INTERVIEW: T. Geronimo Johnson

 

T. Geronimo Johnson, author of Hold It 'Til It Hurts (Coffee House Press), photograph by Elizabeth Cowan

 

T Geronimo Johnson was born in New Orleans. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Best New American Voices, Indiana Review, LA Review, and Illuminations, among others. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford, Johnson teaches writing at University of California–Berkeley.

His first novel, Hold It ‘Til It Hurts (Coffee House Press, 2012), explores a not-too-long-ago America, four years into war in Afghanistan and on the cusp of the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.  The novel follows its main character, Achilles, in search of his adoptive brother through morgues and into drug houses; to a beautiful and impoverished, and then ravaged New Orleans; from the trauma and loneliness of post-combat into the ordeals and imperfections of a love affair.  Johnson gets his readers in close to a perspective atypical of American fiction – the sensitive as much as cynical Achilles – a black vet of the war in Afghanistan who was raised by adoptive white parents in the suburbs.  It is unusual to come across a several-hundred-pages-long story so unreserved about issues of race, sexuality, and gender in a context that is still so recent and thus so raw in American history, but what is most striking about the work is the haunting quality of Johnson’s realism, which is capable of great sensuality and great coldness in the same paragraph, and can hold the intensity of memory at the same timbre of the present moment in a single sentence.  From the shards of baby-doll heads, anonymous bodies, kisses in the dark, mustard-trimmed windows, muzzled pit bulls, spilled brains, nightmares of war, scratch marks in an attic, and the search for a lost brother, arises a love story complete with revelations about sexual technique, early dates characterized by awkwardness and yearning, the mutual alienation of a fallout, the warmth of routine, violent anal sex, embarrassing visits with parents, and an aged sense of mercy in ambiguity. 

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

Hold It ‘Til It Hurts is a novel that is perpetually at war, exploring such conflicts as race, gender, class, domestic violence, a soldier’s life post-combat, poverty, and so on.  What’s intriguing is that a great deal of the tension that propels the text is resistance.  This is a novel that resists socio-political idealism, resists easy conclusions in regards to intimacy, resists – and is uncomfortably aware of – the white gaze.  Moreover this is a novel that resists being segregated to the genre of African American literature while simultaneously not rejecting African American literature as an artistic history.   Although not shy about cultural criticisms, this novel insists on being understood as literature, first and foremost, perhaps because the overarching shape it takes is that of a love story in the background of warfare.  How does one straddle so many political, cultural, historical, and social fences in the making of serious art? 

What first comes to mind is that it reflects my worldview and my hesitancy to try and wrap everything up too neatly because that would feel completely unrealistic and would undermine the power of the narrative.  It also has a lot to do with point of view and a desire to write about a type of individual that has gone through these experiences and is not yet able to process all of them, and balancing the risk involved in writing the character as I did.  I was aiming more for life than a neatly delineated narrative.  Sometimes when I was in school I would find myself reading such stories and felt as though those narrow depictions of the world ignored the social contours that give definition to our lives.      

I wanted to avoid that. The driving question of the novel is: How do you learn to care about people who are not like you? This exploration demands a broad range of experiences.  This is Achilles question, but it’s also the reader’s.  I suppose by opening up a person so much and hovering so close to his point of view readers then finds themselves privy to things we might not share publicly or openly.  So that’s part of the straddling.

But it’s not really straddling. We’re all a combination of these myriad influences. Borges says the text is the axis of innumerable relationships; the same could be said of character. The project is more about depth than breadth, or any breadth is achieved through depth.

Another guiding notion was the distinction between what we will say and admit to publicly, what we will say in private only, what we think and will not share, and then there’s all those impulses of which we are not aware. The latter have the greatest influence in our actions and opinions, and the latter, sadly, also resist easy persuasions.  Much of the novel resides in that space, and that’s where this notion of resistance is coming from. Beneath the bounds of the polite discourse, at the subconscious level, we can take a look at how Achilles’ social conditioning has formed these particular worldviews, and how he struggles both consciously and unconsciously to reconcile them.  From a technical point of view that’s how I was able to straddle these different elements – by not straddling them, but by simply pushing deeper.  It was more at the level of impulse than craft.

 

I’m concerned that white readerships sometimes regard literature by a person of color who is writing about the struggles of people of color, with patronization - particularly in an era like ours that is witnessing a resurgence of overt racism and misogyny and the white guilt that accompanies such.  How do you think the reception of American literature written by people of color will shift?  How do we address this issue as we move out of post-modernism?

Very often literature by or about people of color conforms to our ideals of this country.  It too often takes on the arc of a racial Horatio Alger narrative.  Those served a clear social purpose in the past, especially in slave narratives where the thrust was the inosculation of literacy and enlightenment.  If you are able to read, you are enlightened. Now North-North America will accept you as a human because it was only a lack of education that defined otherness, and if everyone had known all along that you could read they would have never offered you those agricultural jobs in the first place.  We’ve moved away from that but it still often feels that stories about people of color have to conform to that particular kind of arc and characterization called for in Aristotle’s Poetics. I cannot abide that.

We are plagued by the myth of universality. While we do share impulses, needs, desires; while we are ninety-nine-point-nine-x-with-a-smile percent genetically identical; while the Russians love their children too (we hope!); our constructed social identities frame very different social realities[1]. As one author writing about single motherhood said, Even if the story is universal, the truth is in the details, and the details are what matters. In her essay, that author, a single white mother explains how much her reality differs, profoundly differs, from that of a mother in a two-parent household and how the differences in lived experience affect everything from a sense of time to the use of pronouns. I live in a very different world from the white reader. Social space bends differently around me. And this is the problem: How does one present those differences while still reassuring readers of our commonality and of the ultimate beneficence of our society? I’m not sure that we always can, but that is what many readers often want.

Marketing is an issue as well.

For example, a few editors said it was admirable that I didn’t follow the clichéd route and end up on the other side of the rainbow, but they couldn’t sell this kind of story. They think they’re conforming to the market when they are creating it. (At this point I have to say thanks to Jon Sternfeld and Anitra Budd!!) There’s this market pressure for writers of color and the stories about people of color to conform. Authors then are (inadvertently?) expected to do what in any other medium would be a shuck and jive. This pressure to perform a ritual of atonement goes back to the slave narrative. Even on my end, I had to, towards the final stages, interject purposefully a few details and asides to assure the reader of Achilles humanity – because it is not always assumed of black characters (readers don’t fill in the blanks the same way). And those details I inserted, which I will not list here, worked, sadly, as anticipated.  That’s not your question, but understanding the pressures that black authors feel when reaching out to “wider (whiter)” audiences is necessary before we can even imagine a shift in perception or shift in reception. And I don’t know how that will resolve itself. If we don’t acknowledge who we are, how will we become?

I will not list any novels here, but the pressure is real. I have been wondering whether or not I would publish through the traditional channels anymore, at least not when you have a group of people who don’t know your experience deciding how you should best represent that experience.  So as we move into a new era, I’m thinking less about the Gestalt or political evolution or theoretical shifts.  As we move away from post-modernism (if we can, it’s the theoretical equivalent of Saran wrap and has the kinetic energy of Christian typology), as we move away from post-modernism, hopefully shifts in technology will enable people to tell other types of stories without bowing to a mediator. People can build their own markets.

I suppose it can be summed like this: in my artist statement I say that I write for the ones who didn’t get away.  In the world we live in, for understandable reasons, people want stories about those that do.  I understand that we need those types of stories, but it’s equally important to acknowledge that there are so many other narratives that are lived everyday and in many of these people are not fairly rewarded. (See Turing in the machine.) And if our society does not face these narratives, we will keep writing them - in bone, on flesh.

 

You said something interesting about how technology will make it easier for people to tell other types of stories – can you expand on that?  How do you think technology may facilitate the telling of marginal stories?

I alluded to this above, but the slap of selling a novel guided by a marginal voice is that people alien to the experience are empowered to tell you how to render it, and I’m not talking about craft here. Your life is mediated through alien eyes. The mask and veil become huge zip lock bags, but we can make out faint contours, a ridge there or here, a chin, a mouth in vain. But that frustration is born of a specific publishing model and cultural aesthetic (Long live CHP!). Instead of delayed and hierarchical, distribution is now immediate and lateral (as poets have done for years with chapbooks).  Modes of expression are changing as well. A scholar (I won’t name here) of fandom and transmedia heralds the latter as the great narrative equalizer. As the term is currently used, and the theory is currently practiced, transmedia means extending narratives across different media.  From this scholar’s perspective, a show such as (I won’t name here) develops minor characters through webisodes and other low cost avenues. He claims this is beneficial for gay characters and others who may not receive ample screen time. (I want to call this ghettoization. Maybe I just did. Who knows?) From my perspective, though, transmedia a way for alternative voices to collaborate in unimaginable ways. Of course self-publishing and micro-publishing are growing, especially in the urban lit genre. And ebooks have enabled many new voices to connect directly to readers. But transmedia is exciting, and it’s probably what I would focus on if I were just starting as a writer today. A story is a cloud, a novel a storm, a transmedia narrative an entire climate.

 

A particularly interesting and uncomfortable thread through the novel is the intersectionality of gender and race.  I hope this line of inquiry isn’t facile because I think it’s still at the heart of much overtly political American fiction: Can white American authors authentically approach writing about the experiences and perspectives of people of color?  And can heterosexual male authors authentically approach writing about the experiences and perspectives of women?  Essentially, can people of one privileged class effectively portray the perspectives of people who are of a corresponding underprivileged class?

Immediately that struck a cord for me because one East Bay interviewer asked the same question. She’d reviewed me and Chabon over two consecutive weeks. Chabon’s book features black characters and mine white characters. I feel like everyone has the right to undertake the challenge of portraying the lives of others, but it can be difficult.  If I want to write about the female experience, I must not only acknowledge my privilege, but also acknowledge what it’s like to live without it, and how that frames the world differently, and acknowledge that I am a partner in oppression. What’s worse is that this involves interrogating my assumptions of what I have actually earned in this world. I think that’s what’s so hard about writing people who are unlike yourself, especially people who are at the other end of the continuum.  To do it well, and burrow deeply, you have to move beyond that sense of, “Oh, I make less money,” or “Oh, I have babies,” of “Oh, people think I’m a bad driver,” and consider how deeply engrained sexism is, realize that it is, sadly, rebar embedded deep in the foundation of our culture, so deep that it defines language, self-perception, school performance, that it operates beneath the level of consciousness. I’d also have to consider how that can manifest as resentment and how also no matter how fair or good of a person I may want to be, by virtue of my privilege, I’m still an extension of an arm of oppression.  I feel like it’s hard for people to really wrestle that and to face that and to harness that.  For example, passive-aggressiveness is associated with femininity, but it’s simply the most practical solution for the acute angle in any asymmetric relationship. So then one wonders how to effectively dramatize that and critique the system at its source, as well as the less informed critiques of the strategy.

To consider a spoke of identity at the end of which is a character with more privilege than me is to face the challenge of avoiding bitterness or resentment, and rendering faithfully a full spectrum of humanity. Perhaps one of the best ways to think about those continuums is to mine the angst that resides where you are least empowered. This then is limited by your social profile.  There’s a clear hierarchy in the world, some people have fewer restrictions no matter how you spin it. 

Being a black male, if I wanted to write about a white female, at least to some extent I can think honestly about how a black male interprets situations where he is treated unfairly in relation to someone who is white. It’s very ugly because we want to tell stories that are reaffirming. I think, in fact, this is hardest for liberal white males who may want to believe, with all their hearts that we are alike (and tread carefully for fear of being accused of racist depictions). With Achilles, for example, I imagined what would happen if you were to go back 25-years and remove from a black male’s psyche all immediate, personal, positive experience of blackness. The vacuum that remains is filled by popular media. The result is different for a white male than a black male. A white male who meets his first blacks on COPS may be anxious in a dark alley, but a black male who meets his first other self on COPS might be anxious alone in a dark room (as I asked in my official CHP author interview, “How do you duck when you are punching yourself in the face?”). To conceive of that I must be capable of recognizing patterns of representation that are negative and deleterious even though they may not appear so at first observation, such as the color line and good/hair bad/hair debates, and these are the very realities we avoid facing. (Look at the revisionist Harriet Tubman in that Lincoln movie.) It’s hard for people to unravel the cultural threads in their security blankets.

We’re unexpectedly in my closeted space and it’s hard to answer because some of this comes from conscious analysis and some of it comes from artistic impulse, that thing that strikes you in the heart and then drives you to respond.         

