INTERVIEW: AUBREY MAYER’S NO IMAGE JUNKIE, IS PUTTING THE HUMANITY BACK IN ART

Mayer chats about gut instincts and the revolution of photography

Pettibon, 2013, Pigment Print, Enamel, Oil, and Acrylic on Linen, 60x42.5

In a dungeon-like basement studio in Williamsburg on a drizzly November afternoon, Aubrey Mayer is settled in an easy chair. Scattered around him are scraps of paper on a paint be-speckled cement floor, a box of American Spirits. A drawing of a kangaroo with boobs adorns the bathroom door – apparently freshly rendered by Henry Taylor the night before. On the wall to Mayer's left, “POLICE THE ART WORLD POLICE” is scrawled in black paint. With a pensive look on his face as he surveys a table covered in ‘brillo’ boxes and several walls of photos and autosheets in various states of construction, he almost seems as if he’s holding court. By his count, he spends about 18 hours a day in the studio and has a lot of work to make considering that earlier this year he began to sell enough of his art to sustain a full-time practice. Wearing a baseball cap, glasses, jeans, and sneakers, Mayer can go from laid-back, twenty-something urbanite who enjoys a good bullshit over a beer, to intense with a hungry look in his eye. And if recent history is any indicator, he does have an all-or-nothing ballsy streak. Before making sustainable sales, he did what almost no one else should do and quit his job to pursue a full-time career as an artist, in his words “threw a Hail Mary.” His talk about the discipline with which he approaches making art verges on old school visions of the great artiste, but then he’ll soften, lower his voice and speak very deliberately about putting a sense of humanity back in images, keeping subjects comfortable, getting audience to literally touch and toy with art. His extensive portraits of other artists, some of which are published in zing 23, exhibits a similar twofold nature. The gaze is decidedly heterosexual and male, but emotionally vivid and nuanced. There is something calculating happening and a strong whiff of seduction, but the expression is anything but cold. There’s none of that stale masculine voyeurism in the energy of the images and subjects frequently seem to be captured on some psychological edge, as if looking out from the frame of a strange film.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

How do you choose your subjects for portraits? They’re usually other artists. 

Yeah, I photograph like one person a year now basically, but when I was really heavily doing a lot of portraits of other artists, one artist would lead to another. Or, I’d get interested in an artist because of another artist. It just naturally umbrella-ed. 

I saw that you photographed Agathe Snow, another zing contributor. How did you meet Agathe?

I met Agathe when I was maybe 22 or 23. Carol Lee (then) of Paper Magazine had me do this thing where I would photograph an artist and ask them twelve questions, actually send them a short interview. So I met Agathe. I think I photographed her for the first time for the Whitney Biennial when she had something at the Armory and that’s where I met her. Then she rented a house on the same street I live on in Orient Point on Long Island. I don’t know how we saw each other there, but then we hung out. It’s where I took my better photographs of her. 

When did you start making art?

I’ve been making pictures for a long time. Since high school. It was never my major. I never got classically trained, but I’ve been taking pictures for a long time. I took pictures as a teenager. I took pictures in high school. Like, I did a lot of nudes starting in high school. 

What was your earlier work like? 

I took some pictures of a couple having sex in high school. I was taking naked pictures of girls and I asked this one girl who was my friend and also doing photography if she would pose nude and she said, “Yes, but can we take pictures of me and my boyfriend having sex, too?” 

 

 

Pleasure Beach, 2013, Pigment Print and Enamel on Linen, 60x42.5

Why do you think you’re so drawn to photographing people?

I don’t really know. I just think that’s the most interesting thing. It was just natural. I don’t know. Everything is just natural for me. Everything I do. Every move I make . . . I just make it and you know I have no idea why. I think that portraits and artwork of people has always seemed like the most important to me until I met Christopher Wool’s work. 

What I’ve learned about my work and what pushed it to evolve is that in the beginning it was hard to get an audience, it was hard to get people interested in the photographs. I felt like I had the best photographs in the world and I had the responsibility to figure out how the fuck to get them out there and that’s what has pushed my work -- that’s what’s pushed my work into the books and now the 'brillo' boxes.

I didn’t go to art school, but I’ve learned a lot from the artists I photographed. I chose which artists to learn the most from. 

Can you describe what you mean by this feeling of “natural”?

It’s gut. It’s all gut. Everything I do is gut. 

So this picture (gestures to black and white photo of creek). I think it’s an amazing picture. But in today’s art landscape, a lot of people would overlook an image like that. So I painted it neon yellow to make sure people didn’t forget to look. That was a gut instinct.

You seem to think a lot about audience. 

Yeah, because a lot of people say that photography is dead or different versions of this. And it’s not dead. 

I believe in classical, traditional photographic techniques, but I believe that photography needed a new energy. I don’t color correct, like shit is straight through. There’s no artifice. I deal with it without artifice. I guess I’m painting on it because other people are ruining it with Photoshop. That’s why photography was dying, because of the way people manipulate images. 

If you want to know why I think photography’s dying, it’s because of fashion photography. 

Interesting. How so?

Because a lot of young photographers come up and they think they have to be a fashion photographer or they use all the fashion photography re-touching and it just sucks the life out of their photos. And also, fashion photographers aren’t even photographers, they just do fashion. They’re getting told what to shoot and how to shoot it. They just have to show up, look pretty, and shake hands. 

What is your process then for creating a portrait?

That’s interesting. It’s definitely a collaboration. I don’t think when I’m taking a portrait. That is a natural thing. I don’t really talk to the subjects other than that we’re hanging out. They don’t even really notice that I’m doing anything. I’ve been told many times that it feels like I’m not even there. I try to make the subjects not feel me, the weight of my presence. There’s just like a right way to do it. I have instincts. 

I think it’s important to note that I went on a photo-shooting spree. I always wanted to be an artist and it always bothered me – it probably shouldn’t have – that people would call me a photographer. What I do is art. We’re all image junkies and everybody’s got a camera. But what I do, nobody else does. So I always thought I was an artist. The whole process of getting other people to realize that was very difficult. Really hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. But the most worthwhile, obviously.

How did you fight the label photographer?

By making the best work I could. I just work hard. I spend 18 hours a day at the studio. 

Elizabeth Peyton is from Orient. When I was younger, that was the first artist that I photographed. She was down the street from these awesome people who I used to stay at their house because my parents used to work in the city in the summer. And I was taking pictures and they’re like, “Oh you should look up this person who lives down the street, she’s really sweet.” And they said something like she wants to learn how to sail. And at that point in my life, the year before, I was campaigning for the Olympics. I was on the 2005 U.S. sailing team. I went to St. Mary’s College of Maryland. We were ranked 1st in the country. My freshman year we won a National Championship. 

 

Laura Owens, 2013, Pigment Print, Enamel, and Oil on Linen, 60x42.5

It sounds like these features of ambition and competitiveness are very much a part of who you are. 

Extremely. Ever since I was little. I grew up very overweight and I was tortured as a child, really ostracized. And my dad would always try to get me to sail and one night when I was like nine years old, for some reason one night, I was like, “Man, I’m gonna go race the older kids.” They were 18 year olds and I kicked everyone’s ass. It gave me something to feel good about. From then on, I sort of just found happiness through hard work. When I was younger it was sailing and now it’s art. I enjoy the process. I enjoy being here 18 hours a day. I enjoy pushing to get it right. 

The StoneScape group exhibit earlier this year was curated as “portrait work that unveils the identity of the artist as well as the subject.” Is that something that’s going on in your work, the revelation of your identity?

I think it’s portrait and about portrait, and definitely because I think that the thing about the new portrait is that the work’s just as much about the person taking it as it is about the subject. 

It’s about including everything. When I was little I would look at a Peter Hujar book and then I would go take a Peter Hujar photograph. Then I’d look at a Robert Frank book and then go take a Robert Frank photograph. Eventually I ran out of people to take pictures like and it all started to become my own, but the one thing it taught me is that portrait and about portrait is an important idea. There’s not one portrait for me. A portrait of somebody is really in one of these auto sheets, you know, hundreds of pictures. The feeling of being with somebody. The warts. The bad pictures. It’s almost like I’m filming. 

I try to do everything so that the artwork can’t be put in one compartment. I use every compartment so as to keep all the balls bouncing, to keep it really alive, really happening, really fun, a lot of energy, fun to look at. It’s by doing everything that that happens, not by doing one thing. My mind is like on a constant hamster wheel. Once it becomes one thing, I’ve hit a wall and now I have to go in the other direction. 

There were three years where I felt like, “Why aren’t people paying attention to this?” [gestures at work hung around studio.

How do you get people to pay attention to art?

I was a photo assistant for years, which enraged me, because I thought I should take the photographers’ cameras and smash them over their fucking heads. It disgusted me to go to work everyday. I was the lighting director on the Gap campaign last year. That was the last straw. [My wife,] Toby and I went to Amsterdam for Christmas holiday to see the Mike Kelley show at the stedelik. I went every day. Over and over again. I got back and I just got in touch with a couple people that had known my work and had bought some things in the past. Thea Westreich is one person who I got in touch with. I was like, “I can’t live like this anymore, I need to make this work, please help me, give me some advice, tell me what to do. I know that I should be an artist right now for a living.” And we talked about the work and she highlighted some things she liked about it and at that point I went from working to living off my credit card. Basically, I was throwing a Hail Mary. And that’s when I came up with the brillo box. I wanted to put all of the photos in one place. I knew they took up too much real estate on the wall, so I put them in a box. The box was a natural evolution from having no money and having to make books for five years. The only way I could look at my photos not on a computer screen was in a copyshop book from Staples. So that naturally pushed me into book-making. I have so much material. The only way to deal with it was to put it in a box. 

It sounds like it’s important for you to have the work in an object form instead of on a computer. 

Yeah, I was so tired of looking at a computer screen because I’d been looking at it only on a computer screen for so many years. I think it’s crazy how people treat books and photography. I wanted my audience to touch it . . . to feel it . . . to be able to experience it like I do in the studio everyday. Not preciously but rather roughly, aggressively, fun-ly. I mean the touching part is really important to me, fingerprints. 

Do you have any self-portraiture?

Yeah, it’s a big naked picture of me. It’s in here. [Picks through brillo box]. Sometimes I hand off the camera to the people I’m photographing too. Wool took good portraits of me, Jacqueline Humphries and Charline Von Heyl did too.

It seems like you take a lot from Warhol, but you haven’t referenced him as an influence so I’m curious about your thoughts on him. 

We just share some things in common because we took a lot of pictures of other artists. That’s it. Also, he’s really good at making pictures. I think about all this stuff and I think about painting and the reason why I wasn’t afraid of it is because it’s all just picture making to me and I think that Warhol is a really prime example of that. He was just really good at making pictures. In a way, that’s how I got people to look at my photographs. I realized that I had to make them into pictures that were imposing, they’re big and on linen or stacked tall in a huge box. They just have to have weight for me. Literally. Metaphorically. Everyway.

 

Studio Picture, November 2013

Another thing that’s been written about you is that your work captures introspection and has a capacity to capture interior life. 

I guess that comes from people just being natural, letting their guard down because we’re just hanging out and it’s cool. I was more nervous than most of these people, especially in the beginning. We definitely collaborate. The most I say is if somebody was sitting in one chair for a long time, I’d be like, “Maybe we can go sit somewhere else.” I want the images to keep changing, to keep moving and I wanted to hang out for a long time so I realized early on that you sort of have to keep the situation stimulating somehow and that’s where the instinct kicks in. Everybody’s different, there’s so many different personalities, but that’s where it really kicks in. What’s this person comfortable with, what’s this person uncomfortable with. The reason why I love my work is because it’s all humanity. 

How do relationships with other artists and subjects figure into your process?

In every way you can possibly imagine.

There’s talk about whether the role of artist is changing and what that role is. 

It is changing. 

To what?

I don’t know, but it is. 

As an artist I’ve tried everything and it’s just gotten to the point where people have started to buy it so I can make more of it and that’s a great privilege to make art for my living. Especially being so young. 

What do you do when you have a failure?

Throw it in the trash. Rip it up. If it’s not good enough for me, if I’m asking the question, for me, it’s not good enough, it's a 'maybe.'  If I don’t totally love it, I throw it out. 

What are you working on now?

Heaps of new paintings on Linen over black and white pigment prints. Wool in Marfa junkyards, Laura Owens in her backyard in LA, Raymond Pettibon stripping his girlfriend in Zwirner’s Gallery, a Japanese Cow, a Wild Horse.

Finishing up the user manual for my new Brillo Box (#4)  'Prisoner of Ismaul Volume 2' . . . It's like a giant puzzle or board game . . . you can make it into a Carl Andre . . . you can make it whatever you want. I'm just trying to make a manual that helps people figure out their own ways to play with it. It's a toy. A giant sex toy for art collecting adults. 

And another sort of felt record tower, I guess Brillo (#5). It's the first printing of 6-17-10B the rest of my photos of Christopher Wool in Marfa on June 17, 2010. Stacked in two sections 9x6 double sided pages mounted on davey board. 22-inch tall tower.

Follow Rachel on Twitter, @rcdalamangas

Photos courtesy of Aubrey Mayer and Amy Stone.

