Salon Talk: A Conversation With Patrick Jackson

September 17, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Young Joon Kwak

 

This edition of salon talk is a conversation with artist and educator Patrick Jackson.  Jackson was born in Los Angeles, CA, where he also currently resides.  Working primarily in sculpture, he’s had exhibitions in galleries and institutions internationally, including François Ghebaly Gallery, and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in New York, The Soap Factory in Minneapolis, MN, and CAPC Musee d’Art Contemporain in Bordeaux, France.  His next solo show The Third Floor opens at François Ghebaly Gallery in November 2013.  Jackson got his MFA from USC, where he is currently the Sculpture Area Head.  I first got to know Patrick Jackson through Mutant Salon barber Marvin Astorga, so I thought I’d ask him to say a few introductory words about Patrick:

Patrick Jackson is a regular visitor of the salon. Apart from making cool stuff, he prefers a #3 clip guard, as he likes a bit more length in the back and sides than most of our clipper-inclined clients. I’ve tried the #1 and #2 guards on him before, and the result was perhaps a bit too flashy. Patrick understands that, while his hair type is very forgiving (it’s thick with a well-behaved curl), it’s important to know what you want out of your hair, your art, and your life.—Marvin Astorga

04_All Cut Up_Patrick Jacksoncloseup of a sculpture from Jackson’s All Cut Up, 2012

PJ:  Lately, I’ve been reading Philip Guston’s writing and looking at his paintings.  I think his work is a good example of ideas and forms working off each other—clashing, in a productive way.  One can relate to it in a beyond-language kind of way, just thinking of objects like a clock and questioning it, taking it apart, and how it relates to us as an object and as an idea of time.

YJK:  Do you look at other sculptors or sculptures when you’re starting a project?

PJ:  I look at a lot of sculpture, I like sculptors, but I feel like I sculpt mainly because that’s what I’m good at and I enjoy it—it fits my personality.  I move slow—it’s a contemplative medium by nature, I think.  But when it comes to looking at work, I’m more attracted to films and writing, just idea-wise.  Sculpture is not a thing where you can explore ideas in a really deep way.  I think if you wanted to do that, you’d turn to writing.

YJK:  What’s a favorite film of yours?

PJ:  My favorite film is probably Terrence Malick’s Badlands.  There’s something about it similar to Guston’s work, in a way.  They both deal with people’s relationships to objects.  That’s how I think about sculpture, as the study of relating to objects—from a rock, to something bought in a store …

YJK:  How do you feel about a lot of sculptors today using stuff that they bought from stores, readymades?

PJ:  Some of it’s too heavy on the “purchase and lay it on the ground” approach, without any alteration—or perspective.  But it’s an important part of considering objects, I think—how we navigate the aisles.  I’ve always thought Rachel Harrison is good with that kind of stuff and I’ve flipped through her books, trying to figure out how to use them in my own work.  Her show, If I Did it, has been a big influence.  The title for the show came from OJ Simpson’s book, by the same name, which I think is him telling how the murders would have gone, if he had done it—something like that.  But for Harrison, If I did it was the idea of the readymade and making.  If I buy something and put it in the gallery, am I the one who made it?  The whole show was really an open consideration of objects, how we relate to them, understand them, our connection to them, how we’re involved with them …

YJK:  Yeah, I think it’s interesting that you bring up Harrison.  There are so many different ways to engage with her work, so many entry points, like pop cultural references, a mixture of readymades, and there’s a sense of play in her process and certainly in the experience of the work.  I’m also interested in the formal decisions she makes—her accumulation of material fragments and how she reconfigures to incite different interactions between materials, screwing around with hierarchies of different materials, and then how some of the same sculptures that she made continue to be reconfigured and shown in different ways for different shows, like the piece Green that she showed in the 1993 exhibition at the New Museum.

PJ:  Yeah, I’ve heard that she describes the way she makes work as similar to the way someone shops, where it’s sort of like I’ll try some of this, and try some of that, and like you described, a sort of movement through objects.