One of my concerns about the novel, because it’s not exactly hermetic, but it’s so close to Achilles’ perspective, was that people would not catch the flags and would read over the gender issues.  Achilles is a Gordian knot of anxiety and negativity about black females.  It’s been interesting to hear readers’ responses to the book because a lot of people don’t pick up on the intersection of race and gender.  The first who did was a reviewer in New Orleans, a black female who tackled that issue directly in an interview and review because she realized that the issue was not resolved by book’s end.  In the process of writing, I felt that if I put too many flags in or resolved that (which would be unrealistic in such a short span), that would undermine the experience for the reader.  I didn’t want to narrate the experience for the reader. I also knew I was writing two books.

 

I believe you are from New Orleans and a huge portion of this book addresses the horrors of Hurricane Katrina.  How does one write so closely to one’s own losses?  What are the complications inherent to writing about very recent history? 

Well, I’m actually in New Orleans right now.  Ten minutes ago, I was taking a picture of the house my parents lived in when I was born. That neighborhood is being gentrified. But because the improvements come in the wake of an exodus, I think they call it revitalization.

I always wonder how you don’t write about what’s really close to you.  What other purpose can sustain you as an artist in a society that guarantees no validation, financial or otherwise.  Without that sense of purpose, I don’t know that I would be able to continue writing everyday.  I must be fully engaged and invested and committed to a story that I want to tell, whether or not anyone wants to read it, a story I would be willing to give away. In the case of HiTiH, the research does take a toll on you because you’re processing so many painful emotions – reading morgue lists, looking at pictures, interviewing people, and reading newspaper accounts.  It’s a harrowing experience because it feels like you have to read a thousand pages to distill it into that two or three sentences that really capture the essence of the experience.

In terms of writing about recent history, that can be difficult because the world is changing right in front of me, especially in New Orleans – this is my second time here in six weeks. I find myself wondering how much of what I remember is accurate and which memories are glamour shots fogged by nostalgia, and, even, how many of the structural changes are real. Recent history is so illusory.  I guess that’s a challenge for all artists who are responding emotionally or critically to conversations not yet being had publically about, for example, demographic shifts.  Here, I see white musicians where I used to see black musicians, and white artists where I used to see black artists, and even white beggars at intersections where I used to see black beggars. What am I to make of that? How am I to address and acknowledge my latent fears and anxieties about this shift? How am I to make sense of them to myself, let alone to a reader? Can a tent city be gentrified? Am I feeling saudade myself or mourning someone else’s? Can one even mourn the loss of saudade?  

There’s a lot of uncertainty in writing about recent history because there are no fixed landmarks, but in the end - this is so corny – but I feel in the end I was guided by love.  I was provoked by frustration and anger and then guided by love in the execution.  My biggest anxiety at end was whether or not New Orleanians would feel that I misrepresented the city.  I also had this feeling that if I didn’t do a good job, it would look as though I used Katrina as a mere plot point and that would be unforgivable, absolutely unforgivable.  I suppose that takes a little more work to write about these types of events because you know that you can’t convey everyone’s experience, but you’re hoping that in some way you can reflect it accurately enough so that someone who wasn’t there can feel it, and it will be remembered when it is not longer so recent. Bradbury said we write about futures so they won’t happen. Maybe we write about pasts we hope not to revisit.

 

When say you were motivated by frustration and anger, this makes me think of Virginia Woolf’s idea about how social trauma – what she calls “impoverishment” in A Room of One’s Own – is ultimately disfiguring to art and her concern that marginalized writers (in A Room of One’s Own – women) have this special psychological struggle to make art.  Although I wouldn’t presume to know how Woolf would assess contemporary American fiction, Hold It ‘Til It Hurts is not what I would rate a “damaged” or “disfigured” novel.  The portrayal of Achilles is that of a character warped by the traumas he experiences – particularly evident in how he relates to language, but the novel itself is intact – at the level of narrative arc and sentence, and in the novel’s engagement with beauty.  Did the frustration and anger that motivated you present struggle in your process?  If so, how did you strategize? 

Provocation is necessarily separate from execution. We’re exploring the gap between impulse and execution, and the gap between execution and interpretation.  This is where craft—and its myriad of definitions—comes into play, this is where it becomes obvious that what I must write is a novel that appeals to a wider (whiter audience), this is where it becomes obvious that plot must be a generous machine. So the novel tells two stories, one for blacks, one for everyone else. This is not to say that only black readers will divine the story in the song lyrics, religious references, cultural signifiers, etc., but from the beginning I was conscious of the need to play several hands at once.

This became evident in my workshop era when I presented the first chapter. Readers of color read tension in the foreshadowed unraveling of racial identity. Many white readers (usually white male readers, but some females, too) would read chapter one, and say, “This cannot be a first chapter. It presents no driving, enduring question.” or “What is it about?” or “The story must be about more than whether or not he finds his brother.”

In retrospect those experiences strike me as odd because the response to the book has been positive and receptive. But, because of those responses, while I knew there were receptive readers, I also considered myself to be, on some level, writing for a hostile audience, or at least an audience alienated from the day-to-day reality of my characters.

So there was much strategizing (I am embarrassed to admit).  Many of Achilles’ less favorable thoughts merely reflect common discourse, but I knew if I put those thoughts and words into the mind and mouth of a white character, the wider audience would recoil (not necessarily with self-recognition, but that would be the case with some). Likewise, Ines’ more strident race comments issued by a black male would alienate the wider readership. In fact, Ines has been referred to at times as “serving only to teach Achilles lessons” and “strident,” but what she is really doing is making comments usually heard only behind closed doors. This is part of what gives HiTiH some of its gravitas; the reader gets to be a fly on the wall. Conversations and attitudes that are of import but marginalized are brought to center stage where they can be juxtaposed against a more forceful articulation of conservative white values. Ines sounds strident only if one doesn’t know that a lot of black people agree with her. There is also a significant amount of ambiguity and doubling. In addition to a few other elements, the brothers’ names, for example, signify Greek myths, but that allusion is an allision.  Craft, strategy, and privilege intersect here. Stanford and Iowa were not only exceptional educations, and sites of valuable exposure to how different people read, but also intensive extensions of my continuing education in biculturalism. At end, I am lucky to have both the social capital to get this book out, and a keener sense of how to balance the competing interests, desires, and dreams. Yet capitulation remains a concern.

As for Woolf, though she has much useful to say about the connection between art and financial independence, I’m unresolved on her observation about Bronte, and there is one point in A Room of One’s Own at which I bristle. Early in the essay she describes the narrator sketching a professor whilst pondering several treatises on the inferiority of women. The narrator is shocked when she notices that the professor is distorted. “Anger had snatched my pencil while I dreamt.”  The narrator doodles cartwheels and circles all over the face until it resembles nothing more that “burning faggots on Hempstead Heath.”  That distorted face, I argue, is a valid point of view. In brief, this is connected to the slave narrative and the concept of literature defined by the necessity of the time, but I’d argue that we need more “anger snatched pencils” and fewer fires on the (distant?) Heath. At the moment she blankets her expression of honest rage with innocuous doodles, she commits a violence to herself and her art, the same violence that is done when mainstream sensibilities and politesse silence marginal voices. I accept the efficacies of craft, but reject the assertion that rage is disfigurement.

 

I thought that the complex character compositions were especially successful in this work.  In the first pages, Achilles’ adopted (white) mother encourages him to find his (black) birth parents, warning him that he shouldn’t leave himself, “undone.” Many of the characters are “undone” in some deeply personal fashion that is entrenched in larger cultural issues, but none of them can be categorized via easy assumptions or stereotypes.  While it’s very clear that Achilles is not a mouthpiece of the author, are you concerned that readers will assimilate you with him? 

Very, very.  I’ve come to realize that maybe that’s a compliment.  I had written a story that was in Best New American Voices a few years back, and it involves an African American graduate student who struggling with a cocaine addiction. He relapses toward the end.  At some point shortly after that came out, I was at a dinner with a group of writers.  I ordered a drink and a person in authority asked me if it was okay for me to be drinking. And I said, “I think so, I mean I paid for it.” (Consider, reader, that answer). It was one of those events where the institution pays for your dinner, but not your drinks. (Probably always wise with writers).  “But you’re drinking,” said this person. And I said, “Yeah, why not.”  And this person said, “But you’re drinking,” and repeated it two or three times, and it was a little bit odd.  And finally the person said, “But what about your story?”  And I realized that this person thought that the story (Winter Never Quits) was autobiographical. (So, now I have to ask myself why I am even at the event? Is it charity?) There are many reasons, there are many reasons to be offended by this exchange.  But one thing that I’ve taken from it because I’ve told this story a couple times, is that to some extent it means that the story was convincing enough that it seemed based on personal knowledge. (Talk about wrestling an angel).

Rationalizations aside, this compliment is always problematic because the underlying assumption, as Sapphire argues, is that artists of color lack sufficient imaginations.  This may also be connected to complaints that people of color write so often about race. But the same charge of lack of imagination could be lobbied against people not of color who never do.   

With Achilles my concern is not that people think that I’m Achilles. My concern is that people will not read Achilles critically. I’ve never worried too much that someone will assume that I think about the poor or the homeless the same way Achilles does.  My fear rather is that someone doesn’t stop and ask why Achilles thinks that way and consider how his opinion reflects our society.  Achilles is a mirror. We’re all undone.

 

I found the juxtaposition of the progressive, compassionate, and educated Ines to the skeptical, disenchanted, world-weary Achilles interesting.  Even their approach to social critique is disparate: Achilles criticizes culture frequently through profanities and his “soldier’s humor”; Ines through an academic vocabulary and passionate seriousness.  I expected this “war” of sorts to be settled between them, with one worldview winning out over the other.  Yet, these perspectives are never resolved – they’re given space, eye-to-eye, both uncomfortably undefeated beside each other.  Why did you choose to leave the conflicting perspectives in this world shifted, but ultimately unresolved?

I couldn’t have resolved them within the book and written a believable story. That’s the first thing. The novel went through several drafts and several endings.  I knew that the ending would be to some extent unsatisfying.  Initially I didn’t think it could have an ending that would be satisfying at all. Where it has landed is a miracle of the third order.      

The thought that Achilles could in such a short period become a different person is just so implausible.  What’s really unfortunate is that Ines could become a different person, I think, more quickly than Achilles.  Horrors and atrocities change us much more, and much faster than does love. Achilles’ active duty experiences, which are compounded by Katrina, are another reason the novel must resist too neat a resolution. He’s been exposed to disaster and violence on a scale that is overwhelming and so constant that some measure of desensitization is the only hope for survival. I have a lot of friends who’ve served and a lot of friends that are cops, and that’s one of their coping mechanisms, of course. 

I was also resistant, in this novel, to over-narration.  The experience of reading is more pleasurable and fulfilling if both of these worldviews have their time on the page to express themselves fully for readers to examine on their own as opposed to if I were to try to lean too much in one direction or the other, or contrive what would clearly be an artificial resolution.  The worldviews are also part of the symbolic structure of the story, and are intimately intertwined with notions of assimilation, acculturation, mental colonization, the body as metaphor, internalized oppression, fear of intimacy, the burden of masculinity, love as balance, and a few other things.

From the perspective of a writer, the most realistic arc would be a falling out, a falling apart, shattering, not a coming together, and certainly not a full conversion.  Achilles can’t be Saul on the road to Damascus.  HiTiH is not a parable; it describes the arc of a life.

 

The social critique that unfolds in this novel rejects depictions of race and poverty by mainstream as well as academic perspectives.  Facile good-intentions, armchair progressiveness, and superficial resolutions are rendered irrelevant by violence, marginalization, and grief.  And yet, compassion ultimately survives in the world of this text.  For example, one of the most disturbing moments for me was when Ines verbally and physically attacked a child for his response to Hurricane Katrina.  This is an unexpected thing for her otherwise tolerant, socially responsible character to do.  And yet, while this episode certainly adds darkness and dimension to Ines, it doesn’t ultimately tarnish her activism and humanitarianism.  I would call the voice and perspective of the text, “a ruthless compassion.”  How do ruthlessness and compassion figure into artistic process for you?

I suppose I have to talk myself into this answer.  There are several different types of personalities in the book.  I wanted to depict – obviously Achilles and Ines are at opposite ends of the spectrum with other people in between – I wanted to depict everyone as fairly and clearly as I could.  While hope is a requirement to sustain oneself in the face of adversity, being progressive feels like a privilege.   I like the phrase “ruthless compassion.” Along that vein I was thinking of a clarity of vision, a vision of a whole person, and compassion is a prerequisite, or co-requisite, for apprehending the whole.                

Often we require personal security before we can extend compassion and concern to others. When you do not feel safe and secure, emotionally and financially, it’s hard to reach out to those who are less fortunate than you.  Of course there is the story of the old lady in the bible, but that only proves the point.

