When Seattle-based designer Michael Cepress and I first met in February, he was on the verge of closing in on a successful Kickstarter campaign to help launch his first complete line of ready-to-wear garments and accessories for men and women. “It’s nice to know that I have a community of support,” he said with heartfelt sincerity followed by a long exhale of relief. Nice, indeed. In three weeks time, Cepress raised 52K through the online campaign, enough to hire a small cohort of seamsters and craftspeople, invest in materials, and begin to produce the suite of designs that will eventually culminate in a formal runway show and distribution through selected retailers this fall.
While his Kickstarter coups speaks to Cepress’ creative vision, highly skilled craft, and entrepreneurial ambition; more than anything, I feel that this public investment signifies a larger cultural shift. Fashion design—from haute couture to countercultural handcraft—has seen a recent resurgence in museums, MFA programs, and artisanal incarnations. Skirting that line between fine art, craft, and design, fashion appeals to our aesthetic and tactile sensibilities. Clothing is the stuff of everyday life, serving the vital purpose of keeping us alive while facilitating the social relationships that allow society to thrive. Much in the way that architecture orients us in space and tableware delineates dining, clothing enables movement, defines identity, and, ideally, is interwoven with personal significance that can transform an everyday object into ancestral treasure.
Unfortunately, the field of fashion continues to be mired by the industry—the pop culture branding, inflated consumption, and dirty labor practices from which, somehow, Art is able to maintain its critical distance. It is no wonder that Cepress spends much of his time playing educator, articulating and re-articulating much of the process behind garment production, and advocating for slow fashion much in the way the culinary industry has promoted slow food.
Visiting Cepress in his studio, I was thrilled to get a glimpse of the hodgepodge of sartorial splendor that is helping to shape his new collections. It too came as little surprise that among the tribal costumes and arts and crafts era motifs, the counterculture featured prominently here, from the glitter of the Cockettes to the patchwork of the Drop City communes. Today, the counterculture movement speaks to a celebration of collaborative living and political action, much of which was crafted using one’s own two hands. It is precisely this intersection of world-making and hand-making that resonates, made tangible in every aspect of Cepress’ designs, from his unique selection of textiles to his unraveling of gender conventions. Not to say there is revolution at work here. For the time being, Cepress seems intent on expressing himself and his wearer in a way that brings a bit of humanity back to fashion, one hand-stitch at a time.
SMP: How did you come to fashion? By way of fine arts?
MC: I have two art degrees in textiles and fibers, [BA, University of Wisconsin; MFA, University of Washington,] so I’ve absolutely a visual art kid. I’ve never taken a formal fashion design class, never taken a sewing class, and never been taught patterning or drafting or any of that stuff. I’m more or less self-taught in that regard, which was a grueling and kind of awful way to do it. There have been so many moments when I’ve thought: damn it, I wish I had a pattern-making class! But, at the same time, when I talk to people who have been trained in the traditional fashion design route, they don’t have that artist half of the deal.
SMP: Coming at a field untrained must open up a lot of potential in your way of working.
MC: I don’t know the rules and, as an artist, I was trained to not care about the rules in the first place. And it’s in my nature to think: that’s the way I’m supposed to do it, but I don’t want to do it that way and I don’t have to. When I was in art school, someone printed up these tee shirts reading: “I’m an art student, I can do whatever I want. Fuck art, let’s make a profit.” This was definitely not something I wrote, but I loved that idea of art giving license to do whatever we wanted. It’s a bit snotty on a tee shirt, but that’s the artist’s biggest strength: having this opportunity to really do anything.
SMP: I’ve seen some of your student work, which seemed to tend towards wearable sculpture. At what point did you begin to pull away from fine arts towards design?
MC: My entire first year of graduate school—eight years ago—I was doing photo shoots, drawings, installations, and sculptural pieces all about men’s fashion. Essentially, I was always making art about fashion but never getting into the stuff itself. By way of some good mentorship and conversations in school, I realized that I was consistently keeping myself one step away from what actually excited me, and if I wanted to make clothes, I should just go ahead and make them! So I did. I began by making the wearable art pieces that you’ve seen on my website, and by the time I graduated, my thesis was a complete collection of clothes that were presented and then put up for sale—70 pieces total. It was insane.
SMP: I’m wondering about the transition from more or less one-off pieces, whether artwork or commissioned garments, to creating a garment line for men and women with a more broad strokes appeal. Is there a body, or an audience, that you have in mind when you design?
MC: Maybe I’m a little naive in that I can still see anyone wearing my clothes, but that’s also because I feel that anyone should feel the freedom to wear anything. Clients come to me with sets of rules about what the will and won’t wear, and I usually come to them with absolutely no rules whatsoever; I like to go ahead and see what’s possible. These new collections are becoming an exercise in understanding the market and thinking about the market in a way that I haven’t had to before. When I make something, I’m not only considering its drape and aesthetic, I’m thinking of who would wear it, the price-point it should fall within, what material and production costs are, how many sizes it’s graded to, what boutiques would be interested in it and what sizes will they want to order.
SMP: Tell me a bit about your studio wall… I love the breadth of material from the Cockettes to William Morris!
MC: Yeah, it’s kind of all over the place… This wall is the inspiration for the new collections. The question I’m constantly asking is: where do the relationships exist? What do the Cockettes have to do with Native American tribal culture? How does this kind of 1970s patchwork dress relate to traditional Greek folk costume? When you put them side-by-side, you realize that they have a lot to do with one another, but how you connect the dots between them is the real question.
SMP: Since you’re operating across history and geography here, what is it about these objects that stands out and makes you want to mash them together?
MC: I think that the counterculture and the hippie scene is really at the core of it all with this collection; that’s the connecting point for me because it’s so inspiring to me aesthetically. I love that amalgam of textures and colors and patterns and cultures. All in one moment we can be Victorian and Futuristic, costumed and childlike, and practicing meditation and studying the occult and, and, and, and… All at the same time. If you start to pick it apart, you can start to see how these things manifest and how they all connect to one another.
SMP: Beyond the texture and splendor of the Counterculture/hippie moment, is the politics of that era something that is embedded in your work?
MC: Yeah, or I should say, the politics in the big sense. And I don’t know if “politics” is the best word, but rather, the things that the politics embody: the ethos of freedom and liberation on all fronts—sexual, political, personal, spiritual, aesthetic—letting all the walls and boundaries crumble away. I like what that allows to happen and how things start to get a little weird. We can’t label things anymore when all the walls have broken away because all the little boxes that we’ve put things in don’t really matter anymore. In terms of the politics, it’s not so much that I’m fixated on what Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin were doing, or the mechanisms of gay liberation—it’s not that specific. My interest is in the spirit, the emotion, the overarching theme that let the walls fall and all the many groups involved coexist.
SMP: I was interested in your artist statement and your mention that your work is about testing boundaries, and I wasn’t sure if you were referencing formal, political, or cultural boundaries, but it sounds like it’s all embedded in your work.
MC: In a certain way I feel like they’re one in the same. The boundary gets identified when you start to push against it. So how do you push against boundaries when you’re making clothes? Do you encourage a man to wear a shaped garment that we would never otherwise see on a man? Do you put a transparent cloth that lets us see the body in a way that we’re not accustomed to seeing? A big part of fashion design for me is: what is the body itself; what does the body embody; and how does that turn into something? So part of my practice, almost weekly, is to draw the figure, both male and female. I look at the body and then I figure out what is it about the pose, the person modeling, or what’s on my mind that day, that can turn into a garment concept. This rendering on the end [for a garment featured at Bellevue Art Museum] expresses this most clearly: here he is with an open stance, and you can’t help but see this burst of light or energy from his chest. As a physical thing, this expression is embodied as a vest with dozen lapels.
SMP: Fashion design is compelling to me because it exists between a number of different spheres of working—sculpture, performance, design, etc. The traditional conception in the fields of architecture and industrial design is that “good design” is invisible, and fashion is unique because it does, in a way, need to achieve a balance between fitting fluidly to the body in addition to being a very explosive expression of individual identity for wearer and designer. I’m curious how you’re able to navigate those two very seemingly conflicting aspects of your field of design?
MC: That’s the constant challenge. I’m continuously asking: how ostentatious do you want the work to be? Do you really want it to be design that screams at people, or do you want it to be that sort of seamless integration into the culture where it’s so well designed—whether or not that is good design in my mind us up for debate—that we don’t even notice it at first.
At this point I’ve made over 1,000 garments with my own hands, and the only reason I know this is because I recently had to reorder labels because the initial order of a thousand ran out… One thing that gets a bit skimmed over more than I would like it to is that I, myself, with my own hands and really love to make things. As soon as I start to wear the hat of designer or business owner or instructor, that seems to take this big leap away form the fact that all of this has happened with my own two hands—literally, I have made almost everything myself up until this point. That’s a huge part of the process. In order to understand any of these designs, I physically need to have my hands on the goods all day everyday. If I don’t, there’s this detachment from it all. Now that I have all this assistance in the studio, the new challenge becomes: how do I keep my hand in it all and in a big enough way that the gap doesn’t grow larger.
SMP: In craft, you see the physicality of the maker’s imprint on the side of a pot, whereas design erases all evidence of the hand. Have you given any thought to ways you could embed a handmade vernacular into your work?
