Guest post by Jacob Wick.
I met Keith J Varadi—artist, poet, writer, performer, and Associate Director at Greene Exhibitions—at the HMS Bounty, one of my favorite bars in Koreatown. We began by talking about Lance Stephenson’s conduct in the recently-concluded NBA Eastern Conference Finals, athletes behaving badly, athletes as role models, and artists as role models, which led me to ask Keith a question in which I confused the term “digressive” for the term “transgressive.”
KJV: Well, I hope that nobody’s looking up to anybody for digressing. I hope that people would look up to somebody for transgressing. If you’re going to be an artist, isn’t that the point? To be transgressive and push boundaries and fuck with people’s expectations. If artists owe anybody anything, that’s what I’m saying artists owe. I was actually talking about this with a friend of mine about a week or two ago: What do artists actually owe people? Do they owe apologies? Do they owe their “souls”? Do they owe donations to benefit auctions? Do they owe anything? I don’t know, but I think that at the very least, they owe intellectual rigor. If we’re coming to your exhibition, or if we’re coming to your panel discussion, what are we actually, really getting out of this? And it’s important to think of what it means to be transgressive these days? What are new ways of being transgressive? Tino Sehgal—whether or not you or I or anyone at this bar like or would like his work—he’s an artist who has actually changed “the game” in some way. He has stopped people in their tracks. People walk around an art fair, drinking expensive drinks, double-cheek-kissing people they haven’t seen in a couple of weeks or months, looking at each others’ handbags, and it’s like, “Oooh, that’s a nice painting!” But when he’s doing some freak-nasty shit at Marian Goodman, they want to go see what that’s all about. That’s interesting. There are plenty of artists in this current market, and in the last boom, and in the boom before that…there are plenty of young, white, straight dude painters who are making the system work for themselves. They tend to also make abstract paintings. How do you make painting interesting? I still think it’s possible, which is why I make paintings, and why I think artists I dig make them. But it’s like…if all you’re going to do is smear paint around a canvas like cream cheese on a bagel, yeah, you might get $50,000 a pop, but what are you contributing? What are you gaining other than money in the bank? Does this artwork need to exist?
JW: Does Tino Sehgal’s artwork need to exist?
KJV: Well, it barely exists.
JW: It’s very low-impact. Is it punk? What is punk?
KJV: I have a particular personal history with punk, and my own particular understanding of what that means. I started talking about suburbia before, which I don’t want to talk too much about because I think that conversation about suburbia is boring. But when you do grow up in a suburban area, the first time you do hear anything or see anything that is somehow disruptive—and for a lot of people in suburbia, that’s punk—that can be a really exciting, uplifting feeling or sensation. I was always conflicted. I played basketball for a long time—I was a point guard—but I also skated—I was a skateboarder. I played in punk bands and I made sketch comedy videos with my buddies…
KJV: Yeah. I was in a few punk bands at first when I was younger. I played guitar. It was the equivalent of what you make in Painting I or Painting II or Sculpture I or Sculpture II: none of that shit matters! It’s about fucking around, getting weird, picking up some skills. Very rarely does somebody with master skills make any real sort of impression on me. But if you’re going to try to make paintings and you don’t know color or composition, that’s probably going to be a problem. If you’re going to try to make sculptures, you don’t necessarily need to understand how to weld, you don’t necessarily need to be great with any saw, you just need to intuitively know things like: How does this shit fit together? When I assemble these things, is it going to fall to shit? So basically, it’s like dick around a little bit, pick up some tools, learn how to paint or sculpt or make videos or sound or whatever, enough so that once your ideas and sense of self develop to a more sophisticated place, you’ll better be able to articulate yourself. So I feel like I was able to do that by being in those punk bands, and that led me to eventually be in free jazz bands and noise bands and far more punk things as far as I’m concerned.
JW: I feel like my bad feeling about punk is from hanging around people who just used punk to identify all the things they didn’t like, including and especially other people who call themselves punks.
