Guest post by Eric Asboe
My favorite pieces of art in my house were made by children — the volcano floor mat, the map of the United States with a Mason Dixon line to California, the drawing of a space shuttle with its top next to its base because the paper is too small to contain it. Some of my favorite and most meaningful art experiences have been with and through kids; no book has shaped me as much as my friend’s son who, while tschunk tschunk tschunking away at a typewriter, hitting only the space bar with no paper, was writing the world’s longest novel entitled Space. It is easy to say that children have not learned to say no to themselves, to self-censor the ideas they have or that they see down connections in their brains we have lost or that their ideas of perspective and coordination and correspondence are not as fixed as ours. Whatever the reason, we love the world children see and create because it is a world to which we think we no longer have access. The entrance to that world, however, may not be as far away as we believe it is.
Every first Saturday of the month, admission is free to the Walker Art Center with family oriented activities throughout the day. The activities not only make use of multiple areas of the museum, they are inspired by and derive from major exhibitions on view in the galleries. This month’s Free First Saturday, Some Assembly Required, was inspired by Abraham Cruzvillegas’s exhibition The Autoconstrucción Suites, which explores assemblage, local, found materials, and “self-construction,” utilizing “improvised building materials and techniques” when “materials become available and necessity dictates.” Artist Eric Syvertson guided children through making bird’s-eye views of their ideal landscapes, the maps of their ultimately functional worlds. Children were also invited to continue building and adding to the autoconstrucción begun by the Walker Teen Art Council. The changing, expanding structure juxtaposed the teens’ collages with children’s drawings and minimalist inspired tape paintings. In the most living of the autoconstruccións at the Walker, the structure became a new space of creation with the entrance of each child. The works they left behind continued to shape the space into which others entered and altered for their own needs.
As I observed both activities, it was clear that the children were there for more than just making. They wanted to see more, to experience the works that the Walker and the artists that lead the activities do a wonderful job of integrating into their programming. I overheard one boy ask to see “abstract sculptures” after finishing the dog park on his map. One girl asked me where she could find Franz Kline. The Walker is not just shaping young makers; it is fostering people who see art as integral to their lives, encouraging people of all ages to take the museum back into the world. I was not surprised to hear a little boy ask his father when they could visit the “painting museum” again.
I live blocks from In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre and less than a block from the route of their annual May Day parade. In an overflowing abundance of sunny celebration, community togetherness, and integrated arts, the 39th annual May Day parade gathered hundreds of makers, performers, children, teens, adults, older adults, musicians, puppeteers, dancers, bicyclists, hula hoopers, and tens of thousands of spectators to celebrate the coming of growing things and the gathering of so many different people. The narrative of the parade, as adapted from Bread and Puppet Theater, demonstrated what happens when we poison the earth and what can result if we nurture our natural resources. The narrative was illustrated by giant, multi-person puppets, individual masks, and elaborate costumes of animals, humans, plants, polluters, and planters, but no story can accurately portray the power of the parade. The beautiful, masterful masks, puppets, costumes, and actions of the paraders shaped powerful messages through overarching scenes, layers of movement, and stirring music. The music and sound of the parade in particular evoked palpable emotional responses; despite the cheers of thousands of people, the individual paraders and marching bands formed ominous, foreboding cacophonies, deathly silences, and joyous outpourings that echoed throughout the crowds responses.
The most noticeable change during the parade was the transformation of the normally quiet, relatively disparate neighborhood into a temporary community. Residents invited strangers to join them on porches. Visitors shared chairs and blankets to squeeze in more people. Local businesses did not just sponsor the parade they participated, donning costumes and dancing along the route. The barriers between the parade, the parade route, the spectators, the neighborhood, and the visitors disappeared in the up and down migration of people, bicyclists, musicians, dancers, basketballers, business owners, hawkers, activists, animals, and balloons before, during, and after the parade. By the time the tall bike flanked giant bicycle powered barbeque/drum circle/party bus/open flame/empty air tank gong/cage match skate ramp started the parade, everyone welcomed it as an integral and normalized part of the community that had left everyday life behind to embrace the worlds of art, spectacle, celebration, and togetherness.
Maybe I love children’s art because it too is so much a natural part of who children are. They do not switch from being children to being artists to make something; their making is part of the continuum of childhood, the uninterrupted nature of their lives. I know and experience that those boundaries are artificial, imposed by me upon a world that is full of art, wonder, and discovery beyond my compartmentalized imagination. I am thankful for watching children make and play and for the times I can lose myself in the beauty of a sunny afternoon with raucous paraders. On to a summer free from boundaries.
Eric Asboe is an artist, writer, and cultural worker. As Art Director of Public Space One gallery and performance space in Iowa City, Iowa, Asboe helped shape its nationally engaged exhibitions and programming, including the microgranting meal SOUP and the award-winning Free @rt School. Asboe’s creative works prioritize process over product and explore the boundary between practice as improvement and practice as way of life. Forthcoming projects include ubuwebtopten.com. He currently lives and works in Minneapolis.
