Drawing Lines of Communication: A Conversation With Tony Lewis

April 2, 2014 · Print This Article

By: Kevin Blake

It is perhaps impossible to communicate the meaning of anything within the boundaries of language. Without a guide to offer intention, language simultaneously has too many variations and too many limitations, most of which are well defined. Images have the same issues, and within the context of fine art, images carry even more baggage than words. When the words are the images, and the images are the words, the scope of what is readable becomes blurred. Tony Lewis explores these impossibilities of communication by deliberately leading and misleading his audience through the authority of language and the power of images. He draws from the well of established language-oriented conceptual artists while quickly developing an aesthetic grammar that feels genuinely intuitive but earned.

Kevin Blake: Text is scantily deployed in your drawings in what seems like quadrants of equally infinite space and is often connected by a thin line that lassos the letters together. The text reads as a play on words that implicates the viewer, as if the viewer could only know certain letters together as one phrase, or only having one possibility. I think the drawing, “dope repoa” 2012 is a perfect example of this strategy. The viewer sees the words “rope-a-dope” when reading the text from left to right, top to bottom, and this phrase immediately recalls Muhammad Ali and his strategy against George Foreman. There are many implications in this particular drawing, as with most of your work. Can you talk about how you think about the way people see, or the way people read, and how that influences your images?


Tony Lewis, dope repoa, 2012 84″ x 60″ Pencil and graphite powder on paper


Tony Lewis: It’s important to say the work you’re describing is a specific project in the studio, delineated conceptually (but not spatially) from others drawings. That is to say, although I make different types of drawings, I hope they all have a strong, collective sensibility that is considerate towards how people read, look, and think- I guess this means I assume a lot about people. More importantly, I assume to know the difficulty of language (and words and letters) and understanding in conversation. This functions the same way in the work- the speed at which you absorb ideas or material, the longevity of the dialogue, and development your own ideas are all variable.  As you say in regards to implications, I would hope there is more than one possibility when faced with the work, as I am concerned with making images that are working through several things at once. But I won’t be surpised, or disappointed with such a read, as some other the drawings within this project are arguably, and justifiably one-dimensional.

KB: In terms of the implications for the viewer, I should say that I agree there are most definitely more possibilities than one, per drawing, or phrase, or collective grouping of words within any particular work. I suppose that I was trying to get at the idea that in each piece, there is one in particular that rises first and foremost as the one that feels most intentioned. It feels, for instance, that “rope-a-dope” is the phrase that is colloquially known, and that it has implications of its own. The text seems to be rooted in groupings of words that have some sort of social affect or commonplace amongst us and it is that phrase in which the work is situated and then abstracted from. Multiple possibilities arise in this way. I’m curious as to how much of knowing the implications of deploying a very definite grouping of words or letters inform your beginnings and how much of where you begin is maintained in the finished product.

Tony Lewis, ,.deroloc color dna peopled elpoeP, 2011 84″ x 60″  Pencil and graphite powder on paper


TL: The ability to begin with colloquial phrases, or familiar terms is one way to approach the selection of letters from the larger pool of letters made from the original sentence (60 characters). I also select non-words, punctuation, or single letters as viable characters to use in order to make a drawing. All of the selections of characters have historically been based upon my own sensibility and inclination- whether finding humor, sadness, nonsense, direct references to people’s names, or in the case of rope-a-dope, a historically famous fighting style, which also describes the process of seeing and reading of the drawing(s). Sometimes, linguistically they begin with something that makes sense, like “the fool eloped” then progresses to “op ed” in the process of drawing. The past few years the attitude, and motivation toward this template sentence has shifted quite a bit- from breaking it down, finding new language (and all the different ways to do that), and eventually finding new ways to simply make a line.

KB: I saw a couple of your drawings last night at the Hyde Park Art Center, and in one of the pieces there is a piece of appropriated text from a calender pasted to the drawing. It acts very differently than your more formal arrangements spatially, but seems to create the same sort of conceptual trajectory. Can you talk about the chronology of mark-making in your work or how you set up these drawings? Does the text come first? Do you begin with a phrase? Does the phrase arise from the drawing? As your motivations towards a template sentence shifts, how do those changes affect the way a drawing is executed? 

TL: The drawings at HPAC were commissions through the NJAPF program, so they’re more about conflating patron desires with studio sensibilities. I’m not very good at talking about those, as they are more a result of compromise and conversations with specific people, and more like collaborations. I hope that makes sense.

The mark-making begins with the condition of the studio where the drawings are made. For the past few years, i’ve had a healthy amount of graphite powder over most surfaces, mostly the floor and walls. Naturally, objects in the space immediately display evidence of their surroundings. Beginning on the floor, I take four sheets of loose stonehenge paper, tape, and rubber cement, and begin to bind them together, using a previous drawing (to maintain the correct scale and shape). From there I move to the wall where I usually have a 5′ by 7′ sheet of paper ready to work on- a sheet of paper with a heavy dose of loose “bruises”, scuffs, rips, and smudges. Afterwards, I usually begin outlining the framework (or guidelines) provided by the original drawing/template to find the position of the letters chosen from the larger sentence which has been put into a visual framework to visually fit the page (or sheet of paper). I proceed to draw the letters, words, or phrases that will be a part of the drawing, and will finish with drawing a line (or some variation) through each of the letters, words or phrases, I’ve just drawn. At that point I move the drawing to another location in the studio-mostly more than once, and will most likely use that same drawing to provide the correct dimensions and size to create another new drawing. There is variation at each stage of mark-making, but I’ve ultimately come to understand the project as one viable way to make a drawing.