YJK:  Someone told me that John Kelsey thought of her sculptures as drag objects.  I’m also interested in your use of materials, and how you animate them, imbuing them with a sense of the body, but a sort of traumatized body or a precarious body, such as with your tchotchke stacks, and certainly the show where you had a body leaning against a wall, or the one with two bodies lying on the floor, or just kind of how they’re positioned with their eyes closed—they do seem like they’ve been inflicted, like it’s the aftermath of some sort of violence or disease or something like that. And then I thought that it was funny that one of the sculptures—I think there’s a stocking pulled over the face…

PJ: That was from a body cast and the cast was made for the project in the apartment, House of Double, the one with the two figures lying down.  The one that has the stocking over its head is the same body, it’s from the same molds, but it’s made up of leftover pieces.  I sawed the body in half, so it could sit against the wall … ended up looking more like it’s folded in half and crammed against the wall.

YJK: So was it a cast of your body?

PJ: Yeah.  When I first started working on House of Double I knew that I wanted to make a body, because other sculptures I’d made were more in relationship to the viewer’s body, so I wanted to make a sculpture where this body would actually be the piece and then the viewer would have a relationship to this body, as opposed to their own.  I wanted to make it lying down, on the one hand because I felt like that’s what would make it feel between object and person … then there’s also this idea of violence.  Again, I was thinking a lot about Badlands, and there’s this idea that goes through that film, a classic philosophical consideration, of one’s relationship to the world—about what’s an object and what’s a subject.  The movie is based on the true story of Charles Starkweather, an American serial killer.  This character is continually considering what is worthy of living, and what’s not, and then it gets applied to objects too, where he’s sort of, “Well, what object is useful to me and which one is not?” And that’s something all of us can enter into, like a more benign consideration of use, with animals, or the coffee cup you throw away.

YJK: I’m interested in knowing more about this sense of masochism I get from the work, I mean it’s cast from your body, like you’re enacting violence on yourself, or a projected self, or a surrogate self?

PJ: In the House of Double, there’s a body in each bedroom, and the idea was they’re supposed to be relatively identical, but in the experience of being in there, you can never see both of them at the same time, so it’s sort of a memory comparison, or the idea that they existed somewhat in your head.  Of course when you look at them online you see both of those images at the same time, though … I guess that doesn’t answer your question.

 

09_House of Double_Patrick Jackson

Installation view from House of Double, 2011

 YJK: I was thinking a lot about the relationship of yourself or your body, this body that you’re creating in relationship to the viewer looking down at it, and there being this sort of hierarchy that’s established between yourself and the viewer, so I was curious about your perspective of this body or your body or a more general idea of the self.

PJ:  A lot of ideas went into it: research, reading, movies, TV, and a lot of stuff I was going through in my own life.  It was a mix of a lot of things, and then it felt like it clicked in the end ‘cause it took on a life of its own, it became something separate from my own ideas, but it was born from those. So what you’re describing is really interesting and kind of true, but that’s not the only thing that this piece is about.

YJK:  I think it’s interesting that in relation to the work where you’ve created more representational bodies—you then have your Tchotchke Stacks, which are literally stacks of all these different kinds of statues and figurines, with their own histories, and the residue of their owners—They’re also almost body height, but a bit taller maybe, more imposing, like a body that comprises a collectivity of varied parts. It’s interesting to think about this collective body being composed of all these different little tchotchkes, and how that leads to questions of subjecthood and collective subjectivity, how we all relate to each other through objects, through tchotchkes.

 

IMG_5242

Detail view of one of Jackson’s tchotchke stacks, 2010

PJ:  There’s also just the fact that our relationship to our body is changing, it seems to me.   I’m a big Cronenberg fan, and he’s someone who’s thinking about our relationship to our own bodies and other bodies, all through changing media, from Videodrome to the availability of something on video, or through cable television, to eXistenZ and the internet.

YJK:  With each project, does your conception of the body change or transform?

