When Seattle-based designer Michael Cepress and I first met in February, he was on the verge of closing in on a successful Kickstarter campaign to help launch his first complete line of ready-to-wear garments and accessories for men and women. “It’s nice to know that I have a community of support,” he said with heartfelt sincerity followed by a long exhale of relief. Nice, indeed. In three weeks time, Cepress raised 52K through the online campaign, enough to hire a small cohort of seamsters and craftspeople, invest in materials, and begin to produce the suite of designs that will eventually culminate in a formal runway show and distribution through selected retailers this fall.
While his Kickstarter coups speaks to Cepress’ creative vision, highly skilled craft, and entrepreneurial ambition; more than anything, I feel that this public investment signifies a larger cultural shift. Fashion design—from haute couture to countercultural handcraft—has seen a recent resurgence in museums, MFA programs, and artisanal incarnations. Skirting that line between fine art, craft, and design, fashion appeals to our aesthetic and tactile sensibilities. Clothing is the stuff of everyday life, serving the vital purpose of keeping us alive while facilitating the social relationships that allow society to thrive. Much in the way that architecture orients us in space and tableware delineates dining, clothing enables movement, defines identity, and, ideally, is interwoven with personal significance that can transform an everyday object into ancestral treasure.
Unfortunately, the field of fashion continues to be mired by the industry—the pop culture branding, inflated consumption, and dirty labor practices from which, somehow, Art is able to maintain its critical distance. It is no wonder that Cepress spends much of his time playing educator, articulating and re-articulating much of the process behind garment production, and advocating for slow fashion much in the way the culinary industry has promoted slow food.
Visiting Cepress in his studio, I was thrilled to get a glimpse of the hodgepodge of sartorial splendor that is helping to shape his new collections. It too came as little surprise that among the tribal costumes and arts and crafts era motifs, the counterculture featured prominently here, from the glitter of the Cockettes to the patchwork of the Drop City communes. Today, the counterculture movement speaks to a celebration of collaborative living and political action, much of which was crafted using one’s own two hands. It is precisely this intersection of world-making and hand-making that resonates, made tangible in every aspect of Cepress’ designs, from his unique selection of textiles to his unraveling of gender conventions. Not to say there is revolution at work here. For the time being, Cepress seems intent on expressing himself and his wearer in a way that brings a bit of humanity back to fashion, one hand-stitch at a time.
SMP: How did you come to fashion? By way of fine arts?
MC: I have two art degrees in textiles and fibers, [BA, University of Wisconsin; MFA, University of Washington,] so I’ve absolutely a visual art kid. I’ve never taken a formal fashion design class, never taken a sewing class, and never been taught patterning or drafting or any of that stuff. I’m more or less self-taught in that regard, which was a grueling and kind of awful way to do it. There have been so many moments when I’ve thought: damn it, I wish I had a pattern-making class! But, at the same time, when I talk to people who have been trained in the traditional fashion design route, they don’t have that artist half of the deal.
SMP: Coming at a field untrained must open up a lot of potential in your way of working.
MC: I don’t know the rules and, as an artist, I was trained to not care about the rules in the first place. And it’s in my nature to think: that’s the way I’m supposed to do it, but I don’t want to do it that way and I don’t have to. When I was in art school, someone printed up these tee shirts reading: “I’m an art student, I can do whatever I want. Fuck art, let’s make a profit.” This was definitely not something I wrote, but I loved that idea of art giving license to do whatever we wanted. It’s a bit snotty on a tee shirt, but that’s the artist’s biggest strength: having this opportunity to really do anything.
SMP: I’ve seen some of your student work, which seemed to tend towards wearable sculpture. At what point did you begin to pull away from fine arts towards design?
MC: My entire first year of graduate school—eight years ago—I was doing photo shoots, drawings, installations, and sculptural pieces all about men’s fashion. Essentially, I was always making art about fashion but never getting into the stuff itself. By way of some good mentorship and conversations in school, I realized that I was consistently keeping myself one step away from what actually excited me, and if I wanted to make clothes, I should just go ahead and make them! So I did. I began by making the wearable art pieces that you’ve seen on my website, and by the time I graduated, my thesis was a complete collection of clothes that were presented and then put up for sale—70 pieces total. It was insane.