KJV: Right, but I don’t think that that is by any means particular to punks. Any type of group is going to be like that. “That’s not punk enough,” “that’s fake punk,” “I’m not a hipster.” These conversations are inane, yet we all end up participating in them. This sort of talk bums me out. If I’m going to define what I think punk means to me, it’s being able to get to a place where you feel confident enough and mature enough to not have that conversation.
JW: To not give a fuck.
KJV: Yes. To not give a fuck. I mean, look at me…I’m wearing J. Crew chinos! You think I give a shit whether any mohawked ding-dongs think I’m punk or not punk? I mean, the point is: my art, my poetry, my critical essays, my painting, et cetera et cetera, they’re punk.
JW: It’s not like: “I’m wearing a leather jacket, therefore I’m punk,” it’s like “I have an attitude, therefore I’m punk.”
KJV: That’s all that matters to me.
JW: That helps.
KJV: Altman: punk director. Cassavetes: punk director. I mean, Cassavetes was like the most dapper man, too!
JW: I’ve never seen a picture of him, but his movies are fucking crazy.
KJV: He’s probably my favorite director. Have you seen Husbands?
JW: No. Have you seen The Long Goodbye?
KJV: Yeah! And what’s-his-face, Elliott Gould, you know what his other big role was? I mean, aside from Ocean’s 11, 12, 13, you know what else he’s really known for? Being Ross and Monica’s father on Friends…!
KJV: Yeah. That’s Elliott Gould from The Long Goodbye.
JW: I love the use of one song as the soundtrack.
KJV: Repetition! A lot of my favorite artists use repetition as a very effective device, and it’s something that I have definitely recognized—the power that it has had on me, seeing certain films. Spring Breakers is one of my favorite recent movies, and there is so much repetition in that movie. Spring Breakers will kind of put you in a trance. I think Harmony Korine is a really interesting example of a punk, or a transgressive artist, in the sense that I’m talking about these things. He’s just an interesting figure, period. He had all those sequential visits on the Letterman show, where he totally freaked out Dave—have you seen those?
JW: No, I haven’t. But tell me about them.
KJV: He went on a few times in the mid-late 90s. He was just “being himself,” whatever that means. But Dave couldn’t even try to understand or access his persona or vibe. He was later accused of snooping around Meryl Streep’s purse backstage during one of his visits. You know, people use the phrase “thrust in the spotlight,” but I feel like artists or athletes or whoever might get to that point (“the spotlight”) most likely wanted that their entire lives. There was probably a point where they were like, “I would love to be on the David Letterman show,” or “I would love to show at David Zwirner” or “I would love to play for the Yankees.” When you’re at that point, you know what you want and you’re just figuring out how to get it. For me, another thing that’s important is how you deal with that position: you’re placed in a position, you have volition, you have autonomy—if you want it—it’s there for the taking…
JW: What do you mean by autonomy?
KJV: You were talking about archetypes earlier, in whatever field, and how there are certain roles you’re supposed to play, certain duties or obligations you’re supposed to fulfill, but the best artists, the best athletes, the best musicians—or rather, my favorite artists, athletes, musicians, or whatever—don’t fulfill those duties or obligations; they redefine the roles, they try to figure out how they can determine their own destiny, as opposed to thinking that things actually need to be so predetermined. This is a major problem for me: “I chose to be an artist, so therefore I need to get my BFA from RISD; I need to get my MFA from Columbia; I need to go to Skowhegan; I need to do the Whitney Independent Study Program; I need to show at a gallery in the Lower East Side; then after two shows, I need to show at a gallery in Chelsea; after three shows, I need to…” It’s like, “Holy shit! It doesn’t have to be this way, guys!” I mean, it can be, and there is nothing wrong with that—I think certain artists who have followed that trajectory are really interesting artists that we should all pay close attention to, but a lot of them are very derivative and predictable because they follow this path that they feel has been set out for them in order to be a successful artist. And I think the same thing goes for film directors, musicians, athletes, whatever. Dennis Rodman, “The Worm,” is one of my favorite athletes ever. I mean, the guy averaged upwards of 20 rebounds a game for a large portion of his career and he did press conferences in wedding dresses, he dated women like Carmen Electra, he has had