Hybridity of Thought: An Interview with Edra Soto

March 16, 2011 · Print This Article

Recently I had the chance to ask Edra Soto a number of questions about how she approaches her practice. While I’ve been well aware of her work for some time, most of my encounters have taken place when I’ve visited a show or caught images on-line; in other words, I haven’t before had a chance to talk to her specifically about what she’s up to. As always, these weekly posts are welcome opportunities to do just that: to approach artists I admire and ask them things. For instance, I’ve noticed that Edra integrates an idea of performance in her work–whether  painting figures on a  stage or fabricating a real one, I always get the sense that she’s trying to call attention (and therefore engage?) the spectator. In order to do so, she must adopts a certain hybridity, making use of different mediums to activate a concept from multiple directions, thereby reflecting multiple perspectives. There are a number of questions this brought to mind and I was excited to pursue some of them.

CP: Can you tell me a little bit about your background? How did you come to Chicago and how does it contrast with the other places that you’ve lived?

ES: I’ve been interested in the arts since I was a girl. I love theatre and wanted to be an actress. I also love music and used to write songs and sing them accompanying myself on the piano. I focused on visual arts during the last part of my high school years and ended up at the Escuelade Artes Plasticas de Puerto Rico, which is located at one of the most beautiful landmarks of the island: San Felipe del Morro, a 16th century Spanish fort. The school has a ridiculously beautiful view. Those were the days! I completed a bachelor’s degree in visual arts and started a minor in education. After graduating, I won a fellowship to live and work in Paris for a year. I was 25, and that experience changed my life. I still think of the person I was then and how I thought Puerto Rico was the last place on earth. At that time, I was a painter in the commercial art scene of Puerto Rico. I had no idea about the financial aspect [of the art world], the types of people I needed to meet, what a curator was… I was selling paintings for $5,000 dollars and being interviewed for the local newspapers. The gallery that was representing me at the time also represented the premier artist of Puerto Rico, Arnaldo Roche. He was a graduate from SAIC (1984), and the gallery owner kept telling me, “You should go to the Art Institute”…so, I did. Again, it radically changed my perspective. I learned to understand American sarcasm and cynicism and I learned about the real me, the one I didn’t understand when I lived in Puerto Rico. I stopped painting because I needed to explore the part I had denied myself because I thought it was unimportant, irrelevant. I always had the need to make things that were not paintings, but didn’t understand their importance.

Caroline Picard: What does your studio process look like? Do you need different frames of mind to accommodate different spatial impulses? Or do you find your sculptural pieces come from the same place as your 2D work?

Edra Soto: I don’t have a romantic studio process at all. I start with ideas on paper. I write my ideas and organize the concepts of what I want to do and how I want it to read, which leads me to the conception of the artwork. In my last three solo shows I used the same process. Before The Chacon-Soto Show, The Greatest Companions series was an explosion of ideas. I struck on something that took me way too long to find. It was a prolific time and I think I did not edit enough. I was completely emotionally connected. Since then I have been conscious of having to edit my work more.

I tested myself again with Forever (part of Forever Vegetal at Roots and Culture). Forever incorporated some of the images I started during the production of the Chacon-Soto Show that I felt were pertinent, drawing from the energy of The Chacon-Soto exhibition, but aesthetically with a more organic and dark variation. I wanted to change the look of the materials, reduce the scale and make a collection that was a hybrid; organic, fragmented and strange. I was confident that’s what I needed to break from the emotional burst that The MCA exhibition provoked in me. I’ve never felt so sad about taking down a show.

Producing work in different formats and materials comes from a very honest place. More than 20 years ago I questioned my urges to work in other formats and mediums. Obviously, I don’t restrict myself now. As an artist, I am interested and attracted to many types of formats and ways of communicating an idea.

To answer your question more directly, yes, everything comes from the same place.

C.P: One of the things that I’ve always loved about your drawings is your use of the line. Often you build up very complex textual areas on top of loose washes. I’ve also noticed a reoccurring motif of hair in your work, (like the wookie, or the dog, or also these phenomenal female(?) figures with massive manes). Could you talk a little bit about that?

