Guest post by Jacob Wick
I met artist and musician Conrad Freiburg at his home/studio south of downtown Los Angeles with a mostly-full bottle of Malort in tow. I’d met him before, several times. The first time was at 8550 Ohio (née Harold Arts), probably in 2010 or 2011. The summer I moved from the east coast to the west one, I listened repeatedly to his album the Undecagon, which at the time I thought was a very poetic name about the mystery of geometry. I continued to think this until the night of this interview, when I discovered that an undecagon is any 11-sided polygon. I’m looking forward to seeing him play live, for the first time, on May 17th, in the lot outside of his home/studio, south of downtown LA. I left the bottle of Malort there—it’s really terrible stuff—and I’m looking forward to reuniting with it. Anyway, I went to his studio with the intention of talking about a sign he had told me about a month earlier, which, when I arrived, it became apparent that he had not yet made. Then again…
JW: It’s all the same. I could look at these sketches and say like wow, this sign is beautiful, I love the way the wood grain…you know? I’d say it’s about six feet high by about eight feet wide, just like, uh, think about it.
CF: If you can imagine a national park sign that says “Welcome to not giving a fuck,” that’s the idea. It’s got the handyman/weekend-warrior font, you know? The top of the sign has a little bit of a slope to it, and all the corners are rounded. And, you know, it says: “Welcome to not giving a fuck.” Which I think is very important to getting anywhere worthwhile. There’s some element of forgetting to give a fuck.
JW: Like unintentionally not giving a fuck? Where you suddenly start not giving a fuck but don’t realize it?
CF: Unintentionally not giving a fuck. Maybe you stick your tongue out when you focus. You know? Maybe there’s just some sort of weird thing you do…when you’re focused on something, and you’re in there, you don’t give a fuck about your tongue. About looking like a dumbass. I mean, I speak really because when I really concentrate on something I stick my tongue out.
JW: I cock my head I think. It’s confusing sometimes because I don’t know what to give a fuck about and what not to give a fuck about. I really give a fuck about—like, to get really heavy—I really give a fuck about art. But I don’t give a fuck about art. What am I supposed to do?
CF: Well, art has the advantage of being two things at once.
JW: What’s the two things? Market and culture?
CF: Well, it could be something you both deeply give a fuck about and also think is a silly thing to give a fuck about. I forget where I heard this, some poet or another: it’s as serious as your life. Which seems like an intense statement to make about a music or art. What level of seriousness does it really mean? Like quality or intensity? You can find the intensity that you’re looking for in certain types of art or music, or you can find the calm or whatever zone. The subjective viewpoint is always part of the viewing experience.
JW: Like you’re viewing it from the point of view of your own situation, and your history.
CF: And whether or not you care to give a fuck.
JW: Memorial Day is coming up.
CF: Yeah. I always remember it was very shocking to see my dad wearing jeans, because he just looked so weird wearing jeans to me. He always wore business attire: slacks, maybe even a suit. So when he was on vacation he would wear weird jeans—he would just look so silly in jeans.
JW: He was a salesman?
CF: Yeah, insurance salesman. His phrase, which I think is great, describing what insurance is: you’re replacing an unknown with a known monthly payment.
JW: Like, “I don’t know when I’m going to die, but I know I have a $24.99 monthly payment.”
CF: Somehow making that payment alleviates the stress of whatever it is that is unknown for your car, or your house, or against theft. You can insure against almost anything, it just has to be some unknown thing that could happen and ruin your life. But I’m not an insurance salesman. I got my license to sell life insurance in the State of Illinois, as part of just trying to figure out how to make money while making art…
JW: Did you sell anyone life insurance?
CF: Hell no. Who’s gonna go to an artist or musician to think about organizing their life and getting their shit together? They’re not going to look to me.
JW: But I feel like artists kind of have–especially now—you really have to have your shit together because you have to figure out how you’re going to structure your life so you have time to sit down and make art, or think about art for like a sustained period of time. How many days do you spend, you know, in the studio, so to speak?
CF: Well, I spent about three years. I didn’t take any jobs, I didn’t do anything, I just did art stuff. Recently.
CF: I just kind of thought like what is it that I value? What stage of my career am I in? I need to start making bigger stuff, so I had an opportunity to make some bigger stuff. And my rule for doing art stuff is, “if you want me to do art, you have to provide me the means for providing food and shelter or give me a place to sleep.” I’m not talking about making money off the stuff; I’m talking about sustainable living. I don’t like when people expect art or music to be free. I think it’s disrespectful to people who have dedicated their lives to doing something. If you’re a carpenter and you’ve been doing it for 20 years, you deserve a good rate. If you’re an artist who’s been doing it for 20 or 30 years, you deserve to get some money from your work—or some kind of value. I mean, if you look at art in terms of its monetary value, you miss its whole zone of power. Like with art, you want to make a thing or an experience that gives someone more than they expected. Something that lasts. An idea that sticks in your head, a piece of art that sticks in your head, a performance that sticks in your head. Like the first time I saw David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, when I was a young wisenheimer—I don’t know how young I was, early 20s?—it did not make sense. What does Mulholland Drive mean? I don’t know what it means, but there’s a thing that’s significant about its meaninglessness, or its dreamlike associations. That scene where there’s that opera singer that’s lip-synching her own voice—that just sticks in your head. That disembodied voice that is your own voice. But I feel like that’s a really great entry into how to see art, just get into the mindset of someone who would make such a thing—if you can. There’s these clues that lead nowhere. In a way it keeps you going to back to it because it’s never complete. Like that roller coaster at Linda Warren gallery that I built. I got tired of being in group shows so I just made a piece that wouldn’t play well with others. It just had to be on its own, as a sculpture, nothing else around it. And that was the bowling ball roller coaster. It was called The Slipping Glimpser. There was an association in the research I was doing—which is one of these art tricks, you take a document and translate it into whatever form you work on, like if you’re a theater person you’re going to take MS-DOS catalog and make a play out of it and it’s going to somehow be entertaining. You can take either a totally non-poetic tree catalogue or the biography of an abstract expressionist painter. You can take those two things and use those as your source material for the ups and downs of the rollercoaster.