MC: I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I trust the hands of the people who I hire. My hands are by no means better than anyone else’s, but if I can’t be doing the sewing anymore and I have to trust the hands of everyone on board, allowing theirs to put that sort of mark into the garments in the way that I once did. Also, I’m playing with the idea of designing things that show that hand of the maker, making certain to include elements in a design to guarantee that the end wearer will see and will know that there was a hand process done. That might mean that there’s a certain part of the garment that is finished by hand with needle and thread and no machine, or one idea that I’m exploring is that I would design a little custom charm or something that gets attached by hand to every garment as like a signature piece from the studio exclusively. Any of those hand finishes where it would be unmistakable: this is handmade.
SMP: Overcoming the idea of the mark of the maker as being an imperfection must be a unique challenge in this case.
MC: It is. And what’s so interesting is that most garments in the clothing industry today—even mass-produced items—are still made by hand. That’s something that a lot of people don’t realize or perhaps overlook is that even the clothes we buy at Target are still made by hand. They’re just made in a way where there’s no reverence or appreciation for the people making them, and, of course, the mission is to make them as quickly and as cheaply as possible, so all of those signs of the hand are just completely gone. That’s always hard for me to think about: all clothes are made by hand. There are mechanical processes involved, but for the most part, it’s handwork. So now, I have to make an extra effort to include that hand stamp on everything which is fine by me—it makes the clothes more beautiful, so that works.
SMP: How do you address the relationship between fashion and performance, both in an everyday sense as well as through your collaborative works with choreographers?
MC: I think performance can’t happen without those wearable objects designed for the movement. Especially with dance, (and I think there’s an analogy in street life too), how we dress determines how we move and how we live. The stage then becomes this amplified version of that—I’m sure there’s an argument around this—but from my point of view, the garments that a performer wears dictates what happens on stage in so many ways. It can set limitations in terms of how a body can and can’t move; for example, there’s a big difference between wearing a flowy silk garment and a big canvas jacket with straps around it. How costuming determines the possibilities of movement is huge. There’s also the idea of a character being built out of the clothes. I love to hear professional actors comment that it takes them stepping into their costume to really start to become the character that they need to become. It’s a whole transformative process—the transformative garment. Designing for the stage is an awesome and spectacular creative challenge.
MC: The best collaborative partner that I have is with a modern dancer named Catherine Cabeen, we’ve staged three works together. She was a principle with Martha Graham, and then she was with Bill T. Jones for years, and now she travels and stages works for Bill’s company and is a university instructor as well. She also has a dance company of her own, and because she and I get along great—creatively we speak a similar language—it always works out really beautifully. I was lucky that with one of those pieces, she came to me and asked that I create the costumes first and she would orchestrate the dance around the garments, (rather than the usual format of the costuming coming after the dance has been created). My design of the clothes kind of choreographed that piece—I’m by no means the choreographer—but in a way, I am setting the ground rules: here’s what these bodies will be able to do, and here’s what they won’t be able to do by way of these clothes.
SMP: What are your feelings about the contemporary, American attitude towards clothing consumption? Is there something perverse in our behavior towards accumulating massive closets?
MC: I think we’re pigs about it and we need to slow the hell down. We need to completely scrap that notion that says: if it’s something from last season, it’s out of date, it’s bad, and it shouldn’t be worn anymore. I understand collections being developed seasonally—what a great way to keep work going—but it’s the devaluing of things from the past that I think has to end. What it does is put that many more clothes in the landfill, and he statistics around that are horrific. The life of a garment from purchase to the landfill is dreadfully brief. There are a number of books on this subject and I have to be careful to not read them before bed because I end up falling asleep feeling really grumpy about the state of the universe. So I would say: slow down, buy less, and we have to adopt what some would term a European ethic where you don’t have a lot of clothes in your closet, but what you do have are really well made from good materials and from designers that you believe in that suit your taste and your lifestyle. And you wear them a lot—it’s not bad to be seen wearing the same thing a couple times a week. That notion alone, if we could get that out of our heads, I think it could fix a lot of problems. There are people who are just horrified by the idea of being seen in the same thing twice. I prefer the opposite. I treasure the fact that I have clothes that were my grandfather’s, and he wore them a million times and now I wear them a million times. This one garment has decades—generations—of history in it, which makes it better than anything brand new. Let’s create our own powerful histories with how we dress.
SMP: With over-consumption we loose sense of legacy and clothing as heirloom?
MC: Absolutely. The fashion industry has been set up in such a way to completely eliminate a person’s ability to just have an emotional connection to the clothes that they wear. May I read a quote from a book?
SMP: Of course!
MC: This is one of the books I’m talking about: Fashion and Sustainability: Designs for Change, [Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose, 2012]. There’s this whole section on what they term Optimized lifetimes, or how to make the lifecycle of a garment longer. Another heading is called Empathy, which addresses the consumer’s emotional relationship to the clothes that they wear. [Fletcher and Grose] say: “How we enable products to evoke empathy in an overdeveloped and overabundant material world is a formidable challenge. The fast paced and visually noisy marketplace depletes the psychic attention of the shopper and elements that might signal emotional attachment to a garment as quiet as they often are, can easily be drowned out by the competition for a shopper’s attention.” The way stores and websites are designed promote this borage of information, light, sale tags, numbers, which drains our ability to see with a sensitive eye. And I think that the emotional connection to a garment cannot exist amidst all of that chaos. How can you see and enjoy the subtlety of a tone-on-tone weave? How can you notice the fact that there’s a soft color gradation and this is actually 19-different colors coming together? How can you enjoy any of that amidst all the chaos that is shopping?
SMP: Do you enjoy working with clients for that reason? In co-creating a garment, you’re already giving it a story.
MC: Absolutely. The process of making it builds that story and makes that happen. The downside of it is that custom clothes are so time and labor intensive that they’re very expensive. They are expensive for me to make and expensive for the client, because from a business perspective, in order for me to build any bit of profit into project, the clothes become costly. I feel like that is where I turn into teacher in the studio. There’s this whole educational process of showing the client not just what the design process is like, but what the entire process is about. Suddenly they have to know what patterning and fit are all about, they have to know what different construction techniques are, and they have to know that a handmade suit coat takes between 80 and 100 hours of my time to complete and do it right. It takes so much time and energy just to educate, and that doesn’t mean you get the gig; so, unfortunately, I don’t see custom tailoring a particularly sustainable business model today but, at the same time, it needs to happen. Once upon a time, students used to get that in school—everyone had home economics classes where you had to sew and make your own clothes, and that doesn’t happen anymore. I’m fairly convinced that the average 20-something person thinks that clothes fall from the sky and land on the rack. To bring it back to the hippies for a second, they were one of the last generations to ever get that education in school. The average 18-year old girl or guy could embroider a jacket because they were taught how to in grade grade. In fact, they received a basic knowledge of making of all sorts—carpentry, sewing, metalwork—they got a taste of all of it in the education system, which simply does not happen today.
SMP: There’s such a spirit of resistance embedded in this aesthetic that, today, is inherently connected with the skill set. It’s interesting that we consider off-the-grid living and these countercultural gestures as an element that would rupture the contemporary lifestyle in a very conscious way, but in the moment, these were simply everyday, public education skills—it was a baseline. Sewing your own clothing was never meant to be loaded with revolutionary potential.
MC: It just was. It was just a simple life skill. And I’m sure that to this day, when the folks of this generation shop, they have an inherent understanding of what it means for a garment to be well made and part of your life longer than the next season.
Michael Cepress is a Seattle-based fashion designer and educator. Recently, his work was featured in the Bellevue Art Museum biennial exhibition, High Fiber Diet. Currently, he is at work at a full line of men’s and women’s clothing and, September, 2013, he will be a featured designer in Bellevue Fashion Week’s Independent Designer Runway Show. Be sure to visit his website: http://michaelcepress.com
It seems impossible to enter an exhibition with the title WHEN WILL MY LOVE BE RIGHT without the expectation of heartbreak. This provocative phrase, taken from a 1980s soul classic by Robert Winters & Fall, reads as an ominous declaration of sentiment that, beyond unrequited, has been relegated to a realm of social and cultural taboo. In a moment when debate over DOMA abounds, the political and personal are inherently interwoven in this new body of work by Arnold J. Kemp, a Portland-based visual and performing artist who is recognized for using glitter and a Duchampian sense of humor to explore issues related to identity and subjectivity.
WHEN WILL MY LOVE BE RIGHT, recently on view at PDX CONTEMPORARY ART, was not all political machination wrapped in clever art-speak. Kemp certainly took a cue from the spirit of Robert Winters’ early-80s falsetto, (a sound that can only come out of Southern California by way of Detroit!), to imbue his performance and handmade readymade objects with an endearing tenderness—sentimentality pervasive in popular music and cinema but still somewhat disconcerting in the realm of fine art. Stand out were Kemp’s two pairs of handmade men’s shoes each accompanied by two seashells, two-by-two creating a veritable Odd Couple of characters marooned on adjacent islands just barely raised above the gallery floor. Thinking about shoes in contemporary art—Christian Boltanski’s piles and Bedwyr Williams’ crusty size 13s, for example—there’s something tragic and futile with these works that is entirely absent when viewing Kemp’s stunningly crafted footwear. His sculptures, contentedly paired in convivial conversation, exude a humble opulence. Though alienated from each other, the shoes seem at home with their chosen partners, both pairs of empty vessels enlivened by the echo of past and future inhabitants.
