in a real serious depression. The night before I had stood on the edge of my 13 story dorm building and contemplated jumping off of it, but something just told me not to. I had a chemical imbalance that started when I was 14. It was a horrible way to live. I’d experience intense mania followed by serious suicidal depressions that would last for weeks, then maybe one week of normalcy before the cycle started over again. It was different back then because people didn’t really talk about these issues. It was very taboo still. Now, of course, it’s different. But, the next morning, I still had to get up and go meet my grandfather for lunch in Long Island and pretend like everything was normal because he was funding my schooling.

I was sitting in Penn Station waiting for my train and it was very crowded. This huge guy who was out of his mind, I think he was probably on heroin and PCP, he had on a big overcoat and he was just gross. He walked over to me and just started molesting me and I was floored and didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t even scream. I was thinking, “This guy is going to fucking kill me. He’s going to rape me and kill me in the middle of Penn Station.” And all these other people were just watching. Nobody did anything and I was gasping and couldn’t breathe. Finally, I turned to a young guy sitting next to me and said, “Can you get the police?” The young guy ran and came back with a police officer. But by then the guy who attacked me had moved on. What really got me was how when the police showed up, all these people rushed forward to tell the police their version of the story. I asked the young guy, “Why didn’t you help me?” And he was like, “Oh, I thought you knew that guy.” Like some huge, dirty, derelict guy in an overcoat is my friend? They did capture him and they told me he had been going around all morning doing that and pulling knives on people too. He even broke through the handcuffs when they arrested him. I missed my train and had to use a payphone to call my grandfather and make up a story about why I was late. I went home to Kenny’s on 55th Street that night and told him all this and he looked at me like, this is just too much.

The illustration program at Parsons just killed me creatively. The teachers basically just wanted us to do what they wanted us to do. And they wanted us to paint like them but not as good as them because they were afraid that we would get good and take their jobs someday. That was during the time of super-realism and photo-realism. My work is the exact opposite. The teachers were biased toward the male artists and there weren’t many girls in art school. Most of the girls who were there were in fashion or in graphic design.

I had been celebrated in the large public high school I went to in Arizona. I’d been in the gifted program where we got to do whatever we wanted. My high school teachers had been all like, “Your work is great, this is wonderful.” I just flourished. I was awarded artist of the year. I was already drawing S&M art in high school, drawings in which the women were empowered and the guys were tied up.

So I went from encouraged and creatively free-flowing to Parsons where everything I did, the teachers were like, “This is shit. You can’t do this.” There was one teacher at Parsons in particular who called my work “fake naïve,” and I was like, “What does that mean?” And he said, “Why don’t you study Grandma Moses and learn how to do real naïve?” He wasn’t referring to my pen and ink stuff, because my pen and ink stuff was my personal outlet. Those drawings were very indicative of my mental state during that time. I never showed them to anybody except a few other people.

It was so bizarre for me to go to New York City where it was so much about pushing the men and encouraging the guys and there was really no support for women. I mean think of how few women succeeded in the art world back then. You can count them. And here I was doing these delicate little ink drawings, things from my heart and my damaged brain, and no one knew what to do with them. Kenny liked them. Keith Haring liked them a lot and he was very encouraging. But art at that time was getting to be bigger bolder faster funner.

Not all women have that story. There are women who say, “Oh no, it was a great time to be a woman artist.”

I mean, Kenny had it tough too at art school. But he was strong enough. He had the confidence and the strength to deal with that criticism. One of his teachers was the wonderful illustrator, Sue Coe. He was also very smart because he learned technique. That was something I didn’t learn in part because the teachers I had didn’t teach that at Parsons—maybe I just took the wrong classes. Kenny learned as much as he could about how to paint. He was doing video and silk-screening and photorealism and oil in school.

Kenny was perfect for me, and we were eager to go out and experience everything. We’d go to Xenon and get all dressed up in spandex. This was back in the era of Rocky Horror Picture Show and David Bowie. People were flirting with gender identity. I never labeled myself as gay or straight or anything. I’d put makeup on Kenny and we’d put our spandex on and go out. We went to Studio 54, but it was so over our heads. Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, Halston, these people were there but they were older and much more sophisticated. I remember going there and feeling so young and so wowed. This was before our whole scene started downtown at the end of 1978. We loved disco, but as soon as clubs opened downtown, we never really cared that much about going uptown anymore. We were just new to New York and the nightlife was in transition.

I was one of the few non-punk or retro-dressed girls in the East Village scene. I had been a debutante in Phoenix. I was the girl who would wear the hot pants and mini-skirts and high heels and makeup. Like, I wouldn’t let anyone kiss me when I was out at night because I didn’t want my lipstick to get messed up. I never drank in public, mostly because I didn’t want to spend the money, and later I was put on Lithium for my manic depression so I couldn’t drink at all, and quaaludes were all over and cheap so that was pretty much my thing until I got into coke in the ’80s.

John Sex and Wendy Wild, and Kenny and me, we used to double date. It’s so funny to call it “double dating.” We didn’t “date” in our group, but we did hang out all the time. John wasn’t John “Sex” yet and Wendy wasn’t Wendy “Wild.” That was later. John was this guy from Long Island with blond hair. The nicest guy. He would wear like these little tiny cut-offs. He was so creative and made these amazing silk-screens. Wendy was just this girl from Long Island with long, dirty blond hair and she was cute and fun. Nobody in our group was stuck up. We were always doing something. Like, “Let’s party!” “Let’s make a video!” “Let’s put on a show!”

Then all of a sudden John and Kenny were fooling around, and Wendy and I were like, “What just happened here?” The story I heard later was that Kenny hooked up with John at GG Barnum’s, which was this amazing transsexual nightclub with trapezes. The drag queens were incredible. I loved them. We’d be in the ladies’ room and they’d be in there, and we’d be putting on our make-up together. I was in awe of them. They were like super women.

Back then nobody was monogamous. Kenny wasn’t. I hadn’t ever been either. I wasn’t the kind of girl in high school who had a steady boyfriend for years. That kind of thing to me was uninteresting. And at the time, Kenny was blossoming and I encouraged him. I was in love with him and he was in love with me, so I just said, “You need to be who you are.” Wendy was pretty open too. But we were also hurt. Kenny and John were these young guys and suddenly the whole world opened up to them. I didn’t expect monogamy with Kenny, but I did want to be the main girl. Kenny would tell me, “Kitty, I just want you to know I love you. I really, really love you.” And that was my tip off he was going to go get with someone else. It was very funny.

I had terrible social anxiety so it was very hard for me to ever get up on stage. I did Acts of Live Art and a few other things on stage. Kenny didn’t have that problem. He’s the biggest show-off and that was part of my attraction to him. He was the most engaging person. He would just walk up to anyone he thought was interesting and say, “Hi, who are you?” And that’s how we met Klaus Nomi. Klaus was a lovely, lovely person. He was actually a baker at the time. He was a bit older than us.

But then later it became an issue for me. It was very, very hard to live in Kenny’s shadow because I had been a promising artist in high school and then suddenly I was just Kenny’s girlfriend. Our relationship happened even before Kenny was famous. I mean, Kenny was famous before Kenny was famous. And I was like, “I’ve never just been somebody’s girlfriend.” You know? Even after we broke up later, for the longest time, people kept referring to me as “Kenny’s girlfriend.” On the one hand, I could stay in obscurity and do whatever I wanted artistically. I had incredible freedom. I was never stuck or pigeonholed or dictated to. On the other hand, no one knew anything about me or my art. People weren’t mean to me, but that was how it was especially when Kenny started making it.

I never felt bitter or angry about it. I just felt sad about it because that was the era of women’s lib. I grew up in the ’70s and I was that first generation where women could do everything, or at least we thought that way. In hindsight, the reality was very different.

 

-Rachel Cole Dalamangas, August 2014

GIASCO BERTOLI HAS ALWAYS FELT COMFORTABLE IN THE DARKNESS OF A MOVIE THEATER

How does one tell a story through a photograph? Let us turn to Giasco Bertoli’s most recent show “Locations,” at Galerie Nuke, Paris , and count the ways. The Switzerland-born artist first began photographing at age 12, when he received his first camera, a Kodak pocket Instamatic 200. His work came of age during a pivotal time for photography—as it evolved from a commercial medium to a subtler and less idealized one. And much of his work reflects this transformation. Giasco believes in the power of a story—and in the power of a photograph to tell a story. The results are works that tend to blend the everyday with images and memories from his adolescence. In “Locations,” Giasco photographs various film locations—each locale from a vital scene to its corresponding film. And though it’s been years since some of these films were released, the photographs are nonetheless powerful, demonstrating the lasting and indelible strength of these iconic and particularly memorable films. Giasco’s projects in zingmagazine include a survey of tennis courts “15 love” in issue #15; and Cathedral interiors “in a year of 13 moons (1978)” in issue #17.

Interview by Rachel Hodin

 

All of t­he photos in “Locations” are shot at different film locations. Did you have to research the precise address of each location before? Or was it more like you recalled the locations from memory?

I researched different New York film locations on the Internet—locations that were first scouted by site hunters.

 

There was a really fascinating article about memory in a recent New Yorker that demonstrated just how much it’s subject to change. Two quotes that stuck out to me: “The very act of remembering something makes it vulnerable to change” and “’Memory works a little but more like a Wikipedia page . . . You can go in there and change it, but so can other people.’”

I don’t know much about this subject. To me memory is a diary we all carry about with us and sometimes a perfect memory can be ruined if it’s put into words. A photograph captures a moment that’s gone forever, and impossible to reproduce.

 

All of the shots are in New York. I know you moved from New York to Paris when you were much younger, and haven’t moved back since; how would you compare the two cities?

Everybody knows that there’s just something about New York—this inexplicable quality to it, whether it’s from the heat, the music, or the money. In Paris, we don’t really have all of that; here it’s much more romantic with its nice boulevards lined with pristine trees and the Eiffel Tower. To Europeans, New York City feels almost like a movie. For example, the taxis—if you think about the taxi driver, the guy who drives around all day, waking up early to start his shift with steam rising from the streets. Even the loud music New York City is known for—rap music emanating from passing cars. There’s just this unique power to NYC that emerges particularly in photographs, if you find the right shot. It’s a mysterious, yet strong quality. Perhaps it’s more compatible with my work because it’s more international than Paris. In fact, in “Locations,” I was aiming to reach a more international audience—of dreamers, movie dreamers and cinema lovers from around the world. I always want my work to reach an international audience, and in Paris—with its picturesque trees and romance and its charming street lamps—that’s less likely to happen.

 

Obviously “Locations” is a product of recalling pleasant memories. Are there any memories you wish you could erase?

Memories are killing. We must not recollect on certain memories from our pasts—memories of those who are dear to us. Or rather, we must think of these memories and continue to remember them. For if we don’t, we run the risk of these memories surfacing in our minds, all on their own, little by little.

 

Did any of these films figure prominently in your childhood?

My childhood is so far away; we would have to go back to the ’70s, when most of these movies had yet to even come out. No—these movies were selected much more naturally, almost accidental. In fact I decided on most of them while sitting on my couch, chatting with a friend. The selection was more about mixing our memories, and my personal fascination with these films. They all define a city, rather than an era, and during the making of “Locations” I actually discovered quite a bit about these films. For instance I had no idea that the outside of Victor Ziegler’s mansion in Eyes Wide Shut is really the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in New York City.

 

Who is the most magnetic person you’ve watched on screen?

The list is too long. The first film I ever saw in theaters was Little Big Man, with Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway—two irrefutably magnetic actors. I think Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter is magnetic too, and Orson Wells in the Third Man. I like Harry Dean Stanton in general; Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris; Takeshi Kitano in Hana-Bi; and a young Gerard Depardieu was of course magnetic as well . . .

 

How about the most arresting subject you’ve photographed?

This is a really tough one because an arresting subject—that could be a lot of things. It could be the tennis courts book I shot; there was this one particular shot of a tennis court that I captured, just as it was getting dark out and the sky was very blue. I mean, just physically experiencing that in such an empty space was arresting in itself. But probably the most arresting subject was this ballad to NYC—“Locations” —because it’s my most recent project. For two to three days my girlfriend and I walked around these various locations as we also went shopping; we were able to mix work with pleasant, amateur tourism. We went to Brooklyn and we saw Tony Manero’s house from Saturday Night Fever, and it looked entirely different. We visited Queens too. We were really able to discover NYC through this “Locations” series. More so than arresting, it was just a nice journey—a nice touristic journey. And I like to be a tourist in my work; I think it adds some lightness to it.

 

“Locations” seems to evoke a similar appreciation for film and movie theaters displayed in the film Cinema Paradiso. Do you have a favorite film?

I’ve seen thousands of films, so many films. I even made one myself. As for my favorite film? Of course that depends on a lot, like the period of the film. I saw all of the films featured in “Locations,” and appreciate each and every one of them. For instance Dressed To KillThe WarriorsTwo LoversManhattanCarlito’s WayAfterhoursSaturday Night FeverSerpicoRaging BullOnce Upon a Time in AmericaGoodfellas . . . I think cinema has played a huge role in shaping my imagination. I always found myself pretty comfortable in the darkness of a movie theater—I always felt like I could learn more from characters in movies, as opposed to characters in reality. I like to think I have a better understanding of reality through watching films. For me, the works of directors like Bresson, Bunuel, Kubrick, Cassavetes, Fassbinder, Fellini, Godard, Kaurismäki, Herzog, Pasolini, Rossellini, Truffaut, Antonioni, and Vigo mimic real life experiences.

 

The photos here are noticeably empty—they almost look abandoned. They aren’t particularly explicit either. Was this intentional? I find that, usually, the less explicit something is, the more aptly it’s able to convey inexplicable ideas like death.

There’s something about an abandoned-looking place or house that makes it look like it has a life of its own. I really like it.

 

Can you tell me some of your favorite films from the past year? And any recommendations you have for films everyone must see?

I recently saw Black Coal, Thin Ice, which won the last Berlin Film festival; it’s a great film.

In general, I would recommend Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange2001: A Space OdysseyBarry LindonThe Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut. I like the Coen brothers’ films too—they’re fun, sulfurous and quirky. I love western movies—John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Clint Eastwood—and Howard Hawks and Nicholas Ray too. And among the many films I love, I’m particularly taken with The Last Detail, a 1973 comedy-drama directed by Hal Ashby, and The Mass is Ended by Nanni Moretti.

 

I saw you did a video for the fashion brand Lutz Huelle. Personally I think fashion films are an untapped resource in the broader category of films. What are your thoughts on contemporary fashion films/shorts?

I don’t know—some fashion short films make pretty advertising, but I find fashion to be mostly boring and a bit depressing these days.

 

I also heard you’re working on writing your first feature film. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

It is finished. When You’re Smiling, it’s a 10-minute short film freely adapted from a Bukowski novel.

 

Obviously stories are important to you; do you have a favorite writer, short story, novel, or poem?

I always liked the Italian poet Sandro Penna; Pasolini said he was the greatest Italian poet of the 20th century. I like the writer and film critic Serge Daney, whose L’Amateur de tennis helped inspire my tennis court series. Sadly, he died from HIV 20 years ago. I like to think he would have liked my tennis court project. The two books that are on my bedside table right now are Kitano by Kitano by Michel Temman and Big Bad Love by Larry Brown.

 

Any particular artists you were influenced by—for this series or in general?

The influence here was drawn purely from films—a lot of films—and many directors too. I guess it is a cinephile project, meant for the guy who loves movies and going to the movies, stories, shots, etc etc.

 

Did you use any noteworthy camera techniques?

Just an old Nikon F3 and Kodak color film—very simple—and a Fuji 4.5×6 millimeters.

 

-Rachel Hodin, June 2014

WILLARD BOEPPLE ON THE MYSTERY OF LIFE

Willard Boepple’s sculptures flirt with the viewer. Maybe it’s the topsy-turvy flutes and cylinders that seem to grow from a so-called bookshelf or the playful twists of shadow that fall from a tower that cause these objects in Boepple’s live/work space in SoHo to radiate a sense of teasing vitality. The compositional spontaneity conjures plant life and music to the mind. Then again, the very same sculptures are borrowed—at least distantly—from functional objects such as stepladders, and thus echo architecture and industry. Visual associations arise from the suggestion of trumpets and antennas, scrolls of light and debris, but are never satisfied as metaphors. In this way, Boepple’s work taunts the mind into a heightened contemplation of what existing feels like, and delivers perhaps the most effective experience of engaging with abstract art. What is it like to have a body? What is the relationship between a being and its environment?

This July, Boepple will exhibit a monoprint series at Lori Bookstein Fine Art based on his resin sculptures. The monoprints came about when Boepple met the master printer Kip Gresham in Cambridge, England over ten years ago. Additionally, a monograph of Boepple’s work will be published this fall.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

The critic David Cohen has written on your work as a reaction to Plato. How is your work a response to Plato’s notion of forms?

I look to the world of objects for my sculpture, objects made for people to use. Objects designed by people for people to use imply the figure, they have to do with the hand, arm or leg. The height of a chair has all to do with the body’s proportions, a step ladder has to do with how we behave in gravity and the distance between the ankle and knee. A handle has all to do with the length and reach of the arm and hand. This vocabulary of forms really interests me. It’s part of our landscape, we grow up with it, it’s our visual environment—everything around us that is made that isn’t natural comes out of the measures, needs, demands, tastes, inclinations, uses of the body. I think we know much more about that visual world than we realize. There is so much knowledge that is not rationalized or indexed. But when the handle is too low or the step is too shallow . . . what is it about what’s right and what isn’t? What is it about a window that’s a little too high? It looks wrong. We feel it right off the bat. We don’t necessarily articulate it or understand why, but we feel it. We have this accumulated vocabulary of proportions and shapes and sizes. I’m interested in that as source material for abstract sculpture making. I don’t work from the figure directly at all, but I’m very interested in what it’s like to be in the world as a human being, as bodies.

An abstract sculpture has the gift and burden of being in the world without explanation. A painting hangs on the wall and we read it as art whether we like it or not, whether we know what it is or not, we know it’s art. It’s rectangular usually, it hangs on the wall, it has a light on it—oh, it’s art. An abstract sculpture plopped on the floor or on the table—what the heck is that? I’m really interested in the resonance we create with a sculpture that makes us notice it or respond to it emotionally or somehow see something in it that it generates.

 

Is there a relationship in your sculpture to architecture?

Yes, but my work isn’t functional. I don’t make functional things.

 

I’m interested in the process by which you find these forms and shape them into an abstract sculpture. How much does the process start in the mind or how much does in start in the physical making of it, which is a Platonic question too.

Process evolves and varies. I work intuitively and in response to certain material stuff, the fact of what’s in front of me, whatever it is. I’m a constructor, I tend to work additively building things rather than chipping away. In the context of the vocabulary of form I described, I will typically begin the sculpture with some kind of construct or object as a starting off point. Step ladders, for example were kind of the beginning of this thinking really. I worked in the early days more out of constructivism and cubist collage. The step ladder really was the beginning. I was looking for a way to make vertical abstract sculpture that didn’t read as figure. You take a pole and stick it in the ground and we read a figure immediately. It’s our ego, our self-centered nature as an animal. So how to make something abstract and vertical that did not do that? Did not simply fight the figure-ness of verticality always?  That was the problem I was chewing on and I came upon the step ladder as a form that is both absolutely vertical—it’s meant to get you up—and yet does not read as a figure. It reads much more architecturally and functionally. The late ’70s, early ’80s, I made a series of them, which began this exploration and it was from then that I moved into other objects. More furniture-y. Book shelves, room structures, and the like. With the ladder sculptures, I would actually build the wooden ladders as the beginning proposition and start responding to that, very intuitively, very directly. Let’s take out all the steps. Let’s turn it upside-down. Let’s turn it inside-out. Let’s see where we can go with this thing. Somehow make it speak, make it come alive. Mysterious process, but very much the way I work in the studio.

 

Plato also proposed a series of dualities: mind/body, good/bad, abstract/material. Is your tendency to move away from function and representation a rebuttal to Platonic dualities?

The first one for me is alive/not-alive. I can’t say that I ever consciously work against some ideal or toward some idea. The idea such as it is begins with that beginning object notion. Let’s see if we can make a sculpture out of this or the idea of this door handle or footstool, a half-open window. It’s like I’m looking for an idea, something new in the world. Looking for signs of life. When the thing comes alive—that mystery of all mysteries—is when you’re dealing with something, is when something starts to happen.

There are two rules in art. The first is it needs to be alive. The second is it has to be good. But the first rule is first, because without that live-ness it can’t be good. Very often the live thing leads to horror—oh my god, what a mess and what have I done and what am I thinking? But when you generate those sorts of reactions in yourself or anyone else, something is cooking, something is happening.

 

What are signs of life in art?

What are signs of love? I don’t know. Therein lies the center of the mystery. What is it? We just know it when it happens. We know it when we feel it. But what is life is the question you’re asking. I hope and I think that art when it is wonderful and it is great, teaches us about that live-ness. It is about that quality of vividness of two people being together and responding to each other.

 

So an indication of live-ness is when some sort of exchange develops between an object and a consciousness?

Exchange sounds a little clinical. Some form of communication is at work. When we talk about music . . . music for some reason is very easy for us to talk about in our culture. I think because we don’t doubt that it’s art. We argue and have taste and have standards of good and bad, but you never question what it is. Yet, when you think about it, it is entirely abstract. Music is entirely, internally relational. It’s about sounds juxtaposed to each other in some kind of rhythm. It moves us or doesn’t. We don’t see that way. We’re not as visually comfortable. We want to know what something represents.

 

Your work has been described as musical, which adds a synaesthesiac quality.

I think more key at least in my ambition for my work is the relational . . . one bit relates to another. The logic that it creates. That’s what it’s about. Thick and thin. High and low. Long and short. Oblique and acute. Therein lies the magic of music.

 

Has music influenced your work?

I listen to a lot of Bach, but I like a wide-range of music . . . Bob Dylan. I played the cello badly as a kid. My parents are musicians. My mother is a pianist. I grew up around music.

 

I’m always curious—what do abstract artists get up to as kids? I mean, what were your creative inclinations growing up?

I always wanted to be an artist. I don’t know where that came from or why. When I was young—maybe 12 or 13—I got to know Richard Diebenkorn who was a neighbor and friend of my family. He was very encouraging to me. I used to muck around in my basement where I painted and did stuff. Whenever he came by, he always wanted to have a look and see. Where, this came from, I have no idea. I went to Skowhegan young. I was too young really, but it was a wild adventure. I continued to paint badly through college.

 

When you were 37, you were hospitalized with a severe case of Guillain-Barre syndrome, and though you recovered, you continue to live with legs that are paralyzed below the knee and limited function of your arms below the elbow. Have these circumstances influenced how you make art?

I have no answer really. Changing the way you work changes your work and inevitably my physical situation has altered my work. That said, I cannot see or say how. I was just starting with the stepladder sculptures—I showed some at Acquavella in 1981 just before I got ill. When I was able to get back to work, I picked up where I left off with them. A lot of people have asked, “Were you making stepladders because you were learning how to walk and climb?”—the metaphor was irresistible. But I started work on the step ladders beforehand. It was not a response to the illness.

I was in the hospital so damn long I had assistants come in and worked verbally because I couldn’t move. Getting back to work was a gift. Illness is so boring. You lie there like a dead fish and well-meaning people look down on you and kind of shout at you because they think you’re deaf and they are asking about your body all the time. Boring. Healing was so slow, incremental. A news flash would go down the hospital hallway that I moved my eyes or moved my shoulder. So when I had some former students (from the Boston Museum School) come in with balsa wood and a glue gun, I could think about making a little something. It was life saving.

 

How does your upcoming monoprint show at Lori Bookstein fine art relate to your sculpture? How did your making monoprints come about?

My wife and I lived in England for three years beginning in 2001 and I didn’t have a proper sculpture studio, so I thought I’d try out some new media for me. I met the printmaker Kip Gresham—I’d never made a print in my life—and told him I was interested in trying to make some prints that related to my resin sculptures. The resin is translucent in these pieces—you can see into them, through layers of color that live in the light. For the first few sessions, we took shapes right out of the sculpture and used them as templates then filled them, built them up with color.

 

-Rachel Cole Dalamamgas, June 2014

FABIOLA TORRALBA: INTERVIEW

Fabiola Torralba is a dancer, educator, artist, and activist.  After several years of community organizing and cultural work in San Antonio, two bachelor’s degrees, and some ethnographic fieldwork, she decided to return to her first love. Fabiola then trained under Erica Wilson-Perkins at Palo Alto College receiving an Associates of Arts in Dance with additional training under the Urban Bush Women, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, and David Grenke of ThingsezIsee’um Dance/Theater among others. She collaborates frequently with local artists, schools, galleries, and non-profit organizations on multi-disciplinary, educational, and performance based projects. Previous works include, En Rumboentre nosZapatos ViejosThis Bridge We Call…, XVoto, Me Gustas Cuando Callas, and nos(otros) ¡somos!, a full length bilingual multimedia performance that presents multiple facets of the immigration experience by first voices. Fabiola utilizes movement as a vehicle for community building, civic engagement, and social-cultural awareness. She enjoys exploring interdisciplinary collaborations and the intersections between art, story, and action.

At the beginning and end of summer 2013, Torralba produced and performed in nos(otros)!somos! accompanied by a related solo installation at Lady Base Gallery.

Interview by Josh T Franco

 

How did you recruit the performers for nos(otros)!somos!? Did you have the idea then find them, or vice versa?  

My primary objective was to find immigrants to invite to participate. Given that many do not identify themselves so openly and that I knew few myself, I simply asked people that I knew to participate and then asked them to identify people that they knew to invite as well. I set the parameters of the project in terms of vision and scope, facilitated its development, and co-directed the program. The rest was all magic.

 

What is the show’s relationship with the environment you created at Lady Base Gallery simultaneous with the first performance?

The initial performance of nos(otros) !somos! held inside of Gallista Gallery was part of the closing reception of my solo installation exhibit titled nos(otros). I felt the need to express my identity as a Mexican immigrant woman given the limited dialogue that exists in U.S. mainstream media on immigrants and my need to be recognized beyond stereotypes, romanticized notions, and politically influenced jargon.

The installation pieces were largely based on stories that I came across in my experiences working among immigrants and as a U.S. based immigrant in Mexico and Guatemala. Each of the pieces in the installation exhibit different aspects of the immigrant experience as I relate to them personally through the stories of other immigrants. These are immigrants who had traveled to the U.S. and had returned to their home, immigrants who currently reside in the U.S., and Mexican natives who aspire to migrate to the U.S.

Part of my goal was to complicate or problematize the dominant narrative of immigrant experiences. I wanted to share these images because they provide multiple facets of the immigrant experience that complicate and speak to the multiplicity of immigrant identity.

Another part of my goal in sharing these stories was to provide a space where immigrants could speak for themselves. Being that I was fortunate to have witnessed these first hand I wanted these stories to be told because I want these realities, these people, these voices to be recognized and heard. As a person that is now U.S. based, I also felt the responsibility to do so and in a way that would be more accessible to viewers than formal academic or literary processes.

Lastly, my experience as an undocumented immigrant has been largely marked by silence and erasure. The way that I’ve learned to understand my own experience has always been in relation to the experiences of other people.  My sharing of these stories is a way to tell, understand, and come to terms with my own. Given that I had the opportunity to capture a crowd with the installation exhibit of nos(otros) and that I had the full support of Sarah Castillo of Lady Base Gallery to explore my creative capacities I wanted utilize the moment to share as many stories as possible by opening up the space for other immigrants to speak for themselves.

As a dancer and choreographer, I also wanted to facilitate a space where these realities could be explored through performance directly through the body. Hence the creation of

nos(otros)!somos!, a multi-media live performance that presents multiple facets of the immigrant experience by first voices.

 

I noticed Tomas Ybarra-Frausto was in the audience at the second performance. This made me think about the piece within Chicano/a art history, and I thought about how it blurs the line (which seems bleakly solid the more I learn) between Chicano/a and Mexican art. How does the whole performance, the cast, the context, relate to this distinction?

I’m not sure that I can readily call out the differences between Chicano/a and Mexican art but I know from being a Mexican immigrant who was raised in the Westside amongst a majority Mexican American community adopted into a working class Tejano family that major differences do exist between Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Nationality for one is a major difference along with legal status and language.  Naturally these and amongst other factors shape identity and cultural expression.

I have felt this distinction myself within the Chicano community, a feeling of silence and difference. It’s not a conversation that is always welcomed. Personally, I think it may be because many individuals still have their own work to do with their own internalized racism. The conversation can also easily lend itself to addressing questions of privilege and status which becomes even trickier in a state that doesn’t even admit its own history of colonization. Regardless, Chicanos have worked hard to reconnect with their heritage and situate themselves within their Mexican identity and continue to do this work by mobilizing, educating, and building community.

I created the space for nos(otros) !somos! specifically for immigrants because I felt that there was no space for us to tell our stories. Though the topic of immigration had become popular on a national level over the past five years or so, it is often a conversation that is shaped by U.S. nationals and not by immigrants themselves via policy, academia, and mainstream media. In the moments where there have been immigrants speaking on their own behalf it is only a sector of the population that is covered as news but these do not represent us all. Not all immigrants are DREAMERS, or Mexican nationals, or men that migrate to care for their families on their own. I had also felt that within the literature that I read as a Mexican American Studies student that immigration or migration was often romanticized or idealized. It was a topic that many did not have first hand experience with amongst my student peers and within the organizing community that I was a part of. Naturally, I felt alone. As I became more and more involved in local actions in support of immigrant solidarity efforts along with Chicanos and Mexican Americans, I realized that regardless of their families history of migration or ethnic identity, that I was living it alone and that this difference was valid and needed a place of its own.

I wanted immigrants speak on their own behalf because I didn’t want to feel alone anymore. I also wanted a space for us to speak for ourselves to break the silence and erasure that is so much a part of being undocumented. I also wanted a diversity of voices and experiences to be shown because we are not a homogeneous community and many have already been left out of the conversation.

 

Can you discuss a bit about the difference in the two venues in which you’ve now shown the work?

Lady Base is a gallery that supports the artistic practices of Women and LGBTQ artists of San Antonio. It is located inside of the Gallista Gallery in the South Side of the city and is run by Sarah Castillo, an artist and graduate student in the Bilingual Bicultural Studies program at the University of Texas at San Antonio. For more information visit http://ladybase210.wordpress.com/.

The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center is a non-profit cultural arts organization committed to social justice and the celebration of the artistic and cultural expression of diverse voices. For more information visit www.esperanzacenter.org.

 

To see what Torralba is up to now, check out her blog

 

-Josh T Franco, June 2014

LESSONS OF NEW YORK: KENNY SCHARF, PART II

Street artist Kenny Scharf on the ups and downs of friendship, the absurdity of life

Recorded & edited by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

People need to be made more aware of the need to work at learning how to live because life is so quick and sometimes it goes away too quickly.
—Andy Warhol

 

NEW YORK, 1976

I was invited into the Time Square show by John Ahearn who came to my show called “Celebration of the Space Age” at Club 57 in 1979. I didn’t ask anyone for permission, I just brought Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat with me and said, “You guys have to be in this show—join me.” Jean-Michel’s painting made a huge sensation, he got noticed and got into the “New York New Wave” show at PS1. He had a show in Italy, and boom—his career took off. I believed in him, for sure.

My friendship with Jean-Michel was very rocky. He had a double personality. He kind of turned on me more than once. He used to make me completely uncomfortable. Just tried to torture me sometimes. Once, I was at a party and there were lots of people and music and whatnot. It was a very crowded room and I felt really uncomfortable, like, something just felt really weird. And I turned around, from across the smoky room, he’s beaming an evil eye into the back of my head. I felt that and I caught his eye doing that, and I just started sweating. And it would happen a lot. It would always be the same thing and he was trying to make me feel intimidated and it worked.

About a month after I had the show at Fiorucci, Jean-Michel was making a painting with John Sex, and they made this wet oil painting and cars were driving over it—it was so cool and punk rock—and Jean-Michel was kind of spastic and he decided he wanted to have a show at Fiorucci. So he goes up to Fiorucci with these wet oil paintings and in that spasticky manner he used to have, he managed to get wet oil paint all over the clothes, and they kicked him out.