JW: Like, this rollercoaster is about Mark Rothko and this rollercoaster is about MS-DOS are both equally believable at a certain point.
CF: Well, let’s face it, abstraction has its advantages. Because you can retroactively or proactively give the thing language that it will be described as, through press releases and artist statements and titles.
JW: You have an album called The Undecagon, you have a bunch of sculptures that you’ve built or are building also called Undecagon…
CF: There’s a whole category of work that’s all undecagon-shaped. The woodshed, which is that big sculpture in Ohio—fully rotational celestrial observatory and musicians’ practice space—
JW: How does it rotate? Does someone have to push it?
CF: Yeah, it’s human-powered. I want to get one of those eccentric wheel-pump type things that you’d see on a train car? Like the old pump-cars on a train? A machine like that that makes it go.
JW: That’d be nice.
CF: Yeah, pretty funny.
JW: Is it on rails?
CF: It’s got kind of like an upside-down tophat shape on the top, and then there’s lateral wheels that pinch it in, so it’s held in the middle and then it rolls along these 8×8 beams that are at the top of these 13-foot posts. So the whole structure pinches in, because the wood expands and contracts and does all this stuff, so when it does that, even if one goes way off, it’s all linked together and it pulls itself tighter. Gravity, over time, tightens everything. There’s a blind dovetail joint in the top of the post that keeps the header and the spoke joist…
JW: I feel like this is the point where carpentry is crossing over into magic for me.
CF: Sure, blind dovetail! It’s a thing you don’t know is there. Unless you really know to look. It’s a little hidden zone, a little further hidden thing in that sculpture. But there’s all kinds of other little fun stuff in there, too. One of things is that over time I’m accumulating this list of local designations for constellations.
JW: Oh really? In Ohio?
CF: Yeah, basically the rule is you have to be able to direct me from the North Star to the constellation. At some time of year. And it makes it on the wall of the upper portion of this rotating deck. So a little inlay, kind of.
JW: So is the idea that people can be practicing in it and people can be on the roof? Or are the people that are practicing intended to be the people who are in the celestial observatory?
CF: Yeah, you probably wouldn’t be practicing and on the roof at the same time, but somebody could be up top listening to you practice. Or you could be up top. When you’re up in the bowl of this thing, you’ll feel closer to the sky. It eliminates the horizon, so when you lay down you can’t see the trees. All you see is just above the wall-structure. So it’s with those kind of sightlines in mind that you just lay down in the thing and get a tour around the stars. It’s a beautiful thing. I feel so lucky to get to make the thing. I’m heading back there this summer to get the final roof on it. Working with some local craftsmen there to get it sealed up properly on the topside. And then really I’m anchored back here. I’m buckling down: I gotta just be here and get things started out here. Which is fun. Being a transplant to California, every day is a new adventure, which is kind of nice. I’m excited. I want to make earthquake powered sculpture. That’s what I want to do. I have specific ideas about how this will happen. I don’t want to say anything more about it, but there’s some urns in the fire. But if anybody has any ideas about land that this thing could happen on, or some sculpture garden or private zone. You want to do our shots of Malort?
[JW & CF down their shots of Malort]
CF: Blech. Dandelion. It makes me think of when I ate a fucking dandelion as a five-year-old on the playground.
CF: That is so disgusting. It’s amazing how disgusting it is! Ugh. Terrible.
JW: But I find it very enjoyable. It’s so bad, but it’s like a thing, there’s nothing else that’s quite like that.
CF: That’s true. It’s utterly distinct.
JW: Do you know about acoustic shit? Is the sculpture in Ohio acoustic? What’s the acoustics in that space?
CF: I would describe it more as aural architecture than acoustic architecture. So aural has a little more cultural connotations and what have you–I’m not making claims of its purity, but the worst kind of room is the one that Human Resources—the cube. Acoustically in there, the way the sound bounces, there’s one tone, there’s gonna be one thing that you hear. You don’t get the broad frequency response because of all the standing waves. Some frequencies cancel. With a structure like the one in Ohio that I’ve built, there’s no parallel surfaces, so the sound scatters…so there’s no standing waves that develop. So the frequency response is all the frequencies sound clear, as opposed to some sounding louder and some sounding softer. In theory. The room itself will have some resonant frequency, just the space of the room itself. The wood, the volume of the air in there is going to have some tone that makes it boom.
JW: Does an 11-sided object reflect sound differently than a circular space would?
CF: There’s lots of corners. As an acoustic musician or any musician setting up to try to project sound to cover up talking or a room or whatever, you have to be in a corner because you’re maximing the acoustic energy, the mphhah. You want to be in a corner if you want to give yourself more noise, or more amplitude. Or if you’re trying to tune while somebody else is playing, you get as close to the corner as possible so you can hear your instrument over the noise. It’s kind of like an acoustical mirror or something.
JW: Yeah, because it’s a reflecting point. Aurally. Is that why you’re so excited about undecagons?
CF: I like the idea of just making irregular objects that have some standard—a standard irregular object. It’s a little wrong. Maybe this thinking of not giving a fuck is also a way of saying to not desire stability. There’s a willingness to be uncomfortable.
JW: Yeah. I’m going to go for this feeling of—this thing that I thought I really cared about, let’s see what happens when I don’t care about it. That kind of thing?
CF: It could be. Yeah, you’re trying on different attitudes regarding the world. I think there’s this thing of unknowns that is important to what I mean. That you only learn from what you don’t know. So if your objective is to learn or to live a good life or something, I think in some way thinking about the good life in the sort-of philosophical way requires that you are part of the world, but also requires that you have something to say, as a friend, to another person. You have to be experienced. You have to be willing to share, and be compassionate, and empathetic, and all these sort of social-type traits. But the thing that keeps me interested, and I think scientists interested, and I think explorers, is the unknown. In a broad cultural way, art is the unknown.