Tony Lewis, loo, 2012 84″ x 60″ Pencil and graphite powder on paper

Considering the motivational shifts toward the template sentence, at one point it was about breaking down the perceived meaning of the template sentence people would have about the subject matter. Then I became interested in finding new words, which pointed to more interesting conversation. After a while, I was concerned with language that would give me the most interesting line. I’ve also been interested in creating subgroups of drawings within the larger project- drawings with similar language that come from the same source. Lately I’ve been understanding the project conceptually as the reality to speak with a dangerously limited vocabulary. Having focused on the same letters, phrases, and words for so long, I can’t help but look to my own creativity to say something, anything just to be heard, and to understand the limitations of what I can say. It’s like only having 10% of the dictionary to work from, and still having to find ways to express anger, confusion, happiness, The Simpsons, hatred, Che Guevara, the Irish Potato famine, race, Muhammed Ali, Richard Serra, color, Pope.L, Colorado, the letter o, and Kid Cudi (among others). All of these elements influence the way the drawings have been executed, and have shaped the future of the project.

KB: I recently read an essay by the artist Liselott Johnsson entitled, “Painting beyond Painting: From Pensiero Debole to an Expanded Practice,” in which she used Roland Barthe’s “Death of the Author” to situate her investigation into creating a relationship between her images and the viewer. Barthes writes, “…a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader…” Can you elaborate on how you decide to set up these parameters or boundaries that limit the scope of what is usable in terms of text in the drawings, and how those impediments reflect the viewer’s capacity to digest or grasp the conceptual framework within each work? How important is the reader’s comprehension to you? At what point does text and image become one unit–one conceptual and formal investigation?

TL: I decided to limit the boundaries of the text in the drawings when I wrote the template sentence, and whatever can come from that structure to help make a drawing- the language is undoubtedly subservient to the drawing. At the same time, the language is confounding, easily forgettable, yet explicitly, and vaguely refers to the past, present, and future of the color line in the US, and other places. It still feels like a great place to begin making drawings because of the reality its grounded in- the reality of poetic quotations, and the platitude as a way to continually describe a brief history of color, or race. From the beginning, I’ve had a distinct feeling that the statement is written as though it’s only been spoken to in platitudes, which in turn is how it learns to speak. I feel for the sake of the project, it’s important to note that I wrote the sentence, and it’s crucial that it feels like a quotation, because it essentially is. I usually need the help of a structure, diagram, or appropriated framework to combat the anxiety of making a drawing. For this project, it was my epigrammatic statement, Microsoft Word, and the very loose reference to Arial Bold.

I’m not sure I see the limitations as impediments against the viewers capacity to grasp the conceptual frame work. They are pragmatic in a sense that they allow for a more succinct way to arrive at what the viewer is faced with. I’m committed to the idea that the variety of the reader’s comprehension should rival the variety within the drawings. The project is bunk without a diversification of “responses” to the original sentence- by “responses”, I mean drawings. As I’ve pointed to earlier, each drawing that is made is a viable, physical reaction to the original platitude, and the authority it implies. With each drawing made, comes the expansion of possible positions to understand, support, disregard, disavow, worship, or forget the source. Each drawing is an individual object, as well as part of a larger conceptual collective who’s purpose at this point, may be to create a plethora of possibilities for people to be overwhelmed by. Maybe not. For viewers to fall into a single drawing, and go insofar as the paper, character, and the graphite smudge, I would hope it can find the same level of humor or seriousness (latent as it may be) as when sardonically bombarded with the drab, historical narrative of the platitude implicitly presented here. Admittedly, there’s a bit of dark humor at play, alongside the occasional slapstick, which keep this project light in a way that allows for a space for play, and a darker laughter.

I would hope that the drawings are always one unit; text and image as components along with others, to make a drawing happen all at once. Whether or not drawing can successfully contain the conceptual and formal investigations is something I’m looking forward to learning.

KB: I think when an artist is eager to learn something, he/she often finds themselves in a vulnerable position. When the solutions to the problems or questions we pose to ourselves are unknown, it seems the objects or images made in light of that inevitable anxiousness can be free of any exactitude forced upon it by solutions to known quantities or qualities. I think some level of vulnerability is an essential element to making new discoveries, and interesting work for that matter. Can you address the idea of vulnerability in your practice and how it may or may not manifest in your work?

