Interview with Lise McKean
LM: Let’s jump in the deep end and start by talking about your interest in dada, surrealism, fluxus, and the book your co-edited The Exquisite Corpse: Chance and Collaboration in Surrealism’s Parlor Game. Let’s hear about how these interests seep into your art work.
TD: My interest in surrealism and dada relates to my interest in the irrational. Like the surrealists I’m interested in circumventing certain aspects of culture that cause us to produce in certain expected ways. For my own artwork, I try to plumb areas I can’t predict. What excites me most of all is making works that surprise me in some way.
So on the level of how I work, it’s important to me to have an element of surprise in the way the works come out. On a level of almost ideology, I’m sympathetic to the surrealists who were trying to make artwork that was not culturally predetermined. They used dreams as source material, or collective games like exquisite corpse. No one person can control the outcome. They were trying to make work that was rooted in the irrational and beyond any one person’s control.
LM: I’ve been following your work since the mid-1990s and am intrigued by how you explore ideas both conceptually and formally. It seems to me that several of your major bodies of work—Lawns, Frame b, and Financial District evoke questions about in-betweenness. What interests you about interstitial spaces?
TD: I’m interested in how we navigate the physical world. My interest in the shapes of lawns involved me standing on the sidewalk, looking through the camera, and pointing it down from my particular height to find a place to get the whole lawn. Lawns pieces allude to the fact I had to collect that information to make the photograph. That carries over into later works in which I explore the form of spaces between buildings. It also alludes to the fact that the spaces are there for bodies to move through, and they’re also made by bodies moving through them. Spaces where public interest intersects with private property are spaces for walking, collecting garbage, and countless other activities. How our physical world resolves itself in these built spaces is very much a concern to me.
LM: What kind of in-betweenness is the focus in the series of photographs you call Frame b?
TD: In Frame b photographs, I was shooting through my fingers. I started doing it in reference to the photographic mistake—you’re taking a photo and your finger slips in front of the lens. It happens even more often with cell phone cameras. As I made these mistakes, I realized I was inserting the body into the photograph. I liked having the body as a literal framing device for the photo. Usually the framing done by the photographer’s body is unseen because the body taking the picture is behind rather than in front of the lens.
LM: Body Frame was one of the works from Frame b that I included in the show I brought to India. Viewers were intrigued by it and had all sorts of interpretations of what they were seeing.
TD: In many of the Frame b photos my fingers ended up looking like naked legs. So that brought up the idea of nakedness, and brought into play the idea of voyeurism. Frame b conjoins ideas of landscape, voyeurism, and the male gaze. I was humorously referring to all these in a very ham-handed way, if you will. Frame b was a continuation of work on the body and landscape that became in The Financial District a more concerted investigation of the body within an economically determined space. I started taking photos of spaces between buildings in 1995. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, I wanted to address specifically the idea of the body within a financial framework. The body is something we all have, and as units within a social system, the body is part of the social contract: everyone’s body should be taken care of. But this clearly wasn’t happening. Voters were misled or misguided into opposing taxes and other instruments that could bring money into systems that could direct it to social services. At the same time political bodies and institutions took advantage of the fears of voters so they could redirect money away from social services.
LM: You mean 2008 was a windfall for policies that take away money for public services for people who most need it and give money to the for-profit sector.
TD: Yes, I wanted to address the broken system and ask what would have to be done to direct more money into the social sphere so people could recover. But there was a lot of resistance from large financial interests who wanted money to keep flowing to them. I wanted to reinsert the body—the bodies that were being ignored—into the financial system.
LM: Again your approach is both literalist and witty. Just as you inserted your fingers into your Frame b photos as a shout out to the body on the other side of the lens, in the Financial District you juxtapose photos of the sky as framed by buildings on the four corners of LaSalle Street intersections with photos of your bare body, and particularly your butt. What’s going on with the contorted poses and mooning?
TD: I wanted to pose my body to mimic the shapes between the buildings and use the juxtaposed photos as something to meditate on and then write about. Most of the photos show my naked butt, and the way I’m bending over is more than suggestive. In fact, the full title of the book that resulted from this project is Financial District: 16 Suggested Positions for the Middle Class.
LM: And I recall the photos were shown in a pop up space on Michigan Avenue not far from the Art Institute. It was a fitting for Financial District to be shown in an empty, half-gutted space that itself was symptomatic of the 2008 crash. Before we get to Ekstatic Edgewater, let’s pause at A Neighborhood Piazza, your installation at the CTA’s Jarvis Street station on the Red Line. Take us through how you came up with the idea and went about realizing it.