PJ:  I try to make individual projects, but as you start to make more work, it starts to add up and to turn into something on its own, like where they’re not just completely divorced projects from each other, although that’s usually how I try to start something, trying to make it autonomous—like a film or a book.  But before you know it, you’ve created this body of work, but also a reflection of yourself, basically. You see it differently than I do.  You come to the work and look at it as a whole, and you start to see these connections that I see too, when you bring them up, but I guess I don’t try to approach it as this idea of “I make work about the body transforming.”  But now when I hear you talk about the body transforming, I’m like, “Oh yeah, I think that makes sense.”  Definitely with doing this sculpture that is partially based on my nephew for my show…

YJK:  Yeah, the scale of it’s funny…

PJ:  Because I’ve seen him change a lot, knowing him since he’s a little kid.  I’ve seen him go through life and that makes a lot of sense to me with thinking about that sculpture, and then also just him.  As a piece, it’s just a boy, but what you’re talking about … I can really see in relationship to this show.

 

IMG_4339

sculpture in process, 2013

YJK:  Can you tell me more about the other work you’re making for your upcoming show at François Ghebaly Gallery, in the fall?

PJ:  Well, one of the things I was thinking about with the title of the show, The Third Floor, is a sort of relationship of one object to another object, or subject to subject, and this book Flatland, that classic book of circles or triangles that can only move through two dimensions of space—they can only go forward and backward, left to right.  And then us, being in the third dimension, we can see them and understand them in this really basic way, but they can’t understand our world—our third vertical dimension.  And then there’s an idea of the fourth dimension, where there are these eyes, this sort of knowledge that exists beyond us, that sees us as limited in movement and can observe us and can see all of time. I’m trying to do a similar thing with this show, where there’s the narrative of the space where this boy’s body is on the third floor, looking down, or sort of seeing everything as objects in relationship to him.  Then there’s us as viewers, who come in and see him and everything else as an object in relationship to us. Also, I’ve been thinking of the idea of the uncanny, something like thinking that I just saw a person I’m attracted to, and then it’s like, oh no, it’s a 90-year old woman I just saw out of the corner of my eye, this feeling of like, “Oh, what’s going on?”

YJK: How’d you end up working with ceramics for this show?

PJ: It came about because I didn’t have any money.  I work at USC and I can use the facilities for free. On top of that, mold making can be really expensive, but slip molds and ceramic supplies, in general, are pretty cheap. Then I just got into the process, my hands in the clay and experimenting with the materials—especially the glazes.

YJK:  What’s the relationship of your ceramics to the long history of ceramics in relation to contemporary art? Thinking particularly about how—I don’t know whether it be right or wrong—ceramics occupies this place within sculpture discourse/greater art discourse of marginalization, this place of just being merely decoration?

PJ:  Well, it goes through stages.  I mean, ceramics is very popular right now, it’s in every gallery, but it also has a history that you’re talking about, which is, it’s seen more as a craft and it’s looked down upon, and there’s also a certain form that I was really aware of when I was making it that I was trying to stay away from, which was just the look of something that was made in a parks and rec. course or in an elementary school, having that sort of “ceramic” look—which I think is fine, to maybe even harness, but for the look I was going for I tried to pick stuff that would look unceramic, in some ways. I’ve also added other materials: wax, epoxy and rocks.

 

JACKSON_BURNTMUG_small

ceramic pieces from The Third Floor, 2013

YJK:  You’ve mentioned to me that the three floors of the space are three categories of sculpture, both in arrangement and form.  You’re thinking of the lower level, where the ceramic vessels will be placed, as storage.  Do you feel like the ceramics, their importance or meaning arises more in relation to the other works that you create? Like in relation to the upper level, or more conceptual works, as you said?  And just the idea of these three floors…

PJ:  I think a big part of meaning comes from juxtaposition. It’s like making a sentence, where words next to each other start taking on a different meaning instead of being autonomous. So that’s part of the show, too.  I think this is something a lot of artists grapple with, nowadays.  You have the installation, which is however long, you know, six weeks, a few months, and things are arranged to be a certain way in relationship to each other and then they get broken up and they’re never the same. So that’s definitely what will happen to this show. And I’m trying to think about that a lot, as being part of it, of questioning what’s an object alone? What is an object next to other things? But when I first started writing about the show, doing research—I have a notepad for every project I work on—I was thinking about this movie I’d seen about a girl who’s discovered after being locked in her bedroom till she was like 11-years-old. So she had never learned to speak, and she hoarded.  One of the things that she did, that apparently is common with children who experience this sort of intense isolation and entrapment, is hoard water, usually containers of water, so when she lived with a therapist in her room she just had cups, she’d get cups of water in the kitchen and then leave them around her bed.