Guest Post by Faye Kahn¹
Originally Composed 12/2012
Contemporary society occurs within a system of objects: toasters, cars, latch hooks, extension cords, hair pins, keys, cards, bunk beds, and so on. It is this very system (see also: pile, archive, collection, etc.) that contemporary artists have assimilated & reappropriated as a catalogue of their raw material. In a statement from Cincinnati’s U·turn Art Space’s 2010 “Stuff Art” group show of contemporary assemblage artists, an uncredited author defines the tactic as follows:
”These artists use spatial relationships and juxtaposition to increase our awareness of the common by approaching a free-for-all of range of materials as freed form …The evolution of these art practices is also in dialogue with “truth to materials” philosophies that began in the International Style of Modernist architecture…”²
Not only through Modernist Architecture but more popularly recognized at the advent of the readymade by Duchamp in 1917 & carrying through such evolutionary checkpoints as Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, Mike Kelly’s stuffed animal agglomerations, the Etsy object sculptures of Brad Troemel, & the composited image collages of dump.fm users. The assemblage artist today is in an active & influential position, albeit one that pushes objects across the gallery floor, cutouts across the photocopier bed, & gifs around the checkerboard transparency field rather than paint across a canvas.
If this is the language in which we are speaking now, a lexicon containing stuffed animals, sign-my-guestbook gifs, Vitamin water, urinals, emoticons, taxidermy, etc. etc. & onward into infinity, it is worth noting the popularity of the term “plant” or “houseplant” & occasionally “office plant” which can be found repeatedly throughout digital & physical gallery dialogue.
The houseplant’s original intention was for the interior decorator, whose profession hinges on the art of arrangement. Houseplants usually function as decoration in the home to soften our transition from nature to domestic space. It freshens the air, appeals to our aesthetic senses, & reminds us of idealized places we aren’t (outside). This relationship to interior decorating is recognized by many plant-wielding artists, including & exemplified by Claire Fontaine in her Interior Design for Bastards show (2009) whose statement immediately admits its awareness of “[t]he close and ambiguous relationship between art and decoration.”³
In a matryoshka-like way, the art of arrangement is repeated on a smaller scale within the houseplant’s own container, & even institutionalized by the practice in Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement. According to the Ikebana International website, “In principle, ikebana aims not at bringing a finite piece of nature into the house, but rather at suggesting the whole of nature, by creating a link between the indoors and the outdoors.”⁴ Assemblage artist Carson Fisk-Vittori discusses her Ikebana-like exploration of this link in a 2011 interview with Claudine Ise of contemporary art blog Bad at Sports:
”…a soda can thrown in a flower pot is a gesture, because it is intentionally placed whether or not the person was aware of it… It’s really a natural gesture, like eating a cherry and spitting out the core, but in our world we are dealing with these man-made objects that are specially designed and branded. The contrast of man-made object and plant life really shows how far away we are from living with nature. I basically started looking closer at these casual arrangements and creating my own with elements of plants and man-made objects…I view these arrangements as microcosms for our relationship with nature.”⁵
This approach also addresses the current heightened cultural awareness of environmental issues, which has pushed plants into the socio-political spotlight that provides the creative fodder of cultural critics & artists. There is also an undeniable escapist aspect of the houseplant, as it is kept inside as a reminder of the outside, natural world. This adds to the plant’s ability to represent tropical & indigenous cultures that have more intimate relationships with nature.
However prescient these decorative & potentially escapist implications of plants, they cannot completely explain their rise in popularity in contemporary art. Though these qualities may influence the artist’s decisions on a conscious level, the houseplant has taken on more complex implications than a simple symbol of nature. Through its living presence & familiarity, it has transitioned into a subject that can go as far as acting as a stand in for a human being.
The movement of the plant from the exterior natural space to the interior gallery necessarily devolves the specimen into the tamed version of itself: a house plant. Consequently, this conversion is also the first step in transforming the creature into an entity better capable of relating to humans. Unlike other found props from the system of objects catalogue, a plant is living & needs to be maintained-a quality uniquely expeditious in its importance to living things (in fact the lifespan of the plant determines the duration of visual moments in the work in which it resides). Furthermore, in many cases the plants in use occupy space in an analogous way to how a person would, with similar height & life presence. In an article discussing the sculptural work of Claes Oldenburg, Julian Rose describes the effective use of scale in relation to the minimalist work of Tony Smith:
“The primary objective in scaling the work roughly to the human body was to establish a connection between viewer & object. Objects that are too small or too large…tend to isolate themselves from the observer. A small object is perceived all at once, in a glance; it demands no participation. A similar problem arises with much larger objects, which are unintelligible at a short distance and fully legible only from distances so great that the viewer no longer feels that he or she is sharing space with it. A human-sized sculpture, neither too small nor too large, invites the viewer to move around it, gaining a full understanding through exploration of a shared space.”⁶
Coming upon a plant in a gallery space has a similar effect, if not more pronounced with the added dimension of life. In fact, this dimension & our a priori participatory relationship with plants lessens the problem of the small object Rose describes; we are accustomed to getting close to small plants to take care of them which extends our personal, shared space relationship with them.