I heard later that Jean-Michel kind of had a problem with me because I didn’t sleep with him. I went to visit him at this apartment he had in Chelsea. He had his art, these collages, on the wall in the kitchen and I was just totally blown away by this crazy energy they had coming from them. The colors on these collages were amazing. That’s when he came onto me. I had just arrived to New York. I’d never done anything with another guy. I was scared.

Jean-Michel was really sweet, charming, funny. He adored Keith, he was always nice to Keith, which was really hard on me. It was one of those things where I liked Jean-Michel so much and when he would be sweet to me, I would be all forgiving and then he would turn on me again.

One time, years later, Jean-Michel and I were both in Italy at the same time and he apologized. And I was like, “I can’t believe you’re apologizing. I never knew what this was about. Why were you so mean to me?” And he said, “Because I’m jealous of you.” And I said, “Why?” Because he was famous at that point, I wasn’t really famous at all then. I wasn’t selling my work. Nobody cared about what I was doing. I was like, “Why would you be jealous of me?” And he said, “Because you’re happy.” I just had this incredible moment of empathy for him and was completely forgiving him for all the stuff and the very next day, it was like my heart was open and he took a knife and just went, “Rrrrrrr-nuh.” Immediately, he turned on me the very next day after apologizing. After that, that was it. I shut down. I swear it was like a month before he died, we kind of connected again. I felt sadness in him and he seemed really in such a sad place that I couldn’t keep that thing I was carrying anymore. Then he died.

John Sex was my first guy. John had moved from Long Island to New York with Wendy Wild together as a couple. I was living with Kitty [Brophy] as a couple. I met John at SVA and the four of us would go on double dates. We’d go to music venues like everybody did. Me and John Sex left the girls and ran off one night. There was a place called GG Barnum’s. It was this disco back then and it was crazy wild and all these dancers were above the dance floor on these nets. And the dancers would jump off and land almost on top of your head, this circusy kind of thing. Then they had these drag queens come on stage and do a show. By then, John and I were really drunk, and we got so excited that we jumped the stage during the show. We went back in the dressing rooms and the bouncers got us and threw us out and that’s how our thing started. Drunk and allover the ground.

Wendy was kind of distraught about what was happening to her boyfriend. Not long after that, Kitty went back to Arizona leaving me to continue my New Wave Punk Rock Bisexual studies.

John and I were involved awhile off and on. He was an amazing person in my life. Really amazingly smart and talented. He taught me a lot about art and Dada. One day he decided that art was bullshit and he threw all his art away in the garbage and announced that he himself was art and he only did performance art after that and became the John Sex persona that people know him as. But nobody knows that he was a really amazing visual artist.

I met Andy Warhol twice. The first time I met him was right after the “New York New Wave” show at PS1. I was in this group show that Andy Warhol was in and I went to this opening at a club called Peppermint Lounge, and Andy showed up there and I went right up to him and said, “Hi, we’re in a show together.” It didn’t impress him much. He said, “Oh, that’s so great,” and wasn’t even listening. He had these rude guys with him and he pointed to one of them and he said, “Make out with him.” And I was kind of like, stunned a little bit, shy and uncomfortable. I can’t remember if the guy did or didn’t honestly. I have the feeling that I chickened out and didn’t go with that. So that was it and he didn’t know who I was. Then later, Keith became famous and was invited to The Factory on Union Square for lunch and I just invited myself to go with him. I was creaming in my jeans. It was everything I could have dreamed, not only meeting Andy, but having lunch with him. I was used to a diet of bad pierogis and pizza and donuts, and they had food delivered from some nice place. So many celebrities were going to The Factory then. Andy was taking their picture and the celebrities were getting into Interview magazine. All of a sudden, I went from only knowing East Village celebrities in my sphere, to, “Oh, there’s Farrah Fawcett, or there’s Arnold Schwartzeneger.”

The artist David McDermott and the artist Peter McGough were around the scene then. And there was this guy Diego Cortez, who was the curator of the PS1 “New York New Wave” show, and his boyfriend was named Johnny Rudo. And Johnny Rudo had this loft in Time Square that he was renting from the artist Jimmy DeSana. Jimmy was a very interesting artist who died very early of AIDS, and he did these really intense sadomasochistic photographs that were very Mapplethorpy. So Johnny Rudo called me and was like, “I’ve got this room in this crazy place. There’s space for studio work and whatever, do you wanna come here?” So I left my East Village place and then two weeks later, Johnny Rudo couldn’t handle me. He was intimidated by my intense procreation of art making. I just got there and started hot gluing this and finding trash and painting that and taking over and celebrating the fact that I had some space to work. I was overwhelming him. I got home from school one day and all my bags were packed, and Johnny had brought David and Peter over. I was like, “What’s going on here?” And they were like, “We are here to kick you out. Johnny Rudo doesn’t like you. His dad is a lawyer. And we are here to kick you out.” I just looked at them and was like, “I got news for you. Someone’s leaving and it’s not me.” And the next thing I knew, Johnny Rudo put his tail between his legs and ran away, and David and Peter left too. So I called Keith and I was like, “Keith, I got this great place.” Because Keith was living in this weird men’s shelter, sharing a room with three old men. Keith was like, “Okay.” So Keith came up. There was even a painting that David McDermott and Peter McGough did of this scene. On one side, it’s me with space ships and dinosaurs, and on the other side is them with all their doilies and clocks, and they’re making a face at each other.

Life is just little crazy stories.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Lessons of New York is an oral narrative series told in parts and based primarily on interviews with artists who were involved in the Lower East Side scene during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. 

Read Part I of Lessons of New York.  

 

-Rachel Cole Dalamangas, May 2014

NEW WAVE, THE STREET, & OTHER LESSONS OF NEW YORK

Before he earned international recognition for his fantastical pop-surrealist style, Kenny Scharf was another dreamer in the City . . .

Recorded & edited by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

Traveling through the galaxies

Looking for a home

Interstellar tragedies

Living like a gnome

Stretching like a comet tail

From star to star and back

Intergalactic habitrails

Keep me on the track

—Klaus Nomi

 

NEW YORK CITY, 1976

When I arrived from Santa Barbara when I was 18, I was kind of surfery. I had that ’70s Farrah Fawcett, blonde hair. I grew up in California surf culture. My dad used to run a ladies’ knitwear line, basically the L.A. version of the New York schmata biz. My mom is a housewife, she got her hair done and she decorated the living room. My dad grew up in Brooklyn and he couldn’t wait to get out. It was a shit hole.

I was going to UC Santa Barbara and I had this art history course, which was a big class in an auditorium, taught by Eileen Guggenheim. She was, like, this savvy New York art lady. It was a course about 20th century art, and she was going into all the stages, and she gets to Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, and I started to get excited. She got to Warhol and the Factory, and I was like, “This is GREAT. I’m getting out of here.” And I thought, okay, I know this is the ’70s and that was in the ’60s, but I have a feeling there’s something here along those lines that I can find. So I told my parents, “I want to go to New York,” and they said, “Well, then you’ve got to go to school.” I applied to like 10 different art schools allover and none of them accepted me except SVA.

I was super excited to be in New York. I sold my car and basically here I was with a bag of clothes. Right away I went to a Devo concert and on the way, I took a leopard skin coat I found in the garbage and I cut it up. I cut my hair all punky, spiky and I put black under my eyes, and went to this Devo concert at The Bottom Line. I waited in line with all the other New Wavers, and within five minutes I became friends with everyone in that line. From then on I was, like, punk rocker/New Wave.

My first week that I was there, I was a little disappointed, because all the kids at SVA were like suburban kids from Long Island. And I was like, this is just like suburban L.A. where I just came from, and I’d had this idea that I was moving to New York and people were going to be amazing. I was like, there’s nothing different about these kids, they’re just paler. Then a week later at school, I heard Devo music playing and I followed it and there’s Keith Haring in this empty room he had taken over. He had covered the walls and the ceiling and floor in paper and was painting his Dubuffet-like black lines. He was in the corner about to finish and I was like, THIS is the person I thought I was going to meet, THIS is what I came looking for in New York. It was like, BOOM. I started talking to him and we became friends instantly.

Then a couple of days later, I was hanging out in the cafeteria at SVA and there was this super-cool guy named Chris there with Basquiat. I was holding a little portfolio of these paintings I was working on and Basquiat locked eyes with me and said, “What’s in there? Show me your work.” So I showed him and he looked at me and said, “You’re going to be famous.” I was like, that’s a weird thing to say, the very first thing someone says to you.

The first place I lived in was bizarre. There was this saleswoman from my dad’s company, and she was moving to L.A., and I was going to sublet her place. So I took her place on 55th between 6th and 7th. What a weird neighborhood. Out the window, you saw that blue glass of that ’60s Hilton Hotel. On the other side, it was Nowheresville. Empty on the weekends, full of strangers all the time.

I got a job at this place called Health Works, which was a salad bar. They had these salad bars and this one was right next door to the place on 55th. Basically people would come up and go, “I want a Salad Niçoise,” and you’d take chunks of tuna and mix it up right in front of them. The manager was like, “You clean up, you close up, you’re just right next door.” So every night I would take big vats of yogurt like out of those machines. There was Perrier, it was the first time water that you pay for got introduced, that was a new thing. So it was Perrier, yogurt, and I’d take a bag of pre-cut turkey chunks, I’d take a bunch of that, and then these kids would come over after work, and I’d feed everybody. There were probably 10 or 11 of us, people I met at the Devo concert.

I had everything. My first girlfriend in New York was Kitty Brophy. She went to high school with my roommate in Santa Barbara, and she had just moved to New York for Parsons. Larry Ashton, my roommate, came to visit. He later ended up moving to New York and took part in Club 57 and everything. This Arizona girl, I met her and she immediately moved in with me in my apartment on 55th Street. That night we met, we went to of all places—we were pretending we were sophisticated—to The Plaza for drinks. She grabbed me under the table and she was like a crazy, fun girl.

About a month after moving into the place on 55th, I got kicked out because someone had robbed me. I was coming home from school and I saw a kid on the street holding a bag of weed and I looked at him and the bag of weed and was like, “Oh, he’s holding a bag of weed.” Then I went up into my place, the door was down and I was like, “Shit, that was my bag of weed.” I went crazy and raced down to the street to see if I could find him. I am running allover the streets, and every kid is looking like him at that point. Anyway, because of what happened, all that caused, and because I always had all these kids eating in my apartment, the owner kicked me out. After that I just kept moving. I moved to 23rd and 8th and then I moved to 9th between 1st and A.

On 23rd, I was in a studio apartment and I remember there was hardly any heat and there were holes, the window was broken. I remember waking up one morning when there had been a blizzard and there was a snow pile on my sink. I saw it floating in. It was cold, but pretty. I had to paint with gloves on in there.

I discovered that Jean-Michel lived near 23rd, and we became closer and started spending more time just walking around tagging. I remember just going around, he would do the SAMO, and he had this big Fat Cap marker and let me have it. I remember I drew a TV set with antennas and inside it said, “The Jetsons.” We went around, and it was really cool. Then one day we were going around, and I turned to take the Fat Cap marker, and all of a sudden he was like, “I’m not giving that to you.” All of a sudden he turned on me, and I thought, “Uh-oh.” That was my first inkling that he had a double side to him, a scary side. He would change on the drop of a dime, you never knew what you were gonna get. He had an intense, demonic side sometimes.

Anything below 23rd Street was kind of fucked up. I quickly learned about the street. Especially back then, New York was the street, a very intense place. I got mugged a lot when I lived in the East Village, with knives, a gun. Even a guy in my building on 9th would wait for me in the hallway with a knife and I used to have to go to a building next door up on the roof over to my roof and down the fire escape into my apartment to avoid him. The reason why he was waiting for me with a knife, is because he was fucking his dogs and I overheard it and I reported him to the ASPCA. He was like this crazy Vietnam vet. There were a lot of Vietnam vets running around back in the ’70s, these crazy guys that were just let loose in the street. And he was one of them. He was fucking these big German Shepherds and I heard them crying. For some reason, he caught on that I was the one that reported him so he started waiting for me in the hallway. It went on until I left and went back to L.A. for the summer.

We all worked at nightclubs. It wasn’t right away for me. It was around the time I stopped going to school that I started working the clubs. About year after being in New York, I quit school. Keith stopped going and we were more excited about what was going on in the street than what was going on at the school. We were like, “Why do we need to be here for this?”

One day, I walked into Fiorruci with Kitty, and Joey Arias was working and he jumped on us and we became fast friends. I had him over at my studio. Around the same time, I was introduced to Klaus Nomi and I was thrown on the stage. All of a sudden I’m on stage at Max’s Kansas City and Hurrah and Danceteria. I was dancing this robot dance with Joe Arias behind Klaus. It was overwhelming. After Joey discovered me, and they saw the paintings I was working on, they said, “You’re a Nomi.” We did a one-day rehearsal and then we did a show.

Around that time, I got a job with Diane von Furstenberg because she saw the New Wave show I had at Fiorruci in 1979 and hired me to do her lipstick and nail polish campaign called, “Hot Pinks.” I did this whole campaign for her and I promptly learned I shouldn’t ever do commercial art. I went up to Diane’s office. It was a sleek uptown office. I went up and there was a shag rug and she was wearing a high slit skirt and big high heels, and Barry Diller was sitting behind her. And she was like, “Darling, I’m so excited to do this campaign. We’re only going to pay you like $50, but we are so excited because we’re going to introduce you to Andy and Halston and Bianca.” And I was like, “Oh my god, that sounds like so much fun, okay.” They ended up using the image for the campaign and gave me $50 and that was it. They never answered my calls. So one day, I just went up to the counter at Bloomingdale’s and took the advertisement and said, “I made this thing and they can’t answer my phone calls and I’m sorry but this is all I have,” and I just took it and left. It was a hand with fingernails all different colors pink and rockets were shooting out of the fingernails, but the rockets were lipsticks. It was really New Wave. I was like, “Fuck this.”

A few years later, after Keith became famous, he got invited to Sean Lennon’s ninth birthday party and I went with him and I’m standing there with Keith and he’d heard that story like a million times, how much I was complaining being treated like that. Then Diane walks in and I said, “I just wanted to thank you.” And she didn’t remember me and said, “For what?” And I said, “Because of you, I decided to go from commercial art to fine art and everything has been going great.” Because after that experience I went back to school and was like, I’m not doing this commercial art thing anymore because they just treat me like shit. Because that was how you thought you were supposed to make money, do commercial art. A week later, Diane found the painting and I got it back. Someone had painted over my logo for the Hot Pinks with a new logo on it. I ended up painting over that.

EDITORIAL NOTE: When I first interviewed Kenny Scharf in October 2013, I was struck by how muralistic the stories about his experiences were, in particular those that took place in New York during the 70s and 80s. Listening to Scharf recount his many anecdotes, one gets a strong sense of landscape as well as the radiant infinity of sprawling micro-narratives that go into the blockbuster of the City. I realized that in the course of conducting interviews with various artists for zingmagazine, I had encountered a treasure trove of personal tales ranging from the quotidian to the hilarious to the tragic to the absurd to the enigmatic that accumulate into a depiction of the lives of artists struggling as often as succeeding in the art capital of the world. Thus, I was inspired to prioritize the telling of these stories in the voices among us to tell them, as a sort of living history.

—Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

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ON THE NATURE OF ART & THE ART OF NATURE

Raquel Rabinovich on the invisible world, slowing down & mud as aesthetic

In a bright, airy studio infused with an uncanny sense of the ethereal, ensconced in a forest in upstate New York, Raquel Rabinovich is at work on sculptures and drawings that are subtle in the extreme. An Argentine expat who was once briefly imprisoned as a teenager for civil disobedience and a visual artist paradoxically concerned with “invisibility,” Rabinovich’s work occupies a radically organic territory of abstract art. Her recent sculptural pieces, the Emergences series, are most closely related to land art, featuring rock formations positioned in the path of the Hudson River’s tide. Ultimately, Rabinovich’s work is invested in a visual language that interrogates the essence of meaning itself. For example, her River Library, which is archived in a long wall of drawers in her studio, contains hundreds of river “texts” and takes the act of reading as metaphorical for the process of deciphering significance from objects. The “Gateless Gates” painting series emphasizes even more acutely the search for signs of meaning, which may be partially concealed even in direct view. The conceptual sensibilities driving Rabinovich’s work are neither impractical nor sentimental, and are rather directly intertwined with and inspired by the processes of nature. Therefore, the art objects Rabinovich creates are meditative, essentially puzzles for contemplation that reward the conscientious viewer with an avenue that leads from the plane of material to the transcendental.

She has work on view in two upcoming exhibits, one at Creon Gallery and the other at Morgan Stanley Global Headquarters.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

Your work is engaged in the plane of invisibility. What exactly does that mean?

I have been interested in invisibility for a long, long time. I remember a series of paintings I did in ’63 in Buenos Aires called The Dark Is Light Enough, and I think it was the beginning of this lifelong interest. When I say “invisible” I mean to look at something and see what’s behind it and behind it and behind it. Not to stay with the appearance of things but investigate and explore everything that is not visible or apparent seems to me to be a search that is very meaningful. That has been a search that led me to paintings, works on paper, sculptures and installations for the last 50 years. My sculpture medium when I lived in NYC during the 1980’s was glass. Then eventually, when I moved here to the country, I began to work with stones.

Stones, unlike glass, are not transparent and ‘invisible.’ Still, when I use them to create sculpture installations along the shores of the Hudson River, they become invisible at high tide because they’re covered by the waters of the river. These sculptures, called Emergences, exist in a perpetual state of flux, being gradually concealed and revealed with the rising and falling of the river tides. I’m interested in that process – not only how you see what you see, but how something emerges into view from being concealed. It could be a thought, it could be images, it could be whatever philosophical assumptions we have. In the case of the sculptures, the water covers them gradually so the process of emerging from being invisible to becoming visible is very slow.

It seems to me that our contemporary culture, especially our city culture is very fast: we have computers, digital images, cellphones . . . I want to slow down to be with the whole process. Perhaps the slowness in my art is a comment on contemporary culture in the context of nature. Nature respects the slowness of process. You cannot speed up evolution. You cannot tell a baby to be born faster. You cannot tell the plants in the garden in winter to show up today.

For everything, there is a process in time. I respect that when I work. There is a time for incubation, a time for being with what slowly emerges, a time for invisibility to be present.

 

You’re a bit of a land artist.

You could say that, though my art is and is not land art. It seems to me that most land artists tried to preserve [their art]. From Walter De Maria to Robert Smithson. For me, it’s not like that. It’s about letting go and not about control. I know from the beginning that when it’s completed, it’s not mine anymore.

 

How did you become interested in this art of the invisible?

I like the challenge of discovering something that is not obvious. I spent many years in Europe during the 50s and part of the 60s making art and visiting museums. Say I would go to Museo del Prado in Madrid and I see Velasquez. I look at the figure and ground in his paintings, but what I really ‘see’ and gets me is the background itself, which seems to me to be the essence of his paintings, just behind and around the figures. I think that that presence of the ‘invisible’ got me started with the concept that what we see is not what we see.

 

It seems like landscape is very important to you?

Not exactly landscape as we know it. I am interested in nature’s modus operandi and resonate with the cycles of nature. I am interested in using the context of nature to make references to impermanence and the passage of time.

 

Are there political or social implications to the process of trying to see what’s not obvious?

Not in a direct or literal way. For example, with the mud drawings, the series I call River Library, I use mud from rivers around the world as my medium. Mud embodies the history of the Earth and humankind. Like the alphabet of a language yet to be deciphered, like a yet unwritten history of nature and culture, functions like a text, providing a trace, a memory of our existence. I gathered mud from the Ganges in India and from the Hudson here. Also, other people who know what I’m doing and encounter rivers in their travels, gather mud, and bring it here or ship or send it to me. When I get the mud, I seem to get an alphabet with which to ‘write’ my drawings. Mud is invisible under the water, in the riverbed. It accumulates in layers. When something gets into the river, it doesn’t mix with what is already there. While the waters of the rivers constantly flow, the mud accumulates layer upon layer upon layer.

If you look at the Hudson River mud, if you see the latest layer that’s there, it’s the chemicals from General Electric. I’m not interested in the science part, but in the mystery, which is embedded in that mud. I say mystery because it’s not known in a rational way. I don’t mean something mystical. I mean something that is not obviously seen or known.

Rivers are repositories of history, the history of the planet, the history of people, the history of culture.

 

I’m interested in the theme of “text” as literal and metaphorical your work. You also did a piece using the work of Italo Calvino.

That was in the 80s, I was actually living in NYC at the time. That was when I began using letters and numbers. First, I used them to indicate proportions within the space of each drawing in the series “Temples of The Blind Windows.” I drew on the Fibonacci series to establish spatial relationships within the drawings. During the 80s, I did a series of glass sculptures in which I drew also on the Fibonacci series to establish spatial relationships between the glass panels of each piece. Starting with just using letters, I got interested in text itself. I became fascinated with a book I read at the time by Italo Calvino called Invisible Cities, and also during the 80’s, I did a glass sculpture installation and a series of drawings based on that book.

I used the idea of an invisible city, what it meant for Calvino, to create my own city, which is not in the book, and then I used excerpts from the actual book to make seven drawings.

I remember writing to Calvino for permission to use his text and he was excited. He said, “Well, send me photographs.” By the time I wanted to send the photographs, he died.

 

Does literature inform you as an artist?

Indirectly, I would say yes. For instance, one of my favorite writers is Borges. I think that a certain way of seeing for me comes from him. The way he perceives reality and how he invites you into his world . . .

 

You did some paintings that involve text, right?

This is part of a series of maybe 20 paintings called “Gateless Gates”. The title is embedded into the painting and it is not obvious. You have to sort of dig it out of the paint itself. Gateless gate is a paradox used in Zen practice. The mind transforms itself when confronting the paradox. If you look deeply and spend time with the painting, then you will discover the text, which functions as a metaphor for what happens in the act of looking at a painting. You have to go through the ‘gateless gate’ to get to the painting because what counts in the painting is embedded in the painting itself. It’s not as if you add or take away meaning. Meaning is inherent in the painting. When you wonder what it means, you are already entering the process of painting itself.

 

How I hear you speak about “the process of painting,” I’m reminded of what I’ve read about the French Impressionist studies of light. I recall reading about how Monet would simply sit and watch how light changed before even beginning to paint.

I can relate to how sitting and thinking is part of the work. It is a sort of incubation. It also happens in nature and in every creative process: something is happening even if it is not visible or tangible yet.

 

What are you working on now?

I continue working on the two ongoing series that I mentioned before: Emergences and River Library. And I have just begun a new series of paintings, after 15 years during which I concentrated only on installations, sculptures and drawings.

 

-Rachel Cole Dalamangas, April 2014

GREAT SHOWS DON'T DEPEND ON BIG BUDGETS (BUT THE COST OF BEING AN ARTIST IS STILL A BITCH)

Artist Sebastiaan Bremer and architect Jing Liu dish on how to exhibit high quality work on a shoestring and why art still matters in hard times

It’s 1999 and you’re an emerging artist in New York and there’s a ruckus going on at the auction houses but none of that’s “trickling down” to you yet and how’s a dude supposed to make art when he’s got no bread, and paint and stuff’s expensive? Well, one option is to apply your artistic ingenuity to constraints imposed by limited resources in order to create an exhibit that both showcases new talent and with tongue firmly planted in cheek criticizes the system that imposes economic limits on creativity unevenly (genius, no?) Which is precisely what illimitably optimistic Dutch artist Sebastiaan Bremer did when he got a gaggle of friends (Donald Baechler, Guy Richards Smit, and Pamela Fraser among them) to make blueprints for original artworks-to-be and exhibited the blueprints in a DIY gallery above a Burger King in Chelsea.

In response to the current global economic climate, which has generally been less than kind to artists (and yes, art still matters when the economy goes south), Bremer collaborated with architects Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu (founding designers of SO-IL and of New Museum fame) to recreate the blueprint show in Feb/March of this year at Kunsthal KAdE in Amersfoort, Netherlands including some of the artists in the original 1999 show in addition to new artists and architects. This round, participating artists and architects were asked to submit the blueprint of a work that was an early definitive piece. Additionally, in 2014, blueprints are obsolete adding to the current show a stroke of commentary about the radical changes technology has introduced to art-making.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

How did both iterations of the blueprint show come about?

SB: I didn’t go to art school and after I went to an art residency in Skowhegan, Maine, I realized that all these other people who did go to art school had a very tight community. So after Skowhegan, I wanted to keep that going. Also, if you’re an artist, you always try to get people to come to your studio, which is a weird feeling especially in the beginning. So if you curate the show, you’re the one going to other people’s studios, and you see how that dynamic changes and how other people are nervous and uncomfortable and you realize there’s no need for that. For me it was just nice to change that relationship and build a sense of community. It was fun to start curating, and the show in 1999 was a bit of a response to very heavily curated shows. These heavily curated shows were based on a complicated conceptual structure where the curator put themselves almost in front of the artists and the blueprint show was a bit of a play on that where there was no relationship with the artworks except that they were all made by friends of mine and the only way to give the show any cohesion was to make all the works look alike by making them blueprints.

A few years ago, I met the director of the museum in Amersfoort and he was lamenting the fact that he wanted to do more artist curated shows but he didn’t have the money to make it an international affair. Then I said, “Well, I have this cheap show for you if you want. I did one years ago.” But years ago, I also wanted to include architects because of the blueprints. Since I’ve become friendly with Jing and Florian, I asked them to become a part of it and Jing came up with a formal twist so that it wasn’t so arbitrary. So we asked all the participants to come up with their original, signature work and turn those into blueprints.

 

And the curators also have their own work in the 2014 show. What were your submissions?

JL: Florian and I specifically chose something that was unrealized. It was a project from 2008 when something like 2/3rd’s of architects left the profession, but when we actually joined the profession. It was a time when everybody didn’t have business, all architects tried to do something else, like went into the film industry or they went into development. It was kind of an identity crisis for the profession. We actually stayed firmly within the profession and believed firmly in what we were doing. We believed in realizing works, not just paper architectural renderings. We believed in making a physical outcome. In trying to do that in 2008, we had a lot of failed projects. We had hundreds of pages of drawing sets that didn’t end up physically built. We wanted to not forget that time even though now the economy is better. It takes a real commitment to try to realize something so that’s why I think we chose the work we did. It’s the floor plan of a house that was never built. It was a holiday house that we designed for Ivan Chermayeff. He was in his early 80s so it was like the last project in his life. It was really kind of an intense collaboration. We had a full drawing set and we had a contractor on board. And then he lost his money to Bernie Madoff. Basically, the budget was gone in one day.

 

And what piece did you submit, Sebastiaan?

JL: There’s no tears in your story?

SB: No, there are. For a long time I painted and used photography as source material. Then when I was in this art residency in Skowhegan, I really started to branch out in three different ways. One was making large collages and then I did these large murals where I would paint very different shades of white. The third one was drawing straight on photographs, but I was very tentative and it cost money to make prints. Then I had a photograph I really wanted to use as a source for a painting, but the photograph itself was so strong that I couldn’t put my finger on why I liked it so much and I knew I couldn’t make it any better than the photograph. That was the conundrum. It was a picture that my mom had taken of my cousin swimming underneath the water in a swimming pool. It was a very still, beautiful, haunting kind of image, but it wasn’t my photograph and it felt like my connection to the work was very thin. Then one day my wife (she wasn’t my wife yet) was in Brazil and was getting on a plane and she called me up at 6 o’clock or 7 at night and was like, “The plane is going to crash and I’m going to die and it’s going to be horrible and we’ll never see each other again and I’m just calling to tell you that I love you very much.” So I was like, “It’s going to be fine, don’t worry. Everything is going to be fine and dandy. We’ll see each other tomorrow. Don’t worry.” So I calmed her nerves I thought and I hung up the phone, but then I couldn’t sleep and I thought, “What if . . .” Finally, I was like, if I’m awake anyway, I’d rather start working and use my time well instead of watching TV or something. So I got that photograph out, the one with the swimming pool and started making these little lines with little dots and slowly by doing this exercise I started to calm myself down. It also started to seem as if the little figure in the water was anybody and it could be an allegory almost of keeping her aloft. So I tried to continue making the drawing as long as I possibly could so then it became this test of endurance and this magical thinking of holding her aloft that finally resulted in this work. I held my breath for 13 hours afraid she wouldn’t come home. That was also the first time I realized that my relationship to the image made sense somehow.

 

How has your view of the art world changed since the 1999 exhibit?

SB: When I came to New York in ’92 for the first time, I was 22 and I came from Holland and it was a very limited arena for me. In New York, there were still artists in SoHo and some left in the East Village. Everybody that I met was saying, “It’s over. What we had was so great and now it’s gone.” And I was just eager and young and I was so excited and everyone was like, “Why are you so happy and positive?” And I was like, “It’s good. Stuff is happening.” And it was a nice period for me because people get together and get this spirit of camaraderie together.

JL: The reason obviously architects and artists too get asked a lot to give renderings for free, and I think the only reason we were able to ask architects on our side to do this, is because there is this underlying camaraderie. We feel we have this connection under the business of it all.

 

Last year there was a controversy when the bankrupted City of Detroit considered selling works worth hundreds of millions of dollars from the Institute of the Arts. What obligations if any does a city have to its art communities?

SB: I think art is crucial because in the end, after awhile, what’s left of culture after people die are the buildings and art. There is a responsibility I think of every generation to preserve certain bits. Of course you have to also leave breathing space for people to build new things or improve upon or change or sometimes destroy what’s there. But the selling and holding of art is difficult. You can never really put art before people. If there is hunger, I would say you should sell your gold and diamonds and art. But I think maybe in Detroit, for example, there are other choices to consider before selling out the art.

JL: Detroit has been selling its architecture for a very long time already. All these amazing buildings Detroit had in modern times . . . they’re all gone. I think architects are more used to their creations being destroyed. The more important structures are the symbols of their times and in political or economic turmoil, the first thing to go are the symbols.

SB: Well there was the World Trade Center that was destroyed as a symbol.

 

How does architecture fit into the context of an art show?

JL: Architecture, before it became a profession, was one of the oldest forms of sculpture. I think definitely it’s an art form, but it has to engage with life and human scale with a different set of parameters than art has to.

SB: My favorite art in history, you go all the way back, are the cave paintings in France. They’re 30,000 years old and they were also, we can only guess, very important as cultural things, but they were also on the human scale. At that time, art served a purpose that was more religious and more magical maybe. I think there is this spiritual component or a religious component to art that artists don’t like to talk about very much. There is this thing about enhancing an object or imbuing it with more power than it has on its on surface . . . it’s all about re-contextualizing things and re-imbuing them with a certain force.

JL: I think the blueprint, in this context of oppression, is actually a very interesting medium. Arguably architecture only started as a profession like three or 400 years ago because before that people just made things and you had master builders who knew how to use the material, knew some sort of abstract common forms. It was really the invention of pen and paper that was used in many disciplines as well as architecture that alienated the process of the hands using the material and the craftsmanship of the master builder to people who don’t have the knowledge in their hands to handle the material but they have the abstract knowledge of how to put things together and they codified this knowledge in symbols and they were able to reproduce it. So when you become an architect now, you don’t have to become a carpenter to relay this information in lines and hatches and digits.

 

In a widely read blog post about a year ago, Paddy Johnson of Art F City criticized NYC as no longer a viable place for emerging artists to work.

SB: That might be true, but if you can make something happen here, just because of the density and how many people come through here, you do get relatively more attention. But I think if you want to live in a thriving artist community for very little money, you’re probably better off in Winnipeg or in other places where it’s more affordable. For awhile, it was Berlin that seemed like a logical place. But these predictions about where things are going to go or the demise of New York happen very often. These grand statements. I think it’s true that it’s very expensive to live here and to be lower middle class is expensive and to live the rich life here you have to be insanely wealthy.

JL: It’s very competitive for sure. Any job you go after, you find yourself with 5,000 other fish in the pond. But I think it’s fine. I think it’s also good to find yourself as a creative person on the tip always.

 

What advice would both of you have for emerging artists in a recession economy?