TL: I agree, vulnerability in making can yield work that is impenetrable or “free”, if that’s what you mean. I make drawings on paper which are physically vulnerable- very easily ripped, and not fixed. They’re handled roughly in the studio. As weak as they maybe, they do carry the scars of that treatment well, I think. I’ve felt vulnerable about many things for most of my life. I can say making drawing has become a way to transcend my own shortcoming, and make something that enters into an authoritative, invulnerable realm which has only been occupied up until this point, by a grand narrative that existed before me, and the audience, yet also has the power to tell my story to both me, and the audience at the same time. I’m interested in having a drawing occupy the same space- turning the narrative onto itself in a way, so as to simulate this unreachable space using the conversation around the perceived content of the drawings. The work on one level, is a way to fight against that seemingly untouchable, historical world, or at least point it out to the viewer, without claiming myself as a victim, to say, “does this happen to you?” It’s hard to expand on that without having the right words.

I’m the type of thinker to find one hundred ways a new idea won’t work, and after I’ve proven myself wrong one hundred times, I feel there’s a chance it’s valid enough to take a risk. I hope this makes me some kind of optimist. There a strong relationship between vulnerability and being an optimist, both require a level of trust in something unknown.


Tony Lewis, clon opP, 2011 84″ x 60″ Pencil and graphite powder on paper

KB: On the subject of vulnerable materials, I’d like to know more about the Cartesian format of the pieced-together papers. The quadrants do not read as strictly a method for creating large scale works on paper. They feel more purposeful and the line that runs through the text further illustrates this format as having a graphed spatial dynamic. Is this happenstance, or does this methodology carry specific conceptual weight?

TL: It’s great for me to use it purely as a method to build a sheet of paper by binding smaller sheets together with rubber cement and tape. Although the quadrant also works well as a physical, and visual parameter to work within. The need for making the paper this way came from previous work, and that studio rhythm continued into this project- I guess that is happenstance. The quadrant helps me to understand character positions spatially, which influences the way words and marks are read in relation to each other. It’s vital that people can read left to right, top to bottom as you said earlier, and I’m interested in how far apart things have to be before they can no longer be understood together. I like the quadrant. It provides a sense of focus when approaching the paper, as if there is something already present holding it together. I’m indebted to the grid because of the way it helps me see space (or emptiness). In the drawings there is a real place for play, and fields where I can run my arms across the paper without flinching- real space to carry all of the conceptual weight of whatever language, mark, or process; and whatever authority or lack the drawings might have, hinges on this space to breathe, and see nothing with, or next to everything. I hope that’s not as romantic as it sounds.

Tony Lewis, n f pope.l, 2012 84″ x 60″ Pencil and graphite powder on paper

KB: As the Whitney Biennial comes to a close, where will you be concentrating your efforts? Do you have exhibition plans in the immediate future?

TL: Through the next month, I’ll be relaxing a bit, and in the studio focusing on new work hopefully. Right now, Nate Young and I have a two-person show at Room East in New York, which I’m very excited to be apart of- Nate is a close friend, and a great artist. I’m also reading Eleanor Roosevelt’s autobiography at the moment, which is nice. The main focus is preparing for solo exhibition in London near the end of May. It should be fun, and hopefully it’s a chance to recreate an exhibition installed in Chicago at Autumn Space in 2011.


March 31, 2014 · Print This Article

T of the Town

Once Chicago’s gets a glimpse of the sun, it’s on. What’s the T? has been all over the place in the last two weeks– openings, screenings, weddings, auctions, limos, basements, you name it. We even hit the courts yesterday with the Club Nutz basketball league. I see you Chicago, & you look gorgeous dahling.

In the words of my Bad at Sports cohort, Steve Ruiz, here’s some stuff you probably should have noticed in March.

Strangers unite to celebrate Wedding to Unknown.

The Unknown Couple with Edra Soto and pineapple upside down cake at the wedding.

The entire week leading up to Alberto Aguilar’s Wedding to Unknown at Columbia College on March 21st, when people asked me what I was doing Friday night I’d reply “going to a wedding.” The conversation would immediately turn weird when they’d inevitably discover that I had no idea who was getting married.

Ross Jordan and Morgan Walsh on the dance floor.

The maestro, Aguilar, serving dinner to wedding guests.

Arriving (late), I was relieved to run into Ross Jordan, outside waiting for his date to arrive. Ross assured me that the scene inside was a regular wedding except that everyone I’d want to party with was there. He wasn’t kidding.

Good vibes abounded and the gusts flocked to the dance floor after dinner & performances.

Sabina Ott rivals dancing queen Vincent Uribe on the dance floor. This photo is everything. Werk it girl! (Photo by David Ettinger Photography.)

Choice guests like Edra Soto, Daviel Shy and Hope Esser, Sabina Ott, Tricia Van Eck, Eric May and tons more rejoiced in honor of the couple. That night they were revealed to be Aguilar’s step-sister-in-law, Nina Young and her husband, Charenzo. The Young family stepped in to renew their vows after the original unknowns backed out weeks before the ceremony was set to take place.

Something like a phenomena.

We were lucky to catch the tail end of TRANSCEND A LIL’ BIT, billed as “An evening of video, performance, and pasta with Tony Balko & A.E. Paterra” at the Nightingale last Wednesday, March 26th.

Transcendent full house at the Nightingale.