All was not harmonious in Kemp’s installation, however. Photographs of portentous empty masks lined the gallery walls, and an index card reading: EYES REMAIN RIVETED ON THE MOON THAT’S RISING FROM THE EDGE OF MAN’S SORROW, added an uncanny punctuation mark to the entire tableau. When will my love be right? The specifics of to whom Kemp asks remains ambiguous. What can be gleaned from this body of work is that love and alienation, fulfillment and pain, presence and absence, all operate in tandem, and it is the space of art—abetted by pop music—where these dichotomies can meet.
I spoke to Arnold J. Kemp over chilled rosé and cured meats in downtown Portland.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: I was hoping that you could begin by elaborating a bit on your most recent body of work, WHEN WILL MY LOVE BE RIGHT, which seems to speak very much to your multidisciplinary and multisensory approach to making. How did the show come together?
Arnold J. Kemp: I come at things like a sculptor who is trying to make paintings. When I moved to Portland, I was very involved in making paintings that had a sense of humor. Sometimes they’d be all black paintings—Vampires—named for the idea that vampires don’t have reflections when they look into mirrors. Another series were these glittering pink and black paintings that completely resembled the disco-era. But with this new work, I think it started with wanting to make something that people could really see my hand in. So, I don’t know precisely how I arrived at it, but I was messing around in the studio with aluminum foil and what emerged were these mask-like objects. I have a history of drawing and creating things that resemble masks, but what was interesting about the aluminum foil, is that it really conveys the movement of my hand manipulating the material. I never thought to exhibit the objects themselves; instead, I used the quickest, easiest, and dumbest way of rendering them into an image, which was to use a scanner. With this series [of Aluminums], I began to play with framing—the frame around the image—as a way to emphasize the idea of painting.
AK: Other elements of the work are the handmade shoes and the 15-foot leather belts with the belt buckles spelling “shy,” which were displayed very low to the ground in steel trays that functioned almost as a piece of furniture. There was also the performance, In Arms. In Arms is sort of an abstracted, sad, love story that really relates to the main theme of the show: when will my love be right? As I was making this work, I got really involved with this one song with the same title from the 80s by this group Robert Winter & the Fall. I found it on YouTube—it’s amazing!—the vocals are amazing. It’s all about longing, yearning, and impossible love.
Having the play as a piece in the show—it was on the checklist, performed on one night only for 50-people—was very important to me because it made the exhibition something really special… [During the performance,] the gallery was completely dark and we all were wearing handmade headlamps so we could read the script as we were performing. And when I say “performing,” we were more giving a good reading than actually performing. My direction to the actors, [Travis Nikolai and Sara Jaffe,] was to speak slowly and clearly so people could actually hear the words because the text is somewhat abstract. There are parts that are narrative that resemble what you would hear if you were walking down the street and hearing fragments of various conversations, or eavesdropping on hearing two lovers talking.
SMP: I’m interested in your use of the term readymade for something that is ephemeral—text based—distinctly non-material. I remember reading in an interview that Jonathan Lethem is not interested in originality, but rather, in expressing the grain of human experience, even if that means sourcing from plagiarized material. How do you approach using readymade text and is there a limit to sampling and re-sampling existing creative work?
AK: It’s not about originality, and it’s not about waiting for inspiration as an artist. Ezra Pound said: to make it new; and Gertrude Stein said: I’ve read everything! Which I love! By using texts or words as readymades, I feel as though this play is put together like a sculpture—all these parts just come together. All of this stuff is in the world to play with and make with, and I just want to use it all. We have so much at our fingertips with the Internet, although I’d prefer to be in a library surrounded by books, which is where the material for this play comes from. To resist that would be resisting the whole way our culture is going with mixing and remixing, DJ-ing, and mashing up. The whole idea of the hip-hop posse has really fascinated me for quite a while. Warhol referenced the factory, and I think about the posse, and how it’s fairly impossible for a single, autonomous artist working alone to make it—legitimately make it in the art world—whatever that means.
AK: As for the text in the play, most of is was drawn from sources that came from a practice that was almost like contrived community building, rooted in my personal desire to have conversations with people like Angela Davis, Brecht, Billie Holiday, Mallarmé… There could very well be 100 different people quoted in that script. There is a line that reads: don’t explain; that’s Billie Holiday. The whole thing is very research process-oriented. It’s about being part of a community. And it’s about love.
SMP: Is it a collaborative work then?
AK: Me and Angela Davis! A collaboration? Truly, I do consider my work a collaboration between myself and who the piece is dedicated to… The characters in the play are specific people, and I don’t know if I want the public to know this, but one of those characters is me and the other character is someone I’ve been romantically involved with since 2003. For ten years, we’ve had this very intense, serious, in love, calling each other fiancées relationship, but there are impossible things and we’re not together. He and I have performed this play once before at California College of the Arts, (CCA), as part of Bay Area Poet’s Theater. We got rave reviews and I thought I would never have to perform it again—I would just publish it, but then this show came up: WHEN WILL MY LOVE BE RIGHT.
People should ask: who is he talking to? It could be those shoes. The shoes are very abstract to me—they could be very simple—but their simplicity is complicated by the fact that my father is an incredibly well dressed man who is very critical the way that I dress. His father made men’s suits, and my mother’s father made shoes. My mother comes from a family of six daughters and no sons, and my grandfather made the entire family’s shoes—this was in Panama.
SMP: Is that biographical reference important to the work?
AK: Yes, it is. In addition to the shoes, there are seashells that certainly refer to my Caribbean heritage, but they also are echoes of the shoes. A seashell has a similar function and a similar shape to a shoe, and if you hold a seashell or shoe up to your ear, you’re going to hear the ocean.
SMP: In graduate school, Renée Green had us read Muriel Rukeyser’s Life of Poetry, a text all about the revolutionary potential produced by the emotional stuff of poetry. Why bring poetry and love into your work?
AK: Even when I was doing a lot of curating, I was always watching other artists. I had to write these curatorial essays and there was always this point in writing that I wanted to write about love—what love has to do with art making. It’s not just a love of objects or love of museums, but heartache, the blues, jazz, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Shirley Horn, Betty Carter… All these amazing people who do take on love, bring it into themselves, and translate it into something that resonates with others. Love is very personal. I’m not talking about a universal love, although love is universal. My experience with it, which has to do with being black, being an artist, being queer, being a teacher, being part of a family, is very intense. This exhibition was really hard to put together emotionally and I’m always thrilled when even a bit of the conceptual intent comes through.
SMP: It seems as thought you’re able to leverage you love of idols—Angela Davis and Billie Holiday—with a very personal, day-to-day, lived version of love, and the art making is where those two meet.
AK: I don’t know how, but I know it’s purposeful.
SMP: What is your relationship to craft? Is there something about craft-based materials and processes—shoe making, for example—that allows you to approach a subject or articulate something differently than your work that comes from the trajectory of fine art painting and photography?
AK: That’s an interesting question. When I teach, I say to my students: you can’t make art by making art. They might not know what that means at first, but I say it over and over again, and I applaud them when they don’t make art. Making art by not making art is really a Duchampian thing, and it’s funny to talk about Duchamp relative to craft, but someone made the toilet—it was porcelain—so someone had to make it! But anyway, back to the shoes. To give a little back-story, for a long time, I’ve wanted to do a project where I make mirrors by hand. I want to present handmade mirrors as paintings—I still want to do that project—but when I was about to, there was a shift in my social world that made me not want to make mirrors anymore. So, instead, I thought: I’ll make shoes.
AK: When people would ask what I was working on, I would say: handmade readymades. This idea of the handmade readymade, (and I thought was being clever), was a first a way to get Duchamp. Not, get Duchamp, because you really can’t get over him or his work, but, I thought they could look, simply, like a regular pair of shoes—not like art—but like a finely crafted, all hand, no machine, leather shoe. I was able to connect with a very skilled shoemaker who is a cobbler from a really old Romanian family that had been in the business of making shoes for about 200 years and he has been making shoes since he was 12 years old. I saw an advert that someone had tacked up reading “Shoemaking Course,” and because there was no venue for the class and people were flying in from all over the country to take it, I was able to offer space in the PNCA sculpture studio in exchange for taking the class for free, (although I did pay over $1000 for a set of tools). The shoes that I made are not perfect. People ask all the time if I wear them—I could wear them—but I wouldn’t sell them to someone to wear, because I think of them as sculpture, and I believe in this craft of shoemaking so much that I feel that I’d have to make 20 or 40 pairs of shoes before I was really able to sell a pair of shoes to somebody.
SMP: It seems to me that in this exhibition and your past work as well—and I’m thinking of the glitter works here—that you’ve intentionally played with concepts relating to luster and artifice, drawing attention to a painting as a painting or a poem as a poem in a very post-Brechtian way. Why this interest in artifice?
AK: When I work, I try to make myself laugh. When I first made the masks, I had an a-ha moment: no one has made this before and it is so dumb! It was so dumb, and that’s why it was so good. When I make the masks I’m laughing. Each one is unique and each one of the frames is also unique, (there’s no edition), and there is some process to them, but in some sense, anyone could go to a hobby shop, pickup some black glitter and doll’s eyes, and create something that looks very close to one of my paintings. In a way I’m daring them to—the black glitter is sort of a dare, as is the aluminum foil. (I dare someone to make the shoes!)