YJK:  Which makes sense with all of the ceramic vessels and cups you are making for your show…

PJ:  Yeah, it’s like a hoarded kind of thing.  I looked in my notebook a few months after I started making these and I realized, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that, but that’s what started it all.’

YJK:  So is this show all about you being really isolated and trapped in the world?

PJ:  Ha-ha, no comment.  I don’t know … It is what it is … I mean, it’s about my family too. But it’s also about thinking about a basic form, that everyone can relate to.  I’ve been thinking of Brancusi—he did a cup piece.  That’s one of the fascinations with children like this. When children like this are discovered, it’s like, every scientist, every therapist wants to work with them, because now we can get to the bottom of things, like how does language work? How do we develop it? When are you too old to learn how to speak and interact with another person? How is this person going to understand things? They’re fresh, they’ve never been educated in anything. And so, to look at something that they do, like hoarding water, hoarding cups or … there’s also the movie The Wild Child, which is about a child who was living out in the wild and was discovered by someone, a French scientist was studying him, and in that film there’s a scene where he drinks from a glass of water while he looks out a window, it was one of his great joys and I think it was used as a reward when he was being trained how to read and stuff like that.  I’m just fascinated by that.  What is it about having a cup of water and looking outside?  Of connecting to nature, I guess, with water, this basic thing that we all need.

YJK:  We talked a bit about The Third Floor before, and how the unique architecture of the space—how on the second and third floors one can see the lower level—influenced formal decisions you made, such as extending the second floor with scaffolding, covering the lower level and making a basement of sorts.  I’m curious about your decision to have scaffolding, just thinking of all the exposed parts underneath.

PJ:  From underneath where one encounters t­he ceramics, it will look like regular scaffolding, and then from up top it will look like a wooden floor, or like an old wooden floor, ‘cause you won’t see any of the mechanics holding it up.  From underneath, it’s more of what you would think of as an unfinished basement, where you see the structure of the house and everything that sort of holds things up, it’s sort of the raw elements of things. So it seemed to just make sense that way and also, yeah, just sort of revealing the structure I think goes along with part of the narrative that basements have and of the show … I think of hidden things happening.

YJK:  What keeps you going in your practice?

PJ:  I just want to make work that I like and that I feel like I changed because of it, like I had an experience out of doing it, where it affected me from making the work—it didn’t feel like I was just going to a job and making stuff.  There’s a Tarkovsky quote that I often think of and I have on a notecard, on my studio wall.  The Tarkovsky quote is something like … I’m gonna slaughter the quote, but it’s something like, “Your work shouldn’t be the next step in your career, but a turning point in your life.” Like any quote that one pins up on their wall, it’s a bit cheesy, but I think it’s something that I agree with—and it’s not practiced enough, these days.

 

Young Joon Kwak is resident Queen at Mutant Salon and performer in the band Xina Xurner.  Hailing from Chicago, she currently lives in Los Angeles while pursuing her MFA at USC.




Salon Talk: A Conversation With Michael Ned Holte

July 9, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Young Joon Kwak
Hello from Los Angeles!  I’ll be posting a monthly series of conversations with art folks in Los Angeles for the next couple of months.  These conversations take place at my current studio/beauty salon, aka Mutant Salon.  The salon atmosphere is particularly conducive to dishing real talk and shooting the shit, which is why I thought it’d be the ideal setting for these in-depth conversations to take place.  The first person I talked with was man-about-town and big sweetie Michael Ned Holte.  Happy reading!
A drawing of Michael Ned Holte by Jake Jones (drawn in class).