Also, it seems that progressivism and liberalism are not always open to critique, or at least are difficult to critique because of their porosity and malleability. But nonetheless, it depends on a sense of security – it’s an issue of worldview. None of this is meant as a critique, as much as an acknowledgement of how frail our positions are. And that even is not a critique, but reminds us that much work and energy goes into maintaining a life about which one can feel good. I suppose in this case the critique is offered by way of juxtaposition and the novel is eidetic because part of the project is to humanize unpopular positions and to explore how people arrive at conclusions that we may not want to agree with or that we may actually agree with but not want to acknowledge harboring. 

In terms of the process, HiTiH had to be eidetic.  It had to be a realistic depiction of events instead of being overly impressionistic, though it is at times. And it had to be so close to Achilles’ perspective that we could come to this understanding that even though truth is personal and subjective, it is experienced as an absolute.  

 

The force that this novel reaches for with agitated passion as well as with severe tenderness - and no less political than any of the other motifs - is love.  One way that love works in this text is through subtle clairvoyance and the faintest suggestion of magic: early in their romance, Achilles claims to “hear” Ines’s thoughts, for example.  Indeed a great deal of their dialogue – whether flirtatious banter or heated argument – is at a slant.  This got me thinking about how literature itself is essentially a psychic leap across planes, a bridge between cultures that are really still terribly alien to each other.  Where is the novel as an entity situated in the great landscape of cultural discourse?

It’s hard to say exactly where it’s situated.  So many novels claim to be about or are described as being about the healing power of love or the power of humanity.  I feel like that’s no less so the case with Hold It ‘Til It Hurts.  But my philosophy is that we often love people in spite of who they are and not because of who they are, or, in spite of who they are as much as who they are. They say love is without judgment. I suppose that’s often true, but it has to be about understanding on some level.  That driving question, again, is: How do we learn to care about those unlike us?

Achilles and Ines don’t always understand each other, but the hope is that the reader can understand both of them, and then share in their subjective gazes, which are driven by rich desires.  But as you say, there is this “subtle clairvoyance” between the two of them, and yet we see them more fully than they see each other.   Without this gap, the reader would feel less for them.

In the cultural landscape, the novel is opening the box to take a closer look at what we may not openly discuss or otherwise acknowledge, putting unpopular positions on the stage.  I think that there are a lot of people like Achilles, but they’re not writing books.  He’s been described sometimes as an anti-hero and I don’t know that he’s an anti-hero, but I think that’s more telling about our expectations of literature and expectations about the architectonics of stories and characters and whatnot, and points to a cultural divide. 

While writing I knew it might be a story that people would not want to read and once I made peace with that, it freed me to be open.  But where does that place it?  I hope that it’s an un-varnished mirror.  But in terms of cultural discourse, I don’t know if I have a good answer for that, because everyone’s reading the book so differently.  Some people see the racism, some people see the gender, some people see only the war story. I suppose I’m still waiting to see how it will be positioned. I do like your concept of the psychic leap. I’ve always thought of written texts as alchemical bridges.

 

This is a novel preoccupied with appearances particularly in regards to how people are classed based on their appearance and in regards to how skewed mainstream views of disaster frequently are.  What are your thoughts on other depictions of American involvement in conflicts in the Middle East?  Why examine the reality of contemporary American warfare in the context of fiction? 

We’re never really at war only with the other. We’re simultaneously waging internal battles, collectively and individually.  This is important because part of going to war has always meant dehumanizing the enemy in the minds of both the troops and civilians.  As of late, we’ve gone from communism as the specter to terrorism to alienism. It seems very much worth exploring how that type of ideological campaign affects both those at home and those who execute the mortal arm.  Then especially what it means when they come home after having been conditioned and trained to kill – to cross the line.   So, writing about the war is the same, to me, as writing about home. And not writing about a war that’s been going on for ten years seems to me an act of willful blindness that I find puzzling. Ernest Gaines once said that unless white students know the stories of black folks, they only know half their own history.

I didn’t read any fictional accounts of the American involvement in the Middle East while writing this novel.  There weren’t that many until recently. I read primarily nonfiction accounts. This year a slew of books about the war have been released, and I will be reading several of those.

Who goes to war is also worth examining because those kids often have few other opportunities.  That complicates the experience as well, especially for minorities.  In Achilles’ case, the first time he’s ever in an environment where the majority isn’t white, he’s on active duty and everyone is in his sights so to speak. 

 

One of the most sophisticated – and yet understated – gestures of this text is the uncensored exploration of a traumatized inner life.  What’s radical about this quality of the novel is that it’s a rare, raw look at how one individual – privileged in a couple ways and extremely marginalized in others – is processing the culture wars of America.  We see Achilles – via frequently painful self-awareness – sort his feelings about domestic violence, addiction, poverty, sexuality, and so on.  At a time when it’s artistically “in vogue” to write about contentious subjects from multiple perspectives, why did you chose to write this work from a single relentless perspective in depth?

As much as I love multiple perspectives and even use them the larger section from which this novel is taken, that would be too easy. The aim was not necessarily to reveal each perspective as an incomplete, or insufficient, account of the world, though that is suggested at times. The novel is not about seeing or hearing the perspectives, but trying to process them. The aim was to explore what it means to live what you believe. 

 

The depictions of poverty were particularly visceral.  One thing I think about when I attempt to write about trauma is what gets censored and what doesn’t.  Your novel is a work that refuses to look away – refuses to not see the most disturbing, the most difficult, and thus also the most intimate, ranging from a merciless slaughter of dogs to shit on Achilles’ penis after having rough anal sex.  Yet, this isn’t torture- or poverty-porn.  I don’t get a sense that the gaze is voyeuristic – searching and insistent yes, but neither leering nor paternalistic.  What advice could you give to writers seeking to presence difficult subject matter? 

The saying is “To be cruel, be cold.” Be as clear as possible, almost clinical in your descriptions of those heightened events. I’m now apostate in all things craft, so I don’t follow this advice faithfully, but there is always a draft, be it the 1st or 10th, where it is helpful consideration. And I don’t know if this is good advice, but to avoid poverty-porn, I tried to avoid erecting a language barrier.

As literary writers we want it to be beautiful and we want sentences that no one has written before.  We want the language itself to be the experience.  But the odd thing with a story like this is that, even though the language (words) is the first level of experience, the medium of apprehension, I didn’t want the language (diction/figurative language/etc.) to filter or impede the experience. I guess I’m saying that there are times when extremely poetic language can be very effective at provoking emotion, but there are other times where you demand clarity over all else so that readers can have the response that’s appropriate for their own lived experience. You’re hoping that there’s enough clarity that the reader will have this accretion of responses resulting in a significant emotional experience that is more profound than it would be if obscured too much by language.  I’m not making an argument for pedestrian language.  I’m saying that there are times when prose can be so lush that the words themselves obscure vision and experience. And because Achilles is traumatized by what he sees, I wanted to present those same images to the reader.   I wanted people to see so that they could feel.

 

What forthcoming works do we have to look forward to?

This was part of a novella collection set in Atlanta and New Orleans, and each features a character that does not know how he or she is impacting the others’ lives in critical ways.  That project includes Wexler, Troy (Achilles’ brother), Pepper (the drug dealer that Achilles sets out to kill), and a few others.  I have another project about four students who protest a Civil War reenactment by staging a lynching.  But that doesn’t go too well because being city folk they are not good with knots. It’s funny. Then there is one about the seventh coming of Christ. I’ll say only this - Cover you eyes. 

Those are the three projects I’m working on now.  And a very short Trayvon Martin essay.

 

Read at excerpt of Hold It 'Til It Hurts here: www.zingmagazine.com/tgeronimojohnson.pdf

 

 



[1] And research into the mind/body/build environment connection suggest that the various lived realities result in different psychological, emotional and physiological outcomes, so even those of us who share public space streets cannot, at end, claim to live in the same physical environment, at least not so long as we have the current correlations between race, ethnicity, gender, SES, and mortality rates.

 

INTERVIEW: David Humphrey

 
Clown Posse, 2012, 54 x 44"

 

Artist David Humphrey is a New York-based painter and sculptor, known for his abstract combination of Pop and Surrealism. Fueling this abstraction, Humphrey focuses his paintings on a protagonist, including subjects like puppies, kittens, clowns, and snowmen. David Humphrey is not only an artist, but also a writer. Blind Handshake is Humphrey’s most recent publication. This anthology offers art historical text from a firsthand point of view, which is noteworthy, as art historians often write these historical texts.  Currently, Humphrey is preparing for his two upcoming November shows, one of which is in New York at Fredericks & Freiser (November 8-December 22) and the other in Washington D.C. at the American University Museum (opens November 3). 

Interview by Eliza Philpott

 

How would you describe your current style of painting?

It’s a hybrid of modern art, pop and retirement home amateurism.

 

What are some influences that have directed you to this point?

Are you thinking of drugs? My doors of perception were opened in high school by Van Gogh, Cezanne, the impressionists and a lot of art at my local museum (the Carnegie in Pittsburgh).

 

Are you aware when your painting style changes?

I’m a restless artist with an appetite for unexpected images in my studio so I’m frequently trying out a range of what might be called “styles” to throw myself off (style is a word I generally avoid because I’m not quite sure what it means, unless I’m using it as an insult.)

 

What encourages the change?

Longings? Ideas? Other art? Drugs?

 

You create abstract sculptures using stuffed animals. Describe your process and the idea behind it.

I go to Kmart and buy two overstuffed animals of the same species and bring them back to my studio where I tie them up and cover them with a mixture of hydrocal and paperpulp. Then I keep working on them until they make me as happy as a sculpture by Henry Moore.

 

Would you say there are similarities between your paintings and sculptures?

Yes! They are equally fucked up. I try to fold some aspect of collaboration into both mediums, sometimes with found objects or images but also with split-off parts of myself: painting as a form of acting.

 

Your most recent book Blind Handshake is an anthology of your writing on art. What prompted you to publish this book?

The director of Periscope Publishing asked if I wanted to do a book. I’d been writing about art since the early nineties and had accumulated a pretty large archive. We thought it would be exciting to cut up and thematically reorganize that archive with images, in an inspired design by Geoff Kaplan, to make a case for writing as an extension of the studio. The book is mostly about other people’s work but I feel there’s an encrypted manifesto of what matters to me about artworks.

 

When did you first know you wanted to be an artist?

Somewhere in Junior High when I was trying to grow my hair long, wishing to be a hippie.

 

Even with a protagonist your paintings are very abstract. Do you have an idea of the meaning behind a painting or your overall vision of the finished product before you start?

I’ve barely a clue, that’s part of the thrill of making a new piece. Sometimes I have a pretty specific preparatory image but it usually changes along the way and when it doesn’t I still need to be surprised by the result.

 

You are currently preparing for two upcoming shows. Do you have a specific theme in mind for the works you are submitting?

In November I have a show of new paintings at Fredericks & Freiser in New York that will include an accident-prone spaceman, ambient spectators and an overturned cement truck. At the American University Museum in Washington, also in November, I’ll be showing selected work from the last ten years called Pets, a President and the Others.

 

Who or what inspires you?

My multi-talented and disarmingly funny wife Jennifer Coates, who weighs in on all my work and much else.

 

INTERVIEW: Ben Brandt

 

Ben Brandt’s life is currently in flux—lucky for us, he paused just long enough for a zingchat. Recently graduated from theMFA program at UT Austin, his studio (and the rest of his life) is now in New York City. Brandt has held residencies at Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, NY and Vermont Studio Center. A few of the venues where his work has been shown include Second Bedroom Project Space and Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago, Fort Worth Contemporary, and Champion Contemporary in Austin. Brandt was also included in the 2011 15 to Watch: New Art in Austin at Austin Museum of Art. We spoke following his farewell to Texas, his solo show at Co-Lab Project Space, All_Over.

Interview by Josh T. Franco

 

I was not expecting to discuss clothing following your recent show at Co-Lab, but now I can not stop thinking about those peeks of plaid and some comments you made about the role of clothing. More broadly, something about texture and material as a “screen” between us and the world. An odd thing to end up thinking about in an immersive environment of pulp-coated objects. With such a powerfully monochrome space you created, why those two or three dusty plaid accents?

There’s a number of reasons that may seem obscure if we keep in mind that the primary impulse to expose those items was relatively intuitive and also formal. I like contrast, and I wanted a different kind of break in the monotony of the surfaces in the space.  But more importantly, I was thinking about the relationship between buildings and bodies and the sort of primal need to stay warm (not an issue that comes to the fore in a place like Texas, but I grew up in the Midwest); the way we retain heat energy with clothing and a layer of body fat -- an inner and outer layer of insulation that is mirrored in the mise-en-scene of the installation. Except that here, the insulation that is normally found on the interior of a building’s structure is being presented on the surface of everything.  Part of my project is to draw out the relationship between bodies and buildings; the systems and structures they share. So you’ve got the plaid flannel shirt and the plaid “canvas” that is a kind of skin, and then the two-by-four wrapped in plaid is a kind of progression of “clothing” the building.  