SMP: My immediate referent with the glitter and dolls eyes is not necessarily this hobby shop kitsch, (although that’s there), but instead, my first thought is of the counterculture—the Cockettes—and glittery gestures of resistance.
AK: There’s a reason that all the glitter paintings are small—they’re resisting the idea of the masterpiece, resisting master narrative, resisting hyper-masculine painter. When I went to the Museum School, I was taught by third-generation abstract expressionists who told me that I was too smart to be an artist and I would be a better artist if I thought less. I really struggled in art school to figure out how to be an artist—how to resist and persist—which is what my whole life has been about. And really, my work may come from thinking too much, but it also comes from looking at Jasper Johns, and I guess it all comes back to figuring out what art is for me.
AK: One of my first big breaks was Freestyle at the Studio Museum, (2001), an exhibition that featured the first generation of black artists after Carrie Mae Weems, Fred Wilson, Lorna Simpson, and many others that our generation really respects. There was a point though, when we had to consider: we love that conversation, but does it benefit us to be a part of that conversation or to try and move this conversation in different directions? I am continuously addressing this issue relative to my work: Freestyle and the post-black ideas about blackness, which really matter to me as someone from a really racist part of the country. The other piece here is my gay identity, which is maybe what you were getting at with the Cockettes reference and all the 60s glitter. I did spend 15-years in San Francisco, and a show that really changed my life was curated by Nayland Blake called Situation at New Langton Arts in 1991. The exhibition was a survey of queer artists. I walked in not knowing anyone in San Francisco at the time, and I thought to myself: I want to work here. That happened, and that led to everything else.
SMP: I’m curious: what is the Black Monochrome Machine?
AK: Black Monochrome Machine is an idea I came up with as a way of producing work. I’ve also created: Arnold J. Kemp, Principal of Invisible Inc. and Black Arts Index. These are entities that I was producing work out of—not as if I’m not the author—but as if I wasn’t by myself. Black Arts Index was an idea that began in college; it was an actual index of references to blackness, from race to the occult and black magic. Another project under Black Arts Index and Invisible Inc. was an idea I had for a book about slavery. In 1993, I was walking with David Hammons and we walked by the work of an artist from his generation and he said to me: Why is she making work about slavery? Everyone knows that we were slaves. Art is not to tell us about what we already know, but there definitely is a market and a curatorial push that supports artists who deal with struggles of Africans derived people in this country. In my youthful naiveté I wanted to write this book to free those artists, but i could never write that book.
Arnold J. Kemp’s recent exhibition, WHEN WILL MY LOVE BE RIGHT, was on view at PDX CONTEMPORARY ART January 22 – March 2. Currently, Kemp is Chair of the MFA in Visual Studies Department at Pacific Northwest College of Art, (PNCA). In 2012, Kemp was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and his work has been collected by a number of institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Berkeley Art Museum. 1993-2003, Kemp was Associate Curator of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.
Images courtesy of the artist PDX CONTEMPORARY ART unless otherwise specified.
There’s something refreshing about a project that dares to be unapologetically political. In many ways, the spirit late-20th century counterculture persists in the Pacific Northwest, and that old Drop City mentality remains rampant among artists who prefer to retreat to the imaginary as a cozy site of resistance. Corvallis-based painter Julie Green has opted to address the deeply flawed system of capital punishment head on. Her ongoing series, The Last Supper, has been a twelve-year pursuit to reveal the humanity on death row through intimate portraits of last meal requests painted on ceramic plates.
The plates, currently numbering 500, are a dissonant accumulation of lives lived and lost. Displayed in clusters along the perimeter of The Arts Center, (Corvallis, OR), each constellation speaks to an ad hoc arrangement of family portraits, a domestic sensibility that is amplified ten-fold by the use of readymade tableware as canvas. Despite the gravity of the subject matter, there is a touch of whimsy to Green’s project. Her meticulously rendered pizza slices, honeybuns, and hamburgers are most often completed without any visual referent. Filtered through the artist’s memory, the foods are imbued with an illustrative quality that borders on cartoony, speaking to the endearing texture of Maira Kalman rather than the inherent gloom of the memento mori. Further, each object in The Last Supper is painted in the tradition of blue-and-white china, a hue that is simultaneously absurd and significant, drawing from one of the most recognized traditions in ceramic worldwide, from Jingdezhen ware to Willowware.
Despite her stylistic levity, Green’s project is compelling in its provocation of the limits of power and the nature of justice as it is dictated by the judiciary. Perhaps most importantly, The Last Supper seeks to locate the individual within the systemic, collapsing hegemonic ritual into everyday experience through the intimacy of a favorite meal served on white china.
I spoke to Julie Green at The Art Center in Corvallis, Oregon, where her exhibition The Last Supper was on view through February 16.
SMP: I feel as though I’m looking at a very systematized display resembling a geographic or celestial map of bodies. Does this installation represent a cartography of sorts?
JG: Yes, completely. The installation of The Last Supper is alphabetical and chronological; so alphabetical by state—beginning with Alabama—and chronological by date of execution—most recent first. Texas has been featured in The Arts Center installation, highlighted by the architecture of the space to be given the central location it deserves… My process is to continuously check when executions occur using a death penalty information website. There are generally under 40-executions a year now. I make about 50-plates per year: say 40 recent executions and 10 historical. From the web, I’ll find the individual’s name, Google him—it’s almost always a man—and find out his last meal. The last meal is public record and with the Internet, I can access that information immediately. It wasn’t this simple when I started thirteen years ago. Back then, I had to call the prisons and get faxes. I would say I was professor at University of Oklahoma doing research on capital punishment—I would never say that I was an artist—that would be a red flag. And you never want to talk to the warden—I learned to ask for the Public Information Officer—although, I have had some interesting conversations with wardens, particularly in Oklahoma and Arizona.
SMP: Do you feel that you gain insight into the individuals by painting such intimate subject matter?
JG: They’re very personal menus. This is the whole reason I began the project: six tacos, six glazed doughnuts, and a cherry Coke. I thought: why six? Reading that menu humanized death row for me. As an organic gardener, a cook, and a person who loves and appreciates food, I considered the absurdity of placing all this emphasis on a meal that a person wouldn’t even have time to digest. Food is sustenance, food is community, food is sharing ideas with friends and family, it’s a celebration, it’s joy, and even if it’s eaten alone, it’s still a ritual. I have much gratitude for the good food in my life, and this death row meal just stood in such contrast to that.
SMP: Thinking about the idea of the last meal, the practice seems so flagrantly, almost offensively, contrary to our cultural associations with food and meals, which are about the social function of coming together.
JG: Exactly: the whole ritual. Take a look at this plate here: “Indiana. 14 March 2001. German ravioli and chicken dumplings prepared by his mother and dietary staff.” The mother got clearance into the prison to prepare that meal, which must have been such an intense experience.
JG: This piece too: “He never had a birthday cake, so we ordered a birthday cake for him.” This may be, for me, one of the most telling plates. I had a birthday cake every year—most of us did—so on one hand, you have this positive reflection of family and the symbolic affect that food often has, or should have, particularly in the case of a last meal; and on the other hand, you have a instance that reflects very negatively on this individual’s history surrounding family and food.
SMP: Food has always been a popular subject in art making, from still life to Fluxus. Why do you think there has been a real renewed interest and reinvestment in food within contemporary art practice?
JG: We are a culture obsessed with food in positive and negative ways. We live in a time of luxury where, for most Americans, it’s not about survival it’s about choice. There’s a lot of joy in food, and it’s commonality—it’s democratic. If we were to stand out on the street talking about food, it’s like talking about the weather—everyone can relate—we all have food and the weather in common in Oregon right now.
SMP: Do you have you own rituals involving food that play out in your everyday life?
JG: Nothing but I’m afraid. I’ve had a slice of cinnamon-walnut toast with tahini, orange marmalade, nutritional yeast, and ground flax and sesame seeds, along with a cup of white tea every morning for breakfast for the past 12-13-years.
SMP: That’s interesting, that ritual started the same time as this project?
JG: I guess, yeah. I have a thing for routine; I wear the same earrings and same cherry red Mac lipstick every day. This allows for less decision-making and facilitates getting the real work done.
SMP: I find that ritual can be a compelling way to bring together grand, socio-politically-charged myths with the stuff of everyday life, and the space of art making is a natural place for these two worlds to come together and play out.
JG: Perhaps that’s what draws people to this project—that’s certainly what drew me to it—this relationship to food, ritual, and memory embedded in larger issues relating to justice and ethics.
SMP: Where does the final meal ritual come from?
JG: Every country with capital punishment seems to have a final meal of some sort, [view Mats Bigert and Lars Bergström's film, "The Last Supper," for reference]. Much of our legacy of capital punishment comes from England. There’s that whole ritual of the gallows were the prisoner is walked to the bars and everyone drinks together before the prisoner is publicly hanged. We have built upon that type of tradition and, along with that, there’s a morbid curiosity that compels public interest in final meals. I once asked a warden why the final meals are printed in newspapers and he said it’s because the public wants to know. I’ve found that even highly educated people are surprisingly unformed when it comes to capital punishment practices in our country, to the point that they’re not aware that a death row sentence is more expensive than life without parole. When I began The Last Supper project, painted a few plates—there was no plan to make this my life’s work or anything—but when I got deeper into it and realized the extent to which this subject is marginalized politically and socially, I had to carry it on.