JW: It’s where people go to find what they don’t know.
CF: Or yeah, what doesn’t make sense, or what doesn’t need to make sense. Although I don’t think a lot of people go to museums for that, if they’re going to museums to look at art.
JW: What are they going to museums for?
CF: To impress a date? To see a thing that they remember seeing, back when they were a kid when they smelled the museum for the first time, or they’re just going to be in a quiet place and be with some art objects. I’m thinking of the classical zones, now, the paintings and the furniture and the suits of armor and what-have-you…
JW: But about the readymade zones or the Rauschenberg zones?
CF: It’s hard to describe it. It’s an anecdotal thing. What we’re describing is some newbie to art being frustrated with an art experience that it seems like you have to have a master’s degree to understand it.
JW: But it’s weird because sometimes you do.
CF: Yeah, it turns out that we humans are sophisticated types! And especially artists are complicated people who have to cloak everything in…
JW: Do you think it’s a bad thing?
CF: I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think there’s advanced levels of thinking in any field. You can see so many dynamics through the knowledge of a thing. Expertise is really—it’s good. That’s how our medical system is set up now: there’s experts. There’s like a generalist who is a fielding agent for the experts.
JW: Your childhood doctor is not going to perform a quadruple bypass on you.
CF: No way! You’re going to want the guy who’s done it three thousand times before. Expertise is what’s gotten into this advanced zone we’re in now, in art. And there are art experts. There is such a thing as expertise. And I think one of things is there’s also a parallel or hierarchical zones, like the community art center show of the tri-county plein air painters is a different places hierarchically in teh art world than the secondary auction market of living artists. It’s an entirely different type of work, entirely different motives behind it, different values ascribed to it, but talking with plein air painters is kind of fun sometimes. You talk about color, you talk—this one woman at a conference I spoke with, she described it so beautifully. She was like I can’t believe I didn’t do this sooner in m life. I see things differently after painting. After looking, and trying to mimic the thing you see with goop. She said, I see things differently. And I was like, that is exactly what art is. On its base level. To see things differently you have to first know that there’s another way of seeing. How do you know?
JW: You have to first know that you see things in the certain way that you see them and not everyone sees them in the exact same way. Which seems pretty basic, but it’s not at all. Separate the world from the earth.
CF: The world from the earth? So the world is cultural, and the earth is material?
JW: I think so. If you ever read The Origin of the Work of Art, by Heidegger—it’s a lecture that he gave, which is really insane because it must have taken an hour and a half and it’s super dense and I can just imagine thirty students in 1934 Germany in a cold room listening to this maniac talk for an hour and a half straight—I feel like that’s a viewpoint from which to approach shit like this—but anyway he’s trying to differentiate like, here’s a lamp and here’s a pen and here’s a painting, and why is the painting art and not the lamp or the pen? So he goes through the lampness of the lamp and what makes the lamp a lamp—like it has this thing that turns it on and off and it has this lightbulb in it and it has a circuit and a function—and the penness of the pen, and then he goes into the art and his conclusion is that what makes a work of art is that it contains within it the potential to make the viewer aware of the differentiation between the world, which is the world as perceived by the viewer, and the earth, which is this deeper zone that the self-perception of the world has come out of.
CF: So there’s like the archetypal things that we share bubbles up in these standard pictures we have. Like the house-image, the tree, the lamp, the pen, the work of art. But this is the thing that I think is important to express to people who feel like they don’t appreciate art, that art is how we know ourselves. That’s what archeologists study. They study paintings on the wall, they study clay pots, they study things that humans made, you know? We look back into paintings and temples and all of these things that teach us about who we are as humans, culturally. If you don’t look at art or understand art you’re not human in some way, you have no access to this part of our existence that defines us.
JW: You define yourself in relief—you become aware that there is an entirely other way that you could be existing in the world. Which is what’s nice about art, what art does.
CF: Yeah, I think so. That’s where the joy of it comes. Instead of thinking about walking, thinking about how you’re really just falling in a controlled way. It’s a mind spot.
Conrad Freiburg is an American artist from the midwestern United States. Starting in the late 90s, his multi-disciplinary projects have engaged audiences with momentary danger, beauty, and lyricism. His work has been reviewed in magazines such as Art Forum, Art Ltd, Art in America, and he was once honored as Chicagoan of the Year by the Chicago Tribune. His work is in many prominent private collections including the MCA in Chicago. Recently, Conrad has completed an eleven-sided fully rotational celestial observatory and musician’s practice space in rural Ohio and continues to tour as a musician offering an improvised approach to composition and song. He lives and works in Los Angeles, California.
Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles. In 2013, he coordinated Germantown City Hall, an installation of civic space in a disused structure in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Germantown City Hall was a collaboration with Information Department and the Think Tank that has yet to be named…, and was commissioned by the 2013 Hidden City Festival with generous support from the Andy Warhol Foundation. What We Want is Free: Critical Exchange in Recent Art (2014), for which he was an associate editor, is published by SUNY Press.
Guest Post by Jessica Cochran
This year’s Whitney Biennial curators Michelle Grabner, Anthony Elms and Stuart Comer cast the net so far beyond Chelsea that New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz lamented “curators are so determined to stay pure, to avoid acknowledging the machinations of commerce, that the show is completely disconnected from the entire world.” Elsewhere, however, in the pages of the more academically inclined Artforum, Emily Apter took the biennial’s discursive turn away from New York centric art objects as an opportunity to consider the “liminal space” of a museum biennial “replete with printed matter, writing, texts of all sorts—in short, with words.” “The textual object,” she writes, “demands to be seen as a live, or “living,” work, an interface of bio and res.”
