October 1, 2014 · Print This Article
By Kevin Blake
I drift. A good drift. A perfect drift. One that will catch a nice trout. I swing my rod overhead and flick the tip upstream. Mend. Mend. Recover and drift….fish. My memory takes me downstream and the water sweeps my feet from underneath me. I allow the current to drag me away from here.
As I rush past the shores of my recollection, I realize that it may take a lifetime’s worth of attention to learn the secrets of the river. I realize that each section of the stream requires a different understanding and consequently, a different approach, to unlock the mysteries of each pool, eddy, and riffle. I’m reeling but not too aggressively. I don’t want to lose this fish.
Fly fisherman, like painters, have an uncanny ability to liken any conversation to their pursuits with a rod or paintbrush, on the theory that the essence of anything is in how it relates to their quests. In Kim Piotrowski’s show, Catch and Release at Linda Warren Projects, this perpetual metaphor is alive and well and permeating from the walls of the gallery. The rush flows from one piece to another. The fish spook and swim under rocks and stay there until I walk away, only to emerge again as I distance myself from the work–forcing me to return and throw another glance at the image. These are freshwater works(predominately made with water-based media), bottomless and infinite–their currents creating a generative energy for their creator that seemingly erodes her immediate boundaries and transforms those limits into the conditions upon which the next work is made.
I lodge the toe of my boot underneath a submerged log as to brace myself for another run. It’s trying to get away from me. I hold my rod high and behind me with my left hand and keep my right hand on the reel. My body twists to make the position possible. I’m adding line as fast as the fish rips it off. The cold water makes new seams around my legs, adapting to my temporary damn. I watch my line tighten. The fish changes direction–and once again–I’m reeling.
I stand suspended in the gallery, surrounded by effort–large and small. Piotrowski has transformed the space to not only display her achievements, but to advance her inquiry. In her debut exhibition with LWP, Piotrowski casts her lines in every direction. Her massive site-specific painting done directly onto a gallery wall that spans 43 feet, is a glowing example of her fearless attempts to allow opportunities to be the source of her invention. She has titled the piece Tide Tango and in her words, it represents “the dance we do with the rush of thoughts as life runs over and through us.”
Like the river, Piotrowski’s paintings meander, dash, swirl, and coalesce in spaces that cannot be confined by the limits of the page. She recognizes the necessity to expand the space into different formats(see Corner Lot, 2014), providing new borders to break free from and allowing new puzzles to emerge.
Piotrowski’s paintings remind me of Matthew Ritchie’s complexly scaffolded spaces that find organization in chaos. The ability of arbitrarily small occurrences to greatly affect the outcome of a painting is particularly present in both artist’s works. Though Piotrowski seems to be making the paintings with much less discrimination. Less rules. Less fuss. More risk. Yet, in both artist’s work, there are common mark-making strategies, similar viscosities in paint applications, and there is an ever present familiarity in the natural locomotion of fluids on the surfaces they paint on. While Ritchie seems to be interested in corralling those fluids to work within his system, Piotrowski seems to let paint go where it wants, and her next move is a response to its uninhibited resting place.
I’m bringing him afoot. The line is tight but loosening. As the fish lays down, I pull him softly toward my free hand. In an instant, before I could grab him and at exactly the moment our eyes meet, he gives one last fit of terror and snaps free of the fly.
Fishing and painting are matters of timing in a changeable universe, and even when one returns to a place or moment of success, its doubtful that it will be under the exact conditions. Having broken the rhythm of a brilliant performance, it’s possible to never go back at all, and one shouldn’t go back–forward is the only worthwhile direction. The next hole upstream holds a trophy too, and its there that Piotrowski seems to be constantly aiming.
Life is a dangerous and unmanageable mess, but somehow these paintings have achieved a different description. Piotrowski’s description of life and linear time, is something much more approachable. Catchable even. As life runs over and through her, Piotrowski stands in the river waving a stick, trying to catch the catchable and upon success, immediately releases it back into the water for the next fisherman to stumble upon.
By Kevin Blake
I have an incredible ability to scare myself. To retreat from my ideas. To sprint in the opposite direction of responsibilities I don’t care to recognize. I have an incredible ability to demobilize myself. To put my action at bay. To halt my creative process. To suffer from external fears without hope of escape. These fears are a construction–a product of institutionalized art making and thinking–yet that knowledge does not offer freedom from its grasp.
Reality is a difficult reality. The reality of being an artist today is one I’m perpetually trying to negotiate. Beyond the much publicized and widely discussed art school debate and the massive debts these requirements accrue, there are myriad legitimate reasons to grow leery when met with the decision to keep making art in fear of things not working out. Its not only artists, however, whom are dealing with the economic conundrum that forces them into careers they never imagined due to overpriced corporate educations whose products often transport its patrons into saturated fields of under-paid positions that result in the inability to crawl out from underneath the oppression of student loan debt. This is a viral condition and an alarming state of affairs. It is also not a revelation–we know the facts and statistics before we sign the dotted lines and do so with that special kind of hope that the success stories of others and our egos will instill in us.
