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.




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



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. 



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.


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?


INTERVIEW: Stephen Batura

 spring morning, casein on panel, 984 x 147 in.

Stephen Batura is a Colorado artist represented by Robischon Gallery in Denver. His large-scale, monochromatic paintings based on historical photographs from the early 20th century, as well as images from books and the internet, are currently on display at Robischon Gallery in an exhibition titled “Appropriated: The Chronicled West.” Three other artists, Edie Winograde, Jerry Kunkle, and Gary Emrich also have works in this show. “Appropriated: The Chronicled West” is open through May 5, 2012.

Interview by Hayley Richardson


You are originally from Colorado, and have lived, worked, and exhibited here throughout your career. It seems like this state has its own distinct “breed” of artist and that the art community here is very tight knit. What do you think it means to be a Colorado artist, and what does the art scene in Denver in particular represent to you?

I can consider myself a Colorado artist because I am a native, I was born here, and that is unusual for the art scene. The art scene I came up in is much different than the one that is available now. In the early 1980s there weren’t a lot of galleries in Denver so a lot of artists started co-ops, and that was the best place to see contemporary art. I went to those places for years before I joined one of them and even before I joined it was a very open and accessible community and there was a lot of enthusiasm for new work and risk taking. I think now I am not as in touch with all the galleries – there are many more venues for fledgling artists and ambitious artists too. That’s a big change, and a very positive one for Denver.


Do you think there’s been a strong core group of people involved in the art scene here over the years?

I think it’s become way more developed since then. When we think about “groups” that formed over the course of art history, they are really less connected than we like to think. Certainly they are all contemporary people and I know a lot of current artists, but we are not all in each other’s studios everyday discussing ideas. So the affinities that develop between people and artists are usually very casual. There’s usually one or two people who you align with and who push you and you push them. But the difference, with Denver especially, is the availability of places and opportunities to show. The level of competition is nothing like when I started and everybody encouraged one another, there weren’t people trying to get your “slot.” Everybody wanted to see what you did and they wanted you to see what they did and I am not sure what the atmosphere is like now, if there is a lot of competitive interactions, but it was a great place to start. There was a lot of encouragement and people were interested in what everyone was doing.


Your paintings currently on display here at the Robischon Gallery are representative of a very large body of work that you have focused on for about ten years. Can you tell me what is has been like to explore this theme so deeply and intimately? Can you describe how it has evolved over the years?

Well that question is incorrect with this work in this way: the train wrecks, in which there are 5 in this show, are separate from the work I have been doing for the last ten years. The work from the last ten years has focused on the output of a CO photographer who is not very well known named Charles Lillybridge. I’ve been making work based on his photographs for about a decade. So what connects this work with the train wreck work and the earlier work is that I use mostly found photography, historical photographs. That’s something I’ve been doing since the mid-1990s and I continue to do it. I work from some of my own photographs – I’ve been working from this resource of Lillybridge photographs from the Colorado Historical Society Collection for about a decade.

I started the Lillybridge stuff at about the same time as some of my train wreck paintings [points to 2 on display] around 1998. Other paintings in this show are later, like from 2002.


Are the paintings that are not based on the Lillybridge photographs still inspired by other historical photographs?

They are still from the same collection of photos donated to the Colorado Historical Society, but are poorly documented as far as when and where they were taken. It is a very odd trove of images, very peculiar, idiosyncratic photographs taken by a guy who lived in a little shack by the river, and wandered around with his camera and took pictures.


Many of your paintings in this exhibition depict scenes of destruction and collapse, yet they are set within a historical context in which this region of the country was growing and prosperous. Can you talk a little bit more about why you chose to focus on this time period in your work? What is it about this era, and the photographs you work from in particular, that captivated your imagination for all this time?

I think I like the ambitious nature of what’s happening, whether it’s something being built or something that has failed in the form of a train wreck. They are both big, ambitious projects and sort of overreaching ideas. I like my paintings to reflect that large-scale idea. The way I developed the train wreck pictures – I had been working before that with very simple images that I took photographs of myself. I found figurines in thrift stores and then I photographed them and then made very large-scale paintings of those. They are very simple images without much detail, which was sort of the point. If you blow up a little figurine that’s five inches tall to five feet tall, there is very little content in it except for the shape with a couple little pieces of paint on them. From there I wanted to do dramatically complicated work, so I started to find these pictures of train wrecks which were spectacular, loaded with detail, and had elements of all kinds of painting: people, landscape, some elements of still-life with all this stuff spilled and piled up everywhere, and also a lot of abstract references which is where my interest in painting stems from, the Post-Impressionists and onward, and especially what we call “modern art.”


