I first met Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen as they were carting a tank of helium into the desert. The Portland-based collaborative had been deployed to Camp CARPA by The Craft Advanced Research Projects Agency to distribute airborne leaflet propaganda on the unsuspecting town on Joshua Tree, CA. Their project, Instead of Pleading Up: Improvised Airdrops and the Seizure of the Vertical, employed gratuitous slingshots and cheerful party balloons as vehicles to distribute their collateral. Historically used to threaten, bribe, and confuse enemy lines, Anna + Ryan’s dissemination drew from the festive, confetti-like tactics used by the military in order to subvert and counter the message. Instead of Pleading Up opened up vertical airspace for democratic participation both literally and conceptually. The project reflected on past (and present) histories and dominant ideologies while simultaneously building a counter-narrative that was produced by the structures of power—activating agency from within—opposed to creating a position from the ineffectual site of binary opposition.
Much of Anna + Ryan’s artistic practice intervenes within the language of prevailing systems in order re-imagine them otherwise. Often leveraging the visual and conceptual language of play, their work is cheeky and unassuming, drawing you in with a collective laugh, and retaining your attention with its poignant bite. Targeting systems of labor and production, artistic value, and academia, their work unpacks the undeniable shittiness of the current moment with a holistic approach to art making and life building that resonates with Julia Bryan-Wilson’s notion of occupational realism, defined as the collapse of waged labor and art to give rise to art practices that raise “questions about the potential strategic or operational value of precarity: its capacity to redefine social relations, aesthetic and affective production, and class structures.”
Anna + Ryan function as a truly united collaborative. Their work, life, and art are bound together by their shared home/studio, adjunct teaching gig, and three-year-old son, Calder, and their public identity is often presented as a single artist under the combined name Ryanna. This all-encompassing integration means that Anna + Ryan’s practice is inherently political. As participants within dominant systems, their activities both explicitly creative as well as mundane are constant interrogation of larger structures of knowledge and economy. Whether producing text or performance, playing pirate or pilot, Anna + Ryan, (often joined by Calder), explore the potential within ways of working, knowing, and living through active participation. Even within the very regimented space of the gallery, the collective is able to playfully package antagonism within the commercially viable object. Much like the stones wrapped in chevron friendship bracelets that they produce, Anna + Ryan skirt what could be viewed as gestures of impertinent rejection under the guise of revealing the potential within the familiar to shift one’s purview to imaginative alternatives.
I spoke with Anna + Ryan over coffee in a cavernous academic building about their most recent exhibition, A Series of Rectangles, on view at PDX Contemporary Art through November 30, 2013.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: How did you come to make and co-produce together?
Anna Gray: We met in 2005 and we started helping each other make projects, and at some point probably around 2008, we realized that we were involved to such a degree in each other’s projects that it didn’t make any sense to continue differentiating who did what work. At that point, we decided to put all of our projects under our combined names. Now, we’re truly overlapped in terms of our teaching, our art-making, and our personal life, so there are times where we have to ask: where does our work start and family life end? Sometimes it’s a hard division, and other times, it’s not, and we want it to be.
Ryan Wilson Paulsen: Our working practices changed dramatically when we had [our son] Calder. It ended our studiomate-ness. Now we delegate the physical in-studio tasks, which changed our process of because we’re no longer as able to make decisions during the execution of a piece as easily—we’re often not producing the material work together, but that’s more true to conceptual art, I guess.
SMP: What is productive about combining this space of art—or world making—with home making?
AG: Homemaking is world-making. We devise most everything we do artistically through conversation and so doing that while all three of us are in the same space—negotiating emptying the dishwasher, pretending we’re pirates, and thinking about how to make some sort of visual work engaging labor and politics—is a particular method that can be really dynamic. I don’t know that it is a productive way of working necessarily, but we feel like there is entirely too much emphasis on production these days anyway.
RWP: For me, the chaos is invigorating, but it can also lead to frustration very quickly.
SMP: Your most recent exhibition, A Series of Rectangles, features work produced during a residency at the Bemis. Going into the residency, did you have a particular project in mind? How did that location inform the work that was produced there?