SMP: I’m wondering about the transition from more or less one-off pieces, whether artwork or commissioned garments, to creating a garment line for men and women with a more broad strokes appeal. Is there a body, or an audience, that you have in mind when you design?
MC: Maybe I’m a little naive in that I can still see anyone wearing my clothes, but that’s also because I feel that anyone should feel the freedom to wear anything. Clients come to me with sets of rules about what the will and won’t wear, and I usually come to them with absolutely no rules whatsoever; I like to go ahead and see what’s possible. These new collections are becoming an exercise in understanding the market and thinking about the market in a way that I haven’t had to before. When I make something, I’m not only considering its drape and aesthetic, I’m thinking of who would wear it, the price-point it should fall within, what material and production costs are, how many sizes it’s graded to, what boutiques would be interested in it and what sizes will they want to order.
SMP: Tell me a bit about your studio wall… I love the breadth of material from the Cockettes to William Morris!
MC: Yeah, it’s kind of all over the place… This wall is the inspiration for the new collections. The question I’m constantly asking is: where do the relationships exist? What do the Cockettes have to do with Native American tribal culture? How does this kind of 1970s patchwork dress relate to traditional Greek folk costume? When you put them side-by-side, you realize that they have a lot to do with one another, but how you connect the dots between them is the real question.
SMP: Since you’re operating across history and geography here, what is it about these objects that stands out and makes you want to mash them together?
MC: I think that the counterculture and the hippie scene is really at the core of it all with this collection; that’s the connecting point for me because it’s so inspiring to me aesthetically. I love that amalgam of textures and colors and patterns and cultures. All in one moment we can be Victorian and Futuristic, costumed and childlike, and practicing meditation and studying the occult and, and, and, and… All at the same time. If you start to pick it apart, you can start to see how these things manifest and how they all connect to one another.
SMP: Beyond the texture and splendor of the Counterculture/hippie moment, is the politics of that era something that is embedded in your work?
MC: Yeah, or I should say, the politics in the big sense. And I don’t know if “politics” is the best word, but rather, the things that the politics embody: the ethos of freedom and liberation on all fronts—sexual, political, personal, spiritual, aesthetic—letting all the walls and boundaries crumble away. I like what that allows to happen and how things start to get a little weird. We can’t label things anymore when all the walls have broken away because all the little boxes that we’ve put things in don’t really matter anymore. In terms of the politics, it’s not so much that I’m fixated on what Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin were doing, or the mechanisms of gay liberation—it’s not that specific. My interest is in the spirit, the emotion, the overarching theme that let the walls fall and all the many groups involved coexist.
SMP: I was interested in your artist statement and your mention that your work is about testing boundaries, and I wasn’t sure if you were referencing formal, political, or cultural boundaries, but it sounds like it’s all embedded in your work.
MC: In a certain way I feel like they’re one in the same. The boundary gets identified when you start to push against it. So how do you push against boundaries when you’re making clothes? Do you encourage a man to wear a shaped garment that we would never otherwise see on a man? Do you put a transparent cloth that lets us see the body in a way that we’re not accustomed to seeing? A big part of fashion design for me is: what is the body itself; what does the body embody; and how does that turn into something? So part of my practice, almost weekly, is to draw the figure, both male and female. I look at the body and then I figure out what is it about the pose, the person modeling, or what’s on my mind that day, that can turn into a garment concept. This rendering on the end [for a garment featured at Bellevue Art Museum] expresses this most clearly: here he is with an open stance, and you can’t help but see this burst of light or energy from his chest. As a physical thing, this expression is embodied as a vest with dozen lapels.
SMP: Fashion design is compelling to me because it exists between a number of different spheres of working—sculpture, performance, design, etc. The traditional conception in the fields of architecture and industrial design is that “good design” is invisible, and fashion is unique because it does, in a way, need to achieve a balance between fitting fluidly to the body in addition to being a very explosive expression of individual identity for wearer and designer. I’m curious how you’re able to navigate those two very seemingly conflicting aspects of your field of design?