Plants serve as a unique stand-in for a person because they have no emotive face. The exploitation of emotion & drama through pop culture, capitalism, & consumer arts has caused passion to become a subject that borders on guaranteed cliché & is territory that must be broached with extreme caution & tact. Plants therefore have a heightened utility to the artist as a subject more ambiguous than a portrait, mannequin, or cartoon character. Domesticated houseplants appear innocent, attractive, & defenseless, making them sympathetic individuals, while not fostering any theatrics or relying on sonic communication as an animal does. As a result of this, installations including plants do not always necessarily feel softened by the presence of plant life but can in fact occasionally alienate the viewer as though she were walking into a room of emotionless people. Still, they are more responsive & decisive than a mineral & their anthropomorphic qualities are obscure enough to free us from any social judgement of character from either subject or object.
This anthropomorphic phenomenon in the fine art world can be exemplified by a blog post found on the Walker Art Center website written by gallery photographer Gene Pittman. In the post, Pittman discusses archival photos from the center pre-1971, a time when plants were commonplace in the museum & gallery setting performing a decorative role:
”In these images [plants] seem to act as the stand-ins for the patrons, sometimes aloof and in the background or congregating around the radiator as if in discussion. And then there are those that are really into the work, standing in front of a sculpture’s light, their shadows enveloping the work.”⁷
Following the text there is an extensive image collection featuring examples of the gallery patron plant in its natural habitat. Looking at these photos today out of context, one might easily confuse them for photos of a contemporary exhibition incorporating plants in an installation. Compare, for example, the following two images:
The top image, from 1959 at the Walker Art Center & the bottom from Jacopo Miliani’s 2008 installation Parrots at the Frutta gallery in Rome. Both situations involve tall, frond bearing plants observing framed 2D artwork hung on nearby walls with no obvious distinguishing feature illuminating the arranger’s identity as artist, as in Miliani’s installation, or as interior decorator, as in Pittman’s archival photo.
A similar effect is achieved by the Tumblr hosted image collection Mise en Green assembled by Brooklyn based curator, exhibition producer, and writer Arden Sherman (www.miseengreen.com) that intuitively documents the plant’s evolution from decorative gallery constituent to chosen member of the art piece. Amongst archival museum & gallery photos like those described above appear photos from contemporary gallery shows without any obvious distinguishing feature. For example, a long cluster of potted greens from the Dormitorio Publico 2012 show at the Campoli Presti Gallery can be found between archival photos from the Guggenheim & the MoMA in the 1950s. A selection of hanging & floor-dwelling plants in ceramic containers at Paul Wacker’s Wait & Watch a While Go By show at the Alice Gallery in Brussels (also from 2012) is displayed unobtrusively between documentation of the MoMA & Manchester Art Galleries from the 70s & 80s.
Viewing the plant as a human stand in allows us to obtain a more insightful reading of contemporary artworks that utilize them. Wait & Watch a While Go By now appears to reference what the group of hanging & potted plants in the exhibit are doing. The gallery is hung with paintings by Wacker & Maya Hayuk done in an unpretentious graphic style, many of which include images of wild plants & houseplants alike. The resulting situation is one of a kind of plant hangout- a place for them to relax & enjoy each others company with pictures of family members decking the halls.
Although this anthropomorphization goes largely unrecognized (at least publicly) by the artists that implement it, at the beginning of his 2008 performance piece Este Cuerpo Que Me Ocupa, João Fiadero directly confronts us with an unadorned plant as subject:
“…Fiadero walks into the stage coming from the audience, crosses it, opens a door on the back wall, and brings in a tall plant in a vase. With care, he lays the vase down on the stage floor and returns to his place among the audience. At the center of the stage, the plant executes a beautiful solo with living creature, inert matter, and imperceptible motions.”⁸
In this example, a potted plant takes on the role of the choreographed dancer. The rest of the performance introduces a cast of other domestic objects (mostly furniture) and a few people, but the first physically present subject is a plant. In internal activity it is between a human and a non-living object. It is transitional, a pathway between identification from a person to a thing.
Buffalo based artist Ethan Breckenridge places his plant subjects in undersized transparent prisms & cubes that emphasize the plant as a sympathetic creature. In his Too Soon installations in Bolivia (2009) & New York (2010), potted plants are crammed into carpeted cubes. The viewer empathizes with the plants, leaves pressed uncomfortably against the walls of the cube, & we may reflect upon our own domesticated & carpeted glass cubes. Breckinridge more specifically articulates the relationship between human & plant in Plants Have No Backs (2008)- another plant (or two in some iterations) in carpeted windowed structure- but this time furnished with a folding chair. The title & the presence of the chair immediately allow the viewer to compare herself to a plant, in particularly those in front of her, humanoid in height. Without any need to sit down or rest its non-existent back, the chair remains empty. If a person were to sit in the chair, she would be in intimate conversation with the plant. One wall of the box is constructed out of a mirrored surface depicting infinite clones of plants with unoccupied chairs. The plant stands tall & unaffected, neither suffering nor lavishing its solitary existence.