I think, really, what those items do, is to become the “middle” period in the history of this building’s sort of fictional timeline, as if those were the last items to end up in this room as it slowly accumulated years’ worth of sediment before the final intervention of the supposed present day, with the painted poles and lighting.  


There is certainly that sense of time that comes with accumulation in your objects, often compared to one what might encounter scuba diving a shipwreck. There’s also a very immediate sense of time though that is post-apocalyptic, Pompeii-like. So there’s a vertigo that was particularly emphasized by the floor-to-ceiling coverage of your Co-Lab show: is this an ancient ruin? Or did I survive a nuclear blast that happened within the last few hours? It puts the viewer in that ambiguous position. How do you understand this very active vibration?

Yeah, vibration. I’m glad you can get that. I think vibration is fundamental to the nature of things, right? That it’s all energy vibrating at different frequencies.  But in terms of time, it becomes more an issue of scale: did the timeline of this scenario happen over ten thousand years, or did happen it instantaneously? And in a way, these are the same thing.  All of time is made up of one dimension, the present “now”, so how long or short is the “now”? It makes my head spin to think about, but I do believe that all of time is enfolded in the present moment, and our experience limits us to seeing just a small part of that at one time.  I want the viewer to experience that uncertainty as well, to get a sense of the enormity of scale that is available within every moment. This aspect of simultaneity, when something is two or more things at once, is a fascinating aspect of art objects; it is BOTH two different things AND the same thing. So where is the line between the two? the division of states through which it flickers back and forth? It reminds me of the “screen” you mentioned in your first question. Is the back and forth continuous like a sine wave, or discreet?  For me, it’s the coniunctium oppositorum, the unity of opposites.  I’m talking about the fundamental nature of reality, man.

I recently got to spend some time on Lake Michigan, and a friend pointed out a strange phenomena related to the horizon line of the lake.  Taken all at once, it appeared to be the most “straight” line that simply divided the air and the water, but when you tried to focus on it, it started to jump around and waver and shake: this very fixed line becomes elusively indefinite. I think this kind of vibration exists just below the surface of things, which is another, symbolic, interpretation of the plaid fabric in the installation. The nature of plaid fabric is so regular; its a conventional grid.  But the effects that that kind of regularity produces is often very visually dynamic.


If I may rely on yet one more natural metaphor; there’s a cave-like silence about your work. It is silence, but not in the negative sense. Large amounts of paper pulp and insulation have a profound effect on an environment’s sound. How do you think about sound? Would you consider running sound experiments in an environment like the one you created at Co-Lab for future projects?

Sound is not my preferred medium, but I do take it into consideration as a part of the vibrational aspect of our experience.  If you read about John Cage’s experiences with anechoic chambers, he talks about his realization that, even the most scientifically soundless spaces are filled with the noises our bodies produce, that there is really no way to experience true silence, right? Silence is full of sound.

In this installation, the apparent silence does serve to foreground the experience of the vibration of time and timelessness. It was often the first thing people noticed upon entering the space, that there was a deadening of sound.  I like that the piece has a direct effect on the viewer’s body, it is another way to connect the artwork to the person experiencing it. For me, it was a very death-like silence, to be in a space that could be a thousand years old made me feel like I was a thousand years old, which made me think, “well I must be dead then.” But that’s just me.  

My favorite sound artist is a woman who’s name I’m trying to rediscover, who made a kind of electronic noise/music that caused the listener’s eardrum to vibrate in a way that it produced it’s own sound. It was thrilling and invasive and layered, I loved it.

 

The relationship between object and pedestal is treated in a striking range of ways in your work. There are works placed directly on the floor, e.g., your depiction of the universe through a heavily treated dropcloth; there are works where objects and shelving are surfacely homogenized through the indiscriminate application of pulp and insulation on the entire apparatus; and there is at least one work, Bog Tree (Sediment Settles), in which the insulation-laden object sits atop a rusted rectilinear platform you constructed especially for it, if I am not mistaken. In the latter, there is a fascinating relationship between two types of decay; the negative decay of the metal enacted by the rusting process, and the additive decay of the object layered with abject substances. Do these represent a progression in your thinking? Or are they co-temporaneous forms you play with for what reasons?

To be honest, this is an issue I struggle with; at what register, at what degree of remove do I want the pieces to engage with the viewer? Which is important, I think, as it has some ideological implications that I haven’t worked through yet.  And it comes back to the those all-important mediating devices of the support: the stretched canvas, and the pedestal. Despite it’s bourgeois implications, I’ve always been a fan of the pedestal. To me, it is the “frame” that signifies a remove from the world of the “real” back into the realm of symbol. It says this thing is what it is, and, it is representative of something else besides what what the viewer sees in it’s surface attributes.  I guess the same could be said about the gallery space itself, but that’s a distinction that still generally resides below full consciousness. Some of my earlier works, that were wooden structures with various treatments, I saw as “models”, a representation of an idea or a system that exists in another form.  So, I wanted the viewer to consider that these objects were metaphorical constructions of ideas; that the sculptures referred back to ideas outside of themselves. I don’t know, I could be over-thinking it, or assuming too much.

Lately, it seems that work is more within the realm of the here and now, that everyday and over-looked objects are filled with mystery.  But I don’t necessarily want to rely on the context of the gallery to provide that type of frame. I’m a big proponent of living with art, and allowing a relationship with an object to grow and deepen. It’s an aspect of art that resides so heavily in the realm of ideas that it requires the institution of a museum to sustain it, that leaves me feeling a certain lack.

One of my intentions for the Co-Lab Project was to acknowledge the setting of the installation, both real and imagined, as the garage/barn that it once was, in order to upset the viewer with the indistinction of gallery as symbolic space, and architecture of real space.  Thus it was filled with stuff that you’d find in a garage, stacks of scrap wood, utility shelving, a table piled with various tools of indeterminant use, a rotting hammock and an old work shirt, all transformed into sculpture, not by their location in a gallery but by their transformation via accumulation of a “foreign” substance.  Even the “paintings” that were installed in this garage cum gallery, served as tools to measure the space or provide lighting/illumination.

 

You have stated before that your move to sculpture came out of a frustration with the two-dimensional media of painting and photography that are your background. Along with your use of abject and industrial materials, it is difficult not to hear echoes of artists like Donald Judd and Eva Hesse, though the results are certainly different. How do you understand yourself in that lineage constructed by art history, if at all? How is your work imbricated with contemporary post-industrial and cultural conditions? In Austin? In the US?

The art historical context question is difficult because it’s hard to see myself making a contribution within that narrative, but I would choose different artists to align myself with. Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg addressed the complications of materials and abstraction in a less pure way than Judd and Hesse did, I think. My model artist of the 70’s would be Joseph Beuys if I weren’t such a (reluctant) cynical capitalist. I see myself dealing with the issues at the intersection of materials and images, artifacts and objects, and the body and it’s environment. But at heart, I’m an expressionist, and I read my choices as clues and symbolic artifacts that lead me towards deeper meaning, like dreams.

I feel torn between the agency and artifice that I can command with traditional art materials and practices, and the more current practice of using the materials of existing contemporary culture.  I think an artist like Rachel Harrison utilizes this tension to good effect, but it’s not a tension that I want to focus on.  Rather, I see it as a struggle between Romantic and Classical worldviews that I wish could be brought into accord.  I see Texas artists like Andy Coolquit and Sterling Allen moving in that direction, mixing both laid-back and rigorous attitudes towards cultural detritus with loaded (?) narratives that are neutralized by the artists’ playful yet deep understanding and utilization of abstraction.

I lean more towards romanticism and fantasy, with only a toe in the camp of assessing the here and now. My flights of escapism and drug-induced enlightenment and other utopias are only tempered by a practical consideration of the need to address realism as way to actually live successfully.  The artifacts and materials of Industry were my initial introduction to the sublime. Our post-industrial condition still feels like a loss to me, and I’m hung up on the aura of faded glory of a centuries-old technological revolution.  Unfortunately, and despite my disavowal, whatever attitudes and ideologies of that era that made those artifacts possible, to the degree that I align myself with them, I  open myself up easily to criticism of my privileged condition.

 

You are preparing to move to New York City. What impact are you expecting this move from Austin to have on your work? What will you be leaving behind, conceptually, materially?

I imagine the work may shift in scale fairly dramatically if I decide to stop producing objects that end up in the trash heap because of my unwillingness to store them.  That wouldn’t be my preference, as I prefer to work at a scale that connects to architecture and the body, but maybe it will push the work to display it’s own discomfort more prominently.  

As much as I enjoy working outside of the studio, I love the mix of concentration and opportunity for dreamy imagination that a regular, private studio provides.  I have no idea what kind of studios will be available in NY, so that I’m almost grateful for the lack of adequate private studio space at the University of Texas that I had to learn how to deal with my first two years there.

The rest is uncertain. I have a vague sense that I need to limit the scope of mediums that I’ve employed over the last few years, which was basically everything you could think of.  But that could be a misconception of the requirements of engaging with the market for art, which by the way, I’m hoping to do.  But I will miss Texas, I like it here. The people, the climate, and a supportive art community have all been comforts that have helped to make me willing to experience some discomfort in a totally new place.

 

 

INTERVIEW: Nathaniel Russell

Although Indianapolis-based artist Nathaniel Russell acknowledges that we can turn to dust at any moment, let’s hope it doesn’t happen to him anytime soon.  His pieces—created in a variety of different media including sculpture, painting, drawing, and printmaking—manage to access the rawness and honesty of being human.  Often accompanied by words and phrases, his work is both sincere and humorous. As Russell explores themes of thoughts and the universe, space and people’s place in it, he employs charmingly unusual characters and inspiring written mantras to make for some pretty dreamy pieces. While setting up for his recent show, I had the opportunity to ask Russell a few questions and got answers as genuine and honest as the work he creates. Catch his show “Instant Dust” in its last few days at Ed. Varie, closing August 5th.

Interview by Jessica Butler

 

You studied printmaking in college. How did you first get into the practice and what is it about the medium that you’re attracted to? 

I started messing around with silkscreen and woodcut in high school art classes. I made a few screens to make shirts for myself and some friends, too. In college I was drawn to the different printmaking processes as a way to bring out different qualities in my drawings. I was also attracted to the printmaking culture; it's less flashy and has a more ‘rootsy’ feeling than painting. The ink smells real good, too.

 

You also work in a variety of other mediums, including sculpture. How does your process vary from each medium? Do you have to think about your imagery differently?

I don't think my imagery is all that different from medium to medium. I usually just adapt whatever it is I'm thinking about to the particular method, but sometimes things just feel better and more realized in certain forms. That said, everything starts as a drawing and I just take it from there.

 

Many of your pieces include words and phrases that are oftentimes humorous, extremely honest, and always very ‘human.’ Where do these words and ideas come from and what importance do they have in your work? 

The words are a really important part of the work. The right combination of words and image can alter the meanings and perceptions of both. The words usually come from notebooks I keep or things I see on signs, overheard conversations, talks with friends, the radiowhatever catches my ear really. It's just a matter of finding a good way to use them.

 

What does the title of your current show, “Instant Dust,” mean for you?

For me, it's about death and being; the fleeting qualities of life and experience. Sometimes when I get too hung up on art problems or money problems or life problems, it's somehow comforting to think that we're all going to be dust at any second anyway. That may seem morbid or dark, but I really think of it as a way to appreciate the things in life that really matter and notice the interesting and beautiful relationships between things, people and everything else and not to trip out so much on the bullshit.

 

When we were chatting, you mentioned an affection and proclivity for things that are awkward, flawed, and “slightly off.” Why are you drawn to things like this and how do they appear in your work?

It’s just more relatable to me as a person. I’m not attracted to perfection or very polished-looking images, people, or objects. The mistakes and so-called imperfections are what makes us human and what I find to be the best and most interesting parts of people. I think in my work they appear in the non-labored way that I draw. I like to let things happen and try to draw in awkward ways for myself. Sometimes that means that if I’m drawing a person, I’ll start with the feet and work my up since I’ve always started with the head and face before. That’s not to say that a lot of things don't make the cut because I don't like the way they look or that anything goes. It takes a lot of tries and work to make things look un-perfect. I know that might not make sense but that's how it is.

 

You also talked a bit about the overwhelming “bigness of things” and the “littleness of our lives.” What are some things that you notice from day-to-day that make you aware of this “bigness?” 

Trees, the sky, other people, dirt, worms, animals, birdsthe list is endless. I think if you look at anything that's not manmade and think about where it comes from it's enough to make your head spin. The fact that I am being interviewed for this article out of billions of people in the world is insane. The fact that we are a consciousness in a body that has a whole life and thoughts and feelings and relationships is the most unbelievable thing I can possibly think of and it's something we take for granted every day. 