Arriving just in time for the duos live A/V performance, SAUDADE, we were bewitched by Balko’s colorful flashing shapes combined with Paterra’s hypnotic rhythms.

Tony Paterra and Tony Balko answering questions after their screening and live performance. They discussed their live performance and past collaborations.

Love to Love You @ Roots & Culture.

Work by Sara Condo at Roots and Culture.

Sara Condo & Oli Rodriguez are like French fries and ice cream, it might not be an obvious pairing but it tastes oh-so-sweet. Or, at least that’s how Love to Love You, their exhibition that opened at Roots and Culture last Friday made me feel. Everyone else must feel the same way because R&C was totally packed. Despite the crowded gallery I was totally blown away by Condo’s image sampling and Rodriguez’s craigslist ad’s mounted on the gallery walls.


Don’t miss this unique opportunity to spend part of your summer in idyllic rural Wisconsin making art and engaging with fellow artists from all over the world.

Don’t mention it, but a little birdie told us that the application deadline is extended until April 4th, so you really have no excuse not to.

The Weatherman Report

Henry Callahan, Eleanor, Chicago, 1949, Gelatin silver print, 19.4 × 24.3 cm. Charles A. Hartman Fine Arts..

Lots of love going on in the R&C kitchen. Guests were treated to vegetarian dumplings and encouraged to recycle their beer cans by Mr. EZ Livin, Eric May.

Definitely a show that I think would benefit from a second look.

Work by Oil Rodriguez.

The exhibition is on view until April 26th.

Love Lingered at Kissy World Concert

After the brimming Roots opening we were pleased to see a healthy crowd at the basement show that took place later that night at Kissy World (formerly the Pilsen gallery Plaines Project).

“It was ephemeral, I mean, ethereal.” Vehicle Blues opening the night with some gazey shoegaze muzak.

This video isn’t blurry, that’s just how Vehicle Blues makes you feel.

Another packed house. Fog machine working overtime.

Brett Naucke with Gabe Holocombe (Vehicle Blues).

The crowd getting down during the Dim Past set. Photo by Davitt Terrell.

COIN performing through the fog.

Thanks to Kissy World, this show was exactly what last Friday night needed. Terrell also got some sweet footage, including my boy Dim Past playing my fav new song and COIN doing some heavy layering.

Charity Report: hArts for Art 5 at LVL3.

Spring Benefit is officially in full swing. First up in our ongoing benefit coverage, the 5th Annual hArts for Art at LVL3.

Paul Kenneth with his scary monster Abraham Lincoln-esque painting up for auction.

One of the many awesome raffle prizes: a siq new tote designed for LVL3 by Clay Hickson.

LVL3’s Anna Mort and Vincent Uribe working in unison with the Leslie Baum piece up for auction.

Anxious attendees mill around the raffle prizes.

On hand at the auction were Dave Kruger, Caitlin Law and Liz Longo from the night’s featured arts non-profit Arts of Life. Kruger and Longo started off the night by interpreting some of the works up for auction. The two below are so spot on! The auction and raffle ultimately raised over $800 for Arts of Life.

Kruger and Longo interpreting a piece up for auction by Evan Robarts.

K & L totally working that fold in front of a print by Clay Hickson.

Basketball. Sunday 1PM. Hamlin Park.

“We gotta use every day of this summer to the fullest”. Tyson Reeder isn’t f-ing around this summer, every above 50 degree day is precious. Meet him on the court for Basketball Bizness.

Artists emerging for daytime activities? This photos got us dreaming of more time in the park, summer residencies, Tastee Freeze, tans and long bike rides on the Lakefront Trail. Is The 606 done yet? Bring on the sunshine!

Whitney Artist Tells It Like It Is

What You Should Have Noticed in March 2014

March 28, 2014 · Print This Article

Welcome back to the second installment of What You Should Have Noticed, my monthly roundup of those salient conversations and notable events worthy of attention, even in retrospect. March has me feeling doubly unequipped to write this, given all that’s gone on in Chicago and New York with the fairs and biennial drama and everything; but I’ll do my best for you, dear reader, and for all the Bad at Sports readership, and for history itself.

1. The Whitney Biennial

It was only sixteen months since the Whitney Museum of Art announce that its curators for the 2014 Whitney Biennial would include our city’s very own Michelle Grabner and long-time Chicagoan Anthony Elms, who would, along with Tate Modern’s Stuart Comer, select the art and artists for contemporary art’s biggest stage. For many artists in Chicago and elsewhere, the curatorial gaze had suddenly and dramatically widened to include artists from outside the center, hammering away in lofts along Chicago’s Kedzie industrial corridor, or busy making and archiving in basements and office spaces around the country. When the list of artists was finally revealed, it sprawled to a staggering one hundred and three participants (one hundred and three!), seventeen of which hailing from Chicago (seventeen!) and all to be corralled into the space’s three floors, with each curator taking an entire floor as his or her separate territory. It would be the last exhibition at the Whitney’s uptown space, and it would be a bang.

