By Kevin Blake

Installation views of “[Old/New] Psychedelic Providence” at Tiger Strikes Asteroid Chicago. Image courtesy Providence College Galleries and Tiger Strikes Asteroid Chicago. Photo by Jim Prinz.

Tiger Strikes Asteroid is a conglomeration of artist run exhibition spaces with independently operated locations in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. [Old/New] Psychedelic Providence, curated by Jamilee Lacy and sponsored byProvidence College Galleries (PC-G) of Rhode Island, is the inaugural exhibition for the Chicago space. The idea behind TSA is to showcase emerging and mid-career artists from other cities as to expand the dialogue in local communities. In this exhibition curator Jamilee Lacy and PC-G have exported to Chicago an eclectic mix of artists from Providence whose work reflects and propagates psychedelic discourses and tangential ideas that have been part of the historical bedrock for artistic production in their community.

Kevin Blake: Just as a way of kicking things off, I was wondering if you could say something about Tiger Strikes Asteroid and how you came to be curating the inaugural show in its Chicago space.

Jamilee Lacy: Well, as you know, I previously lived in Chicago off and on for more than a decade. So, naturally, I’m committed to that city and the amazing artists who live there, even though I now live and work in New England running Providence College Galleries (PC-G). So, while I was in town over the summer, I did studio visits with both Anna Kunz and Michelle Wasson, who are all at once incredibly exciting painters, former professors of mine, and artists I’m planning on working with in the near future. They gave me a peek of their new project as co-founders and co-directors of TSA Chicago, and explained there ambitions: to make a space for high-quality exhibitions and international creative exchange among artists, especially those who are under-represented by exhibition institutions and/or art market forces. I realized that their mission to program the space in diverse ways (cultural, ethnic/racial, age, gender, geographic and more) corresponded quite well with a program that we’re getting off the ground at PC-G called Many Cities, One Providence. Basically, it’s an exhibition series in which we import to Providence thematic glimpses showing the diversity of the art and ideas of artists practicing in cities around the world, while exporting those of Providence-based artists to cities elsewhere. We’ve imported shows from Helsinki, Mexico City, Western Massachusetts and Central Spain, but we have just begun exporting shows… and Chicago is the first stop. (Next year we’ll ship out a show to San Francisco.) So, you could say it was a perfect symmetry to have PC-G’s inaugural exhibition export as the inaugural show at a space with the central goal of serving the many needs of many different artist communities.

KB: One aspect of the field of Psychedelics that interests me is the great resistance to it from the scientific establishment and the art institution which manifests as a social stigma. It is considered passé to make paintings with the acid toned aesthetic of the counter culture era of the 1960’s and until only recently, it has been equally condemned to pursue any line of inquiry that suggested psychedelics as having any positive influence on the human mind. Resistance and/or aversion to ideas generally draws interest on the fringes, but this field seems to be picking up steam again. Why do you think there has been a recent resurgence in psychedelic research and tangentially, the inner gaze?

JL: Has there been resurgence in psychedelic research lately? To be perfectly honest, I don’t know too much about psychedelics. Really, I’m just an armchair expert, and my interests are very specific to psychedelia’s impact on visual art and aesthetics in Providence. A lot of curators don’t like to analyze artistic production based on place, especially now that the art world has become so fluidly global on many levels. Obviously, I’m not one of those curators! Over the past fifteen years of living with and visiting artists around the world, I’ve always found that place, especially the city, is profoundly impactful on artists and their work. I think this makes sense because artists, generally, are empaths; they’re vessels for the world around them. Providence is a small city which has historically embraced the outsider, the fringes, and thus artist culture, perhaps because it was founded in 17th century by the likes of Roger Williams, who was forced to flee Massachusetts because of religious and ideological persecution. With the [Old/New] Psychedelic Providence exhibition, I wanted to show that Providence-based artists, of all backgrounds and ages and working today, are connected to that history, especially as it relates to the high and low aspects of subculture. Psychedelia, though we know it to have come out of 1960s drug culture, was a longtime coming in terms of its visual reflection of the experiences of altered consciousness. If you look back at the pre-1960s art history of Providence, you see highly distorted and surreal visuals, repetition and pattern, bright colors and full spectrums of kaleidoscopic imagery in Colonial and Victorian architecture, the development of botany and landscape design, fashion and jewelry, chemistry, photography and printing, meditation and new religions… And in poetry and fiction of the area, especially that by the infamous H.P. Lovecraft and his followers, you see experimental writers doing their best to evoke mind-bending scenarios and mystical states of being. Many of the creative people working in this vein were indeed outsiders who came to post-puritanical Providence to try out new things. Founded by a group of (mostly) women, Rhode Island School of Design is part of that history, too, and in many ways nurtures the community’s aesthetic sensibility by infusing a graphic, pop sensibility into a mixed tradition of outsider art and conceptual craft.