 

Aside from your visual art, you also make music under the name Birds of America . How did that get started? Do you ever find your music and your art overlapping? 

I started playing music in college because I liked a lot of music that seemed like it was possible to make myself. It has taken a long time to get to a point where I feel comfortable and have found a little morsel of what it is I want to make or say with music…and then I don't play music for a while and I have to remind myself and find that all over again. I tried to keep art and music very separate for a long time but as I go along, I find it's all the same thing and the same themes. It’s overlapping now and I’m actually going to play some music at an art show soon which I always used to feel stupid about.

 

What’s the process like for writing lyrics?

Just writing things in notebooks to start, then filling in the cracks once I get some chords or a melody together. It’s not something I sit and fret about; I just sort of get in the zone and stick with what feels good.

 

What were you like in middle school?

Probably a huge dork: braces, really into skating and music, wishing I were cooler and wanting the girls to be into me. I did badly in middle school for a while. I think that's when it started getting very social and kids started being jerks. Anyway, I found my friends and we did our thing. There is a picture of me in a yearbook somewhere wearing a Cure t-shirt.

 

Finally, you also mentioned writing a book in your future. Any ideas what it’ll be about? 

Well, I wouldn't call it "writing" a book…it's mostly going to be a collection of drawings and some writing. We'll see what it turns out to be. I’m sure it won't be much like I’m thinking now. I’m hoping this time next year there will be something to hold in your hand.

 

 

INTERVIEW: Mike Perry

You may’ve seen Brooklyn-based designer and artist Mike Perry ’s work around. He has exhibited throughout the world and has worked for a variety of clients, including Urban Outfitters, The New York Times, Apple, Nike, Zoo York, and Target, to name a few. He has also published four different books on screen-printing, hand-drawn type and patterns, and—most recently—Wandering Around Wondering, a collection of his work so far. With an emphasis on hand-drawn and the “transformative power of making things,” Perry’s work is incredibly distinct and full of character. His work often deals with patterns, shapes, and anthropomorphic objects that join together to create a greater whole—and a glimpse into the mind of the man himself. Recently, I had the opportunity to check out Mike Perry’s studio and sit down to chat with him about everything from personal process to figuring out the universe (sort of). If you happen to be in Ohio, you can also check out the exhibit “Night and Day” at the Yes Gallery, featuring new work by Perry and artist Naomi Reis. It runs through July 20th, 2012.

Interview by Jessica Butler

 

Before getting into graphic design, you used to paint significantly in your teens. Does this background in painting have a role in your work now?

I would assume it does. The more I think about my work from the past, so much of it has been about getting these ideas out - an obsessive desire to create something all the time. So many of my hours are spent thinking of ideas or pulling a pencil across a sheet of paper. This always works well for me in a graphic design sense because deadlines are short and I would need to generate a lot of process before committing to a final outcome. The work I make now vs. the work then is so different. I was painting a lot of figures, a lot of portraits; things were very moody and my painting work now is getting more and more abstract. I was obsessed with John Singer Sargent then and now I find more comfort in someone like Alexander Calder.

It has been a great journey so far. This is my favorite part about being alive. Seeing what I used to make and how it turned into what I make now. Seeing the progress and the process. To me, some of the most exciting pushes in my work came from those stumbling accidents and my desire to look back at them and learn from them.

 

How did your time at Minneapolis College of Art and Design shape your trajectory?

My opinion about higher education has diminished over the years. That said, I got everything I needed to get and it was so brilliant. I was so lucky. Surrounded by so many amazing and inspiring people. Most of my education didn’t happen in the 9-5 of class time but in the hidden after hours in the studios talking shit, listening to music, and being surrounded by people in a place of ultimate creative freedom. As you get older it’s harder to be able to sit around and just make. I miss the sounds of someone running through the doors laughing. The screams of someone’s computer crashing and him or her not saving. The late night walks to the coffee shop before it closes to sneak in a little more caffeine. Within all of that was passionate, obsessive, powerful, abstract, fun, beautiful, creation.

                            

Developing one’s own style can be a long, and sometimes difficult process for many artists. When do you think you reached the point where you felt you had “your own style?” What process goes into getting to this point?

Style is or can be a funny thing. I hope that everyone comes to their own style on their own. There is a way that your mind works in relation to your hand. Which works in relation to the world you were born into. And in relation to when you where born and the things you have seen, experienced, the tragedies, the comedies… This is your style. When I put my pencil on a sheet of paper it has everything I have been through, making its way out. It is who I am. This is my style. This is how you develop a style. You live life. If I hurt my finger or wrist then my drawings are different, if I am in the country with nature, this affects my work. Take it all in and be yourself.

 

Do you ever feel a sense of “comfort” or security in what you’re creating because of this seemingly established and unique style?

I guess maybe style is like finding your self. Which if you look at it like that, finding a style as a journey makes sense. I would say I do feel comfort. I am at a place where I feel both comfortable with making things that are unpredicted and just flow out, but also the ability to make things exactly like I vision them. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make the work I wanted to make. Seeing the disconnect between brain and hand. It has been a growth experience and an adaptation to my hand’s ability.

 

You’ve worked for a variety of different clients throughout your career and have acknowledged the importance of business. Does your artistic integrity ever feel at risk?

I hope not. It would be a bummer for people to decide my work is not artistically valid because I needed to make a living.

 

I guess what I mean is, since you have a lot of different clients asking for a variety of things specific to their brand/business, do you ever feel like you need to change your style slightly in order to satisfy the client? If so, how do you deal with this and manage to stay true to your personal style and work?

It kind of depends on what kind of hat I am wearing for that project. A lot of the time people hire me to make something that looks like my work. In that case I just do my thing and hope they like it. But when it’s a problem-solving environment I like to explore and make according to the brief. I love the exploration part of making. I often give myself briefs to follow because I love visual problem solving.

 

A lot of your work contains similar patterns, images, and symbols. When we spoke you called it something like a visual “vocabulary.” How do you think these occurred? Is this idea of repetition something you encounter elsewhere in your life?

I think this vocabulary has been there the whole time. It was just the process of putting the book together that really opened my eyes to how much it is a part of the work. My guess is that most creative people have a lot of repetition in their work. These are shapes, ideas, colors that make us feel good. There are shapes and colors that when I use them I just feel good. Feeling positive about something your making can cause you to want to make more.

 

In our studio visit you also mentioned you’re a bit of a science guy and showed me an incredible sketchbook full of pages attempting to solve a cosmic problem you had in your head. Would you say the universe is a theme you gravitate towards? What sort of significance does the universe and science have for you?

I love the science fiction of the universe—that anything is possible if you can imagine it. It feels freeing and comfortable. I often feel like I am building little universes and placing planets and stars in their cosmic formation. I love that it is a great unknown but we understand the elements that have formed this greatness. Like the color red is an atom in a drawing I am making.

 

Are there any other themes, ideas, or sources of inspiration that you are especially drawn to?

Heritage, the future’s relationship to the past, the difference between silence and chaos (I try to work with this a lot. How to make something filled with chaos feel silent.) Organic vs. Geometric.

 

What role do words play in your work?

Words are very important to me. A lot of my ideas start as words. A quick one liner jotted in my notebook that comes out as two men playing tug of war. But then the opposite happens where I will draw a little face that turns into a poem. I love writing poems. I am trying to feel better about sharing those poems but it’s hard. I often hid poems in the work. 

 

What’s something that makes you laugh or smile?

I just watched the new 21 jump street movie. I laughed a lot.

 

Finally, what can we expect from you next?

Isn’t that the question? I have a lot of ideas. Not sure what will happen in what order. Some books, exhibitions, maybe a few years of silence. Who knows!

 

INTERVIEW: Eleni Sikelianos

Courtesy of Eleni Sikelianos

Poet, Eleni Sikelianos was raised in California and currently teaches at the University of Denver and Naropa University.  She is a descendent of the Nobel Prize in Literature-nominee, Angelos Sikelianos, as well as the niece of distinguished “Outrider” poet and scholar, Anne Waldman.  She is the author of The Book of Jon (City Lights Publishers, 2004), The California Poem (Coffee House Press, 2004), Earliest Worlds (2001), The Book of Tendons (1997), and To Speak While Dreaming (1993).  She has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a Fulbright Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. 

Her most recent collection, Body Clock (Coffee House Press, 2008), is a benevolent, reaching linguistic exploration of time as contained in the body.  Taking the subject of pregnancy as a center from which to chart seconds, minutes, quantum fields, wars, New York, death, god, dreams, fictions, and cells - to name a handful from the multitude of objects and thoughts in the pages of Body Clock - the work both summons and welcomes Eva, Sikelianos’s child with novelist Laird Hunt, into the world.  As gleeful as melancholic and as sharp as free-flowing, the poems of Body Clock assemble richly tangible spheres of little and large universes that encase the reader in vivid shapes and extremities of time.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

Body Clock is a work that seeks to unfold a language of time as a sensual experience of both the flesh and the mind.  Thus, these poems slip between and overlay planes of experience, histories of universes, and platforms of perception, operating on adapted techniques of the New York and Surrealist schools of poetry.  Additionally, Ovid's epic, Metamorphoses, appropriately seems to be referenced frequently as a record of transformation(s).  I was dazed by this kaleidoscopic, expanding and contracting world of horizons within and beyond more horizons, a synchronicity of time that is centered only in the female body.  Where does the poem (and / or a residue of language) itself exist in time?   

Poems, many of them, exist outside of time, or so deeply embedded in a profound sense of time that they transcend it.  Although some will claim that language (like music) unfolds in time, it also (like music) can double and triple time, folding it in on itself or abandoning it momentarily.  When it's good, a poem exists in the extratemporal as well as the temporal, even sometimes zigzagging between the two — which is what the line break does — holds us for a moment in suspension outside time or communication.  We get that sensation of all times and worlds being contemporaneous — synchronicity — or mystery — welling in the ruptures of language a poem creates — but also of asynchronicity, another kind of deep time.

 

A compelling and recurrent energy of Body Clock is the stark interrogation of the qualities of - as well as riotous, lyrical reaching for - the radical possibilities of beauty as a form (or variety of forms).  One of my favorite stanzas: "No more fooling around / Make a thing of such / extreme beauty it cracks / and cracks / the hand that makes it" (p. 59).  There are many materials that can be utilized in the exploration of beauty.  Why are you drawn to words?  What are the particular, unique ways that language can access beauty?  

In those lines, I was addressing a few things, one of which is our current fear and suspicion of beauty, as if beauty were a cliché, and the possibility that at its most potent it destroys.  (I guess that's an old idea!  Think of Helen.)  I suspect we're afraid of beauty for more primal reasons than being worn out on the ideal.  And we should not confuse beauty and the ideal anyway. (Must talk to Plato about that.)

Inspiration, too, can be fearsome.  I have a few lines elsewhere in the book about that.

I have always found words to be beautiful and mysterious and confusing and frightening.  Syntax to be so.

For me, it is the small cracks, the ruptures in syntax or language that flood with illumination.  But of course, the music of language can be freighted with beauty and surprise, too.

 

On the other hand, this is also a work that presences loss, war, bombs, grief, shrapnel. Walmart, Waterworld, and other items of mainstream and pop-cultural kitsch also make into these pages, which cover a number of planes - the pre-temporal, the living temporal, after-death, underworld, dreams, deep sleep, internet, the planetary, the minuscule, the mythological, etc.  So there is the seduction of beauty counterpoised to the un-beautiful and suffering.  Both extremes are rendered with intense sensuality.  What are the ethical concerns of presencing such extremes of experience in art?  

In this particular book, which began to gather as such around the pregnant body and the intensely private experience of that, I found it necessary to also indicate the daily world going on around outside the body, but which penetrates the skull.  This seemed especially necessary in the period I was working on those poems, because we were at war in two nations, and living under a president who was enacting, in some forms, a reign of terror.  The opening section of the book contains a poem I wrote while living in New York, in response to the bombing of the Twin Towers.  We were breathing the ash of burnt buildings and burnt bodies.  Then we were bombing distant countries.  None of it made sense.  I wrote the poem to try to make sense, and wasn't sure I'd ever publish it.  As the rest of the book took shape, it made its way there, holding a kind of extremity in place.

That poem focuses, to quite a degree, on the minuscule, on detail: eyelashes, the ball of a thumb, school buses lined up in holding yards in Brooklyn, because in the face of human disaster detail is what holds us to sanity.  It probably leads us to neurosis, too, but for me, in this case, it helped me find focus and sense.

 

The phenomena of beauty, of reality, of possible existences, of absences, of infinite unknowns, of quantum fields, of nightmares, of pleasure spheres further seems to frequently find a palpable position in your words in bizarre expressions of synesthesia.  One effect that challenging art and literature has on me is that I am re-awoken to a world that I have become numb to through constant exposure to new and representational technologies.  In your process, how do you stay keen to basic and more complex operations of perception?  