I am curious about your process. How are you able to translate small, antique photos into monumental contemporary paintings? Can you also talk about the physical aspects of your work, how its large compositions are put together with two or three separate panels?

I am very practical. I knew painters who did big work had trouble getting it in and out of spaces. I like wood panels. I like to work on a hard surface. I knew I could put them up next to each other and make paintings that fit together. So that explains my approach. I knew I wanted them big, and it’s still a practical solution that works fine.

As far as the method, I am working almost exclusively from downloads from the internet and sometimes I photograph little pictures I find in books. That’s where a lot of the train wrecks come from. These are, universally, not very clear photographs. They are often just basic journalism. There is not any attempt to do a bold statement or make a work of art. They are more of a record of an occurrence. So I work from these small images that are obviously black and white and what that let me do was allow some of my input, such as the use of color, which let me define these often undefined parts of the painting that were very vague in the photograph.  So I am working from small, not very well composed, not very refined images, and then using my imagination and my instincts to complete that into a large format painting.


I read about your exhibition at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art that took place last year, and how you switched gears from works like we see here now at Robischon to doing paintings of collages you had made from fashion and design photography.  What prompted this transition from painting recognizable imagery from the early 20th century to painting highly abstract and conceptual works?

It might be too strong to use the word “boredom”… I had worked for two years on a show here at this gallery [Robischon] in 2009 and had over 60 works in that show. I had worked pretty much non-stop on that, and that was all Lillybridge influenced work. When BMOCA approached me about an exhibition, they had planned to show some of that work, and when they came to do a studio visit, I had just begun doing these very automatic collages from a bunch of fashion magazines someone had gave me. I tore them up and I started just assembling pictures without thinking about them, and I had big stack of them laying on my table when the BMOCA people arrived. They wanted to look through those and they really responded to them. I had a few months before the show, and they said that if I wanted to pursue this stuff then they would show that too. You don’t always have the opportunity like that at a museum to show brand-new work, and I was real excited to try that. So I took these collages and made paintings of them.


Are they on the same scale as these works here at Robischon?

Not quite…they are large but not as large as these. They were experiments and it was an interesting break from this hard representation I had been doing for quite a while.


Is this something that you would like to continue, or explore other similar avenues?

I think it’s in my head and I’ve been trying to play off some element of that, the collage element in particular. I think I am sort of casting around with the old work and with the newer stuff and see where it goes. There a few paintings in this show that are brand new and we will see what develops.


Have you ever worked in collage prior to this exhibition?  What other types of art making do you enjoy?

I don’t think I have really done collage before. The closest I came to collage was when I was doing very simple things to photographs. This would have been around ’95. I did paintings based on costumes and I would find photographs of costumes in books and I would take the picture and maybe make one cut through the image and then push the two pieces together to make the image smaller.  So a big dress would become half the size and have certain contours. They were meant to be a little mysterious about how I arrived at that. They didn’t look contrived but if you look close you could a seam in the picture, a break in the contour and things like that.  So there was a little subtlety to them, but I wouldn’t call them collages because they weren’t multiple images. It was just one image that was cropped and slightly altered.


I don’t really have many other artistic pursuits. Painting has always been what I responded to most. I draw a little bit. Drawing was sort of born out of this Lillybridge work because I was trying to figure out what I was looking at.  It was easier to do that with a sharp, pointed instrument to draw with—somehow get a sense to know of what I was trying to deal with. Before that I really didn’t do much drawing. The work that really has developed is pure painting. I’ve never done any sculpture or anything like that, I mostly respond to two-dimensional work.


Which artists do you admire? Who has leant the most inspiration to your work?

I would say there are three artists right now who most important to me that I keep going back to. Most recently Gerhard Richter, the range of his work is amazing and he has really launched a lot of different things. When people see a retrospective of his work they will see connections to a lot of different work by a lot of different artists from all over, so he did innovative things before many other people and he continues to make impressive work.

Matisse is somebody that has always intrigued me. I always loved his looseness and his color and his explorations. He doesn’t get enough credit for experimentation. People definitely recognize it, but he was so relentlessly innovative. His works on paper, which is what I was looking at when I was doing the BMOCA collage work, his cut-outs are so brilliant and represent a distillation of everything he ever did.