SB: Be born in a nice family and work hard. The connections are very important, but you have to forge those connections and maintain them. It’s very important I think to create some kind of a network. Some people do it through education. Some people do it through organizing their own initiatives. Some people do it because they’re born into a connected family. More often than not, that last thing is true. It’s a very sad reality.

JL: I don’t think that’s true. At least, I hope that is not true. I think it has been like that and it still stays in our society, but I think as a woman and as an Asian, I’m on the panel talks a lot about what you can do as a woman still in a male-dominated society and profession. I do think that, yes, there is a lot going on between families that know each other and fraternity, and I’m thinking it’s not going to go away anytime soon. Obviously too, if you relate to someone more because of your upbringing or background or personality, you’re going to find it easier to work with them. I think it’s natural.

SB: No, I don’t think there’s a conspiracy.

JL: Exactly. It’s there, but I think it will slowly change. It will happen eventually.

SB: Not regarding art specifically, but the most exciting change at this moment in the world right now is not technology or computers, it’s women. It’s totally true. If you look at how much has changed in the last 100 years and when you think about how 51% of the world’s population has become a part of the work force and not a domestic work force, that’s the biggest change happening to the world. And it’s exciting as the father of a daughter, to see how she looks at the world.

 

-Rachel Cole Dalamangas, April 2014

ANYA KIELAR SHAPES ART TO TIME

With her thrift store clothes, self-described New York brassiness, and uncanny ability to solve with simplicity the unusual formal problems that only artists have, my first impression of Anya Kielar some six years ago was that she was so damn cool. I was 23 years old, working at the Dikeou Collection in Denver, CO, and Kielar was assisting then-boyfriend now-husband Johannes VanDerBeek with the installation of his piece, “Newspaper Ruined.” Now married and a mother, Kielar has stayed on schedule with her own career as an artist making most recently “sprayograms” (one of a few innovations) and sun prints of women’s clothing that are reminiscent of the packaging used to contain Barbie clothes. Kielar refashions the artifacts and marks of femininity—long opera gloves and big pouty lips, for example—into surreally vibrant characters with personality. Large noses and eyes and lips made from painted garbage and sand turn an exhibition wall into a female face that’s something like a stylized she-Frankenstein of archetypal womanhood. In the SoHo apartment where she grew up in the ’80s, Kielar reflected on the identity of “artist” and what it’s like for artists to start a family.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

You grew up in New York in the ’80s, which is looked back at as the heyday but it was also the AIDS crisis. It seems like there’s a lot of nostalgia right now for what New York was back then and you grew up right where it was happening.

I definitely was influenced. We had galleries right across from us out the window. Those were galleries for a while, not offices. I was a big fan of Basquiat when I was in high school of course. When I was applying for Cooper Union, I had a lot of terrible Basquiat/Edward Gorey influenced work. Terrible paintings.

 

Where does your interest in the female form as Other come from? It’s interesting that your work is described as depicting the Other because I don’t really get a sense of “otherness” from your work. 

I think it’s always been me trying to relate to myself as a woman in the universe and how complex that is. At the very base of it, I think it’s all simplistically self-discovery or about the strangeness of what femininity is, and how women are depicted in art history and culture. I’m especially fascinated by ancient cultures and drawn to things that were made to carry out some symbolic purpose or that had some kind of belief structure behind them. I think that’s something similar between my husband and I. The idea that a fertility figure or a figure that’s supposed to harness somebody’s soul after they’ve passed away—I just find that really fascinating. I think a lot of my imagery comes from Prehistoric work.

 

The work certainly depicts womanhood very differently compared to much of art history. You just said something about art that “carries out a symbolic purpose . . . ”

I think that’s the end goal and I can only hope my work captures a little bit of that power of conveyance through its symbology . . . It’s so hard given everything that can be watched, read, or heard in once day to expect a viewer to have a lingering memory of your work. But if you put yourself fully into your work, almost like it’s a vessel then I think even in the short amount of time someone looks at an artwork there is a chance you can give them something to hold onto. Again, I can only hope my work carries some kind of meaning that sinks into the viewers in a lasting way. I struggle a lot with how to make an object have that effect. I watch movies all the time and I think, “I’ve never cried at something I’ve made or that one of my friends made,” the way you do in a movie. So sometimes I’m like, “Am I in the right field?” But then I think there is a real power to the fact an object is made by a single person who is struggling to capture the quality of the world they feel is around them. That their reasons behind making it as an art object is to represent something they see in their culture that is worth depicting in a new light. I think when it comes to an art object you can get a better sense of the insatiable, underlying desires of the individual behind it. I think that’s what I’m most inspired by. Not to say that contemporary art doesn’t harness that, it’s just that there is a bareness and vulnerability to work that was made to harness the spirit world. I think it’s a really hard thing to capture that quality. It may be why I’m always changing my materials and my process constantly because I’m using my work like a barometer for my soul. I know maybe in the long run, that’s not the smartest tactic as an artist. You’re supposed to have your thing and I feel like I haven’t found that thing yet, but it always excites me to work with new stuff, but maybe that’s also a quest to find that one thing that emits all the things I want to emit to the world. That’s what makes art making exciting. If you found that formula, you’d probably be disappointed.

 

There is, I think, a contemporary jadedness about what art does in the world. 

It’s hard because when you’re creating this tiny drop in this sea of cultural-whatever, it seems kind of like it just gets washed away or something. But you look back and you mention an artist’s name and you can see all the ripples of how much Brancusi has affected so much contemporary sculpture to this day. Time will tell that.

I also believe in luck. I just happened to be lucky that I had that one show and things snowballed. Not to say that it’s only luck.

 

Yes, there is a formula I think of talent and luck.

I have some very talented friends who have never broken in. Then I have friends who are doing exceptionally well. It’s interesting what happens over time if you’re friends with very talented people. It’s almost like it’s just this lucky twist in the road and some people make that bend and some people don’t and it’s hard to figure out why. It’s impossible to even think that way like, “How can I make something that will be successful in the marketplace?” It doesn’t work like that. There definitely are artists that think like that and are very successful at it. Hopefully, you work really hard and it leads to other things as well like a better teaching position or better grants, not just solely relying on sales.

 

Then on the other side, there’s the manufacture of wunderkinds, people who can afford to participate in the market and people the market sensationalizes.

Yeah, there’s a lot of those, but I feel like it’s a really good time to be a female artist, more so than any other era. Out of my friends, I can say that the majority of them who are doing really well are my female friends. So I find that really inspiring. I mean, ask me in 50 years if I think that I was totally naïve, but I think it’s a good time to be a female artist. There’s inequality in every aspect of life. But things are changing.

 

I agree that there’s this old school worldview that’s essentially dying off. I just saw Baselitz in The Guardian today defending remarks he made a year earlier about women being unable to paint. But the reaction to his statements seemed to be a combination of both anger and comedy. People seem to regard his comments as silly.

And dated and weird.

The way I was as a young person absorbing things, I never was somebody who got very upset about things. I think I generally have a ridiculously positive attitude toward being a female artist. But I get a lot of calls for group shows last minute and I call that “lady filler.” They’re like, “Shit, we need another woman in the show.” I don’t want to say that because there are people who did curate shows or it was a conscious decision to have me in the show, but that’s a pretty common thing among female artists. It’s always kind of funny, but I’m glad it happens.

 

The stereotype of what an artist “is” used to be this idea of the singular, tortured man. What’s interesting is that the stereotype of the female artist involves an assumption of eccentricity and madness.

In general, the characters are more amusing so that gets played up. If you look into anyone’s personal life or how they conduct themselves throughout the day whether they’re eccentrically dressed or whatever, people are just really strange. It’s more about the way things are romantically remembered.

I am reclusive in a weird way and sometimes I want to be around people. My husband will remind me, “You chose this career,” but to be productive you’re pretty much by yourself in a room all day. It’s a strange way to live your life. You kind of become a little strange because when you’re just around yourself all day, how you relate to people and how you relate to the world can become a little different.

Something I think about a lot is being alone and also how strange it is to constantly try to tap into your inner being to call out these images or things to attach to a feeling I have to compel me to do this thing. It’s very emotional, a very strange thing. It’s like being in therapy all day by yourself. It’s exhausting and it’s kind of weird to do that all the time.

I’ve had two periods of my life where I’ve had mental breakdowns and it’s always had a lot to do with insomnia and you get delirious when you don’t sleep. The thing with insomnia is that it’s a snowball effect brought on by anxiety. So I attribute the breakdown part, the depressiveness and stuff like that to the insomnia, but the insomnia is an effect of something different. I do think that introspectiveness, always trying to figure out what you’re trying to say or why you’re trying to say something or what you’re trying to hide or what’s revealed in your work . . . the two times I had episodes of depression, looking at my work was painful. When I was making it, it was just happening. The last time was right before I got married, the first time we moved upstate and I think the extreme isolation wasn’t good for me and it was also a difficult time in our lives. I kind of hid from everybody that I had this thing with insomnia until I got really kooky and I was taking Ambien, which made me crazier because it wasn’t working. So all these weird things were happening while I was trying to work on a show. I think what you’re supposed to do when you’re feeling anxious or a little bit depressed is to put yourself in the world or maybe stop asking yourself things that thoroughly, you only get propelled into a crazier state. I remember at that point, looking back at the work that I’d made several months ago, I’d made these plaster pieces and they were a lot about the female body and aging, and I remember making them semi-consciously, but not really, it’s also just dipping things in plaster very simply, but then looking at them I was like, “Oh my god this is what I think of my body.” Everything was a lot more psychologically in tune, or I thought I was a lot more in tune with my work. That’s kind of the crazy thing is that you can be making something and it never really can be stream of consciousness, you’re always conscious or you’re always quoting something or you’re always trying to say something, but it is kind of crazy if you look back at your work and you can draw the references to how you saw yourself or the world. But in the moment, it doesn’t seem that charged. It’s been a real eye opener. It really keyed me in on the subconscious effort that goes into making work and that’s something you want to harness.

 

I think when I met you at the Dikeou Collection when I was about 23, you and Johannes had been together a few years. I recall you and I having a conversation back then about how hard it can be to be a woman pursuing a career and trying to have a personal life. You mentioned something about seeing other strong, driven women you knew being trampled by men in romance, which is something I’d kind of thought about as well.

It is such a big part of life. You have to be so vulnerable and such an idiot to fall in love and to be with somebody. It’s a daily thing you work on, but it’s really nice to have one person that you’re not competitive with. I really just wish him the world and hope for him more success than I have, and I know that he has the same feeling toward me, and that doesn’t really exist with anyone else.

 

As I recall, there’s a funny story about how you and Johannes began your romance?

We were in Cooper Union and I saw him on his first day of school. We hooked up when I was graduating and he still had two more years. It was the end of his second year when we hooked up. The first time I saw him at school, he had a heart on his shirt and we locked eyes and he didn’t look away. I was with somebody at the time, but I was in love with him for like a year before I ever talked to him. Then he was working on this giant Crazy Horse sculpture. [At Cooper Union] you basically got a desk to work at with maybe six feet of space and three feet on the side of the desk and the horse didn’t fit in that because it was nine feet tall and maybe 10 or 12 feet wide. It was a larger than life horse. He was working on that and we both kind of liked working alone at school late at night. While I was working on my senior show, every night I would walk past him, it was like a fairy tale, he was literally like a prince on a horse and he’d be like all powdered and white because he was using plaster. He was even really clever back then because the plaster was free, he used like 30 bags of it. He’d be doing that all night. Everybody on the floor knew when his piece was due because everyone was always rooting for him because he was this sweetheart always doing these crazy, impossible things, and his Crazy Horse was supposed to be a comment on American culture or something. It was turned into a miniature water park and it had a motor in it and he actually hooked it up to a pump. Of course it leaked and was crazy, but everybody was helping him before crit, so I grabbed a spray paint can and was spraying one of the slides for him. He stood up and dusted his hands off, and said, “We’ve never been formally introduced. My name is Johannes VanDerBeek” and I went, “I know who you are, Johannes,” and that was pretty much it. I think a couple days later, I literally grabbed his arm. He was standing in the lobby and I was like, “You’re going to walk me home.” I was living here, in this loft in SoHo, and I made him walk me home from Cooper Union. Then I said, “You’re going to meet me here tomorrow at 7p.m. and we’re going to go on a walk.” I was very aggressive because I knew he was a special human being.

 

How has having a family changed working for you and Johannes?

Our second year anniversary was this October. So our first year anniversary I was just beginning to be pregnant or whatever. It was kind of old fashioned because we were together for 10 years and then within six months of being married I was pregnant. I mean we had been planning on it. That was a big life changing moment. It literally made us change our lives from being in a big live/work space in DUMBO. We knew we had to get rid of that. We would be washing, like, resin in our sink and you can’t do that with the baby.

Your kids just demand your full attention. It was really trying this summer because I was asked to do two solo presentations within five months of each other so we quickly had to learn about how to straddle a heavy work schedule and keeping Talula happy.

I’m a Cancer so I’m a big homebody. So [before having a baby], I’d be like, “Oh I’ll reorganize the pantry and work in the studio and do laundry and then work in the studio.” When I could really focus was at night so that’s what I really miss is that night time when I’d be in my studio from nine to one a.m. or something. When I envision my memories . . . like, my music on really loud and having some wine and working in my studio and I think, “Oh my god, it’s going to be a really long time before I can do that again.”

It’s kind of good too though. Everybody said this. You’re a lot more efficient in your studio practice [after having a baby]. You’re thinking about your work all the time and then when you get an hour to work you’re actually physically working. In the past, there’d be a lot of sitting and thinking and a lot of wasting a lot of time. So now, I feel like I’m more productive when I do get to work.

 

Have these time constraints changed the work?

Yes now I find myself coming up with pieces that can be made in quick bursts of time. My last two show were paintings done on wet pieces of fabric out in the summer sun so they had to be completed within the time it took for them to dry. But it’s great when your life changes and forces you to adjust because it can lead to completely new ideas. Over the summer I also came up with these canvas pieces that I called “impressions,” that were literally impressions I took from clothes that were saturated in paint and laid down on canvas. It’s like a stamp where I put one on, walk away from it, feed the baby, and come back and do another one. I think your work just naturally evolves to what your life is and how you need to work.

 

My impression is that you and Johannes have been very intelligent about finding ways to fund basic living while still having time to make work and that’s really the rub for a lot of emerging artists.

We’ve been kind of lucky. Right out of college, Johannes started working with Zach [Feuer] and I took a year off and then I went to graduate school. I was just figuring out what I wanted to make and I applied to with very different stuff. It was performative/photo-based digital stuff. In graduate school, I realized I enjoyed making more of the work rather than the final photograph. In graduate school you’re given a chance to dive into your head and challenged to dissect your interests. I realized what I really loved doing was making the sets or props or objects for the photographs and then I thought, “Why am I stressing out so much trying to make these finished photographs when I enjoy more of the sculpture and handmade aspect of the work?” Also, Johannes has always really influenced my work and he’s done a lot with sculpture and I think that influenced me subconsciously.

I basically had my first show with Daniel Reich a month after my thesis show. All my thesis work went into that show plus I made a couple supplemental pieces. And that was kind of at the height of the market before it totally fell out. So we were kind of lucky to have shows where you’re modestly able to kind of live off of that. We also had the gallery [Guild and Greyshkul] and we all got a small—really small, small—salary from that. I think we were living in this place in Hell’s Kitchen that was a floor-through that was 12 feet wide and at the narrowest nine feet. We had a room that was 30 feet so we both had a section of that so my studio was nine feet by 15 feet. We also had the basement and the gallery and that was our house and our studio. Johannes made this giant wax bush in this crazy apartment where I would have to literally bend under it to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night. And that piece that’s at the Dikeou Collection, the newspaper piece, he worked on that at the Hell’s Kitchen apartment, but there wasn’t room to fully set it up so I remember we had the dining room table and these pieces were all over the table and any surface in the apartment including the galley way kitchen.

Also, I think that’s really influenced how we work with materials. It’s not like a fake folksy-ness. The newspapers were free. Or, I literally found objects and furniture on the street. I also lived by the Salvation Army and so I used a lot of thrift store finds. Not so much now, now I’ve been working in fabric, but with modest materials. Now I’ll try to go to the fabric district and try to find the cheapest and highest quality fabric per yard. My dyes that I got, they’re powder so they last a long time.

The thriftiness is still within us. We’re both kind of hands on. I really believe in making my own work. I’m not an artist that can have an idea and have other people execute it. Maybe I will one day. There are things that you just cannot do. But I think that also comes from kind of enjoying finding materials that you can transform into art materials. There are shows where the material budget was really limited. For example, I did a show at Rachel [Uffner’s] with these things called “Sand Paintings.”

 

I believe the Dikeou Collection owns at least one of these pieces?

Yeah, well basically, for all that work, the only thing I really purchased was masonite, paint and sand, and for all the objects on it, I would take walks at night through DUMBO and find fruit containers or sticks or detritus or recycled materials or wine bottles—those I would find in my own house. You just kind of come up with these things where you need to work like that. As you move through different periods of your life, your work is totally affected by what you can manage and what you can’t.

 

It makes so much sense that so many New York artists turn to garbage for materials. I hear that almost every time I interview an artist for zing.

New York is just crazy. Now our place looks pretty spiffy, but I grew up just going to flea markets. This area used to be good for that. On Canal there actually were three different flea markets and my dad would go every weekend. I grew up like that. All my clothes were from thrift stores and I’m still like that. I get most stuff from thrift stores. It’s more fun and it’s very inexpensive. New York is a great place for that. There’s so many people, it’s so diverse, and so much waste comes out of everybody, it’s just a great place to find stuff.

 

What are you working on now?

My most recent work were these sun prints I made up in the country. They involved wetting fabric and applying dye and then laying objects on top of the painting. The sun does the rest and it’s kind of amazing. The areas around the object dry faster than the areas where the object is so the heat pulls the dye away from where you have an object. It’s similar to the process of the photograms and they look really photographic but they also involve a lot of painterly moments where the ink bleeds in unexpected ways that are ghostly and foggy. I was making them late into the fall after the success of the summer versions but it was getting colder so the sun wasn’t strong so the images were really faint. In the beginning I thought, “Oh god these are failures and I hate them.” And in the end, those were my favorite ones because they were so elusive. That’s what’s interesting about art and process, is that you can get kind of mechanical with the process and you know what it’s going to look like. But it’s always kind of the best when you don’t know what it will look like. The better things come out when there’s a little bit of fuzziness about how it will look in the end. Then it was funny because I was trying to emulate the ones that were failures, but it never works out that way.

One body of work always leads to another. So my last two bodies of work have all been in fabric and I’ve been working in dyes and I’m excited about where those things went, but working on the sunprints made me want to reinvestigate my spraygrams or working again with the airbrush, but maybe bringing the hand back into it. The previous show was really painting different mediums on fabric and the last one was using objects as the main handmark, but I kind of want to meld the two a little bit and I think maybe I want to get into three-dimensionality again.

 

-Rachel Cole Dalamangas, February 2014

PANTHEISM IS NATURAL TO PHILLIP E SHAW

Illustration by Nick Sumida

Since the days of my youth, I’ve always enjoyed a nice, weird story. Whether it’s the Brother Grimm, Alice In Wonderland, Edgar Allen Poe, Flann O’Brien, or my father’s improvised bedtime stories about cat gangs, the more bizarre the better. Phillip E. Shaw is an old friend, longtime writer compatriot, and fellow weirdo (among many other things). A section of his manuscript The Takes—a tale of a family assemblage thrown into cosmic crisis—was presented as my project in issue #23 in zingmagazine. Phil’s fiction met my aforementioned standards, and I most likely would’ve been as much as a fan when I younger as I am now. As it so happens, this book is still available to be published [hint hint]. Phil and I corresponded both telepathically and via email. Here are the results:

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

In my intro I called you a weirdo. Are you a weirdo?

You called me a weirdo? I think that’s fair.

 

There’s a folk gothic quality to this story, like the Grimm Brothers—maybe it’s the combination of violence, strangeness, and adversity. Is this due to your German heritage?

Maybe. I read Heidegger’s Being and Time a few years before I started The Takes. He’s concerned with authenticity, being towards death, and what defines existence. Looking back, it’s pretty obvious to me that there’s a lot of that going on in the book. I know the Grimm stories, but I wouldn’t say I know them that well. I saw the movie a couple years ago with Matt Damon as one of them, hunting witches etcetera. Not a good movie.

 

The Takes are a family—two precocious kids, Brian and Olivia, and their hapless father Norman. I see Norman as the antithesis of the modern hero, a Leopold Bloom in American clothing sans interior life. Who does Norman represent in our society?

That’s pretty right on. The lack of interior life has a lot to do with Norman being not a real person in the natural, common sense. He just doesn’t have the complexity, at least at the outset of the book, which other characters have. Brian and Olivia are definitely precocious, and that’s probably the more noticeable because of Norman’s flatness. But Norman’s journey toward complexity is one of the arcs in the book. And so in a way he represents anything that grows from flatness to complexity. He doesn’t get there at the end of the first book, though. I’m writing toward that in the next one.

 

I’m interested in this fake-human/real-human thing—the flatness of Norman and his progression toward complexity. It seems like people could relate to this in life—trying to be present or authentically themselves, via meditation, yoga, various forms of art and culture. Is this also coming from Heidegger?

Yeah, Heidegger is batshit for authenticity. His road to that authenticity is through being-towards-death. At least as I read it, if we know that the end is coming at all times, we won’t squander the present or indulge in fantasies like “I’ve got a lot of years left,” or “tomorrow is another day that’ll make up for today.” That kind of mindfulness can be a product of yoga, meditation, and everything else that combines the intellect—he isn’t engineered to get it. Even for Brian and Olivia, the idea of loss doesn’t really start to have meaning until the end. Can people relate to that? I do, anyway. At least I think I will.

 

After Helen’s interloping Mother rampage, we meet her creator—a low-level Deity who’s churning out defective quasi-humans to unleash upon the earth to please his own vanity. This is interesting to me, especially in the age of the Internet, where anybody can release anything in any stage of completion to the big blank Unknown at little to no cost to themselves. Is there any relation here? Or maybe this is a comment on the creative process in general? As he said “It’s a lot like poetry, babe. Some compositions just don’t turn out as well as others.”

I never really thought about it in terms of the Internet, but damn that’s pretty close to the bone. I’ve been guilty of that for sure, shoving out my imperfect, unfinished creations. Why the hell not? I guess the only reasons not to put it out there would be low quality creations cheapen my “brand,” or whatever, and dilutes the medium by flooding it. Procrustes has definitely done that. He sees himself as an artist, but his art isn’t ready. Just like Norman he’s going to grow through the experience of realizing this, of being chastised and cheapened for his transgressions. Which I guess means that there’s no room for vanity in art because art outlives you, goes further. And that it deserves to have a that life of its own.

 

I’m also interested in this pantheistic universe where according to the character 8, “there are no rules except infinity and the inconsequence that not only accompanies but defines it.” What’s up with the pantheism? Why is the “God” God just a bored dude staring at his television?

Pantheism is really natural to me. Even monotheistic religions tend toward pantheism after awhile. Most, I’m not sure all, monotheistic religions tend to deify some entity other than the primary God, whether it’s his son or his son’s mother or his son’s cousin or whomever. We like characters. I decided that 8 should be bored because he’s not an interventionist in the sense that he’s controlling everything. It’s that watchmaker argument, in which God sets things in motion but has no control of the mechanism after it’s been created. How long can you watch a watch tick? So he’s bored.

 

I just read a draft of a newer story you wrote about a down and out Tony the Tiger who goes on a psychotic drug-fueled rampage. Where are you going with this?

That, not surprisingly, started when I was buying cereal. I looked at the store-brand cereals and the name-brand ones. I wondered how much store-brand mascots made, where they would live if they were real, how they’d feel about the wealthier, more established name-brand mascots. I wasn’t sure but I figured Tony was the oldest of the mascots. His fall would be the most tragic, and so he had to fall. But it’s also a story about obligatory friendships, identity, blah blah. What did you think about it?

 

I was thoroughly entertained, but with a little reflection I was surprised how believable it was for a giant tiger humanimal thing to be in existence. Like when he’s drying off his fur with a towel—totally believable that this thing exists. Maybe it was the dialog that made it more real for me—there was a lot of character and nuance. With that said, I know you’re currently working on a few projects across different mediums. Anything you’d care to mention here?

He’s definitely real to me, anyway. Projects? Always. I’m trying to do a thing where I release, record, or curate a different 2 or 3 song single every month in 2014. The first one is a “band” called Boner Beach that’s available for streaming up or loading down on bandcamp at this moment right now. And I’m working on the sequel to The Takes, which goes back a number of years, then forward, then back again. It’s a prequel/sequel that advances the conflict between all those gods with indeterminate goals in the first book. And of course it explores what happens when two kids get absolute freedom, and how debilitating that can become.

 

-Brandon Johnson, January 2014

LIZZI BOUGATSOS ON ART'S COMING SHIFT IN CONSCIOUSNESS

Lizzi Bougatsos doesn’t believe in waste. A scattering of Christmas tree ornaments with miniature dildos affixed to them cutely adorns a table in her studio share in SoHo. A natural junk collector (and an artist disinclined to working in a studio at that), she’s using up the materials she already has on hand. When the front woman of experimental band Gang Gang Dance is done working with these items, she intends to make art with different sorts of objects: water, ice, trees. There’s a dilemma in the process, however, because Bougatsos’ understanding of beauty goes beyond the formal properties of material and the conceptual concerns of vision into the ethics of material itself. In other words, in a capitalist economy, art is an expression of consumerist waste, so how to make art that is both a product of creative human construction, but not another excessive object in an economy of exploitation, gluttony, and squander? Bougatsos has some ideas.

The first time I encountered Bougatsos’ work was via the Dikeou Collection when curator Devon Dikeou, in collaboration with Artpace’s Mary Heathcott, exhibited a trio of 2010 pieces in group exhibit, “Swapmeet” at Artpace in San Antonio. I was surprised at the emotion—a sort of girlish, bitchy glee—that the objects elicited from me. A FOR RENT sign with “my pussy” scrawled in the entry field, Tracy Morgan raising his eyebrows on a Cop Out poster through a vanity light stand, and “In god we bust” scribbled in neon green lights. So irreverent and unpredictable, and most of all, I recognized I thought, the too little expressed reaction of contemporary female identity to the mainstream smorgasbord of celebrity obsession and perpetually confusing/infuriating onslaught of depictions of femaleness. However, Bougatsos’ work is shifting to reflect a shift in consciousness she anticipates for culture.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

You’re known as an icon of the underground and some of your artwork appropriates/parodies the cult of celebrity. I’m curious about your thoughts on the relevance of subculture for unrepresented voices and perspectives?

I’m really excited about the youth now. I believe that every 10 years there’s a revival in some way whether it’s in music or art. The other day, my friend had a bunch of New York Times-es from the past month. I went through them all and there was a designer that I knew, there was a musician that I spoke to in a bar recently. They all know Gang Gang, but now they’re making their own albums and they’re in the Times. They’re making their own clothes and they’re in the Times.

I don’t believe in hierarchy. When I would curate art shows, one way that I would deal with the underground is put in artists that were emerging or never represented. For example, Rita Ackerman and I used to curate a lot of those and we would put a Louise Bourgeois next to a photographer that never showed in a gallery before—Katija Rawles known as a fashion photographer, her work was sort of similar to Marilyn Minter. There was another photographer that was an underground figure in New York for a really long time. Her work is incredible—Robin Graubard.

My whole goal in curating art shows was to never have anyone on a pedestal and keep everything on the same plane. And I feel that way about music too.

I never believed in idolizing somebody higher than yourself. I like to deface celebrity a lot because there are all the politics that come with it that are so gross and hard to deal with.

I would always play the show and then do the merch table after the show. The only reason I didn’t last tour is because I’m getting older and I’m getting tired. But if somebody asks me to come out and sign things and talk to people, I’ll always do that.

I don’t know. I’m excited about the underground in music.

 

With digital media’s impact on culture, is there a scene that is genuinely underground anymore?

I think the underground is equivalent to selling out. I don’t know if it exists. I mean I think there’s underdogs. I think there’s people that are coming up that need to be represented, but they don’t stay underground very long now because of the internet. It’s like two walls that face each other and cancel each other out.

For example, in the past, when we didn’t have the internet, you got a music contract for a tampon commercial. I always say tampon because Gang Gang was always like well the only thing we’d do is a tampon commercial, like we won’t do a car commercial. But because everything is so free, now you do those commercials. You’re forced to kind of do them. You’re forced to take that car commercial. Because there is no idea of selling out. With the internet, there’s survival too. One has to learn not how to be watched. Identity theft is huge.

Censorship was a big issue that came up like three years ago. That was going to be a big issue. We’re seeing it on like Facebook and even imagery on Instagram, but now everyone has a voice. If you want to be in a movie, just make your own. If you want to make a song, just put it on iTunes. There’s no need for a label even anymore.

 

What are the underdogs?

They’re the ones that haven’t been discovered yet, have the drive and will be a part of culture.

I think culture is a force, but I think that a big part of it is common sense. You need street cred. You know what I mean?

You gotta work for it and you gotta have common sense. If you’re from New York, it helps. If you act in a mindful way, you will be rewarded.

I went to this art lecture once. Jerry Saltz was giving a lecture about how to make it in the art world. He had this pie diagram and it was really funny because being in the right place at the right time was a big part of that pie, like 65%. Like Yoko Ono when she met John Lennon—as far as I’m concerned he was in the right place at the right time. It’s really interesting, like, there’s about 65% of life that is about chance. 65-85%. I think he said luck went hand and hand with chance. I’ve heard actors say that too.

 

What were your ambitions when you were 19? How did you perceive the career in front of you when you started out?

I’ve been thinking it about it recently. I perceived it exactly as I perceive it now. I remember my girl friend was dating this hot Columbian guy whose dad owned a deli and they had to move out of their deli and they put all this stuff in the garbage. I went into the garbage and I took out this huge tube and I took it home, coiled it up and put it on a piece of whiteboard and that was the sculpture that I made. I remember taking it off of the board and placing it on the beach and placing it on the lawn. I just believed in performance ever since I was in that garbage. It was sticky. It was filthy. There was, like, Coke syrup. I remember everyone saying, “That’s disgusting. That’s garbage.” There was nothing gonna stop me from making performative land art out of this sticky, disgusting tube.

Later on, I met Pat Hearn who was one of my major mentors and she was the first person that ever said anything to me about my art. She was dying of cancer at the time and she was so thin. She looked kind of like a shaman. She had this huge turban on and she said, “You remind me of Joan Jonas.” She said, “You work with error.” And that’s kind of why I kept working. Then I met this other artist, Suzanne Anker. I met her in New York when I was in college. She said to me, “This is sculpture” [throws a no. 2 pencil in an arc.] That was another thing that made me, it just stuck. Every single place that that pencil went in the air from the moment that it was kinetically and chemically in motion, it was performative sculpture.

 

Have you ever doubted your practice as an artist?

In 2009, I had an art show with James Fuentes and I got really upset. I didn’t have an art studio. I had to borrow one for a month. I never had an art studio. I always made art out of my apartment. I wanted to make this sculpture of a tongue that moved so I went to the sculpture store and I bought this material, it was $100, and I brought it to the studio and I read the directions and I was like, “Why am I buying this $100 material to make sculpture with when I have no money to eat anything?” So I brought it back and ever since then I’ve been really skeptical of what I put out. I just didn’t want to contribute to anymore waste. Waste is such a huge problem for me. I recycle almost everything. Everything that I own, I usually put into my artwork if I don’t sell it or give it away.

Three years later when I saw Urs Fischer make that tongue sculpture, I said to my friend Spencer, “I wanted to make that and I didn’t make it. Did you ever get upset that you didn’t make something and then you see someone else do it?” And he said, “Yeah, sometimes I get upset, but they did it first.”

 

How do you come through the other side of doubt?

I think it’s just a survivalist thing. I mean that’s the only way I’ve been able to make art or even music. I’ve always had a purpose for making music. With art, it’s really a survivalist thing. I get upset when I see really crappy art, but I don’t know why I keep making it. Because people really like it and I do get joy out of it, and I think that’s the communion side of my makeup. I really enjoy when people are laughing.