That is a constant struggle.  World dust settles on the perceiving soul.  A sense of altertness and humor helps, but we all numb out (I know a few people who don't much — it can be very hard to live that way).  I think you have to train your mind toward alertness, and then you have to train and retrain.  Ginsberg liked to say, "Notice what you notice," but for me it's not only a cognitive waking-up.  Sometimes other forces beyond our control move through to wake us up in minor or major ways.

For a long time, rituals of writing practice helped me.  Certainly reading exciting poems or philosophy or fiction, engaging with visual work or music, help wake us up.

 

Your poems spill across the pages, some of them shapeless or perhaps more accurately compared to the nebular, shifting shape of jellyfish.  My instinct is to take this use of the page as cues in regards to how to musically hear these poems (though my tendency to read in this way may not align with your intentions).  As books trundle onto digital platforms, how do you anticipate free-form poetry will respond?  Is projective verse (poetry written by the breath) possible on digital media?  

I do hear the page musically, of course — so we can say we hear space.  Line breaks allow that too.  Synesthesia is suggested again, in a visual hearing. 

Some poets have already been working in digital forms for a while now.  Brian Kim Stephens has created some smart and instinctive electronic poetry, but a lot of it has a long way to go.  There are also e-reader programs that are working on versions that can handle the page complexities of poetry (I know Coffee House used some of The California Poem as a prototype for that).

We have to think of the totality of what Olson meant by "projective," and then also take it further.  There is the breath and body of the poet involved, but there is also the whole energy field of language and the field of the page, and the interaction between the two, and the energetic relationship not just between the poem and the body of the poet, but between the poem and the world from which it was got (the body is one figure in that world) — it's a transference of energy, as Olson says, from world to words.  We can think of the page as a kind of installation site, moving blocks and forms of energy around.  That can happen on the page or in digital forms, yes.  I've imagined a few possibilities, but would need to work with someone who knows how to create the platforms.  I've also seen a few interesting French e-books, that are really rich visually.

 

The collection opens with two epigraphs attributed to Scottish biologist, D'arcy Wentworth Thompson.  In Thompson's book, On Growth and Form, he discusses allometry, or how bodies are shaped in response to anatomy, physiology, and behavior, and gives such examples as the comparable shape of jellyfish and raindrops.  I notice that these poems seem to take an allometric position in the process of discovering the shapes and physical properties of time (a drawing of an hour that looks like a flower, for example).  How intentional was this poetic allometry in the making of these works?  

I wasn't thinking specifically of Thompson's allometry, but I was certainly reading Thompson, and I find that theory (and many of his ideas) really pleasing aesthetically, instinctively and intellectually.  I experience the world this way.  I think it's why I first loved studying organisms, and why biology seems a natural mate for poetry.

 

Another recurrent technique of the poems in Body Clock (as well as, The California Poem, as I recall) is the use of footnotes, which tend to interrupt my reading (whether in poem collections or science textbooks) and I grapple with what knowledge I should retrieve first: the whole paragraph or the footnote.  In the "Notes on Minutes and Hours" at the end of the collection, you elaborate that the 'poem drawings' were the actual experiment of searching for time, and the typed language below is a residue of language.  How do language residues differ from footnotes?  How does a poem differ from residual language?

Hopefully the reader reads a text more than once, and different things happen each time, but it can be annoying to be deferred mid poem like that.

We could probably argue that all language is residue or remnants, but specifically in Body Clock the language addenda are to illustrate the poem — to allow the reader to be able to read the language that was written into the poem-drawing.  The typed version is not the poem itself, but another representation of it.  In The California Poem the footnotes sometimes offer information about source, sometimes add more information, and sometimes add more poem (they hypertext the poem, we could say).  It's like you stick your finger on a little part of the poem and another little poem opens up.

 

You were taught and mentored by a handful of the 20th- and early 21st-century's most prolific female poets, notably your aunt, Anne Waldman, and New York School poets, Alice Notley and Barbara Guest.  In February 2011, VIDA released statistics demonstrating that in the U.S., women are still significantly under-published and under-reviewed compared to male authors (to say nothing of the publication and prominence of transgender, third gender, and genderqueer authors).  What advice would you give to the young, passionate, non-male poet?  

"Work your ass off to change the language," said Bernadette Mayer some years ago.  We still need to do that.  And that means not just in the writing, but in the structures, which is easy to say, hard to do.  Will we see a woman president in my life time?  I wonder.  We have fallen asleep at the (secondary) wheel, lured by the lull of capital and product, which promotes surface and surface thinking.  It all looks okay, because we're trying to look okay.  Some have tried looking really ugly (in art-making) to see if that could shake up a brain or two.  I'm not sure of the approach, but it's going to take persistence and hard work, and that work has to be done on the interior and exterior structures.  The women you mention worked their asses off and paved the way for me and the next generations.  In the avant-garde and small press community (where these particular women and others were working), I think there's more parity, but when you look at more socially and economically powerful literary communities (which have and distribute more money, and can work to attract more readers), they are still dominated by men.  It's a worldwide capital problem — women are still making something like 70 cents to the dollar, the UN reports will tell you.  How long can that go on without a soft revolution coming up?

 

What forthcoming works do we have to look forward to?  

The Loving Details of the Living and the Dead is coming out in the spring of 2013.  I've almost finished another hybrid memoir/fiction, so that should be coming to the table soon.

 

INTERVIEW: Leo Tanguma

"In Peace and Harmony with Nature" at DIA, courtesy of Leo Tanguma
 

Leo Tanguma, the Chicano muralist perhaps best known by Colorado travelers and the subcultural blogosphere of paranoid doomsday theorists for his dramatic murals at Denver International Airport, creates his complicated pieces through an organic, multi-step process that weaves Mexican heritage, world history, spirituality, progressive social ideals, and personal anecdotes.  He made his first mural on a chalkboard in fifth grade, depicting children lynching the town’s corrupt sheriff, for which he was severely punished, and this experience stoked a rebellious verve in his artistic practice that would be played out during the coming decades. Much like Los Tres Grandes - Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros - from whom Tanguma draws his artistic heritage, he has a keen interest in politics and cultural theory, of which his views swing decidedly left.  His sprawling, complicated, large-scale public artworks do contain a number of secrets: portraits of real people lost to street violence, unsung heroes from the margins of history books, and the reexamined Chicano myth of a weeping woman, for example.  “Children of the World Dream of Peace” and “In Peace and Harmony with Nature,” the murals that Tanguma created for Level 5 of the Jeppesen Terminal at DIA, were almost never to be: Tanguma barely made the proposal submission deadline.  As of this year, he has completed dozens of murals at various public venues across six states, painting themes of childhood courage and idealism, environmentalism, multiculturalism, and Tanguma’s uncanny signature of socially-conscientious spirituality. His most recent work in progress is inspired by the Occupy movement, the pencil drafting of which, sits on a modest, clean desk in his home studio.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

 

Can you walk me through some of the imagery of your murals?  Who are the people in the background?

Many of them are real people. This is an anonymous community and an anonymous community can be anybody. In this here, there are the symbols of oppression that our [Chicano] community has overcome. Are you familiar with that figure?

points to a stylized figure with three faces on drafting work for his mural, “The Torch of Quetzalcoatl,” commissioned by the Denver Art Museum

 

No. 

Well it means the fusion of the Spanish and the English when the Spanish came and brought women and began to rape and marry the indigenous women and introduced a new breed called, mestizo. And so that’s the essence of our identity.

And this figure, this is La Llorona, the weeping woman who destroyed her own children after having married a Spaniard, a conquistador. The Spaniard at one point decides to go back to Spain and to take the children with him. Well, that drives the woman mad because to them Spain was like Mars to us or someplace really distant and remote. The legend says that she drowned her children so that the husband wouldn’t take them to Spain, away from the New World. In my mural, I make La Llorona find her children because we get these stories from the Spanish historians and they had a very prejudicial view of the native peoples, that they were less than human, and we get a lot of our folklore from the Spanish males. In my mural she is shown reuniting with her children and it is a very happy occasion. 

At the Denver Art Museum, a lot of kids come from the schools, the projects, from schools that have a lot of Mexican-American kids. When I tell the kids about her and say, “Do you know what La Llorona means?” they say, “Yes, we even know where she lives, there under the bridge.” She’s a really intense figure in our memory I guess. But then I tell them, “Don’t you see, somebody said that she killed her own children, but I don’t believe she did it.” Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t, but I don’t want to project that story anymore. So I tell the kids, “I have La Llorona find her children and she’ll stop crying and stop searching for them through eternity, which is what God condemned her to do.” Then I tell the kids, “They lived happily ever after. Don’t you want to live happy ever after.” And some of those kids had tears in their eyes.

 

Do your murals exist as wholes in your mind or do they develop as you start to draft them?

They develop. I search for ideas. I think it starts with something in my memory. For example, we were Baptists all my years growing up, even though the Baptists are really really conservative and there were ways that some of us weren’t in agreement with the general things. We’d hear from the pulpit, “Hispanic boys will not be found with those protesting,” you know, with those in the youth protest movements, and of course, some of us thought, that’s where we should be instead of sitting at the church.     

points to pencil drafts for “Children of the World Dream of Peace.”

This is a lesson from the prophet Isaiah and Micah, that some day the nations of the world will stop war and so on and will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning forks. That’s taken from how I was brought up. My parents were really religious when I was growing up, but innocent in their beliefs. I was the one who always questioned everything and I got worse as I got older.  So you can see this comes from my religious ideas. As you can see, the people of the world are bringing their swords wrapped in their flags to be beaten into ploughshares. 

Then here I have children sleeping amid the debris of war and this warmonger is killing the dove of peace, but the kids are dreaming of something better in the future and their little dream goes behind the general and continues behind this group of people, and the kids are dreaming that [peace] will happen someday. See how the little dream becomes something really beautiful, that someday the nations of the world will abandon war and come together. 

What happened up on top here, when we were painting the mural at our studio at a shopping mall, some people who had their kids killed by gang violence came and said, “What are you going to paint up there?” I said, “Well, I have to look at the drawings.” They said, “Could you put my boy or my girl up there? She was killed.” And then they told us her name, Jennifer. This girl, Jennifer, was killed by a young man. She went to help her friend who was hiding with her baby from a man in a motel someplace, and they didn’t have anything to eat or diapers. So Jennifer took her some money and the boyfriend followed her. When Jennifer got to the motel room, the man followed her in and shot her right there dead and then dragged her friend and the child out. So her parents wanted her portrait put up there. They must have told other folks, because before I knew it other people came and said, “I know you, you painted [Jennifer] up there. Could you paint my son, Troy.” So now it’s got like ten kids here, all killed by gang violence in Denver. So the mural took on a new meaning that we hadn’t anticipated. Almost all these kids in here are real people. I put in my granddaughters and their little friends from elementary school. Like more than twenty-five kids from around the schools are in that mural. 

The conspiracy theorists have interpreted it in the most naive way, I could say, like they think I advocate war and all these horrible stories.

 

Have the conspiracy theorists ever harassed you?

Just a couple of phone calls. They were not mean though. They’d say, “Are you the one who painted that?” And some came to my studio and wanted an explanation, which I gave it to them. 

 

Even an explanation didn’t placate them?

Well, the airport never posted a complete explanation. They just put the title, the artist, the materials. 

 

So how did you learn so much about history? 

I just was interested in reading. 

What happened I think was that something happened when I was growing up in Beeville, Texas, a little town fifty miles north of Corpus Christi. Like many little towns in Texas we had very racist sheriffs and police that liked to keep Mexicans in our place. In our town it was a sheriff named, Vail Eniss. One time the sheriff went to see about some minor thing between a Mexican husband and his wife about their children. The young man was not there, but the father was there. The sheriff arrived there with a semi-automatic rifle - now why if you’re only concerned about a minor incident? So he gets into an argument with the father and shoots him and as he shoots him, there’s other people that were in the yard that came around and he shoots them also. He killed three people in a few seconds. The man at the front was my mother’s uncle, Mr. Rodriguez. So in our family that was talked about. And in other families also. For example, my brother-in-law was put in jail and the sheriff personally beat him with a hose. I don’t know for how long, but severely. It was really really bad. He was just drunk, that’s why he was in jail. So we had a kind of a hate for the system because those things kept happening and the sheriff kept being exonerated over and over and over until he retired with honors. 

So you see, we already had a disposition, some of us, that there was something wrong here. Why were treated like this. 