RWP: We wanted to continue the Object Indexes, which involve taking a text, inventorying and collecting the material objects that are mentioned, and arranging them so we can make a photograph. We knew we were going to do that going in, but we also knew that we didn’t want to go in knowing much else.
AG: I think it was important to us to be able to use the time to work on things that didn’t have a place yet. There was an openness to the experience of not making things on demand, for a particular exhibition or deadline. There was a similar openness in our experience of the landscape of Omaha that Ryan especially fell in love with. The landscape is really different than Portland, which we feel is becoming more and more over-designed architecturally and a bit claustrophobic in terms of the high level of aesthetic consideration of everything. There was a feeling of space in Omaha; firstly because we didn’t know the city, but also because there were a lot more abandoned houses and empty lots within the city, that felt full of possibility. I think that’s why we were attracted to making work with bricks and rubble—these things that are found in those places became markers of a certain destructive potential.
RWP: Omaha’s sort of like Swiss cheese and Portland is like a block of cheese. There’s no contested area here—everything is regimented and owned and marked. In Omaha, there are these neighborhoods and alleyways that were like no-mans-land. It felt more expansive. There was more potential for things to happen and for things to happen in secret.
SMP: I read this idea of potentiality in the series of cairns, Verb I – Verb XVIII. Even their titles tie them to this sense of activation. Looking at the bricks though, I didn’t intuit any real violence in the installation—disgruntlement, maybe—but I’m curious where the aggression comes in for you?
AG: The brick works, [Adjunct and Double Negative], as they are installed maybe seem more fixed, like they are saying rather than suggesting. But, we’ve thought about the Adjunct bricks functioning in accordance with a number of different motions or uses. We’ve thought about them being useful as doorstops—something to remind you whose keeping the doors open at the university. But they could also be commemorative paving stones; we could organize a brick-buy to fund raise for adjunct wage increases and benefits. We could also build our own unaccredited institution with them, or throw them through the windows of the old institution because it’s pretty fucked right now.
RWP: They could have suggested that more if they had been installed differently, but it was our decision to install them as they are—partly for visual cleanliness—but it was nice to invoke both the building up and the falling down of the institution of education by making a sort of crumbling corner. The way that they ‘re installed also makes their proportions a bit difficult to read, but it was important to us they represented the ratio of adjuncts to full-time faculty in the university system nationally, so 75% of the bricks there are inscribed ADJUNCT while the other 25% are blank.
AG: I think the aggression we feel about our positions as teachers is a complicated one because crossing through our relation with the bureaucratic education system and the aggression we feel there, is the care for students and enthusiasm for the ways that art could have a potential to make something different happen within the space of a classroom.
SMP: I didn’t realize the cataloging series was something ongoing. When did that body of work start?
AG: It started from making various text-based indexes for the same text as a way to create many ways of looking at the same thing: like an index of all the metaphors, all the colors, all the numbers etc.
RWP: It was with the color index that we began overlaying actual color fields over the text to create a visual graphic rather than a secondary text, and from there we moved into the objects.
AG: Looking at the objects authors use was particularly interesting in terms of reading philosophy. Scavenging for philosophical object lessons became really interesting to us because of the difficulty of reading that kind of material—there’s a certain level of abstraction. I would feel myself really grasping for those material examples to try and understand, and sometimes they wouldn’t be really actually be that palpable—they’re imagined or metaphorical things, and that’s where the interest in doing the object indexes and also the drawings emerged.
SMP: How do the photos and drawings relate?
AG: We were noticing that the speculative object examples were more interesting and evocative. For example, a knot of two concepts or something is more interesting than a knot of rope. It seemed interesting to focus on trying to render those things—literalizing them. It’s also kind of jokey. Peter Kropotkin wrote about the old institutions falling under the proletarian axe, and we got this image in our head of an axe branded proletarian on the handle. That experience told me something about the distance between our time and Kropotkin’s time. What arises in the public imagination is wildly different. The old institution of capitalism branded the axe that will be its own destruction? I don’t know, literalization always kind of makes a circle.
SMP: How did you come to the work of Simone Weil, whose pervasive reputation is as a complete crazy person?
AG: She was so frequently quoted by other writers we were reading and I was curious about her influence on other thinkers. Maybe she seems crazy cause she just hasn’t been historicized and sanitized the way that so many other writers have. She did die really young, and everything she wrote seems very forceful and maybe extreme, but I like that her writing seems of a fierce human-ness. It’s idiosyncratic and contradictory too.