The third artist would be Max Beckmann. Apart from being the most beautiful painter, he made such great, lush images and was able to do mysterious narratives and somehow get away with it. He wasn’t tied to a narrative tradition that we knew, and he wasn’t doing what other modernist painters were doing by making simplified images from life. He was really telling stories but we didn’t know what those stories were and yet they are evocative and they are still difficult to decipher. So those are my three guys…

I go through phases where I look at different artists and different ones crop up. I was very influenced by Luc Tuymans from Belgium, who I first saw in the early 90s. He was one of the first people to use photographic work that is obviously photographic but still very much his own work. He widely influenced younger artists with that approach. There are a lot of artists that I will tune into while I work on certain problems or work for certain show, but those three I mentioned before are the artists I turn to again and again.


What do you see on the horizon of the larger Colorado art community? What is on your plate for the future?

I am very impressed by the work by young artists that I see around town and in the galleries and museums. It’s a problematic opportunity to show young people who are not defined yet and I worry about them having the opportunity to show so early because that can lock you into a style or a format or a way of working that you might abandon if you don’t have early success. But with that said, I am really happy to see really high-quality work from young people, to see them have opportunities to show, and to have a great institution like the MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) have a much more involved presence in contemporary art in the form of their new Director. The gallery system has greatly expanded from just co-ops to more professional galleries that are helping the artist in a lot of different ways. When I started, it was really on the backs on the artist to do every aspect of the job.

Right now I am pursuing whatever I feel like pursuing. As far as what I am doing at the moment, I don’t really have a particular show lined up but I have some ideas for things I want to do. So I am working with this new format, working through some of these collage aspects. Otherwise I don’t know what the future has in store. I guess we will just have to wait and see.


INTERVIEW: Charles McGill


Red Menace, 2011


With a background in painting, Charles McGill has branched out across media: found objects, graphic design, performance, essays, photograpy, appropriation, digital arts, and more.  His latest exhibition, “ Trapped,” at The Phatory, features golf objects re-processed through the social-political “Black” experience.  On the walls are vintage golf bags that have been gutted, stretched, and arranged into figures on 4’ x 4’ squares. The subjects are creepy, provoking numerous associations, both perpetrator and victim, powerful and disempowered.   Reminiscent of John Chamberlin and Philip Guston, these works must be seen in person for full effect.  “Trapped” runs through May 26, 2012.

Interview by Brandon Johnson


The majority of works in this exhibition are composed of an unconventional material – de/reconstructed golf bags.  What first drew you to work with them?

Actually, I worked at a golf pro shop on 49th and Madison back in 1996 and one day, while straightening up golf bags on the floor I thought it would be cool if I could combine a vintage recording of Malcolm X with one of the very opulent and durable looking golf bags. The bigger, the better, and the more opulent, the better. I thought the contrast would be interesting. That was the very first thought of the possibility of using a golf bag as an object or subject in my art.

Sometime later, maybe a few months or more, I was working in the studio one day on a body of work that had come to its end. I was at the point where I couldn’t make another one of ‘those’ whatever it was at the time. I looked into the corner of my space and I saw an old golf bag that I hadn’t used in a while and probably wasn’t going to use any time soon and I said to myself, I’m going to collage lynching imagery onto that bag. It seemed consistent with the essential motivation for most of my work, which is, to seem to combine opposites so that some similarities can be arrived at eventually – if only via their propinquity. So this lynching imagery and the golf bag had some similarities but they weren’t directly related.  I made the Lynch Bag and a collector bought so I thought to myself, I should probably make another one…


Golf is a game traditionally practiced at country clubs – romping grounds of wealthy, powerful white males – known to exclude other genders and races.  As an African-American, artist, and golfer, what are your feelings on the sport?

I love golf. I love to play it and watch it on television. I’ve been to several PGA Tour events to watch the pros hit the ball and they truly play a different game than the one I play—that’s for sure!  I’ve worked in golf from midtown pro shops to green grass country clubs.  I was even thinking about getting my PGA pro status at one point so that I could be a teaching pro, but couldn’t devote the amount of time and focus that it required to get as good as I needed to be in order to pass the playing ability test. So after three and a half years of working hand-on and teaching juniors how to swing the club, I decided that what I really should be focusing on, and the real reason for exploring this career opportunity, was to further examine my relationship to the subject matter. It was a great experience working at a real country club, seeing how things really functioned and how the members really were as people as opposed to what I imagined or assumed rich country club members to be and how they might act. I think a lot of people think that rich members of country clubs are snooty with an aversion to anyone who isn’t white or rich or privileged.  That wasn’t my experience at all. I met some of the nicest and most generous people I’ve ever encountered. And they were consistently pleasant. They were often grounded in faith and lived by it.  I’m sure there are plenty of country clubs where racial or ethnic of intolerance is welcome, but it wasn’t my experience.