When I was in the fifth grade, one day our teacher didn’t show up, so a lady from the office came and said we were going to have a substitute and later she would arrive and for us to stay at our seats and behave. And when the lady left everyone began to play and talk and stuff. Some kids went up to the blackboard. I was more reserved than most folks. We were a little odd.  Some of us were Baptists in a community that was almost totally Catholic. So we were a little more reserved. I was sitting down for a long time and some kids were drawing already and after a little while I said, “Okay I’ll go draw too.”  So I went up to the blackboard. I didn’t know what I was going to draw, but before I could draw, somebody said, “Pollo, draw me killing the sheriff.” Also all the kids began to say, “Draw me too! Draw me too!” So I started to draw the sheriff hanging or being stabbed. Then the substitute walked in. She was outraged at what she saw. Of course, when I saw her, I ran and sat down, but she had seen me already. She looked at the drawings and she said, “You, come here and erase this garbage.” I began to erase it and she got a ruler and began to hit me across the back. She was in a rage. And I began to cry. I guess I couldn’t see too well because I thought I was done erasing so I ran back to my seat and she said, “Come back here, you’re not done yet.” Because I hadn’t finished it completely. So I erased it completely. She hit me a few more times on the back. I don’t remember too much about what happened after that. Whether I went to sit back down or just stood there. For a while I stood there. 

Many people have asked me when was your first mural, thinking I’m gonna say something like when I was in the boy scouts or something like that. 

That I think started something in me. 

 

Tell me about some of your artistic influences. 

I met the professor in the art department, Dr. John Biggers, at the Southern University in Houston, Texas. He was a radical and he admired the Mexican muralists and he taught about them in a class I was in with him. Then I told him about the murals I was painting. And we became friends. So I was so influenced by Dr. Biggers. And he said go see the muralists in Mexico City. 

What happened in my case was there were people, Los Mascarones, - masks - and they did a performance and so after the performance a lot of those kids [in Los Mascarones] stayed in my home. I had an enormous living room. After the performance they were at my house and the kids were sleeping already and I was having coffee with the director of the group and I asked the man, “Do you know anybody who could get me introduced to Siqueiros.” I was asking this guy - Mario was his name - and he said, “That’s his grandson sleeping right there.” I wanted to go wake that kid up. In the morning, I said, “Could you introduce me to your grandpa?” And he said, “Sure, just come on over.” So that’s how I met Siqueiros. 

It was real funny. Siqueiros talked about some of the other guys, like, “Those guys can’t paint,” talking about Rivera. It was funny because Rivera is a Great. A great, great master. And then Siqueiros said, “Tamayo was okay, but one time we had a fight at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.” Siqueiros said that one time he and Tamayo got in a fight at the top of the stairs and rolled down the stairs. 

Do you know much about the great muralists from Mexico?

 

A little bit . . .

Well Siqueiros was the most outspoken of them. Before the revolution began, like 1911, he was a student at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City. He and the other guys, he must have been 14, 15, and they were meeting already about political issues that were being discussed in Mexico before the revolution. And Siqueiros talked about this when I interviewed him. It was another awakening for me. Siqueros was so dynamic and a little reckless also. Do you remember Trotsky? Trotsky separated himself from Stalin and the rest, and Trotsky was a little more progressive I think. But Stalinists thought that he was dividing the worldwide communist movement and so they wanted him killed. Siquerios was a Stalinist in those days when he was young. When he was older he didn’t want to talk about it. He’d say, “We were young then.” He tried to assassinate Trotsky himself before Trotsky was finally assassinated. And that’s the way he was, kind of crazy and reckless and so on. 

But to meet him when he was, I think, 72, it was quite an experience for a young person like myself. So I came back thinking, “Wow, I met a master, a real master.” Because there were many of us painting murals, but we didn’t know what we were saying or what we believed in or what our purpose was in painting the murals. I came back with a little more beliefs. 

 

How many murals have you painted in Colorado?

I don’t know. But I’ve got some in schools, the high schools.

 

And some in prisons, too, right?

Did I do one in a prison? Yes, that’s right. In Greeley, there’s a youth facility. We did two murals there. When we were working in the prison the kids there were 10 years to 20 years of age. They didn’t call them inmates, they called them students. They were there for different offenses. 37 kids volunteered to paint murals with [my assistants and I]. We told them the way we were going to do the murals was each of them was going to sit down and draw from their own experience how they got in trouble, how they got their lives messed up at this early stage, and they were going to draw that and then they were going to draw another drawing about how they were going to improve their lives. So many kids didn’t like the idea so they quit coming in. We only had 15 kids. But some of them couldn’t see a way out. This one girl, her name was Alicia, she drew some big bottles like alcohol drinks and there was a little girl at the bottom lost in alcohol. And I said, “Okay, now what’s the other one, how are you going to get yourself out of this?” And she wouldn’t do it. 

Everybody painted a portion of the mural, about two and a half feet wide by twenty inches high, and they would paint how they had gotten in trouble, the life they had, and how they were freeing themselves from that. And Alicia left hers just like that. She said, “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” So I could never make her go beyond that. Another kid named John, he drew himself in a big rat trap, and I said, “Well, what are you going to do when you’re on the other side?” And he said, “Once you get in drugs and messed up, that’s the way you’ll be forever.” And I said, “No.” And we were kind of preachy the three of us, my two assistants and I, we were trying to tell the kids there’s something better out there, like, “Paint yourself some other way.”  And John did change his drawing. He’s got the kid trapped and then in the other one there’s a trap with the wire back and the kid’s standing next to it, because he’s gotten himself out of that situation. And that’s how it’s painted on the mural today. It was therapeutic, what I was doing with the kids. 

I’ve told my students, “We have to have a higher purpose with our art here, not just to sell it so people can take it and just decorate their homes, but do something more positive.”

 

Can you expand on that?  What is art’s role in cultural and political conversations?

Well, the Mexican muralists after the Mexican revolution proceeded to paint the people because many of them had been with the revolution and had seen the struggle of the people and they saw firsthand how art could return to the people a sense of their own dignity.

Just to give you an example of how the elites in Mexico saw their own people, Mexico celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1910 and to celebrate the 100th year they invited an enormous exhibit of art from Europe, from Spain especially. Now how did those guys see the Mexican people, the Mexican artists especially. Why couldn’t they have an exhibit of Mexican artists celebrating Mexican independence. So that could give you an idea of how the rulers saw their own people. 

My activism was in painting murals and working with kids and so on, but in my case, I already had the experience of being back in Beeville with the sheriff, and drawing him on the blackboard. The young people see themselves in the murals. 

And in my background I had never gotten away from my beliefs. Because my parents were so beautiful. Memories that you could never forget. Like before going to bed, my little brother and myself and my older sister, and everybody’s going to bed, my mother takes a little time to sit in her rocking chair to sing or just hum hymns, and I grew up seeing that. Or hearing my mother or my father at the dinner table saying, “Remember the poor.” A list of things that they repeated almost in every prayer. So that was the kind of innocent background that I had in my case. 

Some other artists did it because the Mexican painters were revolutionary in the Marxist way. Being not very easy with words, I tried to read Marx, but it was just too complex and boring. On the other hand, the Bible was easy for me and to see it in my family and going to visit my brother in prison and seeing all those things, they were impacting me. 

So as I began to read history, Mexican history and then the history of us here in the U.S., and I saw how I could contribute.

For example I painted a mural about black and white. It was four or five feet off the ground, 18 feet higher up, and I painted many bodies, brown bodies, because we had been made to feel inferior to the whites. I remember seeing also in the 7th grade for the first time the black kids, the Mexican kids, and the white kids were all together, and I remember the black kids, when they went to speak to the teacher, and the teacher spoke to them, they lowered their heads. We were pretty bad, us, the Mexican kids. But we didn’t do that I don’t believe. We didn’t look the teachers in the eyes very much, but we didn’t lower our heads I don’t think. And I thought that was out of some humiliation and as I studied more about blacks and other oppressed peoples, I could see that what I had was an instrument in my hands that I could use to return to the people a sense of their history and their beauty and their human dignity. And people responded to that. They like those kinds of explanations. 

 

Tell me about what you’re working on now.

I’m thinking about this mural for the Occupy movement. I don’t have funding yet. I think it’s very important and very interesting, what the young people are trying to do with that. 

 

INTERVIEW: Anicka Yi

Anicka Yi, Sister, 2011. Tempura-fried flowers, cotton turtleneck, dimension variable.

 

We were introduced to Anicka Yi's work at 47 Canal , an LES Gallery operated by Margaret Lee and Oliver Newton, who played host to Anicka's first solo show, Sous-Vide, last September. We met the artist for a studio visit in the space earlier this year. Anicka's materials are unexpected and her process is unpredictable. Works like "Sister" demand a complete sentient analysis from the viewer, placing them in unfamiliar territory beyond the purely visual and inspire a multiplicity of ideas and emotions.

Interview by Kriti Upadhyay

 

In your artist statement, you say you are drawn to perishable materials because of their affect, their aesthetic qualities, and their resistance to archive, permanence, and monumentality. How have you counteracted the challenge this presents to the creation and exhibition of your work?

I don't know that I've counteracted the challenge of making and exhibiting perishable materials. The syntax of the work continues to develop and hopefully becomes more fulfilled. I'm developing sensory assets in order to explore the way language, media, and economy mediate technologies of the self and ways in which art making can be pushed towards an expanded notion of the sensorial. I'm interested in connections between materials and materialism, states of perishability and their relationship to meaning and value, consumerist digestion and cultural metabolism.

 

What first drew you to combining these materials with aggressive techniques such as deep-frying and sous-vide?  Do you have any culinary training?

I don't have any culinary training but possess an affinity for radical technique. Deep-frying is such a base form of achieving flavor incorporating so many fascinating formal attributes- texture, sense of touch, smell, sound, sensations of temperature and pain, fragility. I love the violence of the process. It's high drama. So is the process of vacuum sealing food to slowly parboil it for 72 hours. These are all techniques of desire that [circumscribe] Taste. Taste is about thresholds. We're all implicated in the politics of taste which are problematic. I'm interested in liminal, dangling spaces between a fully realized “biological” experience of taste and what is often at odds with this as conceptualizing taste. How the transglobal contemporary consumer apparatus appraises taste. I think some of the most radical art that has been developing in the last 10 years has been in the culinary arena, El Bulli, Noma, Subway sandwich franchises by example, but especially the dominance of the flavor industry on our reality. I'm drawn to the totalizing experience of the art of “taste”: the performative, the formal, the theatrical, the sensorial, the metabolic, the irreducible unique moment. This arena calls into play the concept of taste and value through biological/chemical sciences, economics, emotional and sensory triggers (receptors).  

The deep fried flowers bouquet installations are an aggressive treatment of tactility - surface textures, simultaneously inviting and repelling touch. Each flower stem was individually coated with tempera batter and panko crumbs then deep fried in a deep fryer. I wanted to impose violent techniques on delicate, fragile materials to expose vulnerability, stages of metamorphosis, delineate different strains of matter and perishability. To exaggerate the weight of the batter and crust onto the light, ethereal quality of a flower.  Flowers are enjoyed for their "natural" beauty and purity. They needed to be "messed" with to bring out other qualities, to address questions of purity, beauty, perishability, decay.

 

One of your works, Convex Double Dialer of a Shining Path, heats together “recalled powdered milk, abolished math, antidepressants, palm tree essence, shaved sea lice, ground Teva rubber dust, Korean thermal clay, and a steeped Swatch watch” on an electric burner. What leads you to such specific combinations of materials?

I'm drawn to speed and vectors from different economies and timelines. The elements in Convox Double Dialer collide, co-mingle well together as language as syntax. I like the sensorial/cognitive scramble. It's earthy and cosmic. My work is language building. It's word building, by what certain elements, say, the recalled milk, abolished math, antidepressants, palm tree essence, etc. mean. Whereby Signifier, exchange and use value are all entangled. They're like poems. For instance, in one of my sculptures there is MSG (a flavor enhancer) a big metal bowl. [You Should Hire Me Because My Kiss Is On Your List] I get asked Why MSG?  MSG could always just be the right grain of powder but it could also be something else. It's neither nor. It depends on the syntax. There's no right answer for why MSG? It's equivalent to asking why De Kooning used red in Woman Painting. It could be that MSG was used because it happened to be in a shop downstairs from the studio where the sculpture was composed. It could also be that MSG is very commonly used in Asian foods. The materiality is about the triangulations between the thing itself as aesthetic qualities- the language and the social/visual implications of the things. I applied Shining Path to the title because I was thinking of timescapes, like when Wipe out the past and let the future take care of itself.

 

How much experimentation usually occurs before you think you’ve achieved a work in its final state?

A lot. They rarely ever feel final.

 

Following up that question, what have previous failed experiences taught you to avoid?

Avoid a trip to the Emergency Room.

 

What have been your favorite ingredients (if I may call them that) and processes? What’s something you would like an opportunity to experiment with?