JG: At one point, I contacted prisons in the thirty-three states using capital punishment, and asked them about their prison’s ritual, and the response was: we’ve always had it, it’s a tradition, it’s special, it’s an effort to do something nice for the inmate. My take is that it alleviates guilt and is something positive for prison staff to focus on during the day of the execution.
SMP: I have to say, that there is real comedy—a touch of absurdity—in your depictions of food. It’s blue, nothing is to scale, there’s so much emphasis placed on some objects and then little placed on others. What I’m saying is this is not your typical vanitas—there’s a distinct lightness, and I’m curious about your aesthetic choice there.
JG: George Carlin said, “There is no blue food.” For one thing, I’m mono-vision, so I have no sense of space whatsoever and there is a natural awkwardness to my work. In painting, we translate 3D into 2D, but I’m 2D all the time. A friend once called my painting faux-naive, but no way: I am naive. I never wanted to paint realistically—nature is already perfect and beautiful still life paintings exist. I am interested in the process of memory, and the early plates are painted without photographic references. I haven’t eaten red meat since high school, so painting ribs from memory may cause them to turn out looking more like tubas or something—there’s no way it can look right. As the project grew, and I wanted to differentiate salmon from catfish, and started looking at photo references and The Joy of Cooking illustrations; for example, I could have never painted that lobster from memory.
SMP: It’s interesting knowing that these are filtered through your own sensory experience and memory of these foods.
JG: I’m quite good at painting chocolate cake—I know chocolate cake. But, yes, I think that’s true. I often say that everything that we make is a self-portrait—we can’t get away from it—I grew up with blue and white plates in a food family. My family was Midwestern, conservative, and Christian. As a kid, I was pro-capital punishment and pro-Nixon. These days my mom shares my opposition to capital punishment, so I like to say: if you can change your mom then you can change the world. My own food experience definitely forms how each plate is painted. You can’t get away from knowing barbeque ribs and chocolate cake.
SMP: Do you feel that there’s something in the traditions and material-associations of the decorative arts and craft-based media that allows you to approach this project differently than, say, if you were painting last meals on canvas?
JG: I couldn’t work on final meals all the time. Half of each studio year is spent on lighter projects, such as personal narratives in egg tempera. A few months back, for the first time I combined narrative painting on to functional dishes. Compared to centuries of tempera and oil painting traditions, this process feels wide open and exciting.
JG: I was born in Japan and raised among Midwestern quilters—people with a real appreciation for craft. Growing up, my family had beautiful Johnson Brothers and Noritake china, Japanese prints, quilts, and strange objects handmade by my male relatives, who were carpenters. Down the street, one of my neighbors made things out of ears of corn; I’m talking life sized Abe Lincoln and Paul Bunyan figures being the first installation art I ever saw. (You wouldn’t believe how many colors of corn there are.) Anyway, I didn’t have much exposure to “high” art until I went to The University of Kansas. At the time, there was this recurrent conversation about what you “could and couldn’t do as an artist,” and even then, I thought it was ridiculous… People respond to this work because of the political content. They would respond, I’m sure, if these were small paintings on panel, but using plates as the surfaces for meals just makes sense.
SMP: You do maintain a distinctly painterly quality, not only stylistically, but also in your choice to display them on a wall versus on a large table or in a vitrine. You’re definitely using the plate as a canvas and, in a way, stripping away the objectness of the plate.
JG: The Last Supper has been exhibited 24 times. Each installation is unique, depending on the space. These days, wall mounted has the biggest punch. Whatever your stance on capital punishment, there is no denying there are a lot of plates. The ceramic dishes are all white, but vary in material, weight, size, and decoration. They speak to a collection of individuals within a system, of course, alluding to the institution of death row. They’re almost like portraits, and perhaps are more confrontational hung on the wall.
JG: I study with Toni Acock, who is my technical adviser. She taught me mineral painting, and she fires every plate. But, I break the rules for paint application, preferring thicker, frosting-like application. Part of the reason why I’ve taken to this project is because I allow myself to experiment—I don’t have any technical or traditional baggage hanging over my head.
SMP: Are they always displayed as a complete group? It seems as though the installation needs the to express a certain volume and weight—almost like a Felix Gonzales Torres—where you need the pile for the gravity of the piece to come across.
JG: Last year, when nearing plate number 500, I contacted the Art Center in Corvallis. It’s an ideal venue, a former church here in the town where we live. In the past, small groupings of the plates have been shown—it’s an expensive undertaking for a venue to ship 500-ceramic plates across the country—but I don’t separate the plates anymore. I do want people to see them and, recently, I made a facsimile set of 160 Texas paper plates. The paper plates have just come back from Holland and are heading to Texas in March.
I haven’t sold a final meal plate—they’re not for sale. These days I’m looking for a permanent home to donate The Last Supper, a museum or institution to provide the public consistent access. It’s time for them to have a home other than my basement!
The Last Supper: 500 plates will be exhibited at The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, (Eugene, OR), in March, and travel to The Art Gym, (Portland, OR), in April, 2013.
Julie Green was born in Japan in 1961. An Associate Professor at Oregon State University, she lives in the Willamette Valley with her husband, quilter Clay Lohmann, and their small cat, Mini. Half of each year, usually winter months, is spent on The Last Supper. In summer, Green paints personal narratives. Her egg tempera is included the 7th edition of A World of Art published by Prentice Hall. Green has had twenty-seven solo exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad, been featured in The New York Times, a Whole Foods mini-documentary, National Public Radio, Ceramics Monthly and Gastronomica, and recently received the Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant for Painters and Sculptors.
In the few months I have been living in Oregon, I haven’t managed to trek the half-dozen blocks to Portland Art Museum but, on three occasions, I have rallied to drive three hours to the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. I’ll admit: the first visit was partially motivated by the Turrell Skyspace and a video by Pipilotti Rist. Visits two and three, however; were entirely about Like a Valentine, the mid-career retrospective of Seattle-based artist Jeffry Mitchell, which, sadly, closed to the public just last week.
You’d think that after spending so much time with a body of work, I’d be overrun with brilliant insight bound-up in pithy phrasing. Not so. In visiting and revisiting the exhibition, I became increasingly beguiled but also bewildered by Mitchell’s mysterious lexicon of flora and fauna rendered in clay, ink, and paint. There is a certain wildness to Mitchell’s practice, an untethered spirit that speaks to a purely imaginative space that is almost antagonistic to reason. It brought to mind a recent essay in which Borriaud claimed that, “the fictional is to contemporary art what flatness was to modern art;” meaning, the site of fiction represents a recent iteration of creative autonomy where makers are able to reject reality in order to connect with the real—in the Lacanian sense. Now, I hate to go all academic on you B@S, but I feel that the walrus wearing spectacles speaks for itself.
Clearly, there is satire under Mitchell’s layers of gilded sweetness. It’s only a matter of time before a collection of pieces make their way to David Walsh and his Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania. Sex, or more appropriately, not having it, is an ever-present theme throughout Like a Valentine. From the thinly veiled erotica of Rosy Peonies (series, 2004), to the more explicit The Tomb of Club Z, (2006), Mitchell’s objects delight in their precious perversity. Not only do many of his sculptures elicit the titillation that only a well-placed hole in the rear of a bear can solicit, but moreover, his material preference and nod to a decorative arts aesthetic speak to a unique brand of sexual repression that comes, firstly: from the act of creating needlepoint samplers and watercolor trompe l‘oeil; and secondly: from relentlessly fussing with their arrangement within a domestic interior.
This is not to say Mitchell’s work is the easy one-liner—the fart joke or the flower painting—of contemporary art; rather, his sculpture and works on paper are composed of complex layers of coded references derived from sources as diverse as Kubrick to the Kabbalah. By openly employing and embracing cliché, Mitchell is able to unpack the imaginings, desires, and trepidations of the self-proclaimed “gay folk artist.” Further, his manner of execution, which some have termed sloppy, extends beyond the conversation relating to skill and de-skill to a realm of genuine and endearing sincerity. Mitchell is nothing but intent on his craft; indeed, his unique style emerges from a refreshing respect for material authenticity that allows for clay to be clay, a poster to be a poster, and a power cord to be a power cord.
Exiting the exhibition, visitors are pointed to the door by a sign that I assume is a felicitous wink to Emma Goldman reading: Keep Dancing. I can say with absolute certainty that after my initial journey through Like a Valentine, I was ready for the revolution. I spoke to Jeffry Mitchell at Henry Art Gallery.
A special thanks to Wayne Bund for his assistance with this interview!
Jeffry Mitchell: When I made [The Tomb of Club Z, (2006)], it completely came to me as a vision—there was no real story to it, other than I thought [Club Zodiac] was closing when I made this piece, which turned out not to be the case… It was commissioned by some prominent collectors in town and, because it was a commissioned work, I had a budget to fabricate elements. To create the screen, I hired my friend Leo Burke who helped me use his tablet to create a digital drawing. What’s interesting is that through the process of digitization—translating the drawing into a vector file—the line becomes generalized. The program rounds them out in a certain, almost cartoony way, and my work is cartoony anyway, so the process exaggerates that. So then we got this plastic plywood, which is a marine building material, and used a CNC router to cut out my drawing. My friend Larry Sommers, who has since passed away, was a printmaker and papermaker, helped me bludgeon out the paper pulp and press it into the molds.