RWP: We love contradiction and paradox. Giorgio Agamben and other theorists who we really love tend to define things from their paradox—everything comes down to it. And there’s another piece in the middle [of the gallery] that’s a loose sculpture with branches and an open paper book. Within the piece is the sentence “The line that runs through the middle of each of us is beginning to itch,” which is a note about the internalization of power and oppression: There’s no exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed anymore—there are no clear divisions because they’re both contained within us. We are our own worker and our own managers, especially as artists.
AG: Simone Weil has that great line about contradiction that when a contradiction is impossible to resolve except by a lie, then you know it’s really a door.
SMP: Why take your process of translation as far as you do: text, to concept, to object, to image? What does the image making do for the work that is different from presenting an assemblage of the objects themselves?
AG: By photographing them we’re putting the objects in relative scale to each other within the space of a picture plane, which is relative to the space of the page. There’s a looseness to the acquisition process of the objects, sometimes they might be a bit inaccurate to the texts, but they are accurate to our reading, so putting them in an image keeps them within the symbolic or speculative realm versus being isolated and presented in their singularity and specificity as artifacts. Plus I think there is something interesting with the repetition of certain objects across different indexes of different texts. They reveal certain common metaphors, or objects that have a charge or convenience for particular authors: knots, stamps, screens, and bread for instance.
RWP: When we make an object, we’re trying to emphasize the use value of the thing—the ways it could be performed—but when we make an image, we’re encouraging its contemplative value over its use value.
SMP: Has this interest in cataloging and creating systems been something resonant throughout your practice?
AG: Definitely. Part of that is an interest in understanding how knowledge is organized and how those systems can tell you something about power and perception and tools during different times. I think we’re interested more and more, along with everyone else, in how power obscures and encloses certain kinds of knowledge and information.
SMP: You also tend to serialize. What is your motivation to work in series?
AG: Maybe it’s a defense mechanism. You can get away with more if you are presenting 100 of something than if you are presenting 3 of something. But it kind of goes back to this thing of play. If you allow yourself the number 100 and make as many variations as you can within that set, you’ve given yourself a useful bounded arena where you can experiment and stretch or break the rules of the original form or concept. For us, the true play happens within a space that is somewhat systematized, or organized by a given form but then we get to warp the system, interrupt it or evolve it through use.
RWP: In some ways, our tendency to serialize is lamely idiosyncratic and not worth talking about. We’re fidget-ers and totally anxious and creating multiples is a way to give us something to do outside of the conceptual work.
AG: Yeah, maybe…Everywhere Ryan went for the last three months he was knotting cotton for the friendship bracelets.
RWP: Well, if I wasn’t doing that I’d be chain smoking.
SMP: I think there are many makers out there who can relate there, and it is interesting this idea of balancing out the rigor of your conceptual work with the ritualized monotony of creating craft-based objects. Has craft and this particular way of making been something consistently present in your work?
AG: It’s always been there, but at the same time, half of us is always talking about how we wouldn’t make the work if we didn’t have to—if we could get someone else to do it. But it’s really important to me, because doing the teaching and the conceptual/pragmatic side of the work we do at the same time is really exhausting. It’s really nice to have a craft-based alteration from that kind of thinking and planning—craft-based in that you’re following a set of steps to produce an expected product, which gives you an opportunity to think and make and move at the same time.
RWP: Things made by hand are cool right now because we largely don’t have them. People can connect with something made by hand precisely because they notice its absence in their day-to-day life.
SMP: We’re still in this place culturally though being so distanced from systems of production that the unassuming gallery go-er wouldn’t necessarily equate the traditional chevron and rainbow-patterned friendship bracelet with something handmade.
RWP: But in that case, it doesn’t really matter because so many of us have the associations of what friendship bracelets signify from grade school and summer camp—we all understand that it’s something we make, and not something we keep but give away. The idea to make them for this project came out of another text, Beyond Predicates, which talks about the revolutionary cells of today. We no longer have the party, the union, or the guerrilla army, we have the clique and the gang, which are based on friendship and have the potential to produce mass change. We started thinking about that—this very insurrectional text—and about weaponizing friendship in that way. Or friendship-izing weapons. A friendship is a certain formulation where like-mindedness is not a precondition for friendships. My friendships are my most diverse body of relationships.