This phenomena poses questions that create debilitating anxieties for an artist–for me. Though unlike other specialized fields, artists are expected–even taught–to understand that they will be broke, busted, and holding onto coattails until the pieces magically fall into place. Conversely, it is also stressed that if your career is to be a success, magic will have nothing to do with it. Statistically speaking, the reality is this: its not going to work out–not the way you had hoped, but thats not the worst of it, nor does that assume there will be no highlights. Its just the reality.
I am not alone. My anxiousness is something shared. In Chicago, this collective anxiety is amplified through the idea of geographical displacement from a centralized art world, the lack of collectors, the shortage of funding, and the scarcity of opportunities–to name a few. Yet, artists in Chicago press on or move on. They create their own opportunities, or abandon this place in hopes of more on either coast. Chicago artists watch their creations grow to a ceiling–a roof that represents the limits of possibility in this part of the world. That canopy is clear from afar and can cripple you. Or it can help you discover ways around it. Through it. To raise the bar.
In Chicago, this anxiety is in the work. It is in the air. It is underscored, coded, subliminal, and refined to resemble a product suitable for trending discourse somewhere else in the world. In Chicago, the narrative dominates–it always has. Even work that seems overtly formal–like Michelle Grabner’s for instance–still emits a story. Her story is one of carving out space and time to devote to an artistic life in the face of a reality that probably encouraged her (at one point or another) to quit and pursue something more practical for the good of her family. I can see that story in her work. I can see the anxiety in the obsessively handled paintings and in the domestic quality of the patterned works. I can relate to how those exercises in formal abstraction can be a departure as well as a response to being a parent with an impractical pursuit and the guilt that may accompany such a seemingly narcissistic endeavor. However, her persistence prevailed. Her hard work won out. Her relentless commitment will be her legacy.
I understand that this is my reading of her work–one aligned with the web I’m spinning–and that to Grabner, the work is probably something entirely different, and could take place under completely different conditions. Though, there is the possibility that the work is exactly what I think it is, and either way it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that her background is her foreground. That’s what we talk about. The multi-tasker. The teacher. The mother. The spouse. The writer. The curator. The entrepreneur. The artist.
Deb Sokolow is another Chicago artist whose works seem to exude anxiety. Sokolow, to me, is like a small mouse living in a world full of big rats–quietly maneuvering through a complicated network with great tact and professionalism. It is partly her personality, her physical stature, and friendly nature. However, it is mostly her work that makes my metaphor more real–to me anyway. She is a voyeur of grand narratives made small by her fiction. Her anxieties are amplified and delineated in humor and conjecture of grandiose scale. She seems to trust her anxieties as the stew from which she extracts and distills her stories. It is her way of understanding the world and ultimately herself. Whether the story she tells is about some kind of conspiracy theory or a salisbury steak–for me–they are representations of anxious thoughts and of the productive possibilities that can result from mining them.
In the recent show Figurative vs Abstract, at the Hyde Park Art Center, Anne Harris–a Chicago artist and teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago–exhibited a group of paintings that at first glance are a departure from the type of work that one might expect to see, given her history. Though a closer reading would suggest that this work is a sensical extension of previous paintings. Going against the grain and venturing into uncharted territory, for an established artist, can be a scary prospect. Anne Harris weighed in on this idea on her Facebook page:
Struggling with change–reaction to a death, reaction to the sense of invisibility, fear of vanishing, work unseen, me unseen. Fear that doing this will tank my career, such as it is (What the hell is she doing? Says anyone who has every expected a particular something out of me.). And if something feels risky for me, is it risky for real, or just risky in my own little world? The fear of being another woman making “modest work” (thank you for that term, Altoon), the desperate desire to be seen, respected, challenged. How much of being unseen has to do with personal reticence? How much has to do with the work? How much has to do with being a women? Voice too soft, body too soft, too small, not trained to advocate for me, no self-promotion, making “difficult work” but not up to the difficult task of defending it. Now what?
A lengthy conversation ensued, revolving around the idea of fear and anxiety in the production of art and how these traits were almost universally felt amongst those peers involved in the dialogue. In the work, Harris’ vulnerability is ever present. She is succinct. She is clear. She is anxious. I think this work is top notch. Anne Harris appears to have an incredibly introspective practice but the work is strong enough to communicate that her self-reflexivity is likely a way of life extending beyond the studio. Her work, like the work of most artists (the artists that interest me anyway) is a blueprint. A method for understanding the types of things that scare her. That make her worry. That influence the way she lives her life and ultimately makes her work.
I heard the artist Tony Cokes speak, whose production foregrounds social critique, at Boston University a few years ago and he opened his talk saying, “I am not original. I do not have original thoughts. I am not special.” He was right, in every sense of his words. His videos were so repulsively mundane that I couldn’t help but retain his message: Practicality is a construction. It is created by markets. Markets that control consumption by creating necessity. Necessity by creating beliefs. Beliefs through messages. Messages through the senses. These created necessities are consumed through every orifice of the human body–everyday for everyone. The human body is an absorbent machine–soaking up anything in range–including his videos.