The paper on the backside is again a digital drawing based on a William Morris wallpaper pattern; the one that was on the cover of the Bee Gees album. Making this piece, the digitization produced the lines in multiple. The effect is sort of hippy-Victoriana-gay-disco—the lines were meant to look like lines of coke—screen-printed in white on a silver mirror-like ground. The production of the whole screen was so elaborate, I could never have done it if friends of mine hadn’t helped. The crummy part of the installation is what I made: the ceramic model of the bathhouse. It’s three floors with a staircase going up the center, which was done from memory… I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a bathhouse before, but it has very mixed feelings for me. One of those feeling is shame of course, and the secretive nature of going to a bathhouse to have anonymous sex. That’s why the model is behind the decorative screen. There’s a whole reoccurring thing in my work involving the idea of a proscenium. This piece in particular is all about theater—facing the audience—so you have what’s in front and what’s behind it both literally and figuratively. This is a very literal sort of construction of the face, and then what’s behind it.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: So why the vitrine—an additional screen removing the viewer from the work?
JM: I was thinking about a piece by Charles LeDrey called Milk and Honey. It also includes a vitrine and, inside the glass shell, he sculpted a miniature version of every pot he had ever seen—sort of a catalog of ceramics. It’s an exquisite piece because everything is miniature but nothing lacks detail, and each clearly communicates what its model was.
I associate the vitrine with looking at Chinese funerary sculptures in museums. They’re always behind glass, so they’re always tinted to what the tint of the glass is and they have that kind of airless quality; yet, they have a kind of presence too—a funny time travel thing… It doesn’t seem old at all it seems completely present and alive. So this sort of weird timelessness in reference to something funerary—the living and the dead—was where I was going with this.
SMP: You’ve mentioned previously an interest in reincarnation and the idea of a spiritual send-up or connection to the astral plane. I’m curious, how was that interest sparked and how has it evolved in your work?
JM: I think it has something to do with my struggle with Christianity and searching for some other tradition or form or philosophical explanation for why we’re here. Reincarnation always comes up as comforting and hopeful in that death isn’t the end and heaven is not necessarily the answer. Also, I feel like I grew up in such a world devoid of cultural heritage: the western United States. I wasn’t in-line with any aboriginal traditions or with any European immigrant traditions, which you have in other regions. I had this experience in my late-20s when I went to Philadelphia for the first time and I went into an Irish neighborhood bar and I saw a room that looked liked it was full of my relatives. It totally shocked me to feel like: oh my god, I am actually part of some sort of tribe! This created somewhat of a yearning to be part of a tribe, and the excitement that I had the freedom to feel a part of any tribe I felt an affinity toward, like, say Korean. At this point, reincarnation became as plausible an explanation as anything for that feeling of affinity and connection. Catholic is also another tribe—I’m sure the imprint is probably pretty strong—and, I guess if I had any lineage, I think that would certainly be one strong one.
One of the miraculous things about clay is that so many humans have had, what must be, a very similar experience with that material. Maybe painting has that too, or drawing, or mark-making, but there’s really something inherent to the manipulation of clay. Fiber too, but textiles are so fragile that it’s impossible to have the extensive record of what has been made like there is with ceramics. Clay is so amazingly permanent, and we have access to this history through the objects themselves and through scholarship around them. I have this book of British 2000-years of household pottery called If These Pots Could Talk, which I think is hilarious… But I’m rambling. Do you believe in reincarnation? [I’ll spare B@S readers my remarks on this subject!] … You’re right: it’s hard to know. But it’s kind of nice that in art you don’t have to prove anything, so you can make these guesses or suggestions and hang there with the work even if it can’t be proven.
Wayne Bund: I’m curious about the holes—really standout in the peony pieces—but also included in so much of your ceramic work as a small, well-placed point that interrupts the plane. Are they a point of entry, a glory hole, a vehicle for a connection with astral space?
JM: If you put a hole in a pot it becomes a sculpture, and if you put a hole in a flower picture, it’s the drain that empties it of cliché. Flower pictures exist in a realm all their own, and the hole is a way to open it up—the category of flower picture—and allow something else in… To me, it’s like a song that’s like an anthem. When you hear it, it has a very specific meaning but then you sing it over and over—which is the nature of an anthem—and by repeating it, you empty it of any kind of power or meaning that it has. By repeating it and it becomes so empty—it becomes an empty thing—and it might lead a new life as an empty thing or have something else fill it up.
SMP: So, in effect, relcaiming flowers and bunny rabbits is your way of owning the cliché?
JM: Totally. But the holes also are there to re-sexualize the flowers, which are of course are sexual. So it’s a glory hole, it’s a halo, and it is what turns a drawing into a sculpture, making it an object.
SMP: Is that something that your work has been criticized for—the heavy-handedness of cliché—being the gay artist who creates ceramic sculptures of cocks?
JM: No… Well, not to my face! During the 90s there was a time that I was really ambivalent about being a gay artist, because there was so much gay identity work going on and, of course, you always want to be part but not a part of the group. What was that that Groucho Marx said? Anyway, now, I couldn’t be happier to be identified—I don’t care. So if I’m making cocks, it’s corny and it’s obvious on one level, but then again, I’ve always found it interesting that culturally, we expect artists to behave in certain ways, and being contrary is one of those things that we expect from artists. So when they fall into that realm of making what can be expected or what is cliché, then everyone is disappointed. An artist looses his/her edge when something is too pop or too likeable. For example, even someone like Calder—Calder is an immensely likeable artist, but that doesn’t make his work any less significant—I think Calder is an amazing artist, his work is just about something else—it’s scatological even—like free flowing imagination. I think I really work around that construct all the time by picking flowers and rabbits and all the most predictable locations and containers for expression that are domestic and populist and everywhere! Flowers and animals are motifs that every culture and every kind of human expression has held.
So much of my work has to do with sex and my fear that I’ll have no access to sex, and how weird that is—as an animal—to be sensitive to that. It’s every animal’s right in nature—sex—and it’s strange to have that fear that it might not be available. So, sublimation of Eros—and that’s not uncommon—pops up in other kinds of expression such as knitting, chopping, crocheting, cooking, building, and through culture—civilization itself. In a completely erotic society, there would be no buildings, there would be no decorative arts. Culture depends on the suppression of Eros. I’m kind of making this up, but what I’m saying is that civilization depends on some kind of social agreement that we can’t have sex all of the time the way that men want to at least—and I don’t know about women—but maybe women want to as well. This brings me to Stanley Kubrick, whose work I find really interesting. His mantra is that all men want to do is either fuck it or kill it. The last words in “Eyes Wide Shut:” let’s fuck. And I have to say that I do think it would help a lot of the world’s ills if people were fucking, but when you suppress the urge to create in one sense, it reveals itself through another.
SMP: Kubrick appears again in Peace on Earth, (1994), yes?
JM: In Dr. Strangelove, the recall code is P.O.E., which is either Peace on Earth, ironically or Purity of Essence. Kubrick’s whole body of work emphasizes that men are monsters and humanity’s whole drive is to dominate, create, have sex, and ultimately kill everything… Peace on earth is such, again, a clichéd and probably impossible notion, but it is a nice one. This piece was made in 1994 for the King County—and I don’t know what it was called then—but for the office that did HIV testing and AIDS services. Now, HIV testing is a very different thing—it’s no less anxious—but it happens instantly. Back in the day you had to wait two weeks and it was excruciating. So, my intention was to make something that felt homey, would be a bit distracting, and take people away from the task at hand. When I think about domesticity, I think about Dutch interiors as being a kind of clichéd version. When I was a kid, I heard that Dutch children slept in cabinets, and I thought that was the coolest thing. What’s safer and more comforting than a small, enclosed cabinet?!
Although I’ve never been in a Dutch interior, I have—through pictures—gotten an idea of what a Dutch interior would resemble. As has been pointed out, my pots look nothing like Delft with its back-and-forth between Chinese and European blue-and-white. They actually resemble German gray-and-white salt-fired ceramic, but I think the intent comes across. For the furniture, I drew from the European tradition of displaying a symmetric arrangement of pots in your home, and I used woodburning to create the graphic surface. Now, when I was a kid, everyone had burned themselves on a woodburning tool. In fact, I don’t think anyone ever completed a craft project without doing some woodburning! There must be boxes and boxes of good starts from woodburning projects that have ended up in thrift stores—representing all this hope—half completed. There’s pathos and a humor to that! So, when I look at this, the thing that I’m kind of impressed by is the fact that, (and I try to do this with most of my work), I’ve visibly invested enough labor into the piece so that the object has value—if only in that! This really does have a kind of value based on the amount of time I spent woodburning, which was significant, and looking at it now, it’s really quite good.
SMP: While your work relates formally to decorative arts, it speaks equally to an entirely internal, fictive inclination. How do you consider and draw from the imaginary?