TD: My proposal to the CTA was based on the notion of the piazza. And as it so happens there is a small square or piazza two doors down from the station in front of the alderman’s office. And there’s another one across the street. I lived near the Jarvis stop when I began photographing the spaces between residential buildings. For researching the CTA proposal I went to the stop, and starting at the intersection of Jarvis and Greenview going east and then west, I took photos along Jarvis of spaces between buildings.
LM: So you had the piazza idea and took photos of spaces between buildings near Jarvis. How did you transform these into A Neighborhood Piazza?
TD: I was thinking about the space that people move through in order to commute to work and do whatever they need to get done outside of their home. So I made a grid out of all the photos of the spaces in between the buildings. This goes back to my interest in the irrational—I wanted to do something a little out of my control but I still wanted to refer to public space. So I made this grid and approached it very rationally by dividing it into six equal parts. And then I started making it into the artworks. For A Neighborhood Piazza, I used the entire grid and started shaping it using Photoshop. I wanted to treat it as a fabric.
LM: By fabric do you mean that you wanted to treat it as a continuous piece?
TD: Yes, I shaped it to be flowing. It was no longer a grid. I reduced the fabric to one color by reducing the grid of photos to the dark and light areas that emphasized the connections between the different photos. This led to a lot of the photographic information being dropped out.
LM: So this sounds like the fabric became one color, with the light and dark shades creating a lot of texture.
TD: Like a silhouette. I floated that fabric in front of a full color grid of the spaces between buildings. So you could see pieces of the houses and trees, and it seemed as if you were looking at complete houses. But you weren’t. You were looking at pieces of houses that connected to each other. You were looking at the spaces. I used the two things, the fabric and the houses to make a shallow space become a piazza of sorts. And inside the piazza I placed a couple of trees that formed a circular flow to evoke the changing seasons. I wanted the piece to represent the flow of time and people through this space.
LM: And the flow of people is literal too, because the work flanks the stairway leading to the platform.
TD: Yes, passengers flow in and out of the train, along the platform, through the station, and up and down Jarvis—and of course up and down the Red Line.
LM: To follow up on your invocation of piazza. The fact that you call it a piazza rather than a square, plaza, or place, is prompted by your many Italian connections: your heritage, your Italian wife, teaching in Loyola’s Rome program, creating work that references Italian architecture, with some finding their way into collections in Italy. Can you talk about your Italian connections and how they come into this work.
TD: My past is infused with my mother talking about her Italian family. My grandparents were immigrants to Ohio. My mother told us what it was like to grow up as the daughter of immigrants. Marrying an Italian woman deepens my ties to Italy. Being in Italy confirms my preference for neighborhoods that are mixed, made up of people from various backgrounds. The piazza is also part of this Italian connection. It’s where people gather. They enjoy going and being there.
LM: It’s a place to talk to friends and strangers and watch people.
TD: Yes, it’s a gathering place. In this case the CTA station is a place that brings people together. It’s a place where people observe each other. For regular commuters—I go downtown the same time every Friday—you come to notice the regulars and the people who are new.
LM: The CTA is a kind of moving piazza. Does your CTA work draw on anything particular from the Italian aesthetic tradition or is it more about a way of being in space and time?
TD: It’s funny because my mother who was the Italian side of the family had a very laissez faire approach to mealtimes. She insisted we had dinner together but was pretty relaxed about how we went about it. My wife has a very different approach. Dining is a ritual, it’s sacred. You eat things in a specific order. It’s rooted in communal enjoyment, of being together in space and time. The nutritional aspect of eating is incorporated into communal space. I’m always impressed by the importance of communal space in Italy.
LM: Talking about communal space brings us to Ekstatic Edgewater. It’s your current show at the Cultural Center, a public building that creates a communal space for artistic and cultural life in Chicago. I used to live in Edgewater and it’s currently your neighborhood. What’s ecstatic about it?
TD: Ekstatic Edgewater is kind of a comic title. Edgewater is a quiet neighborhood. Once I started the CTA project, I started looking more closely at where I live. Once I saw a sign “Edgewater-Rogers Park” on a viaduct. It joins the two together even though they’re usually thought of as two separate neighborhoods.
LM: Your new work straddles photography and sculpture. I remember once you showed me a tangerine peel that you were letting dry out to see what form it would take. Ecstatic Edgewater has work whose forms aren’t unlike that tangerine peel. Can you talk about this new body of work that’s in both paper and metal? And don’t leave out how your color tests figure into it.