 

There’s a strong element of provocation in your work—an intense emotional charge and sense of humor coming out it.

That’s the performative side, I think. I think that it’s about gratification really. I think I get a lot of gratification from taking a knife and stabbing it into the wall and hanging pearls from it or a microphone and having that be my self-portrait. If it’s visually balanced, then I’m so satisfied.

 

You make work pretty spontaneously?

I have a tough time laboring. I am not even a studio artist. The fact that I have this studio, I mean, it’s pretty tough for me. This isn’t the way that I work.

Lately, I’ve been dealing with more physical forces of nature. Like ice or plants, dirt. Those have been the driving forces for me lately. You can’t own them. If you do own a plant, like the piece I put in my last show, a tree, when someone bought it, I gave them instructions on how to take care of it. I believe in making things that grow or that you can’t really own anymore. Like, I’m a feather. That’s how I’m thinking about my art right now.

 

You mentioned your problem with waste and described in other interviews your interest in a “shift in consciousness.” What is art’s and music’s role in a shift in consciousness?

I mean people put so much money into the fabrication of things that aren’t beautiful. Everything that exists in nature is already beautiful. That’s the dilemma I’m having now. I almost believe that art is the anti-Christ of what is beautiful. It’s basically a gluttonous production of waste and more garbage and more things that we’re going to have to bury. This is a dilemma that I face almost every few years.

I remember I was on tour and we were in Ireland and there were these stone statues facing the sea at the top of this mountain. And I thought, “This is the kind of art that will withstand the test of time. This is the kind of art that never goes away. This is the kind of art that you remember.” You can’t throw it away and it will erode naturally. When I look at those, I never want to make art again.

 

In the year I’ve been doing these interviews, one question I’ve asked almost every artist is do you think the world is ending because of environmental problems with material?

No.

I’m hoping that there will be a shift of consciousness that’s more mindful and more humane. The truth is there’s always evil because there’s always holiness and there needs to be a balance of yin and yang. I don’t think the world will end, I did almost think that for the Mayan calendar and I was a little bit scared, but I knew that that just meant that things were going to change and I was just hoping for a mindful consciousness among humans.

 

In a mindful world, where do you think art would be situated?

I have no idea because evil still holds the leash of art.

I mean this all goes back to how I studied ceramics for eight years. I knew that clay was from the earth and it was the only thing that wouldn’t pollute the earth, it would just go back into the earth. So I never considered myself making waste when I was working in clay because it could be recycled. When I did work in clay, I also believed that medium was equivalent to those sculptures on top of the hill.

 

You’re also considered a fashion icon. How does fashion matter to your art and music or vice versa?

I’m in this position where one of my closest friends, you know, she’s a fashion icon and she designs cloths. I get all of her hand-me-downs and it’s funny because sometimes I’ll have these really incredible things, but it’s not about having these incredible things, it’s about playing with them. I think this is where being an underdog really comes into play. You’ll see this hat at Balenciaga and it will be like a helmet with a crazy visor on it and there’s no way you could afford it, but if you’re creative you can recreate it, some version of it. So then you don’t have shell out $8,000 for this hat.

Some designers make the most beautiful art, wearable art and its so linked with performance. I loved when Björk wore that swan. I even liked when Lady Gaga came out of the egg. I love those crossovers. I love erratic creativity that sort of disturbs.

I’ve been called a muse by a lot of different people over the years and I’ve been told that I inspired this and that. My friend that I was talking about likes to watch me get ready.

 

It’s interesting because fashion also involves the use of material—“wearable art” as you called it.

Exactly. But it’s the man too. You have to know how to wear it.

 

You’re referred to as a feminist frequently and there is this irreverent revelation of female identity happening in your work, but you never actually describe yourself as one.

Well, I do identify, but I never believed in calling myself a feminist. The people that I’ve always admired or wanted to be more like were men because somehow they always get a break. It seems like the women who get the break to be in the group show with the men are really in the show because they’re not a force, they’re not a threat. I’ve always considered myself a humanist instead of a feminist. I admire people who earn their keep. I don’t care whether they are men or women.

I do don’t think it’s easy for women. We’re a threat. We’re able to create physically and a man can’t do that so I think that opens us up to having more psychic powers or something. We sort of see in circles, like mother universe, and men see in squares. That is why they so-called “succeed.” Most of the men in my life have A LOT of female in them. That’s why they wanted to do a tampon commercial, he he.

 

What are you working on now?

One piece is a sculpture that I’m envisioning right now that will go in somebody’s house, it’s a tree sculpture. The other piece that I was making was supposed to be a waterfall made out of ice, but I couldn’t make it happen. I got a movie job and I acted in a movie.

 

-Rachel Cole Dalamangas, December 2013

AUBREY MAYER'S NO IMAGE JUNKIE, IS PUTTING THE HUMANITY BACK IN ART

In a dungeon-like basement studio in Williamsburg on a drizzly November afternoon, Aubrey Mayer is settled in an easy chair. Scattered around him are scraps of paper on a paint be-speckled cement floor, a box of American Spirits. A drawing of a kangaroo with boobs adorns the bathroom door—apparently freshly rendered by Henry Taylor the night before. On the wall to Mayer’s left, “POLICE THE ART WORLD POLICE” is scrawled in black paint. With a pensive look on his face as he surveys a table covered in ‘brillo’ boxes and several walls of photos and autosheets in various states of construction, he almost seems as if he’s holding court. By his count, he spends about 18 hours a day in the studio and has a lot of work to make considering that earlier this year he began to sell enough of his art to sustain a full-time practice. Wearing a baseball cap, glasses, jeans, and sneakers, Mayer can go from laid-back, twenty-something urbanite who enjoys a good bullshit over a beer, to intense with a hungry look in his eye. And if recent history is any indicator, he does have an all-or-nothing ballsy streak. Before making sustainable sales, he did what almost no one else should do and quit his job to pursue a full-time career as an artist, in his words “threw a Hail Mary.” His talk about the discipline with which he approaches making art verges on old school visions of the great artiste, but then he’ll soften, lower his voice and speak very deliberately about putting a sense of humanity back in images, keeping subjects comfortable, getting audience to literally touch and toy with art. His extensive portraits of other artists, some of which are published in zing 23, exhibits a similar twofold nature. The gaze is decidedly heterosexual and male, but emotionally vivid and nuanced. There is something calculating happening and a strong whiff of seduction, but the expression is anything but cold. There’s none of that stale masculine voyeurism in the energy of the images and subjects frequently seem to be captured on some psychological edge, as if looking out from the frame of a strange film.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

How do you choose your subjects for portraits? They’re usually other artists. 

Yeah, I photograph like one person a year now basically, but when I was really heavily doing a lot of portraits of other artists, one artist would lead to another. Or, I’d get interested in an artist because of another artist. It just naturally umbrella-ed.

 

I saw that you photographed Agathe Snow, another zing contributor. How did you meet Agathe?

I met Agathe when I was maybe 22 or 23. Carol Lee (then) of Paper Magazine had me do this thing where I would photograph an artist and ask them twelve questions, actually send them a short interview. So I met Agathe. I think I photographed her for the first time for the Whitney Biennial when she had something at the Armory and that’s where I met her. Then she rented a house on the same street I live on in Orient Point on Long Island. I don’t know how we saw each other there, but then we hung out. It’s where I took my better photographs of her.

 

When did you start making art?

I’ve been making pictures for a long time. Since high school. It was never my major. I never got classically trained, but I’ve been taking pictures for a long time. I took pictures as a teenager. I took pictures in high school. Like, I did a lot of nudes starting in high school.

 

What was your earlier work like? 

I took some pictures of a couple having sex in high school. I was taking naked pictures of girls and I asked this one girl who was my friend and also doing photography if she would pose nude and she said, “Yes, but can we take pictures of me and my boyfriend having sex, too?”

 

Why do you think you’re so drawn to photographing people?

I don’t really know. I just think that’s the most interesting thing. It was just natural. I don’t know. Everything is just natural for me. Everything I do. Every move I make . . . I just make it and you know I have no idea why. I think that portraits and artwork of people has always seemed like the most important to me until I met Christopher Wool’s work.

What I’ve learned about my work and what pushed it to evolve is that in the beginning it was hard to get an audience, it was hard to get people interested in the photographs. I felt like I had the best photographs in the world and I had the responsibility to figure out how the fuck to get them out there and that’s what has pushed my work—that’s what’s pushed my work into the books and now the ‘brillo’ boxes.

I didn’t go to art school, but I’ve learned a lot from the artists I photographed. I chose which artists to learn the most from.

 

Can you describe what you mean by this feeling of “natural”?

It’s gut. It’s all gut. Everything I do is gut.

So this picture (gestures to black and white photo of creek). I think it’s an amazing picture. But in today’s art landscape, a lot of people would overlook an image like that. So I painted it neon yellow to make sure people didn’t forget to look. That was a gut instinct.

 

You seem to think a lot about audience. 

Yeah, because a lot of people say that photography is dead or different versions of this. And it’s not dead.

I believe in classical, traditional photographic techniques, but I believe that photography needed a new energy. I don’t color correct, like shit is straight through. There’s no artifice. I deal with it without artifice. I guess I’m painting on it because other people are ruining it with Photoshop. That’s why photography was dying, because of the way people manipulate images.

If you want to know why I think photography’s dying, it’s because of fashion photography.

 

Interesting. How so?

Because a lot of young photographers come up and they think they have to be a fashion photographer or they use all the fashion photography re-touching and it just sucks the life out of their photos. And also, fashion photographers aren’t even photographers, they just do fashion. They’re getting told what to shoot and how to shoot it. They just have to show up, look pretty, and shake hands.

 

What is your process then for creating a portrait?

That’s interesting. It’s definitely a collaboration. I don’t think when I’m taking a portrait. That is a natural thing. I don’t really talk to the subjects other than that we’re hanging out. They don’t even really notice that I’m doing anything. I’ve been told many times that it feels like I’m not even there. I try to make the subjects not feel me, the weight of my presence. There’s just like a right way to do it. I have instincts.

I think it’s important to note that I went on a photo-shooting spree. I always wanted to be an artist and it always bothered me—it probably shouldn’t have—that people would call me a photographer. What I do is art. We’re all image junkies and everybody’s got a camera. But what I do, nobody else does. So I always thought I was an artist. The whole process of getting other people to realize that was very difficult. Really hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. But the most worthwhile, obviously.

 

How did you fight the label photographer?

By making the best work I could. I just work hard. I spend 18 hours a day at the studio.

Elizabeth Peyton is from Orient. When I was younger, that was the first artist that I photographed. She was down the street from these awesome people who I used to stay at their house because my parents used to work in the city in the summer. And I was taking pictures and they’re like, “Oh you should look up this person who lives down the street, she’s really sweet.” And they said something like she wants to learn how to sail. And at that point in my life, the year before, I was campaigning for the Olympics. I was on the 2005 U.S. sailing team. I went to St. Mary’s College of Maryland. We were ranked 1st in the country. My freshman year we won a National Championship.

 

It sounds like these features of ambition and competitiveness are very much a part of who you are. 

Extremely. Ever since I was little. I grew up very overweight and I was tortured as a child, really ostracized. And my dad would always try to get me to sail and one night when I was like nine years old, for some reason one night, I was like, “Man, I’m gonna go race the older kids.” They were 18 year olds and I kicked everyone’s ass. It gave me something to feel good about. From then on, I sort of just found happiness through hard work. When I was younger it was sailing and now it’s art. I enjoy the process. I enjoy being here 18 hours a day. I enjoy pushing to get it right.

 

The StoneScape group exhibit earlier this year was curated as “portrait work that unveils the identity of the artist as well as the subject.” Is that something that’s going on in your work, the revelation of your identity?

I think it’s portrait and about portrait, and definitely because I think that the thing about the new portrait is that the work’s just as much about the person taking it as it is about the subject.

It’s about including everything. When I was little I would look at a Peter Hujar book and then I would go take a Peter Hujar photograph. Then I’d look at a Robert Frank book and then go take a Robert Frank photograph. Eventually I ran out of people to take pictures like and it all started to become my own, but the one thing it taught me is that portrait and about portrait is an important idea. There’s not one portrait for me. A portrait of somebody is really in one of these auto sheets, you know, hundreds of pictures. The feeling of being with somebody. The warts. The bad pictures. It’s almost like I’m filming.

I try to do everything so that the artwork can’t be put in one compartment. I use every compartment so as to keep all the balls bouncing, to keep it really alive, really happening, really fun, a lot of energy, fun to look at. It’s by doing everything that that happens, not by doing one thing. My mind is like on a constant hamster wheel. Once it becomes one thing, I’ve hit a wall and now I have to go in the other direction.

There were three years where I felt like, “Why aren’t people paying attention to this?” [gestures at work hung around studio.]

 

How do you get people to pay attention to art?

I was a photo assistant for years, which enraged me, because I thought I should take the photographers’ cameras and smash them over their fucking heads. It disgusted me to go to work everyday. I was the lighting director on the Gap campaign last year. That was the last straw. [My wife,] Toby and I went to Amsterdam for Christmas holiday to see the Mike Kelley show at the stedelik. I went every day. Over and over again. I got back and I just got in touch with a couple people that had known my work and had bought some things in the past. Thea Westreich is one person who I got in touch with. I was like, “I can’t live like this anymore, I need to make this work, please help me, give me some advice, tell me what to do. I know that I should be an artist right now for a living.” And we talked about the work and she highlighted some things she liked about it and at that point I went from working to living off my credit card. Basically, I was throwing a Hail Mary. And that’s when I came up with the brillo box. I wanted to put all of the photos in one place. I knew they took up too much real estate on the wall, so I put them in a box. The box was a natural evolution from having no money and having to make books for five years. The only way I could look at my photos not on a computer screen was in a copyshop book from Staples. So that naturally pushed me into book-making. I have so much material. The only way to deal with it was to put it in a box.

 

It sounds like it’s important for you to have the work in an object form instead of on a computer. 

Yeah, I was so tired of looking at a computer screen because I’d been looking at it only on a computer screen for so many years. I think it’s crazy how people treat books and photography. I wanted my audience to touch it . . . to feel it . . . to be able to experience it like I do in the studio everyday. Not preciously but rather roughly, aggressively, fun-ly. I mean the touching part is really important to me, fingerprints.

 

Do you have any self-portraiture?

Yeah, it’s a big naked picture of me. It’s in here. [Picks through brillo box]. Sometimes I hand off the camera to the people I’m photographing too. Wool took good portraits of me, Jacqueline Humphries and Charline Von Heyl did too.

 

It seems like you take a lot from Warhol, but you haven’t referenced him as an influence so I’m curious about your thoughts on him. 

We just share some things in common because we took a lot of pictures of other artists. That’s it. Also, he’s really good at making pictures. I think about all this stuff and I think about painting and the reason why I wasn’t afraid of it is because it’s all just picture making to me and I think that Warhol is a really prime example of that. He was just really good at making pictures. In a way, that’s how I got people to look at my photographs. I realized that I had to make them into pictures that were imposing, they’re big and on linen or stacked tall in a huge box. They just have to have weight for me. Literally. Metaphorically. Everyway.

 

Another thing that’s been written about you is that your work captures introspection and has a capacity to capture interior life. 

I guess that comes from people just being natural, letting their guard down because we’re just hanging out and it’s cool. I was more nervous than most of these people, especially in the beginning. We definitely collaborate. The most I say is if somebody was sitting in one chair for a long time, I’d be like, “Maybe we can go sit somewhere else.” I want the images to keep changing, to keep moving and I wanted to hang out for a long time so I realized early on that you sort of have to keep the situation stimulating somehow and that’s where the instinct kicks in. Everybody’s different, there’s so many different personalities, but that’s where it really kicks in. What’s this person comfortable with, what’s this person uncomfortable with. The reason why I love my work is because it’s all humanity.

 

How do relationships with other artists and subjects figure into your process?

In every way you can possibly imagine.

 

There’s talk about whether the role of artist is changing and what that role is. 

It is changing.

 

To what?

I don’t know, but it is.

As an artist I’ve tried everything and it’s just gotten to the point where people have started to buy it so I can make more of it and that’s a great privilege to make art for my living. Especially being so young.

 

What do you do when you have a failure?

Throw it in the trash. Rip it up. If it’s not good enough for me, if I’m asking the question, for me, it’s not good enough, it’s a ‘maybe.’ If I don’t totally love it, I throw it out.

 

What are you working on now?

Heaps of new paintings on Linen over black and white pigment prints. Wool in Marfa junkyards, Laura Owens in her backyard in LA, Raymond Pettibon stripping his girlfriend in Zwirner’s Gallery, a Japanese Cow, a Wild Horse.

Finishing up the user manual for my new Brillo Box (#4)  ‘Prisoner of Ismaul Volume 2’ . . . It’s like a giant puzzle or board game . . . you can make it into a Carl Andre . . . you can make it whatever you want. I’m just trying to make a manual that helps people figure out their own ways to play with it. It’s a toy. A giant sex toy for art collecting adults.

And another sort of felt record tower, I guess Brillo (#5). It’s the first printing of 6-17-10B the rest of my photos of Christopher Wool in Marfa on June 17, 2010. Stacked in two sections 9×6 double sided pages mounted on davey board. 22-inch tall tower.

 

-Rachel Cole Dalamangas, November 2013

PETE DRUNGLE RIDES THE WAVE OF IDEAS

When I first met the virtuoso pianist and composer Pete Drungle as a guest at zing Editor/Publisher Devon Dikeou’s loft (also the location of zing HQ and Devon Dikeou’s New York studio) I didn’t know his music or really anything about him. But at some point we started discussing the late, great Dan Asher and that sealed the deal. However, for whatever reason, I failed to look up his music. On another visit to New York from Paris, Pete nonchalantly invited me to a performance in a music studio in Times Square. Not really knowing what to expect, I showed up for the early performance in a small studio room with a small group in attendance—an intimate scenario. Pete greeted everyone formally, but warmly, thanking all for attending, sat at the piano, took a deep breath with his eyes closed, then began to play. My jaw dropped. The whole room was hypnotized. Pete performed an astounding 10-15 minute long improvisation, music that had a classical familiarity and beauty yet felt like an intense emotional journey. When the song was finished, Pete got up and bowed to smiling faces and applause. Then he sat back down, did a few more songs, including sections in which he was reaching inside the piano to pluck the strings in a very skilled manner, even playing the keys with one hand while reaching in and muting with the other. The performance ended with another humble thank you, and people began to file in for the next performance. It was then that I knew Pete was a special fellow. His DREAM SEQUENCES FOR SOLO PIANO on November 6 is part of Performa13.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

How did you begin with music?

I discovered that I could play by ear right away and began to improvise and also to write little tunes. I started playing the trumpet early as well, in concert and marching bands. At age 11 I got into synthesizers, sequencers, and recording studio technology and learned the basics of orchestration. During high school, I continued to play the trumpet, played keyboards and bass in rock bands, and also composed scores for school theatre plays. After that, I went to the University of North Texas and studied Music Composition, theory and orchestration, and private piano studies. I lived in Denton, Texas in the early ’90s, and it was a great environment for music at that time. There were so many great jam sessions happening all the time, it is kind of hard to describe how much musical activity was going on . . .

 

Your music is so classical, yet fresh and explorative. What have been some of your main influences?

I have loved listening to Ravel, Bach, Debussy, Stravinsky, Satie, Ligeti, Scarlatti, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Morton Feldman, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, George Crumb, Webern, Cage, Stockhausen, Takemitsu, to name a few.

Also, I grew up in America so listening to rock music was inevitable; Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, Prince, Jane’s Addiction, etc.

In my late teens, I discovered Jazz—specifically the music of Ornette Coleman. The song “Endangered Species” off the album SONG X was the track that got through to me first. Also, Ornette’s playing on Howard Shore’s score to Naked Lunch was a big revelation for me. That score is a great convergence of composition and improvisation, with Ornette serving as the lead voice in concerto to Shore’s orchestra. The sound of it is seductive yet eerily haunting, and every moment of that music is alive.

I have had the good fortune to become friends with Ornette, and to have played music with him. He has been one of my mentors, and I have definitely been influenced by his music and his philosophies.

In my early twenties, I became obsessed with was Miles Davis. I was under the spell of Bitches BrewBig FunDark MagusIn a Silent WayJack JohnsonOn the CornerLive-Evil and Get Up With It. I drowned myself in this period of Miles’ music, learned how to play many parts of the compositions and solos, and studied the music of Miles’ alumni—Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, Wayne Shorter, Steve Grossman, John Scofield, etc. Miles was incredibly inspiring to me, and his music made all the hair on my body stand on end. Also, Miles had a great sense of style and he dressed really well.

. . . And John Coltrane—when I learned that John was practicing 12 hours per day, I began trying to do the same. John would work out of the Slonimsky Thesaurus of Scales and Modes, so I did that too (maybe I will get back to that . . .). For me, John’s two most striking features as a player were his overwhelming amount of soul (as evidenced on A Love Supreme, and basically everything he ever played . . .) and his ability to play pure melody with an incomparable tone and inflection (i.e. NaimaCentral Park WestIn a Sentimental Way (with Duke Ellington), etc). There was always a vast intelligence present in Coltrane’s sound, even in a single sustained note, and you always know it’s him.

Possibly the most important musical influence in my life has been the drummer/composer/bandleader Ronald Shannon Jackson. Sadly, Shannon (as he was called) passed away very recently, October 19, 2013, at age 73. It is a huge loss for music, because the man had more music to write. But Shannon’s influence is omnipresent, he was a great mentor and I am incredibly fortunate to have known him. I met Shannon when I was 23, and started to play in his band—The Decoding Society. Shannon turned me on to a universe of great ideas, his house was literally like a small museum with a great library of rare and subversive books on history, philosophy, music and the occult. There were things written all over the walls—ideas, dates, philosophies, names—but there was something written on his wall that I will never forget—the word NON-CATEGORICAL. Shannon taught me about the non-categorical in music, which is the essential ethos of Jazz without the clichés. Shannon did more to help me find my sound as a pianist than anyone or anything else, I owe him a huge debt for that. If my sound “seems classical yet explorative,” I would attribute much of that to Shannon. Shannon would not let me play in a “jazz” way when I played in his band. He would say, “Drungle, play classical . . .” meaning that he wanted me to play what was most authentic in myself. (Also, Shannon loved Classical music, and had biographies of composers like Paganini and Liszt laying around his house. He wanted “classical” elements to be present in his music.) Anyway, Shannon simply wouldn’t allow me to pick up “the black thing” in my playing, as so many other white musicians were (and are) doing. Although he didn’t mean it literally, when he would say “play classical” it would push me to improvise in ways that were authentic for me, and that was very satisfying; I remember that I started coming up with 2-handed “classical” runs, and many other things that have grown and mutated over the years. Since then, I have been working to develop the building blocks of a improvisational musical language that is unique to me, yet it was Shannon’s influence that put me directly onto that path.

Incidentally, Shannon was Ornette Coleman’s drummer (and student) in the 1970’s, and I met Ornette through Shannon.  Shannon was also the only drummer to play with all three avant-jazz luminaries—Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman.

And it was Shannon who suggested that I play for 24 continuous hours . . .

 

You’ve related your piano playing to speaking a language. Yet your improvisations appear so pre-meditated. How are improvisation and composition related for you?

Regarding improvisation, I usually don’t have any idea what I am going to play before I begin. When I play, I try to let go of my thoughts as much as possible and become the music I am playing. Ornette said, “If you’re going to play music, don’t think about it!” My body, mind, and breath are in total service of the ideas that surface in my imagination, and I try to ride them like waves.

Improvisation IS composition, except that the process is vastly sped up; improvisation happens in the moment, in real time usually without preconception or editing. However, there is a great deal of interplay between composition and improvisation for me. I find that the more I improvise, the better I can compose; and the reverse is equally true, because composing a lot of music helps to create, among other things, an innate sense of structure and thematic development which is invaluable in improvisation. I love to compose as well as improvise, and in my solo piano concerts I try to smear the lines between composition and improvisation so that they become indistinguishable from each other.

 

Can you speak about the performative aspect of your music, which seems so crucial? And perhaps a few words about the 24-HOUR CONTINUOUS SOLO PIANO IMPROVISATION performance—what went into preparing for this and just the physical process of playing a piano this long?

I love to perform. I think playing in front of an audience often pulls things out of you that would not come otherwise. In fact, it is probably identical to a phenomenon that physicists study called ‘observer effect’. You cannot observe something without altering it, and when a group of people gather in a room and focus their attention on a performer, it alters him. If a performer is brave enough to “let go” in this environment, it can be an amazing experience for everyone.

The 24-HOUR CONTINUOS SOLO PIANO IMPROVISATION came about at the advice of my mentor, Ronald Shannon Jackson. He saw me engaging in a lot of self-destructive behavior and said, “Drungle—if you want to torture yourself, try playing the piano for 24 straight hours.” I completed the 24-hour improvisation three times in private before attempting it in public. I performed it at SculptureCenter in Long Island City (NYC), as part of Performa07. I didn’t have a hard time doing this long improvisation. I loved it—it was more like a love affair than an endurance test. The only real discomfort I experienced in the public performance occurred in the final hours of the piece. By the 22nd hour, my fingers were bleeding and I couldn’t feel my arms or hands—and that was when the larger crowd began to arrive—so on top of being in pain and physically exhausted, I felt like I had to play to the audience. I felt a lot of pressure in those final hours, but I pushed myself to stay in the music until the very end. You can hear the final 30 minutes of 24-HOUR CONTINUOUS SOLO PIANO IMPROVISATION, it is posted on my site here: http://petedrungle.com/Music

I am preparing to do this piece again in Paris in 2014.

 

You made a record with Rudolph Stingel. How did this collaboration come about?

I met Rudi through Marianne Vitale, who has been a close friend and collaborator for a decade. The vinyl record was Rudi’s idea, he had wanted to make one. Although I have played on many records and composed scores for many projects, I hadn’t yet made my own solo record and was really keen to do that—so we decided that I would make PETE DRUNGLE SOLO PIANO in Rudi’s studio in NYC. I wanted to have a unique piano sound for this record, so we rented a 9′ concert grand from Steinway Hall and installed it in the spray room of the studio. Rudi set up an amazing environment for me in the spray room; in addition to several of his gold series paintings on the walls, he actually installed the piano on top of one of his paintings from that series, I guess he liked to have the canvases slightly damaged. You can see an image of the spray room set-up on the opening page of my website—http://petedrungle.com, and you can hear my improvised “Suite #1” which was recorded there (it will play automatically).

PETE DRUNGLE SOLO PIANO only exists on vinyl, and is a very limited series.

If you are interested in acquiring one, contact me through my website.

 

I noticed you’ve also collaborated with Agathe Snow, who curated a project in the current issue of zingmagazine. Can you tell us about this collaboration?

I collaborated with Agathe and Marianne Vitale, making the music for their amazing show OKKO. It happened at White Columns in 2008. I hired the trombonist/composer/ Sun Ra-alumni Craig Harris to play duo with me. We improvised accompaniment to Agathe and Marianne’s performance (which is impossible for me to describe, but at one point Marianne was up on a table running a jackhammer), and we played a version of “I Wear My Sunglasses at Night” for the finale, at Agathe’s request.

 

You previously mentioned that you had played music in Paris with a drummer you’ve idolized for years. Could you tell this story?

I have been listening to a great drummer/composer from Cameroon named Brice Wassy since I was about 19 years old. I first heard him on the Jean-Luc Ponty record Tchkola, where Brice played, composed, and music directed the ensemble. I wore that record out! (actually it was a cassette). Some years later, I got a copy of Graham Haynes’ (son of drummer Roy Haynes) The Griot’s Footsteps, and that is a spectacular record. It showcases Graham’s amazing trumpet playing as well as Brice’s virtuoso drumming and music direction; the ensemble is comprised of several west African musicians that play astonishingly well.

Since I recently moved to Paris, I was able to find Brice through Graham Haynes—and I asked him to meet me in a studio to play. So we did that, and it was very exciting for me. I started to write some music with Brice in mind, and then asked my friend the legendary bass player Al Mac Dowell to play with this trio. We did a night at the Sunset/Sunside in Paris a few months ago. I will post a clip from this gig on my music page very soon.

 

What are some of your other dream projects?

I want to work with orchestra as much as possible.

I’m working on a chamber orchestra w/ piano project at the moment, which will be released in 2014. I honestly don’t think anyone has yet done what I am attempting to do with this record, but I don’t want to give away the surprise—so I’ll tell you about that later.

But to answer your question, my dream project is to compose and perform a piano concerto with full orchestra.

 

What can we expect at forthcoming performance for PERFORMA 13 next week?

I am doing a piece called DREAM SEQUENCES FOR SOLO PIANO, at Roulette on November 6. It is a solo piano concert accompanied by a video collage of dream sequences lifted from the films of Luis Buñuel. It is a collaboration with filmmaker Toby Rymkus, who researched Buñuel and edited the video. Roulette is a beautiful hall with a 9′ Steinway Grand, and I think it is the absolute perfect setting for this piece. I am very excited to be coming to New York to give this concert. Please come!

 

-Brandon Johnson, November 2013

MARCEL DZAMA WANTS TO GET INTIMATE BEFORE THE APOCALYPSE

Marcel Dzama doesn’t like horror films, but in a Brooklyn studio peppered with animal masks and the odd serpent puppet, he is ever-ready for Halloween. You may have seen his costume—the bullheaded man in a polka-dotted toga dancing alongside other hotshots of the art world in Jay-Z’s performance art film, “Picasso Baby.” Underneath the mask is the man with a neat haircut and boyish grin known for the erotic cavalcades and cool anarchy rendered with childlike stylization in drawings as well as dioramas and films. When I ask him what he does when he faces an artistic block, he looks dumbfounded as if he’s never known such an experience. “You mean like what writers face?” he asks with a confused smile. Dzama has been making art as long as he can recall, lacking time rather than inspiration. The testimony to his voluminous body of art is Marcel Dzama: Sower of Discord, a monograph of his work from 1995 to present, which will be out November 5th from Abrams including three stories by Dave Eggers as well as a taxonomy and comparative essay by Bradley Bailey.

Dzama’s project in zingmagazine issue 23 titled “A Coming Insurrection” animates chess pieces into full-blown characters that cavort with men dressed in polka-dotted pajama-like garb and women wearing thigh highs and masks. As with other drawing series, “A Coming Insurrection” portrays an almost-narrative that begins with the penance of medieval femme fatale Jane Shore and moves through army-like processions of ballet dancers, sex parties, the violent execution of a royal, and anarchy in an art gallery before arriving at the grand finale of a Bosch-like apocalypse scene crowned by a fetus-headed woman descending from the clouds. Rich in references ranging from Marcel Duchamp to Federico García Lorca, random bits of personal significance, mythology, and profusions of art history, Dzama’s drawings are chic, lurid visual networks of history, culture, and imagination.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

What are you going to be for Halloween?

A Picabia bull with the bullhead and I have this polka-dot cape that goes with it. There’s this painting that Picabia did of this dictator cow, but I added the weird cape, he just had a toga. I admire his work so I was trying to think of ideas for a new film and I invented this whole character that is based on that painting and now it’s a Halloween costume because I have the leftovers as a prop. It had an appearance in the Jay-Z video, Picasso Baby.

 

I’m interested in Marcel Duchamp’s influence on your work. How is your artistic practice related to his ideas on process?

He was just an obsession. I remember seeing his work at a really early age because of our first names being the same so it was a bit of an ego thing I guess. I remember picking up this art book and being too young to understand anything in it so I was blown away. It was a TIME magazine thing when they put out these art books. I think I had it as a library book. I remember the “Étant donnés.” Someone seeing that in elementary school for the first time, it was definitely a little bit of a naughty thing to see. It stayed with me and I didn’t understand what it was either because it wasn’t a painting. It’s a sculpture, but it looked so realistic. But I think I just thought everything was a painting back then too so I was like, what is this strange thing? Later on I got into Surrealism in high school and went back to Duchamp.

 

Regarding your own process, where do you get ideas?

Sometimes I’ll have an idea to do a film or something like that and then I’ll get focused on doing the film, do storyboards, drawings of costumes, and then after that usually there will be a show coming up and then I’ll start doing drawings loosely based on the film, and then sometimes vice versa, drawings that influence the film.

