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 4x5 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!



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 arent 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.


Theres 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.


Whats your opinion on the recent record-breaking auction sale of Picassos "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 saysgoes: “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.


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. Abelows 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 Abelows 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?

Im 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 Craigs List sort of by chance. I was home visiting family and was just messing around on Craigs List to see what might be available in terms of studio space and I got lucky. Last summer was great and I couldnt stop thinking about it so I decided do it again.


How big are the paintings youre working on right now?

Im 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 soyou know there is a different energy out here which is kind of great because theres obviously the space and the head space, but then theres also, you know, theres like ducks and chickens running around. Its 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. Its 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 theres definitely a relationship, and maybe sometimes its more obvious and sometimes its 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?

Its not really literal, its more metaphorical.


Whats the story behind the Famous Artist paintings in your zing project?

Theres a Bruce Nauman quote thats 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. Its 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 peoples 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. Ive gotten a number of phone calls and some text messages. If I dont 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 thats 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. Ive experimented a lot with all kinds of different materials. My work is often systematic and pre-planned, and so the burlap, because theres a great texture to it, it butts up against the paint in interesting ways and theres 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?

Thats 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 weve made, or at least thats 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 youre in the show, wheres your work?, and I would be standing next to one of the pieces. Theres 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 Goldsmiths 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.


Ive 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 youre talking about were taken from art books that Ive 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. Ive 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, Ive always been interested in line and gesture, and with painting Ive always been more interested in form and color and shape. Most of the solo shows Ive 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 McCarthys 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. Im always thinking about that kind of thing in my work Im 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 youre 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 dont know if youve seen too many of those paintings because its 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 dont 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. Ive 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 others work, or life in general?

Yeah. I think my sister and I were both influenced by our grandmother who is a really wonderful painter. Shes 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 dont 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 reductiveits based on observation but its 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 didnt make her way into painting until later. In fact, I think she actively avoided painting for a long time because thats 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, Im almost thinking of like this genetic thing thats 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 couldnt 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 theres 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 wasnt 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 didnt 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, Im not blogging anymore. Im not doing that today.   

Thats a great question. The thing thats 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 cant even believe I spent that much time doing it. I dont even think about it now. Its weird.


Yeah, thats 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, thats cool Ill put it on my blog. No wait, I cant.

Well you know what saved me was Instagram.


Yeah, thats 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 its 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 wasnt 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 its 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.

Its also, I mean, the phone number piece at Dikeou is coming right out of the same kind of logic as the painting youre describing with the television on my head. Its this idea, with the phone number, its a self-portrait in the technological age like these numbers signify me. Even beyond that they signify New Yorkanybody whos lived in New York knows that its the 917 number, its a New York phone number, theres this relationship to the idea of the New York artist which is really intentional because if I didnt have a 917 number I dont know if I would have evenI 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 dont 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, wheres 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 thats also young artists, or artists of any age I guess, who are movingI mean I always say New York and I dont know if its 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, its something so many people can identify with. Its like that same thing if youre from Maryland or wherever and you move to New York and get a New York state drivers license, its 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. Youve 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?

Hmmwell, I think of myself as a late bloomer. I didnt have my first show in New York until I was thirty-four, which by todays 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 Id 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 Im 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 wasnt 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 didnt know anything about contemporary art or that you could make a living as an artist, really. I wasnt 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 youre surprised at all by your own success, or expect it to grow into what its 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 Halleys 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. Im 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 thats 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 didnt have gallery representation, I wasnt 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, lets 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 theyd be showing all over the place. I had a strong hand in it that, although I didnt really expect the blog to have that much influence. That happened organically. But yeah, thats how I got into curating.


Is curating something you would like to continue to do?

Im running a semi-anonymous space in Baltimore. Right now were on the tenth show. Its been interesting, its 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 withtheres a kind of dark humor vibe to the shows that were doing.

What are you currently reading, listening to, or looking at to fuel your work?

Keith Mayerson sent me Eric Fischls memoir, Bad Boy, which I have been enjoying. Im 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?