In tandem with the plant in the gallery space, the proliferation of the houseplant in artistic practice continues in the internet medium- work that is without 3D physical manifestation. In particularly in the work of younger artists on social communities like dump.fm & the TightArtistNetGang, found plant imagery is common in the composited moments that function as their incessently morphing artistic economy. The plant’s ubiquity here probably has more to do with the large quantity of plant based gifs & clipart used in early web design (much of contemporary net art aesthetics is based in early web/PC nostalgia) than with an anthropomorphic presence. Because web design began by imitating tactile textures, objects & actions in order to make itself more user friendly, it is for the same aesthetic reasons that appears in interior decoration that it finds its way onto the web as design elements. Furthermore, net art of this kind, which seems to seek to create a surreal version of the physical world, would be incomplete without common objects & textures, making plants an obvious & indispensable tool. Like in physical presence, plants here too remind us of an exotic outside world, or, in the case of a potted plant, the physical world immediately outside of the computer.
There are examples of plants in net art at every turn, but 24 year old net artist Douglas Schatz (dump.fm username guccisoflosy), who repeatedly incorporates plant imagery in his work, summarized the trend in posting an animated gif of a potted plant against a grey checkerboard transparency background above the text “Digital Office Plants Are the New Aesthetic.”⁹
Unfortunately there is not enough room here to document a full up-to-date survey of contemporary artwork utilizing houseplants, but perhaps acknowledging this mania will allow us to look at this work with added dimension & intellect, rather than relegating it to simple appropriation. Surely plants will continue to aesthetically enchant all kinds of humans until further notice. Worldwide ethnic traditions document the symbolic meanings of various species, but the houseplant as readymade has mobilized the plant image into the 21st century. It has matured out of trite decorative & expired folkloric identities into advanced contemporary symbolic territory. Although the houseplant’s current definition is unstable (as anything contemporaneous), its qualities as an emotionally ambiguous living subject that is aesthetically pleasing make it a versatile object that will continue to take on meaning as its use continues.
H. FAYE KAHN is a freelance animator in NYC & a free-format radio DJ at listener-sponsored WFMU in Jersey City, NJ. She resides in Brooklyn, NY & holds a BFA in Film/Animation/Video from Rhode Island School of Design.
It is my sad duty to report the loss of a wonderful guy who along with his wife the delightful Annie Morse put on New Years Day parties of legend. He was a lovely person and I am deeply saddened to hear of his passing.
Please keep Kevin and his friends and family in your thoughts. If you can please make a donation in his honor to the Resource Center Chicago, 222 East 135th Pl., Chicago, Illinois 60827 (http://www.resourcecenterchic
A pioneer in green architecture and sustainable development, Kevin Kurtz Pierce, 55, of Chicago, IL, passed away May, 2, 2013, following a “lengthy argument,” as he drily referred to it, with glioblastoma multiforme.
For the past 15 years Pierce specialized in sustainable design. Memorable projects include the Chicago Center for Green Technology, the city’s flagship green building and the first U.S. municipal structure to be certified “Platinum” by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Additional award-winning structures include Bethel Center and the Chicago headquarters of Christy Webber Landscapes.
As Sustainability Consultant for The Green Exchange, he helped create the country’s first commercial real estate development to advance green business. He also designed more than 300 affordable, sustainably-designed housing units in Chicago and Northwest Indiana.
His designs won multiple Greenworks Awards from the City of Chicago, a Smart Growth Achievement award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and honors from the American Institute of Architects Chicago and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
Quarter century as an architect
He worked for a quarter century as an architect for renowned firms such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), Lohan Associates, Farr Associates and Shaw Environmental.
Since July 2011, he turned his sustainability focus to assume the position of chief operating officer for the Resource Center, a 40-year-old non-profit organization where he had been a volunteer for nearly a decade and had served as board chairman for five years. The Resource Center—through recycling, urban agriculture and additional programs—has promoted sustainability through creative reuse of unseen and neglected resources.
A vigorous advocate for urban agriculture, Kevin served as a steering committee member of the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council and Advocates for Urban Agriculture, organizations dedicated to using community agriculture and local food systems.
Prior to being COO of the Resource Center, he was the director of Sustainable Design at Shaw Environmental and managing director of Shaw Sustainable Design Solutions.
A modest life in Wicker Park
Pierce resided in Chicago with Annie Morse, officially his wife since July 2012, in a modest brick house in Wicker Park. Their devotion to reuse of found materials, recycling and sustainability were well-known to friends and colleagues.
The highly social couple were familiar faces at art and architecture openings across Chicago, and celebrated the first day of each year by welcoming more than a hundred people at a New Year’s Day open house at their eccentric home, with interior spaces redesigned by Kevin and filled with paintings by contemporary artists, most of whom the couple knew personally.