I hated Tony Cokes’ work that day. It was hard for me to watch. A friend of mine that sat next to me during the lecture loved it–probably because he understood what was happening in the moment. It washed right over me like a tidal wave–drowning me with images and text. Dazzling advertisements and jarring transitions. Disjointed sound affects and miscued music. I couldn’t help the flashbacks to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange’s ‘aversion therapy’ scene, where a man is forced to watch a similar video with his eyeballs clamped open. I absolutely could not take anymore–I felt assaulted by his work. I say this now, as I reconsider the work, and reevaluate its permanence in my memory. It lasted. That is rare. I not only remember it vividly, but I remembered the words that accompanied the videos. His words. “I am not original. I do not have original thoughts…” This work resonated. This work had value. I hated it and it was just as good, if not better, than so much art that I adore.
Tony Cokes, whether his intention or not, embraces our collective anxieties. He points to the systems that oppress us–that tame us. He forces us to look at those things we know about the world that we typically repress because they are either too painful or too difficult to approach. He points to the structures that limit us from reaching our boundaries. Post-modernism told us–unequivocally–that we weren’t very special at all–that our boundaries were no longer made by an internal schematic that was constantly evolving. Tony Cokes reminds us that the parameters that identify you at present, are created by systems that are beyond singular control.
Despite all of this, however, there are infinite reasons to keep plugging away–to keep producing art. While the world grows fearful, artists are meeting anxiety–some collective anxieties–with productive reproach. They reject those fears or accept them by seeking their origin and expounding upon the energy that anxiety creates. They respond to their chosen territories by investing their lives into exploring the depths of themselves–a product of today’s world in addition to the inherited and transcendent qualities of yesterday. Instinctually we are compelled to understand our inabilities–our flaws, our incapacities. An investigation that maps our boundaries is our intuitions telling us how to understand those faculties that ultimately aid in our survival. Creating the capability to discern between the two is our eternal calamity and our providence–if one invests their time in attempting to achieve it, despite knowing it is an impossible feat. We will not survive no matter what we know. The point of our efforts are to grow–to learn about ourselves. The point is to learn how we exist in the world, by understanding how we make objects. The “why” of things is simply the anxiety that drives us, and the location of new ideas. It is essential–anxiety is utterly contemporary. It always will be. What is important, is the object. The object tells the tale and the tale teaches.
By Kevin Blake
It doesn’t feel right to report on this exhibition in a digital format–a piece of writing that will likely never be tangible evidence of its existence. The only proper way to engage with this work seems to be on a typewriter, with words scratched out and penciled-in corrections. Next to me, should be a waste basket overflowing with crumpled up pieces of disregarded words in a room only half-filled with light from a blinded window. I should wear spectacles too–the ones that magnify my own words to inexorable sizes and hang on the precipice at the bridge of my nose. I should chain smoke cigarettes and smash half-smoked butts into a circular plastic ashtray–a relic in its own right–that is as sated as my trash can. There should be an industrial era lamp hanging over my workbench where the smoke pools in its conical mouth piece. This work transports me to another place, and another time–indistinctly not my own. Yet somehow, I feel like I know it well.
Walter Hamady’s most recent show entitled, “Merit Badge” at Corbett vs. Dempsey is a colossal exhibition with meteors of information contained within small vessels. It serves as a miniature survey of a man’s career–though after reading the exhibition catalog, I get the impression that this show is but a small sample of a lifetime of prolific production in a variety of media. Whether working in collage, assemblage, bookmaking (in its own infinite capacities), or his personal diary, Hamady seems to have relentlessly recorded his life. His perspective. His place in space.
When looking at the work, I read each individual object as a beginning, a rudiment, or a part of a whole which has not yet materialized. The work is suspended between ideas and does not admit the viewer beyond its physicality, nor does it posit answers to proposed questions. The total procedure forms a well-articulated system of knowledge for the maker, that seems to be independent of the histories that would claim a stake in its material manifestations. This work is not about art. It is art. It is not about an art-historical vernacular that co-opts an object’s meaning and intention. To me, this work is about magical thought and the type of operations that this way of thinking requires: adventure, risk taking, and an aloof position to the world in which it exists, while maintaining an acute awareness of it.
Magical thought should not be reduced here to the immediate associations that it may suggest–a peripheral and imaginative realm that may create only flippant trajectories of reason, that solely exist outside of tangible reality. Walter Hamady’s life work, seems to be a parallel form of acquiring knowledge–a distinctly individual methodology for understanding one’s position in the world. He seems to constantly question his own worth, the value of the work he makes, and the institutions in which the works seeks to gain acceptance with striking affect.
Hamady’s work exemplifies a relentless production schematic that operates as forced attrition seeking to thwart an inherit skepticism of all that aims to discourage him. It is a tale well-known by artists–one of denial, rejection, exclusion and the occasional acceptance. In the rare moments of approval, the artist acquires critical nourishment that helps propel their operations. In the exhibition catalog, there are several journal entries included as a glimpse into the way this artist recorded his life. One such entry is from April 15, 1964 in which Hamady alludes to the gravity of acknowledgement from artists whom he admired: “…and Robert Creeley was standing right behind me and had heard everything that I said and Keith introduced me as a ‘good, young poet’…and Bob put his arm around me and said, “Come on in I’ll buy you a drink.” And I went in, and of course, he signed my book and we talked…and I told him I was doing a book…and he said he would like to see it. So it was a very, very, very moving day for me…very critical.”