I just jot down weird sketchbook ideas. I read a lot of art books and get influenced by other artists and get inspired by films. Newspaper articles also influence a lot of things. It’s kind of everything. I almost feel like it’s some sort of therapy and getting out everything I’ve read from inside of me.

 

Earlier this year, The Afternoon Interviews featuring conversations with Marcel Duchamp and New Yorker journalist Calvin Tomkins were published. In The Afternoon Interviews, Duchamp discusses his fatigue with the role of the artist in the world and his concern about what the role of the artist would become. What do you think the role of artist is becoming?

There’s just so much information and it’s so easy to access now, I don’t think any one artist really can do what they used to. I don’t think any one artist can have that much influence on culture anymore. I find some artists give these little boosts to culture, but in a minor sort of way. There’s so many voices that everything is drowned out and you have to search for the ones you like.

 

What would you be doing if the art career hadn’t happened?

I have no idea what I would be doing. My back-up plan was that my grandfather has a farm in Saskatchewan and I was going to be a farmhand and I could just do art. It costs nothing to live there. I used to help my grandfather farm there and my uncle too. It’s super isolated. There are maybe 30 people in their town. I can deal with that though. They have good radio stations.

 

On several occasions you’ve described drawing as intimate.

I like the intimacy of it. I always find that painting is a grand statement whereas drawing is very personal and of that moment. There’s an immediacy of drawing also. If you’re working on something for a long time, it loses that moment of inspiration. A lot of times I’ll start with an automatic drawing and then by the end of it I’m organizing it to make a little bit of sense in my mind. There’s a creative spark to creating something brand new and if you don’t get it out within a few days, it disappears or you forget what it was.

 

In your work there’s an implication of narrative and you’ve worked with writers like Dave Eggers and just recently illustrated an English-language translation of the German novel Momo. Do you have an interest in narrative?

I would like to give a more clear narrative sometimes, but for some reason I do like having a mystery in the drawings. I like letting the viewer decide what happened before and what happens after. Sometimes if there’s too much narrative I feel like I’m just telling the viewer the entire story and then that’s it.

 

And that seems to relate to your interest in history. When I look at a large body of your work, it looks a bit like a history book. Where does that come from?

When I was growing up, my dad was obsessed with World War II documentaries and books on Vikings, any war-related history he found interesting so I was introduced to it at a really early age. I probably inherited whatever gene he has that is interested in history. At probably too young of an age I watched some of those documentaries with him, especially that World War II stuff with concentration camps and just not understanding it all and being really horrified and disturbed by it.

 

Besides the art books, do you read often?

Oh yeah. Hardly any fiction, but usually biographies or history and I read a lot of poetry, especially Lorca. I almost relate the drawings to poems in some ways because they’re kind of loose-ended usually.

 

There are also a lot of apocalyptic events in your drawings. Does that relate to what you were saying about reading history and the newspaper?

Yeah, probably. It seems like in the last few years the whole entertainment industry and maybe newspapers especially have become obsessed with the apocalypse happening and it’s a good subject matter for drawing. It’s kind of grandiose. Also, my drawings have been cluttered with characters and an apocalypse is a good reason to have clutter and chaos everywhere and to give it some form of a story.

 

There are a lot of apocalypse narratives in the news right now with war and the environment. There’s a lot of chatter right now about what’s going to happen to the world. Do you think humans are going to do themselves in?

Oh yeah, for sure. The technology keeps getting more and more advanced and all it would take is maybe another hundred years and some teenager will be able to blow up the entire world.

 

You think we have one hundred years left?

Maybe a little more than that.

 

Or less!

Maybe something weird will happen and we’ll have a normal brain function fixer. It just takes one real disturbed person or a way of viewing the world. I’m not sure. I think we’re kind of doomed. Hopefully we have more than one hundred years.

 

Earlier in your practice, you worked collaboratively with other artists. Can you tell me about that transition from collaboration to working alone?

I always worked alone, but I would get together on Wednesdays or Sundays and collaborate with The Royal Art Lodge. I did that for five years maybe. We were all socially awkward artists so it was kind of our way of going out for drinks. I find that I still kind of collaborate with other people, but I usually don’t put that work out there. I just go over to a friend’s place and we’ll draw together. I did a lot of drawings with Maurice Sendak and Spike Jonze, but we were just trying to shock each other. I think that inspired a lot of more perverse drawings in my own work because it was a lot of fun trying to shock each other. I used to draw with my wife as well. Actually our first date was going to a Spike Jonze film, Being John Malkovich.

 

An L.A. Times critic once described the figures in your work as “humanoids run amok.” There is a homogeny in your work in which humans are a bit animal-like and animals are a bit human-like.

In the earlier work there were these hybrids and later on I defined them more as costumes. I like the whole idea of the mask and the mask represents what the creature’s purpose in the drawing is.

 

What in your mind is underneath the costume?

Usually a female character. Except for the polka-dotted men – I just see them as background choreography that’s going on for the main subject matter in the drawing, almost like back-up dancers.

 

Now that I think about it, there are a lot of female protagonists in your work.

I usually prefer the field of female to be in the power position. I always disliked any kind of sexist artwork or anything like that. It’s been around forever so it’s good not to have it. People that I look up to are usually strong women like my wife and a lot of my friends are strong women.

 

You’ve said that you’re not interested in making art with new technology or with computers. We’re living in a technological revolution in which human lifespan will greatly increase possibly to immortality and space travel will become commercial, for example. How do you think this technological leap will change how humans interact with and process art?

I imagine that there will probably always be a certain amount of people that will be fed-up with an overflow of technology and will always come back to the intimacy – I keep saying intimacy – of paper or of holding a book or a magazine like zing. There will always be that, I imagine. Like the way that vinyl has had a comeback, for example.

 

Well if we’re only here for another hundred years . . .

Yeah, it won’t matter that much!

 

I agree that culturally, there will always be those groups of people that come back to the tangible world and to objects.

Maybe they’ll be the ones that survive. They’ll be in caves and they’ll have gas lamps. They’ll survive because they won’t rely on the technology so much. And they won’t have some chip in their heads that when the power goes out their brains shut down.

 

There’s hope then, right?

Yeah, exactly.

 

In your zing 23 project “A Coming Insurrection,” you address a lot of the ideas we’ve talked about, the apocalypse and this naughty S&M stuff and this sense of anarchy. How does art relate to this idea of insurrection?

I was obsessed with the hundredth anniversary of the Armory Show having such an impact and during this series of work I was wishing art could do that again. It’s kind of the nostalgia of it in these drawings.

In “The Grand presentiments of what must come” I was celebrating the birth of my child, so in the center at the top there’s the fetus-headed character coming out of some sort of mythological god. It’s kind of apocalyptic, but it’s also a new beginning.

“The penance of Jane Shore” is sort of the catalyst for the whole series starting. I was working on the film A Game of Chess at the time and was designing the costumes and was working those into the drawings. I also wrote down all the moves from a famous chess game Marcel Duchamp played with someone. Oskar Schlemmer and the costumes that he designed for his ballet were also a big influence.

 

A monograph of your work from 1995-present is coming out this month from Abrams. How did it feel to look back through almost twenty years of work?

It’s strange to go through it all especially when I was being interviewed by Bradley Bailey because my memory is disappearing so it’s good to get it down now. There’s some really early work from the middle of art school. It was hard to find those. I was also at my parents’ place going through old boxes and trying to find anything that was in there so there’s a few drawings from then too. I like some of it, some of it I don’t. That’s alright. It would be sad if I peaked back then.

 

-Rachel Cole Dalamangas, October 2013

TRAVIS EGEDY AKA PICTUREPLANE CHATS ON AN ARTIST'S REALITY

Travis Egedy, also known as Pictureplane, is a musician and visual artist who currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, Egedy set out on a journey of artistic development and experimental living in Denver, Colorado before making his move to the East Coast. His paintings, drawings, photography, and mixed/digital media works have been exhibited in galleries in Denver, New York, and Europe. Egedy has toured throughout Europe and the U.S. performing his unique electronic concoctions of dreamy trance, darkwave, synthpop, and industrial rhythms as Pictureplane. I was able to score a brief Q&A with the artist before he jetted off to a distant land across the Atlantic earlier this summer.

Interview by Hayley Richardson

 

You’re originally from Santa Fe, which is where I hail from as well—I am pretty sure I went to high school with your brother. Santa Fe is a weird place to be a teen and develop an identity. Tell me a little bit about what it was like for you to grow up there—did the small desert town and its history, environment, and/or population have a significant impact on your present style (in art, music, fashion, or otherwise)?

I have been really fortunate in that I have been able to travel quite a lot, all over the world, and Santa Fe, New Mexico is really one of the most interesting, unique and beautiful places I have even been to. And it just happens to be where I grew up. Santa Fe has been a huge influence on me my whole life. The culture, history and southwestern aesthetics where a huge part of my lifestyle while living there as a kid and into high school. It’s just a very magical place that I think is really sacred, no place is like it. I feel like I am really lucky to be from there because it is just so different than how most Americans grow up, in suburbia or the inner city or some sort of really generic and ugly place. I don’t know if Santa Fe is still an influence in my art, but it is a huge part of who I am today and I hold it dear to my heart. I always say the southwest is my spiritual homeland.

 

I am interested in how an artist’s living environment influences their work. Tell me a little bit about your creative development and how it has influenced your moves from New Mexico to Colorado, and then New York.

I would say one of my biggest influences on my creative development was living at Rhinoceropolis in Denver for 6 years. Rhinoceropolis is a warehouse in north Denver that was just a space of pure artistic freedom and expression. Anything was accepted there and I was organizing wild and weird events there for years. It was a large social experiment of living outside of any sort of imposed boundaries within society. It was a beautiful time in my life and, like Santa Fe, made me into the artist I am today. Most of what I do as an artist and as a musician is informed by Rhinoceropolis places like it and also the people who are involved in communities that surround those creative spaces.

 

I’ve experienced Rhinoceropolis on a couple of occasions and it definitely carries a heavy experimental, DIY energy—one that can be confusing or even intimidating to someone unfamiliar with that type of lifestyle or aesthetic. Your photographs exhibited at Gildar Gallery seem to capture that type of ideal, with images that are gritty and sometimes dangerous, but that also express feelings of camaraderie and revelry of life.  Your aesthetic appears strongly linked to your lifestyle . . .

Yes. A lot of what I do and who I am as an artist is informed by living in an environment like Rhinoceropolis and surrounded by the type of people that share that same lifestyle. The photographs are just documenting this environment and choice to live outside of societal norms.

 

The “Real is a Feeling” group exhibition at Gildar was named after one of your songs. The song is interesting because it is catchy and upbeat like a pop song, but it still sounds haunting and the lyrics are pretty obscure. The title and the music seem open to the listener’s own interpretations. And I think it’s cool that the title has been used to incorporate the visual as well as the auditory. Can you share more about the meaning of this song?

I guess that the meaning of that song is really just intuitively knowing in your heart what feels real. Just being in touch with yourself.

 

You studied painting at RMCAD. How you do you balance or incorporate aspects of your formal education with your DIY style?

I was educated just as much by living inside of Rhinoceropolis as I was in 5 years of “formal education” and it wasn’t anywhere near as expensive.

 

You’re on the road a lot performing, and you were recently on tour opening for Crystal Castles. You’ve performed at venues that range from historic theaters to dive bars and warehouses. What is life like on the road? Any interesting stories you want to share?

I feel really comfortable traveling. It is what I do for a living. I’ve been able to gain knowledge from it. I just feel really fortunate. I don’t know any crazy stories off the top of my head. There are too many. It’s all crazy.

 

In your show “Reality Engineering” (Fitness Center for Arts and Tactics, Brooklyn; Make Up Gallery/BAZZART, Kosice, Slovakia) you pose a powerful question: “Who creates our reality?” The work you created features a bold combination of Internet stock pictures, corporate logos, and pop culture imagery with drawings, painting, and photographs of your own creation. “Reality” is portrayed as a mixture of the authentic with the manufactured. After creating and exhibiting this body of work, do you feel any closer to answering that question of who creates reality?

Well, I don’t think there is any one answer to that question, because everyone’s “reality” is quite different I think. The show is really about being able to create your own reality rather than let it be left up to outside forces to define who you are.

To be continued . . .

 

-Hayley Richardson, October 2013

KENNY SCHARF: INTERVIEW

Original street-artist, vet of the Lower East Side scene when it was still the scene, and Instagram-extraordinaireKenny Scharf is picking through a tabletop full of Brooklyn detritus as if he’s a foodie at a late-night buffet. He’s got all these knickknacks including baggies of bright plastic jewels and a turquoise plastic cup dispenser that he’s going to make into what he calls “space vomit” (and who knows what else). In 2013, Scharf has painted a mural for the pediatric and adolescent psychiatric ward of Kings County Hospitalcollaborated a fashion show during New York Fashion Week, hosted a Cosmic Cavern party, been arrested mid-tag in Bushwick, and executed a spat of free paintings on cars.

On a warm Thursday September night, in a far corner of his otherwise dim home/studio in Williamsburg, bright lights shine down onto a painted canvas adhered with junk from Metropolitan Avenue. He drops colorless bits of plastic into wet gesso while talking about how much he dislikes the influence of market on art (and if there’s anything to pin on the guy—he’s a workhorse example of not selling out even if his work sells), the difference between Pop and Surrealism, what the Lower East Side was like back in the day, and what’s cool now.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

How do you choose the junk that goes into your work?

Oh, it chooses me. I collect it and then I save it and then one day it comes in handy. It’s crazy. I mean look, look at all this crap. These are jewels, but there are also these little pieces of plastic. I found this in the street, Solo Cup. Right here on Metropolitan Avenue. That’s where I find most of my good stuff.

 

You just completed a mural at Kings County Hospital. How did the children react to your art?

They were so excited. It’s an institution so it couldn’t be more depressing and you want kids to heal. I felt really good that I was able to do that in that environment because it is really bleak and it’s really needed and it stands out. You can see [the mural] a mile a way, like there’s a sign of life in the hospital. It shows the kids that someone cares because it was done for them and no one else sees it because it’s in a children’s psychiatric ward.

 

You coined the term “Pop-Surrealism” and in another interview with I Think You’re Swell you described how the cartoons that make it into your work are coming out of your sub-conscious in a stream of thought rather than being intentionally chosen, so I’m curious what you think about contemporary art that’s appropriative.

There’s a fine line between appropriation and just taking something. The fact that the imagery alludes to or has come from common, popular imagery isn’t necessarily coming from the same place as Pop art. I’m a Surrealist purely, and information in my brain has Pop in it and that is just situational because of how I grew up and that’s a really different way of going about using Pop imagery.

 

We’re all always so inundated by Pop imagery.

Yes, we are. More and more and more. It’s insane. It’s funny because I’ve been using these images from Hanna Barbera and people ask me all the time, “Does Hanna Barbera ever go after you?” and I’m like I almost wish they would. I didn’t ask to be bombarded with this imagery so I’m just responding to what has been thrown at me and regurgitating it. I’m the television generation so the impact of TV was similar maybe to what the Internet has done to the kids today. It’s a similar kind of thing with the screen.

 

Done with working on “space vomit” while the gesso dries, Scharf suggests we go on his roof because he’s seen the moon earlier that evening and it’s huge and not to be missed he says. A large gray cat—his daughter’s—follows us up to the unlit, unremarkable roof where the sky is purple-gray and the harvest moon sliver by sliver rises above a neighboring building.

 

Ever since you started out, you’ve run around with some mind blowers, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in particular.

I met Jean-Michel and Keith within my first month of arrival [to New York] and they both became really important, inspiring people in my life.

 

The friendships were intense?

Yes, they were very intense. Keith and I always got along real well, and Jean-Michel and I had kind of a tumultuous relationship of intensity. They’ve been gone for a long time. They’ve been gone for what, 25 years already, or more. Oh my god, it’s crazy how many years they’ve been gone and how they’re still so important and part of my whole dialogue.

 

How does that impact your art?

When Jean-Michel died I was still in my 20s. When Keith died I was 30. That was very profound to be a 30-year old survivor. When you’re younger, you expect to lose all these people when you’re old so that was profound in so many ways. They were not only my art friends, they were my cohorts. I kind of felt very lost. It was a really strange feeling back then to be the survivor. Now we’re talking over 25 years later, it serves me in a different way. I feel like I’m continuing a lot of the spirit and philosophy that we had all believed in.

 

I know you’ve spoken about it before, but could you share some of that philosophy with me now?

It’s an anti-elitist philosophy. I don’t want art to be an elitist thing that only certain people can understand what I’m doing. I know that there’s an elitist audience and I went to art school and I studied art history and I’m aware of that and it’s important to me to be part of that dialogue, but at the same time, I’m also aware of so many people who don’t know about that. It’s important to me to reach out to everyone and offer something for all different audiences, whether it be the art elitist or the art-uninitiated person on the street.

 

There is also a language of beauty in your work too.

I get inspired by things that I find beautiful and I would think that maybe I could add to the notion of beauty. Not always, but often. I want to express beauty and embrace it.

 

On that note, I think it’s important to try to discuss what beauty is.

Notions of beauty are so different. There’s the notion of beauty that society says is beautiful and then there are things that a lot of people would find ugly that I find beautiful. For example, what I’m doing now with the space vomit. It’s crap, it’s garbage. I find beauty in things that aren’t necessarily what people would think of as beautiful. I like to find it and bring it out and celebrate the beauty in ugly. If you can get other people to see what you can’t photograph because it’s in your mind, that’s pretty cool and I think Surrealism can definitely do that.

 

How has New York changed since you arrived?

When I first arrived, it was punk rock. It was a big free for all. It was a very raw place. Here we are sitting in east Williamsburg. Back then we wouldn’t be sitting in east Williamsburg right now. No one would ever want to go here. Where we all lived on the Lower East Side was bombed out enough. I’m sure over here must have been really funky back then. I can’t imagine how funky it was. It was a completely different world. I can’t think of a better place to spawn amazing things.

 

Why is it that intense landscapes have that impact on art do you think?

Depression, economic depression. A lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s not based on any kind of market. Maybe there was a market, but not so far as we were concerned and what we were doing, and that’s very liberating when you’re not like, “Oh I hope it sells,” or “I hope this collector likes it.” It was the farthest thing anyone ever thought about.

You could find a weird abandoned floor in some building somewhere and claim it as your studio. The opportunity to make things without money—it’s still there actually. That’s why I use all that trash and junk in my work, it’s right there and it’s interesting to me. It has a life, it has a history, it has a meaning beyond what the object is. It has connotations of being garbage. There are so many levels to me about garbage that I find really interesting.

 

How has your art responded to this change in the landscape?

When I started making art out of trash in the early ’70s, I was using old radios and ’50s refuse. Now I’m finding keyboards and computer pieces and cellphones, so just the actual electronics themselves have changed over the years.

Oh—I just saw a shooting star. It looked so close. (Points to the sky). In the city! It was really bright. It went straight down and then it stopped.

 

You do have this fascination with space too. Where does that come from?

That comes from my childhood. I was born the year the Space Age started. The first satellite, Sputnik, Russia, took off 1957 and burned up 1958, the year I was born. So my childhood, everything outer space was the huge thing. I was always and still am all for the fantasy of space and what space represents to me is the ultimate spirituality. What is beyond the universe makes you seem very small and it makes your problems and everything we are so concerned about materialistically seem insignificant. That’s the kind of thing that turns me on.

 

Regarding this “bigger awareness” you mentioned, do you have a spirituality that is being exercised in the creative process?

Totally. My spontaneity in a way is my spirituality because I’m having faith in something outside of myself that will guide me and take me somewhere that I don’t even know. So every single time I’m faced with a big white wall and I’m like, “Here I go,” I’m putting faith out there that something outside of myself is going to come to me and I’m going to bring it out. Every time it’s that exercise in faith that something will get me to that special place. All you are is the facilitator. There’s something big out there and you let it enter you and then you let it out, it comes out your hand, and there it is.

 

Speaking of technology and the mortal condition, Google just announced that it’s going to try to solve mortality. Which is interesting because the question of class arises and who could afford the benefits of such technology.

Why would you want that? How would you know it’s not better when you’re not living? Maybe you’re just running around out there in outer space. Just because it’s unknown doesn’t mean it’s not 100 billion times better.

 

You’ve been called an arbiter of cool. So what’s cool now?

When I see kids doing stuff now and I think, “These kids are really cool,” the attitude and their ideas of success are not the traditional ideas of success, like the idea that in order to be successful you have money and this and that and your car and your house and you’re obtaining all these things. I think it’s cool when you can just say, “I’m going to do great stuff, I’m going to create, I want to help, I want to add.”

You know what’s cool? Being conscious. So many people just live and they’re not even aware that they’re part of some whole system designed by people’s pockets. I’m not saying I’m Mr. Perfect and I’m above it because I take airplanes and I go to the store and buy food that was brought in a truck and has packaging on it. It’s not like I’m moving some place off-grid to grow my own food, which is an alternative and I have thought about that before, but I also want to keep my foot a little in this Pop—popular world—so I’m part of it.

 

-Rachel Cole Dalamangas, October 2013

MICHAEL GARCIA: INTERVIEW

Michael Anthony García was born in El Paso, Texas, but has lived all over the state through the years. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art from Austin College in Sherman, TX in 1996 where became an Adjunct Art Faculty member after graduation. His work has been seen throughout Texas, Mexico and Brooklyn, New York and although he has explored a variety of media, the bulk of his constructions are true to the traditions of found-object sculpture, performance art and installations. Most notably he has presented work at Mexic-Arte Museum, the Lawndale and in the 2011 Texas Biennial. He now lives and teaches in Austin, TX and is a collaborating founder of Los Outsiders, a creative and curatorial collective that has organized exhibitions in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Houston and Austin, TX. He was a recipient of the 2012 Austin Critics Table Award for best group show curation as well as being selected as the 2012 Austin Visual Arts Association‘s (AVAA) Artist of the Year, 3D.

Interview by Josh T Franco

 

I’m glad we finally met. Seems like our worlds circled one another for a few years. To business: you’re a busy guy. This summer, you curated the 18th annual Young Latino Artists (YLA) Exhibition at Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin, had work up at the People’s Gallery (aka Austin City Hall), and had a solo show at Red Space, also in Austin. Are you exhausted? Ready to get back to teaching in the Fall? And pre-kindergarteners no less . . .

The summer took off like a rocket for me and taking on projects back to back the way I did, was very exhausting, but since then I have had the chance to relax and recharge my batteries. This summer I had the pleasure of living in an art world mirage by curating and creating/exhibiting my own work, but now I have to refocus myself on my day job in education. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit of a let down, a postpARTum dip, if you will, but these things always come in cycles so I have learned to adapt.

 

We started at Mexic-Arte, walking piece by piece through the show. Off the bat, we got the question of identity out of the way, putting it very much in the way. The YLA has a different curator every year, and I assume the first question this person must ask herself is: What do I consider Latino/a? Yours is perhaps the most international exhibition to date. How did this end up being the case? (after some discussion with next year’s curators, I want to be a bit chismoso and say, they are going in a very different direction!)

In regard to your question about what constitutes Latino Art for me; in organizing the YLA, I was very conscious of what the public expected of it, and that wasn’t necessarily the direction I wanted to go. Whereas many would be quick to assume that Latino Art has to be graphic in some way or somehow safe or traditional, I specifically wanted to go in the other direction. Mind you, my elimination of most of those elements is not a critique of those ideas, rather an exploration of “what else is out there.” I am more than open to exploring those elements in future curatorial endeavors, but for this opportunity I wanted to turn expectation on its head. As I myself work in performance, installation and found- object sculpture, I wanted the focus on those mediums as a way of putting my stamp on this year’s iteration of YLA. I hope it also helped to challenge the public’s preconceived notions of what is expected in an institution like Mexic-Arte Museum.

You ask about the international nature of my YLA and I think it went in that direction because of my personal experiences with Latino Art abroad. As I have traveled extensively through Mexico over the years, I have made many connections and life-long friendships. These experiences have opened me up to art communities and individuals that reshaped my own expectations of Latino Art. And, it is through those friendships that I first approached the idea of making YLA more international. I started exploring the friendships I have made in Mexico and began reaching out to art world academia in South America to bring a broader perspective to the exhibition. In fact, one of the most rewarding aspects of the curatorial process for me has been connecting with fellow creatives either through Skype, email or Facebook as I assembled the group of artists in the exhibition. The artwork in the museum eventually comes down, but the friendships and conversations continue regardless of where we all live. Gotta love the internet for that!

 

One tension of your YLA was the co-presence of abstraction and affect. So much abstraction is significant in this particular exhibition, as past works often narrated issues of ethnicity, borders, and immigration. But the warmth of affect still pervaded. Sometimes, they co-exist in one piece, such as Eureka by Daniel Adame (though accident has to be discussed here as well). This tension is demonstrated too by the stand-off between, say, Ricardo Paniagua’s Unknown Source and [TITLE?] by Nelda Ramos and Javier Vanegas. The former behaves like interactive (for a studio assistant or privileged viewer), re-arrangeable logos. Logos with no corporate references. Eye candy. The latter video piece was difficult to watch for all it’s saccharine crooning and indulgent editing of young love. But, if I remember correctly, I made it through the whole damn thing!

As a viewer, you picked up on a different tension than the one that was more evident to me. Coming at this exhibition from the route of the curatorial process, I found the tension behind the creation of the work to be the most palpable. This is not necessarily experienced by the public, as they were not privy to the behind the scenes process, but by challenging the artists to work collaborate on new pieces as I did, there were huge swaths of time during which I didn’t know what the resulting exhibition would look like. The unknown really amped up the energy from my perspective! However, I think the tension really comes from the resulting artwork being physical manifestations of the artists’ collaborative experiences and having all those relationships and conversations playing out in one space. Again, it’s not necessarily something visitors to the museum can readily pick up on, but it’s there nonetheless.

 

I was struck by the quietness of the installation at Red Space following the rowdy exhibition we left behind. Your emphasis on site-specificity in conversation comes to mind. Here in this bedroom-cum-gallery, the bedroom is what is foregrounded. But not without artfulness. Beyond the selection of plaid fabrics—that pattern that moms inevitably get their sons as they send them off freshman year—how did you achieve this? Was it an aim at all?

I’m glad you picked up on how important the spaces themselves ended up being in my projects. I have always been interested in exploring site-specificity with my work, and it just so happened that it naturally flowed through in many of my creative endeavors this year. Over at Austin City Hall, the idea behind my piece, El Pórtico, had been swimming in my head for a while, but when I was exploring the building for an area to install, the stairwell space leading from the first to second floor jumped out as the only space that fit the idea of the work itself. It is a nether-space, perfect for a piece about an otherworldly portal straddling a buttoned-down reality and an escapist-unknown-plane. And, in the YLA exhibition, because discussion about the museum’s physical building has been a heated topic as of late, I was compelled to layout the work in a way that brought more attention to the architecture itself. But, it was with the installation I developed for Red Space, that the room where I installed was just so pregnant with it’s own identity, that I had to create something around that identity itself. As the space is traditionally used as an apartment bedroom, I had to talk about what happens in bedrooms and navigate the fact that there is a window in the middle of the far wall. It became a masculine (hence the plaid) boudoir. It became an installation about sexuality, attraction and exploration. Also, as a large portion of my work references the body through the use of clothing, I wanted to clothe the room itself in a larger than life “outfit” that captured both masculine and feminine traits. It’s at once a private and intimate space and a stage on which one is expected to perform.

 

I was taken with the precarious wooden constructions throughout. They’re not furniture, but not exactly sculpture. They are structural support, but so exposed and undone?

In that installation, the use of raw wood seemed a natural choice for some reason. As the piece itself is supposed to be a machine, albeit a useless machine that does not serve it’s purpose, I wanted a material that spoke to the notion of sturdiness but not permanence. Wood is a common material and much in the way birds build their nests with sticks, twigs or even trash they find, the wood is a readily available, familiar and not very far removed from it’s natural state.

 

Finally, I want to think about a quiet signature of yours: red bows. (Did you know it was a signature?) They are present at Red Space, tied non-functionally—but not exactly decoratively—at the corners of the wooden frames. They are present on the work at City Hall as well. One Chicano to another, I can’t help recall Amalia Mesa-Bains’s description of rasquachismo: “Aesthetic expression comes from discards, fragments, even recycled everyday materials such as tires, broken plates, plastic containers recombined with elaborate and bold display . . . and even embellishment of the car. The capacity to hold life together with bits of string, old coffee cans, and broken mirrors in a dazzling gesture of aesthetic bravado is at the heart of rasquachismo.” I wonder if the red bows are your rasquache bits of string.

As far as the “rasquache” ribbons are concerned, I began using red bows a few years back as the final phase of installing my work. It adds a delicate final step that makes the process feel complete. The idea that the work is tentatively held together by these precarious red flourishes appeals to me, because many of the ideas and concepts in my work exist in a similar intangible state. Undo the right ribbon and it just might cease to exist. And, in liu of “rasquache”, I would call them a “Mexicanada” -fixing something in a humorous, but not necessarily sensible, yet quintessentially Mexican way. They are used in the same vein as a mariachi decorates a “masculine” song with “feminine” gritos.

 

-Josh T Franco, September 2013

SEBASTIAAN BREMER: INTERVIEW

There is a palpable intimacy to the phantasmic and fantastical photographs of Dutch artist, Sebastiaan Bremer, who has been working out of NYC since 1992, exhibiting internationally at such venues as Hales Gallery, Galerie Barbara Thumm, and PS1 MoMA to name a handful. The multimedia works present rich visual palimpsests wherein Bremer draws appropriated images, private symbols, and expressive patterns directly onto photographs. To hear him describe the intricate process of finding a photo (often stashed away in his personal collection for years) and “caressing” it with the X-ACTO knife, is akin to listening to a surgeon recite the details of an operation, and if a surgeon’s science is the body, then Bremer’s craft is a psychological study in how the mind processes art. His awareness of how a viewer’s eye surveys an exhibition space and sweeps across a photograph and works at detail is precise as well as exhaustive. This is perhaps why these photographs—never staged or intentional—trigger a sense of the real becoming realer (which is a very welcome impression in a hi-tech, data-driven world). Of many artists I’ve talked to, Bremer is the most obsessed with the dexterity of the eye.

His studio in Williamsburg is nominal: a big empty table and chair. A couch below a shelf. On the opposing wall an enlarged, severe photograph of crop rows in Brazil, which he will tell me is from the early part of the 20th century.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

What are you currently working on?

I have just finished the last works I’m creating for a show for the Edwynn Houk Gallery here in New York. I’ve used other people’s work before, found photographs or in some rare cases pictures that I really needed to use. But this time I took this a bit further. I discovered other, older artists that had intervened on the surface of the photograph in different ways. Brassaï really cut and scratched into some of his negatives. So I decided to work with parts of this imagery, but then combined it with other works that seemed related. I made collages, really quickly and partly chance based, in Photoshop, which I would normally never do, and made marks, cutting into the surface of the photograph with a knife. So I started making these collages and cutting into them, and these became new alloys. Part of it is reflecting on my practice. “What am I doing, where am I going?” I’ve been making art with photography for about 15, 20 years, and I got to a certain point where I am able to reflect a bit more objectively.

 

What is your interest in Brassaï specifically?

He was a photographer who hung out with a lot of painters in Paris, like Picasso, Matisse, and everybody else in Paris it seems, and he photographed their studios among other things. He’d take pictures of the sculptures by Picasso as documentation on commission, but then sometimes he would leave photo negatives behind in the studio, and Picasso started scratching and drawing on top of those negatives, bridging the two practices, and then Brassaï got inspired to do the same thing on his own work.

There have always been boundaries between the different arts. Photography was definitely the newer and lesser cousin of painting. Brassaï was able to bring it to another level, and play with the medium. Man Ray is another of course. By now, photography is entirely integrated in artistic practice all over, but there’s still kind of a separation in a sense . . . I think it’s changing, and this upcoming show is a comment on the history of that. I decided if I’m going to go steal from these people, I should steal from the best, (like Pablo said) so I’m using a little bit of Picasso on top, without holding back, just trying to collage something completely new out of their work, a little bit like Frankenstein.

