December 15, 2011 · Print This Article
Entering the studio of Craft Mystery Cult, I was greeted by a plywood table festooned with ambiguous objects varying from crudely handcrafted clay bowls to scorched specimens seemingly pirated from the vault of a natural history museum. All three CMC members, Sonja Dahl, Jovencio de la Paz, and Stacy Jo Scott, were seated around this collection, which I soon discovered to be ephemera from their collaborative rites and rituals. Removed from the context of performance, the reliquary expressed an internal coherenceâ€” the vernacular of the objects linking hand, to material, to detritus, suggesting a connection between everyday practices of making and the more mystical aspects of ritualistic activity. The tableau was presided over by the sanctified portraits of William Morris and Johannes Ittenâ€”the patron saints of craft and color, whose workshop-based practices inform the social and conceptual underpinnings of CMCâ€™s activities.
The members of Michigan-based Craft Mystery Cult are all in their final year of their MFAs in fiber, (Dahl and de la Paz), and ceramics, (Scott), at Cranbrook Academy of Art. They established the CMC collective as a platform to explore issues relating to the history, economy, and conceptual framework of contemporary craft. On Saturday, CMC will orchestrate a performance at Roots and Culture that draws from their sacred text, The Hapticon. I interviewed Dahl, de la Paz, and Scott in their studio as they were making preparations for this event.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: Itâ€™s my understanding that Craft Mystery Cult was officially formed over the summer in residence at Ox-Bow, but Iâ€™m wondering if you can elaborate on the CMC origin story. What strange and mysterious forces conspired to bring this collaboration together?
Jovencio de la Paz: I donâ€™t know that Iâ€™d say we formed at Ox-Bow, I think it was prior to that through discussion and writing.
Sonja Dahl: I’d say we began casually working on this project about a year ago now. It really evolved out of issues that originated within each of our individual studio practices.
Stacy Jo Scott: Through a number of conversations, we realized that we had similar concerns in terms of how we approach work. It seemed like we had this shared desire to create a conversation that we werenâ€™t getting otherwiseâ€”in other venues or in other forms. It was really from this desire to create a narrative to work fromâ€¦ By narrative, I donâ€™t mean the Craft Mystery Cult narrative, I mean more of a framework for understanding our art historical lineage.
SMP: All three of you come from disciplines focused on object making, and historically, discrete object making through ceramics and fiber. Do you feel like academia, as well as the larger cultural framework surrounding craft-based practices of making, are perpetuating discourses that in some ways are no longer relevant; for example, the Modernist tradition of autonomy, or the postmodern tradition of critique? In what sense were you breaking free?
SJS: I think for me and my experience with ceramics, itâ€™s almost coming from a different direction than what youâ€™re describing. As artists making work at this time, the conversation is so steeped in the dematerialization of the object. The desire to make and have hands-on material, and the desire to see objects manifest from work is something thatâ€™s disappearing from the larger conversation. Itâ€™s difficult to have a position to work from that seems relevant when everything is becoming more ephemeral. In a way, weâ€™re trying to consider what position objects and materiality still have; specifically, the handâ€™s relationship to material as a different source of knowledge that we arenâ€™t taught to access.
JdlP: Much of CMCâ€™s work deals with the creation of language; specifically, the kind of language that might be able to house what Stacy Jo is describing, which we refer to as haptic knowledgeâ€”the knowledge beyond language. In order to present that or to create a bridge between that and the viewer, we work to create an environment that utilizes strategies that may be familiar from other forms such as text, performance, ritual, music, things to serve as access points to that non-verbal space. Weâ€™re really using the notion of the craft workshop as a model for collaborative art practice, which is a reference that is very different compared to other collaborative art practices in that it deals with a very craft-specific mode of production. There are interpersonal hierarchies that are very different than other collaborative groups.
SMP: Going back to your practice that draws from text, music, and performance, Iâ€™m curious what you think can be gleaned from the interstice of ritual and craft? Did you approach the project with a preconceived relationship between mysticism and making, and how have your thoughts evolved throughout the past few months?