I get the sense that Hamady gathered an equal amount of critical sustenance from objects and solitary moments of engagement that provided him with the impetus to make something, to write something, or to simply etch a moment into permanence by jotting into his diary. On February 10, 1974 Hamady recorded a moment that may have required such permanence: “Coming in from sawing that oak I took the trail we cleared and came by the place in the drifts where we had fallen in (on purpose) that night of the full moon when we were out walking. That was a pleasure indeed to just fall with abandon & be surrounded by the enveloping coolness, firm holding you in the random position of the drop, the light of the moon, the invisible push of wind through the oaks tinkling the leaves. I think I would like to die this way.”
In almost every sculptural work that is included in this exhibition there is an eye. A critical eye that is staring at the viewer. I can’t help imagining these eyes as staring first and foremost at Hamady himself–as a reflection of a person looking within to describe what is without. This self-reflexivity makes this exhibition a monumental description of time and of the sense of control that can be acquired through an articulate understanding of one’s capacity to record it. Walter Hamady is constantly striving for life’s merit badge, or more simply, the feeling of accomplishment one might have from doing something well. To me, “Merit Badge,” is about the constant inner dialogue every artist seems to have–a back and forth battle about the merit of one’s own endeavors. To earn that badge, one needs a little magic and Walter Hamady seems to have a surplus of it. See the show. See it twice. Grab a catalog.
By Kevin Blake
Painting is alive and well. Thriving even. The number of young artists working with the medium continues to grow, and there is seemingly no apex in a market that places a premium on painting. Today, younger artists are finding ways to assert themselves within their communities at the onset of their artistic careers, and are maneuvering to situate themselves in a global art discourse. Andrew Holmquist, a recent graduate of the MFA program at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago, has hit the ground running. While he continues to develop his painting vocabulary through a plethora of mediums, the same old painting questions remain the thrust of his explorations. This is a good thing for painting–these questions could still use answers….or maybe there are no answers.
Kevin Blake:The figure plays a prominent role in almost every work, whether it be a painting, a performance, or a sculpture. Sometimes the figure is presented representationally and other times the figure is merely alluded to through a title of a more abstract image. Can you talk about your interest in the figure and how your multiple formats allow you to address this interest?
Andrew Holmquist:The figure can be a structure–an organization device that helps dictate where things poke out and hang from. I tend to get lost or bored or maybe uncertain about making a pure abstract image. Having the body in mind guides the decisions while still allowing for limitless variations.
Like you said, sometimes this results in a clearer depiction of a body and other times the body is implied more through a title than a limb. In those cases I still want the attitude and gesture of a figure, such as gasping, twisting, or strutting to be in mind. It’s more a personality than a person that is represented. Again, this is useful to guide the piece to a point where I can say it’s done.
The figure can ground the events of the composition and locate that action in relation to my body and in turn, the viewers. This should feel tactile–like you can feel it in your shoulders and toes. The events on the canvas start to glom onto your body and you can feel these slithering gestures touch and envelop your limbs. I want there to be a tension between the body of the viewer and the painting.
There is this powerful physical relationship with painting, however in painting, much of the event takes place in the viewer’s head. You animate it with your imagination. Sculpture activates the viewer in a different way in that it makes them participate in the experience by moving their bodies around in relation to its structure. In performance it’s no longer proxies for the body but the real thing. The trick for me is suspending this reality enough so that it’s not a specific person but another compositional element.
All of this sounds pretty formal, however, the body is not a neutral territory and it can bring with it political or narrative content that I am more or less interested in depending on the piece.
Also, sexy bodies motivate a lot of my thoughts and they help motivate my art too.
KB: When you mention getting bored with making a “pure abstract image,” what do you mean exactly? Do you see abstraction as an antonym for representation and thus, find yourself working in the “gap?” What constitutes pure abstraction in your opinion?
AH: I would have to think about it longer to give you an etched in stone definition of what constitutes pure abstraction, but what I meant is basically: as much as I love Sol Lewitt’s work I don’t think variations on the grid is going to be enough for me as motivation to make my own work. I would say something like pure abstraction comes from a system of formal rules where the resulting work points back at these rules rather than out to the world. Maybe there is another word that is more appropriate. When I think about “abstraction” it seems to imply the reduction or extrapolation of something else, something of the world into some otherworldly, plastic form. I think my interest in abstraction from representation comes from the slippage I feel between my bodily experience of the world and my mind or spirit experience, and how they muddy each other’s waters.
That being said, as much as I am interested in the figure I am also interested in playing with space, form, weight, balance, line and color – all of these things that in and of themselves are much closer to the “pure abstraction” territory.
KB: If Minimalism–or the products of those artists motivated by the parameters of formalist structures and the eradication of the author–most accurately resemble your definition of pure abstraction, do you think the insertion of the figure both literally and metaphorically creates an alternative category for what you are doing? Is there an emergent thematic movement happening in painting today that is yet uncovered or unnamed that you feel akin to? In your work I see the likes of Charline Von Heyl and Amy Sillman as locutors of a specific methodology for dealing with figurative abstraction. Do you feel an affinity to this type of work?