 

INTERVIEW: PETE DRUNGLE RIDES THE WAVE OF IDEAS

 An anecdotal primer on the music and history of the virtuoso pianist/composer
 
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Several Portraits of Pete Drungle by Urs Fischer and his team of sculptors for Clay project MoCA, Los Angeles 2013

 

When I first met the virtuoso pianist and composer Pete Drungle as a guest at zing Editor/Publisher Devon Dikeou’s loft (also the location of zing HQ and Devon Dikeou’s New York studio) I didn’t know his music or really anything about him. But at some point we started discussing the late, great Dan Asher and that sealed the deal. However, for whatever reason, I failed to look up his music. On another visit to New York from Paris, Pete nonchalantly invited me to a performance in a music studio in Times Square. Not really knowing what to expect, I showed up for the early performance in a small studio room with a small group in attendance – an intimate scenario. Pete greeted everyone formally, but warmly, thanking all for attending, sat at the piano, took a deep breath with his eyes closed, then began to play. My jaw dropped. The whole room was hypnotized. Pete performed an astounding 10-15 minute long improvisation, music that had a classical familiarity and beauty yet felt like an intense emotional journey. When the song was finished, Pete got up and bowed to smiling faces and applause. Then he sat back down, did a few more songs, including sections in which he was reaching inside the piano to pluck the strings in a very skilled manner, even playing the keys with one hand while reaching in and muting with the other. The performance ended with another humble thank you, and people began to file in for the next performance. It was then that I knew Pete was a special fellow. His DREAM SEQUENCES FOR SOLO PIANO on November 6 is part of Performa13. More information available here: http://13.performa-arts.org/event/pete-drungle

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

How did you begin with music?

I discovered that I could play by ear right away and began to improvise and also to write little tunes. I started playing the trumpet early as well, in concert and marching bands. At age 11 I got into synthesisers, sequencers, and recording studio technology and learned the basics of orchestration. During high school, I continued to play the trumpet, played keyboards and bass in rock bands, and also composed scores for school theatre plays. After that, I went to the University of North Texas and studied Music Composition, theory and orchestration, and private piano studies. I lived in Denton, Texas in the early 90's, and it was a great environment for music at that time. There were so many great jam sessions happening all the time, it is kind of hard to describe how much musical activity was going on . . .  

 

Your music seems so classical, yet fresh and explorative. What have been some of your main influences?

I have loved listening to Ravel, Bach, Debussy, Stravinsky, Satie, Ligeti, Scarlatti, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Morton Feldman, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, George Crumb, Webern, Cage, Stockhausen, Takemitsu, to name a few.    

Also, I grew up in America so listening to rock music was inevitable; Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Led Zepplin, Jeff Beck, Prince, Jane's Addiction, etc.  

In my late teens, I discovered Jazz - specifically the music of Ornette Coleman. The song "Endangered Species" off the album SONG X was the track that got through to me first. Also, Ornette's playing on Howard Shore's score to Naked Lunch was a big revelation for me. That score is a great convergence of composition and improvisation, with Ornette serving as the lead voice in concerto to Shore's orchestra. The sound of it is seductive yet eerily haunting, and every moment of that music is alive.  

I have had the good fortune to become friends with Ornette, and to have played music with him. He has been one of my mentors, and I have definitely been influenced by his music and his philosophies.

In my early 20's, I became obsessed with was Miles Davis. I was under the spell of Bitches Brew, Big Fun, Dark Magus, In a Silent Way, Jack Johnson, On the Corner, Live-Evil and Get Up With It. I drowned myself in this period of Miles' music, learned how to play many parts of the compositions and solos, and studied the music of Miles' alumni - Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, Wayne Shorter, Steve Grossman, John Scofield, etc. Miles was incredibly inspiring to me, and his music made all the hair on my body stand on end. Also, Miles had a great sense of style and he dressed really well. 

. . . And John Coltrane - when I learned that John was practicing 12 hours per day, I began trying to do the same. John would work out of the Slonimsky Thesaurus of Scales and Modes, so I did that too (maybe I will get back to that . . .). For me, John's two most striking features as a player were his overwhelming amount of soul (as evidenced on A Love Supreme, and basically everything he ever played . . .) and his ability to play pure melody with an incomparable tone and inflection (i.e. Naima, Central Park West, In a Sentimental Way (with Duke Ellington), etc).  There was always a vast intelligence present in Coltrane's sound, even in a single sustained note, and you always know it’s him.  

Possibly the most important musical influence in my life has been the drummer/composer/bandleader Ronald Shannon Jackson. Sadly, Shannon (as he was called) passed away very recently, October 19, 2013, at age 73. It is a huge loss for music, because the man had more music to write. But Shannon's influence is omnipresent, he was a great mentor and I am incredibly fortunate to have known him. I met Shannon when I was 23, and started to play in his band - The Decoding Society. Shannon turned me on to a universe of great ideas, his house was literally like a small museum with a great library of rare and subversive books on history, philosophy, music and the occult. There were things written all over the walls - ideas, dates, philosophies, names - but there was something written on his wall that I will never forget - the word NON-CATEGORICAL. Shannon taught me about the non-categorical in music, which is the essential ethos of Jazz without the clichés. Shannon did more to help me find my sound as a pianist than anyone or anything else, I owe him a huge debt for that. If my sound "seems classical yet explorative," I would attribute much of that to Shannon. Shannon would not let me play in a "jazz" way when I played in his band. He would say, "Drungle, play classical . . ." meaning that he wanted me to play what was most authentic in myself. (Also, Shannon loved Classical music, and had biographies of composers like Paganini and Liszt laying around his house. He wanted "classical" elements to be present in his music.) Anyway, Shannon simply wouldn't allow me to pick up "the black thing" in my playing, as so many other white musicians were (and are) doing. Although he didn't mean it literally, when he would say "play classical" it would push me to improvise in ways that were authentic for me, and that was very satisfying; I remember that I started coming up with 2-handed "classical" runs, and many other things that have grown and mutated over the years. Since then, I have been working to develop the building blocks of a improvisational musical language that is unique to me, yet it was Shannon's influence that put me directly onto that path.  

Incidentally, Shannon was Ornette Coleman's drummer (and student) in the 1970's, and I met Ornette through Shannon.  Shannon was also the only drummer to play with all three avant-jazz luminaries - Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman.

And it was Shannon who suggested that I play for 24 continuous hours . . .

 

You've related your piano playing to speaking a language. Yet your improvisations seem so pre-meditated. How are improvisation and composition related for you?

Regarding improvisation, I usually don't have any idea what I am going to play before I begin. When I play, I try to let go of my thoughts as much as possible and become the music I am playing. Ornette said, "If you're going to play music, don't think about it!" My body, mind, and breath are in total service of the ideas that surface in my imagination, and I try to ride them like waves.

Improvisation IS composition, except that the process is vastly sped up; improvisation happens in the moment, in real time usually without preconception or editing. However, there is a great deal of interplay between composition and improvisation for me. I find that the more I improvise, the better I can compose; and the reverse is equally true, because composing a lot of music helps to create, among other things, an innate sense of structure and thematic development which is invaluable in improvisation. I love to compose as well as improvise, and in my solo piano concerts I try to smear the lines between composition and improvisation so that they become indistinguishable from each other.  

 

Can you speak about the performative aspect of your music, which seems so crucial? And perhaps a few words about the 24-HOUR CONTINUOUS SOLO PIANO IMPROVISATION performance - what went into preparing for this and just the physical process of playing a piano this long?

I love to perform. I think playing in front of an audience often pulls things out of you that would not come otherwise.  In fact, it is probably identical to a phenomenon that physicists study called 'observer effect'.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Observer_effect_(physics). You cannot observe something without altering it, and when a group of people gather in a room and focus their attention on a performer, it alters him. If a performer is brave enough to "let go" in this environment, it can be an amazing experience for everyone.

The 24-HOUR CONTINUOS SOLO PIANO IMPROVISATION came about at the advice of my mentor, Ronald Shannon Jackson. He saw me engaging in a lot of self-destructive behavior and said, "Drungle - if you want to torture yourself, try playing the piano for 24 straight hours.” I completed the 24-hour improvisation three times in private before attempting it in public. I performed it at SculptureCenter in Long Island City (NYC), as part of Performa07. I didn't have a hard time doing this long improvisation. I loved it - it was more like a love affair than an endurance test. The only real discomfort I experienced in the public performance occurred in the final hours of the piece. By the 22nd hour, my fingers were bleeding and I couldn't feel my arms or hands - and that was when the larger crowd began to arrive - so on top of being in pain and physically exhausted, I felt like I had to play to the audience. I felt a lot of pressure in those final hours, but I pushed myself to stay in the music until the very end. You can hear the final 30 minutes of 24-HOUR CONTINUOUS SOLO PIANO IMPROVISATION, it is posted on my site here: http://petedrungle.com/Music

I am preparing to do this piece again in Paris in 2014.

 

You made a record with Rudolph Stingel. How did this collaboration come about?

I met Rudi through Marianne Vitale, who has been a close friend and collaborator for a decade. The vinyl record was Rudi's idea, he had wanted to make one. Although I have played on many records and composed scores for many projects, I hadn't yet made my own solo record and was really keen to do that - so we decided that I would make PETE DRUNGLE SOLO PIANO in Rudi's studio in NYC. I wanted to have a unique piano sound for this record, so we rented a 9' concert grand from Steinway Hall and installed it in the spray room of the studio. Rudi set up an amazing environment for me in the spray room; in addition to several of his gold series paintings on the walls, he actually installed the piano on top of one of his paintings from that series, I guess he liked to have the canvases slightly damaged. You can see an image of the spray room set-up on the opening page of my website - http://petedrungle.com, and you can hear my improvised "Suite #1" which was recorded there (it will play automatically).

PETE DRUNGLE SOLO PIANO only exists on vinyl, and is a very limited series.

If you are interested in acquiring one, contact me through my website.

 

I noticed you've also collaborated with Agathe Snow, who curated a project in the current issue of zingmagazine. Can you tell us about this collaboration?

I collaborated with Agathe and Marianne Vitale, making the music for their amazing show OKKO. It happened at White Columns in 2008. I hired the trombonist/composer/ Sun Ra-alumni Craig Harris to play duo with me. We improvised accompaniment to Agathe and Marianne's performance (which is impossible for me to describe, but at one point Marianne was up on a table running a jackhammer), and we played a version of "I Wear My Sunglasses at Night" for the finale, at Agathe's request. 

 

You previously mentioned that you had played music in Paris with a drummer you've idolized for years. Could you tell this story?

I have been listening to a great drummer/composer from Cameroon named Brice Wassy since I was about 19 years old. I first heard him on the Jean-Luc Ponty record Tchkola, where Brice played, composed, and music directed the ensemble. I wore that record out! (actually it was a cassette). Some years later, I got a copy of Graham Haynes' (son of drummer Roy Haynes) The Griot's Footsteps, and that is a spectacular record. It showcases Graham's amazing trumpet playing as well as Brice's virtuoso drumming and music direction; the ensemble is comprised of several west African musicians that play astonishingly well. 

Since I recently moved to Paris, I was able to find Brice through Graham Haynes - and I asked him to meet me in a studio to play. So we did that, and it was very exciting for me. I started to write some music with Brice in mind, and then asked my friend the legendary bass player Al Mac Dowell to play with this trio. We did a night at the Sunset/Sunside in Paris a few months ago. I will post a clip from this gig on my music page very soon.

 

What are some of your other dream projects?

I want to work with orchestra as much as possible.  

I’m working on a chamber orchestra w/ piano project at the moment, which will be released in 2014. I honestly don't think anyone has yet done what I am attempting to do with this record, but I don't want to give away the surprise - so I'll tell you about that later.

But to answer your question, my dream project is to compose and perform a piano concerto with full orchestra.

 

What can we expect at forthcoming performance for PERFORMA 13 next week?

I am doing a piece called DREAM SEQUENCES FOR SOLO PIANO, at Roulette on November 6. It is a solo piano concert accompanied by a video collage of dream sequences lifted from the films of Luis Buñuel. It is a collaboration with filmmaker Toby Rymkus, who researched Buñuel and edited the video. Roulette is a beautiful hall with a 9' Steinway Grand, and I think it is the absolute perfect setting for this piece.  I am very excited to be coming to New York to give this concert. Please come!  http://roulette.org/events/performa-13-pete-drungle/ 

INTERVIEW: MARCEL DZAMA WANTS TO GET INTIMATE BEFORE THE APOCALYPSE

Dzama chats about technology, female power, the end of the world, & looking back at 20 years of making art 

Dzama, baby. The artist with bullhead in his studio.

Marcel Dzama doesn’t like horror films, but in a Brooklyn studio peppered with animal masks and the odd serpent puppet, he is ever-ready for Halloween. You may have seen his costume – the bullheaded man in a polka-dotted toga dancing alongside other hotshots of the art world in Jay-Z's performance art film, "Picasso Baby." Underneath the mask is the man with a neat haircut and boyish grin known for the erotic cavalcades and cool anarchy rendered with childlike stylization in drawings as well as dioramas and films. When I ask him what he does when he faces an artistic block, he looks dumbfounded as if he’s never known such an experience. "You mean like what writers face?" he asks with a confused smile. Dzama has been making art as long as he can recall, lacking time rather than inspiration. The testimony to his voluminous body of art is Marcel Dzama: Sower of Discord, a monograph of his work from 1995 to present, which will be out November 5th from Abrams including three stories by Dave Eggers as well as a taxonomy and comparative essay by Bradley Bailey.