E.S: You are very perceptive! I don’t think anyone has asked this before. Yes, I love the delicate aspects of drawing and painting, and I do it for my personal pleasure. In painting, I went from figurative to abstract ways of expressing myself during my college years. I’m afraid my work might be a strange matrimony of my love for both styles. I do not question it so much. I do feel comfortable flowing around…it keeps things fun. The hair issue: yes, yes, yes, I love to paint hair so much! I used to love to paint water when I was in college. For a while now, it’s been hair. My love for animals in general is very real. It is just meant to happen, I guess!

CP: I’m also interested in “The Chacon-Soto Stage (la Tarima)”—partly because some of your paintings feel staged to me (as though the “action” of the work is presented as a finite visual occasion within a larger field—I suppose that goes back to my experience of heavily detailed portions occurring on simpler backgrounds, but also with some of your earlier work there seemed to be a very deliberate stage that was part of the painting). What interests me in particular about TCSS is the way you manifest a physical stage, appropriated from a television program, where suddenly what was once a 2-Dimensional experience, becomes contemporary and interactive….

ES: Most of the series of paintings I produced for the Chacon-Soto Show were culled from video stills of the Chacon Show that I watched on youtube. I selected hundreds of video clips, made prints, and used them to make the paintings. The colors, the retro look, were all very alluring and I just craved painting them. Painting them literally was not an option, but soon enough I started creating my own scenarios in those settings.

Nevertheless, I maintain clear goals as a conceptual artist to have my language and ways of communicating art to be relevant to contemporary life. My ideas about making spaces that became communal has always been a philosophical preoccupation as an artist.  For instance: how to create a space of comfort for my audience? How to erase the boundaries between the audience as spectator and the audience as integral participator?  The exhibition Homily at Ebersmoore gave me the opportunity to once again challenge myself into mastering my way of communicating, edit my ideas, and provide an installation with a variety of formats where the audience can decide when to keep a distance and when to get close.

CP: When you refer to yourself as a conceptual artist, I am struck by how you seem to contrast that with an earlier approach to art-making, wherein you were called and thought of yourself as a painter. How do you differentiate those gestures of painting for painting’s sake vs. conceptual work?

ES: I paint when I need to express an idea in painting, but I don’t dedicate my life exclusively to painting. For 8 years, before and after college, that’s all I did. Even at SAIC during the post-bac program, I painted. When I reached abstraction, I stared to think that I was done with painting, that I didn’t have anything else to say with it. I don’t think that anymore, but that’s how I stopped painting for a while. I started to paint again in 2008. For health reasons, I had to be in bed for a month and spent most of my time with my dog Foster. His loyalty inspired me and I developed my first series of paintings that was called ‘The Greatest Companions’, exhibited at Mutherland and Rowland Contemporary.

CP: In wanting to erase the boundaries between the audience and spectator and the audience as an integral participator—how do you make that distinction? (In particular with the way you hope people will interact with your work?) Also, where do you feel the tendency to be “spectator” in relation to art comes from?

ES: Scale generally provides the distinction. I will use the small scale of a painting and the very delicate details, for example, to provide a feeling of intimacy. Inversely, I will design a space (usually in sculpture format) where the spectator must introduce themselves physically to experience the space. Conceptual art can be challenging to a general audience. Because I come from a background where conceptual art was largely ignored, I think about the type of audience (and I include a younger me in that group) that might feel apprehensive about getting close to the artwork.

CP: You have a big project around the corner—Tell me about Dock6!

ES: Dock 6 is a collective of independent designers, furniture-makers and fabricators, including Dan Sullivan, my husband.  They’ve been together since 2009 and have grown into what is now the Dock 6 Collective. They have an amazing workspace and have done open house events and collaborated with underground supper club Clandestino, curated by Vicki Fowler. For that event they fabricated a 50 foot modular dining table from salvageable material. Some of my work that Dan has fabricated for me has ended up being exhibited at their events.  That’s how it occurred to me to propose to Dock 6 Collective the Design and Art Series.  Aside from Dock 6 being an amazing space, this series will gather two communities, merging through this creative outlet. As curator, I am in charge of inviting the artists, and Dock 6 Collective invited architects and designers with whom to collaborate.

Among the artists featured are Kirsten Leenaars, who is currently working on a soap opera called On Our Way to Tomorrow, a companion of the ongoing exhibit Without You I’m Nothing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, curated by Tricia Van Eck.

Dan invited the Kujawa Architecture firm, who collaborated with Theaster Gates in the fabrication of his project for the Whitney Biennial. Their work is also reflected in the beautiful hotel rooms of Longman & Eagle.

