I first met Pete Hickok in 2009. He was the cute guy in one of my graduate classes. I was too shy to talk to him until the one day when I needed help fabricating a sculpture out of metal and wood. Pete worked in the grad woodshop, so I got up the nerve to ask him if he could help me. His kindness and generosity were immediately evident, and ever since that day, our friendship grew into the kind of relationship one hopes to obtain before leaving art academia.
This month, Pete is celebrating his first solo show titled Backwash at Aggregate Space, just a few miles outside San Francisco in neighboring Oakland. His mixed-media work is a combination of elegant composition and kitschy material that dives quite deep into a personal arena of secretive confession. For my first post with Bad At Sports, I found it only fitting to sit down with one of my best friends, art collaborator, and all-around cool artist.
Jeffrey: Congratulations on your opening last Friday. How did it feel?
Pete: It felt great to see the work installed and see so many people show up to support. What did you think of the work?
J: What? Are you interviewing me?
J: Well, remember a few weeks ago when we were talking about having a great art experience? I’m in such a positive place in my life that the last thing I feel like doing is being critical about artwork.
P: Thank God.
J: It’s like, I know we as artists have a kind of rubric in our minds of what to do when we go into a show and look at the work and go through that checklist, which usually involves arriving at a critical analysis that tries to change the work in some way.
P: So you’re saying you don’t want to get all art school on it?
J: Exactly. I just want to walk into the space, absorb the work, and thank the artist for the experience. So, Pete, thank you for the experience.
P: You’re welcome. So…what do you want to talk about?
J: My first question is: what did your parents think of all the nudity in the show?
P: I don’t think the nudity bothered them at all. I think my mom was more concerned about how the show’s card described the show, which states something about me controlling the flows of my own pleasure, sexuality, and spirituality. She called me a week before the show and asked, “so, is this show going to be really weird”. And I said, “Mom, you know my work well enough to know that it’s gonna be weird, but it’s not gonna be so wild that you run for the hills.”
J: I was sitting in the screening room for your video and your parents came in and sat next to me. I was super anxious because I thought you might show your penis and I didn’t want to be next to your mom when she reacted.
P: But my mom has seen my penis more than anyone else in this world!
J: Why are you so fascinated with your body? And to give this question context, there are a lot of references specifically in the video to your own fingers, your head, your feet, your voice…
P: On a very basic level, my body is the only thing I have control over – and I don’t really have as much control over it as I think. So a lot of my work is really about strategies of control and a sense of a ‘loss’ of control. It’s about the threat of the “wild” as well as the unconscious mind.
J: In terms of control, I noticed that the sculptures within the show are very formal. There is a traditional feeling of controlled aesthetics – so many elements in your work seem very calculated and specific, like the verticality of Fountain and Golden Showers in the Summer of My Waning Youth.
P: I’m very drawn to classical sculpture, specifically Baroque sculpture, because of its formal and controlled composition, which at the same time express a sort of wild spiraling unruly energy and spirituality. Baroque sculpture also has a level of controlled sentimentality.
J: What do you mean by sentimentality?
P: The facial expressions of Baroque sculptures are over-exaggerated and specifically intended to evoke emotion in the viewer which is something that art – before Baroque and after Baroque – has typically been afraid of.
J: Is that why you like using deformed bodies? What exactly are those body parts? Are they mannequins?
P: Some of them are mannequins. Some of them are cast parts of my own body. Other things like the diving dolphin vibrator slash cock ring references the body and specific body parts without them actually being there.
J: Did you hear that I broke my iPhone while reaching for the Water World headphones?
P: No, but I heard a big crash over by the piece.
J: The day after your show, I was talking to a friend and I told him about my iPhone breaking. He said that he’s done the same thing a bunch of times and it sucks so much because our phones are like extensions of our body. Specifically, our phones touch our ears and collect our mouth germs – it’s a very private tool. I giggled because it came full circle back to the dolphin vibrator. Don’t you like when life imitates art?
P: Did my cock ring scare you?
J: A little, but at the same time, I had cock rings in my show last year.
P: Guess we’ve worn out the artistic use of the cock ring by now. But anyway, when you mentioned the intimacy of your iPhone and your body, I was thinking of the way I build a relationship with the model car in my video. At one point, I actually start fingering the car. It expresses the limit to my emotional connection to the object and my desire for something more immediate and concrete. What ensues is a futile attempt at joining my body with the object. It’s a very beautiful and sad scene.
J: Immediate connection to what?
P: To anything outside of me.
J: What’s your damn problem with connecting to something outside of yourself? Are you too hooked into Facebook?
P: No, not enough. I’m Social Media Challenged. SMC.