Its true, the archival impulse is what set the tone and struck a chord this year, particularly in the work of Chicago-based Joseph Grigely and Public Collectors (founded in 2007 by Marc Fischer), both curated into the biennial by Anthony Elms. Each taking as their subjects the lives of a deceased creative individual and his personal belongings, their projects build meaningfully on the Whitney Biennial’s recent history of both deceased artists and artist-curated “sub exhibitions,” notably from the 2012 edition the inclusion of George Kuchar (died, 2011); Robert Gober’s presentation of work by Forrest Bess; Nick Mauss’ curation of queer-oriented work culled from the museum collection; and also discursive contributions, such as Andrea Fraser’s essay No Place Like Home.
Joseph Grigely’s project The Gregory Battcock Archive, 2009-2014 is a mini exhibition of ephemera culled from the archives Gregory Battcock that Grigely recovered himself in the storage area of an artist studio building. Battcock was an intrepid New York critic (something of a reformed artist) who was mysteriously murdered in Puerto Rico in 1980 and known for his writing on minimalism and other emerging genres of conceptual art. The Whitney display, with postcards, photographs, manuscripts and scribbled notes organized into vitrines, is an extension of Grigely’s own text driven practice, specifically the project Conversations with the Hearing. For the art workers among us, this glimpse into the world of a dynamic talent and fastidious thinker gives pause for reflection: how will my activities live on after I am gone, and who is going to care?
In scholarship on artist’s books, much has been written about the concept of paratext as it impacts a book’s concept and meaning. An artist’s reflexive manipulation of the book’s gutters, typography, headers and index, for example, impact the text’s meaning as it is delivered to the reader. So too in Grigely’s presentation of the Battcock images and texts in the real dimensional space of the gallery, a different kind of paratext becomes important: the vitrines as support structures and the aesthetic arrangement of the material. The vitrines, “each made of a different hard wood, a different shape and height” and “composed as an irregular modular sculpture,” inform the way we maneuver through and consume the text. Because, as Grigely told me, “no archive is disinterested” and in an extension of Joseph Albers’ articulations of color theory, “you can’t put one document beside another without changing both.”
Public Collector’s biennial contribution was dedicated to a different kind of archive—the recordings, ephemera and images of Malachi Ritscher, who, Fischer wrote in a publication for the project, was a “Chicago-based documentarian, activist, artist, musician, photographer, hot pepper sauce maker, and supporter of experimental and improvised music.” Deeply respected and liked throughout the Chicago music community, Ritscher spent years independently recording thousands of live free jazz, experimental and underground improvised live shows at venues throughout Chicago, in addition to his day job as a union engineer and anti-war activist. On November 3, 2006, he self immolated in front of the Flame of the Millennium sculpture by Leonardo Nierman in full view of the Kennedy Expressway just north of Chicago’s busy loop interchange. As he wrote in texts found posthumously and displayed on a poster in the exhibition, “If I am required to pay for your barbaric war, I choose not to live in your world.”
Unlike Grigely, for Public Collectors, “directing attention to and caring for the creative work of under-recognized people like Ritscher” is at the core of each project they mount. Amidst the presentation of recordings and ephemera, a recorder and a small paper sign, which Ritscher used to record and temper dialogue around him in the clubs, hangs above a series of brown suitcases: “Your cooperation (i.e. restraint) is appreciated.” This statement drips with melancholy. Because while his protest suicide was carefully recorded and it was his hope that it would circulate widely, the video of his death was entirely suppressed; and the reporting of his death, much less any discourse generated, was subdued and grass roots, covered minimally by local and national papers.
“In this space of affection, navigate the inappropriately cared for and the tossed aside particulars.”[i] In his catalog essay, Elms argues for Deleuze and Guattari’s “close vision”—or a notion of curator as custodian of a culture that is micro, idiosyncratic, ineffable, and eminently forgettable. Though a growing trend in curatorial practice, this decidedly counters the “bigger is better” ethos of the contemporary biennial as a perfectly and purposefully in-graspable thing. It also departs from the biennial’s value system as rooted in the empire building world’s fairs of the 19th and 20th centuries—many call London’s Great Exhibition of 1951 held in a dramatic crystal palace the “first” biennial—designed to give viewers a deeply overwhelming “great mass and jumble of things” (commodities, mostly) as “a challenge to make sense of … unimaginable diversity; to find or invert a “perspective” on the whole so that objects could be made to “stay and lie orderly.”[ii] Anything but orderly and still, Grigely and Public Collectors’ presentations animate the individual, allowing visitors to, in Grigely’s words, “draw and draw out”[iii] the subject because, as Elms points out in his essay, “hearing is not the same as listening.”
Most biennials are to some extent about nation building and nation branding—Prospect in New Orleans as a response to Hurricane Katrina is an American example—and in doing so the confrontation or processing of deeply entrenched national trauma. In the Whitney Biennial, however, the work of Grigely and Public Collectors amplifies a particularly American trauma of the self actualized yet alienated creative individual who is ultimately alone, forgotten, desperate or dislocated. Instead of healers, however, we might call them thieves. In his essay “The Curious Case of Biennial Art” Jan Verwoert asserts that one paradigmatic biennial artist is a “thief” who (as opposed to the fairly straightforward “jokers” and “scouts”) uses their understanding of the economy of desire to deal in the secrets of a mirage of cultural identity centered around an undecipherable trauma that glints like a ruby in the dust when one tentatively points a spotlight in its direction.”[iv] Battcock and Ritscher may be dead and gone, but their ideas are alive thanks to the illuminating work of Joseph Grigely and Public Collectors. And as the art world grows ever bigger in size and speed, one can only hope that the Whitney Biennial continues to make room for the discursive, textual and “tossed aside particulars.”
Jessica Cochran is a curator living and working in Chicago
[i] Anthony Elms, “Sentences sometimes are impediments,” in The Whitney Biennial 2014 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2014), 155
[ii] Donald Preziozi, “The Crystalline Veil and the Phallomorphic Imaginary,” in The Biennial Reader, ed. Elena Filipovic, Marieke Van Hal, Solveig Ovstebo (Bergen: Bergen Kunsthall, 2010), 45
[iii] Joseph Grigely, “The Gregory Battcock Archive 2009-2014,” in The Whitney Biennial 2014 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2014), 185.