MC: That’s the constant challenge. I’m continuously asking: how ostentatious do you want the work to be? Do you really want it to be design that screams at people, or do you want it to be that sort of seamless integration into the culture where it’s so well designed—whether or not that is good design in my mind us up for debate—that we don’t even notice it at first.
At this point I’ve made over 1,000 garments with my own hands, and the only reason I know this is because I recently had to reorder labels because the initial order of a thousand ran out… One thing that gets a bit skimmed over more than I would like it to is that I, myself, with my own hands and really love to make things. As soon as I start to wear the hat of designer or business owner or instructor, that seems to take this big leap away form the fact that all of this has happened with my own two hands—literally, I have made almost everything myself up until this point. That’s a huge part of the process. In order to understand any of these designs, I physically need to have my hands on the goods all day everyday. If I don’t, there’s this detachment from it all. Now that I have all this assistance in the studio, the new challenge becomes: how do I keep my hand in it all and in a big enough way that the gap doesn’t grow larger.
SMP: In craft, you see the physicality of the maker’s imprint on the side of a pot, whereas design erases all evidence of the hand. Have you given any thought to ways you could embed a handmade vernacular into your work?
MC: I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I trust the hands of the people who I hire. My hands are by no means better than anyone else’s, but if I can’t be doing the sewing anymore and I have to trust the hands of everyone on board, allowing theirs to put that sort of mark into the garments in the way that I once did. Also, I’m playing with the idea of designing things that show that hand of the maker, making certain to include elements in a design to guarantee that the end wearer will see and will know that there was a hand process done. That might mean that there’s a certain part of the garment that is finished by hand with needle and thread and no machine, or one idea that I’m exploring is that I would design a little custom charm or something that gets attached by hand to every garment as like a signature piece from the studio exclusively. Any of those hand finishes where it would be unmistakable: this is handmade.
SMP: Overcoming the idea of the mark of the maker as being an imperfection must be a unique challenge in this case.
MC: It is. And what’s so interesting is that most garments in the clothing industry today—even mass-produced items—are still made by hand. That’s something that a lot of people don’t realize or perhaps overlook is that even the clothes we buy at Target are still made by hand. They’re just made in a way where there’s no reverence or appreciation for the people making them, and, of course, the mission is to make them as quickly and as cheaply as possible, so all of those signs of the hand are just completely gone. That’s always hard for me to think about: all clothes are made by hand. There are mechanical processes involved, but for the most part, it’s handwork. So now, I have to make an extra effort to include that hand stamp on everything which is fine by me—it makes the clothes more beautiful, so that works.
SMP: How do you address the relationship between fashion and performance, both in an everyday sense as well as through your collaborative works with choreographers?
MC: I think performance can’t happen without those wearable objects designed for the movement. Especially with dance, (and I think there’s an analogy in street life too), how we dress determines how we move and how we live. The stage then becomes this amplified version of that—I’m sure there’s an argument around this—but from my point of view, the garments that a performer wears dictates what happens on stage in so many ways. It can set limitations in terms of how a body can and can’t move; for example, there’s a big difference between wearing a flowy silk garment and a big canvas jacket with straps around it. How costuming determines the possibilities of movement is huge. There’s also the idea of a character being built out of the clothes. I love to hear professional actors comment that it takes them stepping into their costume to really start to become the character that they need to become. It’s a whole transformative process—the transformative garment. Designing for the stage is an awesome and spectacular creative challenge.
MC: The best collaborative partner that I have is with a modern dancer named Catherine Cabeen, we’ve staged three works together. She was a principle with Martha Graham, and then she was with Bill T. Jones for years, and now she travels and stages works for Bill’s company and is a university instructor as well. She also has a dance company of her own, and because she and I get along great—creatively we speak a similar language—it always works out really beautifully. I was lucky that with one of those pieces, she came to me and asked that I create the costumes first and she would orchestrate the dance around the garments, (rather than the usual format of the costuming coming after the dance has been created). My design of the clothes kind of choreographed that piece—I’m by no means the choreographer—but in a way, I am setting the ground rules: here’s what these bodies will be able to do, and here’s what they won’t be able to do by way of these clothes.
SMP: What are your feelings about the contemporary, American attitude towards clothing consumption? Is there something perverse in our behavior towards accumulating massive closets?