 

The Picassos are what is etched onto the photograph?

Yeah, sometimes, or I took a photograph with my iPhone of an image in a catalogue and used that. It’s hard to tell by now what is what, even for me. There are works where there are five images or more images layered on top of each other. They turn into something else, they turn on each other almost, all these spirits crowded together in one image suddenly, creating a new and in some cases abstracted composition. It feels a bit Shamanistic.

I didn’t blur the transitions and edges, I used them as part of the composition. In some places too, you can see the different processes used in the parts that make up the collages, in some parts clearly a digital photograph, in some parts the Ben-Day dots of printing. I think when you see it, you can smell where it comes from.

 

How do you do the etching?

Just with a small X-ACTO knife. I just draw basically with a knife to cut into the surface of the emulsion.

 

And you take some of your own photos, but some of them are found.

I usually take my own photographs, but in this particular series it’s almost all other people’s photographs. Normally I work photographs from my family or pictures that I took myself. It’s all over the place. Like, this is a picture of a coffee plantation from 1900 in the north of Brazil (points to large photo of rows of crops) and a friend found a glass slide of it in a yard sale. I don’t know what it is going to be yet, I have worked on other slides like this, but that was a few years ago. This image just looks so strangely modern because of all the rigid lines and the empty space, but it’s really from a long time ago.

 

How did you come to photography?

My relationship to the arts is kind of funny. I never really had any formal training. I was always drawing and was a comic book fanatic and ended up working in a comic book store. They figured they should pay me since I practically never left the store. When I was finished with high school, I decided that the next step was to go and paint, it seemed like the logical next step.

Growing up I spent a lot of time at home just looking at photo albums over and over again. I have this particular relationship to the object, the photograph.

When I started painting, I started using the passport photo booth in the train station as a place to take a picture of myself or whatever I wanted to paint, and I would use that picture as a sketch or study. I would square it up and use them as a template for my painting. A lot of this practice is boring and stifling—you’re copying from a photograph and making a painting and there’s a whole problem in the transition between the two states. And it shows, you can see it at a glance when someone works this way. Projection is even worse I feel. Franz Gertsch found an interesting way through that, but few others do, in my opinion. It took me many turns and eventually I started working straight on the photograph. I realized it was the way for me go because you get whatever is underneath as the battery that’s charging what you’re doing. The mechanical kind of boring part of painting that’s just copying, I did away with.

 

My first impression of your work, what I found so striking about it, is that it’s just so unabashedly beautiful. A lot of art right now is more antagonistic and perhaps even anti-beautiful. I like that art too, but I’m curious about your regard for beauty.

I think perhaps that has to do with how my relationship with art started: comic books. There the art is fundamentally a language and seduction is part of this, it draws you in.

I guess that’s become part of my nature, in a sense, to automatically feel an affinity with art that doesn’t shy away from beauty. For example, I really like the paintings of Ingres. I don’t think if something’s beautiful that that immediately makes it superficial or silly. It’s my inclination to work that way and it’s my way to relate with the subject matter in a tender way, to bring certain things out. If you have something that is aesthetically appealing, you can hold people’s attention in a certain way and then you can suck them in, and then a communication can start. I never had a fear of doing that. It’s not like I was trying to make pretty pictures, but I guess just the way that I related to what I was making and the subject matter that I was dealing with. With my drawing I was almost caressing the images underneath, in the beginning especially with these undulating lines that were just squeezing themselves between the emulsion of the photographs. It is just part of language.

But I like the more antagonistic art too—don’t get me wrong. I just find myself doing what I do, and I don’t feel I should run away from that.

 

It’s interesting too I think in terms of how that process deals with gaze. There’s the photograph, the initial image, but then there’s this weird work of the eye that’s happening in the etching.

Exactly, it’s almost a registration of me, especially in the first works on photographs, of the process of looking at the image and my direct response to it.

It was partly subliminal and not really calculated. A ‘flow of consciousness’ kind of work and it’s a registration of how my eye goes, and I think in some lucky situations, the viewer can have that same experience, as if you’re seeing through somebody else’s eye.

After making works that had these allover approaches, my work became larger and I was perhaps more confident. I wanted to work on a different scale in order to open the work up more, rather than have this small picture that you’re gazing at. I started to work at a more painterly scale. Whereas originally the drawing was a net, a scrim that you would see through, later I started consolidating the drawing more into certain areas of the photograph, making objects that seemed to stand into the picture plane of the underlying photograph. So I would draw, for instance, a goose or something on the right bottom and try to make it voluminous and three-dimensional, and try not to have this web where you have figures hidden, but I would create more solid objects. That changed the work a little bit, but it also played [with the gaze] a different way because I became more adept at the drawing and was able to get into the atmosphere of the photograph in a different way. I could make things appear in the picture that seemed solid and had equal weight to the photography and reality. I was able to balance the two and play tricks on the eye in some cases where you wouldn’t be able to tell if it was drawn or if it was photograph. So I treated them equally in terms of volume and color and brightness. I hope to do the same thing where people would see the picture, and then step back and see how it’s made, and then have the reality of that intervene, and then again spend time with it. So you would still have that engagement without the allover treatment. I work out of my own desire, but at the same time, I want to conjure up something for other people to see and spend time with.

 

That’s intriguing because that was my experience with your work—this game of zooming in to see the detail then zooming out to take it all in then zooming back in to examine the detail some more.

That time spent is precious because this is the experience I’ve had seeing other people looking at my work and I see myself doing this. It can happen that you walk into a gallery or a museum exhibition and you kind of scan the works and it’s: “This is my thing” or “This is not my thing” and then you walk out again. If you have this moment where you are able by whatever means to capture somebody and hold them just a little bit longer so that they investigate, then the communication starts and it’s not just a relationship to an object against a wall, but a gateway to someone else’s ideas and psyche and materials and whatever. Viewers can still disregard it, but it’s a communication process that has started, and that’s something that I appreciate.

 

Can you tell me about how you gather the subject matter of photographs?

I usually have some kind of obsession or interest already going, and I find a photograph that goes with it. I spend a lot of time browsing through my own collections of photographs that I’ve taken over the years and it’s often that I take a photograph and only end up using it six years later or ten years later. It’s not very often that I go goal-oriented with a camera to capture an image that fits a particular idea, though I have done that. I’m not a real photographer per se. I use photography.

I’m more of a painter because I have to find the material that suits the idea that I’m working with. But none of this process is particularly linear. It takes a while.

For example in 2006, it was palpable that there was a shift in the balance of powers in the world. The West had been the center, the dominant power, in art, economy, what have you. Here one didn’t really consider contemporary not-western art very much. But in 2006 you really could feel a shift, and everybody started talking about China for instance, for the first time as a serious cultural and economic force. Finally the dominance of European culture shifted and rightly so, and it was really funny feeling. I felt like this automatic dominance of western art and the whole iconography that is part of that, the still life paintings or the interiors, the European tradition of landscape painting and the particular styles and ideas related to it were all thrown into question. It felt that the west was the decadent, tired old man, and I wanted to make work that reflected that. It was a looking back, a saying goodbye.

I started to make a lot of work on black and white pictures, and used imagery that was related to the European seventeenth century traditions. I wanted to show the inside of a tired, rotting, old castle. I took pictures in the style chambers in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I used some older interiors that I’d shot over the years, some pictures that I found that my uncle Paul had taken around the 60’s and 50’s around the Netherlands, dark and gloomy interiors. So that’s how in that particular case that I found my imagery to fit my story. The bulk of this work I showed in three solo shows: at Galerie Barbara Thumm the solo show titled Cold Turkey, and Tryptich (Spinoza’s Trials) at James Fuentes LLC, and the third at a presentation Hales Gallery organized in Basel. There is still a lot to be reevaluated I feel, about the history of the Western dominance and how we depict it. So many stones left unturned.

With the mountain series, the Schoener Goetterfunken works, the opposite happened. I was looking to work with colorful work and something much more positive, alive. The dark I had surrounded myself with was getting me down perhaps. Color, and a sense of present and energy showed up first in works I showed in the Panta Rei show I made for Bravin Lee in Chelsea. I had found a bunch of old color negatives that I had never seen before, had never seen printed. When I found these images, they seemed just way too strong. The magic of developing these for the first time, and see them appear, so colorful, so alive, so glorious there was nothing I could do, I had to surrender, I had to fit my ideas around the pictures. In some experiments I seemingly reduced the photograph, but the photograph was so strong and so ebullient and joyful that I had to put my personal concerns and preconceptions aside and allow myself to delve deep into and surrender to this really blissful, happy imagery and not critique it in any way, but just try to pump up the volume and bring it fully into the present.

 

In those photographs, that’s your family in the Alps, but you weren’t there, right? They took the pictures and then you worked with them?

Yeah, they were shot in 1973 most likely, and I was a baby at that time, and not there. I was left with my aunt and uncle for the summer. The thing is that like any personal narrative, things are not as they seem, but you have dreams and hopes of how you wish it to be. I have a good relationship with my brother and my sister and my father and my mother, but we don’t gel as a group that often. That’s okay, but seeing these perfect slices of this wonderful family and everyone is dressed to the nines and the sun is shining and the mountains are beautiful. No melting glaciers, no pollution in the air, no labels, no pettiness, no strife. This is not how they remember that trip of course, but they just look so great. Then I started thinking: I should look at the history of ‘happy art’ and found there is almost nothing, very little. The art I did identify with was the beginning of the Romantic era around the 1800’s when Beethoven was making the “Ode to Joy,” the beginning of Enlightenment. So I used that thought as a template to see how far I could go. I wanted to see how far I could go into making those people in the pictures appear to realize how lucky they were to be in that moment. This multidimensional magical reality we live in all the time, but you rarely ever really experience, truly, fully, completely with all the energies that are a part of it. I ended up rubbing and painting these large, colorful blobs in the works and on the works, making it seem as if they were in touch with the power of it all, the wonder of it all. It was a way, again, to relate tenderly to the individuals in these pictures who mean something to me, but they also could be anybody’s family, an uncle you don’t know about. My parents never took pictures that well, they are truly sublime. And also the film was never developed, so I was the first one to really see them, so magically happy, perfect. And since I wasn’t there, I had not been part of that trip, this is my participation in that situation.

 

As a fiction writer, sometimes I think about that. Just once and awhile, I want there to be a happy ending. I want the love affair to work out, but I want it to still feel authentic, not cheesy.

It’s difficult and I think it’s the same thing that a lot of writers and directors say about making a good comedy. A truly good comedy is supposedly much harder to make than a nice dramatic, dark, gloomy story.

There is funny art. I would consider some of the work of Claes Oldenburg happy. There is David Hockney . . . I think there’s not a lot of happy art because people mistake beauty and joy and happiness for shallow, and perhaps fear of being perceived that way too. And there is a common mistake to equate dark, dirty, and gloomy with deep. It’s just a default position that people fall into. If they look for something profound, then they think it has to be dark and morose. Maybe that’s a northern European thing.

I think in other cultures there is a stronger tradition of joyful, happier emotions reflected in art.

This is something I really envy of people who work in music. I don’t think a lot of artists consider being on the stage such a wonderful experience all the time because it’s not the creative part necessarily, but I would say that the energy communicated and experienced by live performance; by standing on the stage can be extremely powerful, and must be invigorating and reinforcing.

I must be hard to do, but if it’s done well, it hits home in a powerful way. The moments that happen like that for me in the studio are just excellent, it doesn’t happen all the time but when it does it is just such a sense of moving forward, of change, of tapping into some current, which makes it really clearly a worthwhile endeavor. I feel really lucky then. I imagine that sensation experienced in a group, on a stage, must be even more invigorating. I am at this moment also full of desire to go there again in my work because it’s just so exciting, if you can hit the right vein, to be able to transfer that kind of energy. I am starting on new work where I will go straight for this. Hopefully.

 

You said you were the first one to develop the film for those photographs too?

Yes, and when they were printed, it was like they were taken yesterday. The colors were incredible, crisp, like few I had ever seen before.

For me, there is still this preciousness, a magical thing about the photograph. I have almost an aversion to taking photographs to add to the enormous amount of photography that is being taken all the time because I have this feeling that there is so much there already and it’s so precious. I can’t throw photographs away. You have all these slices of time that need to be treated well. I mean, it’s silly to think that way, but I really, truly feel that.

 

Your work is sometimes described as nostalgic, and as I hear you speak I notice this interesting idea of relating to art in the present tense, but life itself is happening all within memory.

I think “nostalgia” is maybe not the right word because that is reductive and takes away from direct experience and is maybe more like a pining for something that was there and is never going to come back kind of thing. I think your medium is really important and carries a lot of weight for free. If you have an audiocassette tape and you play it, there’s a sequence of the songs, the clicking of the tape and the texture of the sound. I’m not saying one thing is better than the other, and the same is true of a camera phone picture or whatever. They all have their own set of parameters and own language. It ticks off boxes in your head automatically and puts somebody in some place, the same way smells work. I have the same relation to books. I’d say I’m more of a bibliophile than a nostalgic person. I just like objects from different periods. You can mix them all. It’s not like you have to be reverent and sit on your knees and put them on a little silver pillow. I feel that you should just use it. I think, especially in art making, there should be no rules, anything is game, and you should feel as free as possible in order to go where you want to go. Play and irreverence are quite important.

When I came to New York, since I never really went to art school, I went to people’s studios or curated small shows and tried to contribute something, and so I found my way into other people’s studios just to see how they did stuff. Seeing what others did, I found a possible road. One of the first studios I visited in New York was Dona—that was really cool. I saw him make his paintings and he had these bits of embroidery that he had bought in Egypt. They were ancient, they were like 3,000-year old little pieces of textile, and he would just throw them on the painting and then with latex paint would just make them part of these enormous collages he was making. I was a bit of an Egyptophile as a kid so I was like, “Oh my god, this is really wonderful embroidery and it’s really old, and you just smack it in there?” And he said, “Yes, never respect your source materials.” By putting it in there, of course, he does use a little bit of the magic and a little bit of the history or the texture or the smell from something else. It’s a magical object, you imbue it with power, but at the same time, it destroys it and kills it and puts it in there.

I likewise relate to objects. Even the x-acto knife that I’ve been using for the past few months has now become bendy in the right way and blunt in the right way, and I got to know it really well and now it’s imbued with a history of my hand. If somebody would come in here and take that, I would be more upset than if they took anything else. I think you can relate to photographs that way too, and to textures and mediums and so on. I wouldn’t say that’s nostalgic, it’s also practical.

 

Does your process ever fail?

Yeah.

 

What do you do after that?

I do something good.

 

On the same work?

I try to, yes.

There is no mistake. In music, for example, there is no false note if the next note in relation is right and then the one before it becomes right. At least, that is what Miles Davis said I think. Sometimes, of course, you really make it muddy and nasty and muck things up, but I’m pretty neat and I have a good steady hand. And I can fix things, save things. And I know that things are going to go wrong. I just have these prints out too long, the process can spread out over years, so something might happen. I’ve had plenty of accidents to have had hundreds of heart attacks while working. But the mistake might be an opening to something else and you just don’t know. Every time you start something, it’s just having the courage to manifest things and see how they end up. Of course you do tweak things later, but the crucial part is having this attitude of a naked warrior on a horse like Don Quixote. You cannot have fear while you do something.

 

-Rachel Cole Dalamangas, September 2013

BRIAN EVENSON: INTERVIEW

Some writers seem like they walked straight out of one of their own stories—the punky novelist who writes about freakishness, or the Bohemian who writes about lost worlds of Europe, for example. Fiction writer Brian Evenson is just about one of the most cheerful, good-humored authors one can encounter. He wears sweaters and texts his daughters on his iPhone and is married to children’s book author Kristen Tracy, and one wouldn’t know it on sight or even if one had a polite conversation with him at a cocktail party, but he also has one of the most disturbed, savage literary intellects currently walking around this side of sanity (but how does one know which side one is on anyway). For those who have not yet had the profound experience of having one’s mind/value system/sense of philosophical peace (delightfully) put through the shredder of an Evenson story, his are novels of nightmarish puzzles in which limbs are systematically amputated, tongues go missing, and youthful love decays into religious perversion. These are stories in which human nature is explored at its most foolish and cruel, society has devolved into barely functional hierarchies driven by cultish fanaticism, and the “good guys” are some version of the anti-Christ. Evenson’s fictional worlds are complicated by the dark beauty of his prose, which alternates between decadence (typically regarding the bizarre and grotesque) and icy focus (typically regarding the metaphysical).

Last year, Evenson published a new short story collection, Windeye, as well as a novel, Immobility. Windeye includes depraved revisions of (already nasty) fairy tales and Sladen suits in which characters disappear (a Sladen suit, by the way, is one of those creepy, old diving suits from back in the day). Immobility is basically about the end of civilization and how much humans suck and how unwittingly one can work very hard to repeat the stupid tragedies of history even more stupidly than before (misanthropes: draw a hot bath and get the bourbon; nervous types: you’ll need your smelling salts). His chapbook, Babyleg, published in 2009 by Tyrant Press in a limited edition of 400, has become something of a cult hit, featuring a twisted, rather revolting seductress who, indeed, has a baby leg.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

Many of your stories begin as a puzzle, but rather than allowing a reader to put the pieces together, there are more and more pieces, but never the one that would complete the picture. Where do these puzzles come from? Do you ever set yourself up with a puzzle to write and decide to abandon it?

I think it’s less that I have a puzzle in mind and abandon it and more that I’m really suspicious of knowledge as a concept. I really have a hard time believing we can ever know anything for certain, but at the same time I feel that so much about human experience is about interpreting signs, making connections, making leaps, finding ways of defining different experiences and different realities as significant. That puzzle-solving impulse is very human, I think, but at the same time it’s so easy to start to see things as significant that probably aren’t, to believe that the world around you is “telling you something.” The line between the normal human process of interpreting signs and the overinterpretation of them that can be a symptom of madness is pretty thin. My work, I think, both enjoys that puzzle-solving impulse but also is very skeptical of it, and tries to get at the basic human frustration of never being quite able to make as much sense of the world as we’d like.

 

Tell me about your writing process. Your narratives tend to pull off acrobatic feats of destabilized perspectives, broken flashbacks that turn out to be copies of the past and future, and paradoxes taken to the edge, but all this is still reliant on a linear movement of plot.  Do you write your stories straight through? Or in pieces?  Do you always know how they’ll end?

I generally do write them straight through, from one end to the other, though over a number of days, and often revise the first pages of something before continuing on as a way of trying to give a sense of continuity and flow. I’ve spoken about this with Jesse Ball, a friend of mine, who writes work that looks like it’s discontinuous but which he usually writes straight through. I think for me (and maybe for him) there’s something about the excitement of those jumps and breaks coming as I’m writing that makes them more meaningful and significant—there’s an element of risk, I think, to suddenly allowing things to swerve. I do revise a lot when I’m writing something, but very early in the process I get the structure in place—I end up revising rhythm and wording and pacing rather than taking a chunk of a story out and moving it—though I do sometimes make big cuts. I am, as you mention, a fairly linear writer, but I don’t know where I’m going or how it’ll end. If I do figure out too early how a story might end, I usually stop writing it because I get bored . . .

 

As I recall, over coffee you once told me that you began writing as a child. Your mother wanted time to write and would assign writing projects to you and your siblings to distract all of you. Do you have or recall any of these old stories that you wrote as a child? Did you ever read your mother’s work?

I did read my mother’s work. She wrote just a couple of stories, which were Mormon science fiction stories and which negotiated in curious ways between Mormonism and science fiction. I think that was one of my first exposures to work that participated in several different genres (though very different genres than most mixed genre work). I still have a few of the stories I was writing back then. They included a story starring a rock who lived in the center of the earth, a story in which the Messiah is living in a cabin and refusing to hold the second coming, and a story that’s a retelling of the Stormalong tall tale.

 

The title, Windeye, comes from the etymology of the word, window, which means, literally from Old Norse, “a wind eye.” Do you study etymology? Where do your titles come from?

I’m interested in etymology. I’m interested in languages in general and the relations between languages. My titles come from all over—sometimes from a line or moment in the story. Often that’s the last thing I settle on with a story. Usually my titles are a little understated, tending toward the minimal. I don’t know why I like that, but I do.

 

In your three most recent books—Baby Leg, Windeye, Immobility—reality is destabilized and the reader, along with the usually pitiable narrator, is unsure of what is “true” within the texts. This, and the surreal-sci-fi qualities of your stories, operate in tension to the use of literary techniques that are hallmarks of realism: random details that speak to the chaos of life, sophisticated moral problems, natural dialogue. Can you tell me about your tendencies to genre-bend?

I read a lot and tend to read in all sorts of different directions, and tend to read very different things back to back or at the same time. I think that naturally encourages a tendency to genre-bend that’s probably more deep-rooted in an attitude about the world. When I was growing up my father was very insistent about using the “right” tool for the “right” job, whereas I just really felt like you should use anything that works and be able to see the virtual possibilities in non-tools. So, instead of using a screwdriver to tighten a screw, know when you can use a dime. I think I was naturally looking for ways of doing things that didn’t really follow the rules, and I like the tension that comes from bringing different generic regimes together to interact.

 

Even though you’re known as a genre-bender, it seems that “horror” is the label most often applied to your work.  Does this nucleus of horror in your narratives signal a philosophical attitude?

Hard question. I guess I would say that there’s a philosophical attitude toward the world that informs all my work, and that it’s something that probably is friendly with ideas of horror. I think of horror as an art form that, at least in certain of its aspects, is very interested in the unknowability of the world and of what that makes us think about the condition of being human.

 

One thing that’s interesting to compare between the stories of Windeye and Immobility is the way the object-world is focused on technology. Windeye contains a number of archaic objects—my favorite: the sladen suit—and Immobility contains both objects of the future and objects of wreckage. Where does the object of the book fit into the progression of technology?

I think of the book as a very sturdy sort of technology in that it doesn’t rust, lasts for a long time, and has very few parts that can break to make it non-functional. It’s also easily replicable and proliferates—and now is able to proliferate in electronic form as well almost instantaneously. Even when it’s an object of wreckage, the printed book is quite accessible and assimilable. I guess I see the book as related to the wheel and the e-book as something like the car: the first technology is something long-lasting and likely to continue: the second technology is more recent and not likely to last more than a few centuries (if that). But after the car is gone, something will still be around that is made possible by the wheel.

 

I don’t know if you saw Steve Pinker’s non-fiction book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker argues, essentially, that humans are slowly getting better, not worse. The leftover societies in Immobility are heavily considered and critiqued by Horkai, the narrator, and the Kollaps that brought about the wasteland is alluded to as a human error. Do you think humans will do themselves in with their own technology and if so, do you think there will be any writers left over? What will they write about?

I do think that we as humans are likely to do ourselves in, though I’m not sure if we’ll do this simply culturally (as we’ve done a time or two before) or in a way that annihilates our species. At the very least, I think we’ll need to really change the way we think about our place in the world around us. I do like the idea of a writer being the last one to survive and essentially ending his/her account of humanity with something like Wittgenstein’s “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” as a kind of summary of his inability to explain or understand what humanity did to itself. The idea, too, of a writer leaving a record that he/she knows won’t be read, but being compelled to write it anyway, is something I like very much.

 

Beyond horror, there’s the perpetual discussion of trauma, usually from some sort of absence: a missing body part, a lost sister, a major lacuna of memory. These absences also tend to be a portal by which to access knowledge beyond what could be retrieved in reality. How does one approach the writing of what can’t be known, since language is the way that we report knowledge?

Language is both the way that we report knowledge and the way that we come to understand the limitations of that knowledge, to show the contours of what we can’t understand or depict, but also, inversely, to suggest the limits of language itself. I think I got a sense of this first with negative theology, which was complicated later by my reading Kant’s notion of the sublime, which has been further complicated for me by all sorts of writers who end up getting something across almost at cross-purposes. But yes, the question you ask is one of the big questions, and one that I keep trying to find temporary answers to.

 

In these unsettling literary worlds, death isn’t even certain and final. Most often, the unthinkable nightmare only perpetuates. How do you think fiction writing relates to the human tendency to create elaborate narratives around death?

I think even though there’s a focus on death and dying and its uncertainty in my writing that, paradoxically, there’s very little memorializing in my fiction. I do think the connection probably has to do with the way that so often we continue to think of the dead as still alive, speaking of them in the present tense, still seeing them as present even though we know they’re not. Pieces of mine like “Dark Property” just cut out that intermediary step of the dead living on in our memories of them and simply let them live on even after they’re dead. That’s probably partly influenced by Jean Genet’s The Screens, though without the political dimension. Certainly there’s an science fictional element in it as well.

 

What forthcoming projects do we have to look forward to?

I’m just finishing a short book about the relationship between Chester Brown’s graphic novel Ed the Happy Clown and his comic book series Yummy Fur (in which the Ed story first appeared).  My daughter Sarah and I also just translated David B’s graphic novel Incidents in the Night, which should appear any day now. Other than that, I’m about 2/3rds of the way done with a new story collection, slowly getting there, and trying to figure out what the next novel might be. I have an idea for a sequel to Immobility, and that may well be the next book.

 

-Rachel Cole Dalamangas, August 2013

RICHARD BENARI & LAUREN HENKIN: INTERVIEW

Richard Benari’s current work focuses on the possibilities of a pared-down photographic language and its ability to provoke a visceral response to form. His chief concern is the interpretation of that language in print. Relying solely on the literal qualities of the photographic object, meaning in his pictures derives from the unique interaction of surface, ink and light, rather than from the image, per se. His photographs are in numerous private, public and library collections including Smith College Museum of Art, the University of Oregon and Yale University.

Lauren Henkin grew up in Maryland, graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in architecture from Washington University in St. Louis and resides in New York City. She states, “My work focuses on the tension between preservation and extinction. I work from the inside out, using internal narrative as the foundation in which to reinterpret space, light and form found in the external.” Henkin is an educator, reviewer, writer, frequent speaker, author of numerous books, and active member in the arts. Her work is widely collected by private collectors as well as institutions such as Southeast Museum of Photography, Yale University, Smith College and Dartmouth College among others. Her work has been published in numerous journals on photography and the book arts including PDN, Shots Magazine, Black+White Magazine, Diffusion Magazine, Flak Photo, Urbanautica, Landscape Stories, Parenthesis and The Washington Post. She is a Px3 multi-category winner, Oregon Regional Arts & Culture Council grant winner, with other award nominations in both the Brink Emerging Artist and Contemporary Northwest Art Awards.

Interview by Josh T. Franco

 

The notion of a “touching photograph” is schmaltzy, saccharine. Well, at best, a photograph can be genuinely touching as a mnemonic talisman. And these are crucial. Distinguishing between personal and generic is the key. But touching a photograph feels illicit and irreversible. If the viewer is not imbedded with basic conservation protocol, she is nonetheless touching, and that is something in a world where looking at even shocking images is quotidian. The fingerprint will never fade. The human oil cannot be fully conserved out of the print. You have offered up your photographs explicitly for handling, manhandling. (Is mangling so far away?) To do so in the context of art is a risk. Thank you for taking a risk, not merely for the sake of being risqué. The touching matters, you tell us. It makes me begin my engagement with your work in a place other than the visual. Tactility seems the highway, visibility the exit ramp. The vehicles: hand-built vellum and sandpaper.

“Manhandling” feels a bit loaded. But “tactile” fits. That’s what we were after—reconnecting viewers to the haptic quality of a photographic print. And, yes, there’s some risk in that. Thanks for acknowledging it. The idea isn’t so much that the feel of the print in your hand supersedes the visual, but that you get to experience the print as we did when making it: up-close, unframed, unmediated and accessing the ambient light in which it is viewed.

 

And what is pictured in Pictures? What is visible? By beginning from touching I—nor you, I believe—am not implying that the visual is secondary. The labor and care with which the images are crafted seem guided by a desire to put in perpetual motion a scale. On one side of the scale are objects in space. On the other side, objects’ images as ideas. To tip the scale, the print and the viewer/handler must dialogue with one another. Orientation seems key. The process of holding up, rotating, flipping, is integral to the intended experience. I think?

Handling the print is secondary; that’s right. Again, we wanted to create an intimate viewing experience, and one in which the feel and weight of the print would be add something—a way to further convey, or sometimes play-against, the already-tactile quality that’s so much a part of the photographic print. So the scale of the prints became important. But our main concern: give the prints a chance to be viewed in different kinds of light. At the end of the day, Pictures is a study in photographic abstraction. Meaning here doesn’t depend on the image, it depends on the object—the print itself. So the ambient light in which the prints are viewed is as important an ingredient as the ink with which they are printed.

About orientation: Actually, it’s not so essential. Two of the project’s four folios are shot in portrait and what we noticed is that that’s a bit tough for viewers. People see the world in landscape, after all. So, many viewers try flipping the vertically-oriented images on their side. But, after a few minutes, they’ll right them vertically again. The visual clues in the images—the way the lines run, the way the light falls—tend to tip them off about our intention.

 

Orientation and vertigo do play a role in how one experiences scale in the works. Where there is a rocky landscape, the light’s presence in the photograph is manipulated in such a way as to confuse: is this a sheer rock cliff? A rocky, endless beach? A trompe l’oeil drawing? And when one is sufficiently disoriented: Is this an abstraction? But as vehemently as you want us to demystify the photograph’s claim to truth through touching it, you seem to want us to avoid abstracting this image as well. What does it mean to say that these are rocks? Or that they are not?

Yeah, these images are plenty disorienting. That’s purposeful. There are no clues about scale in these images and no tips about pictorial space. In fact, subtle shifts in tone purposely confuse the viewer’s read of pictorial space. So the Oregon landscapes, for example, tend to engage because of the sheer feel of rocks and because of perspective—the images feel at once vertiginous, like you said, and flat. But for us, “abstraction” and “disorientation” aren’t at all synonymous. We’re interested in abstraction because it intensifies the physicality of what’s photographed; disorientation is a by-product. A real useful one, but still a by-product. The Oregon landscapes, which say so much about abstraction in the found and the everyday, convey the sheer physicality of place—without reference to location and without documentary comment. Similarly, the sandpaper constructions create a tension, we hope, between the solidity a viewer sense and the fragility of the paper. They also feel voluminous, and this lends a kind of biomorphic feel to the prints. We were surprised that so many viewers see legs and pelvis in these images.

 

The onus to orient again falls on the viewer/handler herself in the photographs of interior walls. How did you get the images of stacked empty walls to behave as if nothing but two dimensions? I am thinking here of the odd moments where the edge of a wall closer to the foreground and the edge it creates (the same edge) against the wall behind it twist on one another. It’s as if the beginning of a braid happens in an arbitrary pinpoint where the walls are, in reality, just as far from one another as in any other spot. Is the editor exposed? Is the viewer working hard enough?

It’s a good read of the images. Thanks.

A big part of this project was to return the viewer to the pleasures of modernism. So, again, the idea of flattened perspective was key. In each of the prints, subtle shifts in tone confuse the viewers read of pictorial space. This is especially true of the interior shots, the architecture studies. So a part of the tension in these images is about, again, about depth and flatness. About how it was done: a lot depended on the light in which we photographed and a lot depended on how we interpreted these images in print. We tend to photograph at the tightest aperture available, which sharpens the image but also deepens pictorial space. So the flat light in which we photographed, the subtle gradation in tone and, later, careful spit-toning—all of this was key. It’s also generative. It’s helped shape one of our current projects, which focuses on the built environment and how we conceptualize space.

 

The slowest arriving question about this work is the question of text. It seemed at first to have nothing to do with the printed work, the alphabetical. Perhaps it is the handholding that takes me there. Do I engage these works like books? Why do they make me want to read them?

This is a terrific question. Thanks for asking it. The short answer: These photographs aren’t intended for the wall. First, there’s a lot of them—four series of five—and each image within a series dialogues with the next. So, seriality is key; that is, these images develop their ideas across a series. So there is a textual reference here, and a kinship with books—which is, in part, why we first decided on the folio format. Also, it was important for us to give a sense of those ideas unfolding, but without any narrative present. It feels like the majority of what’s photographed today hinges on narrative. We wanted to make a conscious break with that.