[iv] Jan Van Verwoert, “The Curious Case of Biennial Art,” in The Biennial Reader, ed. Elena Filipovic, Marieke Van Hal, Solveig Ovstebo (Bergen: Bergen Kunsthall, 2010), 190
Guest post by A.Martinez
Kate Ruggeri is a Chicago-based artist, DJ, and curator who has shown at Roots & Culture (Chicago), Green Gallery East (Milwaukee), Western Exhibitions (Chicago), and Important Projects (Oakland). She is one of those people who exudes a humble cool, yet is enthusiastic about all she’s committed to, and excited about life and the people and things in it. After a handful of years of staying in touch from afar, I wanted to connect more closely to ask Kate some questions about her life and her work before she moves to New Haven in July to pursue her MFA at Yale.
A.Martinez: Were art and making art important to you from a young age?
Kate Ruggeri: Oh, yeah. Totally. My parents were always really encouraging. In elementary school I started taking drawing classes outside of school. I won a few poster contests. I used to do this thing every year called The Olympics of The Visual Arts, which is a New York State program. Pretty much you assemble a team, work on a year long project, and then compete against other teams. When I got a little older I got really into dark room photography. You know, carrying a camera around all the time and developing film in your bathroom. My mom and I took figure drawing classes together. A lot of colleges have art classes for kids during the summer, so I was always doing that too.
Martinez: How long have you kept a journal? And what does this practice of journaling do for you and your art practice?
Ruggeri: Since elementary school. I think my first one has a little lock on it. I never really stopped. It’s actually super important, to clear your head, to drain it. I try to write every day. I feel very scattered if I don’t. For art making, it’s good for me to work through ideas and to understand impulses I have. Often I make something and I’m not sure why I made that decision or was drawn to that form. Writing brings everything to the surface. It brings clarity. Studio work is one way of thinking and writing is how I detangle everything. Not just artwise, but life wise. It’s all the same, of course.
Martinez: How long have you had your own studio space? What does it look like?
Ruggeri: After school I had a tiny studio in a building across from Moonshine on Division. It’s been torn down since. I’ve been in the spot I’m at now for a little over a year. It’s a co-op at Damen and Fulton. I moved in there after my old spot on Elston burned down. We have an entire floor that is divided amongst us. My studio’s a mess. I see other people’s studios sometimes, and they have a turntable and little plants and it’s very cozy. My place is like a construction zone. I like that better. It lets me focus on the work.
Martinez: What is a typical day in the studio like for you?
Ruggeri: Nights are better. I like working when no one is around. You can play music loud. I believe in a witching hour. It really depends, though. I usually am working on one sculpture and 4-5 paintings at the same time. If I just finished something big or just installed a show, I draw and watch movies at home. I don’t really have a routine. Ben Medansky once described his ceramic studio as being around a million crying babies. That’s how I feel in there. I work a lot in series, so I just treat 6 pieces at the same time, and then have some experiments going. Right now I have some exercise balls I’ve been sort of doodling on. Then I’ll carve on these wood paintings until my hand hurts. Then I’ll cut some wood shapes out to paint. Or dump plaster on something. It’s a mix of working on very planned pieces and experiments. Everything always changes though.
Martinez: How do you begin a painting?
Ruggeri: Putting something down, anything! I break it in. I try not to think about it too much and just get the ball rolling. Usually it’s a good color.
Martinez: You work in both 2D and 3D- how does a piece become one or the other?
Ruggeri: When I was in school I used to trip myself up with that question. I can say now that they’re all paintings. I’m a painter that has sculptural impulses. I try to feed both ways of making. I try to be democratic about it. The larger sculptures can be exhausting to make, so there is often a down period of just painting and drawing before starting one again. Material, color, and mark making can drive a piece to be 3D or 2D. Finding a good object. Seeing a particularly inspiring show of painting or sculpture.
Martinez: What artists inspire you?
Ruggeri: Philip Guston, Mike Kelley, Matisse, Picasso, Claes Oldenberg, Cy Twombly, Franz West, Rauschenberg, Joan Miro, Giacometti, Sterling Ruby, William J. O’Brien, Jonathan Meese, Mary Heilmann, Huma Bhabha, Gerhard Richter, Howard Fonda
Martinez: You have a pretty extensive record collection and DJ monthly at Danny’s. Do you feel there’s a connection between your music endeavors and your art-making?
Ruggeri: Yes. It feels very connected.
Martinez: What musicians inspire you?
Ruggeri: Parliament/Funkadelic, Dead Moon, Congos, Minutemen, Bad Brains, Robert Wyatt, Brian Eno, Miles Davis, Captain Beefheart, Sparks, Beach Boys, Lee Scratch Perry, Roxy Music, De La Soul, Neil Young, Patrick Cowley, Big Star
Martinez: What do you typically listen to while in the studio working?
Ruggeri: It’s different every time, chosen for the day and mood. But Nas “Illmatic” gets played a lot. J.Dilla, Shuggie Otis, Pastor T.L. Barrett, Skip Spence, Velvet Underground. Mixes from friends. Jorge Ben, Milton Nascimento, Witch, Amanaz are all good…
Martinez: Do you do collaborations with other artists?
Ruggeri: Sure, I’ve done it a few times. Right now I’m working on a collaboration with Alex Valentine. He gave me these plates to draw on, and then we’ll print them together on newsprint, and then use them to paper mache a sculpture. It’s great because Alex is primarily a printmaker and I know barely anything about the process. I love the idea of making a sculpture made out of drawing. A perfect hybrid.
Martinez: In 2012, you co-curated a show, “Quarterly Site 11: Line-of-Site“, at Western Exhibitions. How did you land this opportunity? What was the experience like for you? And do you think you’ll curate more shows in the future?