JM: It’s the freedom of imagination that is salvatory. It’s the dream of heaven, it’s the dream of paradise, and, in the imaginary, it can fully exist. It has the limits of physicality and materiality, but in your imagination, possibility seems limitless, and I do think that I’m making work to soothe myself somehow or to overcome something.
So with this project, [Within a Motherfucking Budding Grove,] the prototypes were clay. I made a latex mold by painting on a medium-thick layer of latex that I peeled off and then cast with two-part catalyzed plastic. Do you know the Canaletto paintings in Venice? They’re Northern Italian, 18th century landscape paintings that depict Venetian architecture in a style that’s exaggerated and just super horizontal. Along with Canaletto, I was considering Japanese landscapes, which are typically vertical, and I wanted to make a horizontal landscape become a vertical one. And there are two additional things that were influential here: those Brice Marsden jade-green, encaustic paintings that just have that brilliant luminosity; and early Guston, where there’s all this kind of heavy, impasto, art making in the center and they sort of smooth out in the edges, and, of course, his work gets very cartoony. So I made this horizontal landscape with figures and foliage—an inorganic black box [from the Kabbalah] being reclaimed by nature—then when you flip it vertically, it becomes abstracted in a very Guston-like way. The title, In a Motherfucking Budding Grove, is like the English translation of one of Proust’s titles—Les Temps Perdu—combined with Prince—Sexy Motherfucker—who I’m a big fan of. There’s poetry there.
SMP: So your inclination toward the imaginary is not really coming from a critical place—being critical from reality?
JM: Only in a roundabout way, I suppose.
SMP: I’m curious, does fiction feed into your idea of the stage—beyond the space of exhibition—relating the notion of the stage to the work itself as a space for the imaginary to be realized in a theatrical sense?
JM: I guess it comes back to what a powerful impulse it is to make art, make artifice, and make theater. There are many kinds of sharing that are too intense, or too boring. If I tell you my dreams, bless you if you’re interested! Your dreams are so interesting to you, but other people’s dreams are torturous; however, if you realize imagination through this artifice—which humans do really well—then dreams become more interesting and you can get people to share. I do think that getting people to share is a hugely important motivation. It is useful sometimes to have things be open-ended, or confusing, or illegible, or mysterious, and to leave it up to the viewer to fill in that space.
SMP: I have to ask: what’s the story with the title?
JM: The thing that I’ve always admired about kids’ crafts—especially with young children—but for any age, valentines create a kind of freedom that doesn’t require the maker to be skilled, just to be sincere. If something is like a valentine, the requirement is only that you make something with a full heart. Oftentimes, it’s the struggle with craft or even the crapiness of it that embodies the charm of affection. The valentine is a kind of liberated form that everyone can participate in and, in fact, be successful at making—it doesn’t require any kind of virtuosity or mastery.
Jeffry Mitchell lives and works in Seattle, WA. He is represented by Ambach & Rice, (Los Angeles), and Pulliam Gallery, (Portland), and his works are in the collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, the Philadelphia Art Museum, the New York Public Library, the Portland Art Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, the Tacoma Art Museum, and Western Bridge Museum among others. His mid-career retrospective, Like a Valentine, curated by Sara Krajewski, was on view at Henry Art Gallery October 27, 2012 – January 27, 2013.
Midway through our studio visit, MK Guth told me about a compass—her father’s compass to be precise—that, throughout her childhood, was contained in the tackle box on her family’s boat. After countless summers of relying on this particular compass to navigate the waterways of the Canadian Great Lakes, it became a talisman of sorts, and it was this heirloom that sent the artist running to Midwest following the sale of the entire rig a few years ago. Out of this experience, Guth began to reconsider objects: how they transition between function and fetish; how they shift and shape social interaction; and how their relation to us and to each other organizes our surroundings and appropriates our actions.
Despite her attachment to the compass, Guth never learned to read it. It wasn’t until she was the sole owner of the object that she fulfilled its agency as a wayfinder, using it to navigate hikes through the Cascades. This notion of object lying in wait, anticipating the grasp of the human hand to become activated as an extension and mediation of human experience in the world, is a theme resonant throughout Guth’s art practice. Her most recent project, When Nothing Else Subsists, Smell and Taste Remain, (2012), is a multi-sensory exploration of the meaning that can evolve from the intersection of subject, object, and context. The exhibition is composed of a series of vignettes—or still lives as the artist calls them—composed of everyday readymades interspersed with one-of-a-kind handcraft and modified found objects. Guth meticulously curated a range of texture in each display. The all too appealing interplay of lustrous forged bronze, hand-blown glass, and polished woodgrain cannot help being touched. Guth intentionally solicits this interaction from her audience, tempting visitors to sit at her handcrafted table, thumb through original artist books, and take various tools for dining in hand.
As a secondary, perhaps richer engagement, viewers are invited to enact dinners— elaborate rituals explicitly outlined in Guth’s one-of-a-kind books: Dinner for John Cage, Dinner for Crying, Dinner for the Woods, Dinner for a Funeral, Dinner for Getting Lost, and others. In this iteration of When Nothing Else Subsists, the social becomes both medium and content of the project. Setting the stage upon familiar platform of table, flatware, and food, Guth subverts the everydayness of dining, directing attention to the ritual itself—its structure, its narrative, and its social interplay—as a subtle reminder of the small, ephemeral gestures that contribute to grand, long-lasting accumulations.
Guth’s previous work similarly embraced participation as fodder for art practice. Her recent series of braid projects including: Best Wishes, (2011); This Fable is Intended for You: A Work-Energy Principle, (2010); Ties of Protection and Safe Keeping, (2008); solicited physical material—swatches of fiber—as well as text commenting on issues ranging from desire to security. The material was then woven into yards upon yards of braids to create a generative social work that, in the gallery, was translated into an equally compelling sculpture, installation, or lens-based project, that visitors uninvolved with the initial performance could engage and appreciate. Braids from these previous projects festoon the artist’s studio currently. They are in the process of being woven into vessels—clever plays on the idea of a repository— where hopes and wishes are bound-up in the objectness of the container itself.
Guth is the maestra of the send-off. At the root of her work is a central line of inquiry—a rhizome-like thread that binds individual, to object, to universe—generating meaning from what is unacknowledged, unarticulated, or unknown. I spoke to Guth in her southeast Portland studio.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: I’d love to start with a quote that came up in a previous conversation with you: “Art is what makes life more interesting than art.” (Robert Filliou, n.d.) Why did that statement resonate?
MK Guth: What I find important about that quote is that it reminds us that art has a job to do. In the case of my work, I tend to use the concept of the everyday—reflecting on the everyday in the content, materials, and processes of art making—to refocus attention on analyzing and addressing everyday acts, rituals, and processes with new appreciation and understanding. My recent work at Marylhurst [University’s Art Gym], When Nothing Else Subsists, Smell and Taste Remain, the project places the ritual of dining within the context of art to attune the viewer to an act that is so familiar that we take it for granted. For example, in the case of the Dinner for John Cage, you perform a composition at the dinner, but you are also enacting a ritual that we do all the time: eating. It’s this combination of producing something collectively as part of a mundane action within the context of an art experience that forces us to reexamine what we already know.
SMP: So, you’re making the familiar strange, or the ordinary extraordinary…
MKG: It’s more about bringing our attention back to the ordinary so we look at it again. For example, when you walk the few blocks to work every day, you notice certain things, but then you take that walk with someone else and they point out a different building or some detail or whatever, all of a sudden, the walk becomes new again—you see it in a different way. So, I’m not even sure it’s about making it special as much as it is about realigning our sight.
SMP: Food has become such an enormous part of contemporary art and exhibition practice, but in viewing your work, I was brought back to those seminal figures in food and performance, Gordon Matta Clark, Alison Knowles, and to some extent, Rikert Tiravanija. Do you have a relationship to these artists, and how did the contemporary context—cultural and social life—set the stage for this project?
MKG: I’m a bit of a researcher bug. I roll that way anyway. My undergraduate degree is in sociology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and that department is very research oriented and it really influenced the way that I work. In the process of developing [When Nothing Else Subsists], sure, I was looking at all of these different people who engaged food in one way or another; that being said, I don’t want to make the assumption that everyone who works with food shares some sort of similarity. Tiravanija’s way of engaging food and the meaning behind it is very different than somebody like Daniel Spoerri, even though both of these artists are cooking. Both are very different than Gordon Matta Clark and the project Food, or Alison Knowles, who, in a very Fluxus-Happening spirit, highlights our relationship with tools and implements. But sure, I became interested in how art addressed food and eating beginning with very early artworks as a material of life itself that is essential to existence. No matter the moment or context, food makes its way into the artistic realm, from pre-antiquity to present… food is part of what we need and often part of significant rituals that imbue out lives, for example, weddings, births and birthdays all have particular food and food rituals. It doesn’t surprise me that artists are interested in using it to create meaning.
SMP: Many of your previous projects including Best Wishes and This Fable is Intended for You are about engagement through the accumulation of matter—generating fiber and text—whereas your more recent work around food and dining is more about ritual—generative through discursive and performative engagement. What drew you away from one form of participation to another?