Im working on a show for Fuentes, which I think is going to be in January. I dont want to say too much about it because I want it to be a surprise but I will say that its 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 hed 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 its 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 were working on collaborative silkscreens. I dont know where the silkscreens will end up yet but I just wanted to talk about it for a minute because Im pretty excited about it.


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 View his new music video “Bowery Nation” here and follow him on Instagram: @bradkahlhamer .



ZINGCHAT: Rose Hartman's Incomparable Couples

In 1977 only weeks after the opening of Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell's legendary Studio 54, the young and beautiful Bianca Jagger rode onto a colorful strobe-lit dance floor on a white horse ringing in her 27th birthday. Steve Rubell knew that the up and coming New York photographer Rose Hartman was working on her first book, Birds of Paradise, and personally invited her to the club that night. Armed with her compact Olympus SLR she was poised at the ready and captured the moment with her most iconic image, what Bob Colacello labeled: "the shot that was heard around the world!" Bianca on a white horse appeared on the front page of every newspaper from New York to Singapore and heralded Hartman who would become a major force on New York's glamorous nightlife and fashion scene tirelessly shooting all the best parties, the fashion shows and capturing the demimonde, the club kids, and the private parties held beyond the velvet ropes hosted by the international glitterati. For more than 30 years Hartman's images have appeared in newsprint and fashion magazines including Harper's Bazaar, Elle, Vogue, Vanity Fair. Her second book Incomparable Woman of Style features over 200 photographs including reproductions of vintage silver prints Hartman developed in a studio she set up in her West Village home. We recently caught up with Rose at Sant Ambroeus on Lafayette Street to talk pictures and her new book Incomparable Couples, a glittering compendium of dynamic duos: mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, friends and lovers, designers and muses.


Mary Barone: Rose, congratulations on the book. It's got some spectacular images. The cover image of David Bowie and Iman. I don't think there's a person on the planet who doesn't know who David Bowie is, but beyond that did you choose it as the cover because it was one of your favorites?


Rose: Totally, there's no question. It is one of my favorite images; look at it, how he’s biting his lip! That’s what I love.


Brandon Johnson: Was that in response to something you said?


R: I don’t know. Obviously, I’m in front of them, but I’m not engaged with them in conversation. Let’s make that clear. Sometimes I am, but this time I wasn’t.


B: But you’re acting as the observer - as the photographer, you are looking for the moment that you want to capture.


R: Absolutely, isn’t that what photographers do?


M: Rose, but Iman looks at you so lovingly.


R: It’s amazing. The truth is I was actually in Mustique. I had been invited by a very nice friend who has a house there so I went and they lived there too. I can’t remember if that was before or after, but she obviously recognized me because I was always shooting the fashion shows. I was always backstage. But we were definitely not having a conversation that I could remember.


M: As a way to look at the pictures beyond the surface, for example the picture of Carmen and Horst.  For the zing community who might not know who Carmen is, that she started her modeling career when she was 14.


R: Yeah, and now she’s like 84!


M: And she still actively models, but looking at the photograph do you remember the event. The picture is so colorful and lively, I can almost hear what was going on.


R: It was a book signing, a book party for Horst at Bendel’s department store on 5th Avenue. That’s all I can tell you. Lovely people came and obviously he had photographed Carmen in her earlier career and they were just having one of those moments.  Beyond the surface is a relationship between two people. Obviously the model really respected the photographer, who was a genius, and the photographer really respected her and that’s what you see in that picture.

M: And I also see those great Chanel earrings she's wearing!


R: See, now that’s so interesting!


M: They are fantastic.


R: Well, let’s put it this way, she’s not going to go out in vendor earrings.


M. Hahaha, that's true . . . certainly not Carmen with her wicked sense of style.



M: I love this one of Annie Leibovitz and Jerry Hall.  A photographer always seems to give a great picture. 



R: It’s probably the best picture I’ve seen of her. I am bragging now because I’ve seen thousands of pictures of Annie Leibovitz where she looks frozen.


M: Yeah, it's true, most images of her she can look timid but in this one she looks so alive. She's got a beautiful smile.