JdlP: I think a very simple way to describe it is that itâ€™s sort of like a logic puzzle. Weâ€™ve created a framework that has a very specific language related to the occult and mysticism through rites and rituals. Craft serves as a parallel structure that is based on skill. Take the Masons for example: as you progress in skill, you gain knowledge in a more profound, spiritual sense. So thereâ€™s this parallel, and we were always sort of guided by both. We were interested in the work of Johannes Itten, and his spiritualistic approach to making and teaching.
SJS: One of our earliest references was William Morris, who is complicated, but one thing that he championed was this idea of human dignityâ€”the worker and the maker have a sense of dignity that is lost in certain forms of industrial production. For me, mysticism related in part to humanism and highlighting individual agency rather than obeying the types of beliefs and laws that are passed down by mastery.
SMP: Can you describe some components to the larger Craft Mystery Cult project and articulate the relationship between ritual and performance to object?
SD: One of our performances at Ox-Bow: â€œIn Commemoration of the Death of the Prophet William Morrisâ€ really brought together many aspects of our collaborative work at the residency. It brought together the component of collectingâ€”we would visit each of the studios and collect material remnants of their processes, so we had the slag pile from the iron pour, fragments of glass and things like that. Those objects were collected throughout the course of the project, and we were also creating other objects both through the playful re-authoring of, for example, William Morris textile prints, as well as through various different ways of employing the symbology that we had created. We generated all these objects through various modes of making and collecting, and we funneled them all into this final ritual that involved a processional, the building of this pyre in the fire pit, creating a musical, auditory experience, which all happened at twilight. In the end, it really became this performed ritual for a number of individuals that brought together history and research, object making, collecting, the spiritual, bodies moving in space, musicâ€”all of these elements that we had been working on for the duration of the project. Thereâ€™s a real spirit of play that weâ€™re getting at with improvisation. Spontaneity can occur because of embedded knowledge and experience to some degree. We brought to this collective much of our own thinking and making, and because we come without own histories, the spontaneous and inventive moments can occur.
SMP: I find it interesting that this project evolved from reactionâ€” a simultaneous response to your individual practices within a larger academic framework. If Iâ€™m understanding this correctly, itâ€™s the interaction of the collectiveâ€”the coming together of individuals to create a new body and a new interstice from which you can cultivate an alternative framework for making and its related embodied processes.
SJS: Yeah, absolutely. And I think part of that is we have this desire to make together. I come in with a set of skills that Jovencio and Sonja donâ€™t have, so the way I use my skill in collaboration is in a way that they can also use, which means that the work itself is often quite basic like the pinch pots. Similarly, Sonja will lead in dying indigo since she has experience with that and Jovencio and I do not, and itâ€™s these simplified processes that guides the making of objects…
JdlP: …and thereby the aesthetic that they express.
SMP: Is it from the aesthetic that you make references to meaning in a symbolic sense?
JdlP: I think itâ€™s the implied process more than the aesthetic of the object. Pinch pots and one-dip indigo dye are very foundational.
SJS: That speaks to our interest in skill. Weâ€™re interested in that moment of skill that is extremely foundationalâ€”not skill in terms of mastery, but skill in terms of someones first encounter with the material. In that way too, the aesthetic that weâ€™re developing is based on the desire to speak about that primary moment of skill.
JdlP: So the aesthetic appears always untrained, or primitive, as problematic as these terms are. We are interested in this notion of prehistory, which really relates to the realm of craft in that a pinch pot made tens of thousands of years ago is strikingly similar to a pinch pot that a high school student in a public school might make. That high school student and prehistoric person are somehow linked through the object, the aesthetic of which comes from this moment of foundational, or primal creation.
SJS: A lot of work that one might consider deskilled comes from the idea that a lack of skill is a stand in for authenticity, and I donâ€™t quite buy that. I feel like what weâ€™re doing is somehow different from thatâ€”not that that moment of primary skill is more authentic than mastery, but itâ€™s about creating some kind of framework around that momentâ€”that moment has a depth of meaning that isnâ€™t about authenticity. Itâ€™s not that the primitive person is somehow more authentic than the teenager.