J: I do think that your work in the show is eerily introverted. There’s very little opportunity for me as the viewer – or just for me as me – to access the work without feeling a little dirty or like I’m going into a place that is typically viewed as dark – sex, liquid, silence.
P: But what about the noises, music, colors, and humor? I thought there was a level of exuberance and humor that took it out of that dark area.
J: I didn’t laugh once.
P: Guess I failed. I laughed the whole time!
J: Maybe it’s because my iPhone broke. Fine, then describe humor.
P: How do I describe humor? Humor is the juxtaposition of two unlikely things. Or, a lot of times in my work, the use of traditionally non-art subjects or material, like whale noises, aquariums, tigers that cry blue tears, etc. I also like to capitalize on people’s ability to laugh when they feel uncomfortable. A piece I made last year was a terrarium full of hermit crabs, which from a distance, looked just like hermit crabs. But when you got closer, you could see that their shells were covered in body parts from pornography magazines. Turning the hermit crabs into distinct sexual identities and confusing a traditionally juvenile and domesticated pet is funny to me. But it’s also a discussion about the process of learning about sexuality and all of its complexities.
J: Do you have crabs?
P: I used to. Hermit crabs.
J: No, I mean on your penis.
P: Never. But just the word crab has two meanings and its funny when used in the art world. “No one wants to talk about crabs.” I had a gallerist tell me that once.
J: So how do you think your unpopular concepts fit in to an art context?
P: I think for the most part they don’t. There are a lot of galleries that don’t want to have the conversations that I’m having. That’s fine. I’ve found people, like Conrad Meyers and Sara D. Willis of Aggregate Space, who want to support my work because they know I’ll have a difficult time in other places.
J: But you’ve shown your work in so many places in San Francisco – Root Division, Southern Exposure, and SOMArts.
P: The Bay Area has a current of – what would you call it? Not ‘deviance’, not ‘racey’, shit – what’s the word. I’m not good with words – that’s why I’m an artist.
J: I’m an artist and I’m great with words, so fuck you.
P: I’ve always seen the Bay Area that harbors challenging work. Historically it’s had movements like The Beats, Abstract Expressionism, Street Art. I moved from Central Oregon to the Bay Area because I couldn’t make work there that probed the stranger parts of life. No one would take me seriously. I still have good friends that are artists in Oregon, but our work is completely different. I respect what they do. I don’t think I would have been respected the same way as them if I had stayed there.
J: What artists are you following in the Bay Area?
P: Other than you?
J: Yes, other than me.
P: Omer Gal, Jennie Lennick, and Mitsu Okubo are some artists I’m really into right now. They make different and challenging work. Omer creates performances based around handcrafted art objects and soundtracks that are both beautiful and disturbing. Jennie uses a Midwest aesthetic ad nauseam to unearth some of the boundaries between sanity and insanity. Mitsu makes brilliantly humorous dirty drawings and collages.
J: Do any of them have crabs?
P: I’ll ask them later and get back to you.
J: So my last question for you is: what’s up with all the drag?
P: You mean, like, the fake nails, female hair, and non-gender specific child mannequins?
J: I think you just said the title for your first autobiography.
P: Well, I’ll just tell you that I’ve been in the beauty supply warehouse in West Oakland so many times now that they’re not surprised anymore to see a young white guy in a mainly African-American ladies’ store. They don’t even bat an eye when I get to the counter with hair extensions and fake eyelashes.
I’ve always liked Dave Hickey. This was initially because his Air Guitar was the one book of art theory or criticism I could read without feeling like I was choking down something unpleasant because it was supposed to be good for me. So, last October, when Hickey famously “resigned” from the art world (the exact meaning and consequences of which only time will tell), I was eager to hear his reasoning, which, I figured, had to be pretty good.
Hickey’s complaints, first reported in The Guardian and immediately quoted basically everywhere, carry an echo of a quotation (often misquoted) from Hunter S. Thompson’s Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ‘80s: “The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason…Which is more or less true. For the most part, they are dirty little animals with huge brains and no pulse.”
Last night over after-dinner drinks, a friend told me about Damien Hirst’s collaboration with the Olsen twins: the twins’ signature black patent leather Nile crocodile backpack (which, apparently, is a thing), released as 12 limited-edition designs embellished by Hirst. The Nile originally sold for $35,000; the Hirst edition goes for $55,000, with the proceeds going to Unicef. Nobody’s going to hate on Unicef, but Hirst’s spot paintings already had an air of an artist who’d become too big to fail just phoning it in to make a buck. Repeating the spot imagery on a luxury backpack starts to feel like the art world’s version of the Portlandia “Put A Bird On It” sketch.