R: So it was taken at the Algonquin Hotel and I believe it was some kind of book party, but you know it’s really hard for me to remember. This happened almost 25 years ago.


M: Of course, but the images are so lively and glamorous! It’s fun to hear you talk about them. Like this one of Cher and Bob Mackie.  It's at the height of Cher and Bob Mackie looks so handsome!


R: Bob Mackie would always design her clothes so he would always take her out and you’d say, “Oh my god! Cher, you look fabulous!” and he would be happy because it would make his career rise.


M: Forget the people who try to shock and transcend the norm now. Cher was wearing things by Bob Mackie back in the day when no one would take those kinds of fashion risks on the red carpet, and she did it with so much style and elegance and deadpan. She's a genius!



R: And the photographers would just go crazy. But, of course, for me the interesting moment is that he is glancing at his work.


B: Is that the movement in this photograph that you were looking for, when he is looking at his own work on Cher?


R: Yeah, you understand, let’s say I’m chatting with you but you’re not famous, but I like you. We are having a lovely conversation, but my eye is always over there. I know exactly who’s in the room, so I would know if they were nearby. I think that was at the Costume Institute Gala at the Met, back when I’d be invited inside.  Now it's become a very guarded event.


M: The picture was taken in 1985, in fact. 


R: Yes when I would have had such great freedom. But again, I’d be chatting; I wouldn’t be standing in front of them. But at the moment I could feel something, I could sense something, and I don’t even know even how to verbalize it. I would just have that sense.


M. I saw in WWD the other day that Cher went with Marc Jacobs to this year's gala and she was wearing a beautiful Marc Jacobs gown. She's still supporting designers' careers.


B: So Rose, your picture of Cher and Bob Mackie was taken at a time when photographers had more freedom to roam, to be more  intuitive. Was the picture pure intuition?


R: Totally, because it’s a question Elle Magazine Croatia came and asked me. They did a big story and I’m laughing, because they want to know 'why I took the picture'  and I think you’ve answered it absolutely correctly.


B: Do you feel like you developed this sense over time? Did it become easier for you to find these moments, or is it an ability you feel you naturally have.


R: This is also a good question, I don’t really have the answer. In other words when I met you, I’m already looking at the stripe on your t-shirt, I’m looking at you visually. It’s always interesting to me and it always has been. I will say this, I was born on the lower east side at 9th and C when it wasn’t gentrified and my mother would subscribe to Vogue. So I was looking at Vogue as a very young girl and it stuck with me because I was thinking, "my god, those people are having such a fabulous time, and they’re so beautiful, so immaculate," and that excitement I'd feel looking at those pictures has never left me.


B: So you were seeing these pictures and these images and fashion, and you were clearly influenced by them and it seems you developed your visual repertoire through this database you've stored in your mind.


M: It probably didn’t hurt growing up on the lower east side of New York.


R: I can’t imagine growing up anywhere else.


M: Yeah in terms of the visuals and the people and the architecture … 


R: Yes! So you know, my favorite walk at my age now is being on Madison Avenue at 7 o’clock  at night when no one is there and looking in every window. You can’t get better. I don’t want to be with anyone; I just want to take it in and there’s no one there between 59th and 79th streets.


M: I love that same walk. Sometimes if I’m leaving a museum opening or something, I do that walk. It’s pitch dark, it’s only the spotlights shining on the mannequins in the boutiques and the silhouettes and the clothing. You certainly don’t feel alone but it's also so quiet.


R: Quiet, yes, and I also feel very safe when I’m walking there, but I feel like it’s a very comfortable part of New York at night time. 


M: On the subject of New York, let’s face it, these two, certainly for my generation, we watched John-John and Caroline Kennedy grow up on TV, in the newspapers, but looking at this photograph of them … I mean Rose … this is really something.  It shows all the sibling love. That sibling energy is so dynamic.


R: I don’t think Caroline has seen it.


M: She hasn’t seen it?


R: Well, it’s not like I’m knocking on the door of the Ambassador to Japan, am I?!