SMP: I know that your work tends to be heavily text-based and cheeky, but the bricks and the towel piece, We Already Quit, don’t have a lot of subtlety to them.
AG: Maybe they are less subtle in relation to each other. We Already Quit has multiple meanings, but the piece gets a lot more specified in the context it’s in right now, and with our two names on the wall opposite. We’re saying we already quit for a lot of reasons. One idea we had about that statement was about the inability to stop participating. You can’t really quit working, there are really no ways of opting out, and fewer ways of choosing alternatives within the expansive network of global capitalism because we are all so dependent on the system that is exploiting us. So you can have quit already, but you’ll still be here participating and maybe even looking professional while you do it.
And the systems and ethics around work, especially in this country, are really detrimental and limiting. We titled that banner Working Towards Non-Work, as we are trying to find a vocabulary for working and artistic activity that isn’t about productive ends, but about positively reproductive ones. There’s a lot expected of artists at this point in terms of levels of productivity in academia, in shaping the quirk and brand of a city, in participating nationally or internationally as a creative contributor, and in maintaining an exhibition and/or studio practice. How are other artists managing this workload, which by its very design seems to prevent the best work from being made?
RWP: Alternatively, that statement could be about the tendency to treat struggle as something one tries for awhile along with youthful idealism but then gives up for a form of rationality later in life. Like: “yeah…we used to use cloth diapers, but it was just too much so we quit and disposables are so much easier.” Power makes certain things easier for a reason.
SMP: I’m wondering if you can unpack your project statement for this exhibition: nothing can be what it is anymore.
RWP: First of all, that came together very quickly. It was one of those cases where we were approached about the show and they needed the title and statement in a couple days. It can be as simple as it sounds: Everything has implications that transform it, and nothing can be what it once was or what it seems.
AG: We also thought about it in terms of societal norms. We make norms and we operate with norms as a form of language and judgment and coping and ease. But it’s important to be constantly suspending those norms in order to question them, reassert them in a more egalitarian or positive way, or to do away with them all together. I think it really has been since Calder was born that we both paused and were like: do we really want to accept these forms of normal? It suddenly was urgent to re-articulate what we hoped and envisioned for the world our kid and kid’s kids might inhabit, and the first step is in understanding how to analyze the world we are currently living in.
That’s somewhat selfish and personal, but our lives are not just our lives anymore, and having Calder has made more sensible the extension of my life by years, because I’m now bodily connected to subsequent generations and it is up to me to pass on a particular representation of the possibilities and actualities of the world.
SMP: There are moments in cultural history where the trueness of reality can be stripped away and platforms like imagination and fiction become all the more poignant as venues to open up potential for what can be otherwise. For me, nothing can be what it is anymore, invokes the idea of a clean slate, and I’m wondering if you can speak to how you leverage imagination and fiction within an art making practice that is simultaneously very critical?
RWP: We talk about imagination in contrast to creativity a lot—creativity being tied to production and imagination not necessarily so. This is something that’s important to us and we’re still trying to think about. When imaginative work is not tied to any type of production there’s a way that we’re able to let ourselves improvise that’s not predicated on some type of rational logic. In the absence of this rational logic–which we see as a justification system developed alongside an exploitative economic structure—there is the chance that we might make astounding intellectual leaps.
AG: The other thing about making the distinction between those two terms is that creativity is a word that’s been highly corrupted and used interchangeably with words like innovation, or alongside words like entrepreneurship, which are very much in the service of profit. And this is where ideas like anti-work and the suspension of productive ends becomes really important. And to be perfectly frank, I don’t feel like I’m very good at the work of imagining. Ryan has a better imagination than I do in so many ways, and I think that there’s an interest in making work around those notions because I feel particularly deficient. I watch our son too and wonder: how does he do it?
SMP: Does humor come into most of what you do and how are you using it?
RWP: As a coping mechanism.