JdlP: But whatâ€™s important is that they share the same moment through making that object. That moment can be opened up, and what exists there isnâ€™t authenticity but some sort of experiential knowledge.
SMP: I often have the discussion across a range of art practices about the concept of the moment of discovery, and whether youâ€™re working in paint or performance, itâ€™s all about discovery on some level for the viewer, and I suppose for the maker as well. Does that concept relate to what youâ€™re speaking to?
JdlP: But itâ€™s a very particular kind of discovery because itâ€™s always available through rediscoveryâ€”itâ€™s never exhausted, and thatâ€™s where the idea of ritual is also important. That moment is always exciting for whatever reason, which is part of the mystery, and I think thatâ€™s speaks a lot to where the aesthetic of our objects comes from. Itâ€™s interesting because the show in Chicago has nothing to do with objectsâ€¦
SD: Before we get into Chicago, Iâ€™ve been wanting to mention that something I think about a lot in relationship to the CMC project is the spirit of approaching things with a sense of wonder. When we talk about using basic skill and that primary moment of discovery between body and material, thereâ€™s a sense of wonder there. You can appreciate that depth of knowledge of a makerâ€™s body to their materials and their process through a sense of wonder, and I feel that a lot of my experience at Ox-Bow visiting all the studios was a process of cultivating that sense of wonder. To stand in front of the glass studio or the iron pour, or to see them open the raku kilnâ€”thereâ€™s a sense of wonder and appreciation thatâ€™s very important.
JdlP: And I think itâ€™s very difficult not to feel a sense of optimism through craftâ€¦
SD: Dare we say it!
JdlP: â€¦because youâ€™re encountering a moment becomingâ€”a moment of creationâ€”it is a generative moment. Itâ€™s very integral to that sense of wonder that you are witnessing a generative process.
SJS: And itâ€™s already essentially performative. We can go see an iron pour, we can go see someone blowing glass, someone throwing a potâ€”thatâ€™s performance, and thatâ€™s ritual.
Roots and Culture, 1034 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Friday 6-9pm.
Curated by Nicholas Steindorf, with work by Tom Costa, EJ Hill, Betsy Odom, Industry of the Ordinary, Mary Mattingly, Rusty Shackleford, Joey Weiss and Darren Will.
Kunz,Vis,Projects, 2324 w. Montana, in the garage. Reception Friday 6-9pm.
Work by Jay Heikes.
Shane Campbell Gallery, 673 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Saturday 6-8pm.
Work by Josef Aguilar, Michelle Anderson, Emilie Bennett-Kjenstad, Daniel Bertner, Alexandra Calhoun, Sarah Campbell, Edward Chong, Esther Chow, Tory Christopherson-Sommerfeldt, Francisco Cordero-Oceguera, Jessee Crane, Kristina Daignault, Theodore Darst, Sam Davis, John Deardourff, Stephanie Del Carpio, Claire Demos, Ben Dimock, Lara Dorsett, Kait Doyle, Jay Fernandez, Brandy Fisher, Charles Fogarty, Jasmine Grant, Christopher Grieshaber, Alison Groh, Yo Ahn Han, Zachary Harvey, Caitlin Hennessy, Danielle Jacklin, William Joyce, Ellie Younjeong Jung, Matthew Keable, Cindy Myung Jin Kim, Minkyung Kim, Elizabeth Kovach, Hyun Jee Kwon, Youjeong Kwon, Melissa Leandro, Christina Joorie Lee, Kang Hoon Lee, Kyusun Lee, Sulhwa Lee, Sarah Legow, Jiyeon Lim, Matthew Litwin, Elyse Mack, Elizabeth Mallery, Mark Mcwilliams, Caroline Moody, Alicia Moreno, Mara Mullen, Drew Noble, Eileen Oâ€™Donnell, Alp Oz, Mark Palmen, Jiha Park, Kaitlin Patterson, Heather Platen, Lou Regele, Thomas Roland, Camila Rosas, Nathan Scealf, Nicholas Schleicher, Jules Schmid, Noelle Sharp, Sam Sieger, Kollin Strand, Eric Tai, Geoffrey Thais, Claire Valdez, Sarah Welch, and Nayeon Yang.