MC: I think we’re pigs about it and we need to slow the hell down. We need to completely scrap that notion that says: if it’s something from last season, it’s out of date, it’s bad, and it shouldn’t be worn anymore. I understand collections being developed seasonally—what a great way to keep work going—but it’s the devaluing of things from the past that I think has to end. What it does is put that many more clothes in the landfill, and he statistics around that are horrific. The life of a garment from purchase to the landfill is dreadfully brief. There are a number of books on this subject and I have to be careful to not read them before bed because I end up falling asleep feeling really grumpy about the state of the universe. So I would say: slow down, buy less, and we have to adopt what some would term a European ethic where you don’t have a lot of clothes in your closet, but what you do have are really well made from good materials and from designers that you believe in that suit your taste and your lifestyle. And you wear them a lot—it’s not bad to be seen wearing the same thing a couple times a week. That notion alone, if we could get that out of our heads, I think it could fix a lot of problems. There are people who are just horrified by the idea of being seen in the same thing twice. I prefer the opposite. I treasure the fact that I have clothes that were my grandfather’s, and he wore them a million times and now I wear them a million times. This one garment has decades—generations—of history in it, which makes it better than anything brand new. Let’s create our own powerful histories with how we dress.
SMP: With over-consumption we loose sense of legacy and clothing as heirloom?
MC: Absolutely. The fashion industry has been set up in such a way to completely eliminate a person’s ability to just have an emotional connection to the clothes that they wear. May I read a quote from a book?
SMP: Of course!
MC: This is one of the books I’m talking about: Fashion and Sustainability: Designs for Change, [Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose, 2012]. There’s this whole section on what they term Optimized lifetimes, or how to make the lifecycle of a garment longer. Another heading is called Empathy, which addresses the consumer’s emotional relationship to the clothes that they wear. [Fletcher and Grose] say: “How we enable products to evoke empathy in an overdeveloped and overabundant material world is a formidable challenge. The fast paced and visually noisy marketplace depletes the psychic attention of the shopper and elements that might signal emotional attachment to a garment as quiet as they often are, can easily be drowned out by the competition for a shopper’s attention.” The way stores and websites are designed promote this borage of information, light, sale tags, numbers, which drains our ability to see with a sensitive eye. And I think that the emotional connection to a garment cannot exist amidst all of that chaos. How can you see and enjoy the subtlety of a tone-on-tone weave? How can you notice the fact that there’s a soft color gradation and this is actually 19-different colors coming together? How can you enjoy any of that amidst all the chaos that is shopping?
SMP: Do you enjoy working with clients for that reason? In co-creating a garment, you’re already giving it a story.
MC: Absolutely. The process of making it builds that story and makes that happen. The downside of it is that custom clothes are so time and labor intensive that they’re very expensive. They are expensive for me to make and expensive for the client, because from a business perspective, in order for me to build any bit of profit into project, the clothes become costly. I feel like that is where I turn into teacher in the studio. There’s this whole educational process of showing the client not just what the design process is like, but what the entire process is about. Suddenly they have to know what patterning and fit are all about, they have to know what different construction techniques are, and they have to know that a handmade suit coat takes between 80 and 100 hours of my time to complete and do it right. It takes so much time and energy just to educate, and that doesn’t mean you get the gig; so, unfortunately, I don’t see custom tailoring a particularly sustainable business model today but, at the same time, it needs to happen. Once upon a time, students used to get that in school—everyone had home economics classes where you had to sew and make your own clothes, and that doesn’t happen anymore. I’m fairly convinced that the average 20-something person thinks that clothes fall from the sky and land on the rack. To bring it back to the hippies for a second, they were one of the last generations to ever get that education in school. The average 18-year old girl or guy could embroider a jacket because they were taught how to in grade grade. In fact, they received a basic knowledge of making of all sorts—carpentry, sewing, metalwork—they got a taste of all of it in the education system, which simply does not happen today.
SMP: There’s such a spirit of resistance embedded in this aesthetic that, today, is inherently connected with the skill set. It’s interesting that we consider off-the-grid living and these countercultural gestures as an element that would rupture the contemporary lifestyle in a very conscious way, but in the moment, these were simply everyday, public education skills—it was a baseline. Sewing your own clothing was never meant to be loaded with revolutionary potential.