AG: Desperation…or as a way to make things easier for a viewer, or sometimes not intentionally. Most of the drawings are literalist jokes, but they weren’t all intended as such—it’s just an inclination that we have. But there’s also maybe humor or at least frivolity in, for example, our use of bright party balloons to drop militarized leaflets versus using a weather balloon or something more scientific, because there’s something catching at a first glance.
RWP: The balloons say: this artwork wants to have fun with me, so I’ll take a second look at it. Also, the Adjunct bricks are intended to be funny, and when you make a joke with an artwork and the viewer gets it, there’s a base of camaraderie because you’ve shared something—this inside joke.
SMP: What are your thoughts on social practice, specifically, how it’s been canonized and how your work is often categorized as such?
AG: I have a slight revulsion to the term because it seemed to originate as if it didn’t have a history or precedence, and because it seems like a weird redundancy or something.
RWP: I’m not interested in participating in the fixing of subjects…But I think Claire Bishop sort of had it right when she said that if you’re going to engage in this type of practice you’re going to be looked at aesthetically as well as socially, so you have to deal with that.
AG: Basically, what she’s calling for is an evaluation of art that is based on ethics as well as aesthetics and that combination seems so important in terms of any kind of critique you’re going to bring to an artwork. I also appreciate how she is often evaluating why certain works are happening in our particular historical moment, rather than trying to assess whether they are good or bad. But, going back to the term social practice I think it can be a useful classification to identify certain inclinations or tendencies or methodologies that have taken hold. We see how in our present moment those tendencies point to specific lacks in the world at large—social lacks—and there’s been lots of words to describe them from alienation and isolation, to disenchantment, disenfranchisement, or the loss of the commons. The point is that people largely feel that they can’t represent themselves politically or socially or even if they can, they’re misrecognized or ignored. It makes sense that social practice projects emphasize building relationships, sharing economies, and alternative structures in a world where those things are being more over-determined and enclosed upon everyday.
RWP: The problem is in isolating social practice as a specifically contemporary movement because that hides the ways that art activity has always been social, and maybe it also hides certain histories of resistance that connect a lot of the socially engaged artworks of today to a rich past of struggle in and out of the discipline of art proper.
AG: We wouldn’t describe ourselves as social practice artists, but then again we sometimes don’t even like calling ourselves artists, but rather people who make art—finding a definition through process and activity rather than by an externally affixed label or level of professionalism.
Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen are a collaborative artist team whose current interests center around reading and writing holes into the political and institutional predicaments that make life worse. Their pieces and projects have been seen at PDX Contemporary Art, CampCARPA, The San Diego Art Museum, Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Publication Studio, PICA’s Time Based Arts Festival, and in the pages of NOON Literary Annual. They live in Portland, Oregon where they teach at Portland State University and try to spend most of their time pretending with their 3-year-old son Calder.
It seems impossible to enter an exhibition with the title WHEN WILL MY LOVE BE RIGHT without the expectation of heartbreak. This provocative phrase, taken from a 1980s soul classic by Robert Winters & Fall, reads as an ominous declaration of sentiment that, beyond unrequited, has been relegated to a realm of social and cultural taboo. In a moment when debate over DOMA abounds, the political and personal are inherently interwoven in this new body of work by Arnold J. Kemp, a Portland-based visual and performing artist who is recognized for using glitter and a Duchampian sense of humor to explore issues related to identity and subjectivity.
WHEN WILL MY LOVE BE RIGHT, recently on view at PDX CONTEMPORARY ART, was not all political machination wrapped in clever art-speak. Kemp certainly took a cue from the spirit of Robert Winters’ early-80s falsetto, (a sound that can only come out of Southern California by way of Detroit!), to imbue his performance and handmade readymade objects with an endearing tenderness—sentimentality pervasive in popular music and cinema but still somewhat disconcerting in the realm of fine art. Stand out were Kemp’s two pairs of handmade men’s shoes each accompanied by two seashells, two-by-two creating a veritable Odd Couple of characters marooned on adjacent islands just barely raised above the gallery floor. Thinking about shoes in contemporary art—Christian Boltanski’s piles and Bedwyr Williams’ crusty size 13s, for example—there’s something tragic and futile with these works that is entirely absent when viewing Kemp’s stunningly crafted footwear. His sculptures, contentedly paired in convivial conversation, exude a humble opulence. Though alienated from each other, the shoes seem at home with their chosen partners, both pairs of empty vessels enlivened by the echo of past and future inhabitants.