Sullivan Galleries, School of the Art Institute, 33 S. State St., 7th fl. Reception Friday 6-8pm.
Work by Daniel Danger.
Rotofugi Gallery, 2780 N. Lincoln Ave. Reception Friday 7-10pm.
Sometimes there are more that just five top weekend picks. So, here’s this week’s seven top picks:
Work by Johanna Wawro and Andy Resek.
Co-Prosperity Sphere is located at 3219 S. Morgan St. Reception is Friday, from 7pm-2am.
Work by Adam Trowbridge and Jessica Westbrook.
Antena is located at 1765 S Laflin St. Reception is Friday, from 6-8pm.
Work by April Childers and Max Warsh.
New Capital is located at 3114 W. Carroll St. Reception is Friday, from 7-10pm.
Work by Hiba Ali, Eric Fleischauer, Drew Olivo, Chloe Siebert and Sam York.
Courtney Blades is located at 1324 W Grand Ave. Reception is Saturday, from 7-10pm.
A sleepover at the Happ. Collab.
Happy Collaborationists’ Exhibition Space is located at 1254 N Noble St. Show up at 8pm with a blanket and pillow.
Work by Joni Murphy, Mark Beasley & Isabella Ng, Benjamin Chaffee, Noah Furman, Millie Kapp, Hilary Kennedy, Annie Maurer, and Matthew Shalzi.
Roxaboxen Exhibitions is located at 2130 W 21st St. Reception is Friday, 7pm.
Work by Brendan Meara and Frank Heath.
Roots and Culture is located at 1034 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception is Friday, from 6-9pm.
Recently I had the chance to ask Edra Soto a number of questions about how she approaches her practice. While I’ve been well aware of her work for some time, most of my encounters have taken place when I’ve visited a show or caught images on-line; in other words, I haven’t before had a chance to talk to her specifically about what she’s up to. As always, these weekly posts are welcome opportunities to do just that: to approach artists I admire and ask them things. For instance, I’ve noticed that Edra integrates an idea of performance in her work–whetherÂ painting figures on aÂ stage or fabricating a real one, I always get the sense that she’s trying to call attention (and therefore engage?) the spectator. In order to do so, she must adopts a certain hybridity, making use of different mediums to activate a concept from multiple directions, thereby reflecting multiple perspectives. There are a number of questions this brought to mind and I was excited to pursue some of them.
CP: Can you tell me a little bit about your background? How did you come to Chicago and how does it contrast with the other places that you’ve lived?
ES: Iâ€™ve been interested in the arts since I was a girl. I love theatre and wanted to be an actress. I also love music and used to write songs and sing them accompanying myself on the piano. I focused on visual arts during the last part of my high school years and ended up at the Escuelade Artes Plasticas de Puerto Rico, which is located at one of the most beautiful landmarks of the island: San Felipe del Morro, a 16th century Spanish fort. The school has a ridiculously beautiful view. Those were the days! I completed a bachelorâ€™s degree in visual arts and started a minor in education. After graduating, I won a fellowship to live and work in Paris for a year. I was 25, and that experience changed my life. I still think of the person I was then and how I thought Puerto Rico was the last place on earth. At that time, I was a painter in the commercial art scene of Puerto Rico. I had no idea about the financial aspect [of the art world], the types of people I needed to meet, what a curator wasâ€¦ I was selling paintings for $5,000 dollars and being interviewed for the local newspapers. The gallery that was representing me at the time also represented the premier artist of Puerto Rico, Arnaldo Roche. He was a graduate from SAIC (1984), andÂ the gallery owner kept telling me, â€œYou should go to the Art Instituteâ€â€¦so, I did. Again, it radically changed my perspective. I learned to understand American sarcasm and cynicism and I learned about the real me, the one I didnâ€™t understand when I lived in Puerto Rico. I stopped painting because I needed to explore the part I had denied myself because I thought it was unimportant, irrelevant. I always had the need to make things that were not paintings, but didnâ€™t understand their importance.