Dzama’s project in zingmagazine issue 23 titled “A Coming Insurrection” animates chess pieces into full-blown characters that cavort with men dressed in polka-dotted pajama-like garb and women wearing thigh highs and masks. As with other drawing series, “A Coming Insurrection” portrays an almost-narrative that begins with the penance of medieval femme fatale Jane Shore and moves through army-like processions of ballet dancers, sex parties, the violent execution of a royal, and anarchy in an art gallery before arriving at the grand finale of a Bosch-like apocalypse scene crowned by a fetus-headed woman descending from the clouds. Rich in references ranging from Marcel Duchamp to Federico García Lorca, random bits of personal significance, mythology, and profusions of art history, Dzama’s drawings are chic, lurid visual networks of history, culture, and imagination.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

What are you going to be for Halloween?

A Picabia bull with the bullhead and I have this polka-dot cape that goes with it. There’s this painting that Picabia did of this dictator cow, but I added the weird cape, he just had a toga. I admire his work so I was trying to think of ideas for a new film and I invented this whole character that is based on that painting and now it’s a Halloween costume because I have the leftovers as a prop. It had an appearance in the Jay-Z video, Picasso Baby.

I’m interested in Marcel Duchamp’s influence on your work. How is your artistic practice related to his ideas on process?

He was just an obsession. I remember seeing his work at a really early age because of our first names being the same so it was a bit of an ego thing I guess. I remember picking up this art book and being too young to understand anything in it so I was blown away. It was a TIME magazine thing when they put out these art books. I think I had it as a library book. I remember the “Étant donnés.” Someone seeing that in elementary school for the first time, it was definitely a little bit of a naughty thing to see. It stayed with me and I didn’t understand what it was either because it wasn’t a painting. It’s a sculpture, but it looked so realistic. But I think I just thought everything was a painting back then too so I was like, what is this strange thing? Later on I got into Surrealism in high school and went back to Duchamp.

Regarding your own process, where do you get ideas?

Sometimes I’ll have an idea to do a film or something like that and then I’ll get focused on doing the film, do storyboards, drawings of costumes, and then after that usually there will be a show coming up and then I’ll start doing drawings loosely based on the film, and then sometimes vice versa, drawings that influence the film.

I just jot down weird sketchbook ideas. I read a lot of art books and get influenced by other artists and get inspired by films. Newspaper articles also influence a lot of things. It’s kind of everything. I almost feel like it’s some sort of therapy and getting out everything I’ve read from inside of me.

Earlier this year, The Afternoon Interviews featuring conversations with Marcel Duchamp and New Yorker journalist Calvin Tomkins were published. In The Afternoon Interviews, Duchamp discusses his fatigue with the role of the artist in the world and his concern about what the role of the artist would become. What do you think the role of artist is becoming?

There’s just so much information and it’s so easy to access now, I don’t think any one artist really can do what they used to. I don’t think any one artist can have that much influence on culture anymore. I find some artists give these little boosts to culture, but in a minor sort of way. There’s so many voices that everything is drowned out and you have to search for the ones you like.

What would you be doing if the art career hadn’t happened?

I have no idea what I would be doing. My back-up plan was that my grandfather has a farm in Saskatchewan and I was going to be a farmhand and I could just do art. It costs nothing to live there. I used to help my grandfather farm there and my uncle too. It’s super isolated. There are maybe 30 people in their town. I can deal with that though. They have good radio stations.

On several occasions you’ve described drawing as intimate.

I like the intimacy of it. I always find that painting is a grand statement whereas drawing is very personal and of that moment. There’s an immediacy of drawing also. If you’re working on something for a long time, it loses that moment of inspiration. A lot of times I’ll start with an automatic drawing and then by the end of it I’m organizing it to make a little bit of sense in my mind. There’s a creative spark to creating something brand new and if you don’t get it out within a few days, it disappears or you forget what it was. 

“The Grand presentiments of what must come”, ink, watercolor, and graphite on piano scroll, 2012

In your work there’s an implication of narrative and you’ve worked with writers like Dave Eggers and just recently illustrated an English-language translation of the German novel Momo. Do you have an interest in narrative?

I would like to give a more clear narrative sometimes, but for some reason I do like having a mystery in the drawings. I like letting the viewer decide what happened before and what happens after. Sometimes if there’s too much narrative I feel like I’m just telling the viewer the entire story and then that’s it.

And that seems to relate to your interest in history. When I look at a large body of your work, it looks a bit like a history book. Where does that come from?

When I was growing up, my dad was obsessed with World War II documentaries and books on Vikings, any war-related history he found interesting so I was introduced to it at a really early age. I probably inherited whatever gene he has that is interested in history. At probably too young of an age I watched some of those documentaries with him, especially that World War II stuff with concentration camps and just not understanding it all and being really horrified and disturbed by it.

Besides the art books, do you read often?

Oh yeah. Hardly any fiction, but usually biographies or history and I read a lot of poetry, especially Lorca. I almost relate the drawings to poems in some ways because they’re kind of loose-ended usually.

There are also a lot of apocalyptic events in your drawings. Does that relate to what you were saying about reading history and the newspaper?

Yeah, probably. It seems like in the last few years the whole entertainment industry and maybe newspapers especially have become obsessed with the apocalypse happening and it’s a good subject matter for drawing. It’s kind of grandiose. Also, my drawings have been cluttered with characters and an apocalypse is a good reason to have clutter and chaos everywhere and to give it some form of a story.

There are a lot of apocalypse narratives in the news right now with war and the environment. There’s a lot of chatter right now about what’s going to happen to the world. Do you think humans are going to do themselves in?

Oh yeah, for sure. The technology keeps getting more and more advanced and all it would take is maybe another hundred years and some teenager will be able to blow up the entire world.

You think we have one hundred years left?

Maybe a little more than that.

Or less!

Maybe something weird will happen and we’ll have a normal brain function fixer. It just takes one real disturbed person or a way of viewing the world. I’m not sure. I think we’re kind of doomed. Hopefully we have more than one hundred years.

Earlier in your practice, you worked collaboratively with other artists. Can you tell me about that transition from collaboration to working alone?

I always worked alone, but I would get together on Wednesdays or Sundays and collaborate with The Royal Art Lodge. I did that for five years maybe. We were all socially awkward artists so it was kind of our way of going out for drinks. I find that I still kind of collaborate with other people, but I usually don’t put that work out there. I just go over to a friend’s place and we’ll draw together. I did a lot of drawings with Maurice Sendak and Spike Jonze, but we were just trying to shock each other. I think that inspired a lot of more perverse drawings in my own work because it was a lot of fun trying to shock each other. I used to draw with my wife as well. Actually our first date was going to a Spike Jonze film, Being John Malkovich.

An L.A. Times critic once described the figures in your work as “humanoids run amok.” There is a homogeny in your work in which humans are a bit animal-like and animals are a bit human-like.

In the earlier work there were these hybrids and later on I defined them more as costumes. I like the whole idea of the mask and the mask represents what the creature’s purpose in the drawing is.

What in your mind is underneath the costume?

Usually a female character. Except for the polka-dotted men – I just see them as background choreography that’s going on for the main subject matter in the drawing, almost like back-up dancers.

Now that I think about it, there are a lot of female protagonists in your work.

I usually prefer the field of female to be in the power position. I always disliked any kind of sexist artwork or anything like that. It’s been around forever so it’s good not to have it. People that I look up to are usually strong women like my wife and a lot of my friends are strong women.

 

From Dzama’s sketchbooks

You’ve said that you’re not interested in making art with new technology or with computers. We’re living in a technological revolution in which human lifespan will greatly increase possibly to immortality and space travel will become commercial, for example. How do you think this technological leap will change how humans interact with and process art?

I imagine that there will probably always be a certain amount of people that will be fed-up with an overflow of technology and will always come back to the intimacy – I keep saying intimacy – of paper or of holding a book or a magazine like zing. There will always be that, I imagine. Like the way that vinyl has had a comeback, for example.

Well if we’re only here for another hundred years . . .

Yeah, it won’t matter that much!

I agree that culturally, there will always be those groups of people that come back to the tangible world and to objects.

Maybe they’ll be the ones that survive. They’ll be in caves and they’ll have gas lamps.  They’ll survive because they won’t rely on the technology so much. And they won’t have some chip in their heads that when the power goes out their brains shut down.

There’s hope then, right?

Yeah, exactly.

In your zing 23 project “A Coming Insurrection,” you address a lot of the ideas we’ve talked about, the apocalypse and this naughty S&M stuff and this sense of anarchy. How does art relate to this idea of insurrection?

I was obsessed with the hundredth anniversary of the Armory Show having such an impact and during this series of work I was wishing art could do that again. It’s kind of the nostalgia of it in these drawings.

In “The Grand presentiments of what must come” I was celebrating the birth of my child, so in the center at the top there’s the fetus-headed character coming out of some sort of mythological god. It’s kind of apocalyptic, but it’s also a new beginning.

“The penance of Jane Shore” is sort of the catalyst for the whole series starting. I was working on the film A Game of Chess at the time and was designing the costumes and was working those into the drawings. I also wrote down all the moves from a famous chess game Marcel Duchamp played with someone. Oskar Schlemmer and the costumes that he designed for his ballet were also a big influence.

A monograph of your work from 1995-present is coming out this month from Abrams. How did it feel to look back through almost twenty years of work?

It’s strange to go through it all especially when I was being interviewed by Bradley Bailey because my memory is disappearing so it’s good to get it down now. There’s some really early work from the middle of art school. It was hard to find those. I was also at my parents’ place going through old boxes and trying to find anything that was in there so there’s a few drawings from then too. I like some of it, some of it I don’t. That’s alright. It would be sad if I peaked back then.

follow Rachel, @rcdalamangas

 

 

 

 

INTERVIEW: TRAVIS EGEDY AKA PICTUREPLANE CHATS ON AN ARTIST'S REALITY

Travis Egedy looks back at his Southwestern roots and reflects on his nomadic present 
 

Travis Egedy, also known as Pictureplane, is a musician and visual artist who currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, Egedy set out on a journey of artistic development and experimental living in Denver, Colorado before making his move to the East Coast.  His paintings, drawings, photography, and mixed/digital media works have been exhibited in galleries in Denver, New York, and Europe. Egedy has toured throughout Europe and the U.S. performing his unique electronic concoctions of dreamy trance, darkwave, synthpop, and industrial rhythms as Pictureplane. I was able to score a brief Q&A with the artist before he jetted off to a distant land across the Atlantic earlier this summer.

Interview by Hayley Richardson

You're originally from Santa Fe, which is where I hail from as well – I am pretty sure I went to high school with your brother. Santa Fe is a weird place to be a teen and develop an identity. Tell me a little bit about what it was like for you to grow up there - did the small desert town and its history, environment, and/or population have a significant impact on your present style (in art, music, fashion, or otherwise)?

I have been really fortunate in that I have been able to travel quite a lot, all over the world, and Santa Fe, New Mexico is really one of the most interesting, unique and beautiful places I have even been to. And it just happens to be where I grew up. Santa Fe has been a huge influence on me my whole life. The culture, history and southwestern aesthetics where a huge part of my lifestyle while living there as a kid and into high school. It’s just a very magical place that I think is really sacred, no place is like it. I feel like I am really lucky to be from there because it is just so different than how most Americans grow up, in suburbia or the inner city or some sort of really generic and ugly place. I don’t know if Santa Fe is still an influence in my art, but it is a huge part of who I am today and I hold it dear to my heart. I always say the southwest is my spiritual homeland.

I am interested in how an artist's living environment influences their work. Tell me a little bit about your creative development and how it has influenced your moves from New Mexico to Colorado, and then New York.

I would say one of my biggest influences on my creative development was living at Rhinoceropolis in Denver for 6 years. Rhinoceropolis is a warehouse in north Denver that was just a space of pure artistic freedom and expression. Anything was accepted there and I was organizing wild and weird events there for years. It was a large social experiment of living outside of any sort of imposed boundaries within society. It was a beautiful time in my life and, like Santa Fe, made me into the artist I am today. Most of what I do as an artist and as a musician is informed by Rhinoceropolis places like it and also the people who are involved in communities that surround those creative spaces.

 

One of the artist’s photographs exhibited in “Real is a Feeling” at Gildar Gallery, Denver, CO, March/April 2013

I’ve experienced Rhinoceropolis on a couple of occasions and it definitely carries a heavy experimental, DIY energy – one that can be confusing or even intimidating to someone unfamiliar with that type of lifestyle or aesthetic. Your photographs exhibited at Gildar Gallery seem to capture that type of ideal, with images that are gritty and sometimes dangerous, but that also express feelings of camaraderie and revelry of life.  Your aesthetic appears strongly linked to your lifestyle . . .

Yes. A lot of what I do and who I am as an artist is informed by living in an environment like Rhinoceropolis and surrounded by the type of people that share that same lifestyle. The photographs are just documenting this environment and choice to live outside of societal norms.

The “Real is a Feeling” group exhibition at Gildar was named after one of your songs. The song is interesting because it is catchy and upbeat like a pop song, but it still sounds haunting and the lyrics are pretty obscure. The title and the music seem open to the listener’s own interpretations. And I think it’s cool that the title has been used to incorporate the visual as well as the auditory. Can you share more about the meaning of this song?

I guess that the meaning of that song is really just intuitively knowing in your heart what feels real. Just being in touch with yourself.

You studied painting at RMCAD. How you do you balance or incorporate aspects of your formal education with your DIY style?

I was educated just as much by living inside of Rhinoceropolis as I was in 5 years of "formal education" and it wasn't anywhere near as expensive.