A drawing of Michael Ned Holte by Jake Jones (drawn in class).

Michael Ned Holte is a writer, curator, and professor of contemporary art history at CalArts; along with Connie Butler, he is the co-curator of the upcoming LA biennial Made in LA, which will take place at the Hammer Museum in 2014.  In 2012, He curated the exhibition Temporary Landmarks and Moving Situations, which was featured at Expo Chicago art fair at Navy Pier.  Originally from southwest Wisconsin, Michael Ned Holte moved to LA in 1995.  He got an MA in Art Theory and Criticism from Art Center in 2004, at the same time artists like Stephen G. Rhodes and Sterling Ruby were in grad school.  When I first met him for a studio visit last fall, I had recently moved from Chicago to LA for grad school, and he made me feel welcome to the city by assuring me that there were great local communities of weirdo/artist/musician/mutants to get to know and become part of.  I invited him back to Mutant Salon for this interview in June, where we discussed teaching, studio visits, writing, the next Made in LA exhibition and catalogue, his book Proper Names (from Golden Spike Press), and how ultimately he hopes to help artists articulate what they do.

Young Joon Kwak: How would you describe what you do to someone who’s unfamiliar with your practice?

Michael Ned Holte:  What I do now is primarily teaching, writing, and making exhibitions, probably in that order.  There’s a quote from Lucy Lippard in her preface to the reprint of her book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, where she talks about being a critic, and starting to make exhibitions when it was unusual for a critic to curate exhibitions, and she would do projects with artists that seemed sometimes to be breaking boundaries of what it meant to be a critic, but she held to this idea that a critic should be allowed to have an expansive project the way that an artist can have an expansive project.  So as a teacher, writer, and curator, I can think of those as being a very fluid and expansive project.

YJK:  It seems like writing is central to all of these activities.

MNH:  Yes, text is primary to everything I do.  There’s a discursive element to everything I do, and with studio visits, I try to help artists articulate what their project is.  And that’s true of me as a critic—writing essays and reviews, and me making an exhibition as well.  In putting together an exhibition I’m always thinking about the text that accompanies it.

YJK:  Like the catalogue or the press release for an exhibition?

MNH:  Yes, both.  I did a show at Wallspace in 2007 called Laying Bricks, and for the press release I made a multiple-choice, true-false exam.  There was also a publication for that show that was printed on newsprint, and I had each of the four artists do a poster for the publication.  None of them knew each other at the time, and they all did something different without knowing what the others would be doing.  And then I wrote a text for it called “Frequently Asked Questions,” and I used that format of a frequently asked question, so it was almost a self-interview, and at some point, the kind of cool neutrality of that format gives way to this kind of schizophrenic tussle with myself.  In part, it was a rejection of wanting to write an essay to explain my show and how it worked, and trying to find other ways of talking about it or talking around it.

YJK:  Do you have plans to similarly explore the relationship between the Made in LA exhibition and the publications for it?  What does the catalogue bring to one’s experience of the exhibition, or is it a site unto itself?

MNH: I think you just said it.  We are thinking about the catalogue as a site in and of itself.  It’s the thing that lives on in perpetuity.  Only so many people will see the show in the three months that it’s up, and the catalogue is the thing that sticks around. The catalogue is a different structure with a different temporality to it, and it runs parallel to the exhibition, and I’m interested in how these things work together and separately.  I can’t talk too much about the publication for Made in LA because we’re still working on it, but I will say that Connie Butler (co-curator) and I will each write our own essays, along with some additional writers, which is already different from the format of the last Made in LA catalogue, where all five curators wrote a single five-part essay.  But the conversation of the publication has been happening from the outset, in tandem with the exhibition.  In some ways, the conversation of the publication is leading the conversation about the show.

YJK: What’s a bad studio visit like for you?