The longer answer, though, involves how we—the viewers—have become accustomed to looking at art: on the wall, episodically, and seldom within the context of what surrounds a work or how the work is lit. We tend not to engage the curatorial decisions that went into hanging the art—probably much to the frustration of curators. So a piece of this project involved a degree of “self-curation” on the part of the viewer. The viewer gets to order the prints and choose the light in which they’re experienced. By doing that, they create a kind of conversation with the work—and with us, a kind of questioning of our intention. There’s more to say here, but it’s a long conversation. Perhaps another day.

These works are meant to be consulted and engaged, to be brought out and experienced within the specific and viewer-chosen context of light and quiet room. In this sense, the textual reference goes deep—as if it’s a book one would wish to consult and experience, then later re-read. The impetus for this is the Chinese Handscroll, and the best feel for that is Maxwell Hearn, Chief Curator of Asian Art at the Met, talking about it. Here’s a link to that kind of kitschy vid from the Times. (Click.) Of course, we don’t intend to “lovingly swaddle” and of our work in silk.

 

You touch your work as well, beyond the touching required by all photographic production. Crumple: to create lines whose weight is not the detritus of graphite traveling on vellum, but the result of intimate handling in three dimensions. You have had such intimate relations with your material. I wonder why, and I wonder how the “why” changed as that mode of relating unfolded over time, forgive the pun. How does your relationship with the material set up the framework for our relationship with it? What will the institutions taking on this work have to consider in how they relate to their visitors as a result?

Materiality is the thing we wanted to convey most. We wanted to give a viewer a chance to experience the sensations and emotions one feels from touch, without reference to any actual thing. So the crumpled papers, for example, have an ethereal and often a fleeting quality to them. There are moments in the prints where the ink is barely visible on the paper and image and paper seem to become one. An interesting effect, considering that the image itself is of a piece of paper, though people have read these as any number of things, from aerial landscapes to bed sheets. We’re drawn to these prints because of the tension they create between the material fact of the print and the ethereal quality of what’s photographed. Plus, again, how these, in particular, depend on the ambient light in which they’re viewed. I hope viewers of these prints share that our take.

About how the institutions that have acquired this work will choose to exhibit them: of course, it’s not our call. We made an effort to reach out to those institutions which had study rooms, hoping this work would be accessible off the wall and in-hand. We also considered offering acquiring institutions two sets: an exhibition set and a handling set. But, like you said earlier, museums and library special collections—the institutions that have shown the greatest interest in these folios—have their own set of conservation protocols—and rightly so. Many institutions have incredibly good facilities—their study rooms—that enable viewers to page a work from the collection and view it up-close and personal. It’s a terrific resource, one we hope more viewers make use of. The white gloves don’t concern us. These institutions go to great trouble to make work available—and in a ways that acknowledge the artist’s intention—while still maintaining conservational safeguards.

 

I thank you both. Engaging your work has been, after all, a touching experience.

Thank you, Josh. These meetings have been terrific.

 

-Josh T Franco, August 2013

ELISABETH KLEY: INTERVIEW

The strangely shaped ceramics arranged in a line like soldiers and stacks of jaunty portrait drawings of flamboyant characters create an aura of sweetness paired with the macabre in Elisabeth Kley ’s Brooklyn studio. Hidden faces painted on kiln-fired jars stare back at the viewer and a dusty cat sashays about the room until jumping into Kley’s lap to do some affectionate writhing. The studio if full of both life and death—and yet, without the usual luggage of either. The subject of mortality, for Kley, invokes bright colors and eccentric patterns. Faces are both inviting and defiant. Designs are aggressive, but playful. What is perhaps most alluring, however, is that these uncanny, subtle juxtapositions that Kley works in are as intelligent as, well, friendly. I’m not sure how else to put it: I don’t believe I’ve ever felt like a ceramic jar was trying to be friends with me the way Kley’s jars and portraits do, that is, these works smile and actually look inquisitively at you from across the room. For all the ways that art tries to seduce, repel, antagonize, disgust, and move viewers, the experience of feeling an actual personality projecting from a jar is unsettling if just as charming. Of course, these jars and portraits have a real bite to them too: Kley’s interests as an artist span from Louise Bourgeois to Dali to Chanel to Kolomon Moser, etc. etc. Her Facebook wall is a flood of various images: Anna Pavlova, Harry Belafonte, Henri Matisse, and “the first yogasan chart ever found.”

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

I’m curious about your ceramics with eyes. How did the notion of an object that looks back at the viewer come about?

Well, it might have been because I was doing portraits at the same time that I started doing ceramics, but I also wanted really early paintings that I did when I was 18 or 19 to have eyes. I’ve always liked the idea of objects looking at you. For the first several years I made ceramics, they almost all had faces and eyes, sometimes quite disguised. The pattern on this piece from 2009 (gestures to colored ceramic on the floor) was taken from an antique French tapestry that Louise Bourgeois used for a sculpture of a head. It’s a leaf face with eyes and a mouth. I was after a specific expression, rather sad and blank. In the last few years, the faces began to feel cartoonish, so I switched to large aggressive flowers.

 

What was the portrait work you were doing at the time you started making ceramics?

It started when my father died. I was devastated and I wanted to do something with the feeling. I made ornamental drawings of angels and also some drawings of corpses done from pictures I found in the library—the first time I ever worked from photographs. Later, a friend asked me to be in a show about David Bowie. I liked his gallery and I wanted to be in the show, so I found a bunch of pictures of David Bowie and made drawings looking at them. This was the beginning of my portraits.

My father wasn’t particularly flamboyant, but he did have a mustache, and sometimes he sat in a chair in a certain pretentious way that reminded me of Dali. So I began doing drawings of Dali, again from photographs. I then went on to other aging, flamboyant characters including artists Nevelson, Warhol and Fini, fashion designers Erte, Chanel, Trigere, and art world characters like Peggy Guggenheim. I was interested in mortality and decoration, aging people defying death through extreme dressing up. Later I carried the idea of transformation even further with characters in drag: portraits of Ethel Eichelberger, Candy Darling and Jack Smith. At the same time I was doing large drawings of colorful airy pavilions, using expensive Japanese paper. I would begin at the bottom with a horizon and continue up adding sections in pen and liquid watercolor. If I made a mistake, I realized I could cut out the part I didn’t like and neatly collage in a replacement. I began doing the same thing with the portraits, and eventually I began getting messier, constructing the faces by gluing on separate features, which reminded me of putting on makeup. Around the same time I became friends with an artist and drag performer whose work I had loved for years. I photographed his performances and used them to make drawings. The drawings weren’t pretty, but he tolerated me. He was my first (and so far only) live muse.

 

It’s interesting because you’re a female artist whose gaze is setting upon men who are bending gender.

I admire the guts it takes for people to transform themselves so dramatically. I am fascinated by metamorphosis.

 

When did you begin making ceramics?

This was also quite happenstance. My husband wanted to get a kiln and make ceramic sculptures, so we decided to take a class at a small local pottery studio. I had recently abandoned painting for drawing. I was tired of painting’s historical baggage and wanted to do something lighter. I’d always liked the decoration of historical ceramics, so I thought, why make paintings about it when it’s so much nicer to make the ceramics themselves.

 

What about decoration appeals to you?

I like an extreme environment that’s visually over-the-top. I remember when I went to Mexico in 1990 I was interested in the colonial hybrid decoration that is Spanish and Native American together. I thought, oh my god, everything is so decorated and everything is so colorful. I just love that.

 

How do you make your color choices for the ceramics?

I’ve become comfortable with a group of underglazes I mix myself. I’ve chosen the colors that are clearest: lime green, turquoise, yellow, yellow orange, orange red and deep blue. I want the work to emit light—I adore Matisse—but at the same time I want it to be loud and defiant. Bright colors don’t always signify happiness; they can express other emotions, perhaps exhibitionism and rage. They may also cover up things you want to hide.

 

Where do the patterns and motifs that decorate your ceramics come from?

I look at a lot of things: Islamic, Central Asian and Russian textiles, Ballet Russe sets and costumes, Islamic and Spanish ceramics, Wiener Werkstatte design. I improvise from images I see in books or in photos I take at museums. I’ve always been interested in foreign cultures. I had a collection of costume dolls when I was small.

 

You mentioned “decoration and mortality.” How did those two come to pair in your mind?

I think it was through the idea that the extreme behavior and the extreme of visual expression, the personal visual expression of someone like Dali, or also Warhol, those different artists as they aged—maybe they were always flamboyant—but it seemed to me as they aged, that the flamboyance was like a battle against death.

 

Did your father influence you as an artist?

Yes, I think so. He was an architect. My parents encouraged me to make art and sent me to an after school sculpture class at the Museum of Modern Art. My father always painted. Some of his work was quite interesting, especially a few quite surreal pieces made when he was in psychoanalysis, before he had his crazy shrink committed. After that he painted athletes, trees, and portraits of my mother.

 

So you’ve been making art your whole life?

Always. At 5 or 6 I was planning to be a mommy, but a few years later I knew I was going to be an artist.

I took sketch classes on Saturdays at the Art Students League as a teenager. When I finished high school I’d had enough of academics so I continued there instead of going to college, not exactly the best career path. I didn’t have a clue about contemporary art, but I tried everything else. I was aware of the old masters, Post-Impressionism, Matisse and Picasso, and Abstract Expressionism.  I began rather abstractly doing hallucinatory paintings with hidden figures out of my imagination, but then for some reason I became compelled to make my way through art history and conquer the representation of three dimensions. Life drawing, modeling clay sculpture figures, wood carving, still lives, and so on—all things I’d now advise artists to skip unless they are necessary to what they want to do. Next I learned etching at Hunter College and then I enrolled in the studio semester program at Empire State College. It was designed to allow art students from upstate to experience the New York art world by providing studios in Manhattan at State University tuition, which was really cheap at the time. Contemporary artists like Eric Fischl and Carolee Schneeman came in and talked about their work and looked at yours. That’s when I became aware of what was going on around me.

 

What was your impression of contemporary art when you started to encounter it?

I wasn’t really crazy about macho Neo-Expressionism and the messy East Village scene. In the nineties the market crashed and things became more modest, which I liked. Of course now I’m more open-minded and interested in a lot of art I once dismissed.

 

What do you think about where art is now?

There’s a lot going on. I tend to like dark, sensational, somewhat twisted things, maybe because they make good copy. I was writing for Walter Robinson during the last four or five years of Artnet and I knew what he liked—TABLOID. I had a great time writing about artists like Otto Muehl, the Viennese Actionist who recently died, as well as Genesis Breyer P. Orridge, Miriam Cahn, and Ron Athey. But I also love Tabboo!, whose work is supremely joyful.

 

What’s a recent show you’ve seen that was good?

The Kolomon Moser show at the Neue Galerie is sublime, and my friend Joyce Pensato’s retrospective at the Santa Monica Museum is fantastic.

 

Given that you have been a lifelong artist, what advice would you have for a young artist starting out today?

Learn a skill that is in demand and pays extremely well by the hour. I never did that.

 

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on drawings for two large round bottles to go with the four that are already done. I’m also making five longer, skinnier bottles that I can put in between the six large three-part bottles I finished last year (gestures to line of large ceramics). It was fun to make these exuberant and crazy shapes, but then once I was trying to figure out how to decorate them, I felt somewhat constrained. Complicated shapes need simpler decoration. The round ones can be more complex and interesting.

I have also decided that it would be nice to unify everything I have [at the studio] with some really aggressive black and white wallpaper. I’m running out of space and there’s only so many more ceramics I can make. Eventually I may go back to doing portrait drawings, and hang them on the wallpaper, which might turn the other work into décor for the spaces where they live. I went out and got a little silkscreen kit and I’m starting to figure that out.

 

Is that typical of your process? The idea is followed by gathering materials and then playing around?

I would say that my process is really quite obsessive. For example, I did a printmaking project for Randy Wray’s Element Editions in 2010. He wanted a group of unique variations on one print, but I wound up making 4 small and 4 medium plates to warm up and then 6 larger ones, each with two versions in black and white, and more in colored ink with collaged and painted additions on white paper, and even more in colored ink on colored paper. I worked on them for months. Similarly, every portrait subject is drawn repeatedly and each ceramic bottle that I make requires extensive preparation with many black and white drawings and colored watercolors before I can finally apply decoration. Although I strive to make things look as if effortlessly done in one breath, I don’t work quickly. Everything must be completely explored.

 

-Rachel Cole Dalamangas, August 2013

CLAIRE DONATO: INTERVIEW

Earlier this month, Meghan O’Rourke explored the contemporary trend of American authors writing about their own deaths (typically when faced with the slow progression of a fatal disease) as a reality-entertainment driven literary realism. O’Rourke wondered at the “surprise” that “writers express . . . that their minds really are housed in bodies” and the “strangely fictive” quality of a work that anticipates the death of the author who will not be able to write her own ending.

A recent “lyrical novel,” that grapples with the unimaginable reality of death in paradoxically surreal terms, written by Tarpaulin Sky Press newcomer Claire Donato (still very much among the living) is Burial. The work is a stripped down, sterling aesthetic rendering of both grief and death, totally uncontaminated by sentimentality and yet no less visceral. Vomit, weeping and decay are stark happenings in the meditations of the book, in which, essentially, the narrator arrives at a hotel, which she conflates with the morgue where her father’s body is resting, and prepares for his burial. In this awkward landscape where a mind in mourning wanders, the characters are gaunt with anonymous identifiers like “Groundskeeper” and “The Voice”, and sentences are compared to necklaces that strangle. What’s most uncomfortable and rather breathtaking, however, is Donato’s ability to maintain an excruciating clarity of thought while teetering between prose and poetry, consciousness and death, self and other, thought and silence, grief and object, mind and body.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas.

 

Burial is a chapter book of prose-poetry, which is an enthusiastic, mercurial, ill-defined genre, often perceived as difficult. It seems to me that Burial operates on an intuitive plot as well as extremely precise logic that is seldom present outside of prose poetry. How would you characterize prose-poetry as a distinct genre (perhaps it’s not distinct at all)?

I imagine the ‘prose poetry’ label is where we put sentences that don’t behave the way we expect them to. In my mind, prose-poetry is not a distinct genre; rather, it is a classification readers may or may not bring to the text, perhaps as a received idea, personal boundary, or heedful reaction.

On its surface, Burial does not necessarily fulfill expectations of traditional American fiction. By traditional, I am referring to popular fiction dependent upon plot, character, and so forth; however, this category—like prose poetry—is general and broad, and I try to avoid general and broad categories in my writing, as in my life. Burial engages and distorts conventions of fiction, and as I wrote the book, I read widely. In particular, I took in a lot of contemporary and historic international fiction. Much of the literature I read destabilizes the boundary between prose and poetry. Nathalie Sarraute, one of the authors to whom I turned, once said “there is no border, no separation, between poetry and prose.” Perhaps there exists a spectrum of extraordinary language, and this spectrum is contingent upon each reader’s linguistic adventurousness or threshold of abstraction.  Maybe we simply need to rethink what we believe to be “poetic,” or what we believe to be “prose.” Or, maybe it is all dark matter.

Further, I find it useful to think of genre as a type of performance, wherein the author ‘puts on’ a genre in the same way one puts on a wig. But I was not consciously attempting to perform prose poetry when I wrote Burial. In the end, its mode of meaning-making makes more sense to me than so-called straightforward prose.

 

In terms of the first-hand experience of the text, the reader is basically asked to straddle two worlds simultaneously—the narrator is in a morgue and the morgue is a hotel, and the narrator checks into the morgue to grieve, suspended in a death that is not her own. It’s sort of a metaphor that gets wrapped around itself—a gesture that is repeated throughout the book. It’s interesting because as humans our minds do occupy this shadow world of death when we wonder about our own and witness that of others. What was the process of generating this prose-poetic work that straddles planes?

Burial’s world came about organically. The more I wrote the book, the more I felt as if its text possessed agency, and the more I recognized the text’s agency, the more my body was a vessel where its language could take root and become what it ended up being. This counteracts the traditional notion that the author’s mind is some grand source where language finds its origins. I was possessed by Burial, as in a fugue; its language was (and is) bigger than ‘I.’ This is not to say the process of generating the book was so free-flowing that it did not involve work. It involved a lot of work, hours of reading, writing, and research. Apart from these activities, my process entailed a lot of looping about on my feet in a fugue. I walked and ran loops around parks; I rode trains back and forth, back and forth. I wrote and rode. I memorized passages and repeated them to myself ad nauseam. (I still repeat these passages to myself, much in the same way one repeats melodies in one’s mind.) My process did not include storyboards or outlines; I began with language as material. Here, I hesitate to say ‘I began with language as material in the same way a painter begins with paint as material,’ because what if the painter begins with a concept? I began by generating prose-poetry that meditated on objects—morgues, caskets, flowers, and fish—that later became recurring leitmotifs in the narrator’s world. She (the narrator) grew out of these objects, first as an ‘I,’ then as an absent first-person speaker—or should I say listener?—when I edited away the first-person.

In sum, Burial’s world expanded outward as its narrator—both present and in absentia—took shape in language. Within her language, my material, I located the book’s concept (a woman grieving the loss of her father checks into a hotel she conflates with the morgue where his body is being kept . . . ). There existed a period of time where a draft of the manuscript was at rest. And then I picked it up again, retyped it all and addressed its defects. These defects were, of course, subjective: In ways, I aspire to create defective texts.

Or, conversely: Language as paint, paint not necessarily as equivalent to words. Concept preceding or not preceding text. Burial as a peripatetic process, a contrapuntal composition.

 

The work is both macabre and deeply philosophical, operating by a series of simple questions horrifying in their magnitude. Early on, the narrator asks, “What does it mean to be dead?”  I’m curious to know more about your interest in writing so closely to the subject of death in this way that performs the painful mental struggle with mortality.

What’s not interesting about death? There is no greater mystery! I’ve always been interested in writing about topics unfamiliar to me, instead of ascribing to the writing workshop cliché of “writing what [I] know.” Paradoxically, death is both unfamiliar to me (insofar as I am alive) and immediate: I am going to die, and people I love will die, and this inevitability is a tremendous site of anxiety and preoccupation. As a human being, I simultaneously dread and desire to understand death; as a writer, I explore it as a subject, and it becomes a living thing, an organism that reflects life.

 

A poignant moment I thought was the opening of the chapter titled, “Question,” in which the question is posed: “Must crisis enter the heart? Or might the heart open its gates, spill open its contents and reveal itself as wholly self-contained, split apart by death . . . ”  So there’s a choice between crisis (death?) entering the heart and the heart as its own crisis, which is to ask how do crisis and the heart relate.  What are the crises that contemporary literature is responding to?

The answers to this question depend on the contemporary literature to which we are referring. The answers also depend on which contemporaries we consider. In the literature I craft, I am interested in writing toward essential questions: How to live? How to die? What is death? Why are we here? I am also interested in investigating how we negotiate our own subjective perceptions with a supposed objective reality, or how to see the seeing; how to transcribe the body’s peculiar physical sensations, defenses, questions, ways of indicating, and so forth; how to step outside of these patterns; how to play; how to empathize; how to work within and beyond discomforting spaces; how to imagine a world without myself in it. I am not sure these preoccupations of mine are crises. Presently, the crisis for me is to read or write, and how to survive.

 

There’s a dialogue about love that occurs between a male Voice and the female narrator, who is often commenting on the bodiliness / objectness of her environment, even choosing the cold factness of the body over abstraction. It’s a striking and tricky way to work with an original female perspective that embodies both voice and gaze, by putting such a voice in conversation with other voices. How was the voice and perspective of this book shaped?

Burial did not occur in a vacuum. Its voice and perspective were shaped via sensory processing, as in reading, watching, listening, touching, and taste. While working on it, I ingested so many books, records, films, and long-form television shows. I turned and returned to visual art. I watched dance performances. I went for long runs and did yoga. I had conversations with co-investigators, mentors, and friends—notably, I took decompression walks with my neighbor who was studying for the LSAT. I worked as an amanuensis while writing the book, and the process of transcription influenced my writing in ways I do not fully understand. As I edited the book’s final drafts, I turned to my bones. All of these things helped me perceive more clearly.

Those interested in specific examples can check out Burial’s acknowledgements, where I include a partial list of sources that inspired the text. Even that list, in fact, was inspired by someone else—my friend Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi suggested I create it.

 

What are you working on now?

I am working on a second novel (entitled Noël), multiple poems, and a theoretical performance called SPECIAL AMERICA, which I collaborate on with Jeff T. Johnson, and which is my favorite art to make.

 

-Rachel Cole Dalamangas, July 2013

OKAY MOUNTAIN: INTERVIEW

The collaborative group in contemporary art practice is really an old thing all dressed as new, and rechristened—rock star style. In some ways, the medieval guild was the long lived precursor where a group of artisans—let’s say stone workers, grouped together to work on a project—let’s say a cathedral, and the work of the group became apotheosis of a lifelong achievement, if that . . . There was security and anonymity. This practice segued into the school of the Master, when young artists apprenticed for a master often completing his works or filling massive amounts of it, perhaps specializing in drapery or some other eccentricity, and sometimes even moving onto studios of their own. Security and a little less anonymity. As the twentieth century rolled along groups had manifestos and full fledged memberships—Think the Dadaists and the Surrealists, much less the Fluxists or the Situationalists. More security more group celebrity. In terms of contemporary art practices in the 80’s and 90’s we would often see collaborative teams of two people—Fischli & Weiss, Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, Doug and Mike Starn, Pruitt & Early, Jane and Louise Wilson . . . or an artist working in tandem with a group like Tim Rollins and KOS. More security less anonymity. And then larger groups started to emerge like The Art Guys, Art Club 2000, The Royal Art Lodge or Bernadette Corporation. Group security group anonymity. The 21st century iteration of group effort exists in many forms and shows up in many venues from the recent shows like the “Ungovernables”, and “Younger Than Jesus” and is almost de rigeur . . . in terms of galleries on the Lower East Side or following the pop-up model, curatorial collaboration is widespread from Reena Spaulings, Lucie Fontaine, and 47 Canal to the ever present Bruce High Quality Foundation. In Austin, Texas, another group has emerged: Okay Mountain. Like other collaboratives Okay Mountain reaches across curatorial and market boundaries creating a new space for their work, practice, audience, and collaboration. A team of ten guys, we caught up with them recently and the interview that follows is the zingmagazine scout shout out.

Interview by Devon Dikeou

 

Where did the name Okay Mountain come from . . . As an editor, I am intrigued with style guides/copy editing, so . . . How did you reconcile “Okay” vs “OK” Mountain . . .

When we dissolved our two smaller spaces (Camp Fig and Fresh Up Club) in 2005 we knew that the new venture would have to have its own identity so we needed a new name. About a half dozen of the guys met up one evening to make a decision, where I think we met for at least three hours, mulling back and forth over different ideas. I think we all liked a name that alluded to a physical place (Forest, Mountain, River etc) and Okay Mountain was a name that no one hated. What also appealed to us was the idea of this huge, mighty form . . . but just an okay version of that. A tinge of self-deprecation, but ultimately a mountain is still a mountain, even if it is sort of dinky. The second runner up was ‘Boosterz’ which was supposed to sound like a sucky sports bar. It was a lively debate, but ultimately the right choice was made.

Truthfully, I don’t think that the “OK” vs “Okay” debate ever even came up. We all envisioned the wording as “Okay” without even discussing it, which is a rarity. It’s not too often that we’re all on the same page about anything without numerous conversations and debates.

 

Give us a little bit about your historic and artistic etymology . . . You were all students at University of Texas . . . Who did you study with . . . Mel Ziegler . . . Right?  He was part of the collaborative team of Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler . . . Are there any collaborative inspirational voices that you learned from be it Ericson and Ziegler or other collaboratives . . .

Obviously, there are a lot of us, and so the story of our forming has many threads. It is true that about half of us attended the University of Texas, though not all at the same time. It is also true that several of us were inspired by Mel’s tutelage, but more importantly, Mel rented out his studio to us so that we could form Okay Mountain, and then later sold that building so that we, like his little eaglets had to fly on our own. Once, in lieu of better entertainment, we burned a couch to cinders in our yard, then, in fear of Mel’s judgement, we crudely buried the scorched remains.  But Mel figured it out and left us a note of avuncular reproach in which he addressed us as the Okay-Mountain-bad-boys, and signed himself the daddy-type-landlord. I think that is how both parties conceive of our relationship still.

That said, we definitely were not modeling ourselves after Mel and Kate’s collaboration, nor any other collectives. We opened Okay Mountain as a contemporary art gallery in 2006 with no plan of collaborating. We’re still called an alternative space but our plan was to be a totally-legit, mainstream operation that showed the type of art that we liked and was otherwise unseen in the region. We really agonized over getting the drywall and lighting in good shape, and we had a lot of experience by then because Okay Mountain was a hybrid of two separate galleries that various Mountaineers had founded and run in the previous few years and for one reason or another had outgrown.

The unsexy minutiae of gallery operations meant we were together often. We were trying to be egalitarian about everything from curating to lawn-mowing, and during all gatherings we’d pass around a sketchbook for the fun of it. That began our series of 7×7 (inch) collaborative drawings, which we’d sell out of our back room to help cover the rent. They sold well and from those we were asked to do our first show, as a collective, which we had never imagined hitherto. That was about two years after we opened as a gallery and although we can’t even claim the idea of forming as a collective, we quickly grew to enjoy the possibilities and began in earnest to make work together. If there is anything unique about our collective model, it is that we were not drawn together by a shared political or aesthetic ideology. In fact, we generally disagree about all-things-art. We do, however, enjoy spending time together and somehow art is the sphere that brought us together.

 

This brings to mind the Surrealist game, Exquisite Corpse, which is very much in the spirit of your zingmagazine project soon to appear in issue 23 . . . Please detail the process for your zing project entitled, “Family Tree” . . .

Family Tree is the most recent iteration of a long line of Okay Mountain drawing games. These games started as a way to kill time while working gallery hours and during weekly meetings. We continued the practice for years.  Whether that be at bars, in airports, on planes, in a car during a long road trip, or in an hotel rooms, anytime a lot of us are together we played drawing games. For years we played a game called “What Kills What”.  Someone makes a drawing and then the next person has to make a drawing that kills/renders moot/cancels out the first, then the drawing is passed and this goes on endlessly. I imagine each and every member’s sketchbook is chock full of past “What Kills Whats”. While traveling for projects, one of our members decided to morph the game into “What Makes What”, essentially mating two things together to make an offspring. After a few runs of the game it was aptly titled, “Family Tree”, as it lays out a genealogy of sorts. When approached to participate in zing 23, we decided to extend to game to create a drawing project exclusively for print. In designing the layout of the project, it was important that the game grew in complexity as the viewer flipped pages, to capitalize on what was so fun about playing the game in the first place—watching objects slowly become absolutely absurd and seeing how your friends riffed on each other’s content. We emailed a few different possible growth patterns and blueprints to one another, voted and then started drawing. One member took the directorial position and orchestrated the entire project, deciding the pairs, making mock-ups, and passing out assignments to members. Six batch assignments were handed out and completed over the course of a month and a half. After all of the content had been generated, the line drawings were compiled into large Photoshop files, which were layed out, colored, cleaned up, and sent to print.

 

It is also interesting that each of you have your own art practices . . . how do each of you juggle each of your individual careers with the ideas, goals, and practicalities of the group . . .

Balancing our individual careers with the trajectory and obligations of the collective can be as challenging as it is rewarding. There have been times when the collective has shows lined up in pretty quick succession, enough that is is hard to decompress and reactivate our individual practices. Working in a group that is under one banner is not the easiest thing in that regard. Your personal practice flies out the window in service of a common concept or formal undertaking; sometimes your role is as a general at the center of an idea, other times you are left sanding a log outside in 20 degree weather. The flip side of this coin is that everyday you enter the studio you are being challenged, educated, and enriched by your fellow collective members. It’s a complete experience, best of times/worst of times in the most literal sense.

 

I first saw your work at the Pulse Fair in Miami 2010 . . . you showed a Food Cart, I believe it was called “Benefit Plate” . . . which is funny because Austin seems like it is the center of the Food Truck culture . . . But I feel I first started reading and hearing about your work after “Corner Store” (which was exhibited at Pulse 2009 in Austin’s Arthouse’s booth) . . . when did your work as a collaborative first receive national exposure . . .

As it is with others, our success started locally and spread from there. We were given a show by Jade Walker at the Creative Research Laboratory in Austin (“It’s Going to Be Everything”, January 2008) and that started the process of our group thinking about doing a show that was a combination of our art efforts, which had been very loose, organic, and informal up to that point, and started us down the path of exploring the different ways we could collaborate. From that, we were offered a show later in the year at Paragraph Gallery in Kansas City, which allowed us to use some of our favorite aspects of the CRL show and add a few other elements. It was Sue Graze and Elizabeth Dunbar at Arthouse who gave us a chance to make an international splash at Pulse Miami in 2009, and we were ready. Instead of taking a shotgun approach to filling the gallery space like we had done with the first two collaborative shows, we created an all-encompassing idea in the “Corner Store” and filled it with all of the ideas we could generate within it. That loose, fun structure, combined with the winking subtext of the art fair as a fine art convenience store for the wealthy, was a big hit with everyone attending—we won the Pulse Prize and People’s Choice awards, and all of sudden we had to filter through a ton of offers from gallerists and institutions.

 

When I visited the studio you all were working on a kind of “Big Wheel”, titled “Ultrasonic VI” that was shown at Mark Moore in LA. Wheels like “Ultrasonic VI” conjure everything from Pat Sajak and Cake Walks, to “The Price Is Right”. How do you see the viewer in terms of participation . . . or for that matter, the viewer in terms of relational aesthetics . . .

Our works do tend to invoke a collective approach to enjoyment, which is related to some of the ideas behind relational aesthetics. But for us participation is not simply an end goal that we work backwards from. Nevertheless, often times participation becomes integral to the execution of our ideas. In other words, our work does not necessarily require direct viewer interaction, but it can; and different projects result in different levels of viewer participation. Some projects are explicitly open to more than “looking,” and some (like the wheel) are ambiguous in regard to viewer interaction. The wheel does move, which was very important to us, but it is a little uncertain whether you should spin it, or even if it does spin. The wheel is more a promise of interaction and as a result sets up a dilemma in the gallery space, creating some tension around the art object, the audience’s role, and even the gallery’s ability to navigate this ambiguity.

Regardless of how hands-on audience participation ends up being, we are always very conscious of how we hold the viewer’s attention, what we give people to focus on. And we generally side with maximal engagement, making works that we know will be readable by a variety of viewers and different types of audiences. I think we have a specific kind of respect for our viewers that manifests into a lot of tangible and visible effort. Ultimately, we cherish opportunities to present objects and ideas to the public and work accordingly.

One aspect about the collective related to audience considerations is the group’s large number. As we brainstorm or make a work, we tend to act as an audience. Because each of us requires unique (and sometimes similar) things from a project in order to be satisfied, we gravitate towards an egalitarian horizon, which translates into a kind of de-facto politics or ideology of heterogeneity. That may sound a little heady, but it is one way to try and understand our relationship to each other and to our audiences.

 

A while ago at Austin Museum of Art’s Laguna Gloria (AMOA and Arthouse have since merged) you were among a group of artists that were chosen to design a hole for a Miniature Golf installation . . . Your hole is entitled “School Night” . . . What did you take into consideration, what were your models, Augusta or Austin’s world famous Peter Pan MiniGolf . . .

It was really nice to be invited to participate in this. Miniature Golf and similar attractions are a subject we were already very interested in as a group and so we tried to look at it as a pretext to make an artwork that we would have made regardless of an overlapping purpose. Once that was established, we focused on what we found interesting about mini golf locations like Austin’s Peter Pan MiniGolf in the first place, as it exists in culture, rather than what might be interesting about an artist’s take on designing a golf hole in a museum setting. We were interested in how those kinds of places can evoke a transitional state of growing up. A time that involves jumping fences and lobbing empty bottles, before being able to officially join the nightlife of the twenty-one and older ranks. We’re happy with it as an artwork and look forward to showing it where it can be seen in a context with our other work.

 

Indeed, it looks as if the golf hole has made it way into another work . . . “Long Plays”. What’s your view of recycling ideas or pieces . . .