AH: I think for there to be an emergent thematic movement there would need to be some clear “father” that we were all trying to kill, and I don’t think that really exists anymore. There are so many influences and lineages at our disposal these days, and yes I am certainly influenced by the work of Charlene Von Heyl and Amy Sillman, as I am sure many people are these days, but the spectrum is too far-flung to ever get a clear through line. So because the figure mixes with abstraction in my work may or may not be the reason the figure mixes with abstraction in the work of other artists. I think it would be a loosing battle and an unnecessary one to rally for a movement.
KB: I would agree that rallying for a movement is an unnecessary effort and I’m skeptical that any effort toward such an endeavor would be fruitful. I think movements are identified by those who write the history of time, and when there are artists working with similar trajectories in the present, it is simply conditional. What are the conditions of contemporary painting for you and how do you situate your work within those discursive parameters? Or is painting so pluralistic that there are no clear conditions?
AH: I am tempted to say there are no universal conditions for contemporary painting, but that might be its own kind of condition. The choice to make paintings doesn’t have much pushback right now, which allows for so many people to do it without defensive energy wasted. I think what results instead is the need to differentiate your work from the rest, which is maybe another type of defensive position. How do I do it that you don’t?
I have found that addressing painting concerns in other mediums can be an effective way to chart a position on painting. To be able to make sculpture flat and paintings dimensional, videos static and paintings animated – exchanging the expectations of mediums can enhance the awareness of those expectations. It can be an opportunity to get perspective and more clearly articulate what it is I am after in painting than when I am down in the mud. What comes along with this is a self-consciousness of the label of painting and how it is being applied.
Certainly right now a condition for any art is acknowledging the image quality versus the experiential quality of the work. So much art is seen through the computer screen, and it is the work, no matter what the medium, that translates into a potent graphic image that will get noticed. An artist like Wade Guyton makes work that looks great online, which is essentially the only way I have experienced it save for one piece, but it also has a physical presence due to its scale and position. It transforms from an image experience into a painting experience. I think a condition painters face today is finding an effective and meaningful relationship between the image quality of their painting that can be experienced by many, and the physical quality that will only be experienced by the few bodies that track it down in person. In what way do you make people tremble?
KB: The way you address painting questions through multimedia seems like a generative process that feeds one another. This necessity, or compulsion, for artists to be multiplicitous in their practices is becoming more and more common. Most painters today are also dabbling in other fields-from sculpture to animation and everything in-between. Maybe this is a condition of art which affects painting. Can you elaborate a bit about your studio practice and how you bounce around from one project to the next?
AH: I like to have multiple projects in progress at the same time. I get going on one thing and notice that the grass looks greener on that other thing, and after a while the first thing starts looking green again. This started a while back with working on paper rather than canvas as a way to loosen up. Paper didn’t have the same pressure and seemed more receptive of funky material choices. Grad school got me playing around with this material exploration off the wall entirely, working in installation at first, and then more discrete sculpture. This ended up turning into sets, props and costumes for videos that looked like my paintings. All the while I was also working on comic books and prints, which took the themes of my other artwork but presented them in a more direct way.
There may be different audiences for different mediums, which I think is a strong potential of working in this way, but I also feel that there really is unification between these seemingly disparate forms. Seeing the same content take different shapes helps me and I think would help the viewer stay interested and surprised. I think the honest benefit of working in this way is that I get to leap into realms like video and performance that I have very little grasp on and force things to happen. I don’t get to rely on elegant tricks that I’ve picked up in painting. What I’m excited about right now is bringing a little bit of that ham-fisted but excited quality back into my paintings.
KB: I’d like to hone in on the idea of painters having a bag of tricks or particular sets of learned painting behaviors. I too believe that it is important to eradicate those behaviors as soon as they become too familiar. It sounds like your leaps into other media help you to identify those repetitive decisions, but also to forge new modalities in painting. Where do you think this need to constantly challenge the familiar comes from? I think of Morandi as maybe the antithesis of this idea-an artist who saw the merit in a mastery of a singular vision.
AH: One possibility is that it is the drama and excitement of discovering something new. Some of my most successful paintings had a “oh shit I just ruined this thing” moment to them, only to be salvaged miraculously by some unexpected move. What I love about this is the messed-up final product that has traces of what I had in mind but is so unlike that initial vision that it takes on a life of its own. Maybe the need to constantly challenge the familiar come out of the desire for this shock of what just came out of you. I’m sure Morandi felt this shock too, but his dynamic range is much more narrow and the surprises are more subtle.
I think a part of it is also the fear of being pigeon-holed. I have a repeating brushstroke that’s larger than life and ribbon-like in many of my paintings. I like it because it suggests so many things at once–the gesture of my hand, illusion of speed, illusion of form and space, and can stand in for a myriad of things–but it might loose it’s interest for me. I would hate to feel pressure to keep making something that doesn’t feel right anymore just because it’s what people assign to my name.