You’re on the road a lot performing, and you were recently on tour opening for Crystal Castles.  You’ve performed at venues that range from historic theaters to dive bars and warehouses. What is life like on the road? Any interesting stories you want to share?

I feel really comfortable traveling. It is what I do for a living. I've been able to gain knowledge from it. I just feel really fortunate. I don't know any crazy stories off the top of my head. There are too many. It's all crazy.

 

Egedy’s work from his show “Reality Engineering” at Make Up Gallery, Kosice, Slovakia

In your show “Reality Engineering” (Fitness Center for Arts and Tactics, Brooklyn; Make Up Gallery/BAZZART, Kosice, Slovakia) you pose a powerful question: "Who creates our reality?"  The work you created features a bold combination of Internet stock pictures, corporate logos, and pop culture imagery with drawings, painting, and photographs of your own creation. "Reality" is portrayed as a mixture of the authentic with the manufactured. After creating and exhibiting this body of work, do you feel any closer to answering that question of who creates reality?

Well, I don't think there is any one answer to that question, because everyone’s "reality" is quite different I think. The show is really about being able to create your own reality rather than let it be left up to outside forces to define who you are.

To be continued . . .

All photos courtesy of Travis Egedy.

 

 

 

 

INTERVIEW: Kenny Scharf

 

 

 Studio View of "space vomit," an unfinished work.

 

Original street-artist, vet of the Lower East Side scene when it was still the scene, and Instagram-extraordinaire, Kenny Scharf is picking through a tabletop full of Brooklyn detritus as if he’s a foodie at a late-night buffet. He’s got all these knickknacks including baggies of bright plastic jewels and a turquoise plastic cup dispenser that he’s going to make into what he calls “space vomit” (and who knows what else). In 2013, Scharf has painted a mural for the pediatric and adolescent psychiatric ward of Kings County Hospital, collaborated a fashion show during New York Fashion Week, hosted a Cosmic Cavern party, been arrested mid-tag in Bushwick, and executed a spat of free paintings on cars.  

 

On a warm Thursday September night, in a far corner of his otherwise dim home/studio in Williamsburg, bright lights shine down onto a painted canvas adhered with junk from Metropolitan Avenue. He drops colorless bits of plastic into wet gesso while talking about how much he dislikes the influence of market on art (and if there’s anything to pin on the guy – he’s a workhorse example of not selling out even if his work sells), the difference between Pop and Surrealism, what the Lower East Side was like back in the day, and what’s cool now.

 

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

How do you choose the junk that goes into your work?

 

Oh, it chooses me. I collect it and then I save it and then one day it comes in handy. It’s crazy. I mean look, look at all this crap. These are jewels, but there are also these little pieces of plastic. I found this in the street, Solo Cup. Right here on Metropolitan Avenue. That’s where I find most of my good stuff.

 

You just completed a mural at Kings County Hospital. How did the children react to your art?

 

They were so excited. It’s an institution so it couldn’t be more depressing and you want kids to heal. I felt really good that I was able to do that in that environment because it is really bleak and it’s really needed and it stands out. You can see [the mural] a mile a way, like there’s a sign of life in the hospital. It shows the kids that someone cares because it was done for them and no one else sees it because it’s in a children’s psychiatric ward.

 

You coined the term “Pop-Surrealism” and in another interview with I Think You’re Swell you described how the cartoons that make it into your work are coming out of your sub-conscious in a stream of thought rather than being intentionally chosen, so I’m curious what you think about contemporary art that’s appropriative.

 

There’s a fine line between appropriation and just taking something. The fact that the imagery alludes to or has come from common, popular imagery isn’t necessarily coming from the same place as Pop art. I’m a Surrealist purely, and information in my brain has Pop in it and that is just situational because of how I grew up and that’s a really different way of going about using Pop imagery.

 

We’re all always so inundated by Pop imagery.

 

Yes, we are. More and more and more. It’s insane. It’s funny because I’ve been using these images from Hanna Barbera and people ask me all the time, “Does Hanna Barbera ever go after you?” and I’m like I almost wish they would. I didn’t ask to be bombarded with this imagery so I’m just responding to what has been thrown at me and regurgitating it. I’m the television generation so the impact of TV was similar maybe to what the Internet has done to the kids today. It’s a similar kind of thing with the screen.

 

Done with working on “space vomit” while the gesso dries, Scharf suggests we go on his roof because he’s seen the moon earlier that evening and it’s huge and not to be missed he says. A large gray cat – his daughter’s – follows us up to the unlit, unremarkable roof where the sky is purple-gray and the harvest moon sliver by sliver rises above a neighboring building.

 

 

 

 Wall at Scharf's Williamsburg studio.

 

Ever since you started out, you’ve run around with some mind blowers, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in particular.

 

I met Jean-Michel and Keith within my first month of arrival [to New York] and they both became really important, inspiring people in my life.

 

The friendships were intense?

 

Yes, they were very intense. Keith and I always got along real well, and Jean-Michel and I had kind of a tumultuous relationship of intensity. They’ve been gone for a long time. They’ve been gone for what, 25 years already, or more. Oh my god, it’s crazy how many years they’ve been gone and how they’re still so important and part of my whole dialogue.

 

How does that impact your art?

 

When Jean-Michel died I was still in my 20s. When Keith died I was 30. That was very profound to be a 30-year old survivor. When you’re younger, you expect to lose all these people when you’re old so that was profound in so many ways. They were not only my art friends, they were my cohorts. I kind of felt very lost. It was a really strange feeling back then to be the survivor. Now we’re talking over 25 years later, it serves me in a different way. I feel like I’m continuing a lot of the spirit and philosophy that we had all believed in.

 

I know you’ve spoken about it before, but could you share some of that philosophy with me now?

 

It’s an anti-elitist philosophy. I don’t want art to be an elitist thing that only certain people can understand what I’m doing. I know that there’s an elitist audience and I went to art school and I studied art history and I’m aware of that and it’s important to me to be part of that dialogue, but at the same time, I’m also aware of so many people who don’t know about that. It’s important to me to reach out to everyone and offer something for all different audiences, whether it be the art elitist or the art-uninitiated person on the street.

 

There is also a language of beauty in your work too.

 

I get inspired by things that I find beautiful and I would think that maybe I could add to the notion of beauty. Not always, but often. I want to express beauty and embrace it.

 

On that note, I think it’s important to try to discuss what beauty is.

 

Notions of beauty are so different. There’s the notion of beauty that society says is beautiful and then there are things that a lot of people would find ugly that I find beautiful. For example, what I’m doing now with the space vomit. It’s crap, it’s garbage. I find beauty in things that aren’t necessarily what people would think of as beautiful. I like to find it and bring it out and celebrate the beauty in ugly. If you can get other people to see what you can’t photograph because it’s in your mind, that’s pretty cool and I think Surrealism can definitely do that.

 

 

 

 Pitt Street Pool, Scharf's first mural

 

How has New York changed since you arrived?


When I first arrived, it was punk rock. It was a big free for all. It was a very raw place. Here we are sitting in east Williamsburg. Back then we wouldn’t be sitting in east Williamsburg right now. No one would ever want to go here. Where we all lived on the Lower East Side was bombed out enough. I’m sure over here must have been really funky back then. I can’t imagine how funky it was. It was a completely different world. I can’t think of a better place to spawn amazing things.

 

Why is it that intense landscapes have that impact on art do you think?

 

Depression, economic depression. A lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s not based on any kind of market. Maybe there was a market, but not so far as we were concerned and what we were doing, and that’s very liberating when you’re not like, “Oh I hope it sells,” or “I hope this collector likes it.” It was the farthest thing anyone ever thought about.

 

You could find a weird abandoned floor in some building somewhere and claim it as your studio. The opportunity to make things without money – it’s still there actually. That’s why I use all that trash and junk in my work, it’s right there and it’s interesting to me. It has a life, it has a history, it has a meaning beyond what the object is. It has connotations of being garbage. There are so many levels to me about garbage that I find really interesting.

 

How has your art responded to this change in the landscape?

 

When I started making art out of trash in the early 70s, I was using old radios and 50s refuse. Now I’m finding keyboards and computer pieces and cellphones, so just the actual electronics themselves have changed over the years.

 

Oh – I just saw a shooting star. It looked so close. (Points to the sky). In the city! It was really bright. It went straight down and then it stopped.

 

You do have this fascination with space too. Where does that come from?

 

That comes from my childhood. I was born the year the Space Age started. The first satellite, Sputnik, Russia, took off 1957 and burned up 1958, the year I was born. So my childhood, everything outer space was the huge thing. I was always and still am all for the fantasy of space and what space represents to me is the ultimate spirituality. What is beyond the universe makes you seem very small and it makes your problems and everything we are so concerned about materialistically seem insignificant. That’s the kind of thing that turns me on.

 

Regarding this “bigger awareness” you mentioned, do you have a spirituality that is being exercised in the creative process?

 

Totally. My spontaneity in a way is my spirituality because I’m having faith in something outside of myself that will guide me and take me somewhere that I don’t even know. So every single time I’m faced with a big white wall and I’m like, “Here I go,” I’m putting faith out there that something outside of myself is going to come to me and I’m going to bring it out. Every time it’s that exercise in faith that something will get me to that special place. All you are is the facilitator. There’s something big out there and you let it enter you and then you let it out, it comes out your hand, and there it is.

 

Speaking of technology and the mortal condition, Google just announced that it’s going to try to solve mortality. Which is interesting because the question of class arises and who could afford the benefits of such technology.

 

Why would you want that? How would you know it’s not better when you’re not living? Maybe you’re just running around out there in outer space. Just because it’s unknown doesn’t mean it’s not 100 billion times better.

 

You’ve been called an arbiter of cool. So what’s cool now?

 

When I see kids doing stuff now and I think, “These kids are really cool,” the attitude and their ideas of success are not the traditional ideas of success, like the idea that in order to be successful you have money and this and that and your car and your house and you’re obtaining all these things. I think it’s cool when you can just say, “I’m going to do great stuff, I’m going to create, I want to help, I want to add.”

 

You know what’s cool? Being conscious. So many people just live and they’re not even aware that they’re part of some whole system designed by people’s pockets. I’m not saying I’m Mr. Perfect and I’m above it because I take airplanes and I go to the store and buy food that was brought in a truck and has packaging on it. It’s not like I’m moving some place off-grid to grow my own food, which is an alternative and I have thought about that before, but I also want to keep my foot a little in this Pop – popular world – so I’m part of it.

 

Photo of Pitt Street Pool mural courtesy of Kenny Scharf Studio.

Follow Rachel, @rcdalamangas

INTERVIEW: Michael Garcia

 

 

Michael Anthony García was born in El Paso, Texas, but has lived all over the state through the years. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art from Austin College in Sherman, TX in 1996 where became an Adjunct Art Faculty member after graduation. His work has been seen throughout Texas, Mexico and Brooklyn, New York and although he has explored a variety of media, the bulk of his constructions are true to the traditions of found-object sculpture, performance art and installations. Most notably he has presented work at Mexic-Arte Museum, the Lawndale and in the 2011 Texas Biennial. He now lives and teaches in Austin, TX and is a collaborating founder of Los Outsiders, a creative and curatorial collective that has organized exhibitions in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Houston and Austin, TX. He was a recipient of the 2012 Austin Critics Table Award for best group show curation as well as being selected as the 2012 Austin Visual Arts Association‘s (AVAA) Artist of the Year, 3D.

Interview by Josh T Franco

 

I’m glad we finally met. Seems like our worlds circled one another for a few years. To business: you’re a busy guy. This summer, you curated the 18th annual Young Latino Artists (YLA) Exhibition at Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin, had work up at the People’s Gallery (aka Austin City Hall), and had a solo show at Red Space, also in Austin. Are you exhausted? Ready to get back to teaching in the Fall? And pre-kindergarteners no less...

The summer took off like a rocket for me and taking on projects back to back the way I did, was very exhausting, but since then I have had the chance to relax and recharge my batteries. This summer I had the pleasure of living in an art world mirage by curating and creating/exhibiting my own work, but now I have to refocus myself on my day job in education. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit of a let down, a postpARTum dip, if you will, but these things always come in cycles so I have learned to adapt.

 

We started at Mexic-Arte, walking piece by piece through the show. Off the bat, we got the question of identity out of the way, putting it very much in the way. The YLA has a different curator every year, and I assume the first question this person must ask herself is: What do I consider Latino/a? Yours is perhaps the most international exhibition to date. How did this end up being the case? (after some discussion with next year’s curators, I want to be a bit chismoso and say, they are going in a very different direction!)

In regard to your question about what constitutes Latino Art for me; in organizing the YLA, I was very conscious of what the public expected of it, and that wasn’t necessarily the direction I wanted to go. Whereas many would be quick to assume that Latino Art has to be graphic in some way or somehow safe or traditional, I specifically wanted to go in the other direction. Mind you, my elimination of most of those elements is not a critique of those ideas, rather an exploration of “what else is out there.” I am more than open to exploring those elements in future curatorial endeavors, but for this opportunity I wanted to turn expectation on its head. As I myself work in performance, installation and found- object sculpture, I wanted the focus on those mediums as a way of putting my stamp on this year’s iteration of YLA. I hope it also helped to challenge the public’s preconceived notions of what is expected in an institution like Mexic-Arte Museum.