Despite the couple’s hospitality, few of their houseguests knew of Kevin’s many professional honors. They lived modestly.
The couple were virtually inseparable for a quarter century, signing a contract every five years (since 1989) at commitment ceremonies prior to being legally married.
He wrote a weblog about his illness, titled “There’s a Hole in My Head.”
From Chico to Chicago
Born in Boulder, CO, to Ann Dignan (née Trucksess), Kevin was adopted by James Pierce and grew up in Chico, CA. He received a bachelor’s degree in architecture, graduating cum laude, in 1985 from the University of Oregon. He later attended the Professional Development Program at Harvard Graduate School of Design. He moved to Chicago in 1986.
His professional affiliations included the American Institute of Architects, for which he as an Illinois Board Member; member of American Planning Association, Congress for New Urbanism, Metropolitan Planning Council, Society for College & University Planning, U.S. Green Building Council and National Trust for Historic Preservation. In addition, he was an advisor to the Chicago Sustainable Business Alliance.
He is survived by wife Annie Morse of Chicago; mother, Ann T. Pierce, Chico, CA; sisters Alex O’Neill, of Chico, CA, and Darcy Enns, of Durham, CA; brothers Mark Pierce of Chico, CA and Jay Pierce of Seattle, WA; stepsister Lindell, of Sacramento, CA, stepbrother Brent Pierce of Coos Bay, OR; 11 much-loved nieces and nephews Jenny, Meredith, Casey, Jayne, Kellen, Maya, Lexi, Jesse, Kelsey, Maggie, and Sophia. He is preceded in death by James Pierce, his father, and niece Katie Kelley.
A private celebration of his life is being planned later in May. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Resource Center Chicago, 222 East 135th Pl., Chicago, Illinois 60827 (http://www.resourcecenterchic
Guest Post by Robert Burnier
After seeing Steven Husby’s exhibition, BRUTE FORCe, at 65GRAND, I had the opportunity to catch up with him and ask if we could dig a little deeper into his process. There were several aspects of my earlier writing on his show that I wanted to hear more about from him, but it seemed to me that certain activities of his outside the studio and gallery were also of interest. In response, he very generously took great care in his answers, giving us substantial insight into his motivations, ideas and ways of approaching a studio practice.
Robert Burnier: When would you say you first began to explore the notions that led to the kind of work you’re doing today?
Steven Husby: I would say that I’ve flirted with pictorial recursivity, deductive structure, and something like absolute opacity for years. The house–painterly way I work really started in undergrad as something to aspire to and something to work against. A kind of pop–inflected formalism was in the air – and I was young and impressionable. Over time I’ve generally found it to be worthwhile to give myself over to the more excessively restrained aspects of my practice, probably because I’m not a particularly neat, linear, or orderly person, but I like what happens when I try to behave as though I were. I think I was first attracted to limits both as things to provide traction and as things to be subverted in some way. I found as soon as I practiced these things, the force generated through restraint was greater than I could ever achieve without it. The channeling, focusing, and projecting of force – whether from inside or out – is absolutely key to the whole project.
RB: How do you feel about the use of concepts from science or mathematics in a work of art? Are they intrinsically important to you in some way or do they act more as metaphors on which to hang other concerns?
SH: Well on the one hand I sympathize somewhat with Joseph Kosuth’s early position on these things – on the face of it these concerns are external to whatever the ‘art’ concerns may be. But from that standpoint so is form, beauty, and meaning – critical or otherwise. And though I sort of love the perverse absolutism of that, I wouldn’t want to go so far as to say that these seemingly external concerns are not relevant – they are; however, I think you’re correct to key in to them as metaphors. I’m not a scientist or a mathematician, and I have no formal training in anything like those fields. If anything – I would say that although I’ve had a ‘crush’ on math and science from an aesthetic standpoint for so long that I can hardly remember not being intrigued by the imaginative possibilities they suggest to the laity, I have almost no innate aptitude for the practice of either. I’d say I’m passably adequate with numbers, and although my studio practice entails some small degree of discipline and rigor, it pales in comparison to that required by even the most rudimentary scientific method. I think what has allowed me to move forward in my practice has been remaining open to the possibility that potentially nothing is external to it.
I think at first I thought that I was only ever interested in these strict pictorial procedures as perverse, radically artificial things in stark juxtaposition to everything else, and in the expressive potential of choosing that sort of perverse limitation as a resonant gesture. But I’ve also always really loved designing things and making and looking at objects. I believe in the work as this weirdly sincere gesture that somehow enfolds a healthy amount of skepticism. I’ve often been too proud to spell out my intentions, so as a consequence the work can be read as purely formalist or procedural, or in some way simply ‘about’ structure or something like that. And I believe that it is not really my place to say that it’s not. Sentence meaning takes precedence over speaker meaning. But then why painting? It’s a very specific choice. I’m getting bolder about putting forward my own rather more emotionally loaded interpretations of my work as I’ve gotten more comfortable seeing more kinds of things as internal to it.
