I am about halfway through a two-week period of guest blogging on the Art21 site. It’s been fantastic. Suddenly I had an opportunity to engage 11 artists in conversation, asking them questions I’ve always wondered about. I began to see the possibility of an arc in the interviews. On the one hand each interview is independent, on the other there is a thread of interest that flows through each post. I thought I could think through the progression here.
For the last couple years I’ve had a growing interest in celebrity culture. Not simply for its own sake, but rather as a particular reflection of the social structure in which we live, (i.e. post-industrial, capitalist America). Within that culture, celebrity provides a kind of apex or pinnacle of success. At one point, Young Joon Kwak equated them with the Greek Gods—as though Marylyn Monroe serves a parallel, cultural purpose in America as Hera did in Greece. At the very least celebrity provides a model for success and recognition, a model that translates into other fields, particularly in the arts, where tokens of legitimacy are rather slippery to grasp. As people working in a field with no direct use-value, the translated monetary/cultural value of a given object is highly subjective—something steeped in the momentum of the contemporary art dialectic. One way, then, to attain a sense of success is to become the famous Picasso, to be inducted into the Western Art canon. Or, the more immediate rock star artist option like, say, a Dash Snow type. Or, the shorter-lived 5 minutes of fame…”Even if you’re a flash-in-the-pan artist,” I remember a professor telling a class, “even if you just get famous for 5 seconds, at least you were famous. At least that one [painting] mattered. It’s better than nothing.” It’s the “nothing” that I’m interested in: the undefined, highly personal (and maybe less legitimate?) way of recognizing value in one’s work. Because I can’t define that “nothing” alternative, I’ve spent some time thinking through it’s dominant reflection: this whole Famous thing.
In lieu of those thoughts, I asked a series of artists to talk to me about their practices. I began with photographers Melanie Schiff and Jason Lazarus, asking about the gaze of the camera and how photographs memorialize events, or create opportunities to personalize mainstream culture. I then spoke to Young Joon Kwak, about his strategies of assemblage as a means to avoid commodification (oddly enough, he was also a finalist in the infamous SJP artist-reality-TV show), and Irina Botea about reenactment, revolution and film. That first segment of my guest-blogging was about the camera, in some way, or about our relationship to the camera.
My subsequent conversation with Anne Elizabeth Moore functions like a bridge—her interest in branding, for instance, crosses various mediums, even resisting the traditional “artist” label. She is a publisher, she is an educator and she also happens to make objects. All of her work is about self-empowerment in a context where that empowerment is difficult (if not, some might argue, impossible). Following Anne, I spoke with Brandon Alvendia who, like Moore, investigates self-publishing strategies. That is only one arm of his practice, however and working in different mediums, he locates “the art” primarily in himself. With Deb Sokolow, I asked about the characteristic second person pronoun throughout her work—here I feel like the interview-gaze shifts from Alvendia’s “I” to Sokolow’s, perhaps more aggressive “You.” (Agressive in so far as the audience becomes complicit with her work by reading/engaging in it.) At this point, the interviews start to shift towards an investigation of structure. Tsherin Sherpa talks about his relationship to the history and rigor of Tibetan religious painting, and what it means to step outside of that. He offers interesting reflection on the self, how he negotiates it. Here too, in some way I was surprised that the conversation became about the “self.” That theme is predominant in these interviews, and though I hadn’t anticipated it, it makes sense. After speaking to him, I interviewed Hiro Sakaguchi, Nadine Nakanishi and Ellen Rothenberg—artists working in very different ways, I was nonetheless especially interested in talking to them about the structure of their work and the places they work within. Hiro works in a museum, paints and teaches, occupying many different scales at once. Nadine boast a pragmatic optimism, running a print shop, participating in a printer’s guild and making her own work. Ellen takes advantage of overlooked portions of structure, in order to co-opt them for her own use. In all instances, the structure is both advantageous (in so far as it creates a context within which to work) and somewhat overbearing, insofar as it establishes standards and taboos. Ultimately I realized my thoughts about celebrity are really questions about structure.
Celebrity is a standard that reflects a structure, or style of thinking. The nothing, is the uncharted wilderness around that structure. Yet, that uncharted “wilderness” is actually more real and more vibrant. It is a more familiar context, and in taking time to better consider it, I realize that the fairy tale “fame” is actually the curious mistake. Because this whole gamut isn’t really about fame, it’s actually about doing good work, and thinking about the world with critical openness.