You ask about the international nature of my YLA and I think it went in that direction because of my personal experiences with Latino Art abroad. As I have traveled extensively through Mexico over the years, I have made many connections and life-long friendships. These experiences have opened me up to art communities and individuals that reshaped my own expectations of Latino Art. And, it is through those friendships that I first approached the idea of making YLA more international. I started exploring the friendships I have made in Mexico and began reaching out to art world academia in South America to bring a broader perspective to the exhibition. In fact, one of the most rewarding aspects of the curatorial process for me has been connecting with fellow creatives either through Skype, email or Facebook as I assembled the group of artists in the exhibition. The artwork in the museum eventually comes down, but the friendships and conversations continue regardless of where we all live. Gotta love the internet for that!

 

One tension of your YLA was the co-presence of abstraction and affect. So much abstraction is significant in this particular exhibition, as past works often narrated issues of ethnicity, borders, and immigration. But the warmth of affect still pervaded. Sometimes, they co-exist in one piece, such as Eureka by Daniel Adame (though accident has to be discussed here as well). This tension is demonstrated too by the stand-off between, say, Ricardo Paniagua’s Unknown Source and [TITLE?] by Nelda Ramos and Javier Vanegas. The former behaves like interactive (for a studio assistant or privileged viewer), re-arrangeable logos. Logos with no corporate references. Eye candy. The latter video piece was difficult to watch for all it’s saccharine crooning and indulgent editing of young love. But, if I remember correctly, I made it through the whole damn thing!

As a viewer, you picked up on a different tension than the one that was more evident to me. Coming at this exhibition from the route of the curatorial process, I found the tension behind the creation of the work to be the most palpable. This is not necessarily experienced by the public, as they were not privy to the behind the scenes process, but by challenging the artists to work collaborate on new pieces as I did, there were huge swaths of time during which I didn’t know what the resulting exhibition would look like. The unknown really amped up the energy from my perspective! However, I think the tension really comes from the resulting artwork being physical manifestations of the artists’ collaborative experiences and having all those relationships and conversations playing out in one space. Again, it’s not necessarily something visitors to the museum can readily pick up on, but it’s there nonetheless.

 

I was struck by the quietness of the installation at Red Space following the rowdy exhibition we left behind. Your emphasis on site-specificity in conversation comes to mind. Here in this bedroom-cum-gallery, the bedroom is what is foregrounded. But not without artfulness. Beyond the selection of plaid fabrics—that pattern that moms inevitably get their sons as they send them off freshman year—how did you achieve this? Was it an aim at all?

I’m glad you picked up on how important the spaces themselves ended up being in my projects. I have always been interested in exploring site-specificity with my work, and it just so happened that it naturally flowed through in many of my creative endeavors this year. Over at Austin City Hall, the idea behind my piece, El Pórtico, had been swimming in my head for a while, but when I was exploring the building for an area to install, the stairwell space leading from the first to second floor jumped out as the only space that fit the idea of the work itself. It is a nether-space, perfect for a piece about an otherworldly portal straddling a buttoned-down reality and an escapist-unknown-plane. And, in the YLA exhibition, because discussion about the museum’s physical building has been a heated topic as of late, I was compelled to layout the work in a way that brought more attention to the architecture itself. But, it was with the installation I developed for Red Space, that the room where I installed was just so pregnant with it’s own identity, that I had to create something around that identity itself. As the space is traditionally used as an apartment bedroom, I had to talk about what happens in bedrooms and navigate the fact that there is a window in the middle of the far wall. It became a masculine (hence the plaid) boudoir. It became an installation about sexuality, attraction and exploration. Also, as a large portion of my work references the body through the use of clothing, I wanted to clothe the room itself in a larger than life “outfit” that captured both masculine and feminine traits. It’s at once a private and intimate space and a stage on which one is expected to perform.

 

I was taken with the precarious wooden constructions throughout. They’re not furniture, but not exactly sculpture. They are structural support, but so exposed and undone?

In that installation, the use of raw wood seemed a natural choice for some reason. As the piece itself is supposed to be a machine, albeit a useless machine that does not serve it’s purpose, I wanted a material that spoke to the notion of sturdiness but not permanence. Wood is a common material and much in the way birds build their nests with sticks, twigs or even trash they find, the wood is a readily available, familiar and not very far removed from it’s natural state.

 

Finally, I want to think about a quiet signature of yours: red bows. (Did you know it was a signature?) They are present at Red Space, tied non-functionally—but not exactly decoratively—at the corners of the wooden frames. They are present on the work at City Hall as well. One Chicano to another, I can’t help recall Amalia Mesa-Bains’s description of rasquachismo: “Aesthetic expression comes from discards, fragments, even recycled everyday materials such as tires, broken plates, plastic containers recombined with elaborate and bold display…and even embellishment of the car. The capacity to hold life together with bits of string, old coffee cans, and broken mirrors in a dazzling gesture of aesthetic bravado is at the heart of rasquachismo.” I wonder if the red bows are your rasquache bits of string.

As far as the “rasquache” ribbons are concerned, I began using red bows a few years back as the final phase of installing my work. It adds a delicate final step that makes the process feel complete. The idea that the work is tentatively held together by these precarious red flourishes appeals to me, because many of the ideas and concepts in my work exist in a similar intangible state. Undo the right ribbon and it just might cease to exist. And, in liu of “rasquache”, I would call them a “Mexicanada” -fixing something in a humorous, but not necessarily sensible, yet quintessentially Mexican way. They are used in the same vein as a mariachi decorates a “masculine” song with “feminine” gritos.

 

 

INTERVIEW: Sebastiaan Bremer

 

Still Life with Shark on the Bosphorus, 2007,Unique hand-painted Lambda print with mixed media

There is a palpable intimacy to the phantasmic and fantastical photographs of Dutch artist, Sebastiaan Bremer, who has been working out of NYC since 1992, exhibiting internationally at such venues as Hales Gallery, Galerie Barbara Thumm, and PS1 MoMA to name a handful. The multimedia works present rich visual palimpsests wherein Bremer draws appropriated images, private symbols, and expressive patterns directly onto photographs. To hear him describe the intricate process of finding a photo (often stashed away in his personal collection for years) and “caressing” it with the X-ACTO knife, is akin to listening to a surgeon recite the details of an operation, and if a surgeon’s science is the body, then Bremer’s craft is a psychological study in how the mind processes art. His awareness of how a viewer’s eye surveys an exhibition space and sweeps across a photograph and works at detail is precise as well as exhaustive. This is perhaps why these photographs – never staged or intentional – trigger a sense of the real becoming realer (which is a very welcome impression in a hi-tech, data-driven world). Of many artists I’ve talked to, Bremer is the most obsessed with the dexterity of the eye.

His studio in Williamsburg is nominal: a big empty table and chair. A couch below a shelf. On the opposing wall an enlarged, severe photograph of crop rows in Brazil, which he will tell me is from the early part of the 20th century.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

What are you currently working on?

I have just finished the last works I’m creating for a show for the Edwynn Houk Gallery here in New York. I’ve used other people’s work before, found photographs or in some rare cases pictures that I really needed to use. But this time I took this a bit further. I discovered other, older artists that had intervened on the surface of the photograph in different ways. Brassaï really cut and scratched into some of his negatives. So I decided to work with parts of this imagery, but then combined it with other works that seemed related. I made collages, really quickly and partly chance based, in Photoshop, which I would normally never do, and made marks, cutting into the surface of the photograph with a knife. So I started making these collages and cutting into them, and these became new alloys. Part of it is reflecting on my practice. “What am I doing, where am I going?” I’ve been making art with photography for about 15, 20 years, and I got to a certain point where I am able to reflect a bit more objectively.

What is your interest in Brassaï specifically?

He was a photographer who hung out with a lot of painters in Paris, like Picasso, Matisse, and everybody else in Paris it seems, and he photographed their studios among other things. He’d take pictures of the sculptures by Picasso as documentation on commission, but then sometimes he would leave photo negatives behind in the studio, and Picasso started scratching and drawing on top of those negatives, bridging the two practices, and then Brassaï got inspired to do the same thing on his own work.

There have always been boundaries between the different arts. Photography was definitely the newer and lesser cousin of painting. Brassaï was able to bring it to another level, and play with the medium. Man Ray is another of course. By now, photography is entirely integrated in artistic practice all over, but there’s still kind of a separation in a sense . . . I think it’s changing, and this upcoming show is a comment on the history of that. I decided if I’m going to go steal from these people, I should steal from the best, (like Pablo said) so I’m using a little bit of Picasso on top, without holding back, just trying to collage something completely new out of their work, a little bit like Frankenstein.

The Picassos are what is etched onto the photograph?

Yeah, sometimes, or I took a photograph with my iPhone of an image in a catalogue and used that. It’s hard to tell by now what is what, even for me. There are works where there are five images or more images layered on top of each other. They turn into something else, they turn on each other almost, all these spirits crowded together in one image suddenly, creating a new and in some cases abstracted composition. It feels a bit Shamanistic.

I didn’t blur the transitions and edges, I used them as part of the composition. In some places too, you can see the different processes used in the parts that make up the collages, in some parts clearly a digital photograph, in some parts the Ben-Day dots of printing. I think when you see it, you can smell where it comes from.

How do you do the etching?

Just with a small X-ACTO knife. I just draw basically with a knife to cut into the surface of the emulsion.

And you take some of your own photos, but some of them are found.

I usually take my own photographs, but in this particular series it’s almost all other people’s photographs. Normally I work photographs from my family or pictures that I took myself. It’s all over the place.  Like, this is a picture of a coffee plantation from 1900 in the north of Brazil (points to large photo of rows of crops) and a friend found a glass slide of it in a yard sale. I don’t know what it is going to be yet, I have worked on other slides like this, but that was a few years ago. This image just looks so strangely modern because of all the rigid lines and the empty space, but it’s really from a long time ago.

How did you come to photography?

My relationship to the arts is kind of funny. I never really had any formal training. I was always drawing and was a comic book fanatic and ended up working in a comic book store. They figured they should pay me since I practically never left the store. When I was finished with high school, I decided that the next step was to go and paint, it seemed like the logical next step.

Growing up I spent a lot of time at home just looking at photo albums over and over again. I have this particular relationship to the object, the photograph.

When I started painting, I started using the passport photo booth in the train station as a place to take a picture of myself or whatever I wanted to paint, and I would use that picture as a sketch or study. I would square it up and use them as a template for my painting. A lot of this practice is boring and stifling – you’re copying from a photograph and making a painting and there’s a whole problem in the transition between the two states. And it shows, you can see it at a glance when someone works this way. Projection is even worse I feel. Franz Gertsch found an interesting way through that, but few others do, in my opinion. It took me many turns and eventually I started working straight on the photograph. I realized it was the way for me go because you get whatever is underneath as the battery that’s charging what you’re doing. The mechanical kind of boring part of painting that’s just copying, I did away with.

My first impression of your work, what I found so striking about it, is that it’s just so unabashedly beautiful. A lot of art right now is more antagonistic and perhaps even anti-beautiful. I like that art too, but I’m curious about your regard for beauty.

I think perhaps that has to do with how my relationship with art started: comic books. There the art is fundamentally a language and seduction is part of this, it draws you in.

I guess that’s become part of my nature, in a sense, to automatically feel an affinity with art that doesn’t shy away from beauty. For example, I really like the paintings of Ingres. I don’t think if something’s beautiful that that immediately makes it superficial or silly. It’s my inclination to work that way and it’s my way to relate with the subject matter in a tender way, to bring certain things out. If you have something that is aesthetically appealing, you can hold people’s attention in a certain way and then you can suck them in, and then a communication can start. I never had a fear of doing that. It’s not like I was trying to make pretty pictures, but I guess just the way that I related to what I was making and the subject matter that I was dealing with. With my drawing I was almost caressing the images underneath, in the beginning especially with these undulating lines that were just squeezing themselves between the emulsion of the photographs. It is just part of language.

But I like the more antagonistic art too – don’t get me wrong. I just find myself doing what I do, and I don’t feel I should run away from that.

It’s interesting too I think in terms of how that process deals with gaze. There’s the photograph, the initial image, but then there’s this weird work of the eye that’s happening in the etching.

Exactly, it’s almost a registration of me, especially in the first works on photographs, of the process of looking at the image and my direct response to it.

It was partly subliminal and not really calculated. A ‘flow of consciousness’ kind of work and it’s a registration of how my eye goes, and I think in some lucky situations, the viewer can have that same experience, as if you’re seeing through somebody else’s eye.

After making works that had these allover approaches, my work became larger and I was perhaps more confident. I wanted to work on a different scale in order to open the work up more, rather than have this small picture that you’re gazing at. I started to work at a more painterly scale. Whereas originally the drawing was a net, a scrim that you would see through, later I started consolidating the drawing more into certain areas of the photograph, making objects that seemed to stand into the picture plane of the underlying photograph. So I would draw, for instance, a goose or something on the right bottom and try to make it voluminous and three-dimensional, and try not to have this web where you have figures hidden, but I would create more solid objects. That changed the work a little bit, but it also played [with the gaze] a different way because I became more adept at the drawing and was able to get into the atmosphere of the photograph in a different way. I could make things appear in the picture that seemed solid and had equal weight to the photography and reality. I was able to balance the two and play tricks on the eye in some cases where you wouldn’t be able to tell if it was drawn or if it was photograph. So I treated them equally in terms of volume and color and brightness. I hope to do the same thing where people would see the picture, and then step back and see how it’s made, and then have the reality of that intervene, and then again spend time with it. So you would still have that engagement without the allover treatment. I work out of my own desire, but at the same time, I want to conjure up something for other people to see and spend time with.