Ruggeri: Jamilee Polson Lacy asked me to do it. She’s been doing these curatorial series for a while now, asking artists to curate a show at a different gallery. It was great. I got to work with Alicia Chester and Karolina Gnatowski. It’s fun to be on the other side of things, and it gave me an opportunity to create a show entirely different from my practice. I really wanted to see a show of top notch performance work. Curating is a lot of work, but I would love to do it again. I think the trick is when you start to think, “Why isn’t ___ kind of work being shown? Why hasn’t someone curated a show about ____?” is when you should get on curating a show. I’m starting to feel that, but I would need the right time and space.
Martinez: You and I actually met while undergrads at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. What is something that has stuck with you from your education and experience there about being a painter, artist, or person?
Ruggeri: Something that always stuck with me is remembering how I felt there: supported, invigorated, and that changing the world was definitely possible. It’s good to protect that enthusiasm, even when you’re working 9 to 5 and feel too tired to go to the studio.
Martinez: How has your experience at Ox-Bow School of Art as student and then again as a fellow affect your art? How long were you there total?
Ruggeri: Ox-Bow. Oh, man. I first went in 2007 as a student, and pretty much tried to take as many classes there as I could. If you got work study, you just had to pay for the credits, which I needed anyway. I went three consecutive Summers and one Winter. The Summer of 2010 was great, I took a class with Jose Lerma called “Expanded Painting, Expanded Sculpture.” Not hard to see it was a big influence on me. I was really lucky to receive a Joan Mitchell Fellowship this past Fall and I was an artist-in-residence for 5 weeks. As a student, classes meet everyday. I also had to wake up every morning to clean toilets for work study. This time, as a resident, it was like being at a beautiful retreat. There were only other residents, I had my own studio, and I got to structure my own day. It was incredible.
Martinez: Congratulations on your acceptance to the MFA Painting program at Yale! What are you most excited about in starting this program in the fall?
Ruggeri: Thanks! I’m most excited about a fresh start. And making better art.
Martinez: What do you think are some interesting things happening around the city of Chicago art-wise?
Ruggeri: Ryan Travis Christian has a show up at Western Exhibitions that I need to get over to. William J. O’Brien at the MCA. Isa Genzken at the MCA. Alexander Valentine has a show at 3433 coming up.
Martinez: What are you currently working on?
Ruggeri: I’m finishing up a re-make of a sculpture I lost in the fire. It’s a harp. I just wrapped up these brooches I made for the Three Walls Gala coming up in June. Starting some new paintings. I keep thinking I need to stop because I’m moving, but I have some projects I want to do before I leave. I have an ongoing series of fake album covers, and I have a photo shoot coming up for the next installment.
Martinez: Your recent show, “Tropical Depression” at LVL3 just closed May 4th. Do you have any other openings coming up?
Ruggeri: No, thankfully! I’m moving to New Haven end of July. I’m trying to tie up loose ends.
Martinez: Is there a piece of advice, art related or not that you think of often?
Ruggeri: Say yes to all opportunities offered to you. Avoid excessive thinking about the past and future.
To find out more about Kate, her artwork and her upcoming shows go to http://kate-ruggeri.com/
All photos courtesy of the artist.
A.Martinez is a freelance art and music organizer living in Chicago, IL. She is currently working on a performing arts summer festival called The Living Loop, and will release her first book of poetry this summer.
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Keith Mayerson is a painter, born in 1966 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Stuart Comer curated Keith into the 2014 Whitney Biennial, where we stood in his third floor hanging of My American Dream for this interview on May 4th. The night before our interview, I dreamt of musical interludes throughout the conversation, and in real life there were musical interludes – broad, brass instrumental sounds from the installation next door and distant vocalizations from the museum stairwell.
Leland: How many years ago did you come to New York?
Mayerson: Not to age myself and make my hair fall out but ‘88.5 is when I graduated from Brown and traveled around and I got here in the Fall of ’89 and I was submitting ten cartoons a week to the New Yorker. My second job was at Robert Miller Gallery when they were in the Fuller building on 57th Street and Cheim and Read were the directors. Getting to talk to Alex Katz and stepping over Basquiats and Alice Neels in the back, I realized that fine art was about bringing up ideas aesthetically just like cartoons were.
With a comic, I think about a single image that’s distilled and repeated and refined over three to four frames, or maybe thirty frames. Is there a repeated image in that sense that you work with? Or a painting that you’ve made maybe five times in slightly different ways?
When you have one panel next to another panel, and your mind creates the ultimate content between those two panels – your mind becomes an accomplice. I do have repeated motifs – I painted James Dean a whole bunch of times –
But he appears one time here.
No, three! This is the James Dean crash site here. He died when he was 24 after making only three films. As a method actor what’s really important for me about him is that he would really be able to cathect his own life into his role. I also always loved the Beatles, always feel that they were sort of the first post-modern band because they always spoke through avatars – they weren’t The Beatles, they were Sgt. Pepper, they weren’t depressed, it was Eleanor Rigby.
So like a method actor, is this new for you to base your work on your own life, in the last few years?
I realized there was one moment I looked around my studio and thought “You know the source images for all of these came from somewhere else. Hopefully, I’m putting my own spin on them.” Ingrid Sischy at Interview hired me to cover the haute couture shows in Paris, and they move so fast, I couldn’t be merely a sketch artist, I had to take a lot of photos. And so from those photos I ended up doing paintings that ended up in her last issue. I realized that having that connection with the images that I took was really amazing and having the autonomy of authorship, of being able to create that image, and directly work from the image that I made gave me a great feeling.
The first time I came into this room was also the first time I saw your work, and my first thought was “Oh, several people painted these paintings.”
They’re mostly from the last ten years, but a few earlier works – this police painting. This Jesus Christ Superstar. This circle painting. And this Ty Cash painting in the corner were from my first ten years. I’ve been exhibiting about twenty years, but you know Picasso said if you draw a circle without the aid of a compass, it’s imperfection is your style, or if you copy old masters, how it’s not like the old masters is your style.
That’s what I noticed looking at them longer – a worked-over, back and forth painted mark, and I wondered, is that your primary language? Is that the way that you’ve made marks since you’ve started painting?