RB: What things were most important to you as you prepared to arrange and install the work for BRUTE FORCe? And what got you onto the idea of making those posters instead of the usual show card?
SH: I knew that I wanted to show the big red painting, and the rest of the decisions proceeded from that one. I had begun work on the black and white paintings when the show was first proposed several months ago, but I hadn’t originally intended to show any of them until I had completed all sixty-four in the set. My original idea was to show the big red painting, and a group of small collages on the wall that is now occupied by the black and white paintings, but that idea fell by the wayside fairly quickly, as I realized that the collages just weren’t going to hold that wall, and the idea of presenting the first eight of the sixty four paintings I began working on towards the end of last year just made more sense as something that could actually hold their own across from the red painting. I had recently completed the second four, so when the opportunity presented itself I couldn’t resist the temptation to exhibit them earlier than I had originally planned. Progress continues on the remaining fifty-six, which I will show in partial groupings as I complete them.
This leaves the inkjet on canvas, which extends my investment in photographic imagery which began in 2009 when I began taking photos in the course of my daily life like a lot of people do, and experimenting with ways of bringing that kind of imagery into my exhibition practice. I’ve always liked how the really opaque geometric paintings looked in rooms – what they do to the space around them as these relatively unmodulated pictorial objects breaking up the contingency of real space. And I’ve always liked how the paintings looked paired with other people’s photographs – so at some point the idea of “sampling” the real in that way just made a lot of sense to me – so that’s where that decision comes from. The poster is just a natural extension of that process of sampling, formatting, and juxtaposition, in this case of graphic with more atmospheric sorts of visuality. The title also came pretty early on – though originally it was going to be something like Brute Force: Coming Attractions. The text on the back – “This Is Not a Blog” – is one I wrote over the course of a couple of years for my website not long after I began maintaining one – also in 2009. I think that process of maintaining a website – the initial excitement, and eventual ambivalence I began to feel about its implicit demands and limitations – led me to where I am now with respect to my attitudes towards contemporary image culture, and the pressure that that exerts on our perception of paintings as objects which occupy a peculiar site of intersection between ourselves as embodied physical beings and ourselves as beings looking, passively watching, seeing into and through everything, comparing images to images.
RB: When you move from paint to, say, inkjet, what kinds of issues are raised for you in the use of those differing methods? In both cases the surfaces are just immaculate and consistent, but is there something fundamentally questioned here or do these questions reside on a level other than craft?
SH: That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. With both I feel I’ve been engaged in a kind of pantomime of external limitation. Compared to many other painting practices I’m aware of, mine has consistently been much more seemingly de-subjectivized in many respects. And yet I’m not really interested in renouncing subjectivity at all – far from it. I’ve never thought of myself as a pure formalist. My work has been placed in those contexts, and I’ve never felt like it was appropriate for me to say no to that aspect of how it reads. But nonetheless, I often find myself articulating my concerns in weirdly formal ways when what’s called for is some kind of subjective or objective narrative, and in weirdly narrative and anecdotal ways when what’s expected is greater tact I suppose. As much as I seek out limits for their expressive potential, I’m never not chomping at the bit. I suppose that’s what it means to seek limits for their expressive potential.
I think my work is full of all sorts of ‘tells’ that it’s not just a matter of beauty, taste, decoration, or craft. I’m very much of my generation – between the super restrained anti subjective artists who emerged in the nineties under the influence of the pictures generation, and the super–subjective, affect heavy painters emerging now. I started using opaque color and hard edges when that was what the painters I respected seemed to be doing. It made more sense to me than trying to be a gestural painter, and I wasn’t alone in that. But I have to emphasize that I always loved ab-ex, and even more the really unfashionable stuff that came later like color field – specifically Louis. But then around ’98 or so, when I was nearing the end of my undergraduate education, right around the time I started seriously diving into more ambitious literature around contemporary art, painters like Ingrid Calame and Monique Prieto were getting a lot of positive attention. And a painter friend of mine turned me on to the work of Gary Hume, and it just made sense to try something like that…to try on some kind of obviously artificial restraint, rather than just keep layering imagery and processes relating to everything I was thinking about and responding to all the time into a finite number of surfaces. What I was doing before I ‘discovered’ opacity was something like a clumsy, handmade version of Raygun Magazine. It had it’s moments…but what I found by limiting my methods and imitating what I was capable of imitating at the time was something that felt much more mine in a way I could actually stand behind without feeling totally feeble and awkward. I feel like what’s been happening in my work the past couple of years is that I’m finally finding ways to slowly find a place in the system for all the impulses I had to restrain in order to find the system in the first place. This process of opening and diversifying also happens to coincide with my introduction to teaching (not coincidentally.) So I’ve been giving myself permission to think like a student. To try things…to try on things which I don’t necessarily ‘own,’ the same way that I didn’t ‘own’ flat color when I began using it in the late nineties. I don’t own inkjet on canvas, or half tone images. That stuffs just in the air, and if I think I can do something interesting with it I’ll try. The same goes for writing, making posters, blogging.