This will be a one-night, one-day only event because it is being held at their workshop. We are incredibly excited to share this project with our artists, designers and architects communities in the hopes of generating more collaborative projects in the future. Our goal for now is to make this project happen twice per year.


Everyday, Ambulatory Movement : Long Gone at The Hills Esthetic Center

March 9, 2011 · Print This Article

“There is something dreamlike about the points that provide a view of the other side, but they belong not so much to the dreamtime as to dream work. The nomads enter the dreamtime not by setting off on some extraordinary, dangerous voyage, but through their everyday, ambulatory movement.” -Cesar Aira, “Ghosts”

I have been thinking about Maren Miller’s exhibition, Long Gone, for the last few weeks. When I begin to write about it, I pause,  get lost in thought and forget about writing. Until this week, I had not yet found the framework with which to formalize my intuitive reactions.

What I saw: Across the street from The Hills Esthetic Center, stands a Juvenile Detention Center;  Hills does not have a doorbell. A friendly face let me in after I called the prescribed telephone number. On my way up the stairs, several young men passed on their way out. For an old werehouse it was surprisingly warm inside. The steel stairs had been recently painted red. On the second floor, I walked through a wide hallway, went into one of many doors on the right and entered a welcoming living space. In the subsequent kitchen, a content-looking cat greeted me. It was polite—not overly friendly; it seemed to enjoy its hostly duties. The ceilings were at least 16 feet overhead and comparable windows bathed the room in light. There was a second room inside of this kitchen. Inside that second room hung Maren Miller’s exhibit, Long Gone.

Miller builds architectural spaces with simple lines. I wanted to see if I might do the same with words.

Above one wall, the wall that the gallery shares with the kitchen, a mirror hung parallel to the floor. That way people in the kitchen could look into the exhibition space and people in the space could look into the kitchen. When I looked up, I was comforted by the domestic action of pots and pans on the other side of our common wall. They gave me more confidence in the clean, white room and periodically my eyes returned to the mirror, for a small, grounding break.

The show: Primarily red and blue and black and white. There is a sense of humor in the work and motifs refract through different pieces in an almost narrative arc: a labyrinth on a wood panel is akin to a snake-like canvas line, which is similar to a stream of paint that spills on a table that stands on a floor which, again, is reminiscent of the labyrinth. A chair covered in a tarp seat cover is the only three-dimensional presence other than myself. The chair beneath the tarp is intuited rather than seen and such considerations lean a little on the experience of my own physical presence. Behind the chair, a picture of a window is covered by a pictorial curtain. In another hanging canvas piece, a picture of what looks like text (blocky, reminiscent again of the labyrinth language) is cut off by what could be a curtain, or another very fat snake, or another stream of dripping paint. At the end of the room stands one real window. That window is also curtained by a patterned, unstretched canvas.

Each work in the show withholds something. It is covered by another piece of itself, asking to be uncovered or—in the most plain case of the labyrinth—solved. The motifs themselves are both banal and archetypal—the labyrinth, the snake, the window. Used in the everyday as they are in myth. Nevertheless, unlike their fabled counterparts, Miller’s representations are insolvable; they cannot be uncovered and thus deny the traditional hero his or her epic fulfillment.

The painter is also in the index of archetypes, but Miller’s paintings are not about a heroic painter.

The paintings are not stretched. Instead they hang on limp canvases, abstract, like cartoons of paintings. Other works on panels—the table with the floorboards, and the blue and white labyrinth—are not paintings at all, save for a gessoed background. These boast the illusion of paintings, for on closer inspection, the picture plane is defined by meticulously cut out (possibly electrical) tape. The surface of that tape lays flat, like a second layer of ink in a screen print. Here again, the surface is plastic and impenetrable.

Ghosts: A few days ago a friend quotes a section in Cesar Aira’s book, Ghosts. The book takes place in South America, in the middle of a growing industrial city; it centers on a family living in a high-rise construction site. Everything smells like cement. Halfway through the middle of the book the main character, a 13 year old girl, takes a nap. At this point the whole family is asleep–enjoying a siesta  before the evening, when the family will have a party on the roof. Up until this point, the action of the book takes place on a vertical plane as characters laboriously climb up and down half-built stairs. With this collective nap, the author introduces a horizontal axis, describing other human communities and the way their various architectural habitats reflect respective social priorities. In light of that digression, the book’s monolithic skyscraper becomes one of many possible futures. In order to draw that conclusion, however—in order to shift from a vertical axis to a horizontal one, Aira uses dreams as vehicle of shift.