MC: It just was. It was just a simple life skill. And I’m sure that to this day, when the folks of this generation shop, they have an inherent understanding of what it means for a garment to be well made and part of your life longer than the next season.
Michael Cepress is a Seattle-based fashion designer and educator. Recently, his work was featured in the Bellevue Art Museum biennial exhibition, High Fiber Diet. Currently, he is at work at a full line of men’s and women’s clothing and, September, 2013, he will be a featured designer in Bellevue Fashion Week’s Independent Designer Runway Show. Be sure to visit his website: http://michaelcepress.com
In the few months I have been living in Oregon, I haven’t managed to trek the half-dozen blocks to Portland Art Museum but, on three occasions, I have rallied to drive three hours to the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. I’ll admit: the first visit was partially motivated by the Turrell Skyspace and a video by Pipilotti Rist. Visits two and three, however; were entirely about Like a Valentine, the mid-career retrospective of Seattle-based artist Jeffry Mitchell, which, sadly, closed to the public just last week.
You’d think that after spending so much time with a body of work, I’d be overrun with brilliant insight bound-up in pithy phrasing. Not so. In visiting and revisiting the exhibition, I became increasingly beguiled but also bewildered by Mitchell’s mysterious lexicon of flora and fauna rendered in clay, ink, and paint. There is a certain wildness to Mitchell’s practice, an untethered spirit that speaks to a purely imaginative space that is almost antagonistic to reason. It brought to mind a recent essay in which Borriaud claimed that, “the fictional is to contemporary art what flatness was to modern art;” meaning, the site of fiction represents a recent iteration of creative autonomy where makers are able to reject reality in order to connect with the real—in the Lacanian sense. Now, I hate to go all academic on you B@S, but I feel that the walrus wearing spectacles speaks for itself.
Clearly, there is satire under Mitchell’s layers of gilded sweetness. It’s only a matter of time before a collection of pieces make their way to David Walsh and his Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania. Sex, or more appropriately, not having it, is an ever-present theme throughout Like a Valentine. From the thinly veiled erotica of Rosy Peonies (series, 2004), to the more explicit The Tomb of Club Z, (2006), Mitchell’s objects delight in their precious perversity. Not only do many of his sculptures elicit the titillation that only a well-placed hole in the rear of a bear can solicit, but moreover, his material preference and nod to a decorative arts aesthetic speak to a unique brand of sexual repression that comes, firstly: from the act of creating needlepoint samplers and watercolor trompe l‘oeil; and secondly: from relentlessly fussing with their arrangement within a domestic interior.
This is not to say Mitchell’s work is the easy one-liner—the fart joke or the flower painting—of contemporary art; rather, his sculpture and works on paper are composed of complex layers of coded references derived from sources as diverse as Kubrick to the Kabbalah. By openly employing and embracing cliché, Mitchell is able to unpack the imaginings, desires, and trepidations of the self-proclaimed “gay folk artist.” Further, his manner of execution, which some have termed sloppy, extends beyond the conversation relating to skill and de-skill to a realm of genuine and endearing sincerity. Mitchell is nothing but intent on his craft; indeed, his unique style emerges from a refreshing respect for material authenticity that allows for clay to be clay, a poster to be a poster, and a power cord to be a power cord.
Exiting the exhibition, visitors are pointed to the door by a sign that I assume is a felicitous wink to Emma Goldman reading: Keep Dancing. I can say with absolute certainty that after my initial journey through Like a Valentine, I was ready for the revolution. I spoke to Jeffry Mitchell at Henry Art Gallery.
A special thanks to Wayne Bund for his assistance with this interview!
Jeffry Mitchell: When I made [The Tomb of Club Z, (2006)], it completely came to me as a vision—there was no real story to it, other than I thought [Club Zodiac] was closing when I made this piece, which turned out not to be the case… It was commissioned by some prominent collectors in town and, because it was a commissioned work, I had a budget to fabricate elements. To create the screen, I hired my friend Leo Burke who helped me use his tablet to create a digital drawing. What’s interesting is that through the process of digitization—translating the drawing into a vector file—the line becomes generalized. The program rounds them out in a certain, almost cartoony way, and my work is cartoony anyway, so the process exaggerates that. So then we got this plastic plywood, which is a marine building material, and used a CNC router to cut out my drawing. My friend Larry Sommers, who has since passed away, was a printmaker and papermaker, helped me bludgeon out the paper pulp and press it into the molds.