people like Phil Jackson say he’s one of his favorite players he’s ever been privileged to coach, that he’s the most athletic player he’s ever coached. And Phil has coached Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal. These are without a doubt some of the best players ever, and he was like, “That dude is a freak beyond freaks!” I admire the shit out of Dennis Rodman. And another example, Matt Korvette, the frontman of the band Pissed Jeans…he’s one of the better performance artists I’ve ever seen. That dude’s a wildly entertaining man and one slippery fish. I’d rather watch him do his thing on stage or in some basement than watch most people who are invited to perform at this or that biennial do whatever it is that they do. And I mean, Korvette comes from punk roots, too. But now he’s a claims adjuster, singing about going bald and having car problems. But it’s the attitude with which he presents the material that gives him agency and charms his fans. I think a lot of these self-righteous punks that you talk about having issues with, they seem to be the types of folks who believe the most punk thing you could ever do is to “kill your idol,” to “fuck shit up.” But actually, I think someone like Harmony…he fucks shit up, for sure, but he also gives a lot of respect and pays a lot of dues. He references the history of cinema, he references pop culture and includes pop cultural figures in his films, and he even does things like get Werner Herzog to star as a brutal father figure in Julien Donkey-Boy. For him, it’s not just about killing idols, it’s about understanding them. I think that’s a major thing that I respect about Harmony Korine. He seems to have a strange sense of empathy. People sometimes think he’s just a smartass, thumbing his nose and mocking people, trolling the hell out of Hollywood. But I think he has more curiosity and self-reflexivity than most people in his position. I just saw an ad for Dior that he directed, which was kind of hilarious to me. And he also recently had a solo show at Gagosian. For him to be able to get away with having a solo show at Gagosian and doing an ad for Dior, and neither of them totally sucking…that’s pretty punk. No?
JW: There’s a lot of bad performance art or things in galleries happening made by actors.
KJV: Well, he’s a director. And the show was a painting show. He had a painting show at Gagosian, and it was quite good.
JW: It wasn’t bad.
KJV: It was good.
JW: It was good? I’m impressed.
KJV: The paintings are actually good; they don’t just “not suck.” Generally speaking, I think he’s actually paying homage to folks, while also trying to carve his own path, which is radical to me, given the current circumstances of things. There seem to be plenty of naïve purists and distracted cynics who won’t acknowledge the benefits of accepting influences in the creation of one’s work. I mean, if you’re hanging out with good painters like Rita Ackerman and Christopher Wool, you’re going to notice a few things. But don’t just ape someone else’s style. You know?
[Roy Orbison comes on]
JW: I love it when Roy Orbison comes on.
KJV: You missed it. Before you came in, I was sitting here by myself and they played “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi, which I think is kind of funny given the stuff we’ve been talking about tonight. But anyways, I think the apprehension that it seems like you’re feeling as a result of punk, and directed towards punk is valid. I sort of address that at the beginning of the “Biting the Hand that Feeds You” essay, when I illustrate this teenage mall punk narrative. I think that certain people are unable to or feel like they lack the ability to grow out of that mentality. It’s one thing to have those tendencies or proclivities if you’re a 16-year-old brat, but if you’re a 32-year-old brat who thinks you’re fucking shit up in Barstow, California, get a grip. Seriously, man, get a grip. And it’s the same thing with graffiti culture, you know, tagging. The actual art form—graffiti art, well, what it has been turned into, that is “street art”—is, as far as I’m concerned, some of the worst art on the planet—but the culture surround tagging is fascinating to me.
JW: What’s the dividing line?
KJV: Having a city dictate or map out things out for you. “Hey, Pratt student or SFAI student, we’re designating this zone as a safe zone for you to do your thing, and make something really beautiful and colorful and vibrant that appeals to the community.” It’s like saying to a sculptor: “We have this park, why don’t you put a sculpture in it that won’t offend anybody, but that’s kind of big and expensive?”
JW: And even if it does offend somebody, it’ll be in a sculpture park, so people will encounter it expecting a certain offensiveness.