Installation view of “Old/New Psychedelic Providence” at Tiger Strikes Asteroid Chicago featuring artworks (from left) by Nadia Haji Omar, Bayne Peterson and Heather Leigh McPherson. Image courtesy Providence College Galleries and Tiger Strikes Asteroid. Photo by Jim Prinz.

KB:  It’s interesting to consider the rich history you mention in the context of geography and altered consciousness. It seems to me that place–obviously and not so obviously–play an important role in shaping our state of mind. It then follows that travel, emigration, and displacement act as a psychedelic experience in a way-forcing the mind to strategize ways of understanding the other. Humans are such chameleons too-we will pick up new languages, new customs, and adapt to localisms efficiently, and this all happens in the mind. As new geographies work to calcify one’s perspective considering the external, psychedelics (generally speaking), have been a pharmacological tool for forcing this issue internally; a way to have a confrontation with the other within the confines of the mind. How do the artists in this show confront the idea of the other?

JL: I don’t think that they necessarily confront the other. But to generalize, I would say all of these artists’ “otherness” resides in their choice not to live in NYC or Boston. Instead, they chose the other city, Providence. They chose it as a place where you can live and work on the fringes of the urban. The city has a care-free ease about it. Perhaps that’s because it’s a small city that’s kind of lawless, particularly in terms of the public being okay with letting the academic and the creative and the weirdo types try things out. I think that this is a longstanding quality of the city, which is why the occult, drug cultures and intellectual subcultures have long flourished in Providence. And because they can afford it and still have some proximity to the NYC art pulse and the New England ivory towers, artists continue to conduct real experiments with their ideas and work here. Most importantly, they can get as weird as possible and fail big time in Providence without worrying about it too much. In the case of these artists, they collectively embrace the aesthetics of psychedelia, which has never been art world trendy, while maintaining a commitment to pushing the boundaries of conceptual craft and design.

KBAs a generalization, the psychedelic aesthetic lingers today as a visual fallout of the counter culture movement and the early American psychedelic renaissance of the late 1950’s and 1960’s. I think a lot of work in this show diverges from this aesthetic platform while maintaining an essence of the ideas inherent in those tenants. Can you talk about how you see specific works in this exhibit as they relate to the psychedelic aesthetic? 

Theresa Ganz, “Tinted Serpentine 1 and 2,” 2016, Watercolor on archival pigment print, Edition varieé 1/5, 20 x 24 inches. Image courtesy Providence College Galleries and Tiger Strikes Asteroid Chicago. Photo by Jim Prinz.

 

James Janecek, “No.3D Series,” 2016, Monoprints (made from multiple Intaglio color plates), 22 x 32 inches. Image courtesy Providence College Galleries and Tiger Strikes Asteroid Chicago. Photo by Jim Prinz.

JL: The preface to your question is totally accurate, hence the [Old/New] adjectives in the exhibition title. The artworks’ primary aesthetic ties to psychedelia are of course color and pattern, and mostly to kaleidoscopic abstraction and landscapes, which I previously mentioned were tied to American creative culture’s notion of ‘expanded consciousness’ long before the term ‘psychedelia’ was coined in the 1950s. Artists in the show like Theresa Ganz, James Janecek and Nadia Haji Omar demonstrate that pendulous swing between Providence’s Victorian-era past—such as the infatuation with 19th century techniques of coloring landscapes “to make visible, and to reveal”(1) auras and other mystical properties of the natural environment—to the psychedelic landscape art inspired by visions induced by mind-altering psychedelic substances of counter-culture movements of the last 50 or 60 years. The more recent visual impacts are perhaps more evident in the maybe abstracted portraiture, maybe abstracted landscapes of Heather Leigh McPherson. Elizabeth Corkery, Graham McDougal and Bayne Peterson focus on those pop-art-esque kaleidoscopic elements we’re accustomed to seeing in psychedelic-driven work, emphasizing the longevity of psychedelic aesthetics’ influence on artists working across a spectrum of media.

KB: It seems to me that any given day in the life of a human being is filled with mind-altering substances and circumstances. From coffee and sugar to living in a place like Providence-our minds are constantly adapting to our chemical inputs, ever evolving conceptual rumination, and physical situational demands. I’m interested in how this show approached the idea of “mind-altering” as something that engages a scope of possibility that seems to have much more range than psychedelic substances alone. How do you consider the term “mind-altering” outside the domain of typical psychedelic discourse? 

JL: With this group of artworks, I’ve exemplified “mind-altering” as a series of visual alterations, amplifications, and, even better, enhancements. The enhancements range from updating the antique to retro-fitting the now. Additionally, I’d go so far as to say each artist’s entire practice embodies the kind of mood changes undergone by Providence’s evolving creative and counter-cultural traditions.

Graham McDougal, “Hotzestrasse 23,” 2015, Silkscreen ink on various surfaces mounted to panel, each 23 x 16.5 inches. Image courtesy Providence College Galleries and Tiger Strikes Asteroid Chicago. Photo by Jim Prinz.