MNH:  Umm, I’ve had them, but maybe you should ask the artists who’ve had bad studio visits with me.  I don’t know; they’re all different.  Artists are like snowflakes, and studio visits are like snowflakes, haha.  I’m not a super judgmental person, and perhaps that makes me somewhat less effective as a critic, but I’m always curious how artists think about what they do.  I think the worst studio visits for me are the ones where the artists are really fixed on what they’re doing and aren’t interested in entertaining a conversation about change.  I might define a bad studio visit as one that I may forget a day later.  Most of the time, I take part of it with me, which is why I can usually do no more than two a day in the world.  The best studio visits are often my second or third or fourth visit with somebody. I met with somebody last weekend, and it was the third time I’ve done a visit with him. It’s probably been about four years since I’d last had a visit with him, and I’ve been kind of tracking this person for a long time, so we can kind of dive in to a conversation at this point.  The first time you meet with somebody, it’s like two dogs sniffing each other’s butts, and that’s inevitable.

YJK:  What are some trends or common things you’ve seen in recent studio visits?

MNH:  I’m intensely resistant to trends.  I have to say, going into the process of organizing Made in LA, one of the words I kept on coming back to was “heterogeneity.”  I’m really interested in difference.  I’m really excited about difference, and it’s the thing I’m looking for I think the most.  Which is kind of the opposite in some ways—thinking about an artist who is making work in a way that’s completely different from the way any other artist I can think of, to the degree that’s possible.  I mean, I’ll see things that my students will do that are possibly trends or familiar solutions to recurring problems and I’ll see an MFA student do something I saw an MFA do three years earlier, because it’s a common solution to a certain problem, and artists are always a product of their time.  Me too. We can’t escape the context of living and working in 2013 in LA or wherever, and most of us are involved in a community or communities of artists, and we know what our friends are doing.  If we were all doing things that were completely different, there would be no basis for conversation.  So, I’m also interested in proximity of things too, or maybe the way two artists will arrive at something from completely different places. I’m asking myself a lot of questions about those very things right now.  But I’m hesitant to identify any trends.

YJK:  When was the last instance that a studio visit with an artist has shaped how you think about or talk about art?

MNH: It happens all the time, really. Yesterday I had a studio visit with Jennifer Moon, and she’s an artist I’ve known about from afar, but had never met before.  She did a show at Young Chung’s space Commonwealth & Council, and most recently at Transmission Gallery in Glasgow.  I had such an exciting conversation with her about the boundaries of what she’s doing as an art practice…. I should also say I’ve been trying to reframe the word “practice” as “project” lately, and thinking about the difference between those things.  How I’ve defined it to my students is:  Practice is the way you do what you do to pay your bills, or what you do to imagine how you pay your bills, and a project is the thing that gets you up in the morning.  Anyway, Jennifer and I got into a conversation about where the boundaries of her project lie—in terms of revolution and making art, and there are objects that can be displayed in a gallery context, like photographs and books and artifacts and relics, like a lot of performance projects too, where the audience wonders—what is this thing?  Is that the residue of the thing, or is it a byproduct or the product? Is this where the art resides, or does the art lie somewhere else in the performance, in a live context for example.  I said to her, maybe the better question is—when are you not making art?  And then we both kind of looked at each other like…?  It’s true for me too—when am I not working?  I’m working on an essay while I’m driving or making dinner.

image from Jennifer Moon's show "Phoenix Rising, Part 1: This is Where I Learned Of Love" at Commonwealth & Council

image from Jennifer Moon’s show “Phoenix Rising, Part 1: This is Where I Learned Of Love” at Commonwealth & Council, LA.

YJK:  Yeah, I’ve been thinking about how certain routine patterns of procrastination in the studio are essential parts of my project.

MNH:  In the fall, I taught a class called Routine Pleasures, which is named after the Jean-Pierre Gorin film, and this is where the idea of the project bubbled to the surface.  At some point, in the process of planning one of my lectures for the class, I came to the realization that my project or at least the thing that I think I do really well, is procrastination.  So for most of my life, extending back to my teenage years, I’ve thought of myself as a really terrible procrastinator.  And then, last fall, I said, what if I’m really a terrific procrastinator?  What if that’s the thing I do really well?