But to get back to your question – what the inkjets and my earlier adopted approaches to painting share is a certain degree of apparent impersonality – which I don’t so much attempt to shatter or disrupt as find myself inevitably doing in a weirdly personal way, which is what I think makes it interesting and confusing to take in, and really hard to narrativize succinctly.
RB: How and to what degree would you say you incorporate chance into your working process?
SH: The answer to that question hinges on whether or not one believes in chance. On the one hand, randomness is real. On the other – it is only part of what feeds into the stream of what we call ‘chance,’ which is where genuine randomness and selection bias intersect. I believe in keeping my options open, following my impulses – allowing them to act as a lens or a filter. I don’t believe that the act of arbitration is necessarily an act of self–expression, and to the extent that it is I’ve found it more helpful not to try not to be overly censorious of it. But editing is still very important to me. I see recursivity everywhere these days, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always visible. I think for some of us, our task as artists entails keeping an eye out for it, and sharing it when it shows itself to us from our vantage point.
RB: For the red painting, do those shapes come from somewhere in particular, or is that pattern the result of interlocking circles?
SH: I arrived at this more or less ubiquitous pattern – which I later learned is called Seigaiha – through a process of simplification of previous, more idiosyncratic drawings. The drawings I paint from are always virtual, which permits me to work fast and loose with structure without loosing sight of the whole, and allows for global changes (inverting values, distorting the entire drawing in a consistent way, etc) without losing anything I might find a use for. The way I begin drawing is almost always the same. I build a very simple pattern – usually a stripe gradient – alter it’s structure in some way – then cut and past fragments of the altered pattern back onto itself, crop and repeat. Sometimes I’ll come back to an older drawing and change something simple about it, and a new body of work will spring from that. In the case of the wave pattern – I was working with perspectival gradients distorted to form parabolas converging on a single point – like Saturn rings. I was cutting and pasting these patterns onto themselves – mirroring them, etc. The patterns that emerged from that suggested much simpler patterns, so I thought I’d see what would happen if I just drew those, using interlocking circles, as you suggest. I was curious what would remain if I stripped away some of the more sophisticated topologies the computer enables me to access. I was also looking for ways to try out more fallible kinds of marks, and these simpler patterns suggested themselves as appropriate vehicles for that.
RB: You seem to have an alternate practice of developing multiple tumblr blogs that are linked to your website. They don’t appear to behave as continuous logs as much as they resemble carefully chosen artist’s notes. Do these relate to specific bodies of work or perhaps mark plateaus in your thinking? How would you see us experiencing them in relation to the objects in your studio or in a show?
SH: I started playing around on tumblr about a year ago. I haven’t been able to devote as much time to it recently as I did in the beginning – but this seems pretty consistent with many people’s experience of maintaining a blog, so I’m not overly concerned about my temporary neglect of it. My step dad recently asked me how I manage to follow through with time consuming studio projects – and an artist friend asked me a similar question with regards to the big red painting in the show at 65GRAND. My answer to both of them was that I find that it’s really helpful to maintain several projects at different speeds and different timbres simultaneously so that each can act as a relief from the others, enabling me to follow through on each one in due time. This is true to what I learned in graduate school, which for me was process of pulling things apart and allowing them to stand by themselves without having to be all up on top of each other in one piece. This is still how I like to work. Tumblr’s really great as far as that’s concerned, because it’s something I can literally do while I’m waiting for paint to dry. But on a more serious level, which I’ve attempted to address elsewhere – on my blog “a little less democracy,” – the tumblrs are a way for me to gather and collect, circulate and redirect things that are floating around our culture. I try to be savvy about how I use it, not simply passively participating – but it’s not always easy to tell the difference. In part I think I’m using it to teach myself how to be as savvy as I can about images. I’ve found it a lot harder to shoot photos – “from scratch” let’s say – since I started using it. You get a lot more picky. And it’s easy to get a lot more interested in playing with the relationships between what’s already ‘out there’ than with adding more images to the pile. It’s all so seductive and yet so ephemeral and insubstantial. The relationship between that insubstantial current – a kind of dreamtime – on the one hand – and the resistant density of paintings and objects and bodies in space on the other – is pretty interesting to me. I’m no expert – but when I give myself over to it (tumblr) it feels like I’m learning something – though what that is exactly is pretty hard to define. I think it has something to do with creating – or generating meaning passively through a kind of visual aikido – rechanneling the others’ force, which ties it back to my more strictly painterly pursuits.
RB: Given the sorts of wide-reaching ideas you like to think about, to what extent do you focus on histories – personal, artistic, cultural – as being ruled by extra-historical forces? Is there a link between these notions and, say, a blog title such as “a little less democracy”? In that case, I don’t see you as so much making a political point as just wondering aloud whether everything is in merely a matter of fluctuating opinion; that some things, if not universal and transcendent, at least move at much slower rate.