The shake out comes from all sides: there have been dozens of articles reviewing the Whitney Biennial, and dozens of comments on different art writers rushing to be the first to review what was, in my experience, a dense exhibition requiring more than my bleary attention, and far more than even an expert’s two hour flyover. Holland Cotter exploited dessert metaphors for the New York Times, calling the fair “a large, three-tiered cake of a show, mostly vanilla, but laced with threads of darker, sharper flavor, and with a lot of frosting on top,” but praising its variety. In his New York Magazine review, Saltz recommended Grabner’s painting-stuffed third floor, while describing the whole Biennial as “optically starved, aesthetically buttoned-up, pedantic,” and later old, irrelevant, generic, noncommittal, bland, big, and bad. Pedro Vélez included a review of the Biennial in his work for exhibition itself: a quick and hashtagged postcard in which he barbed the Whitney’s racial elements (too white!) and praised many artists. A number of writers picked up on Jillian Steinhauer’s impression, as she wrote in her quickly-published Hyperalleric review, that the Whitney lacked political content. This in turn became fuel for a small social media comment storm lamenting lazy or eager critics glossing everything but the most explicit in the rare to publish first. In Chicago, Jason Foumberg’s review for NewCity condensed his week of repeat viewings into just a few hundred words, celebrating Steve Reinke’s video and Elijah Burgher’s drawings and paintings, along with the archival impulses within the Biennial, and admitting the depth of the works selected by writing that “the energy to observe these artworks could equal the labor of their creation.”

There are plenty more reviews to mention, but suffice to say that the Whitney Biennial dominated this month’s conversation on art. The other fairs in New York at the time (Independent, the Armory, Scope, Volta, Moving Image, Fountain) each made their own buzzes, but nothing in comparison to the heat and tweet generated by the Whitney.

 2. The Gay Mafia

Somewhat related to the above, a ripple of this month’s Biennial. In the post-card Whitney review published by Pedro Vélez, the artist-slash-critic made mention of queer art’s prevalence in the biennial, writing that “curators have kept Cultural/Racial identity in the closet (*a good thing) while Queer identity has a strong presence (*a bit too much, some call it an art world “mafia”).” Shit fire and hell, conspiring gays! To continue repeating names, this week Jason Foumberg interviewed David Getsy, chair of the art history, theory, and criticism department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, for Chicago Magazine, and asked Getsy about the crucial question: is there a gay mafia in the art world? Short answer, the queer community in Chicago is doing what the art community in general is awful at: conversing about critical topics relevant to their diverse practices, nourishing one another’s work and careers, and building a shared momentum.

 3. Comfort Station

For Logan Square residents and those that don’t mind their company, this month has seen a full block of events produced by the design collective The Post Family at the Square’s Comfort Station. Events have included a photo safari, a bike maintenance and bikerly business expo, YouTube open mic night, and music from Marcus Schmickler, a smartphone symphony, and more. An excellent use of the space and place.

4. Residency Apps are Due

Hey, don’t forget – the next weeks are the last for many residency applications, including ACRE, Ox-Bow’s MFA residency, and many others. Don’t get stuck in the city while all of your artist friends are making art in the woods and gay conspiring around campfires.


And that’s it! I apologize that this article, much like this month’s discourse, was dominated by a single topic, but such are the currents of visual culture. Check back next month as we enter spring with its myriad MFA shows, museum openings, and all the spills, thrills, and chills of art’s forward plow. Cheers!

Top 5 Weekend Picks! (3/28-3/30)

March 27, 2014 · Print This Article

1. Love to Love You at Roots and Culture


Work by Sara Condo and Oli Rodriguez.

Roots and Culture is located at 1034 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.

2. Frozen Borderline at Ballroom Projects


Work by Jeff Prokash, Kyle Nilan and Danny Floyd.

Ballroom Projects is located at 3012 S. Archer Ave. #3. Reception Saturday, 7-10pm.

3. Majesty of Flesh at Defibrillator


Work by Rocio Boliver.

Defibrillator is locate at 1136 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Saturday, 8-11pm.

4. HCL Spring Warming House Party at Mana Contemporary


Work by Honeypot Performance, Amber Ginsburg & Aaron Hughes, Amir George, NNN Cook, Melinda Jean Myers, Walkabout Theater, CUBE Ensemble, HusARchitecture and Micah Salkind.

Mana Contemporary is located at 2233 S. Throop St. Event Saturday, 7-11pm.

5. Harts For Art: 5th Annual Silent Art Auction and Benefit Raffle at LVL3

Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 4.49.23 PM

Work by Alex Chitty, Ben Medansky, Brian Kokoska, Brion Nuda Rosch, Calvin Ross Carl, Chelsea Culp, Clay Hickson, Cody Tumblin, Daniel Shea, Evan Robarts, Josh Reames, Lauren Clay, Leslie Baum, Liz Nielsen, Maria Walker, Paul Kenneth, Peter Shear, Rachel Niffenegger, Robert Costello, Ryan De La Hoz, Sabina Ott, Sofia Leiby, Steven Riddle and Zach Reini.

LVL3 is located at 1542 N. Milwaukee Ave. 3rd Fl. Event Saturday, 6-10pm.