YJK: A radical procrastinator?

MNH:  Haha, maybe.  Or just a really good one, and that realization transformed things for me.  Anyway, in this meeting with Jennifer Moon yesterday, just asking her this basic question really opened up something for both of us.  I think that’s fair to say.  And when one’s doing a lot of studio visits, it’s inevitable that questions that get raised in one that will carry on to the next, and there’s a kind of viral quality to the discourse that happens.

YJK: Who were some writers or other people that were influential when you were first starting out?

MNH:   I’ve often referred to Bruce Hainley as my guardian angel.  I think Bruce is the person that helped me most get on my path, and remained a mentor out of school.  He was a really great guide, and then at some point I decided I needed to leave him alone and make my own decisions.  There are also people like Lucy Lippard, who’s been an important model for me—in terms of thinking about what I do and how these compartments overlap or intermingle. But I’ve never met her.

YJK: What’s your approach to teaching art history at CalArts?

MNH: I’ve learned to teach art history while teaching art history.  There is no art history department at CalArts.  Within another higher education institution where there is a degree being offered in an art history department, part of what one’s doing when one’s teaching art history is perpetuating that field.  I don’t feel like I have that same pressure because my students are artists.  Some of them might become art historians, and I alert them to that possibility.  I also tell them that I’m not trained as an art historian.  But I want art history to be useful and relevant and alive to them, and also something that they can engage with critically, and the thing I leave them with is that they have a lot of control over shaping art history, because art history is continually being revised and reshaped.

YJK:  With art history as a field, there’s always a delay in the legitimization of projects that are more experimental or make use of unconventional materials, which makes it  difficult for some artists to find role models within art historical discourse. How do you feel artists, and especially students should negotiate with art history, when it is essentially on them to be brave in breaking certain conventions of that field?

MNH:  Well, that’s what artists get to do.  Artists get to remake history by virtue of what histories they decide to channel and acknowledge and smash together at some point.  It’s important to be brave.  I try to encourage my students to be brave and occasionally irresponsible.  Because they’re not art historians, they’re artists.  But I also love the idea that some of my BFA students could go on to be art historians after going through a BFA studio program at CalArts—I mean, what a great thing for art historians to have knowledge and experience of having a studio practice.

YJK:  As much as I am interested myself in the blurring of disciplinary boundaries, some of these boundaries provide context for measuring the successes and failures of the work one does in these fields.  I just wonder, what are some of the criteria by which someone like you or other critic/writer/historian/curators judge the successes and failures of the work they do?  How is the work being checked?

MNH:  I don’t know if there is a system of checks and balances in the art world that we work in.  There’s such an overwhelming shadow of the market right now.  In some ways it’s like the movie Independence Day or something, where a giant spaceship shows up and the shadow covers NYC, or DC, or Los Angeles.  In some ways, I feel like the market has that omnipresent shadowing effect, and it’s a little grotesque, and teaching at CalArts helps me feel at least 34 miles away from that shadow some days, though not everyday.  If that’s true that the market is the only metric of the art world, I feel like it’s only a reflection of our larger society.

YJK: So do you feel like the market is our only metric right now?

MNH: Well, I think it’s a very temporary metric.  I think history actually revises things so we eventually realize the importance of certain people, like Lee Lozano, who is one of my favorite artists ever.  Lozano wrote herself out of the art world, but has now been reclaimed by it, and is now represented by Hauser & Wirth, which is an extraordinary turn of events that I’m sure would shock her.  But, history has written her back in, and that’s not just a product of the market.  I think time will tell if what any of us does is important historically. I do think of how my writing as a critic could shape how historians write about certain artists or write about my peers, twenty or 30 or 40 years from now.  I’ve often thought about that, in part because I’ve spent so much time looking at art magazines from 30 or 40 years ago, and I am acutely aware how important it is that those critics wrote about those artists at that time.  But information travels differently now.  There was no Internet then, of course. The other thing I should mention is that when I organize an exhibition, there’s usually criticism written about it, so organizing an exhibition can be an interesting way of inciting a dialogue. Moreso than when I write criticism.  And when I have professional peers commenting on something I’ve done in another context, I’m always excited to read those reviews.