When I broke out in the early nineties, I was appropriating different styles, via different eras. An epiphany really for me was seeing the Rembrandt Caravaggio show at the Van Gogh Museum and realizing the old masters were able to micromanage a lot and then in little pockets have their subconscious spill out. I think style to me is about painting something, or rendering something, however you render something, the best way that you can, and it comes out looking like that.
It comes out like what you imagine.
Yeah, and that’s your style – I published this graphic novel in the early 90s with Dennis Cooper called Horror Hospital Unplugged and it was really neat to get the graphic novel out and, you know back at that day, it was very queer and so on and then I was googling myself one late night of insomnia and found out some people in the Netherlands had made a movie of it, and I was like oh my gosh, you know, I could use a film still –
This film still was a recreation of your graphic image?
Mm hm. It’s at the end where Trevor the Machine kind of falls, he collapses on the stage, at the end of their version of the book. It was a fold-over book, so on the right hand side it would just say “Some Else” and maybe just look like a kid collapsed on the stage but then if you unfold it, it becomes sort of an angel, and you see – if you just read the back it says “I Is One” but as an angel it says “I Is Some One Else” and it actually emulates an angel if you wave it back and forth, but I love that quote, because Rimbaud is saying “Woe to the piece of wood that finds itself a violin, or woe to the piece of metal that finds itself a trumpet.”
It’s a disregard of language, or detachment from language.
Right, and of course, speaking through avatars all the time, in my own work and especially in this installation, I felt that would be a great way to begin it. If My American Dream is somewhat autobiographical, which of course in the micro-managed narrative it is, “I Is Some One Else” begins it.
Had you always intended to hang this many paintings in the Biennial?
Stuart Comer had known my salons in the past. It’s posing as a salon, but it really is like a giant comic on the wall.
That’s a painting of Louis Bourgeoise, right?
Did you go to her salon?
Yes, I did. A bunch of times. When I was teaching at NYU, I felt like, you know, if we were alive in the 50s in Paris, we would visit Giacometti with plaster in his hair. And they were exquisitely boring kind of long days that would start at three and they would kick everybody out at seven, and they’d always be a little over warm with over warm liqueur being passed around and chocolate that she liked, but you would come up and present to her, and if she liked it, she would say “Very good,” and would send you to the moon for weeks, you know, and I would go there on my own for gratification. I asked her if I could take her photo to make a painting and luckily she acquiesced and I got to do that while she was still alive. You know, in the background is her whole cosmology.
When I first asked you for the interview, I mentioned that I was also really interested in the David Foster Wallace interview written for tennis player, Roger Federer, on the fourth floor, about Federer’s physical tactics in tennis, and I have one favorite question that he asked: “There is a thing you do at the start of service motion – you place the ball only for a split second in the fork of your racket’s throat. Are you aware of this? Do you know when you started doing it?” Is there a comparable action, a physical or personal tick, that you’ve become aware of through painting?
Sure. I lay out my pallet, you know I use CMYK colors, only primaries, but a whole bunch of the primaries, light yellows and dark yellows, reds and dark reds and so on and the violets, and I want to set up a scenario where I’m looking at my photo and letting my hand go where it wants. And so, I hold my photo in such a manner that it’s almost like a music stand, where it’s right in front of me, and I find, that a lot of times my brush is almost like a brush behind the photo. I don’t perceive my hand. There’s a sense of remove. And I find that my hand is just moving, and it’s working, and it’s doing its thing, and kind of like a state of dreaming, I find myself watching myself paint.
Based in New York, Erin Leland is an artist using photography, writing and video. She has recently exhibited in the group exhibition, White Petals Surround Your Yellow Heart at the ICA in Philadelphia and in her solo exhibition, Everything is Everything at Michael Strogoff Gallery in Marfa, Texas. Upcoming, a new series of photographs will be included in the group show, Psychic Panic, in Pittsburgh, opening May 16.
Guest Post by Lise McKean
Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams
Art Institute of Chicago (Modern Wing, Galleries 182-184)
Until May 18, 2014
In Nilima Sheikh’s exhibition, Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams, 10 scroll paintings hang throughout the galleries from ceiling to inches off the floor (10 x 6 feet). The scrolls (casein tempera on canvas) are painted and stenciled with figurative, decorative, and verbal evocations of Kashmir past and present, of daily life during times of violence and peace. They fill the galleries with color, form, and movement, with sorrow and delight.
Over decades of artistic practice Sheikh’s initial modernist orientation accrued layers of contemporary and art historical references. Engagement with South Asian regional painting practices as well as with artistic production including textiles, stencils, and calligraphy further enriches her visual and technical repertoire. From the start Sheikh’s work beat with pulse of its times and environs. For example, the murder of a girl she knew gave rise to When Champa Grew Up (1984). This series of 12 works brought image together with Gujarati poetry, making visible—and felt—in a new way the realities of child marriage, extortionate dowry demands, and the burning to death of brides by husbands and in-laws.
Sheikh’s work in her 2003 exhibition at Gallery Chemould in Mumbai, The Country without a Post Office: Reading Agha Shahid Ali, was inspired by Ali’s poetry. That is, readings of Ali fostered her development of a visual language for Kashmir. For example, her use of the bhand, a narrator-like figure of satire and buffoonery in Kashmiri folk theatre. The title of the Art Institute’s exhibition, Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams, is drawn from a line in Ali’s poem, “I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight.” Eight of the show’s scrolls were created between 2003 and their 2010 exhibition at Gallery Chemould. Sheikh created an additional two, We Must Bear and Hunarmand (one with a talent or gift) for this 2014 exhibition.
When talking with me about her work, Sheikh said she prefers “sizes and scales that have potential for extension and openness.” She added that this potential is not linked to size alone, and noted that miniature painting has structures within it that allow for adding on, extending, and moving from one pictorial space to another. In her view, the scrolls’ life-size scale allows the space to be traversed as in mural painting and set design.