Big shots make big targets, and any museum-vetted multimillionaire artist is going to draw some flak. Jeff Koons has attracted criticism ever since his public relationship-as-performance with an Italian porn star-politician (a pretty special combination in itself) was widely written off as an obvious publicity stunt. Hirst has always attracted skepticism, mostly of the “but is it art?” variety, for his dead-thing-in-a-vitrine work, but they were at least monumental. His spot paintings look lazy by comparison, and stamping them on a bag reinforces the idea that he’s become not just a brand, but nothing but a brand. Warhol would approve, maybe, but a lot of us, I think, are tired of it.
What makes us uncomfortable, I think, is the implication that this collaboration may actually be between equals. We dread that there may be some hypocrisy in our criticism of the balls-out consumerism that allows a pair of twins who got famous getting their diapers changed on television to sell handbags for five figures. Are art world celebrities so different from the garden variety? More to the point, are art world celebrities any different from ourselves, and our friends, if we got the success we pretend to disdain but secretly covet? We want to see ourselves as the kid who points out that the emperor’s new clothes are nothing at all, and when one of our darlings pairs with one of theirs, we start to feel the tickle of the breeze on our own naked back.
The truth, I think, is that there is no difference. These art world titans fill our need to have something to worship, and to hate. Like soccer moms flipping through tabloids in the checkout line of the grocery store, we need these gods and demons, to love and to fear, to envy and mock. In the end, the fact that they happen to be artists is entirely incidental. Like everybody else, we’re drawn to epic personalities, and like everybody else, we’ve been eating a mile of their shit just to see where it comes from. That we happen to prefer the flavor of artist shit over actor shit, or musician shit, or athlete shit, is an incidental consequence of subculture, class, and education, and has no bearing whatsoever on the essential nature of cults of personality.
This at least would seem to explain Hickey’s “fuck this shit” decision to opt out of the whole thing. And Hickey is one for whom the system worked: I’m sure the man’s received his share of rejection letters, but I’m also pretty sure that it’s been a while. His criticism can hardly be called a case of sour grapes, but it must resonate with anyone who’s doing good work, not getting the recognition it deserves, and seeing what look like heaps of laurels being stacked on the heads of lazy hacks. The temptation to sweep the chessboard onto the floor and walk away is certainly understandable.
Here’s the thing: gods you don’t believe in can’t touch you. It doesn’t matter what million-dollar deals are being done between people you’ll never meet. It may be interesting, and sure, we may wish for a slice of that action, but it can only suffocate you if you bury your face in it. Art is like Calvinball: if you don’t like the rules, you can change ‘em. I’m not going to second-guess how Hickey wants to live his life; it sounds like he’s got some book projects he’s into, which look interesting, and while they’re not directly about art, I was never entirely sure that Air Guitar was, either. But opting out isn’t the only option on the table for anyone else who feels that way. Nothing the big shots are doing, however frustrating, however misguided, need stop you from making that work, writing that blog post, or running that apartment gallery.
Bumper stickers make for lousy arguments, but there’s one out there that slings a butchered quote spuriously attributed to Mahamta Ghandi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” The actual quotation isn’t quite as pat, but it’s a decent thought for anyone who’s frustrated with the way things are, whether in the art world or anywhere else:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”
P.S. Fuck you, Olsen Twins: This is how to use a crocodilian as a fashion accessory: The author’s wife Stephanie Burke with one of Jim Nesci’s reptiles, at Big Run Wolf Ranch.
Last September, DePaul Art Museum hosted an epic group exhibition, featuring Imagist artist work on the first floor and a contemporary generation of artists on the second. While those contemporaries have in many respects plotted their own independent and respective courses, there was something refreshing about co-curators,’ Dahlia Tulett-Gross and Thea Liberty Nichols, ability to highlight the visual and theoretical connection between generations. The resulting exhibition, Afterimage, illustrated a visual legacy, reinvigorating the past while demonstrating it’s transformation into the present.
Caroline Picard: Often collaborative curatorial projects come from on-going conversations — how did you two conceive of the Afterimage show?
Thea Liberty Nichols: You’re right on target in thinking that the show evolved through a series of ongoing conversations, but ultimately, Dahlia came up with the idea. She’s connected to a lot of local galleries and has built relationships with dozens of artists. Recognizing a renewed interest in the Imagists among contemporary artists who, rather than obscure or reject their connection to them, prized it, she isolated a certain look or feel that many of those artists shared with the Imagists. She approached me about co-curating with her partly because I had written my thesis on the Imagists. Ultimately, our commitment to showcasing the work of every artist as an individual within the larger context of our show led to the publication of an exhibition catalog, which we were so pleased to include you in!