M: Maybe you should!




M: Here's another great brother and sister duo: Donatella and Gianni Versace.


R: Look at how shy she was, and look how beautiful she was.


M: And look at how beautiful and tanned Gianni Versace is.


R: Well, he was signing his perfume bottle at Saks Fifth Avenue.


M: I love the little details in the shot, the neoclassical decoration on the chair. It’s so Versace.



R: Well, hello! I think that’s why it was placed there. I would like to know how many other people notice that.


M: It’s brilliant how you get it all, Rose. 


R: And so I was there; they were there and … 


M: Rose, Dominique who is assisting us today, is a second year undergraduate at NYU Gallatin and before you arrived she was particularly drawn to this picture of the Rueda sisters.


R: So many people have said that and this is my most recent shot.


Dominique Lufrano: You photographed them this year?


R: You know, the book needed to be published so I took it last year.


M: So it was a setup?


R: Totally, don’t you see? When hands are like that.



B: It looks like a painting.


R: I met them at an exhibition opening at the Lincoln Center for Klaus Lucka, the photographer.  It was an evening where they projected his photographs on a wide screen with ballet dancing and these women were there, tiny as they are in extraordinary Spanish mantillas, they were so beautiful. I introduced myself but I didn’t have a camera, so I asked them, “do you think I could visit you for tea?” to which they told me that they lived on East 52nd Street and that this one on the left, Caroline is her name, I think she's a couture designer. So they invited me over and we had tea at their home which is minimal gothic, so otherworldly, and then they were dressed like that. I almost fainted. You know, they’re like each a size 0 .. and then they sat there and were like "whatever," and then I said to myself, "Okay Rose, quick! before they get into a pose which would be so boring!"


D: I love her whole gaze. They're so sculptural.


R: She’s like a piece of sculpture! The one on the left, Caroline, she speaks a lot of English but her sister Elise doesn't and just sort of nods “yes” or “no.”


M: Where are they originally from?


R: Romania, Spain, France, it’s all mixed up. So that’s that story. So what’s your comment? I’d rather hear from you, Dominique.


D: No, I just think they look so classically Southern European, and I just wanted to know what the story was behind the photograph.


R: Well, that’s the story. Everyone asks about that photograph because you don’t expect to see anything like them.


M: The book is filled with so many iconic figures and celebrity icons.



R: Like Yoko Ono?


M: Yeah, look how adorable Sean Lennon is! What's the date?


R: 1994.


B: I wanted to ask you about photographing couples, a duo. It’s obviously not the same as classic portrait photography. Do you approach photographing pairs differently than you would an individual?


R: No, whatever I’m doing, I’m doing whether it’s one or two or three. I’m trying to get it to be the most interesting picture. Of course, two presents challenges that one does not present, but the results I find are somewhat more interesting.


M: Speaking of couples, this one of Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, taken in 1996. They're adorable.




R: I don’t think she’s seen it either. I keep looking for her. She’s a neighbor, but she doesn’t hang out. I mean, it would be great to bump into her and show her the photograph.


M: In fact, many of the married couples in the book seem happy together except this one of Richard Burton and Suzie Hunt, who seem completely detached both physically and psychologically. 


R: True, I think they were married for about six months.



B: Richard Burton and Suzie Hunt.

R: Yes, he’s the ex-husband of Elizabeth Taylor. Suzie Hunt doesn't look like she was having a good time either.


M: Versus Mick and Bianca who look like they were having a lovely time in 1977.



R: Well, are you asking me? I can’t comment on how lovely a time they were having, I can only comment on what I took.

M: Well, it looks like a candid shot, it’s just the extreme opposite of the one of Richard Burton and Suzie Hunt on the previous page.  I’m just putting it out there. The pacing of the book, the contrast of happy versus miserable is so interesting.


M: These two pictures side by side of Calvin and Kelly Klein in 1986 at the Costume Institute gala, when Cher was there with Bob Mackey.


R: Tell me your comment on these two photographs.


M: Oh well, in one they're just arriving and Kelly looks happy and in the other they're leaving and she looks pretty unhappy.