Caroline Picard: What does your studio process look like? Do you need different frames of mind to accommodate different spatial impulses? Or do you find your sculptural pieces come from the same place as your 2D work?
Edra Soto: I donâ€™t have a romantic studio process at all. I start with ideas on paper. I write my ideas and organize the concepts of what I want to do and how I want it to read, which leads me to the conception of the artwork. In my last three solo shows I used the same process. Before The Chacon-Soto Show, The Greatest Companions series was an explosion of ideas. I struck on something that took me way too long to find. It was a prolific time and I think I did not edit enough. I was completely emotionally connected. Since then I have been conscious of having to edit my work more.
I tested myself again with Forever (part of Forever Vegetal at Roots and Culture). Forever incorporated some of the images I started during the production of the Chacon-Soto Show that I felt were pertinent, drawing from the energy of The Chacon-Soto exhibition, but aesthetically with a more organic and dark variation. I wanted to change the look of the materials, reduce the scale and make a collection that was a hybrid; organic, fragmented and strange. I was confident thatâ€™s what I needed to break from the emotional burst that The MCA exhibition provoked in me. I’ve never felt so sad about taking down a show.
Producing work in different formats and materials comes from a very honest place. More than 20 years ago I questioned my urges to work in other formats and mediums. Obviously, I donâ€™t restrict myself now. As an artist, I am interested and attracted to many types of formats and ways of communicating an idea.
To answer your question more directly, yes, everything comes from the same place.
C.P: One of the things that I’ve always loved about your drawings is your use of the line. Often you build up very complex textual areas on top of loose washes. I’ve also noticed a reoccurring motif of hair in your work, (like the wookie, or the dog, or also these phenomenal female(?) figures with massive manes). Could you talk a little bit about that?
E.S: You are very perceptive! I donâ€™t think anyone has asked this before. Yes, I love the delicate aspects of drawing and painting, and I do it for my personal pleasure. In painting, I went from figurative to abstract ways of expressing myself during my college years. Iâ€™m afraid my work might be a strange matrimony of my love for both styles. I do not question it so much. I do feel comfortable flowing aroundâ€¦it keeps things fun. The hair issue: yes, yes, yes, I love to paint hair so much! I used to love to paint water when I was in college. For a while now, itâ€™s been hair. My love for animals in general is very real. It is just meant to happen, I guess!
CP: I’m also interested in “The Chacon-Soto Stage (la Tarima)”â€”partly because some of your paintings feel staged to me (as though the “action” of the work is presented as a finite visual occasion within a larger fieldâ€”I suppose that goes back to my experience of heavily detailed portions occurring on simpler backgrounds, but also with some of your earlier work there seemed to be a very deliberate stage that was part of the painting). What interests me in particular about TCSS is the way you manifest a physical stage, appropriated from a television program, where suddenly what was once a 2-Dimensional experience, becomes contemporary and interactive….
ES: Most of the series of paintings I produced for the Chacon-Soto Show were culled from video stills of the Chacon Show that I watched on youtube. I selected hundreds of video clips, made prints, and used them to make the paintings. The colors, the retro look, were all very alluring and I just craved painting them. Painting them literally was not an option, but soon enough I started creating my own scenarios in those settings.
Nevertheless, I maintain clear goals as a conceptual artist to have my language and ways of communicating art to be relevant to contemporary life. My ideas about making spaces that became communal has always been a philosophical preoccupation as an artist.Â For instance: how to create a space of comfort for my audience? How to erase the boundaries between the audience as spectator and the audience as integral participator?Â The exhibition Homily at Ebersmoore gave me the opportunity to once again challenge myself into mastering my way of communicating, edit my ideas, and provide an installation with a variety of formats where the audience can decide when to keep a distance and when to get close.
CP: When you refer to yourself as a conceptual artist, I am struck by how you seem to contrast that with an earlier approach to art-making, wherein you were called and thought of yourself as a painter. How do you differentiate those gestures of painting for painting’s sake vs. conceptual work?
