I first met Pete Hickok in 2009. He was the cute guy in one of my graduate classes. I was too shy to talk to him until the one day when I needed help fabricating a sculpture out of metal and wood. Pete worked in the grad woodshop, so I got up the nerve to ask him if he could help me. His kindness and generosity were immediately evident, and ever since that day, our friendship grew into the kind of relationship one hopes to obtain before leaving art academia.
This month, Pete is celebrating his first solo show titled Backwash at Aggregate Space, just a few miles outside San Francisco in neighboring Oakland. His mixed-media work is a combination of elegant composition and kitschy material that dives quite deep into a personal arena of secretive confession. For my first post with Bad At Sports, I found it only fitting to sit down with one of my best friends, art collaborator, and all-around cool artist.
Jeffrey: Congratulations on your opening last Friday. How did it feel?
Pete: It felt great to see the work installed and see so many people show up to support. What did you think of the work?
J: What? Are you interviewing me?
J: Well, remember a few weeks ago when we were talking about having a great art experience? I’m in such a positive place in my life that the last thing I feel like doing is being critical about artwork.
P: Thank God.
J: It’s like, I know we as artists have a kind of rubric in our minds of what to do when we go into a show and look at the work and go through that checklist, which usually involves arriving at a critical analysis that tries to change the work in some way.
P: So you’re saying you don’t want to get all art school on it?
J: Exactly. I just want to walk into the space, absorb the work, and thank the artist for the experience. So, Pete, thank you for the experience.
P: You’re welcome. So…what do you want to talk about?
J: My first question is: what did your parents think of all the nudity in the show?
P: I don’t think the nudity bothered them at all. I think my mom was more concerned about how the show’s card described the show, which states something about me controlling the flows of my own pleasure, sexuality, and spirituality. She called me a week before the show and asked, “so, is this show going to be really weird”. And I said, “Mom, you know my work well enough to know that it’s gonna be weird, but it’s not gonna be so wild that you run for the hills.”
J: I was sitting in the screening room for your video and your parents came in and sat next to me. I was super anxious because I thought you might show your penis and I didn’t want to be next to your mom when she reacted.
P: But my mom has seen my penis more than anyone else in this world!
J: Why are you so fascinated with your body? And to give this question context, there are a lot of references specifically in the video to your own fingers, your head, your feet, your voice…
P: On a very basic level, my body is the only thing I have control over – and I don’t really have as much control over it as I think. So a lot of my work is really about strategies of control and a sense of a ‘loss’ of control. It’s about the threat of the “wild” as well as the unconscious mind.
J: In terms of control, I noticed that the sculptures within the show are very formal. There is a traditional feeling of controlled aesthetics – so many elements in your work seem very calculated and specific, like the verticality of Fountain and Golden Showers in the Summer of My Waning Youth.
P: I’m very drawn to classical sculpture, specifically Baroque sculpture, because of its formal and controlled composition, which at the same time express a sort of wild spiraling unruly energy and spirituality. Baroque sculpture also has a level of controlled sentimentality.
J: What do you mean by sentimentality?
P: The facial expressions of Baroque sculptures are over-exaggerated and specifically intended to evoke emotion in the viewer which is something that art – before Baroque and after Baroque – has typically been afraid of.
J: Is that why you like using deformed bodies? What exactly are those body parts? Are they mannequins?
P: Some of them are mannequins. Some of them are cast parts of my own body. Other things like the diving dolphin vibrator slash cock ring references the body and specific body parts without them actually being there.
J: Did you hear that I broke my iPhone while reaching for the Water World headphones?
P: No, but I heard a big crash over by the piece.
J: The day after your show, I was talking to a friend and I told him about my iPhone breaking. He said that he’s done the same thing a bunch of times and it sucks so much because our phones are like extensions of our body. Specifically, our phones touch our ears and collect our mouth germs – it’s a very private tool. I giggled because it came full circle back to the dolphin vibrator. Don’t you like when life imitates art?
P: Did my cock ring scare you?
J: A little, but at the same time, I had cock rings in my show last year.