“School Night” was shown recently in our solo exhibition “Long Plays” at Mark Moore Gallery in LA. We were happy to show that work amongst other bodies of work in order to properly contextualize it. When seemingly disparate bodies of our work are exhibited in one space the viewer has an opportunity to follow the threads and see larger patterns in our thinking. Okay Mountain is happy to recycle ideas and works, as long as we are not being redundant. Each time we brainstorm on a new project we gravitate towards subjects we have touched on in the past. Inevitably, we see these subjects in a new light or make a new connection to them within our practice. Certain subjects have consistently resonated deeply with the group as a whole. Our artistic identity was formed in the explorations of these notions and those explorations will continue to grow and compound one another.

 

Finally, I am interested not just in the collaborative aspect of your practice as a group, but how that practice extends from being a dealer/gallery to an artists’ collaborative—the give, take of the viewer, the context, the artist, the collector. Can you please elucidate on these multifarious relationships . . . and Okay Mountain’s various hats . . .

In a certain sense, I think Okay Mountain’s multifarious relationships are central to organization’s vitality. Because each of the members wear so many hats, I think each of us gain greater perspective of our activities, as well as one another. When we started Okay Mountain, we were just a group of artists that wanted to be around art that excited us. In order to run the gallery each of us had to acquire certain skill sets ranging from roof tarring to public speaking. It has always been our model to trade off and give somebody else an opportunity to try something new—whether it be cleaning the bathroom, curating an exhibition, or working closely with a collector. This is not just an idealogical, egalitarian thing either—it has to function this way or everything would fall apart. This practice extends into the collective, as well. Each collective project has been quite different from the previous projects because we want/need to try new things. The group is composed of individuals with diverse interests and backgrounds and in order to keep ourselves excited and focused we have to challenge ourselves. Over the years we have realized that whether we are doing studio visits, working in our personal studios, managing our rental studios, or working on projects with the collective, each and every one of these activities impact and influence one another . . . which is a good thing.

 

Okay Mountain is: Carlos Rosales-Silva, Josh Rios, Justin Goldwater, Ryan Hennessee, Nathan Green, Peat Duggins, Michael Sieben, Sterling Allen, Tim Brown . . . each question is answered by a different member. There are nine questions and nine Mountaineers, more group security and group anonymity . . .

 

-Devon Dikeou, 2013

GRAHAM FAGEN: INTERVIEW

Zing #23 contributor, Graham Fagen has a mind akin to a tornado: one idea seemingly starts to spiral and picks up other disparate ideas until a cyclone of items such as Jamaican reggae, Auld Lang Syne, Scottish identity, and the 18th century slave economy is barreling out as a (no doubt, unusual) series of songs. Fagen’s recent film The Making of Us, part reality TV and part scripted metafiction, will be shown later this month at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. His forthcoming project in issue 23 features a sort of smorgasbord of his work ranging from a photograph of a  “pish balloon” (just as gross as it sounds, and, which was, it should be further noted, plagiarized in a YouTube documentary) to ship blueprints to stills from his film.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

The Making of Us is a film that explores that threshold between fiction and reality by making the process a part of the narrative and the audience a part of the cast. It’s not too far from reality TV. Why do you think the interrogation of reality is currently a popular subject of art and film?

Maybe it is so popular because the boundaries of reality are so blurred today by TV shows and Internet living? Just like the blurred boundaries of the concept of truth! The Making of Us developed from an interest in the way that we, as viewers, look at the arts, i.e., theatre you sit down for a known period of time and in an art gallery you stay for as long as you want. Theatre director Graham Eatough and I clashed these two together in an earlier project called Killing Time and it was interesting to see an audience work at finding their place in the work. For The Making of Us we wondered about other influences that could be added to such a scenario, such as a film crew.

 

In your piece, Natural Anarchy, there is an order in the color pattern of the lettering and language itself is a kind of order. Do you think humans can achieve actual anarchy? Would we want to?

Yes, I’ve used primary colors. We didn’t invent these colors; their matter of factness was discovered by us. They function, do a job, without us controlling or arranging them. The same is true for all natural order. I love this fact. And I love the ambiguity of Natural Anarchy and how people interpret the work. Viewers seem to split between being worried and looking for an explanation or relaxed, smiling at the thought. It does seem to divide viewers like that.

I’ve no idea if humans could achieve actual anarchy! Some might want to but the situation reminds me of the Groucho Marx quote “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”

 

What is the significance of exploring culture via art? Why not explore culture scientifically or statistically instead?

Culture is, of course, explored scientifically and statistically. This work will result in facts and figures that are usually used to direct and demonstrate a need for a political direction.

I’m interested in the things are hard to give exact meaning to, the territories of nuance, paradox, subtlety, contrast, vagary, etc. I’m interested in a position that is hard to pin down or describe. Something between categories. For me that is my understanding of the complexities of culture and it is also the way that I understand my reasons for making art.

 

Do you do collaborations regularly?

Yes, I’ve done some collaborations. The collaboration work I’ve done with the theater director is maybe the most prominent work I’ve done in that retrospect. The other one that’s very obvious is that I worked with a music producer named Adrian Sherwood. I approached Adrian to work with me to see if he’d be interested in reworking at old Robert Burns song. Burns lived in Ayrshire in Scotland where I went to school in the late 1700s. He was going to leave Scotland to go work in Jamaica and he was going to work on a sugar cane plantation as what polite society would call a “bookkeeper,” but what in actual fact was a slave overseer on a plantation. When you left, you never had enough money to come back, so the community that you left considered you as dead and gone. So he decided that he would self-publish a book of his songs and poems to leave as a memento. So he did this and he heard rumors that a printer in Edinburgh wanted to reprint the poems and he canceled his sailing to Jamaica from the west coast of Scotland to travel to the east coast where he booked another passage to Jamaica, which he would take if the rumors of the publisher weren’t true. The rumors about the publisher were true, so he stayed in Scotland despite having booked a few passages to go to Jamaica and it was his book of poetry that kept him here. Four years before he died, he wrote a poem called “The Slave’s Lament” and because I grew up in Ayrshire where Burns lived, at school each January on the anniversary of his birth, we had to recite by heart his poetry to the class.

Away from school, I was making my own music, and I sort of caught the tail end of the punk movement and along with the punk movement came Jamaican reggae so I was buying a lot of Jamaican reggae records and I guess I wondered out of idle curiosity during my teenager years why at school, what was being taught as my cultural heritage was kind of meaningless to me, but yet the cultural polar opposite, Jamaican reggae, meant so much more to me than what my cultural heritage was according to school. I had a chance to research Burn’s father and that’s when I discovered that he booked these passages to live and work in Jamaica and that finding helped me make some bridges with that idle curiosity that I had.

So I approached Adrian Sherwood who works in London with a lot of Jamaican reggae artists and performers to see if he’d be interested in working with me to remake a new version of Robert Burn’s “The Slave’s Lament,” but with reggae performers. That was a great process, I really enjoyed that one. It was creative in that Adrian was into the idea and we talked a lot about the songs and the kind of feel I wanted the songs to have, and he would recommend people that he’d worked with that could help us achieve the sound and feel we wanted the song to have, and then you let them do what they need to do in order to achieve the song.

 

In an interview you said that your process is “an inquiry into cultural formers.” What are “cultural formers”?

There’s a sculpture that I made not long after I graduated from my master’s course and the sculpture’s called “Former and Form.” It’s a really simple sculpture. It’s pieces of wood that are held together with G-clamps and into the pieces of wood I poured some concrete and when the concrete was set I took out the cast and set it next to it. So it was a very simple sculpture and the size of the concrete was about the size of a house brick that’s very common in the UK. The more I worked on projects, the more I realized how important this sculpture was because this sculpture felt like a thinking model. What I was interested in about the sculpture was that I could show a form or a shape, but I could also show the mechanisms that were required in order for that shape to exist. In order for that shape to exist, I had to have some concept or some idea of what shape the mold had to be. So it was a cause and effect relationship.

When people started asking me what my work was about, I tried to find the shorter way to explain the complexities, and that’s when this concept that was becoming clearer to me from that earlier sculpture about “cultural formers” and things that shape our cultures and the way that we behave and then the way that we shape the culture, so the two-way relationship that’s there as well. The thing that was really important to me about that as an artist was the understanding when I started being invited to do other projects.  One project in particular, I was invited to be what in this country is called the “official war artist.” I was asked by the Imperial War Museum to be the war artist for Kosovo and that’s where my knowledge of what I was trying to do as an artist became really important because not only was I able to understand a reason for examining my own culture, but I realized that comprehension was actually really important and it can help you understand other people’s cultures and find relationships to help understand what the differences are. So when I went to Kosovo to understand somebody else’s culture, for me, it was so interesting, because their culture had basically been destroyed. The work that I tried to do there was address cultural breakdown or cultural shifts of knowledge and logic that makes a culture hold together.

 

I’m curious about what you mean when you call a sculpture “a thinking model.” Can you explain that?

When I was making it, I was making a concept that I had that was quite simple in a formal sense and when I made it, it had a life and it was exhibited. It was for the Arts Council’s collection, so it had its own life, but its relationship with me is still the conceptual one. For me, that sculpture explains the complexities of what a cultural former is, or the way that I’ve been using that term “cultural former.”

 

How does art interact with the breakdown or development of culture?

When I came back from my time in Kosovo and made the exhibition for the museum, it was interesting because it was a question that especially journalists, maybe no so much art critics, but journalists would ask about, like, that must really have changed you? There were lots of questions about what value and what’s the use of making art about this sort of subject. There’s a lot of literary theory you could talk about the relationship to, maybe, genre, but for me what was important about my work was that real life theory. So for example, having been to Kosovo and trying to make an art work that would maybe try in a small way to address the complexities of war and conflict was very important and it was important that that work was exhibited in a museum that hopefully people came to see and try to understand through the artwork a different position or a different route to what war and conflict is. So you’re not experiencing it through the medium of a newspaper or a television or from a politician or from a UN official, it was a more paradoxical introduction through the medium of art. Paradoxical because it’s a simple way to access a very complex situation. That subject of “cultural formers” is very real in terms of a subject area that’s real and that’s what key in priorities for me when I’m making the work as an artist.

 

How does art differ from media?

The difference would mainly be the way that you see the subject matter in that you make a conscious decision to go to an art gallery or to a museum. Then once you’re there there are preconceptions about the way that you as a viewer would behave or react or interact with objects, or the formality of the construct you’re seeing within these places. That’s a very difference relationship to receiving media in the privacy of your own home. It’s public, for a start.

That’s maybe one of the reasons I started to become interested in working with a theater director—thinking about the notions about how we perceive art and how we receive art depending on the place that we’re in. If you go to a theater, you’re quite prepared to sit in a comfortable seat for an hour and a half and watch something and kind of believe the fiction that’s being presented to you, but if you go to an art gallery it’s very easy to go out and think, “I just don’t like this at all” or “This is aesthetically doesn’t engage me so I’m just going to walk out.” Or you may do the opposite and you may be really engaged and spend a long time there. That question of differences in media is about the ways that you receive them and the associated notions of different media.

 

Does art take in history and culture and shape our perception of it, or is art on the other side of that fence and shaped by history and culture?

I think art sits on both sides, certainly in the ways that I’ve received it and perceived it, and the way that I have worked with it. I would like to think that I’ve worked on both of those points. I was about to say on both sides of that fence, but maybe that’s the first thing, maybe it’s not a fence, it’s more fluid than that. There’s a lot of debate in the UK about is art political or where is the political art or where is the political art going. For me, the art that I enjoy and the art that I think is important is the art that can be both of these places that you talk about. It’s art that will not just provoke, but can also offer opportunity to reflect and use art history as well.

 

I think we live in a kind of a cynical time—on the brink of environmental disasters and constant wars. It seems to me that so many contemporary artists and writers and thinkers are engaged with this sort of darkness as a way to try to engage with the world. But then what is art’s role in this world?

That’s quite a description of “the darkness.” It reminds me of a documentary I just saw in which a young journalist was interviewing the Sex Pistols when they had just started and at that time in Britain there really was darkness because a lot of the power stations were working three-day weeks and four days of the week you could be in a power cut situation and there were lots of cuts and garbage men were refusing to pick up garbage. I remember seeing my very first rat, which I thought was a rabbit because the rats were so large. Going back to the point of the darkness, there was a young journalist interviewing the Sex Pistols for a news channel and you could tell the young journalist was quite a liberal guy and you could tell he was really excited about what the Pistols were doing and the fact they were raging against this sense of cultural and societal breakdown. So he’s got his microphone and he’s interviewing Johnny Rotten and he said, “Johnny, we’re a country on its knees and you’re coming along and rallying against political authority. What are you going to do about that?” And he passed the microphone over to Johnny Rotten and Johnny Rotten just said, “We’re gonna make it worse.” Which I thought was a fantastic answer and for me it’s quite an important answer in relationship to what you’re talking about. Because I think the other thing that’s really important is that artists and intellectuals of course have always been part of a more liberal stream, but they’re always part of the bigger majority as well and I guess that’s where those limitations on what kind of influence you can have on these kind of political powers.

What’s interesting about the kind of “darkness”—and these are your words, Rachel, not my words. The thing about the darkness that is Rachel’s is that slowly you start to find out about the mechanisms that control the way that we work politically and how we do business. The banking crisis and things like that, you start to find out the truth about the mechanics of how governments are influenced not necessarily by voters, but much more influenced by oil firms, banking industries, people like that.

 

So it’s a good point that “darkness” is my word. The body of your work that I’ve seen—there’s a grittiness to it and a humor to it, but it’s not consistently dark. How would you characterize the era that we’re living in and facing as artists and thinkers?

I think we need to stay extremely positive about it. I think we need to be cheeky about it. That cheekiness is maybe the most important thing. By “cheeky” I mean that we don’t become afraid to say what we truly feel we need to say and we say it in whatever way we think is the best way to say it.

 

-Rachel Cole Dalamangas, June 2013

JM LEDGARD: INTERVIEW

In JM Ledgard’s Submergence, James More is a British spy who was captured by Somalian jihadists and spends most of the novel in a shack and eventually in a cage shitting himself and meditating on the soul and utopia as you do. Danny Flinders is an acclaimed scientist who specializes in deep ocean trenches and is something of a sensualist who revels in the object world, drinking Australian wine and smoking cigarettes “in the French way.” As Danny prepares to go on a deep-sea dive and James is slowly whittled away by the torments and amateurish decisions of his captors, both reminisce on a brief if otherworldly love affair they had at a French hotel on the Atlantic during Christmas. The plot arc, which foregoes suspense and operates via a sort of lyrical seduction, goes the only way it could: sadly.

Submergence is nothing if not heady—brutal as well as beautiful. It has been quite awhile since I’ve gotten that “hit by a bus” feeling from a work of literature and the rainy afternoon in March when I finished Submergence on the subway, I had to go about the rest of my day more deliberately. It’s the sort of the book that changes the texture of chocolate and the look of puddles. The work is modular and favors establishing layers of meaning through fragments and twisting metaphors, and much of the prose is to be chewed on. The novel explores the frightening questions of human existence, namely, what the hell are we doing to our planet through war and more crucially environmental degradation that is reaching apocalyptic proportions. Below even this, though, there is also a rather darker attempt to chart human loneliness, that emptiness that appreciates beauty and wants to understand truth and develops profound connections with others. As it becomes clearer and clearer what the fate of James and Danny will be, one gets the sense that perhaps if Danny goes down deep enough into the pitch-black oceanic trenches, and if James goes far out enough into the Somalian deserts, they will eventually fall through a black hole or cosmic furrow and happen upon each other.

JM Ledgard was born in the Shetland Islands. He is a political and war correspondent for the Economist and a thinker on risk and technology in emerging economies. He lives and works in Africa.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

Can you tell me about some of your experiences as a foreign correspondent that informed Submergence?

The first thing is my undergraduate degree rather bizarrely was in medieval Islamic history so I have this whole very positive understanding of Islam . . . the rise of the Ottoman Empire, and of course a lot of great Islamic thinkers. So that was the first thing. Then there were certainly the wars in the former Yugoslavia, which I reported a bit on and then some of the wars in the former Soviet Republics and then the Kosovo War, and all of these wars were involved in Islam in some way. Of course what blew everything out of the water was 9/11 here in New York, and after that I got sent by my newspaper to be an Afghanistan terrorism correspondent. Then, again, in Africa, I think probably because of my experience after 9/11, I continued on this tracking and writing a lot about al-Qaeda and jihadist groups, and was very taken with Somalia as a country and traveled there as much as I could even though it was quite dangerous. Several times I was very lucky to get access to jihadist commanders on the ground, some of them al-Qaeda guys, and that was really very quite interesting.

I had a really wonderful, bizarre episode where I went to the Comores Islands near Madagascar. I think the third most wanted man in the United States was a guy called Fazul Mohammed who was from the Comores and he was the guy who blew up the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. I just felt really interested in this particular guy and tracked him around and followed where he’d been and then I got to go and meet his wife, his sister, his children, his mother, and that experience is slightly fictionalized in Submergence. So these are real people, but obviously in the book I’m much more interested in the ideas than an exact personal narrative.

Though there’s an interesting story about one of these al-Qaeda guys I met that was very bizarre. It was like something I might have written in my novel. I went to southern Somalia and there was an al-Qaeda commander, a tough guy, a Somalian, not a foreigner—the foreigners are really scary, you don’t want to meet one of those guys because they’ll just kill you. The Somalia guys are tough, but they can talk to you a bit. Anyway this guy was in a compound and he’s sitting there and he had a dik-dik, one of those dwarf antelopes. Very cute little animal, but they’re very shy in the bush. You walk along and they’re just gone. But here was this commander with this little pet and it’s very rare to see such a tough guy with a little dik-dik as a pet and he told me this story. I don’t know if it’s true, but it was just a great story, which is that he had been marching through the bush with his men and they were hungry and they found a dik-dik so they killed it and they praised Allah and they had food for dinner, and as they were butchering it, the fawn was alive inside the dead mother, and so they took it and it became a kind of mascot for them. Something about the fact of being monstrous is not enough to dehumanize you completely. There is always something these guys have, but then they’re terrible and some of them are sociopaths.

 

In an interview with The Paris Review’s Philip Gourevitch you describe Submergence as a “planetary novel that seeks to alter the reader’s perception of earth.”  How does fiction interact with cultural and individual perception?

Not enough, in my opinion. I think my view has always been it’s better to be slightly off, but really have a go at saying something profound. We’re born out in this unknown, it doesn’t matter what your religious persuasion is, this is as much as we know that we’re born into the world and we die in the unknown and we’re suspended in this few years of consciousness, and it seems to me the most amazing and profound thing is to try to make sense of that. I got depressed last night when I was at a book talk in Brooklyn and the lady who was interviewing me, all she wanted to talk about was terrorism. I just thought terrorism is not the big thing. The big thing is our planet and the biosphere and the perception of time and space that makes our human experience much more profound when we reflect on it.

When I think about planetary writing, there are two things I want to talk about. One is that mystery element, which is cosmic, which really is strange. You can look at anything and in the right eye it becomes quite magical and fantastical. But then there’s another side, which is one where I’ll get in more trouble in the states, which is basically that literature is a really profound calling. Literary fiction like great art can really influence people’s perception of who they are and what they think in a small way, and I find, particularly in the states, a lot of misery fiction. It’s beautifully crafted, much better than I would ever write, but it’s going nowhere, it’s middle class families working out middle class angst. I don’t see enough writers out there who say, Holy moly, we’re losing like 50% of the biodiversity of species. We’ve had this incredible revolution of technology and science, and we’re going to see another one in the next 10 or 20 years, and people are going to be super connected in ways they’ve never been connected before. One of the points I made in Submergence is about incredibly primitive chemosynthetic life at the bottom of the ocean, which looks really stupid, but that life has been there for three billion years and we’ve not been around for very long. I would really like to see more fiction that is tackling these really big themes even if you kind of trip over your shoelaces a bit.

I will know in five years time if my novel was a success if you are like stuck on the subway or skiing in Colorado and you just have a flash, a moment where you think consciously about the ocean or the desert or a suicide bomber or whatever it is. I want to leave a kind of residue, a false memory, a sense. Obviously it’s not character-driven fiction. The characters are secondary to these much bigger themes.

 

Exposure and discourse about environmental issues are waning. For example, The New York Times canceled its green blog earlier this year. 

There is an absence of environmental coverage in media. To me this is madness. I won’t speak for musicians or anyone else, but I do know about literature and I do feel that a lot of great writers are missing the ball . . . though it’s a difficult balance because you don’t want to manipulate the reader in stupid ways.

I became a novelist when I was younger because I read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, and I thought, Wow, this was written in the mid-19th century and it’s still speaking to profound, relevant truths and about changing society in the way that we deal with power structures. So I think we need to see more of that. I won’t say all literature has to be crusading and serious, but there are some writers that are letting themselves down by not having a go at these things. Literature is making itself irrelevant basically and people are going to go to other mediums and forms like video art or whatever it is where they’re going to find those challenges and questions and emotions that they need to process this incredibly fast-changing world.

In a smaller way, a lot of my novel is about oceans. It’s still amazing to me that 90% of our living space is in the ocean and we just don’t spend any money on it, we don’t think about it. We’re not even capable of thinking about it mostly because it’s quite dark, quite cold, there’s a high pressure, and you realize that actually we’re not these sort of Star Trek universe-conquering species. We’re actually designed for a very thin habitat and we have this relationship with light, with gravity.

 

Your writing style has been criticized as too intellectual or as a heavy prose-style, and I’m curious about your choice to favor beauty and complexity over simplicity and superficiality. 

First of all, I don’t mind if even a majority of readers don’t like the novel or don’t get it. I think anyone who really likes a very traditional narrative arc where you have characters who find catharsis . . . they’re not really going to like my fiction. Also, people who read really fast are probably not going to like it. The one thing I can say about this book even though it’s really short is that probably it should be read really slowly, three or four pages a day. On the whole, it’s like when you have a very high-cocoa content dark chocolate. You just write what you want to write and really go for it. People just have their artistic paths to travel.

 

One way you deal with modulating this heavy subject matter and dense prose is by working in fragments, which actually turn out to be basically meditations in a way. In the novel, there’s a lot of sitting around and thinking that the characters do. 

Again, I can see how this could irritate a particular kind of reader. Naturally you’re trying to put the novel together, but you’re in Somalia and then jump to the Greenland Sea. For me it was really important to build up these layers and hope by the end there was some connection between these incredibly weird, disparate worlds. I think very carefully about what I put in and especially what I take out. It’s a very short book, but it could have been like 600-pages.  I took out so much two ways. One way was that I cut out lots of sections that I’ve already written, and two, I pared down all these passages. One thing I’ve gotten working for The Economist is how you relay the maximum possible information in the shortest possible space.  Obviously, I’m trying to convey completely different thoughts and emotions in the novel. The fragmentary style, I’m just very interested in kaleidoscopic effect, visually and also cinematically and especially emotionally and intellectually. It’s confusing what exactly everything all adds up to, but it puts you in a different space.

 

Something that concerns me as a writer is how technology is shortening our attention spans and how this could kill the novel. 

One thing I was really struck by, a few years ago, I read the letters of President John Adams to his wife. He used to incredibly write two or three page letters to her every day while he was away. What was extraordinary about these letters in the late 18th-century were these long loops of thoughts that don’t resolve immediately and you’re not actually sure where the trajectory is until you get two pages along and then eventually it curlicues to the end. I think we are in danger of losing the capacity to in and of ourselves create these longer loops of thought, and some people are probably even losing the capacity to read these longer loops of thought. Not entirely, you know. It’s possible that people can push back, but of course we have to realize that all other things being equal, and even if these writers who I would like to stop writing about Park Slope and soccer moms, even if they actually start writing Melville-like work, the space for literature is much smaller. All our devices and all the ways we perceive with music and film and gaming and travel. Literature had it really good for a long time and it’s never going to be quite as big as it was.

 

One theme of this novel is disaster and the political and natural crises that the world is on the brink of. Both Danny and James spend a lot of time dealing with questions about where humanity is going and it doesn’t look so good.

It’s a very dark novel, this one, and I don’t make any apologies for that. Strangely, the one lesson I learned living in Africa the last decade is that pessimism is a redundant quality, if it is a quality at all. There is inquiry and it can be very dark inquiry, really pushing you to the abyssal, but the great privilege of the human condition is that we have still the next day to think about the way we conduct ourselves collectively.

Look at the fossil fuel situation that we have at the moment. I’ve known from these negotiations I do with big companies and looking at oil, coal, natural gas, car companies . . . there is a lot of money on the wrong side of the table. It’s kind of banal and I don’t think it’s the best film in the world, but I always come back to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. I remember from the film this cartoon image of the planet on one side of the scale and gold on the other, and everybody in the cinema laughed when they saw that because it seemed so absurd. Why, how can we value money over the planet, but actually nothing has moved from that cartoon, it’s basically that stupid. I mean, the planet is going to be fine, nothing is going to happen to life on the earth. The question is how many species, including our own, have to be annihilated before we are sort of vomited off. But I don’t think it’s actually certain at all. We have a tremendous capacity as a species to self-correct, but at the moment we’re not on a good path because we’re not concentrating on the right things. We’re very much like an autistic termite colony where someone like these mad Chechen brothers in Boston poke it with appalling consequences and then the termite colony goes completely crazy. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a severe reaction to terrorism, but I am saying that we should have at least an equal reaction to the decimation of the planet we’re living on and our ability to survive and particularly the ability of other species to survive. It’s very worrisome to me that we end up with purely anthropomorphic species and that when a species for one reason or another finds it difficult to cohabit with humans we expunge them. I do feel like the future generations, maybe even close future generations, will look at us like, My god, for a bunch of new Chevrolets, you managed to oversee a mass destruction. That is a clear and present danger, and I’m very happy to think in dark terms, but I’m not so interested in fatalistic terms.

 

There is a great deal of beauty in the novel—especially coming out of the brief love affair between James and Danny in a rather surreal, wintry landscape. Why did you choose to hang these dark questions on this very intense romance?

Well, as I say, we have to get up and live our lives. The really amazing thing about the human condition is that despite this cosmic mystery, whether it’s watching a baseball game or having sex or being in a strong relationship or seeing a relationship break apart, getting old, the actual fabric of our lives are colossal to us and they are of never-ending, immense consequence in these completely irresolvable ways. For example, James is there in captivity and he is trying to hold onto his humanity and mostly he’s holding on through strong emotions. For Danny, she is almost a hard woman, she is certainly heroic to me and she sacrificed a lot of warmth and empathy for the path that she chose. It is possible and it is wonderful to have those profound connections.

 

I thought about how trauma is perhaps related to empathy and how we’re motivated to reach outside of ourselves. A reading that I had of the book was as a series of dark meditations draped over a love story, which is perhaps a way that we’re disturbed by our existence.

That’s a very perceptive point. You might be onto something there. That’s harder for me to talk about. It almost hits too intimate really.

 

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a book, but I don’t really know whether it’s going to be fiction or non-fiction. It’s really on that cusp. What I realized in my first two books is that reality and lyrical reality are very closely knit for me, they’re almost zipped together. To be honest, it probably doesn’t matter that much which side of the line we fall on. Except maybe in America because in America the reader demands to know what the truth is, which I’ve never really understood. Some of it is set in Africa. I never show anyone anything I write or talk about it until I know that it’s literally 90% done. It will be building on some of the themes we talked about in Submergence and looking to the future.

 

-Rachel Cole Dalamanags

STEPHEN PETRONIO & JANINE ANTONI: INTERVIEW

The depiction of resurrection is inherently one of spectacle whether violent or rapturous, but perhaps none yet have captured the multifaceted cross-cultural substance of the story wherein the soul returns to the body. Choreographer, Stephen Petronio and performance artist, Janine Antoni, along with collaborators Son Lux, Francisco Núñez, H. Petal, and Ken Tabachnick, will attempt to bring such an ambitious vision to the stage of The Joyce Theater this week in a pastiche that includes Petronio’s all but body-breaking movements and Antoni’s sharp, visceral conceptual sensibilities. The complex—and demanding—arrangement will feature Antoni suspended on a helicopter stretcher in meditation above the audience before and during the dance performance. Hung around her figure will be some 25 milagros, replicas of her skin and bones that are posed in positions and gestures Petronio’s dancers will take. The dance performance itself will present symbol of regeneration as well as glimpses of resurrection narrative, sultry, tortured compositions to American slave hymns as well as fracturing juxtapositions.

Most striking about the undertaking, however, is the uncanny weave of the phoenix with Lazarus, Catholicism with Eastern meditation, the visual plane with the emotional that culminates in a highly orchestrated synaesthesia of earthly human faculties. The audience experience becomes a sort of out of body episode in the collective consciousness of the theater space, a resuscitation to one’s awareness of what any individual reality – the life that happens somewhere between a birth we don’t recall and a death we can’t comprehend—is.

Like Lazarus Did opens April 30 at The Joyce Theater.

Choreographed by Stephen Petronio

Performance by Janine Antoni

Music composition by Son Lux

Music performed by The Young People’s Choir of New York City under the direction of Francisco Núñez (April 30th and May 1st only)

Costume Design by H. Petal

Lighting Design by Ken Tabachnick

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

Why are you meditating on a helicopter stretcher?

JA: I was thinking about what objects in the world are for the supine body and I came to the stretcher. When I found the helicopter stretcher I realized it was perfect because it is also used to lift the body. Even further, I think of my body in this work as representing the middle ground between life and death so the stretcher becomes an appropriate metaphor for this state.

 

It makes me think of illness or injury.

SP: Or rescue.

JA: But also that moment when you are faced with your mortality, which I think is important.

 

How does meditation relate to your practice as an artist?

JA: It’s interesting that I probably came to meditation through my making practice before I was taught formally. A lot of my work is repetitive so I spend a significant amount of time in the studio doing the same thing over and over again. I’ve been meditating formally for the past 15 years and I will definitely draw on that practice in this performance.

 

And, Stephen, in an interview with Time Out New York in 2011, you actually compare dance to meditation. Can you speak about your process and how your work relates to meditation?

SP: All my work is made through an improvisational state. I go into a state of “something,” which is altered and from that place there is an intuitive flow of movement that comes out of my body and that is a meditation. I practiced formal meditation when I was younger and various kinds of sitting, but I don’t do that anymore. Stillness is not my specialty, but I realized that everyday I go from the state of a normal human being who’s got physical and emotional needs and is whiny and is cold, hot, grumpy or happy, and I go into the studio and that falls away in the process of warming up into the choreographic state, which for me is a meditative state and so I try to mine that state. Whatever comes up in my body in that moment I try to bring back, like wrangling wild animals, for the audience to see. It’s harder for them to see the mental or spiritual or emotional state you get into . . . some people can, some people can’t, but you can always see the form. So just the like helicopter stretcher has a lot of deep meanings behind it, it’s still just a stretcher, and the forms that you see on the stage are formally crafted in what I consider an interesting way, but there’s a lot of mental states that linger behind them if you are able to perceive them.

 

It sounds like for both of you there’s this interesting take on mind/body duality, though it’s not necessarily so strict, and the mind and body get mixed up.

SP: I will say my art making is not a meditative practice. I slip into meditative states in the process of creating and the audience can slip into any state they want or they can while they’re watching, but I’m not a spiritual disciplinarian, I’m an artist who’s making art and Janine will tell you nothing about me is strict except for the fact that I’m rigorous. I will look at a structure and use it for my own means and I won’t let it complete itself for the sake of completing itself. I’ll use it for whatever means I need it, so I’m very mercurial in that way.

JA: I’m waiting for that duality to slip away and it happens most to me when

I’m making art. It’s when I’m most embodied and I’m thinking through my body. But there is definitely a moment to step away and take on the position of the viewer. This is when a more critical thinking mind takes over. For me the creative process is about stepping back and forth between these two states.

SP: When I’m moving in practice, as a choreographer, I’ve trained myself to watch myself when I’m in that intuitive state because that’s the only way that I can bring stuff back. Do you struggle with that?

JA: Well I’m trying to go in, in, in, in, in, in, in, but in my movement practice, which is not performative, there’s the teacher who is the witness. So they take care of the outside for me and create a kind of safe space for me to go that far in.

SP: For me it’s always a very tricky balance of letting go of me, Stephen

Petronio, who I am and what think about myself as an art