I think this fear can be productive. In my case I am thinking about making work that is clearly mine that doesn’t have that key ingredient, but I think it would be a mistake to get rid of something that I like just because it shows up often. Or maybe it would be better to eradicate it like you suggest for the sake of letting new leaves catch the light. For me right now it’s easier to eradicate these comforts by leaping to other media where the familiar tools are no longer at my disposal.
KB: What’s on the docket for your immediate future and where will your work pop up next?
AH: This is probably the worst question to ask a recent grad student leaving art school. I say that with a laugh because I had very little empathy for friends in this situation in the past, but now that I’m living it I wish I could turn back time and slap my former self in the face any time I naively asked someone this question. And I don’t mean to turn this on you at all, this is a great question for most anyone, just not someone who just graduated with their masters degree in fine art. That’s mostly a joke, seriously though…
This is a transition period that is equally exciting and terrifying with very little grey in between. I do have some art projects on the horizon, which I’m looking forward to. My work is currently being featured in a new program called “Open Office,” a biannual group exhibition at United States Artists new headquarters in Chicago that was facilitated by Gallerista. I will have copies of my new 24-page comic book “Connections” for sale at Bergen Street Comics in Brooklyn and on my website in the very near future. I am in talks with Carrie Secrist Gallery to put on a casual summer show featuring my video piece from the SAIC MFA Show as well as an artist talk, which will take place in July. I was just asked to be involved in a group show about abstraction from Chicago which will be at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln this October and has a killer lineup of artists that I’m honored to be listed among. I will also have work in the Carrie Secrist Gallery booth at EXPO Chicago this September and in Miami in December. Besides that I am looking forward to making work with fewer voices in my head that is as selfish and indulgent as I can imagine.
By Kevin Blake
Terms do not define the Beast, though many may be ascribed to it, and none would be inherently right or wrong in an attempt to describe what it is and how it operates. The Beast tends to defy what is known about the discursive arena(s) in which it will be situated. Architectural Intervention, Installation, Alternative Space, Social Practice, and Bricolage–to name a few–cannot do the job of defining what this sculptural giant is, has been, or can be at any given moment. Therein lies the success of the work. Here John Preus weighs in on his perpetually evolving artwork.
Kevin Blake: The Beast, in its physical form, has become a site for a diverse set of cultural activity. There are planned events that take place within its confines, but as a frequent visitor of the Hyde Park Art Center, I have noticed that there is just as much, if not more, unplanned activity occurring within the walls of The Beast. Can you talk about how The Beast has transformed the space in ways that were unintentional or was this everyday activity built into the conceptual framework for the piece?
John Preus: What has developed was definitely anticipated and hoped for but not orchestrated. The fundamental gesture that ends up being transformative is simply to open the garage doors. There is no security, no psychological barrier to cross. It is just open space. The doors aren’t open all that frequently, partially because I would suspect that there are not that many exhibitions that take advantage of them as a feature of the space. The two that come to mind are Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford’s recent exhibition which involved live horses, and The Stockyard Institute’s Pedagogical Factory, which very successfully transformed the gallery into a sort of public square. One of the ideas that Laura Shaeffer and I worked with at SHoP was the very basic idea of free-space, or drop-in space which has, sadly, become a sort of radical idea due to the varied pressures of litigation, programming budgets, zoning, and a general mistrust of unplanned time. I had in mind a set of specific conversations that I wanted to have, events that I planned, and people that I invited to help program the Beast, but the programming philosophy beyond that has been ‘yes’ to everything. The only rules have been, first come-first served, and that it has to be public.
What has been most heartening is that it has become the hangout space for local high school kids that don’t have anywhere else to go. They’ve totally taken it over, and I have been shocked at the outpouring of gratitude from them. They have also taken up some more planned programming, like music and spoken word events which only have to abide by the same two rules as everyone else. It affirms my sense that adolescence has been effectively criminalized by virtue of the fact that there are so few places to go as a young person where you are not treated as a nuisance. This is a fundamental failing of market-led development and education. They don’t spend much money so the incentive to serve them and give them space is pretty limited.
Another unexpected development has been that the loft space, limited to three people at a time (inspired to some degree by Liam Gillick’s lovely statement when asked about politics and collaboration, “Perhaps it would be best if we worked in groups of three…”) has become a sort of public studio. Bart Schultz brought some markers and paper for an event that he was leading, “Mapping the Beast,” inspired by Colin Ward’s city-mapping ideas for kids, and just left them up there. So people use them. Every time I come down there’s a new pile of drawings and poetry, and tons of responses to the Beast: what they think it is, why they like it or don’t like it… Some of them even hung their drawings on the wall along with mine.
KB: There is something specific to adolescents that draw them to this type of space; a space where they are safe from adult eyes. I do not suggest that foul play is the sole motivation for this need for privacy as this statement may imply-it’s more complicated than that. I can’t help but recall building “forts” as a child, and the need for private space that belonged only to me and my initiates-even if it was temporary. You began to address this as you talked about “free space” and the lack thereof, but Im wondering if you would be willing to elaborate on what seems like a fundamental human need to create a space that isn’t under constant moderation. I think this idea is aptly ascribed to the adolescent in the case of the Beast and the activities that seem to occur within its walls. What is universally appealing about an alternative space as the location of creative production?