TD: A few different things are going on there. The Jarvis pieces in Ecstatic Edgewater are the ones that are orange. They’re the first ones I made after the CTA project. I wanted to keep the work connected to a place in time as in photography, but I wanted take it in a different direction. I wanted the work to be more tangible and material than a photograph—to interact with space in a more visceral way. So this led them to move into three dimensional space.
LM Is that where the sculptural forms come in?
TD: With the sculptural I’m circling back to where I had come from. In the late 80s and early 90s I started making photographs of landscapes in order to explore sculptural shapes. I wanted the shapes to come from photography.
LM: What’s the role of photography in Ecstatic Edgewater’s exploration of shape and dimensionality?
TD: I came to see photographs no longer as images but as collections of data. I treated the camera as a data collection device. So I wanted to use that data to generate sculptural objects that nonetheless had an indexical connection to a time and place, as does a photograph. I wanted to keep the indexical connection, but to have the thing making the connection be a three dimensional object. At the same time I wanted an element of irrationality, an element of surprise in the pieces. In order to do that I cut up the Jarvis grid of photographs between buildings into equal parts, meaning I had no control over what was in each part. Then I decided to manipulate each part. The manipulation took the form of laser cutting information from the photo into heavy paper and then draping the laser cut paper on the wall into a variety of shapes.
LM: What do you mean by information from the photo?
TD: I had the computer follow contour information between light and dark areas in the photo.
LM: What is being cut out by the laser cutting?
TD: It follows the lines. I don’t have a lot of control over the cutting. It follows the lines where two areas meet. It’s often a dark and light area; or it can be two sides of the line.
LM: Let’s get into color.
TD: The pieces called Samples Series are different because each one is a particular photograph, whereas the other ones are collections of photographs. Using Photoshop I averaged the colors in the photograph to come up with 14 different color positions.
LM: Is 14 a number you chose randomly?
TD: The color wheel usually has 12 so I chose to go two beyond the color wheel as a way of going beyond conventional color theory. Then I organized the colors according to the amount of surface area each color covered in the photograph. I organized those colors on the z axis. That’s why it looks like a target.
LM: So color is indexical. The center color covers the least amount of area in both the work and in the photograph.
TD: Yes, although there’s a certain amount of interpretation going on there.
LM: What about the cut outs in the Sample Series?
TD: As in the Jarvis works, the information was water cut through the metal. The Sample Series works reference Josef Albers in wonky ways. They have holes in them. They have the target, which is one version of perspectival space. The smallest space is in the center. But what I cut into that is another representation of perspectival space from the camera. The holes cut through the metal create a tension with the colors printed on the metal. And I love the way the perforated steel looks as stylized as Chinese cloud paintings. But it’s the opposite because it’s not a repetition of similar marks. I like that it references some kind of idea of infinity and at the same time references another kind of artwork.
LM: There’s something distinctive, even unusual about the palette in Sample Series. It has a synthetic, inorganic feel to it. Is that from averaging all the colors in each photos into 14 colors?
TD: The tool in Photoshop samples individual pixels, and each pixel can be of different intensity. You can get a huge range when using this sampling tool. Simultaneous contrast is the way the position of colors in relation to each other affect our perception of them. Visual color mixing is used in printing technology, in which dots of different colors sit next to each other. In some ways I’m exploring in a different media problems experienced by painters and chemists in the nineteenth century. For me, one solution might be to average everything mathematically. Some artists have done that, for example Jason Salavon has a number of different projects using color averaging. Getting back to what you said about the palatte not looking like colors in photographs. I don’t know what to say.
LM: There are a lot of variables go into the making of sampled color.
TD: The color you end up with is different from what was anticipated. I see that as another chance operation. I’ve been talking to some people about applying algorithms to average a color group, and send it through the system and see what happens—send it to my printer and see what comes back to me. There’s a student in my class who’s a programmer and I’m going to work with him to develop an algorithm to average color values. The slightly different thing we’re doing is choosing 14 different positions and then averaging within each position.
LM: What’s next?
TD: I’m not sure I want to give more control to the computer with the algorithm, but I’m definitely going down the road of using more chance operations. I’ll be looking to balance chance operations and things more determined while maintaining an indexical link to a place in time.
Latest posts by Lise McKean (see all)
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- Reveca Torres on the Tres Fridas Project - September 30, 2019