The other country club experience I have is at a place called The Bridge in Bridgehampton.  The owner’s name is Robert Rubin and he is an avid collector of contemporary art. Needless to say, he came across my work one day and it was a match made in artist/patron heaven. Bob always likes to think and move to the beat of his own drum. So when he built this golf course and clubhouse he made the entire concept kind of funky. It cost $600k to join the club, but if you want to wear a t-shirt to golf, hey what’s the big deal?  I’m an honorary member—I don’t have that kind of cabbage!

Bob has featured some of my work in the clubhouse and it has seen by some pretty influential people. I’m grateful for that. He actually installed my first life-sized sculpture of Arthur Negro, The Head of the Former Black Militant Golf and Country Club. It happens to be a self-portrait. It’s an impressive piece and he installed it out there, Black Power gloves, Uzi, black beret and all. What better place to have that piece on permanent display? Talk about combining opposites – it’s perfect! If you call the club, the outgoing message is a recording of James Brown singingShould I take’em to the bridge? Take’em to the bridge?” from Sex Machine.  It’s a perfect setting for some of my work.

Here’s a link to the NY Times piece on the club.


These works are very archetypal. They are figures, but assume no form in particular yet are loaded with references to power dynamics. KKK, S&M, Abu Gharib, secret societies, the gallows. All things referring to relationships of dominance and subservience. Did you intend for the works to be veiled and open-ended, or were you seeking specific associations?

I never have any specific associations or ideas. To be honest, I try to stay away from “good ideas” and work primarily on instinct and intuition. One day in the studio after spending time tearing these things apart and constructing abstract compositions on board, I cut one bag open as it lay on my work table. In doing so it began to have the eerie feeling of an autopsy – like I was beginning to perform an examination within the chest cavity of this thing. I pulled the bag open much like a coroner might do in cracking the chest cavity of a human corpse. I’ve never done anything like that before, so I’m only guessing on how it might feel. Anyway, that’s how it felt and I kept working and attaching this bag to the board, gluing and stapling and cutting and sawing these bags apart. It’s a very intense and frustrating process because the bags are not made to come apart. They are very well-made and are meant to stay that way. So I can get pretty angry making these things which might account for the emotional content of the pieces more than any direct association with another entity.

During this one particular piece, I took the hood that comes with bags like these and snapped it on to the top where it belongs (it’s a rain hood essentially), and there it was—a sinister figure, hidden and disguised beneath this dark hood.  I kept working and made one of the best pieces of art I’ve ever made.  That piece is called Four Men in Formal Attire, was sold and is in a collection of Bill and Pamela Royall in Richmond, VA. In the cradle of the confederacy! How cool is that!?


At the gallery we discussed the timely political relevance of this exhibition as racism gains social acceptance under the guise of politics, especially during the Obama presidency.  Could you explain in more detail how the current political environment relates to this body of work?

Well I never look at anything in current events to inspire me or what I do in the studio. Actually, I made one piece some years ago that was a specific reaction to Amadou Diallo being shot by the NYPD, but other than that, I rarely do.

Having said that, I do think the wave of apparent and acceptable racism that seems to be affecting and influencing the tone of political dialogue is rather disturbing. I do think that the work is beginning to reflect this resurgent supremacy-minded activity. There seems to be a total disregard for respecting the office of the presidency simply because the office was occupied by a black man.

Early in Obama’s presidency there was an active campaign if you will, to discourage young kids to all of a sudden NOT aspire to be president when they grow up.

This whole feeling that Obama was something other, was “not one of us,” didn’t love “our” country, that this angered segment of society was going to “take our country back!”  From whom? The black guy?

The Tea Party, O’Reilly, Hannity, Beck, Rush, Bachman, etc… they all stirred a pretty nasty pot of racial protagonist soup that comes dangerously close to inciting people to act a certain way. It’s like they are giving stamps of approval for behavior that is reckless, separatist, and backward.  It paves the way for the president to be told “You Lie!” during his State of the Union and in the aftermath, talking heads rally their base of troops to support this very un-American behavior.

Anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say is that the golf bag is a very inherently political object. I use it to make art and in doing so, it very easily lends itself to interpretation on many levels and it is just pure serendipity that it has relevance within the current political landscape.