JP: The “alternative space” question is a complex one. The history of philosophy, of the avante-garde, of theology and metaphysics… could all be described as attempts at getting a broader vantage point, viewing the given from an alternative position, or proposing one beyond our perceptible horizon as that which governs or explains the one we are in. I am tempted to say that the alternative framework is transcendental which makes it an inherently imaginative realm. It has a similar tone as the word utopia, though it is less specific.
Alternative could also mean simply, ‘that which is not the status quo.’ In this sense it is neutral. But I don’t think this is the dominant meaning. When we talk about alternative spaces, there is an inherent politic to it, whether it is in the transcendental framework or not. And when kids build forts, they are engaging in a kind of resistance. They are asserting an alternative sociopolitical, maybe economic framework. Kids are mostly little tyrants, asserting their own dominance over the world they created, but that’s not really the point. They are trying to establish the boundaries of their own habitat. It becomes a way to approach questions of community and identity, the boundaries between people, shared commitments, power dynamics, of invisible social constructs governing how spaces operate psychologically, force fields, ghosts. It is a way of thinking about utopia – what kind of world would be preferable to this one, and what would it take to build it? It is a way of challenging the inherited architectural framework and suggesting another kind of interior. It is a form of secession, like running away from home when the rules don’t seem fair or applicable. It is a way of testing how flexible existing institutions are, what they will permit, and when the rulebook comes out. It is a way of challenging the assumed social dynamics of public space, breathing new life into them and asking them to adapt to new energies as they develop, or showing where the cracks are in the facade. The field is always expanding, inside of which perpetual spasms of retrenchment are occurring. There is no such thing as “free” space. There are more or less determined spaces, more or less open to being re-imagined. The Beast is an attachment onto the institution of the Hyde Park Art Center, or a perforation which modifies how the center functions. As a “free” space, it has been claimed by those for whom space is a valuable and rare commodity.
I would be interested to hear what you think excites people about the project.
KB: I think what excites people, beyond the massive scale of the Beast, is the all-inclusive nature of its design. It seems people feel as if they are part of the outcome of this project, and that their presence is necessary for its overall success. At the opening, I was watching people maneuver through and interact with the space. I could see how involved people felt by the allowance of a tactile interaction with the art work. I watched people take selfies in the narrow entryway, converse about the craftsmanship of the artwork, and handle all of the moving parts awkwardly–trying to figure it all out. I walk through the gallery on Monday nights, and I always hear conversations and experimental music coming from within the Beast. Maybe what ultimately excites people, stems from your programming philosophy of “yes to everything.” You mentioned that the idea of “Alternative Space” could be a way of aestheticizing an idea of utopia. What is utopic about the Beast? Is the conceptual framework situated within that “imaginative” realm of utopia? Or is utopia more closely described by the activities that occur within those walls?
JP: Maybe I misspoke. I’m not sure I follow your first statement. I want to defend utopian thought to some degree, against the suggestion that it is entirely fruitless and dangerous. I want utopian thought, but with a big helping of progressive pessimism, de-linked from ideology, based in the sense that love is the embrace of suffering, and communal life is utterly dependent upon this embrace, and the shared vulnerability that it demands. The word alternative taken literally, for me registers as similar to utopia, in that both of them suggest a place apart, a way of getting outside of the dominant paradigm, and I was extrapolating on that as a sort of theological or transcendental impulse. “Alternative” suggests a secessionist detachment. It says, ‘the world can do what it wants, I’m going over here where I can do what I want.’ Utopia has a much more systemic and totalizing thrust, the danger of which is that you end up with ideology. The Nazis were utopian, for instance, imagining a perfect Germany unified by genetic purity and imposed aesthetic and moral values and so forth. So the challenge is to develop a personal and collective narrative framework for thinking big systemic thoughts without politicizing the results, and neither utopian nor alternative strategies strike me as adequate to the task. I’m not smart enough to think utopian thoughts being that it requires a wide-ranging knowledge of systems and how they function, and enough imagination to think about how they might function differently.
The Beast certainly imagines other possibilities, but more as stop gap measures, gestures of resistance, a pocket for something slightly different to exist. If I were to speculate as to how it might propose a set of values, it might say that the logic of the bull market is adversarial, antagonistic, and sacrificial and will always create powerless populations by nature. So how does healthy communal life form within that dynamic? What are the ingredients, and how can they be fostered? I understand social life as a kind of masochism. To care, to love, to be concerned, has the effect of eviscerating us, of splitting us open, of spreading ourselves out into the world. Our identities are progressively riven and scattered, and the parts can’t be put back together. And it hurts. As Judith Butler says it, “we are held in thrall by the Other.” So, to talk about community, though there is a great deal of joy in it as well, is to open oneself up to pain and suffering, and to embrace the certainty of suffering. In so doing, you become vulnerable. So the Beast explores these dimensions of vulnerability, grief, mortality, that I think are the basis of the possibility of social life, in a number of ways.