All was not harmonious in Kemp’s installation, however. Photographs of portentous empty masks lined the gallery walls, and an index card reading: EYES REMAIN RIVETED ON THE MOON THAT’S RISING FROM THE EDGE OF MAN’S SORROW, added an uncanny punctuation mark to the entire tableau. When will my love be right? The specifics of to whom Kemp asks remains ambiguous. What can be gleaned from this body of work is that love and alienation, fulfillment and pain, presence and absence, all operate in tandem, and it is the space of art—abetted by pop music—where these dichotomies can meet.
I spoke to Arnold J. Kemp over chilled rosé and cured meats in downtown Portland.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: I was hoping that you could begin by elaborating a bit on your most recent body of work, WHEN WILL MY LOVE BE RIGHT, which seems to speak very much to your multidisciplinary and multisensory approach to making. How did the show come together?
Arnold J. Kemp: I come at things like a sculptor who is trying to make paintings. When I moved to Portland, I was very involved in making paintings that had a sense of humor. Sometimes they’d be all black paintings—Vampires—named for the idea that vampires don’t have reflections when they look into mirrors. Another series were these glittering pink and black paintings that completely resembled the disco-era. But with this new work, I think it started with wanting to make something that people could really see my hand in. So, I don’t know precisely how I arrived at it, but I was messing around in the studio with aluminum foil and what emerged were these mask-like objects. I have a history of drawing and creating things that resemble masks, but what was interesting about the aluminum foil, is that it really conveys the movement of my hand manipulating the material. I never thought to exhibit the objects themselves; instead, I used the quickest, easiest, and dumbest way of rendering them into an image, which was to use a scanner. With this series [of Aluminums], I began to play with framing—the frame around the image—as a way to emphasize the idea of painting.
AK: Other elements of the work are the handmade shoes and the 15-foot leather belts with the belt buckles spelling “shy,” which were displayed very low to the ground in steel trays that functioned almost as a piece of furniture. There was also the performance, In Arms. In Arms is sort of an abstracted, sad, love story that really relates to the main theme of the show: when will my love be right? As I was making this work, I got really involved with this one song with the same title from the 80s by this group Robert Winter & the Fall. I found it on YouTube—it’s amazing!—the vocals are amazing. It’s all about longing, yearning, and impossible love.
Having the play as a piece in the show—it was on the checklist, performed on one night only for 50-people—was very important to me because it made the exhibition something really special… [During the performance,] the gallery was completely dark and we all were wearing handmade headlamps so we could read the script as we were performing. And when I say “performing,” we were more giving a good reading than actually performing. My direction to the actors, [Travis Nikolai and Sara Jaffe,] was to speak slowly and clearly so people could actually hear the words because the text is somewhat abstract. There are parts that are narrative that resemble what you would hear if you were walking down the street and hearing fragments of various conversations, or eavesdropping on hearing two lovers talking.
SMP: I’m interested in your use of the term readymade for something that is ephemeral—text based—distinctly non-material. I remember reading in an interview that Jonathan Lethem is not interested in originality, but rather, in expressing the grain of human experience, even if that means sourcing from plagiarized material. How do you approach using readymade text and is there a limit to sampling and re-sampling existing creative work?
AK: It’s not about originality, and it’s not about waiting for inspiration as an artist. Ezra Pound said: to make it new; and Gertrude Stein said: I’ve read everything! Which I love! By using texts or words as readymades, I feel as though this play is put together like a sculpture—all these parts just come together. All of this stuff is in the world to play with and make with, and I just want to use it all. We have so much at our fingertips with the Internet, although I’d prefer to be in a library surrounded by books, which is where the material for this play comes from. To resist that would be resisting the whole way our culture is going with mixing and remixing, DJ-ing, and mashing up. The whole idea of the hip-hop posse has really fascinated me for quite a while. Warhol referenced the factory, and I think about the posse, and how it’s fairly impossible for a single, autonomous artist working alone to make it—legitimately make it in the art world—whatever that means.