B: It looks like he did something wrong?


R: I don’t know if he’s done something wrong, but he’s definitely not being attentive to her.


B: It's a curious picture. It’s interesting.





M: On the note of pacing, it was an interesting idea of the art director to pace it this way with the coming and going. But again, Calvin Klein looks distracted, perhaps someone called his name and she sort of just seems to be in a moment. I mean, they're not as clearly detached from one another as the Richard Burton/Suzie Hunt picture. I mean, that is a striking image of a couple.  It's dark.


R: [Pointing out the back cover image] You know, that’s Keith Richards's son Marlon with his wife Lucie de la Falaise, LouLou's niece.



M: Rose, I have this one last question. 

R: Please.


M: Is much of what you do your own design, because for years I’ve seen you everywhere, uptown, downtown, crosstown, midtown. Do you have an editor who says, “Rose, go shoot these three events.”


R: I’m very glad you asked that. When I started my career I was with a photo stock agency called Globe Photo, it was one of the largest agencies at that time next to Getty Images. I asked them to get a list, a fashion calendar so we could start to plan stories. 


B: So you started out with Globe?


R: Yes, I would go to the office and review the calendar.  For example, one event would be on the calendar, it was a party Armani was throwing to celebrate the opening of their New York boutique. I knew the PR woman, and they  knew I would do something beautiful, so they’d invite me.  And there you have Sophia Lauren presenting a book on cooking, which seemed a little strange, but Mel Gibson is standing by her side. What more could you ask for?  It made a marvelous photograph! 


B: You kind of pioneered the fashion aspect at Globe?


R: Yeah, I absolutely did. Pioneered is the word. No one at the agency knew anything about models or fashion. I was working on my first book Birds of Paradise ...


B: … and this was for Globe? The party photos?


R: No, Birds of Paradise was not for Globe. The book was published by Delta Books in 1980. It included pictures I'd taken while working for Globe, but images where I owned the copyright. I always kept images for myself, like Bianca on a White Horse for example.


B: And you kept the negatives and the transparencies? You didn’t hand them all in?

R: No!


B: Because now images are so easy to grab right off the internet. Back then a photographer had outright ownership with analogue film.


R: They were my negatives. I was writing a book, Birds of Paradise, an Intimate View of the New York Fashion World. It's how I was invited to Studio 54 for Bianca Jagger's birthday party.  Steve Rubell knew I was working on the book. I was writing it and had been taking photographs of models at Studio 54 so he personally invited me to the club that night.


M: On that note, you recently had an amazing exhibition at FIT, the central image being Bianca on a White Horse. It’s a beautiful picture.


R: It’s my most iconic picture and a picture I still love to look at, it brings back memories when New York nightlife was so vibrant. It was such a thrilling time to be a nightlife photographer in New York.



Bianca on a White Horse, 1977 from Incomparable Women of Style by Rose Hartman

Rose Hartman will be in conversation at New York Public Library on May 11th at 6:30.  Incomparable Couples is published by ACC Publishing Group and available on




©Andrea Zittel, from

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.


A page from Cocktail Hours at The A-Z Brooklyn NY 1996-1998, curated by Andrea Zittel for zingmagazine 23

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.

Eye on Design: Aggregated Stacks and the Collection of the Palm Springs Art Museum, on view through December 7. Image courtesy of Sadie Coles

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.



Photo credit Rich Aguilar

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 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, 2015.


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 Vemer 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.



Portrait by Mark Sink, 2012.


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 loking 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’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.




ZINGCHAT: 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.


Illustration from Passenger Landscapes: Planes, Trains & Automobiles


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 20thcentury, 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. 

ZINGCHAT: Reshaping the Ordinary with Laurel Broughton

Illustration from THE VILLAGE by 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. 



The Miranda, limited edition, by Miranda July for WELCOMECOMPANIONS


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!





Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

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.

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 Tale, Ariel’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.

Author photo by Jessamine Chan. Images courtesy of Grove Atlantic.

Follow Rachel @rcdalamangas