That’s intriguing because that was my experience with your work – this game of zooming in to see the detail then zooming out to take it all in then zooming back in to examine the detail some more.

That time spent is precious because this is the experience I’ve had seeing other people looking at my work and I see myself doing this. It can happen that you walk into a gallery or a museum exhibition and you kind of scan the works and it’s: “This is my thing” or “This is not my thing” and then you walk out again. If you have this moment where you are able by whatever means to capture somebody and hold them just a little bit longer so that they investigate, then the communication starts and it’s not just a relationship to an object against a wall, but a gateway to someone else’s ideas and psyche and materials and whatever. Viewers can still disregard it, but it’s a communication process that has started, and that’s something that I appreciate.

Can you tell me about how you gather the subject matter of photographs?

I usually have some kind of obsession or interest already going, and I find a photograph that goes with it. I spend a lot of time browsing through my own collections of photographs that I’ve taken over the years and it’s often that I take a photograph and only end up using it six years later or ten years later. It’s not very often that I go goal-oriented with a camera to capture an image that fits a particular idea, though I have done that. I’m not a real photographer per se. I use photography.

I’m more of a painter because I have to find the material that suits the idea that I’m working with. But none of this process is particularly linear. It takes a while.

For example in 2006, it was palpable that there was a shift in the balance of powers in the world. The West had been the center, the dominant power, in art, economy, what have you. Here one didn’t really consider contemporary not-western art very much. But in 2006 you really could feel a shift, and everybody started talking about China for instance, for the first time as a serious cultural and economic force. Finally the dominance of European culture shifted and rightly so, and it was really funny feeling. I felt like this automatic dominance of western art and the whole iconography that is part of that, the still life paintings or the interiors, the European tradition of landscape painting and the particular styles and ideas related to it were all thrown into question. It felt that the west was the decadent, tired old man, and I wanted to make work that reflected that. It was a looking back, a saying goodbye.

I started to make a lot of work on black and white pictures, and used imagery that was related to the European seventeenth century traditions. I wanted to show the inside of a tired, rotting, old castle. I took pictures in the style chambers in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I used some older interiors that I’d shot over the years, some pictures that I found that my uncle Paul had taken around the 60’s and 50’s around the Netherlands, dark and gloomy interiors. So that’s how in that particular case that I found my imagery to fit my story. The bulk of this work I showed in three solo shows: at Galerie Barbara Thumm the solo show titled Cold Turkey, and Tryptich (Spinoza's Trials) at James Fuentes LLC, and the third at a presentation Hales Gallery organized in Basel. There is still a lot to be reevaluated I feel, about the history of the Western dominance and how we depict it. So many stones left unturned.

With the mountain series, the Schoener Goetterfunken works, the opposite happened. I was looking to work with colorful work and something much more positive, alive. The dark I had surrounded myself with was getting me down perhaps. Color, and a sense of present and energy showed up first in works I showed in the Panta Rei show I made for Bravin Lee in Chelsea. I had found a bunch of old color negatives that I had never seen before, had never seen printed. When I found these images, they seemed just way too strong. The magic of developing these for the first time, and see them appear, so colorful, so alive, so glorious there was nothing I could do, I had to surrender, I had to fit my ideas around the pictures. In some experiments I seemingly reduced the photograph, but the photograph was so strong and so ebullient and joyful that I had to put my personal concerns and preconceptions aside and allow myself to delve deep into and surrender to this really blissful, happy imagery and not critique it in any way, but just try to pump up the volume and bring it fully into the present.

 Large Shoener Goetterfunken XI, ‘Whoever has had the great fortune’ (Wem der gross Wurf gelungen’), 2010, Unique hand-painted chromogenic print with mixed media

In those photographs, that’s your family in the Alps, but you weren’t there, right? They took the pictures and then you worked with them?

Yeah, they were shot in 1973 most likely, and I was a baby at that time, and not there. I was left with my aunt and uncle for the summer. The thing is that like any personal narrative, things are not as they seem, but you have dreams and hopes of how you wish it to be. I have a good relationship with my brother and my sister and my father and my mother, but we don’t gel as a group that often. That’s okay, but seeing these perfect slices of this wonderful family and everyone is dressed to the nines and the sun is shining and the mountains are beautiful. No melting glaciers, no pollution in the air, no labels, no pettiness, no strife. This is not how they remember that trip of course, but they just look so great. Then I started thinking: I should look at the history of ‘happy art’ and found there is almost nothing, very little. The art I did identify with was the beginning of the Romantic era around the 1800's when Beethoven was making the “Ode to Joy,” the beginning of Enlightenment. So I used that thought as a template to see how far I could go. I wanted to see how far I could go into making those people in the pictures appear to realize how lucky they were to be in that moment. This multidimensional magical reality we live in all the time, but you rarely ever really experience, truly, fully, completely with all the energies that are a part of it. I ended up rubbing and painting these large, colorful blobs in the works and on the works, making it seem as if they were in touch with the power of it all, the wonder of it all. It was a way, again, to relate tenderly to the individuals in these pictures who mean something to me, but they also could be anybody’s family, an uncle you don’t know about. My parents never took pictures that well, they are truly sublime. And also the film was never developed, so I was the first one to really see them, so magically happy, perfect. And since I wasn’t there, I had not been part of that trip, this is my participation in that situation.

As a fiction writer, sometimes I think about that. Just once and awhile, I want there to be a happy ending. I want the love affair to work out, but I want it to still feel authentic, not cheesy.

It’s difficult and I think it’s the same thing that a lot of writers and directors say about making a good comedy. A truly good comedy is supposedly much harder to make than a nice dramatic, dark, gloomy story.

There is funny art. I would consider some of the work of Claes Oldenburg happy. There is David Hockney . . . I think there’s not a lot of happy art because people mistake beauty and joy and happiness for shallow, and perhaps fear of being perceived that way too. And there is a common mistake to equate dark, dirty, and gloomy with deep. It’s just a default position that people fall into. If they look for something profound, then they think it has to be dark and morose. Maybe that’s a northern European thing.

I think in other cultures there is a stronger tradition of joyful, happier emotions reflected in art.

This is something I really envy of people who work in music. I don’t think a lot of artists consider being on the stage such a wonderful experience all the time because it’s not the creative part necessarily, but I would say that the energy communicated and experienced by live performance; by standing on the stage can be extremely powerful, and must be invigorating and reinforcing.

I must be hard to do, but if it’s done well, it hits home in a powerful way. The moments that happen like that for me in the studio are just excellent, it doesn’t happen all the time but when it does it is just such a sense of moving forward, of change, of tapping into some current, which makes it really clearly a worthwhile endeavor. I feel really lucky then. I imagine that sensation experienced in a group, on a stage, must be even more invigorating. I am at this moment also full of desire to go there again in my work because it’s just so exciting, if you can hit the right vein, to be able to transfer that kind of energy. I am starting on new work where I will go straight for this. Hopefully.

You said you were the first one to develop the film for those photographs too?

Yes, and when they were printed, it was like they were taken yesterday. The colors were incredible, crisp, like few I had ever seen before.

For me, there is still this preciousness, a magical thing about the photograph. I have almost an aversion to taking photographs to add to the enormous amount of photography that is being taken all the time because I have this feeling that there is so much there already and it’s so precious. I can’t throw photographs away. You have all these slices of time that need to be treated well. I mean, it’s silly to think that way, but I really, truly feel that.

 
Imperial Bedroom, 2008, Unique hand-painted gelatin silver print with mixed media

Your work is sometimes described as nostalgic, and as I hear you speak I notice this interesting idea of relating to art in the present tense, but life itself is happening all within memory.

I think “nostalgia” is maybe not the right word because that is reductive and takes away from direct experience and is maybe more like a pining for something that was there and is never going to come back kind of thing. I think your medium is really important and carries a lot of weight for free. If you have an audiocassette tape and you play it, there’s a sequence of the songs, the clicking of the tape and the texture of the sound. I’m not saying one thing is better than the other, and the same is true of a camera phone picture or whatever. They all have their own set of parameters and own language. It ticks off boxes in your head automatically and puts somebody in some place, the same way smells work. I have the same relation to books. I’d say I’m more of a bibliophile than a nostalgic person. I just like objects from different periods. You can mix them all. It’s not like you have to be reverent and sit on your knees and put them on a little silver pillow. I feel that you should just use it. I think, especially in art making, there should be no rules, anything is game, and you should feel as free as possible in order to go where you want to go. Play and irreverence are quite important.

When I came to New York, since I never really went to art school, I went to people’s studios or curated small shows and tried to contribute something, and so I found my way into other people’s studios just to see how they did stuff. Seeing what others did, I found a possible road. One of the first studios I visited in New York was Donald Baechler’s. He part of the generation of Basquiat and Haring. For me, arriving as a 22 year old in New York – that was really cool. I saw him make his paintings and he had these bits of embroidery that he had bought in Egypt. They were ancient, they were like 3,000-year old little pieces of textile, and he would just throw them on the painting and then with latex paint would just make them part of these enormous collages he was making. I was a bit of an Egyptophile as a kid so I was like, “Oh my god, this is really wonderful embroidery and it’s really old, and you just smack it in there?” And he said, “Yes, never respect your source materials.” By putting it in there, of course, he does use a little bit of the magic and a little bit of the history or the texture or the smell from something else. It’s a magical object, you imbue it with power, but at the same time, it destroys it and kills it and puts it in there.

I likewise relate to objects. Even the x-acto knife that I’ve been using for the past few months has now become bendy in the right way and blunt in the right way, and I got to know it really well and now it’s imbued with a history of my hand. If somebody would come in here and take that, I would be more upset than if they took anything else. I think you can relate to photographs that way too, and to textures and mediums and so on. I wouldn’t say that’s nostalgic, it’s also practical.

Does your process ever fail?

Yeah.

What do you do after that?

I do something good.

On the same work?

I try to, yes.

There is no mistake. In music, for example, there is no false note if the next note in relation is right and then the one before it becomes right. At least, that is what Miles Davis said I think. Sometimes, of course, you really make it muddy and nasty and muck things up, but I’m pretty neat and I have a good steady hand. And I can fix things, save things. And I know that things are going to go wrong. I just have these prints out too long, the process can spread out over years, so something might happen. I’ve had plenty of accidents to have had hundreds of heart attacks while working. But the mistake might be an opening to something else and you just don’t know. Every time you start something, it’s just having the courage to manifest things and see how they end up. Of course you do tweak things later, but the crucial part is having this attitude of a naked warrior on a horse like Don Quixote. You cannot have fear while you do something.

All images courtesy of Hales Gallery, London and Edwynn Houk Gallery, NYC and Zurich.

Follow Rachel, @rcdalamangas

 

 

INTERVIEW: Brian Evenson

 

Some writers seem like they walked straight out of one of their own stories – the punky novelist who writes about freakishness, or the Bohemian who writes about lost worlds of Europe, for example. Fiction writer Brian Evenson is just about one of the most cheerful, good-humored authors one can encounter. He wears sweaters and texts his daughters on his iPhone and is married to children’s book author Kristen Tracy, and one wouldn’t know it on sight or even if one had a polite conversation with him at a cocktail party, but he also has one of the most disturbed, savage literary intellects currently walking around this side of sanity (but how does one know which side one is on anyway). For those who have not yet had the profound experience of having one’s mind/value system/sense of philosophical peace (delightfully) put through the shredder of an Evenson story, his are novels of nightmarish puzzles in which limbs are systematically amputated, tongues go missing, and youthful love decays into religious perversion. These are stories in which human nature is explored at its most foolish and cruel, society has devolved into barely functional hierarchies driven by cultish fanaticism, and the “good guys” are some version of the anti-Christ. Evenson’s fictional worlds are complicated by the dark beauty of his prose, which alternates between decadence (typically regarding the bizarre and grotesque) and icy focus (typically regarding the metaphysical).

Last year, Evenson published a new short story collection, Windeye, as well as a novel, Immobility. Windeye includes depraved revisions of (already nasty) fairy tales and Sladen suits in which characters disappear (a Sladen suit, by the way, is one of those creepy, old diving suits from back in the day). Immobility is basically about the end of civilization and how much humans suck and how unwittingly one can work very hard to repeat the stupid tragedies of history even more stupidly than before (misanthropes: draw a hot bath and get the bourbon; nervous types: you’ll need your smelling salts). His chapbook, Babyleg, published in 2009 by Tyrant Press in a limited edition of 400, has become something of a cult hit, featuring a twisted, rather revolting seductress who, indeed, has a baby leg.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

Many of your stories begin as a puzzle, but rather than allowing a reader to put the pieces together, there are more and more pieces, but never the one that would complete the picture. Where do these puzzles come from? Do you ever set yourself up with a puzzle to write and decide to abandon it?

I think it’s less that I have a puzzle in mind and abandon it and more that I’m really suspicious of knowledge as a concept. I really have a hard time believing we can ever know anything for certain, but at the same time I feel that so much about human experience is about interpreting signs, making connections, making leaps, finding ways of defining different experiences and different realities as significant. That puzzle-solving impulse is very human, I think, but at the same time it’s so easy to start to see things as significant that probably aren’t, to believe that the world around you is “telling you something.”  The line between the normal human process of interpreting signs and the overinterpretation of them that can be a symptom of madness is pretty thin. My work, I think, both enjoys that puzzle-solving impulse but also is very skeptical of it, and tries to get at the basic human frustration of never being quite able to make as much sense of the world as we’d like.