“There are societies in which the unbuilt dominates almost entirely: for example, among the Australian Aborigines. Instead of building, the Australians concentrate on thinking and dreaming the landscape in which they live, until by multiplying their stories they transform it into a complete and significant ‘construction.’ The process is not as exotic as it seems. It happens every day in the western world: it’s the same as the ‘mental city,’ Joyce’s Dublin, for instance….The visible landscape is an effect of causes that are to be found in the dreamtime. For example, the snake that dragged itself over this plain creating these undulations, etc. etc. These curious Aborigines make sure their eyes are closed while events take place, which allows them to see places as records of events. But what they see is a kind of dream, and they wake into a reverie, since the real story (the snake, not the hills) happened while they were asleep.”

In waking, we see the affect of that gesture. In looking at Miller’s work, I see a congress of decisions that took place before me. I cannot penetrate the surface she creates, because I was not present in the process of its creation. Further, the dimension I interpret is a product of my literacy—acquired over years and generations. Obviously this painted space is illusionistic, but its representation has repercussions in the way one regards other schemes of order. It is useful to recognize the myopic trajectory of history and progress—whether that history is about cities and human habitat, or painting or anything in between. Nevetheless Miller’s work is not relativistic. These objects are sure of themselves and concrete. It is my relationship to them that shifts.

I looked at the mirror and saw the pots and pans and the cat was standing on a counter; its tail flicked.

Maren Miller’s work points to the dream state, during which objects are made. Her work creates the affect of space and depth, but in fact remain a surface. We see the affect and intuited depth of her gestures, yet the desire look “beneath,” to capture an intimate relationship (or “truth”) of the work, will remain unsated. She entertains Painting, as a genre, and in my analogy the Painting Genre is like the skyscraper. Massive, towering, lofty. Miller takes a dream in that building, while dreaming a snake with paint on its back undulates over a white wall. Something else stamps architectural lines onto a flat surface, creating dimension in a previously dimensionless space. As I stood there I looked again at the panel with the table and the red paint. The floorboards depicted in the “painting” mirrored those on the floor under my feet. I turned towards the literal curtain behind me, thinking about the repetitions of mark-making, how that repetition reinforces a world-view. The premises of architecture and art are inherited and built upon.

It was nevertheless with some relief that I pulled back the curtain and saw a street outside. A car drove slowly past the window.

If you want to read another something about Maren Miller and her show at Hills, check out this interview with The Post Family.

Methodical Handprints: An Interview with Stephen Lapthisophon

March 2, 2011 · Print This Article

Once a resident of Chicago, Stephen Lapthisophon has since moved to Texas where he continues to write and make work while teaching at the University of Texas at Arlington. His ties to Chicago remain strong–what is most recently evidenced by his exhibit, The Construction of a National Identity at the Hyde Park Art Center. Running concurrently in Dallas, Stephen exhibited a second body of work, Spelling Lesson, at Conduit Gallery. In both exhibits he investigates the source and strategies of identity, integrating text and found materials. Recently I had a chance to ask him some questions about his work–Devin, Stephen and I have been working together over the last several months compiling a series of Stephen’s essays for The Green Lantern Press. In the midst of that process, I did not steal an opportunity to ask him about his visual work–what continues to play such a prominent role in his life. The more I learned about his practice, scouring through older publications, (Whitewalls published Hotel Terminus in 1999, as well as an artist catalogue, Writing Art Cinema 1977-2007 ) the more I began to wonder how he negotiates his own identity as an artist, particularly when his work seems so porous. It’s a strange idea, I’ll admit, to think of an art practice as being porous. What I mean is that Stephen seems to pass through accumulations of objects and ideas, undeterred by the cultural status of those materials (whether based in popular culture, day-to-day banalities or philosophy). He collects certain elements, one-liners and imagery, in order to then recompile those remnants through his own lens. Throughout everything he maintains a steady, personable voice. His work is warm, messy, I’d even say generous in its accessibility and boasts a consistent character–which of course points back to identity.