CP: What was so important about platforming art with writing in the catalogue?
TLN: We were dedicated to creating some enduring historical record since, like Imagism itself, there’s a lot of historical background noise about art writing in Chicago — both its quality and its outlets, or lack there of. In both instances, rather then engage distant and stale debates, we wanted to have a new conversation featuring new voices. We were lucky to work with a whole host of arts writers, including arts journalists, critics, curators and even some visual artists who also write for our publication. go here to read more.
Everything I’ve read about Berlin-based painter, James Krone’s, recent exhibit Waterhome centers Krone’s practice around an empty aquarium. The aquarium in question, however, is not present in the exhibit itself. Instead you’ll find a series of paintings hung on the wall, a folding screen dividing the room that is similarly composed of paintings and a stack of paintings face up on a plinth. These monochrome works seem at first either black or white. At first they appear unpainted, as though they were salvaged from a musty basement and hung as testaments of mold and unforgiving sunlight. The marks on the canvas seem to have grown over pure blankness, or pure darkness — like intrusions of time and environment. Slowly, upon closer inspection the range of color becomes apparent, the areas of bleaching and stretch marks conspire to create a cohesive, aesthetic experience. The image of a tank collecting algae is tied in with this work, and I kept asking myself how it — with its self-generating, dynamic ecosystem — connected to painting, especially when these paintings speak so directly to minimalism, and abstraction. Waterhome opened this past Saturday and will be up until February 2nd at Kavi Gupta Gallery. All images courtesy of the gallery.
Caroline Picard: I am interested in the relationship between your paintings and this fish tank — an object that seems present in everything I’ve read about your work, even while it is absent from the physical exhibition space. Without the fish tank, I experience your paintings as these lovely, subtle color fields that reflect back on a collective/historical painting conversation — your works strike me as non-painting paintings, almost. They have been crafted in such a way as to seem like canvases left in a damp basement for an extended period of time — flecks of paint look like tiny blotches of mold peppering the surface. And yet, by incorporating this fish tank, even as a (non-present) totem of the work, your paintings engage the natural world as well. I have started to fixate on this fish tank —What is its relationship to your paintings? Does it function as a muse of some sort? Or does it have a more direct relationship to your painting process?
James Krone: The fish tank was something that I had, was given as a gift at one point because I had wanted a pet lobster. I had some miscommunication with the electrical company at the time and my power kept going off. I was worried that if I put a lobster in the tank and the electrical company turned off the power again, the lobster would die. Also, I realized what a lot of work it would be to maintain a salt water tank. Instead of getting rid of the tank I filled it with water and put it on a table in my apartment and decided that that was enough. I couldn’t tell if it was a sculpture or if I was just keeping water as a pet but I found it somewhat fascinating and it didn’t take any effort to have it there. It was visible and transparent, recycling its qualities through an electric filter. It wasn’t very long before algae started to grow in the water, a rather delicate layer of soft velvety chartreuse. I’ve never really thought of the algae as nature, primarily, so much as an inevitable form of production that was filling a void while simultaneously articulating my incapacity to maintain either an illusion of emptiness or a consistent object. I’m often seduced by points where assumed binaries falter and merge back into one another.
The accretion of the algae persisted and would get quite thorough, creating moments of total opacity and then it would die, or do something that appeared to be entropic, and just collapse off the sides of the tank in sheets of fibers. The process would repeat itself. It seems to be a form of decay but in fact its an active, matter subverting an otherwise sterile space. I admired the mindless production of its cycle and the revolutions of transparency and opacity, persistent and hungry yet apparently neither progressive nor resolute. It is difficult to say whether the algae was a subject coming into being, a subject arrived sui generis or something that was destroying the subject. I think that the paintings work in this way, too.
CP: It sounds like you see a process of painting in the aquarium’s inherent, or natural, process — can you say more about it? How are those conversations wrapped up in one another for you?
JK: I think of the aquarium’s relationship to painting as being about the quotidian and transfiguration, being as a form of continuous maintenance, more than I think about it as nature. Or what is natural? A fungus that eats plastics was recently discovered in South America. I guess I see nature as the incomprehensible totality of everything and just shy away from the references that get associated with nature or the natural (organic, etc…) as they seem to suggest a necessary idea of the unnatural, that I can’t accept.
Maybe if this idea of the unnatural were really just a prudish stand in for perversion then I’d have an easier time dealing with that.