Salvaged Dwellings: In Search of Place, Part I

March 27, 2014 · Print This Article

Atlanta has been experiencing growth in its art community, particularly within the past few years. Organizations like Dashboard Co-Op look to the abandoned and uninhabited spaces of the city as sites to host exhibitions. Efforts to expand gallery spaces to downtown are underway; note the addition of Mammal Gallery to Broad St., Eyedrum to MLK and its attempts to expand into another building downtown. The newly created Low Museum by students and former BFA students at Georgia State University. In one way, this particular development is specifically Atlantan; in another way, maybe this work could be in any other city. Maybe not.

Lucy Lippard claims in her 1997 book The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society that she had been “lured to the subject of the local by its absence or rather by the absence of value attached to specific place in contemporary cultural life, in the “art world,” and in postmoderns paradoxes and paradigms.”

Symptomatic of this clinging to a postmodern fragmentation is the 2012 book Noplaceness: Art in a Post-Urban Landscape, published by Possible Futures which inaugurated Atlanta Art Now, a print biennial that examines contemporary art in Atlanta. Yes, we could comment on Lippard’s incredible privilege that enables her to easily live in multiple places either diachronically or synchronically. This does not mean, though, that we should throw out “place” entirely. The introduction to Noplaceness states that the book is “a study of Atlanta artists’ responses to an urban condition now made global” (3). Further, the book proposes “noplaceness” as “an attempt to describe the quality of space rendered abstract by the conditions of postindustrial capitalism and global information flows” (3). The introduction ends with a question: “Where is our common ground when the space we occupy doesn’t add up to a place we can define?”(5). I’d like to address this question and the problem of the local and the global as it maps onto the city of Atlanta.

My last article addressed the cave as both a literal and figurative site for artistic practice and examined the conditions which produced this specific project’s way of creating, maintaining, and navigating its art world. What I’d like to do in the space of this piece is address a few artists’ sculptural practices that evoke/provoke reflection on the state of affairs. Mind you, these works are not meant to be specifically about Atlanta as place or its development as an art hub. Rather, I am interested in how these works because of their complexity in terms of materiality and conceptuality, enable us to point to our present condition and begin to pose it questions. These works, though not tied explicitly to Atlanta, all make manifest the material and social conditions of this place. Indeed, this is a place.


Drew Conrad‘s 2013 solo show at Get This Gallery, Backwater Blues, consists of assemblage-esque sculptures that show themselves as burnt remnants of a home that once stood. However, the materials making up his works are not salvaged, like the other artists I will be discussing in this piece. Rather, Conrad uses raw materials that he distresses by hand. It would be too easy to jump to questions about authenticity, here. Rather, what this process of ruination prompts us to question concerns our own involvement in degradation and destruction in our world.

Drew Conrad. Dwelling No. 5 (Punching Bag). 2013. Courtesy Get This Gallery.

Drew Conrad. “Dwelling No. 5 (Punching Bag).” 2013. Courtesy Get This Gallery.

Being a native Midwesterner, it is difficult not to envision images of Detroit when viewing architectural char and when thinking about urban decay and renewal. Photo books and photo essays abound that use Detroit’s ruins as subject. This unconscious association of mine inflects works I see here in the South that address similar issues of degradation. Upon seeing these remnants that appear charred, though in fact are not, I am reminded of the industrial-soot-blackened facades of the Motor City. Or, I could instead see these ruins as products of time and erosion, either the gentle wind and water forces that inhabit the Bayou State, or the aggressive inundations that occur (i.e., Hurricane Katrina). Or, considering Conrad’s being New-York-based, Hurricane Sandy. Particularly with the artist’s references to Christian Boltanski’s work (i.e., the lights and hanging electrical cords), the works scream a trauma; it is difficult to view these ruins as products of mere time and weather. Though Conrad only uses dirt, rust, and stains – no fire of any kind – these ruins take on a violent past, one that involved Ku Klux Klan instigated arson and murder. This reading may not be the artist’s intention, but when situated within particular conditions of geography, history, materiality, society, etc. the artist’s decision to destroy becomes a powerful reminder of what we have destroyed, what we are currently destroying, and what we will destroy in the future. In an email interview Conrad states: “I would claim that works of art do not exist anywhere or that their histories do not have a direct route. I want the sculptures to be a jumping off point where the viewer completes the missing pieces and writes their history of the object’s past. So the sculptures, which fall in the titled series of Dwellings, hopefully exist somewhere in the in between.” This in-between is a poignant place. I would argue with Conrad though about where this in-between is situated; it is somewhere.


I spin through the glass revolving door and enter the lobby of Midtown Plaza, a nondescript office building located in the liminal space between Atlanta’s Midtown and Buckhead. I am told to use the elevator to go to level M where the exhibition COSMS is located. After stepping off the elevator, I turn into a whole level gutted interior of this office building. Dashboard Co-Op, a non-profit art organization, looks for spaces such as this to host their exhibitions. Dashboard’s mission is to curate shows in these “forgotten haunts,” these spaces devoid of people and purpose. The works in the show are supposed to respond to the site of this vacant space, and one work in particular stood out as a potent intervention into this concrete, barren place.

Chris Chambers. "untitled (powder room)." 2014. Courtesy the artist.