AK: As for the text in the play, most of is was drawn from sources that came from a practice that was almost like contrived community building, rooted in my personal desire to have conversations with people like Angela Davis, Brecht, Billie Holiday, Mallarmé… There could very well be 100 different people quoted in that script. There is a line that reads: don’t explain; that’s Billie Holiday. The whole thing is very research process-oriented. It’s about being part of a community. And it’s about love.
SMP: Is it a collaborative work then?
AK: Me and Angela Davis! A collaboration? Truly, I do consider my work a collaboration between myself and who the piece is dedicated to… The characters in the play are specific people, and I don’t know if I want the public to know this, but one of those characters is me and the other character is someone I’ve been romantically involved with since 2003. For ten years, we’ve had this very intense, serious, in love, calling each other fiancées relationship, but there are impossible things and we’re not together. He and I have performed this play once before at California College of the Arts, (CCA), as part of Bay Area Poet’s Theater. We got rave reviews and I thought I would never have to perform it again—I would just publish it, but then this show came up: WHEN WILL MY LOVE BE RIGHT.
People should ask: who is he talking to? It could be those shoes. The shoes are very abstract to me—they could be very simple—but their simplicity is complicated by the fact that my father is an incredibly well dressed man who is very critical the way that I dress. His father made men’s suits, and my mother’s father made shoes. My mother comes from a family of six daughters and no sons, and my grandfather made the entire family’s shoes—this was in Panama.
SMP: Is that biographical reference important to the work?
AK: Yes, it is. In addition to the shoes, there are seashells that certainly refer to my Caribbean heritage, but they also are echoes of the shoes. A seashell has a similar function and a similar shape to a shoe, and if you hold a seashell or shoe up to your ear, you’re going to hear the ocean.
SMP: In graduate school, Renée Green had us read Muriel Rukeyser’s Life of Poetry, a text all about the revolutionary potential produced by the emotional stuff of poetry. Why bring poetry and love into your work?
AK: Even when I was doing a lot of curating, I was always watching other artists. I had to write these curatorial essays and there was always this point in writing that I wanted to write about love—what love has to do with art making. It’s not just a love of objects or love of museums, but heartache, the blues, jazz, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Shirley Horn, Betty Carter… All these amazing people who do take on love, bring it into themselves, and translate it into something that resonates with others. Love is very personal. I’m not talking about a universal love, although love is universal. My experience with it, which has to do with being black, being an artist, being queer, being a teacher, being part of a family, is very intense. This exhibition was really hard to put together emotionally and I’m always thrilled when even a bit of the conceptual intent comes through.
SMP: It seems as thought you’re able to leverage you love of idols—Angela Davis and Billie Holiday—with a very personal, day-to-day, lived version of love, and the art making is where those two meet.
AK: I don’t know how, but I know it’s purposeful.
SMP: What is your relationship to craft? Is there something about craft-based materials and processes—shoe making, for example—that allows you to approach a subject or articulate something differently than your work that comes from the trajectory of fine art painting and photography?
AK: That’s an interesting question. When I teach, I say to my students: you can’t make art by making art. They might not know what that means at first, but I say it over and over again, and I applaud them when they don’t make art. Making art by not making art is really a Duchampian thing, and it’s funny to talk about Duchamp relative to craft, but someone made the toilet—it was porcelain—so someone had to make it! But anyway, back to the shoes. To give a little back-story, for a long time, I’ve wanted to do a project where I make mirrors by hand. I want to present handmade mirrors as paintings—I still want to do that project—but when I was about to, there was a shift in my social world that made me not want to make mirrors anymore. So, instead, I thought: I’ll make shoes.
AK: When people would ask what I was working on, I would say: handmade readymades. This idea of the handmade readymade, (and I thought was being clever), was a first a way to get Duchamp. Not, get Duchamp, because you really can’t get over him or his work, but, I thought they could look, simply, like a regular pair of shoes—not like art—but like a finely crafted, all hand, no machine, leather shoe. I was able to connect with a very skilled shoemaker who is a cobbler from a really old Romanian family that had been in the business of making shoes for about 200 years and he has been making shoes since he was 12 years old. I saw an advert that someone had tacked up reading “Shoemaking Course,” and because there was no venue for the class and people were flying in from all over the country to take it, I was able to offer space in the PNCA sculpture studio in exchange for taking the class for free, (although I did pay over $1000 for a set of tools). The shoes that I made are not perfect. People ask all the time if I wear them—I could wear them—but I wouldn’t sell them to someone to wear, because I think of them as sculpture, and I believe in this craft of shoemaking so much that I feel that I’d have to make 20 or 40 pairs of shoes before I was really able to sell a pair of shoes to somebody.