I'd like to explore more bio-technologies. Cryogenics, grafting, impregnating materials.

 

You force the observer to confront barriers such as scent and edible medium. Should they consider this taboo? If not, how should someone approach viewing your work?

Nothing is really taboo. One could approach my work with a presentness of biological and intellectual receptors. Be prepared to crank up the memory machine.


You explained to us previously that you’ve attempted to visually represent the metaphor of art as a metabolism in previous shows. Do you plan to translate this idea into any other mediums?

Mostly through writing and performance.

 

Your exhibitions and works have memorable titles such as “Excuse Me, Your Necklace is Leaking” and “Yes, It’s Made for That.” What goes into these names?

Poetry, humor.

 

Finally, we discovered you’re really into post-apocalyptic sci-fi novels during our studio visit at 47 Canal.  Can you see your curiosity in a concept like the "Apocalyptic Sublime" ever intersecting with your process as an artist?

The work feels, looks pretty sci-fi already, doesn't it?

 

 

INTERVIEW: Más Rudas Collective

 
Detail from Becoming the Spectacle: The Virgen de Guadalupe, Aztec Goddess, the Mariachi, and the Donkey Lady, 2011. Photo: Chad Gomez, SA.

 

The San Antonio based Más Rudas Collective [MRC] is Ruth Leonela Buentello, Sarah Castillo, Kristin Gamez, and Mari Hernandez. “Más rudas” resists English translation. Instead, a demonstration: the four artists were recently kicked out of the Alamo by security—the strong arm of the Daughters of the Republic (of Texas)—for showing up there in costumes including a mariachi, an Aztec princess, the Virgen de Guadalupe, and the Donkey Lady of San Antonio (a local urban legend). Another act implied in their name is the simultaneous ancestor-honoring maintenance and radical revision of what it is to be Chicana/o. They refuse to relinquish identity to the altar of contemporary art. This tenacity has been rewarded in their short, rocketing career with a residency at Slanguage in Wilmington, L.A., installations and solo shows at the Mexican American Cultural Center in Austin and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, the cover of Chicana/Latina Studies: The Journal of Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social, and in Fall 2012, the Window at Artpace San Antonio, to name a few.

C/S

Interview by Josh T Franco

 

I have been following Mas Rudas Collective since the “Quinceanera” show a couple of years ago now. I have questions I'm eager to ask about that show and the really rad projects that have happened since, but first, can you tell me how you all decided to come together as a collective in the first place? Do any of you still maintain studio practices on your own, or is this an all-in kind of deal?

Our efforts towards establishing an all female collective was sparked by Mari Hernandez. We started collaborating in efforts of having an all female DIY art show, “Our Debut,” in December 2009 in a friend’s living room. We all welcomed the opportunity since we felt the SA arts community overlooked Mexican-American artististas and because we didn't connect to the majority of art being shown in San Antonio. Through our collaborative efforts in discussing, creating and organizing “Our Debut,” we decided to continue collaborating as a Chicana collective, which we solidified under the name, Más Rudas.

Individual studio practices are still kept while the collective works together on our collective exhibitions. Each form of practice, individually and collectively, ignites a flame in the other.  


It is saying much to say that Mexican American artists are overlooked in San Antonio. I’m definitely intrigued. Can you specify what you all mean when you say “the SA arts community”? I am pushing this because many San Antonio institutions claim to do precisely just that: represent Mexican American artists. I’m thinking here at some radically different registers as well. The Smithsonian associated Alameda Art Museum and the grassroots San Anto Cultural Arts, to name just two out of perhaps a dozen, are obviously very different, but they do share that claim. But you are saying something was still missing. And I wonder if the crux is generational: our generation has such a tense insider-outsider relationship to the notions of El Movimiento and La Causa for instance (moments some institutions attempt to capture as their acts of “representation”, e.g., the Alameda’s Protestarte show of decades old protest posters). We weren’t there in the 60s and 70s, but the living legacies of those times are always very present in our daily lives, especially when living in a city like San Antonio. Or perhaps it’s a mix of that and gender. I’m thinking of the fact that some key pieces in “Our Debut” were premised on the recognition of an absence; that though the artists, some of you, are Chicanas, you had never had a traditional quinceanera. Each generation seems to undergo major shifts in how or whether Mexican traditions live in our US/Aztlan lives. We can think back to Pachucos and Pachucas for instance. What was not being represented before Mas Rudas began working in San Anto? And how is that absence addressed in your projects? It may or may not have anything to do with the issues I have raised here.

For us, to be Chican@ is to be Mexican American. From our experience, to be a Mexican American artist and refer to ourselves as Chicana is something, we’ve realized, is not readily acceptable in the art world. Identifying as Chicana has lead to some criticism. We’ve been told that we are pigeon holing ourselves as artists and limiting our opportunities. We’ve also been told in order to be successful we would have to make art that represents things outside of our culture and community. If our voice as Chicanas was represented than the fear of the label wouldn’t be as common. Because of this fear we feel as if we are overlooked.

While San Antonio has a large, diverse, and vibrant art scene it is rare that we are able to go out and see art that reflects our experiences. There are a handful of cultural art institutions that cater to Chican@ artists and we are thankful for that. The major art institutions in the city are predictable in the artists they show and represent. Rarely will you see a woman of color as a feature.

We realize that we owe much to the Chican@ artists and leaders that came before us. These individuals have paved our way and are a source of inspiration. Time and place set our views apart. We have different ideas and we were born into a different world, therefore the art we produce is different.

We know many artistas, many Chicanas who deserve as much, if not more, recognition than we have gotten. We are adding to the underrepresented Chicana voice in our community, not creating it.

 

How does the name Mas Rudas reflect this position?

Mas Rudas is a name that we created, embraced, and defined (because we can). With our name we take an unapologetic stance. It is the pride we take in who we are, where we come from, and the work we produce.

 

As an adoptive parent to a West Side San Anto dog,—shoutout to Gobo—I really appreciated operation canis familiaris. What was especially striking was the range of representations of dogs; the hagiographic portraits and altares, the crime-scene-esque floor piece, and the immersive, narrative environments, just to give some idea. It also made me look again at works like Francis Alys’ El Gringo and Helena Maria Viramontes’ novel Their Dogs Came With Them. There are some interesting conversations to be had there. What was it about dogs that enticed you all as artists? Did you get to know any dogs particularly well doing the project?

The city of San Antonio has a major problem with stray animals. While in recent years the city has created programs that raise awareness regarding the issue, it’s a problem that won’t go away unless the community becomes involved and takes action and responsibility. Sometimes we see dogs that are more like accessories, representing a level of machismo or affluence. Some are chained in a yard all day, acting like an alarm system, warding off possible intruders. Others are running around in our neighborhoods, neglected, hungry, dieing in the streets, and reproducing at alarming rates. We want to bring awareness and promote dialogue about the issue. Sometimes you have to be creative in your presentation in order to grab attention. There is a growing community of stray animal supporters in San Antonio.

These are people who have taken initiative and dedicate their lives to saving neglected, hungry, abused, and uncared for animals in our streets. They selflessly give their money, time, and energy to fixing a huge problem in our city.

Most of the dogs presented in the installation were strays. Mari Hernandez’s dog portraits concentrated on family pets that were rescued.

 

What was it like working on “Homegirls” in LA? Did any ongoing relationships or collaborations come out of that show?

Homegirls” was based on work featured and inspired by another member of our collective. This gave us the opportunity to explore our relationships. Developing our relationships is essential in our collective process. It adds depth and cohesion to our work. Spending a week with each other and driving to and from LA was a great bonding experience. We even got a Más Rudas tattoo to mark that important moment in our lives. We are a family.

Homegirls has been our first and only out of state exhibition so far. During our time in L.A. we were able to meet and speak with likeminded artists. We feel as if the Slanguage community truly embraced us. It was a very welcoming environment. In retrospect we see many similarities between San Antonio and Wilmington. The warm people, the culturally thick environment, and the sense of pride and responsibility the people shine with reminds us of our own city. Karla and Mario (Slanguage) were excellent hosts and really provided us with an opportunity that has helped us grow as a collective as well as individuals.

 

Does the concept of rasquachismo figure into your conversations as you create together? I am wondering how, if, this idea has currency for young Chicana/o artists today.

It definitely does. We concentrate on producing in practical ways because we have to. We are just like any other individual trying to hold down multiple jobs, juggle work and school and pay the bills. Rasquache means to make the most from the least. It’s embedded in our culture and our way of thinking. It’s also something we are very aware of because we want to show that you don’t have to be rolling in cash in order to be an artist or to be creative. It’s nice and a definite privilege to have the financial means to support your creative dreams but it’s not necessary. There are ways to work around a lack of funds, that’s rasquache.

 

I am really excited to see what y’all will do at Artpace, where Mas Rudas will be in the Window Works artists starting in September. What was it like to receive that invitation? Can we get some ideas of what we might see?

Artpace is a leader in contemporary art and their invitation to us was a great compliment to us as artists. This opportunity will expose us to new audiences around the world. We hope that our (a small group of Chicanas whose first show was out of the living room of a friend’s house) invitation to Artpace encourages fellow artists in our community to reach far and wide.

In true Mas Rudas fashion our upcoming installation at Artpace will transform and activate the space provided. We promise our theme to be thought provoking y puro Mas Ruda.

 

INTERVIEW: Joshua Smith

 

"Installation View, Joshua Smith at Shoot the Lobster, NY, 2012"

"Untitled (Speakers)" at the Dikeou Collection is one of the first pieces Brooklyn-based artist Joshua Smith showed in a gallery setting. The sculpture, a stack of custom-made speakers gifted by his grandfather, croons Ray Orbison's "Only the Lonely" and nudges playfully at the selfishness of artists and a melodramatic need to be loved. Though Smith has abandoned sculpture for painting, he continues to analyze and critique the artistic persona with his work. We met for an interesting discussion at Shoot the Lobster in New York City where a show of his recent monochromatic panels was on display.

Interview by Kriti Upadhyay


What are some recurrent ideas in your body of work?

I don’t know... love, longing, discomfort, being-lost, hope, elation, lust, sickness, shame, soda, terror, pizza, cats, dogs, death, Printer-Registration-Errors, The Tyranny of Context... all of the big issues. And the small ones too. I used to try to illustrate different feelings, trying to depict what it felt like to be a person, to move amongst a network of feelings and things to think about, but I stopped that because I’ve realized that all of the feelings and the things are already always in the air, or just bubbling in the background of our minds, and that abstraction can actually summon these things and feelings, one by one to the surface, they can reveal themselves. To try to illustrate what everyone already knows or feels is pointless when we’ll all just continue knowing and feeling it either way.

 

You’ve been producing monochromes for an extended period. What continues to draw you to them?

I actually like the paintings, myself. I enjoy looking at them. I am not nearly as orderly and contained personally as the paintings are, so they really feel outside of me. Left to my own devices I would just make a bunch of garbage but for me this body of work really demands some isolation and commitment, so I’m going to honor that. And the works are really meaningless unto themselves, so I’m able to step back and look at them, myself, as part of the audience. It’s nice to wonder what makes some of them successful and others failures.

 

You said that the works themselves are meaningless. How has this affected your development as an artist?

I don’t have ownership of what the works might mean, or over how they are to be interpreted. All of that is very personal, and in that sense I of course have a massive attachment to the works for personal reasons, but how I see them, what I think they mean, that’s mine and I don’t think its right or correct to try and force that on anyone else. The point is that Red and Blue don’t mean anything concrete. Either does Painting, Sculpture, Performance, so forth.

 

What personal resonance does this sort of "ahistory" carry considering you don't come from an art historical background?

The press release for the my most recent show mentions that there isn’t such a thing as “ahistory”, which is to say that of course these paintings are from a specific place and time, and that they are informed by the history that precedes them. But I thought it was necessary to say that, in light of my hopes that viewers not necessarily feel the burden of knowing art history or the history of monochrome painting before seeing the show. Of course I can’t shake off certain histories personally, but the point is that there isn’t one correct history within which to place the paintings. The point is that the paintings aren’t jokes or lamentations about the history of painting, and that there’s nothing to “get”. I just want viewers to place the works within their own histories. Which really goes without saying. They’ll do that anyways.

 

You mentioned that you think artists should strengthen their attachment to practice. Can you describe any experiences that influenced your adoption of this view and elaborate on what exactly you mean?

I’ve definitely read some very suspect press releases, that are then copied and pasted into very suspect reviews and articles, so I think most artists specifically don’t share enough attachment to their practice. I think that they often ascribe their own interpretations of what they do with far too much authority, and I think it’s shocking how many people in the cycle are willing to repeat whatever artists say of themselves and their work. Every artist will tell you that they’re ushering in the revolution. Almost none of them are, right?