Tell me about your writing process. Your narratives tend to pull off acrobatic feats of destabilized perspectives, broken flashbacks that turn out to be copies of the past and future, and paradoxes taken to the edge, but all this is still reliant on a linear movement of plot.  Do you write your stories straight through? Or in pieces?  Do you always know how they’ll end?

I generally do write them straight through, from one end to the other, though over a number of days, and often revise the first pages of something before continuing on as a way of trying to give a sense of continuity and flow. I’ve spoken about this with Jesse Ball, a friend of mine, who writes work that looks like it’s discontinuous but which he usually writes straight through. I think for me (and maybe for him) there’s something about the excitement of those jumps and breaks coming as I’m writing that makes them more meaningful and significant—there’s an element of risk, I think, to suddenly allowing things to swerve. I do revise a lot when I’m writing something, but very early in the process I get the structure in place—I end up revising rhythm and wording and pacing rather than taking a chunk of a story out and moving it—though I do sometimes make big cuts. I am, as you mention, a fairly linear writer, but I don’t know where I’m going or how it’ll end. If I do figure out too early how a story might end, I usually stop writing it because I get bored...

As I recall, over coffee you once told me that you began writing as a child. Your mother wanted time to write and would assign writing projects to you and your siblings to distract all of you. Do you have or recall any of these old stories that you wrote as a child? Did you ever read your mother’s work?

I did read my mother’s work. She wrote just a couple of stories, which were Mormon science fiction stories and which negotiated in curious ways between Mormonism and science fiction. I think that was one of my first exposures to work that participated in several different genres (though very different genres than most mixed genre work). I still have a few of the stories I was writing back then. They included a story starring a rock who lived in the center of the earth, a story in which the Messiah is living in a cabin and refusing to hold the second coming, and a story that’s a retelling of the Stormalong tall tale.

The title, Windeye, comes from the etymology of the word, window, which means, literally from Old Norse, “a wind eye.” Do you study etymology? Where do your titles come from?

I’m interested in etymology. I’m interested in languages in general and the relations between languages. My titles come from all over—sometimes from a line or moment in the story. Often that’s the last thing I settle on with a story. Usually my titles are a little understated, tending toward the minimal. I don’t know why I like that, but I do.

In your three most recent books - Baby Leg, Windeye, Immobility - reality is destabilized and the reader, along with the usually pitiable narrator, is unsure of what is “true” within the texts. This, and the surreal-sci-fi qualities of your stories, operate in tension to the use of literary techniques that are hallmarks of realism: random details that speak to the chaos of life, sophisticated moral problems, natural dialogue. Can you tell me about your tendencies to genre-bend?

I read a lot and tend to read in all sorts of different directions, and tend to read very different things back to back or at the same time. I think that naturally encourages a tendency to genre-bend that’s probably more deep-rooted in an attitude about the world. When I was growing up my father was very insistent about using the “right” tool for the “right” job, whereas I just really felt like you should use anything that works and be able to see the virtual possibilities in non-tools. So, instead of using a screwdriver to tighten a screw, know when you can use a dime. I think I was naturally looking for ways of doing things that didn’t really follow the rules, and I like the tension that comes from bringing different generic regimes together to interact.

Even though you’re known as a genre-bender, it seems that “horror” is the label most often applied to your work.  Does this nucleus of horror in your narratives signal a philosophical attitude?

Hard question. I guess I would say that there’s a philosophical attitude toward the world that informs all my work, and that it’s something that probably is friendly with ideas of horror. I think of horror as an art form that, at least in certain of its aspects, is very interested in the unknowability of the world and of what that makes us think about the condition of being human.

One thing that’s interesting to compare between the stories of Windeye and Immobility is the way the object-world is focused on technology. Windeye contains a number of archaic objects - my favorite: the sladen suit - and Immobility contains both objects of the future and objects of wreckage. Where does the object of the book fit into the progression of technology?

I think of the book as a very sturdy sort of technology in that it doesn’t rust, lasts for a long time, and has very few parts that can break to make it non-functional. It’s also easily replicable and proliferates—and now is able to proliferate in electronic form as well almost instantaneously. Even when it’s an object of wreckage, the printed book is quite accessible and assimilable. I guess I see the book as related to the wheel and the e-book as something like the car: the first technology is something long-lasting and likely to continue: the second technology is more recent and not likely to last more than a few centuries (if that). But after the car is gone, something will still be around that is made possible by the wheel.

I don’t know if you saw Steve Pinker’s non-fiction book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker argues, essentially, that humans are slowly getting better, not worse. The leftover societies in Immobility are heavily considered and critiqued by Horkai, the narrator, and the Kollaps that brought about the wasteland is alluded to as a human error. Do you think humans will do themselves in with their own technology and if so, do you think there will be any writers left over? What will they write about?

I do think that we as humans are likely to do ourselves in, though I’m not sure if we’ll do this simply culturally (as we’ve done a time or two before) or in a way that annihilates our species. At the very least, I think we’ll need to really change the way we think about our place in the world around us. I do like the idea of a writer being the last one to survive and essentially ending his/her account of humanity with something like Wittgenstein’s “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” as a kind of summary of his inability to explain or understand what humanity did to itself. The idea, too, of a writer leaving a record that he/she knows won’t be read, but being compelled to write it anyway, is something I like very much.

Beyond horror, there’s the perpetual discussion of trauma, usually from some sort of absence: a missing body part, a lost sister, a major lacuna of memory. These absences also tend to be a portal by which to access knowledge beyond what could be retrieved in reality.  How does one approach the writing of what can’t be known, since language is the way that we report knowledge?

Language is both the way that we report knowledge and the way that we come to understand the limitations of that knowledge, to show the contours of what we can’t understand or depict, but also, inversely, to suggest the limits of language itself.  I think I got a sense of this first with negative theology, which was complicated later by my reading Kant’s notion of the sublime, which has been further complicated for me by all sorts of writers who end up getting something across almost at cross-purposes.  But yes, the question you ask is one of the big questions, and one that I keep trying to find temporary answers to.

In these unsettling literary worlds, death isn’t even certain and final. Most often, the unthinkable nightmare only perpetuates. How do you think fiction writing relates to the human tendency to create elaborate narratives around death?

I think even though there’s a focus on death and dying and its uncertainty in my writing that, paradoxically, there’s very little memorializing in my fiction. I do think the connection probably has to do with the way that so often we continue to think of the dead as still alive, speaking of them in the present tense, still seeing them as present even though we know they’re not. Pieces of mine like “Dark Property” just cut out that intermediary step of the dead living on in our memories of them and simply let them live on even after they’re dead. That’s probably partly influenced by Jean Genet’s The Screens, though without the political dimension. Certainly there’s an science fictional element in it as well.

What forthcoming projects do we have to look forward to?

I’m just finishing a short book about the relationship between Chester Brown’s graphic novel Ed the Happy Clown and his comic book series Yummy Fur (in which the Ed story first appeared).  My daughter Sarah and I also just translated David B’s graphic novel Incidents in the Night, which should appear any day now. Other than that, I’m about 2/3rds of the way done with a new story collection, slowly getting there, and trying to figure out what the next novel might be. I have an idea for a sequel to Immobility, and that may well be the next book.

Photo courtesy of Brian Evenson.

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INTERVIEW: Richard Benari & Lauren Henkin

  

 

Richard Benari's current work focuses on the possibilities of a pared-down photographic language and its ability to provoke a visceral response to form. His chief concern is the interpretation of that language in print. Relying solely on the literal qualities of the photographic object, meaning in his pictures derives from the unique interaction of surface, ink and light, rather than from the image, per se. His photographs are in numerous private, public and library collections including Smith College Museum of Art, the University of Oregon and Yale University.

Lauren Henkin grew up in Maryland, graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in architecture from Washington University in St. Louis and resides in New York City. She states, “My work focuses on the tension between preservation and extinction. I work from the inside out, using internal narrative as the foundation in which to reinterpret space, light and form found in the external.” Henkin is an educator, reviewer, writer, frequent speaker, author of numerous books, and active member in the arts. Her work is widely collected by private collectors as well as institutions such as Southeast Museum of Photography, Yale University, Smith College and Dartmouth College among others. Her work has been published in numerous journals on photography and the book arts including PDN, Shots Magazine, Black+White Magazine, Diffusion Magazine, Flak Photo, Urbanautica, Landscape Stories, Parenthesis and The Washington Post. She is a Px3 multi-category winner, Oregon Regional Arts & Culture Council grant winner, with other award nominations in both the Brink Emerging Artist and Contemporary Northwest Art Awards.

Interview by Josh T. Franco

 

The notion of a “touching photograph” is schmaltzy, saccharine. Well, at best, a photograph can be genuinely touching as a mnemonic talisman. And these are crucial. Distinguishing between personal and generic is the key. But touching a photograph feels illicit and irreversible. If the viewer is not imbedded with basic conservation protocol, she is nonetheless touching, and that is something in a world where looking at even shocking images is quotidian. The fingerprint will never fade. The human oil cannot be fully conserved out of the print. You have offered up your photographs explicitly for handling, manhandling. (Is mangling so far away?) To do so in the context of art is a risk. Thank you for taking a risk, not merely for the sake of being risqué. The touching matters, you tell us. It makes me begin my engagement with your work in a place other than the visual. Tactility seems the highway, visibility the exit ramp. The vehicles: hand-built vellum and sandpaper.

“Manhandling” feels a bit loaded. But “tactile” fits. That’s what we were after--reconnecting viewers to the haptic quality of a photographic print. And, yes, there’s some risk in that. Thanks for acknowledging it. The idea isn’t so much that the feel of the print in your hand supersedes the visual, but that you get to experience the print as we did when making it: up-close, unframed, unmmediated and accessing the ambient light in which it is viewed.

 

And what is pictured in Pictures? What is visible? By beginning from touching I—nor you, I believe—am not implying that the visual is secondary. The labor and care with which the images are crafted seem guided by a desire to put in perpetual motion a scale. On one side of the scale are objects in space. On the other side, objects’ images as ideas.  To tip the scale, the print and the viewer/handler must dialogue with one another. Orientation seems key. The process of holding up, rotating, flipping, is integral to the intended experience. I think? 

Handling the print is secondary; that’s right. Again, we wanted to create an intimate viewing experience, and one in which the feel and weight of the print would be add something--a way to further convey, or sometimes play-against, the already-tactile quality that’s so much a part of the photographic print. So the scale of the prints became important. But our main concern: give the prints a chance to be viewed in different kinds of light. At the end of the day, Pictures is a study in photographic abstraction. Meaning here doesn’t depend on the image, it depends on the object--the print itself. So the ambient light in which the prints are viewed is as important an ingredient as the ink with which they are printed.

About orientation: Actually, it’s not so essential. Two of the project’s four folios are shot in portrait and what we noticed is that that’s a bit tough for viewers. People see the world in landscape, after all. So, many viewers try flipping the vertically-oriented images on their side. But, after a few minutes, they’ll right them vertically again.  The visual clues in the images--the way the lines run, the way the light falls--tend to tip them off about our intention.

 

Orientation and vertigo do play a role in how one experiences scale in the works. Where there is a rocky landscape, the light’s presence in the photograph is manipulated in such a way as to confuse: is this a sheer rock cliff? A rocky, endless beach? A trompe l’oeil drawing? And when one is sufficiently disoriented: Is this an abstraction? But as vehemently as you want us to demystify the photograph’s claim to truth through touching it, you seem to want us to avoid abstracting this image as well. What does it mean to say that these are rocks? Or that they are not?

Yeah, these images are plenty disorienting. That’s purposeful. There are no clues about scale in these images and no tips about pictorial space. In fact, subtle shifts in tone purposely confuse the viewer’s read of pictorial space. So the Oregon landscapes, for example, tend to engage because of the sheer feel of rocks and because of perspective--the images feel at once vertiginous, like you said, and flat. But for us, “abstraction” and “disorientation” aren’t at all synonymous. We’re interested in abstraction because it intensifies the physicality of what’s photographed; disorientation is a by-product. A real useful one, but still a by-product. The Oregon landscapes, which say so much about abstraction in the found and the everyday, convey the sheer physicality of place--without reference to location and without documentary comment. Similarly, the sandpaper constructions create a tension, we hope, between the solidity a viewer sense and the fragility of the paper. They also feel voluminous, and this lends a kind of biomorphic feel to the prints. We were surprised that so many viewers see legs and pelvis in these images.

  

The onus to orient again falls on the viewer/handler herself in the photographs of interior walls. How did you get the images of stacked empty walls to behave as if nothing but two dimensions? I am thinking here of the odd moments where the edge of a wall closer to the foreground and the edge it creates (the same edge) against the wall behind it twist on one another. It’s as if the beginning of a braid happens in an arbitrary pinpoint where the walls are, in reality, just as far from one another as in any other spot. Is the editor exposed? Is the viewer working hard enough?

It’s a good read of the images. Thanks.

A big part of this project was to return the viewer to the pleasures of modernism. So, again, the idea of flattened perspective was key. In each of the prints, subtle shifts in tone confuse the viewers read of pictorial space. This is especially true of the interior shots, the architecture studies. So a part of the tension in these images is about, again, about depth and flatness.  About how it was done: a lot depended on the light in which we photographed and a lot depended on how we interpreted these images in print. We tend to photograph at the tightest aperture available, which sharpens the image but also deepens pictorial space. So the flat light in which we photographed, the subtle gradation in tone and, later, careful spit-toning--all of this was key.  It’s also generative. It’s helped shape one of our current projects, which focuses on the built environment and how we conceptualize space.