Caroline Picard: At your Conduit Gallery show, “Spelling Lessons” you address the question of a “signature.” As I understand it, you employ a variety of mediums, as well as text, to undermine/explore the question of a concise artistic identity. Can you talk a little bit about that? And maybe what you think a signature represents? (I’m also interested in this because of your regular incorporation of text, which seems to become it’s own kind of signature…

Stephen Lapthisophon: Yes.

First of all, I have this difficult, hard to spell (and hard to pronounce) last name. So names have been on my mind for a while—the way that names are not really words but instead serve as markers of a sort. I am interested in the way we mark ourselves, mark our place and mark our moment. I am also interested in drawing. And for me writing is closer to the act of drawing than it is to Painting which carries with it a number of assumptions and heavy background. Drawing is mark making, notation, surface and hand.

Also, as we move away from the hand we move away from a different kind of object. Picture making, works of art are no longer “signed” in the same way as they were in the past. Yet artists persist in making works that carry a recognizable identity, via repeated form. I am aiming for an everydayness of experience—signing, marking, making a notation, drawing, scratching and spilling.

I am also interested in the signature’s ability to call into question our thinking about the idea of authenticity. Signatures should not be pre-meditated, forced or over thought. They should just “happen.” We expect signatures to be “natural” and part of our selfhood. Odd then, that we sign a work of art –potentially full of artificial marks? To mark its authenticity…

CP: Following up on that last question, do you think of “text” as a kind of medium in and of itself? One not necessarily relegated to the page of a book, for instance, but even a free standing element? I suppose another way to ask that question is what is your relationship to text? How does that compare with your relationship to an art object?

SL: I am not sure if text is another medium but it is the element that makes certain media unstable. Is a drawing with text the same as a sign? I mean like a hand painted sign for a yard sale? Is a drawing/ painting with words an agreement, a caption for something else…or a list? I think text in visual works of art chips away at the solid place where we see a work of art as self contained and whole and moves it to an in between place–an object without a home.

CP: You have a show, “The Construction of a National Identity” up at The Hyde Park Art Center right now. Here too, you seem to examine traditional ways of locating a self in space and time. On the one hand, it seems like you rely on those traditional mechanisms (i.e. national identity, which relates to place and, even more basic, I think, a kind of “naming” or identification of a particular aspect) and on the other deliberately undermine their integrity (in so far as you point to Paella, for instance, or the idea of hybridity in general). Can you talk a little bit about that tension?

SL: Definitions always fall apart. Either breaking away into tautology or crumbling under the weight iof their own defining terms. We are given many terms with which to define ourselves yet none of them match perfectly. We don’t really add up…Given the hallway space at HPAC it seemed to make sense to push the transitory, ambulatory nature of identity—and the walking nature of the way that we exchange messages with each other in public. The installation is a poem with recipes written on colored walls or recipes for poems drawn on walls or walls marking overheard pieces of recipes signed by a writer. The food materials used to make the piece (saffron, rice, salt, coffee, olive oil, sesame oil and tea all hold associations with place and are part of our everyday lives. We build our sense of self through the repetition of daily rituals of food and drink and mark the day with words and gesture.

CP: Here too I am interested in how you incorporate those elements into tactile mediums. How do you characterize your relationship to your work–in a physical sense? Like when you’re looking at what you make, in your studio, or in a gallery–even when you first approach materials with an intention to “fashion” them–what is your experience of yourself in those moments?

SL: I want my experience and the audience’s experience to be of the moment–in process and in flux. An experience of everything around and in the piece. I want the experience to be heightened by a sense of the transitory and fleeting and of the potential for change. Not that the pieces change but that they have changed.  Materiality is important as it claims or sense of space and makes us aware of our body and all aspects of the sensory world. I use a lot of found objects and like to call into question what makes one object “art” while excluding another object from being art. I am drawn to material, older physical objects made by hand—objects that contain handmade marks.

CP: When do you find yourself most “the artist”?

SL: I guess I enjoy the making and the time and place when the surprise happens. I am an advocate of the irritation, of mystery and of ambiguity And I need to have a  sense of discovery as I return to the work. I like being in the space.