KB: It is more likely that I misinterpreted your words and created a trajectory that more closely reflects my personal interests. This is without doubt the location of the disconnect. Knowing that this type of misinterpretation happens by default for all of us–in any situation that requires cognitive reasoning–may act as a segue to something that really interests me about the Beast. I agree that the words “utopia” and “alternative” suggest similar semantic roots but carry conflicting discursive baggage. I would posit, however, that your efforts to conceptualize and realize the Beast, have created an “alternative” space that bestows upon its participants a progressive foundation that serves as a beacon for imaginative ideas which stew in the “utopic” realm. While these strategies may not be up to the task of depoliticizing our collective ideas about the future, they do feel like necessary stepping stones that may help to create or rethink what that future may look like. By its very nature, which includes the politics of the space, The Beast becomes the authority from which utopic ideas descend. Or more aptly, the space decrees an unspoken or assumed allowance for these types of ideas to formulate and grow in the form of cultural exchanges. That said, your efforts to create a space that explores the dimensions of vulnerability, grief, and mortality, have given way–expectedly so–to unintentional dialogues and activities that represent the participants’ misinterpretation of your work. I suppose this is true of any visual representation of an idea. I don’t mean to use the term “misinterpretation” with a negative connotation–there are many people that assume the intended concept of the work, but everyone adds themselves to the equation. Can you talk about how you think about the audience? How does the collective narrative of participants affect the collective understanding of the Beast? If it were even quantifiable, would you be interested in the results of a collective understanding?
JP: In terms of misinterpretation, I think there are moments when control, or the semblance of it, is important, and moments when it should be left to chance. Any semblance of control once the work is in the world, is fleeting. I write a lot, more as a way to reflect on what I’m doing than to control what other people think about it. There are hundreds of experiences happening in and around the Beast that I will never know about. The same would be true of a wall painting. I guess what strikes me as more important is creating my own narrative and finding a way to assert that into the contemporary art vocabulary rather than waiting for other people to do it for me. I appreciate varied reflections on the same scene.
Yes, a big part of my interest in the Beast is in thinking about the relationship of the individual to the group, collective or state. Maybe the Beast is the zombie-like living/dead body of the ineffectual State with its burdensome administrative apparatus, and the citizens live in its shadow but don’t pay much attention to it. Maybe it is the predictive corpse of a socioeconomic condition that behaves like a cancer, wastefully devouring its own resources and eating itself alive. Maybe it is sleeping and longs to awaken, and shake itself free of the confines of the art institution, and charge through the streets of the city, animated by the internal energy of the civically engaged. Maybe it is like Jonah’s beast, swallowing us whole, to give us time to reflect, after which we will be spit out to do what it is that we were afraid to do before. Or maybe it’s just a big stupid spectacle that will be fun for me for a few months, and might help my art career…
How to approach the collective is interesting to try and unravel. I like to imagine that my longing for a deep and profound relationship with another person, one that is widely shared judging from just about every movie ever made, and every pop song ever written, actually demonstrates a deep longing for the collective. I pour my soul into one other person, because I have forgotten, or have never learned how to pour it into a collective body, or the collective body is compromised by destructive power dynamics and ill-suited to accepting my civic energies. Whatever the case, in loving someone I am forced back onto myself, and discover that my own inner life is largely opaque to me. My own motivations are mysterious and far from rationale, my yearnings flow from some unknown source, toward some unknown consummation, and I seem to be a collection of warring factions, some of which I embrace, and some which I try to extricate or ignore… It strikes me that a lot hinges on how we handle that opacity. If I am opaque to myself, what is my necessary relationship to others? As Slavoj Zizek describes it, the opacity, the void, the inaccessible, the unknown quantity IS the neighbor or the Other. So the idea of the collective or of community, in my view, has to include that opacity, and develop in light of that void. Communal life is something like navigating in the dark, and I don’t mean for that to sound tragically heroic. The danger of caring about anything, is that you are signing up for some potentially brutal suffering. The danger of not caring about anything is that the world eventually becomes opaque as well. The opacity grows into a dark cloud of indifference or nihilism.
Or we can look at it from the opposite direction and acknowledge that I am already a community. Every individual is a receptacle of countless biological and cultural influences. Learning is a process of mimesis, of pantomime. We perform each other, but even in the most perfect reenactment there is something new, like Pierre Menard’s Don Quixote. So we should stop worrying so much about being an individual because we can’t help it. What is it that we immediately recognize in an acquaintance even though they are a block away? The complexity of social life drives many of us to recede from it, to take up innocuous hobbies, or become concerned with our personal morality or simple pleasures rather than maintaing the necessarily masochistic commitment to the collective body, and the supreme pleasure of a clear thought. My work is a modest personal attempt to resist that slide.
KB:What is the future of the Beast? What will become of the objects within its walls and the materials with which it is built? What is on the docket for John Preus?
JP: The beast will be dismantled and hopefully resurrect itself in some other form, given favorable conditions. I will keep all of the materials. The swing will go to expo Chicago. I have a few shows coming up in the fall. Working on a catalogue for the beast, with contributions from WJT Mitchell, Simon Critchley, Jamie Kalven, Allison Peters Quinn, and many others. (Preorder now to reserve a copy). I’m working on a couple of kitchens, some furniture projects and I’m collaborating with Jamie Kalven on a project revolving around the Lathrop homes redevelopment. Stay tuned!