Chris Chambers. “untitled (powder room).” 2014. Courtesy the artist.

Chris Chambers‘ untitled (powder room) is a daunting sculptural installation, a bathroom jacked up on cinder blocks, perilously titling off kilter. The viewer walks into this confined space to find a 1/2 bathroom complete with toilet, sink, cabinet, mirror, ceiling with a skylight, closet, tiles, carpet, and potted plant. Standing inside this powder room, orientation becomes confused. Exiting becomes treacherous. The floor seems to slip away from its usual groundedness as a perpendicular plane. Seeing this powder room, which is nonfunctional and eerie made me hyperaware of this particular office building’s infrastructure: so, if I’m not to use this bathroom, where might and what might the usable one be like? This room, reminiscent of installations by Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Miller, takes on a sinister quality, pointing towards the infrastructures of public and domestic spaces and their demise. Important to the sculpture is the source of these materials. Chambers, who also works as a builder and remodeler of homes, finds his materials through what people discard. The wallpaper is a horrendous 1990s pattern that you might have experienced in homes or medical offices growing up during that time. It covers these powder room walls in a “skin” (Chambers’ term) of the old, what is gotten rid of in order to update, to become more hip to contemporary interior design.

Chambers’ other installation work incorporates CRT (cathode ray tube) televisions and collected VHS and the environment builds around the technology. Speaking with Chambers in his studio, he describes how his installation work grew out of the video work; the installations ground the video work in a certain place in which the viewer can situate herself and watch. His installation Untitled (Kevin) creates a living room situation complete with rugs, house plants, lamps, and television, though for this piece there were over 40 TVS, all playing videos made from footage of Kevin Costner. As a child of the 80s, I can connect to the aesthetic of the decor coupled with Costner’s face (Robin Hood Prince of Thieves was both terrifying and awesome to me growing up). In a way, this creates an inter-geographical relation. However, this work does not lead to a privileging of supposedly immaterial telecommunicative space. Rather, in this world of televisions and globally recognized faces, this work grounds itself in the place of the living room, which maybe significantly is here.

Important to the work is the disposability of technology. Televisions, the big boxy ones of the 80s and 90s, are on the outs. With the change from CRT televisions to LCD and LED screens, the shapes have changed.  With the rise of digital cable, the use of analog broadcast technologies for television have faded; out with the TV antenna, in with the satellite dish. We are led to believe that telecommunications technologies is where our “place” is; we can believe that because we have these technologies, we don’t need to actually exist anywhere. The idea of the “cloud” furthers this sentiment. It allows us to so easily forget the material conditions that contribute to and make possible this ethereal networked space.


The Goat Farm Arts Center is a 12-acre complex of artist studios (some live/work), performance/exhibition spaces, a coffee shop, a local agricultrual endeavor Fresh Roots Farm, and goat pen. The particular history of this site is important. The place was an industrial cotton gin at the turn of the 19/20th century and then a munitions manufacturing site during WWII. This is a pretty gruesome history that comes with the site which has served as an artist compound of sorts since the 1970s when the complex was bought by Robert Haywood, who died in 2009. Since his death, the site was bought by Hallister Development, headed by Anthony Harper and Chris Melhouse, and artist studios continue to live there and grow.

In 2013, Justin Rabideau installed his works Echo and The Distance of the Moon at The Goat Farm, both of which create a certain kind of environment and landscape in this place they are installed. As part of the culmination show for the 2011-13 artists-in-residence for The Creatives Project Momentum: Exit to the Future, The Distance of the Moon situates itself within the context of Atlanta’s fiscal, material, and social histories. What does it mean to install a work that gives the viewer a staircase to the moon, which cannot be walked up?

Justin Rabideau. The Distance of the Moon. 2013. Courtesy the artist.

Justin Rabideau. “The Distance of the Moon.” 2013. Courtesy the artist.

Justin Rabideau’s use of found materials to construct his sculptures alludes to the material conditions of the production of art and where it is made. Speaking with Rabideau in his studio, he described to me that his practice changed dramatically when he moved to Atlanta a few years ago. Since his practice involves gathering materials, mainly natural elements, he finds in his surroundings, he noticed that what he was finding most was discarded building materials and detritus left over from collapsed and disintegrating structures in this urban environment. One of Rabideau’s works made shortly after his move to Atlanta titled, An Illusion of Stability, which was installed in his exhibition with James Bridges Waste Not, speaks to a possible art historical trajectory of the Surrealist found object to land art, Anarchitecture, and site-specific art. What do we find when we go searching for something in a certain place? Drew Conrad mentioned that these sorts of materials are not easy to come by in New York, so why are they in Atlanta?

These materials including the TV antenna find their way into The Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kenessaw State University, just north of Atlanta, by way of the exhibition See Through Walls, which instates the museum’s recently opened expansion. The show examines the physical infrastructures that undergird architecture and art display.