How To Get Lost in a City: An Interview with Amira Hanafi

January 26, 2011 · Print This Article

Until very recently, Amira Hanafi lived in Chicago. Now she lives in Cairo. In both cities she makes a habit of walking, sometimes with others. It’s a deliberate kind of wandering, a determined getting lost-ness, and enough work comes out of her walking, that I have started to think of the city as her studio. Months ago a friend asked me the last time I went to my studio without a plan. I didn’t have answer. I always know what I am going to work on—which, perhaps, explains why when I do get lost in a city, I tend to panic. Getting lost (especially in Chicago where I’ve lived for several years) reads to me as an inner turmoil; something symptomatic of trouble. I get lost as result of inward distraction. Amira on the other hand gets lost because she is so present to a moment. Because she celebrates that lostness—enjoying the accompanying curiosity, what I feel is generally accompanied with a studied awareness of one’s environment. The walk is a kind of aimless action, in which one must remain open, in order to discover what is so easily overlooked.

Caroline Picard: Will you describe your experience walking through a city?

Amira Hanafi: I think of walking as reading, of the city as text. Walking sets a pace for gathering and interpreting information. The movement is like reading a book—one can linger over passages or skim quickly through them, mark a place to return to, or close the book. One of my first walking projects in Chicago was Maps of the Order of Signs, in which I walked over two one-mile segments of Armitage Avenue, reading aloud all the text I saw into a handheld recorder. I transcribed this text and treated it in different ways; I performed various analyses in order to “decode” its meaning. The project resulted in a collection of texts, drawings, and prints, which I exhibited here in Chicago. It was a very literal interpretation of walking as reading. It was a good start, leading to walking as one of my central modes of art-making. I use walking as performance as well as a method of research or collection, gathering material with which to document the city.

CP: How do different cities respond to your walks? Do you change your walking strategy depending on what city you happen to inhabit?

AH: So far, I’ve done walking projects in two cities—Chicago and Cairo, Egypt. Certainly these walks are very different from each other. There is a great deal more life on the street in Cairo than in Chicago, so far more personal encounters happen. Also, because it is a very polluted and overcrowded city with poor infrastructure, the number of hours one can spend walking in Cairo is more limited. Appearing to be a foreigner, I am much more conspicuous in Cairo than in Chicago. In Chicago, the walks and accompanying conversations are more focused on infrastructure, urban planning, and the impact of the law, whereas in Cairo the streets are more immediately shaped by the people who inhabit them. I would love to have more cities to compare, but I believe that the best way for me to make intelligent art is through sustained engagement—by dwelling. That’s why I live in Cairo now.

CP: What is your relationship to the situationist dérive?

AH: I began using Guy Debord’s Theory of the Situationist Dérive in 2008, as a strategy for reading the city. I was drawn to his idea that one can detect “flows” in the city by walking without a plan. I concertedly experimented with the strategy by conducting a series of nine dérives in Chicago in the fall of 2009, inviting others to join me. I used it again in my project Cairo On the Length, a series of 28 walks, with a different person each time, over the course of four months in Cairo. As a method, the dérive can be a bit messy, but it is an excellent way to get to know a city without following an established path. More recently, I have returned to performing planned walks, such as my Walk Under the Interstate in Chicago in fall 2010. A planned walk offers more focus on a particular aspect of a city, and I feel that is more appropriate once I have acquired a general sense of the city and can pinpoint those aspects that interest me most.

CP: How did you discover the term “drift” and when did it seem appropriate?

AH: “Drifting” is a literal translation of dérive, and it’s a great way to get to know a lot about a city in a short period of time. Over a sustained period of time, one can detect patterns in a city’s life, discover what is anomalous, and move beyond the immediately recognizable aspects of a particular city toward a more deeper understanding of the network of influences that is the metropolis. The drift is best as a collective activity. I am increasingly interested in the discursive conversations that accompany these walks. For me, drifting alone is difficult as I get easily distracted by my own thoughts and lose focus on my surroundings. But with a partner or two, a lot of unexpected ground gets covered.

CP: Do you feel the “art” that takes place is in the walking? Or is it in the work that comes from the walking?

AH: The art is in both. The walk, with or without a plan, can be a performance—a sustained deviation from typical modes of action. The walk offers a period of heightened awareness during which I make observations and collect material. Over time, I may work with the material to create a document. All of this work is art-making.