KJV: Basically, as long as there’s not a dick and there’s nothing political, it’s deemed acceptable. That’s why Richard Serra can make public sculptures, because it’s just like big sheets of rusty stuff. Or Mark di Suvero stacking I-beams. It’s just stuff. It’s the worst, man. We don’t need that shit. And we don’t need any more supposedly zany, but in reality, tepid wannabe Cartoon Network crap on the side of some building in Bushwick. I mean, come on. The chase, the allure, the territorial disputes, the swagger—that’s what’s interesting about tagging. But if you’re a 37-year-old, still just tagging? Yo dude, you need to stop. It’s not about tagging not being a valid art form or graffiti culture not being a valid art forum. But like…don’t you want to take it further? Don’t you want to go somewhere else? If all you’re doing is getting in disputes, if you’re just calling people out, at a certain point…it’s like, “Who cares? What’s the point?” Pusha T is a good example of what I’m talking about. He’s a guy who’s defining what progression means to him. And nobody is really questioning his legitimacy. That dude is legit, no doubt. But he’s also like, “Hey man, A$AP Rocky wants me to be on a track? Okay, that’s cool, whatever.” Or he’s like, “You want to put me on a track that’s going to be on Power 106? Word.” I mean, that’s like next level gangster—or punk—where you say, “I’m going to continue writing these lyrics and projecting this image that I’ve been working really hard at pushing forward all these years, and I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize that, but on the other hand, if you’re going to give my persona and my product more visibility, hell yeah, I’ll take it.” That’s rad to me. Or in the case of Tino Sehgal, it’s like, “You’re going to pay me six figures to not give you anything tangible, and it’s going to be in cash? Fuck yeah. I’m in.” That’s rad, too. That’s some gangster-ass punk shit. The punks you’re talking about can’t really escape living in a world of capitalism. It’s like, okay…on the one hand, you can say there are certain punks who are not filling up their car with gas from Arco or BP or wherever. Instead, they’re putting some type of corn oil fusion whatever in the tank. Oh, and don’t forget…their car was definitely purchased used. And the only clothes that they purchase are from Goodwills and consignment stores and otherwise, they just wear hand-me-downs. It’s the same thing with freeganism and whatever else. You brainwash yourself into thinking that you’re doing the “right thing,” but in the end, you’re still driving a car, a car that at some point was produced by one of the more laissez-faire companies in the world! If you’re a freegan, you didn’t purchase those Levi’s, but who made those Levi’s? Whoever made them probably made them in the 70s, and labor laws were even worse back then! Instead of devising a system or making up rules that they think everybody else ought to abide by, they should maybe reconsider all of the contradictions inherent and apparent in their ideologies. And that’s the thing—they feel like the rest of the planet should be obliged to deal with their parameters they set up: “This is the right way of living, and anybody who would not acknowledge the merits of this belief system is out of their mind.” They’re the ones who are delusional. There is no distance. There is no self-reflexivity.
JW: I guess it’s like any system that functions needs entropy, needs a part of the system that doesn’t function at all—and from that non-functioning, the system gets better. So any sort of life system or economic system or ideological system needs the things or the people that are fucking it up, but it needs those things to be fucking it up in a way that’s predictable and predicted by the system. So what bothers me about punk is the extent to which punk only fills that role that the system needs in order to continue.
KJV: But that’s such a caricature. That’s a misrepresentation. If you’re a real punk, you’re not trying to fuck up someone’s day. What you’re trying to do is fuck with their current perspective. But you’re still a real person, trying to make rent, or you’re trying to pay for your kids or fill up your tank of gas to go back to work the next day. The people you’re describing don’t have this realization—it’s kind of cliché—but the realization of: “Oh my god, I’m becoming my mom” or “Oh my god, I’m becoming my dad.” They don’t have the realization of “Oh my god, I’m becoming the idol I tried to kill.” Angst has an expiration date.
Keith J. Varadi is at keithjvaradi.com.
Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles. “Scripting Misperformance, Misperforming Scripts,” an essay co-written with Byron Peters, appears in the current issue of Fillip. objet a, a collection of improvised duos with guitarist Shane Perlowin, was released by Prom Night Records in May 2014.