YJK:  Do artists who you’ve written about not so favorably ever hold grudges?

MNH:  I don’t know.  The only case I can think of came after I’d written one of those little 200 word Critics’ Picks on Artforum.com.  I didn’t know the artist at that time, and have gotten to know her better since, but it was about two or three years after the review when I got a card in the mail—to thank me for the review, and also to correct some statement I’d made in the review.  That moment revealed to me that the artists I’m writing about tend to be the most important audience for what I’m writing.  And that was really important for me.  It led to a studio visit, or several. And that’s why I go back to what I was saying about the one thing I do in all of my various guises is to help artists articulate what it is they’re doing…even if they don’t always agree with what I’m saying.

Michael Ned Holte's Proper Names

Michael Ned Holte’s Proper Names

YJK: I’m very interested in your book Proper Names, because it seems very much to me like an artist’s book.  How would you describe this project?

MNH:  When I give that book to people, and people seem puzzled by it, I say it’s a book of a list of names, and that’s what it is.  Some people have read it as an artist’s book or an artistic project, and I can understand why, because it certainly has some characteristics of such a thing.

YJK:  What your book does for me, and one of the reasons it seems like an artist’s book is that through the format of a list, you dissolve the signifying power of singular names/signifieds, by which you propose an open and continuously changing meaning by each name’s relationship to the collective.

MNH: That’s a nice way of putting it.  It’s a collection of 1000 readymades. I wanted it to be a big enough list that one couldn’t guess how many names there would be, but also a number that someone could realistically sit down and read from beginning to end.  I was interested in how much significance we attach to a name, and what happens when you put two things next to each other.  This is an old trick of collage from Dada or the Kuleshov Effect from filmmaking—if you put any two pieces of film next to each other, it produces meaning—and you can do this with names too.  Listed names appear all over the place, in an ad for a group show in Artforum, or a list of names on a donor plaque, or a list of names on my class roster.  But they are usually gathered in a way that we can identify a kind of coherence, and in that coherence there is also usually some connotation of value, whether the list is democratic or elitist. The way one encounters those names in my book is not unlike how one would encounter names in the world, because there are students of mine intermingled with celebrities, intermingled with theorists, artists…

YJK:  Yeah, I love that names of subjective significance are included, and names that you have claimed or reclaimed, like your mother’s, with her maiden name.

MNH: But my mother with her maiden name is also the name of an artist in San Francisco, which I think is really funny.  I saw her name on a list for a show in Artforum.  I love the idea that my mom is secretly an artist, and has kept that from me, even as I was writing for Artforum.

YJK:  And they’re not all people you can get behind, some are contentious with each other.

MNH: There are some truly terrible people on that list.  It’s not necessarily people I like, or even necessarily names that I like. They’re names that went through my head and stuck.  I wanted it to not be systematic.  I don’t want there to be some kind of legible system, and there’s not.  Maggie Nelson, who’s a writer I respect enormously, asked me if it was done with free association, and I responded by saying I don’t know if there is such a thing as free association after Google.  The way we encounter information, and the way it can lead us into different information is something that I’m really interested in.  I think a lot of people who see the book will look up a lot of those names as they’re going through it.  And I like that somebody would read that book while working Google on their phone.

YJK:  My boyfriend loves it and thinks it’s hilarious.

MNH:  Yeah, I’m just happy to get it out into the world.  It got read on kchung on Reading Radio, and they fucked up almost every name, which I think is kind of perfect.  One of my favorite things about the book is how much it destabilizes hierarchies in terms of the values we place on specific names, collectively and individually, and their reading of the book further destabilizes hierarchies by fucking up so many of the names in the book, including the author’s own name.  I couldn’t have done that, but they nailed it.

Young Joon Kwak is resident Queen at Mutant Salon and performer in the band Xina Xurner.  Hailing from Chicago, she currently lives in Los Angeles while pursuing her MFA at USC.