About this series of interviews…

January 11, 2011 · Print This Article

I am about halfway through a two-week period of guest blogging on the Art21 site. It’s been fantastic. Suddenly I had an opportunity to engage 11 artists in conversation, asking them questions I’ve always wondered about. I began to see the possibility of an arc in the interviews. On the one hand each interview is independent, on the other there is a thread of interest that flows through each post­. I thought I could think through the progression here.

For the last couple years I’ve had a growing interest in celebrity culture. Not simply for its own sake, but rather as a particular reflection of the social structure in which we live, (i.e. post-industrial, capitalist America). Within that culture, celebrity provides a kind of apex or pinnacle of success. At one point, Young Joon Kwak equated them with the Greek Gods—as though Marylyn Monroe serves a parallel, cultural purpose in America as Hera did in Greece. At the very least celebrity provides a model for success and recognition, a model that translates into other fields, particularly in the arts, where tokens of legitimacy are rather slippery to grasp. As people working in a field with no direct use-value, the translated monetary/cultural value of a given object is highly subjective—something steeped in the momentum of the contemporary art dialectic. One way, then, to attain a sense of success is to become the famous Picasso, to be inducted into the Western Art canon. Or, the more immediate rock star artist option like, say, a Dash Snow type. Or, the shorter-lived 5 minutes of fame…”Even if you’re a flash-in-the-pan artist,” I remember a professor telling a class, “even if you just get famous for 5 seconds, at least you were famous. At least that one [painting] mattered. It’s better than nothing.” It’s the “nothing” that I’m interested in: the undefined, highly personal (and maybe less legitimate?) way of recognizing value in one’s work. Because I can’t define that “nothing” alternative, I’ve spent some time thinking through it’s dominant reflection: this whole Famous thing.

In lieu of those thoughts, I asked a series of artists to talk to me about their practices. I began with photographers Melanie Schiff and Jason Lazarus, asking about the gaze of the camera and how photographs memorialize events, or create opportunities to personalize mainstream culture. I then spoke to Young Joon Kwak, about his strategies of assemblage as a means to avoid commodification (oddly enough, he was also a finalist in the infamous SJP artist-reality-TV show), and Irina Botea about reenactment, revolution and film. That first segment of my guest-blogging was about the camera, in some way, or about our relationship to the camera.

My subsequent conversation with Anne Elizabeth Moore functions like a bridge—her interest in branding, for instance, crosses various mediums, even resisting the traditional “artist” label. She is a publisher, she is an educator and she also happens to make objects. All of her work is about self-empowerment in a context where that empowerment is difficult (if not, some might argue, impossible). Following Anne, I spoke with Brandon Alvendia who, like Moore, investigates self-publishing strategies. That is only one arm of his practice, however and working in different mediums, he locates “the art” primarily in himself. With Deb Sokolow, I asked about the characteristic second person pronoun throughout her work—here I feel like the interview-gaze shifts from Alvendia’s “I” to Sokolow’s, perhaps more aggressive “You.” (Agressive in so far as the audience becomes complicit with her work by reading/engaging in it.) At this point, the interviews start to shift towards an investigation of structure. Tsherin Sherpa talks about his relationship to the history and rigor of Tibetan religious painting, and what it means to step outside of that. He offers interesting reflection on the self, how he negotiates it. Here too, in some way I was surprised that the conversation became about the “self.” That theme is predominant in these interviews, and though I hadn’t anticipated it, it makes sense. After speaking to him, I interviewed Hiro Sakaguchi, Nadine Nakanishi and Ellen Rothenberg—artists working in very different ways, I was nonetheless especially interested in talking to them about the structure of their work and the places they work within. Hiro works in a museum, paints and teaches, occupying many different scales at once. Nadine boast a pragmatic optimism, running a print shop, participating in a printer’s guild and making her own work. Ellen takes advantage of overlooked portions of structure, in order to co-opt them for her own use. In all instances, the structure is both advantageous (in so far as it creates a context within which to work) and somewhat overbearing, insofar as it establishes standards and taboos. Ultimately I realized my thoughts about celebrity are really questions about structure.

Celebrity is a standard that reflects a structure, or style of thinking. The nothing, is the uncharted wilderness around that structure. Yet, that uncharted “wilderness” is actually more real and more vibrant. It is a more familiar context, and in taking time to better consider it, I realize that the fairy tale “fame” is actually the curious mistake. Because this whole gamut isn’t really about fame, it’s actually about doing good work, and thinking about the world with critical openness.