Painting is a thing a person can do quite easily but it will most likely happen in an empty or undetermined space because it isn’t a solicited activity, if it’s of any value. There is no proper or prepared place to make a painting or art because no one is initially asked to do so. If I wanted to be a nurse or make sandwiches for people, there are rooms for me to go to that would be readymade. To make paintings I have to go get an empty room and bring my things there and the person who rents it to me probably says, “Don’t get it on the floor.”
CP: You directly speak to the idea of entropy in the Waterhome exhibit description. I want to say this connects somehow to the blank canvas, or the empty fish tank. That these blank spaces inevitably fill up and get dirty. Is this where you are locating entropy? i.e. the fact that “the purity of the void” will be compromised marks a sign of failure? I’m interested in this idea because I feel like it’s somehow based on a philosophical premise of your own, namely that something clean and clear and empty is an idealized state; the addition of mold/small flecks of green color, scuff marks, the apparent bleach of the sun, or errant stretch marks is the function of dilapidation. But you could also think of mold is an additive growth, a positive, productive transformation. And the signs of age and dilapidation on your canvases are fabricated by you — which also seems additive. That’s a rambling way of arriving at my question: How do you think about entropy as a painter?
JK: I think it does speak of entropy. Maybe it’s also a rejection of the notion of entropy. Is entropy anything more than an effect that articulates… what? A disappointment with the impossibility of nothingness? Of permanence?
I don’t know but I don’t like to think of painting on a canvas as going somewhere so much as doing something.
Each painting does end, though, and working on a single painting forever would make it seem far too important.
This thing of dirty is interesting to me because on one hand I do feel at the moment I first touch a blank canvas that I’m somehow soiling it… but claiming a blank canvas is even worse than ruining one.
The term “purity of void” has more to do with a criticality of the notion of purity than it does with championing the fantasy of the void. It’s exposing that there would be this idea of a void or an anti-space and that in the totality of this emptiness, a certain purity would be attained. I see the void as the imaginary friend of the puritanical; some evidence that the desire for the pure is motivated by death drive.
There is a promise of clarity in a glass box and that is probably just an illusion. It’s cruel because we know how to yearn for that illusion. It performs a job until something else arrives and that arrival ruins the illusion. This is both a relief, as it cancels this yearning, and a disappointment, as it cancels this yearning.
The death of a false promise is still a loss.
CP: I am also interested in this idea of choreography and exposure — as I understand it, you apply layers and layers of washes to the canvas and the washes respond to a laid rabbit glue surface, settling permanently in some places as they wash away in others. Is that process where you locate this idea of dance?
JK: The canvases are sized with several layers of rabbit skin glue and then I paint a single wash of paint on them daily. The colors I use are based on the colors produced in the aquarium; viridian, sap green, alizarin crimson and lemon yellow.
This accretion of the layers of paint negates the color of those preceding and the canvas builds towards an ostensible black. Eventually, a section of the sizing on the canvas wears down and begins to resist saturation and even degrades back towards a lightness. I take either occurrence as a signal to stop. It’s an exposure of the painting in that it destroys the painting’s potential to be a monochrome. I either leave the canvas like that or I unstretch it and reverse it. The paintings that get reversed seem to have something more like a personality because of the moments where the support has faltered and paint has bled through. But as much as you see the points where the color has come through you are also seeing the places where it has not.
It isn’t a terribly complicated process, rather deskilled, if peculiar and specific.
The choreography is knowing what I will do beforehand and remaining more or less consistent to that, intending that the repetition of the behavior avoids a narrative of progress.
I’d hope that the paintings are anachronistic, not in the sense of timelessness but in that they might deny tense.
CP: One of my favorite pieces in your exhibit at Kavi Gupta is the stack of canvases — I loved the way you transform the painting into a sculpture and by stacking them emphasize the painted side or edge — a typically marginalized space where accidental drips and stains exist like a dirty closet in a house or dorm room. But you emphasize that side and cover the faces of many paintings. Can you talk a bit about how you decided to stack these works? And did your process of painting change when you anticipated stacking them?
JK: The sides of these paintings were always attractive to me because they look the same regardless of which side of the painting has been stretched. Last February in Berlin I made a different exhibition with this work that included a coffee table consisting of a stack of square Waterhome paintings elevated on rather feeble legs. The dressing screen in this show made that option seem too much like a literal conversation between painting and furniture but I wanted to retain some kind of focus on what is usually, as you said, a typically marginalized space.
There was some playing around with that piece for a while, verticality, horizontality, what a pedestal does or does not do or infer, etc… I felt that it had to be a piece in itself more than just an apparatus to describe the other work. I think it becomes a grammatical elongation of those margins by collapsing the physical space between them.
The process of the painting really doesn’t ever change but different consequences seem to arise as I continue to make them, whether or not I want them to.
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.