ES: I paint when I need to express an idea in painting, but I donâ€™t dedicate my life exclusively to painting. For 8 years, before and after college, thatâ€™s all I did. Even at SAIC during the post-bac program, I painted. When I reached abstraction, I stared to think that I was done with painting, that I didnâ€™t have anything else to say with it. I donâ€™t think that anymore, but thatâ€™s how I stopped painting for a while. I started to paint again in 2008. For health reasons, I had to be in bed for a month and spent most of my time with my dog Foster. His loyalty inspired me and I developed my first series of paintings that was called â€˜The Greatest Companionsâ€™, exhibited at Mutherland and Rowland Contemporary.
CP: In wanting to erase the boundaries between the audience and spectator and the audience as an integral participatorâ€”how do you make that distinction? (In particular with the way you hope people will interact with your work?) Also, where do you feel the tendency to be “spectator” in relation to art comes from?
ES: Scale generally provides the distinction. I will use the small scale of a painting and the very delicate details, for example, to provide a feeling of intimacy. Inversely, I will design a space (usually in sculpture format) where the spectator must introduce themselves physically to experience the space. Conceptual art can be challenging to a general audience. Because I come from a background where conceptual art was largely ignored, I think about the type of audience (and I include a younger me in that group) that might feel apprehensive about getting close to the artwork.
CP: You have a big project around the cornerâ€”Tell me about Dock6!
ES: Dock 6 is a collective of independent designers, furniture-makers and fabricators, including Dan Sullivan, my husband.Â Theyâ€™ve been together since 2009 and have grown into what is now the Dock 6 Collective. They have an amazing workspace and have done open house events and collaborated with underground supper club Clandestino, curated by Vicki Fowler. For that event they fabricated a 50 foot modular dining table from salvageable material. Some of my work that Dan has fabricated for me has ended up being exhibited at their events.Â Thatâ€™s how it occurred to me to propose to Dock 6 Collective the Design and Art Series.Â Aside from Dock 6 being an amazing space, this series will gather two communities, merging through this creative outlet. As curator, I am in charge of inviting the artists, and Dock 6 Collective invited architects and designers with whom to collaborate.
Among the artists featured are Kirsten Leenaars, who is currently working on a soap opera called On Our Way to Tomorrow, a companion of the ongoing exhibit Without You Iâ€™m Nothing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, curated by Tricia Van Eck.
Dan invited the Kujawa Architecture firm, who collaborated with Theaster Gates in the fabrication of his project for the Whitney Biennial. Their work is also reflected in the beautiful hotel rooms of Longman & Eagle.
This will be a one-night, one-day only event because it is being held at their workshop. We are incredibly excited to share this project with our artists, designers and architects communities in the hopes of generating more collaborative projects in the future. Our goal for now is to make this project happen twice per year.
Work by Jon Rafman, Parker Ito, Micah Schippa, Tabor Robak and John Transue.
Antena is located at 1765 S Laflin St. Reception is Friday from 6-10pm.
The Annual Showcase of Emerging Typographic All-Stars: Andy Luce, Bill Talsma, Bud Rodecker / 3st, Caroline Corboy, Chris May, Emily Vanhoff, Frances MacLeod, Gary Rozanc, Jarred Kolar, Jessica Lynn White, Justin Gilman, Kyle Fletcher, Margo Yoon, Mark Addison Smith, Matthew Hoffman, Meng Yang, Nancy McCabe, Nick Adam, Nicole Briant, Quite Strong, Scott Reinhard, Sean Fermoyle, Sonnenzimmer, Studio 1a.m., and Tami Churns.
Co-Prosperity Sphere is located at 3219 S. Morgan St. Reception is Friday from 6pm-midnight.
Work by Renee McGinnis.
Packer Schopf Gallery is located at 942 W. Lake St. Reception is Friday from 5-8pm.
Work inspired by Roald Dahl.
Threewalls is located at 119 N. Peoria St., #2C. Event is Friday from 6-8pm.
Work by Zachary Cahill, Theaster Gates, Mathew Paul Jinks, Aspen Mays, and Cauleen Smith.
Roots and Culture is located at 1034 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception is Saturday from 6-9pm.