SH: For sure. I’m definitely in tune with the notion that politics as it’s discussed in the mainstream, and practiced in the voting booth is epiphenomenal. I’ve always liked Ecclesiastes, and identified (perhaps a bit too much) with the spectator position. The older I get, the more I see that there is no spectator position, yet I also feel like I see how in the big picture our individual agency amounts to very little – we’re all spectators of a great deal of the structures which determine how we will spend our time on this planet. Things get done collectively. Masses move and are moved. Demographic biases are real limits in the world – real forces moving through bodies that have to be accommodated. In that regard it seems nothing short of miraculous to me how much more progressive people have been persuaded to say they are on things like gay rights recently. This is a hard won and incredible step forward in many respects. At the same time, it’s deeply disappointing that masses of people must be persuaded to accept what ought to be self–evident. This is sort of where the title of my primary blog comes from – I’m a little suspicious of the “democratic impulse” if there is such a thing. It seems like a con. And of course the defenders of democracy are absolutely correct – it’s the worst form of government –except for all the other ones that have been tried. At least it’s less obviously sadistic than outright dictatorship. But still…I’m an artist, so I’m predisposed to be suspicious of community. It’s been very important for me personally, and as an artist, as a child of the Midwest, to learn to not anticipate and accommodate my natural opponents before I consider how things seem to me from my own vantage point. It’s an ongoing process.
This interview was conducted via e-mail in April, 2013.
Steven Husby’s exhibition, BRUTE FORCe at 65GRAND, continues through May 11.
ROBERT BURNIER is an artist and writer who lives and works in Chicago. He is an MFA candidate in Painting and Drawing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. Recent exhibitions include The Horseless Carriage at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Salon Zurcher at Galerie Zurcher, New York, the Evanston and Vicinity Biennial, curated by Shannon Stratton, and Some Dialogue, curated by Sarah Krepp and Doug Stapleton, at the Illinois State Museum, Chicago.
Guest Post by Robert Burnier
Normally when you think of covering all your bases it’s a way of being non-committal, of hedging your bets. But in Steven Husby’s case, it is precisely the opposite: showing different sides in order to invite you into a world and a mindset that can’t be contained in one object. In this way he takes a leap of faith beyond becoming enamored of any one approach to his work. Even the title of the show – BRUTE FORCe – seems meant in this inverted sense. It refers less to a domineering position than to exhaustively being open to a wide range of possibilities, to traverse as many combinations as one can.
This, then, seems to be both the form of the show and its central investigation. On view are the different worlds that can emerge when even a single aspect of each has been changed, and when we look in toward the building blocks of a certain “fact” of existence. We see what could have happened, and find the minute aspects of our situation in altering the path our universe can take.
For example, a set of eight meticulously crafted canvases of shaded triangles installed in a grid on one wall offers relationships where something in one is not like the other. We can determine that they are related somehow, and if we keep going, it is possible to suss out the entire potential set – exhaustively, as it were. But it could be otherwise, so a closed system like this also stands, in a way, for infinite alternatives. The surfaces are exquisite, displaying a minimal sense of touch. Brush strokes are sumptuous but also absolutely registered directionally to one side of each triangle, in a fusion of organic movement and idea.
Another canvas of interlocking red semicircles seems to be totally defined except for the notion that it could go on forever beyond our comprehension and that the color has a subtle, airy modulation which is actually quite unpredictable. Color here conveys other senses of openness. Speaking with the artist at his opening, he said he took care not to wear a favorite yellow shirt so as to avoid “fast food restaurant” associations. So clearly, the subjectivity inherent in this aspect of the work isn’t lost on him.
An inkjet print of a severely blown-up, half toned image rounds out the show. Ostensibly, this could have been the most distant of the works given its totally mechanical origins, but I found it to be as luscious as any color field. The discrete dots seem to gain more character as they are enlarged, and whatever image they represent dissolves into a sort of mock-expressionism. The practical uses for the half-tone seem subverted, giving us access to their blunt reality while allowing us to wander freely across the gorgeous, delicate, matte surface they generate.
Husby’s work is a studied exercise in emergence and the way that severe restrictions can somewhat paradoxically throw subtle expression and gesture into great relief. Having a foot in the minimalist tradition, there is an emphasis on the presence of the object in front of us, but not to convey any absolutes about this or that thing, self-contained, so much as to be a platform to experience a more expansive potential outside of what is there.
(For an in-depth interview I conducted with Steven Husby about the work for this exhibition and his practice, check back with Bad at Sports this coming Saturday, April 27th!) Steven Husby’s exhibit, BRUTE FORCe, is on view at 65 Grand until May 11th.
ROBERT BURNIER is an artist and writer who lives and works in Chicago. He is an MFA candidate in Painting and Drawing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. Recent exhibitions include The Horseless Carriage at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Salon Zurcher at Galerie Zurcher, New York, the Evanston and Vicinity Biennial, curated by Shannon Stratton, and Some Dialogue, curated by Sarah Krepp and Doug Stapleton, at the Illinois State Museum, Chicago. He also serves as a museum departmental specialist at The Art Institute of Chicago.