About her methods, Sheikh said that sometimes she made preparatory sketches and studies for the scrolls, but that the process of painting them was improvisational, adding, “I make changes as I go along.” Collaboration is vital to Sheikh’s approach. She has longstanding artistic partnerships with sign painters and stencil makers, particularly sahji stencil makers Sanjoy Soni and the family of Vishnu Prasad of Mathura. She also spoke about the “workshop” character of her studio, in which current and former students provide “people power” for the labor intensive work of preparing, stenciling, and lettering the large scrolls.
Valley is the first painting the visitor sees when entering the gallery and was Sheikh’s first work in this series. Valley is a lyric portrait of Kashmir, gorgeous and green with meandering rivers, lapis blue lakes, evergreens flanking a tall plane tree, and hills rising to distant mountain peaks. Ornamental geometric and floral stenciling whispers its presence like the rustle of silk.
Contrasting with Valley’s visual harmony, the narrative and pictorial structure and use of color in the scroll, Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams, brings to mind the syncopated rhythms and fragments of dreams. Here, rectangles and squares frame figures—the bhand, two musicians beneath a golden tree, an elongated woman looking over her shoulder—slices of landscape, and textile-like stenciling. A vertical swathe of midnight blue encompasses a domed building with darkened doors, an abode of sleep, dreams, and cauchemar.
Hanging from the ceiling rather than up against the wall, Sheikh’s two-sided scrolls descend into the galleries. The viewer can circumambulate each one, moving from its image-filled front to textual materials on the back drawn from poetry, myth, legend, and historical archives. The text on each scroll introduces viewers to diverse undercurrents in Sheikh’s historical imagination—ideas, experiences, and memories that animate and flow through the work. Yet textual reference is not a formal basis for her image-making. She develops her own vocabulary of image, material, and technique in response to specific visual and aesthetic concerns.
Sheikh’s scrolls pose complex questions about present and past, about what is lived, dreamt, suppressed and forgotten, and about what needs to be seen, remembered, and felt. She is as leery of historical interpretations that invoke Eurocentric views of progress as she is of those invoking timeless tradition and undying enmity. When speaking of the ideas and concerns underlying the series Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams, Sheikh told me, “The work has been a learning process to make visible various worlds.”
The scenes on some of the scrolls evoke the violence assailing Kashmir in recent decades and centuries past. She shows violence stalking daily life and prowling in myth and legend. Weapons abound—demonic claws, daggers, ax, mace, sword, and guns. A goddess hurls a mountain to destroy the demon menacing Kashmir. Nearby a lion’s claws tear into the underbelly of a bull. Elsewhere a demon dangles a sword over a picnicking family. Pearl-like tears stream down delicate faces of cloud goddesses as they mourn Kashmir’s lost paradise. A kneeling woman weeps red tears in a corpse-strewn field.
A few days before writing this, I made a refresher visit to the exhibition. A South Asian family was sitting on bench outside the gallery—a man and woman with their two-month-old daughter sleeping in her carriage and the man’s grey-haired parents. When I asked if they had seen the Sheikh exhibition, the son took charge and answered yes. He had heard about it and since they were coming downtown for an immigration appointment, they came together to see it. He told me they’re from Pakistan and he has Kashmiri friends at home. For him Sheikh’s exhibition shows how Kashmiris in India are suffering. After a moment he added that the dispute over Kashmir hurts everyone in both countries because they’re neighbors and it keeps them from being at peace.
Indeed, Sheikh doesn’t avert her gaze or ours from Kashmir’s plague of violence, loss, and sorrow. Yet she refuses to reduce Kashmir’s present to violence or its history to battles and brigands. Her scrolls also make visible other histories of Kashmir—times when antagonism between Hindu and Muslim, India and Pakistan, did not afflict Kashmir. Imagining other possible presents and futures for Kashmir, Sheikh alludes to Kashmiriyat, a centuries-old belief in the possibility of peaceful coexistence among the region’s ethnic and religious groups. Construction Site, with its scenes of making and building presided over by the towering bhand, extols another vision of Kashmir. Anonymous laborers build cities and terrace hillsides using their intelligence, energy, skill, and tools. Here, constructive collaboration has the upper hand over violent conflict and destruction.
The reverse side of Hunarmand is visible outside of the gallery, and its size and curious detail might beckon visitors into the exhibition. This work also is closest to the exit, and thus positioned as the exhibition’s final scroll. This scroll echoes Sheikh’s Rozgar series (2011), which draws on a nineteenth century manuscript illustrating Kashmir’s professions. Hunarmand celebrates the many ways that Kashmiris manifest their talent and skill: as ironsmiths, farmers, weavers, embroiderers, papier mâché makers and painters, carpenters, dancers, musicians, boatmen—and even a scribe. Unlike the other scrolls, the relaxed grid structuring the space on Hunarmand’s front side includes large chunks of text alongside its images.
The reverse side of Hunarmand is a painting inspired by legendary Kashmiri works of art commissioned by the king to be bestowed as royal gifts. Teams of artists took years to create incomparably beautiful shawls embroidered with a map of the Vale of Kashmir. History tells us these precious gifts brought prestige to their recipients and acclaim to the king and gifted artists of Kashmir.
Sheikh’s scrolls and their details photograph beautifully. However, the vitality and complexity—and yes, aura—of these works of contemporary art exceed digital or verbal capture. Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams generously rewards face-to-face viewers, and especially those who slow down and look closely. When talking about the aesthetic sensibility that infuses her work, Sheikh commented, “Beauty isn’t an end in itself. Within every language, a work comes together to make beauty possible. Created by a hunarmand whose talents are at full strength, Sheikh’s scrolls make visible nuanced and moving worlds while giving rise to others in the imagination. In response to my question about the conjunction of beauty and violence in the scrolls, she replied, “You don’t have to use violent forms for violent things. You can talk about pain tenderly.”
Lise McKean is a social anthropologist and writer based in Chicago. In 2013 she curated StreamLines, an exhibition of contemporary art in Vaishali, India.