SMP: It seems to me that in this exhibition and your past work as well—and I’m thinking of the glitter works here—that you’ve intentionally played with concepts relating to luster and artifice, drawing attention to a painting as a painting or a poem as a poem in a very post-Brechtian way. Why this interest in artifice?
AK: When I work, I try to make myself laugh. When I first made the masks, I had an a-ha moment: no one has made this before and it is so dumb! It was so dumb, and that’s why it was so good. When I make the masks I’m laughing. Each one is unique and each one of the frames is also unique, (there’s no edition), and there is some process to them, but in some sense, anyone could go to a hobby shop, pickup some black glitter and doll’s eyes, and create something that looks very close to one of my paintings. In a way I’m daring them to—the black glitter is sort of a dare, as is the aluminum foil. (I dare someone to make the shoes!)
SMP: My immediate referent with the glitter and dolls eyes is not necessarily this hobby shop kitsch, (although that’s there), but instead, my first thought is of the counterculture—the Cockettes—and glittery gestures of resistance.
AK: There’s a reason that all the glitter paintings are small—they’re resisting the idea of the masterpiece, resisting master narrative, resisting hyper-masculine painter. When I went to the Museum School, I was taught by third-generation abstract expressionists who told me that I was too smart to be an artist and I would be a better artist if I thought less. I really struggled in art school to figure out how to be an artist—how to resist and persist—which is what my whole life has been about. And really, my work may come from thinking too much, but it also comes from looking at Jasper Johns, and I guess it all comes back to figuring out what art is for me.
AK: One of my first big breaks was Freestyle at the Studio Museum, (2001), an exhibition that featured the first generation of black artists after Carrie Mae Weems, Fred Wilson, Lorna Simpson, and many others that our generation really respects. There was a point though, when we had to consider: we love that conversation, but does it benefit us to be a part of that conversation or to try and move this conversation in different directions? I am continuously addressing this issue relative to my work: Freestyle and the post-black ideas about blackness, which really matter to me as someone from a really racist part of the country. The other piece here is my gay identity, which is maybe what you were getting at with the Cockettes reference and all the 60s glitter. I did spend 15-years in San Francisco, and a show that really changed my life was curated by Nayland Blake called Situation at New Langton Arts in 1991. The exhibition was a survey of queer artists. I walked in not knowing anyone in San Francisco at the time, and I thought to myself: I want to work here. That happened, and that led to everything else.
SMP: I’m curious: what is the Black Monochrome Machine?
AK: Black Monochrome Machine is an idea I came up with as a way of producing work. I’ve also created: Arnold J. Kemp, Principal of Invisible Inc. and Black Arts Index. These are entities that I was producing work out of—not as if I’m not the author—but as if I wasn’t by myself. Black Arts Index was an idea that began in college; it was an actual index of references to blackness, from race to the occult and black magic. Another project under Black Arts Index and Invisible Inc. was an idea I had for a book about slavery. In 1993, I was walking with David Hammons and we walked by the work of an artist from his generation and he said to me: Why is she making work about slavery? Everyone knows that we were slaves. Art is not to tell us about what we already know, but there definitely is a market and a curatorial push that supports artists who deal with struggles of Africans derived people in this country. In my youthful naiveté I wanted to write this book to free those artists, but i could never write that book.
Arnold J. Kemp’s recent exhibition, WHEN WILL MY LOVE BE RIGHT, was on view at PDX CONTEMPORARY ART January 22 – March 2. Currently, Kemp is Chair of the MFA in Visual Studies Department at Pacific Northwest College of Art, (PNCA). In 2012, Kemp was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and his work has been collected by a number of institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Berkeley Art Museum. 1993-2003, Kemp was Associate Curator of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.
Images courtesy of the artist PDX CONTEMPORARY ART unless otherwise specified.