MKG: In the 1970s, Gordon Matta-Clark coined the term “food theater.” I actually began conceiving [When Nothing Else Subsists] several years ago when I was in the process of doing all the weaving and braiding projects, and that term—food theater—helped develop my most recent work by focusing my attention on what it meant when I was eating with friends and how it is this theatrical event. Everybody is a performer at the table and there are always expectations as the guest, as the server, as the person who’s cooking the meal, or as the person who is directing the conversation. That notion of performance in relation to something that we do together everyday started to inform where I wanted this work, When Nothing Else Subsists, to go.
I suppose this project is the absolute opposite of my previous work in terms of process. These last several years, perhaps starting with Red Shoe Delivery Service, (2002-2006), and continuing through the woven works, the interaction with the public played out in one field, and the accumulated ephemera then went on to form works of art that could be then reflected on in an institutional setting—a gallery, museum, or what have you. In essence, the interactivity was one experience and the viewing of the object that came out of it was a different experience. What was important to me is that residual work wasn’t functioning as a direct document; meaning, that the secondary object was created to offer up a wholly new viewing experience that has different meaning attached.
I know that my work could easily be defined as “social practice,” but in part because I choose not to show direct documentation of the interactive elements of the work in a gallery context and because my work does not exist as documentation of an experience but instead as an object produced from that experience, I feel that my work is set apart. Honestly, I understand why social practice, or any sort of event-oriented project, relies on documentation—there’s an art economy there, and a manner of communicating something that would be otherwise lost. However, I also feel that showing ephemera can be a fuck you to the audience. It’s like saying: “here’s the event that you all were not involved with. It was great, but you weren’t there.” Also, a photograph or video can never accomplish translating what the original experience was—the related discomforts, smells, sounds, and all the many other things are absent from documentation. An important part of what I do is creating something else that might connect to that initial experience but it isn’t trying to document it in a direct way. I am interested in creating work that offers up multiple experiences and, as a result, the whole project becomes generative.
When Nothing Else Subsists turns my earlier process on its side. The object is similarly the agent of activation, but the activity occurs through an inverse process: object precipitates event.
Certain things cause us to act in specific ways: a book tells us to read it; a table tells us to sit and use it as a surface. We understand that code and structural system, regardless of where the objects are located. It’s universal. You can put something into a gallery—it doesn’t matter what it is—it could be a clothespin and voila, and it’s art. The thing that I like about the table is that people will go to sit at it because its meaning—its system and code—is stronger than that of the art context. For example, people are still willing to go sit at a table and eat despite its location in a university art gallery.
As far as the little vignettes that hold these one-of-a-kind dinners, those still lives have materials that I had hoped would encourage people to take materials off the shelves and engage with them; in particular, the books. For example, the Dinner for Getting Lost has a copy of Aristotle’s “On Man in the Universe” and a book of Rebecca Solnit as well as the one-of-a-kind book that encompasses the dinner. I made the books to be hardcover sturdy objects that tell the viewer: “I’m not fragile, pick me up.” I wanted these still lives to announce that they are meant to be engaged and, in this way, that body of work starts with the sculpture as a way to promote an action. Really, each piece has three different potential experiences that can be engaged: the initial entry to the project is through the still life and contemplative viewing, the second experience is through engaging with the material of the still life, and the third level is to activate the dinner itself.
SMP: I’m interested in your ability to engage with the unique properties and etiquette for participation within different spaces, fluctuating seemingly easily between white cube and more public venues, as with your recent work in Las Vegas. How do you leverage the different qualities of different spaces for your projects?
MKG: All spaces have a context—including galleries—and often, it can be difficult to fight against the associations brought on by site. For the Whitney Biennial, my piece, [Ties of Protection and Safe Keeping, (2008)], was installed in the library of the Park Avenue Armory, a space that has very specific meaning and embedded history. In my mind, simply putting an artwork in that space without considering the relationship to site means that both elements—the history of the space and the meaning of the artwork—are in this constant battle. In my work, it makes more sense for me to use history and meaning in the construction of the artwork so that the two could come together and create a unique, mutually supported experience for the audience. At Marylhurst, the Art Gym has a very particular feel with its exposed wooden beams and a huge expanse of windows—a very hallowed hall kind of feel that adds to the sense of ritual. And, of course, you can’t fight Vegas, so it made sense to do a work that connected some of the aspects of the reasons people visit Vegas: the dream, desire, etc. To me, it seems to be a more successful strategy somehow to engage the site, leveraging it to create meaning for the rest of the work.
SMP: The research-based element of your practice is so intensive. I’m wondering if you could continue this thread and speak to blending more empirical truth—particularly history—with mythmaking, which strikes me as being very present in many of your projects?
MKG: I start often with mythic narratives and use them as a way to bring people in. Often with interactive work, people do not like to engage, (including me!), so there has to be another way to invite people into the piece. There are narratives that we all recognize, and these provide a way for people to come to the work that’s familiar. It’s the shifting that happens in that space—engaging audience with familiar narrative—that creates a new mythic site.
SMP: How did you begin to do participatory work and how do you negotiate the unknowns that come with choreographing this type of performance?
MKG: Late-summer 2002, Red Shoe Delivery Service made its debut in New York. This was a project with Molly Dilworth and, one year later, with Cris Moss. I had been working on a series of photos that were combining mythic representations into everyday scenarios, and one of them was Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers. I had been doing this kind of work for three years and, at that point, I was frustrated with it. In my mind, I was redesigning these representations to make room for ordinary people in the way that you may not be a superhero but you could still have some sort of remarkable power. That series of work just kind of collapsed into the photograph, object, or video, and never really became an experience outside the realm of image or object; Red Shoe developed out of this point of frustration. I was sitting at the kitchen table with my then roommate Molly Dilworth, and I said: “What if I just rented a van, filled it with glittery shoes, and drove around giving people free rides? What would happen then?” And Molly said: “If you do that, I’ll drive.” That’s how Red Shoe was born. We did our first three days in New York with a rented minivan and a bunch of red glittery shoes that I had made, and we literally gave rides to people to wherever they wanted to go. In exchange, they had to give us their shoes for the duration of the ride, and they had to choose a pair of red glittery shoes and click their heels saying: “there’s no place like…” the Post Office, work, the neighborhood bar, or wherever they were going. We took video of our passengers at the beginning and end of each ride, and later edited those two moments together to create a video of people magically transported in a spiral of glitter and heart music to their desired location. As the project went on, we became more sophisticated. Molly started curating the van, so the ride itself became this entirely other experience for the riders. Then Chris Moss became involved when we realized we needed a third person. Chris began working on these interactive DVDs that involved recording the stories of our riders and partnering with writers and illustrators to translate them into texts and images. We began creating this multi-layered, almost rhizomatic project that spoked in all these different ways. We began doing virtual travel agencies, dispatch centers, shoe stores, so something that started out as a mobile project—which we always kept—became all these different ways of communicating notions of risk taking, desire, transformation, and different ideas of home.
When Red Shoe was first developed, it took time for the three of us to understand and evolve the work in such a way that the loss of autonomy that comes with participation was not a problem to be resolved, but rather, something that offered up a range of new possibilities both for the viewers and for us as the artists that made the work more exciting. As time went on, and with the braid projects, I began to weave-in this loss of autonomy into the design of the work. When Sol Lewitt spoke about his instructions-based works, he had an understanding that no one person draws a line the same. So, those works, no matter how well the instructions are composed, will always vary a little bit, and that becomes part of the work. I think that if you pursue a practice that is exchange-based or participatory without that understanding that concept, you are going to be constantly frustrated. Understanding that active audience members will come in and shift the outcome of the work has to be taken into consideration in the design of the piece. This different system of meaning making doesn’t change the authorship of the work however, because the design of that experience is still coming from me.
SMP: So, given that transdiciplinary is the buzzword du jour, I’m curious if you can articulate a bit more about your approach to art making that draws from research, object making, image making, performance, and choreography. Moreover, artists today function in various roles ranging from sociologist, to journalist, to cabdriver. Given the expansion of the field, how would you define the role of an artist in this context and how do you address the anxiety that comes with pushing and crossing traditional boundaries?
MKG: I’m not going to define the role of an artist—each artist is going to define that role differently. But I do feel that art has a job to do and, for me now, my job as an artist involves wearing a lot of different hats: choreography, directing, facilitating.
I come from an object making background, and I still believe in the power of the object to make people act or to change their understanding of an image or event. That being said, I would like to approach my practice as one that offers up a multi-level of experiences including more viewer activated experiences. At the end of the day, I feel that in order to communicate, I need to make use of many different skills: some that are very common and everyday ways of making; others are more cerebral, mining my education and research skills; and some that engage new technology, which in many ways is redefining the role of the artist today. What is an artist? Tough question! I guess I choose the job of cultivating an experience for an audience that communicates something about them back to them. This is the role I choose.
MK Guth is a multidisciplinary artist residing in Portland, Oregon. Her most recent project, When Nothing Else Subsists, Smell and Taste Remain, was on view at Marylhurst University’s Art Gym, Oct. 7 – Dec. 9, 2012. She received her MFA from New York University in 2002, and her work has been featured internationally at numerous museums, galleries, and festivals including: The Whitney Museum of American Art; The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; The Melbourne International Arts Festival; Portland Institute for Contemporary Art; Swiss Institute; White Box Annex; White Columns; Frye Museum; Henry Art Gallery; and others. Guth is currently Chair of the MFA Program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, (PNCA), and is represented by Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland.