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 .

 

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 Nowhere, Herland, 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. 

 

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.

 

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 90’s 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!

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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, caf
és, 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 . . .

 

 

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 elsesubtly or violently sois 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 ;)

 

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?

 

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.