Casey McGuire‘s piece in the show, Terrestrial Apparatus Poised for Lights Out (2010), presents the viewer with a wooden structure positioned in a precarious situation. Made of salvaged materialsfrom abandoned homes and foreclosure renovations in her local surroundings, including a TV antenna, the structure is described as a “box trap.” Propped up on a stick and connected to a rope, the viewer is “lured” in closer in hopes to “trap” her in this strange housing situation. The strategy used for trapping the viewer is soft playback, soft enough that the viewer has to lean her head up inside the box, of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” for McGuire a “tongue-in-cheek” response to the nostalgia that she references – “American dreams based on structure and home and the decaying reality of these ideals.”

Casey McGuire. "Terrestrial Apparatus Poised for Lights Out." 2010. Courtesy the artist.

Casey McGuire. “Terrestrial Apparatus Poised for Lights Out.” 2010. Courtesy the artist.

The inclusion of the antenna on the roof of this “box trap” points to the disposability of technologies. In a time when all things globalized promote telecommunications as a way to secure one’s place everywhere and nowhere, this antenna forces us to consider our communication choices.

Adding another layer of complexity to this work is the context surrounding it, both histrocially and art historically (i.e., Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1974 Splitting). Atlanta-based artist Ruth Stanford’s (of particular interest for this article too is her 2006 exhibition at The Mattress Factory In the Dwelling-House) commissioned work A Walk in the Valley, which responded to Kennesaw State’s acquisitioned property that had belonged to Corra Harris, was removed from the exhibition by the University’s administration. (The administration has since agreed to re-install the work.) Harris’ prominence as a writer solidified with her 1899 letter to the editor of The Independent, “A Southern Woman’s View,” which argued to uphold lynching as a practice. This history and the subsequent censored artist-commissioned response to it further solidifies the importance of place and our recognition of it. Yes, we live in a globalized world, but that does not mean that we exist nowhere within it and that the specificities of where we live, work, and surf the net don’t inform our ways of navigating this international telecommunicative system.

What Can We Still Say About Place?

Writing about the evolution of site-specific art, from land works to public art, Miwon Kwon states in her 2002 book One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity:

“In this sense the chance to conceive the site as something more than a place – as repressed ethnic history, a political cause, a disenfranchised social group – is an important conceptual leap in redefining the public role of art and artists.

But the enthusiastic support for these salutary goals needs to be checked by a serious critical examination of the problems and contradictions that attend all forms of site-specific and site-oriented art today, which are visible now as the art work is becoming more and more unhinged from the actuality of the site once again – “unhinged” both in a literal sense of a physical separation of the art work from the location of its initial installation, and in a metaphorical sense as a performed in the discursive mobilization of the site in emergent forms of site-oriented work. This unhinging, however, does not indicate a reversion to the modernist autonomy of the siteless, nomadic art object, although such an ideology is still predominant. Rather, the current unhinging of site specificity indicates new pressures upon its practice today – pressures engendered by both aesthetic imperatives and external historical determinants” (Kwon, 30-1).

What is this “unhinging” and what does it mean? If taken in a certain positive sense, a utopian-inflected sense, this unhinging leads to Noplaceness and its commitment to the celebration of a supposed postmodern fragmentation. Arguably, this functions as a re-uptake of the autonomous, siteless, and nomadic art object Kwon urges us to put pressure on. The works addressed here are certainly “unhinged” to a certain extent. They are certainly not installed in the places where their materials originated, but they are, in a sense, still tied to them. This could be said for many of the works Noplaceness uses to underpin its ideology. The work of the idea collection John Q for example: their work cannot be thought in terms of noplace. In their work Memory Flash, discussed in the book, the collective created a performative experience for the viewer of specific locations chosen for specific reasons.

Displacement and unhinging do not necessarily lead us to noplace. It is unclear to me how Noplaceness situates itself in relation to the concept of non-place, re: Marc Auge’s Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. This could make for a different conversation altogether. Sure, we are “no longer secure in our identity or sense of home,” (Noplaceness, 53) but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep considering what place is.

Kwon writes that the “drive toward a rationalized universal civilization, engendering the homogenization of places and the erasure of culture” is what has led to critical regionalism, a postmodern architectural practice developed by Kenneth Frampton and included in the seminal postmodern text The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, which proposes to cultivate :diverse local particularities” (157). Kwon is quick to point to the problem of nostalgia for place, however, and I would agree.

Many of the artists mentioned in this article use the word “nostalgia” in talking about their work. It is not always clear how they approach the term at times. In taking Kwon’s suggestion to consider the dialectics of place, a la Henri Lefebvre, maybe the works here serve as one pole of the dialectic. These works force us to consider the multiple layers of place: space, location, culture, environment, inhabitants, etc. We have to struggle with our own dialectical battles of nostalgia and futurity; location and dislocation; loss and gain. In regards to this dialectic, it would be too easy to get caught up in a circular conversation concerning authenticity; a conversation that I think undergirds the claims made in Noplaceness; paradoxically it has to rely on an originary authenticity in order to dislocate it. If we start from a fundamental sense of unhinging, however, we are able to traverse the notions of the definite and locatable with all their complexities. If a generic Starbucks in Atlanta “which is indistinguishable from a Starbucks in Singapore or Paris,”(Noplaceness, 3) for whatever reason seems liberating, I think we’ve found ourselves in a very strange place indeed.