 

The slowest arriving question about this work is the question of text. It seemed at first to have nothing to do with the printed work, the alphabetical. Perhaps it is the handholding that takes me there. Do I engage these works like books? Why do they make me want to read them?

This is a terrific question. Thanks for asking it. The short answer: These photographs aren’t intended for the wall. First, there’s a lot of them--four series of five--and each image within a series dialogues with the next. So, seriality is key; that is, these images develop their ideas across a series. So there is a textual reference here, and a kinship with books--which is, in part, why we first decided on the folio format. Also, it was important for us to give a sense of those ideas unfolding, but without any narrative present.  It feels like the majority of what’s photographed today hinges on narrative. We wanted to make a conscious break with that.

The longer answer, though, involves how we--the viewers--have become accustomed to looking at art: on the wall, episodically, and seldom within the context of what surrounds a work or how the work is lit. We tend not to engage the curatorial decisions that went into hanging the art--probably much to the frustration of curators. So a piece of this project involved a degree of “self-curation” on the part of the viewer. The viewer gets to order the prints and choose the light in which they’re experienced. By doing that, they create a kind of conversation with the work--and with us, a kind of questioning of our intention. There’s more to say here, but it’s a long conversation. Perhaps another day. 

These works are meant to be consulted and engaged, to be brought out and experienced within the specific and viewer-chosen context of light and quiet room. In this sense, the textual reference goes deep--as if it's a book one would wish to consult and experience, then later re-read. The impetus for this is the Chinese Handscroll, and the best feel for that is Maxwell Hearn, Chief Curator of Asian Art at the Met, talking about it. Here's a link to that kind of kitschy vid from the Times. (Click.) Of course, we don't intend to "lovingly swaddle" and of our work in silk.

 

You touch your work as well, beyond the touching required by all photographic production. Crumple: to create lines whose weight is not the detritus of graphite traveling on vellum, but the result of intimate handling in three dimensions. You have had such intimate relations with your material. I wonder why, and I wonder how the “why” changed as that mode of relating unfolded over time, forgive the pun. How does your relationship with the material set up the framework for our relationship with it? What will the institutions taking on this work have to consider in how they relate to their visitors as a result?

Materiality is the thing we wanted to convey most. We wanted to give a viewer a chance to experience the sensations and emotions one feels from touch, without reference to any actual thing. So the crumpled papers, for example, have an ethereal and often a fleeting quality to them. There are moments in the prints where the ink is barely visible on the paper and image and paper seem to become one. An interesting effect, considering that the image itself is of a piece of paper, though people have read these as any number of things, from aerial landscapes to bed sheets. We’re drawn to these prints because of the tension they create between the material fact of the print and the ethereal quality of what’s photographed. Plus, again, how these, in particular, depend on the ambient light in which they’re viewed. I hope viewers of these prints share that our take.

About how the institutions that have acquired this work will choose to exhibit them: of course, it’s not our call. We made an effort to reach out to those institutions which had study rooms, hoping this work would be accessible off the wall and in-hand. We also considered offering acquiring institutions two sets: an exhibition set and a handling set. But, like you said earlier, museums and library special collections--the institutions that have shown the greatest interest in these folios--have their own set of conservation protocols--and rightly so. Many institutions have incredibly good facilities--their study rooms--that enable viewers to page a work from the collection and view it up-close and personal. It’s a terrific resource, one we hope more viewers make use of. The white gloves don’t concern us. These institutions go to great trouble to make work available--and in a ways that acknowledge the artist’s intention--while still maintaining conservational safeguards.

 

I thank you both. Engaging your work has been, after all, a touching experience.

Thank you, Josh. These meetings have been terrific.

 

INTERVIEW: Elisabeth Kley

 

 

Small Yellow and Green Face Bottle, 2008, glazed earthenware approximately 7" tall

The strangely shaped ceramics arranged in a line like soldiers and stacks of jaunty portrait drawings of flamboyant characters create an aura of sweetness paired with the macabre in Elisabeth Kley ’s Brooklyn studio. Hidden faces painted on kiln-fired jars stare back at the viewer and a dusty cat sashays about the room until jumping into Kley’s lap to do some affectionate writhing. The studio if full of both life and death – and yet, without the usual luggage of either. The subject of mortality, for Kley, invokes bright colors and eccentric patterns. Faces are both inviting and defiant. Designs are aggressive, but playful. What is perhaps most alluring, however, is that these uncanny, subtle juxtapositions that Kley works in are as intelligent as, well, friendly. I’m not sure how else to put it: I don’t believe I’ve ever felt like a ceramic jar was trying to be friends with me the way Kley’s jars and portraits do, that is, these works smile and actually look inquisitively at you from across the room. For all the ways that art tries to seduce, repel, antagonize, disgust, and move viewers, the experience of feeling an actual personality projecting from a jar is unsettling if just as charming. Of course, these jars and portraits have a real bite to them too: Kley’s interests as an artist span from Louise Bourgeois to Dali to Chanel to Kolomon Moser, etc. etc. Her Facebook wall is a flood of various images: Anna Pavlova, Harry Belafonte, Henri Matisse, and “the first yogasan chart ever found.”

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

I’m curious about your ceramics with eyes. How did the notion of an object that looks back at the viewer come about?

Well, it might have been because I was doing portraits at the same time that I started doing ceramics, but I also wanted really early paintings that I did when I was 18 or 19 to have eyes. I’ve always liked the idea of objects looking at you. For the first several years I made ceramics, they almost all had faces and eyes, sometimes quite disguised. The pattern on this piece from 2009 (gestures to colored ceramic on the floor) was taken from an antique French tapestry that Louise Bourgeois used for a sculpture of a head. It’s a leaf face with eyes and a mouth. I was after a specific expression, rather sad and blank. In the last few years, the faces began to feel cartoonish, so I switched to large aggressive flowers.

What was the portrait work you were doing at the time you started making ceramics?

It started when my father died. I was devastated and I wanted to do something with the feeling. I made ornamental drawings of angels and also some drawings of corpses done from pictures I found in the library – the first time I ever worked from photographs. Later, a friend asked me to be in a show about David Bowie. I liked his gallery and I wanted to be in the show, so I found a bunch of pictures of David Bowie and made drawings looking at them. This was the beginning of my portraits.

My father wasn’t particularly flamboyant, but he did have a moustache, and sometimes he sat in a chair in a certain pretentious way that reminded me of Dali. So I began doing drawings of Dali, again from photographs. I then went on to other aging, flamboyant characters including artists Nevelson, Warhol and Fini, fashion designers Erte, Chanel, Trigere, and art world characters like Peggy Guggenheim. I was interested in mortality and decoration, aging people defying death through extreme dressing up. Later I carried the idea of transformation even further with characters in drag: portraits of Ethel Eichelberger, Candy Darling and Jack Smith. At the same time I was doing large drawings of colorful airy pavilions, using expensive Japanese paper. I would begin at the bottom with a horizon and continue up adding sections in pen and liquid watercolor. If I made a mistake, I realized I could cut out the part I didn’t like and neatly collage in a replacement. I began doing the same thing with the portraits, and eventually I began getting messier, constructing the faces by gluing on separate features, which reminded me of putting on makeup. Around the same time I became friends with an artist and drag performer whose work I had loved for years. I photographed his performances and used them to make drawings. The drawings weren’t pretty, but he tolerated me. He was my first (and so far only) live muse.

It’s interesting because you’re a female artist whose gaze is setting upon men who are bending gender.

I admire the guts it takes for people to transform themselves so dramatically. I am fascinated by metamorphosis.

When did you begin making ceramics?

This was also quite happenstance. My husband wanted to get a kiln and make ceramic sculptures, so we decided to take a class at a small local pottery studio. I had recently abandoned painting for drawing. I was tired of painting’s historical baggage and wanted to do something lighter. I’d always liked the decoration of historical ceramics, so I thought, why make paintings about it when it’s so much nicer to make the ceramics themselves.

What about decoration appeals to you?

I like an extreme environment that’s visually over-the-top. I remember when I went to Mexico in 1990 I was interested in the colonial hybrid decoration that is Spanish and Native American together. I thought, oh my god, everything is so decorated and everything is so colorful. I just love that.

 

 

 

Eye Peacock, 2007, glazed earthenware, 25"x27"x12"

How do you make your color choices for the ceramics?

I’ve become comfortable with a group of underglazes I mix myself. I’ve chosen the colors that are clearest: lime green, turquoise, yellow, yellow orange, orange red and deep blue. I want the work to emit light – I adore Matisse – but at the same time I want it to be loud and defiant. Bright colors don’t always signify happiness; they can express other emotions, perhaps exhibitionism and rage. They may also cover up things you want to hide.

Where do the patterns and motifs that decorate your ceramics come from?

I look at a lot of things: Islamic, Central Asian and Russian textiles, Ballet Russe sets and costumes, Islamic and Spanish ceramics, Wiener Werkstatte design. I improvise from images I see in books or in photos I take at museums. I’ve always been interested in foreign cultures. I had a collection of costume dolls when I was small.

You mentioned “decoration and mortality”. How did those two come to pair in your mind?

I think it was through the idea that the extreme behavior and the extreme of visual expression, the personal visual expression of someone like Dali, or also Warhol, those different artists as they aged – maybe they were always flamboyant – but it seemed to me as they aged, that the flamboyance was like a battle against death.

Did your father influence you as an artist?

Yes, I think so. He was an architect. My parents encouraged me to make art and sent me to an after school sculpture class at the Museum of Modern Art. My father always painted. Some of his work was quite interesting, especially a few quite surreal pieces made when he was in psychoanalysis, before he had his crazy shrink committed. After that he painted athletes, trees, and portraits of my mother.

So you’ve been making art your whole life?

Always. At 5 or 6 I was planning to be a mommy, but a few years later I knew I was going to be an artist.

I took sketch classes on Saturdays at the Art Students League as a teenager. When I finished high school I’d had enough of academics so I continued there instead of going to college, not exactly the best career path. I didn’t have a clue about contemporary art, but I tried everything else. I was aware of the old masters, Post-Impressionism, Matisse and Picasso, and Abstract Expressionism.  I began rather abstractly doing hallucinatory paintings with hidden figures out of my imagination, but then for some reason I became compelled to make my way through art history and conquer the representation of three dimensions. Life drawing, modeling clay sculpture figures, wood carving, still lives, and so on – all things I’d now advise artists to skip unless they are necessary to what they want to do. Next I learned etching at Hunter College and then I enrolled in the studio semester program at Empire State College. It was designed to allow art students from upstate to experience the New York art world by providing studios in Manhattan at State University tuition, which was really cheap at the time. Contemporary artists like Eric Fischl and Carolee Schneeman came in and talked about their work and looked at yours. That’s when I became aware of what was going on around me.

What was your impression of contemporary art when you started to encounter it?

I wasn’t really crazy about macho Neo-Expressionism and the messy East Village scene. In the nineties the market crashed and things became more modest, which I liked. Of course now I’m more open-minded and interested in a lot of art I once dismissed.

What do you think about where art is now?

There’s a lot going on. I tend to like dark, sensational, somewhat twisted things, maybe because they make good copy. I was writing for Walter Robinson during the last four or five years of Artnet and I knew what he liked – TABLOID. I had a great time writing about artists like Otto Muehl, the Viennese Actionist who recently died, as well as Genesis Breyer P. Orridge, Miriam Cahn, and Ron Athey. But I also love Tabboo!, whose work is supremely joyful.

 

 

 

Candy Darling, 2006, pencil, ink & gouache on Japanese paper, 38 x 26"

What’s a recent show you’ve seen that was good?

The Kolomon Moser show at the Neue Galerie is sublime, and my friend Joyce Pensato’s retrospective at the Santa Monica Museum is fantastic.

Given that you have been a lifelong artist, what advice would you have for a young artist starting out today?

Learn a skill that is in demand and pays extremely well by the hour. I never did that.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on drawings for two large round bottles to go with the four that are already done. I’m also making five longer, skinnier bottles that I can put in between the six large three-part bottles I finished last year (gestures to line of large ceramics). It was fun to make these exuberant and crazy shapes, but then once I was trying to figure out how to decorate them, I felt somewhat constrained. Complicated shapes need simpler decoration. The round ones can be more complex and interesting.

I have also decided that it would be nice to unify everything I have [at the studio] with some really aggressive black and white wallpaper. I’m running out of space and there’s only so many more ceramics I can make. Eventually I may go back to doing portrait drawings, and hang them on the wallpaper, which might turn the other work into décor for the spaces where they live. I went out and got a little silkscreen kit and I’m starting to figure that out.

Is that typical of your process? The idea is followed by gathering materials and then playing around?

I would say that my process is really quite obsessive. For example, I did a printmaking project for Randy Wray’s Element Editions in 2010. He wanted a group of unique variations on one print, but I wound up making 4 small and 4 medium plates to warm up and then 6 larger ones, each with two versions in black and white, and more in colored ink with collaged and painted additions on white paper, and even more in colored ink on colored paper. I worked on them for months. Similarly, every portrait subject is drawn repeatedly and each ceramic bottle that I make requires extensive preparation with many black and white drawings and colored watercolors before I can finally apply decoration. Although I strive to make things look as if effortlessly done in one breath, I don’t work quickly. Everything must be completely explored.

All images courtesty of Elisabeth Kley.

 

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