P: Guess we’ve worn out the artistic use of the cock ring by now. But anyway, when you mentioned the intimacy of your iPhone and your body, I was thinking of the way I build a relationship with the model car in my video. At one point, I actually start fingering the car. It expresses the limit to my emotional connection to the object and my desire for something more immediate and concrete. What ensues is a futile attempt at joining my body with the object. It’s a very beautiful and sad scene.
J: Immediate connection to what?
P: To anything outside of me.
J: What’s your damn problem with connecting to something outside of yourself? Are you too hooked into Facebook?
P: No, not enough. I’m Social Media Challenged. SMC.
J: I do think that your work in the show is eerily introverted. There’s very little opportunity for me as the viewer – or just for me as me – to access the work without feeling a little dirty or like I’m going into a place that is typically viewed as dark – sex, liquid, silence.
P: But what about the noises, music, colors, and humor? I thought there was a level of exuberance and humor that took it out of that dark area.
J: I didn’t laugh once.
P: Guess I failed. I laughed the whole time!
J: Maybe it’s because my iPhone broke. Fine, then describe humor.
P: How do I describe humor? Humor is the juxtaposition of two unlikely things. Or, a lot of times in my work, the use of traditionally non-art subjects or material, like whale noises, aquariums, tigers that cry blue tears, etc. I also like to capitalize on people’s ability to laugh when they feel uncomfortable. A piece I made last year was a terrarium full of hermit crabs, which from a distance, looked just like hermit crabs. But when you got closer, you could see that their shells were covered in body parts from pornography magazines. Turning the hermit crabs into distinct sexual identities and confusing a traditionally juvenile and domesticated pet is funny to me. But it’s also a discussion about the process of learning about sexuality and all of its complexities.
J: Do you have crabs?
P: I used to. Hermit crabs.
J: No, I mean on your penis.
P: Never. But just the word crab has two meanings and its funny when used in the art world. “No one wants to talk about crabs.” I had a gallerist tell me that once.
J: So how do you think your unpopular concepts fit in to an art context?
P: I think for the most part they don’t. There are a lot of galleries that don’t want to have the conversations that I’m having. That’s fine. I’ve found people, like Conrad Meyers and Sara D. Willis of Aggregate Space, who want to support my work because they know I’ll have a difficult time in other places.
J: But you’ve shown your work in so many places in San Francisco – Root Division, Southern Exposure, and SOMArts.
P: The Bay Area has a current of – what would you call it? Not ‘deviance’, not ‘racey’, shit – what’s the word. I’m not good with words – that’s why I’m an artist.
J: I’m an artist and I’m great with words, so fuck you.
P: I’ve always seen the Bay Area that harbors challenging work. Historically it’s had movements like The Beats, Abstract Expressionism, Street Art. I moved from Central Oregon to the Bay Area because I couldn’t make work there that probed the stranger parts of life. No one would take me seriously. I still have good friends that are artists in Oregon, but our work is completely different. I respect what they do. I don’t think I would have been respected the same way as them if I had stayed there.
J: What artists are you following in the Bay Area?
P: Other than you?
J: Yes, other than me.
P: Omer Gal, Jennie Lennick, and Mitsu Okubo are some artists I’m really into right now. They make different and challenging work. Omer creates performances based around handcrafted art objects and soundtracks that are both beautiful and disturbing. Jennie uses a Midwest aesthetic ad nauseam to unearth some of the boundaries between sanity and insanity. Mitsu makes brilliantly humorous dirty drawings and collages.
J: Do any of them have crabs?
P: I’ll ask them later and get back to you.
J: So my last question for you is: what’s up with all the drag?
P: You mean, like, the fake nails, female hair, and non-gender specific child mannequins?
J: I think you just said the title for your first autobiography.
P: Well, I’ll just tell you that I’ve been in the beauty supply warehouse in West Oakland so many times now that they’re not surprised anymore to see a young white guy in a mainly African-American ladies’ store. They don’t even bat an eye when I get to the counter with hair extensions and fake eyelashes.