 

Elizabeth Corkery, “Marble Surface I and II, 2015, 10 x 11.5 inches, Aerosol and enamel on MDF; and Elizabeth Corkery with Print Club Ltd., “Pink Orange Florals” and “Green Trellis,” 2013, Screenprints on paper, Edition of 30, 15 x 22 inches. Image courtesy Providence College Galleries and Tiger Strikes Asteroid Chicago. Photo by Jim Prinz.

KB: “Counter culture” is another colloquialism that has been retrofitted to flow seamlessly into existing paradigms, but below the surface definition and history, was a moment of political, social, and environmental unrest. I then project this idea to the present moment, a time when information is suddenly at all of our fingertips. A time when huge festivals that encourage psychedelic exploration like Burning Man, are drawing its participants from the upper echelons of the social pyramid. A time when psychedelic research has exploded into the realm of mainstream medicine. However, simultaneously, our roots seem to also be calling us back to a more conservative, more close-minded, and more polarized past. How do you see psychedelics, and the psychedelic paradigm as an integral part of our social evolution and do you think we are experiencing a moment of counter cultural production in the art world and beyond?

JL: In Subculture: The Meaning of Style Dick Hebdige says (paraphrasing) counterculture is a subculture whose values and norms of behavior differ substantially from those of mainstream society, often in opposition to mainstream cultural mores. Though it’s not quite as tidy as Hebdige would have it, the creative community in Providence, as I understand its history, has always leaned toward so-called drop-out culture or the alternative (again, there’s that nice parallel to the origin story of Rhode Island’s founder Roger Williams). Artists thusly have come here to get away from one thing—cramped quarters, market forces, rigid thinking, etc.—and find another of their own making. As we see cities push more and more artists out by way of cramped quarters, market forces and rigid thinking, I think we’ll see more and more development of de-centralized subcultures. The “psychedelic paradigm” was and is part of that evolution. But do I think “we are experiencing a moment of counter-cultural production in the art world and beyond”? I think that’s too big of a question for me, but I’ll briefly say yes and no. In many cases the alternative has become the mainstream. Sometimes that’s great, sometimes it’s annoying. Regardless, I enjoy wading through it.

KB:I can understand where that question may seem too big to tackle in this format. Or in any format for that matter. Do you believe that Providence, as an example of a place germinating decentralized subcultures, can be a model of sustainability in lieu of the equally powerful force of an ever-homogenizing mainstream? Tiger Strikes Asteroid seems like it could be representative of this very idea. Could you weigh in on how these ideas might be connected? 

JL: Yes, I think Providence could be a perfect model of this kind of sustainability. “Could,” however, being the operative word. Like in so many small cities, the eccentricity of Providence ebbs and flows. Sometimes the city is incredibly forward thinking about letting artists have a go at things, and at other (infrequent) times they try to co-opt and capitalize on quirkiness. For example, the state rebranded itself as the “Creative Capital” to emphasize its arts community. As part of this rebranding, they made all purchases of arts and crafts in the state tax free. Whatever, that’s great I guess, even if there’s all of 30 people buying and selling art here. Regardless, what this kind of yucky marketing gloss-over does is to redirect resources (space, money, attention) away from the truly weird, experimentality of subculture and towards things like the development of market and gentrification efforts. Basically, if some city officials had their way, the artists and their underground activities here would contribute to the city convincing the world that Providence is a whole city of the mall-like urbanisms of Wicker Park in Chicago or Williamsburg in Bushwick. Fortunately, these folks get distracted and this kind of muck is cultivated only intermittently. Artists thrive here and that model of sustainability could and would hold if market forces and tourism don’t usurp real alternative culture. Fingers crossed, right?

And yes, I think Tiger Strikes Asteroid is a fantastic example of against-the-grain organizing. Artists creating a platform and market model that actually meets their criteria and needs seems vitally important. It allows artists to develop a culture around the artwork that isn’t then consistently groomed by the gallerist or overpowered by the likes of art fair or biennial standards. But don’t get me wrong, I think traditional galleries are an equally important platform, especially mid-sized galleries, ultimately because the “ever-homogenizing mainstream” comes out of replication… the endless replication of the the alternative space (loft, apartment, or otherwise) is as bad as the constant re-creation of the Chelsea gallery outside of NYC. I think everyone agrees that many voices are required. And Providence, though it’s continually cutting edge in terms of art-making and the really excellent cultural experimentation that comes with, lacks variation of voice on the non-artist level. There are too few opportunities for artists to reflect on their innovation. So much so that I think the really interesting histories of said subcultures dissipate from memory all too easily. By formalizing a small group of like-mind artists who straddle the art world’s many zones, Tiger Strikes Asteroid helps artists and cities avoid that which is truly a travesty. All this is to say, TSA Chicago was the perfect place for this little show. I’m so thrilled to have worked with co-directors Anna Kunz and Michelle Wasson, and members Meg Duguid, Holly Cahill, Esau McGhee and Justin Witte, among others, to join together the alterna-forces of Providence and Chicago.

Kevin Blake

Kevin Blake is an artist and writer living and working in Chicago.