The paper on the backside is again a digital drawing based on a William Morris wallpaper pattern; the one that was on the cover of the Bee Gees album. Making this piece, the digitization produced the lines in multiple. The effect is sort of hippy-Victoriana-gay-disco—the lines were meant to look like lines of coke—screen-printed in white on a silver mirror-like ground. The production of the whole screen was so elaborate, I could never have done it if friends of mine hadn’t helped. The crummy part of the installation is what I made: the ceramic model of the bathhouse. It’s three floors with a staircase going up the center, which was done from memory… I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a bathhouse before, but it has very mixed feelings for me. One of those feeling is shame of course, and the secretive nature of going to a bathhouse to have anonymous sex. That’s why the model is behind the decorative screen. There’s a whole reoccurring thing in my work involving the idea of a proscenium. This piece in particular is all about theater—facing the audience—so you have what’s in front and what’s behind it both literally and figuratively. This is a very literal sort of construction of the face, and then what’s behind it.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: So why the vitrine—an additional screen removing the viewer from the work?
JM: I was thinking about a piece by Charles LeDrey called Milk and Honey. It also includes a vitrine and, inside the glass shell, he sculpted a miniature version of every pot he had ever seen—sort of a catalog of ceramics. It’s an exquisite piece because everything is miniature but nothing lacks detail, and each clearly communicates what its model was.
I associate the vitrine with looking at Chinese funerary sculptures in museums. They’re always behind glass, so they’re always tinted to what the tint of the glass is and they have that kind of airless quality; yet, they have a kind of presence too—a funny time travel thing… It doesn’t seem old at all it seems completely present and alive. So this sort of weird timelessness in reference to something funerary—the living and the dead—was where I was going with this.
SMP: You’ve mentioned previously an interest in reincarnation and the idea of a spiritual send-up or connection to the astral plane. I’m curious, how was that interest sparked and how has it evolved in your work?
JM: I think it has something to do with my struggle with Christianity and searching for some other tradition or form or philosophical explanation for why we’re here. Reincarnation always comes up as comforting and hopeful in that death isn’t the end and heaven is not necessarily the answer. Also, I feel like I grew up in such a world devoid of cultural heritage: the western United States. I wasn’t in-line with any aboriginal traditions or with any European immigrant traditions, which you have in other regions. I had this experience in my late-20s when I went to Philadelphia for the first time and I went into an Irish neighborhood bar and I saw a room that looked liked it was full of my relatives. It totally shocked me to feel like: oh my god, I am actually part of some sort of tribe! This created somewhat of a yearning to be part of a tribe, and the excitement that I had the freedom to feel a part of any tribe I felt an affinity toward, like, say Korean. At this point, reincarnation became as plausible an explanation as anything for that feeling of affinity and connection. Catholic is also another tribe—I’m sure the imprint is probably pretty strong—and, I guess if I had any lineage, I think that would certainly be one strong one.
One of the miraculous things about clay is that so many humans have had, what must be, a very similar experience with that material. Maybe painting has that too, or drawing, or mark-making, but there’s really something inherent to the manipulation of clay. Fiber too, but textiles are so fragile that it’s impossible to have the extensive record of what has been made like there is with ceramics. Clay is so amazingly permanent, and we have access to this history through the objects themselves and through scholarship around them. I have this book of British 2000-years of household pottery called If These Pots Could Talk, which I think is hilarious… But I’m rambling. Do you believe in reincarnation? [I’ll spare B@S readers my remarks on this subject!] … You’re right: it’s hard to know. But it’s kind of nice that in art you don’t have to prove anything, so you can make these guesses or suggestions and hang there with the work even if it can’t be proven.
Wayne Bund: I’m curious about the holes—really standout in the peony pieces—but also included in so much of your ceramic work as a small, well-placed point that interrupts the plane. Are they a point of entry, a glory hole, a vehicle for a connection with astral space?
JM: If you put a hole in a pot it becomes a sculpture, and if you put a hole in a flower picture, it’s the drain that empties it of cliché. Flower pictures exist in a realm all their own, and the hole is a way to open it up—the category of flower picture—and allow something else in… To me, it’s like a song that’s like an anthem. When you hear it, it has a very specific meaning but then you sing it over and over—which is the nature of an anthem—and by repeating it, you empty it of any kind of power or meaning that it has. By repeating it and it becomes so empty—it becomes an empty thing—and it might lead a new life as an empty thing or have something else fill it up.
SMP: So, in effect, relcaiming flowers and bunny rabbits is your way of owning the cliché?
JM: Totally. But the holes also are there to re-sexualize the flowers, which are of course are sexual. So it’s a glory hole, it’s a halo, and it is what turns a drawing into a sculpture, making it an object.
SMP: Is that something that your work has been criticized for—the heavy-handedness of cliché—being the gay artist who creates ceramic sculptures of cocks?
JM: No… Well, not to my face! During the 90s there was a time that I was really ambivalent about being a gay artist, because there was so much gay identity work going on and, of course, you always want to be part but not a part of the group. What was that that Groucho Marx said? Anyway, now, I couldn’t be happier to be identified—I don’t care. So if I’m making cocks, it’s corny and it’s obvious on one level, but then again, I’ve always found it interesting that culturally, we expect artists to behave in certain ways, and being contrary is one of those things that we expect from artists. So when they fall into that realm of making what can be expected or what is cliché, then everyone is disappointed. An artist looses his/her edge when something is too pop or too likeable. For example, even someone like Calder—Calder is an immensely likeable artist, but that doesn’t make his work any less significant—I think Calder is an amazing artist, his work is just about something else—it’s scatological even—like free flowing imagination. I think I really work around that construct all the time by picking flowers and rabbits and all the most predictable locations and containers for expression that are domestic and populist and everywhere! Flowers and animals are motifs that every culture and every kind of human expression has held.
So much of my work has to do with sex and my fear that I’ll have no access to sex, and how weird that is—as an animal—to be sensitive to that. It’s every animal’s right in nature—sex—and it’s strange to have that fear that it might not be available. So, sublimation of Eros—and that’s not uncommon—pops up in other kinds of expression such as knitting, chopping, crocheting, cooking, building, and through culture—civilization itself. In a completely erotic society, there would be no buildings, there would be no decorative arts. Culture depends on the suppression of Eros. I’m kind of making this up, but what I’m saying is that civilization depends on some kind of social agreement that we can’t have sex all of the time the way that men want to at least—and I don’t know about women—but maybe women want to as well. This brings me to Stanley Kubrick, whose work I find really interesting. His mantra is that all men want to do is either fuck it or kill it. The last words in “Eyes Wide Shut:” let’s fuck. And I have to say that I do think it would help a lot of the world’s ills if people were fucking, but when you suppress the urge to create in one sense, it reveals itself through another.
SMP: Kubrick appears again in Peace on Earth, (1994), yes?
JM: In Dr. Strangelove, the recall code is P.O.E., which is either Peace on Earth, ironically or Purity of Essence. Kubrick’s whole body of work emphasizes that men are monsters and humanity’s whole drive is to dominate, create, have sex, and ultimately kill everything… Peace on earth is such, again, a clichéd and probably impossible notion, but it is a nice one. This piece was made in 1994 for the King County—and I don’t know what it was called then—but for the office that did HIV testing and AIDS services. Now, HIV testing is a very different thing—it’s no less anxious—but it happens instantly. Back in the day you had to wait two weeks and it was excruciating. So, my intention was to make something that felt homey, would be a bit distracting, and take people away from the task at hand. When I think about domesticity, I think about Dutch interiors as being a kind of clichéd version. When I was a kid, I heard that Dutch children slept in cabinets, and I thought that was the coolest thing. What’s safer and more comforting than a small, enclosed cabinet?!
Although I’ve never been in a Dutch interior, I have—through pictures—gotten an idea of what a Dutch interior would resemble. As has been pointed out, my pots look nothing like Delft with its back-and-forth between Chinese and European blue-and-white. They actually resemble German gray-and-white salt-fired ceramic, but I think the intent comes across. For the furniture, I drew from the European tradition of displaying a symmetric arrangement of pots in your home, and I used woodburning to create the graphic surface. Now, when I was a kid, everyone had burned themselves on a woodburning tool. In fact, I don’t think anyone ever completed a craft project without doing some woodburning! There must be boxes and boxes of good starts from woodburning projects that have ended up in thrift stores—representing all this hope—half completed. There’s pathos and a humor to that! So, when I look at this, the thing that I’m kind of impressed by is the fact that, (and I try to do this with most of my work), I’ve visibly invested enough labor into the piece so that the object has value—if only in that! This really does have a kind of value based on the amount of time I spent woodburning, which was significant, and looking at it now, it’s really quite good.
SMP: While your work relates formally to decorative arts, it speaks equally to an entirely internal, fictive inclination. How do you consider and draw from the imaginary?
JM: It’s the freedom of imagination that is salvatory. It’s the dream of heaven, it’s the dream of paradise, and, in the imaginary, it can fully exist. It has the limits of physicality and materiality, but in your imagination, possibility seems limitless, and I do think that I’m making work to soothe myself somehow or to overcome something.
So with this project, [Within a Motherfucking Budding Grove,] the prototypes were clay. I made a latex mold by painting on a medium-thick layer of latex that I peeled off and then cast with two-part catalyzed plastic. Do you know the Canaletto paintings in Venice? They’re Northern Italian, 18th century landscape paintings that depict Venetian architecture in a style that’s exaggerated and just super horizontal. Along with Canaletto, I was considering Japanese landscapes, which are typically vertical, and I wanted to make a horizontal landscape become a vertical one. And there are two additional things that were influential here: those Brice Marsden jade-green, encaustic paintings that just have that brilliant luminosity; and early Guston, where there’s all this kind of heavy, impasto, art making in the center and they sort of smooth out in the edges, and, of course, his work gets very cartoony. So I made this horizontal landscape with figures and foliage—an inorganic black box [from the Kabbalah] being reclaimed by nature—then when you flip it vertically, it becomes abstracted in a very Guston-like way. The title, In a Motherfucking Budding Grove, is like the English translation of one of Proust’s titles—Les Temps Perdu—combined with Prince—Sexy Motherfucker—who I’m a big fan of. There’s poetry there.
SMP: So your inclination toward the imaginary is not really coming from a critical place—being critical from reality?
JM: Only in a roundabout way, I suppose.
SMP: I’m curious, does fiction feed into your idea of the stage—beyond the space of exhibition—relating the notion of the stage to the work itself as a space for the imaginary to be realized in a theatrical sense?
JM: I guess it comes back to what a powerful impulse it is to make art, make artifice, and make theater. There are many kinds of sharing that are too intense, or too boring. If I tell you my dreams, bless you if you’re interested! Your dreams are so interesting to you, but other people’s dreams are torturous; however, if you realize imagination through this artifice—which humans do really well—then dreams become more interesting and you can get people to share. I do think that getting people to share is a hugely important motivation. It is useful sometimes to have things be open-ended, or confusing, or illegible, or mysterious, and to leave it up to the viewer to fill in that space.
SMP: I have to ask: what’s the story with the title?
JM: The thing that I’ve always admired about kids’ crafts—especially with young children—but for any age, valentines create a kind of freedom that doesn’t require the maker to be skilled, just to be sincere. If something is like a valentine, the requirement is only that you make something with a full heart. Oftentimes, it’s the struggle with craft or even the crapiness of it that embodies the charm of affection. The valentine is a kind of liberated form that everyone can participate in and, in fact, be successful at making—it doesn’t require any kind of virtuosity or mastery.
Jeffry Mitchell lives and works in Seattle, WA. He is represented by Ambach & Rice, (Los Angeles), and Pulliam Gallery, (Portland), and his works are in the collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, the Philadelphia Art Museum, the New York Public Library, the Portland Art Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, the Tacoma Art Museum, and Western Bridge Museum among others. His mid-career retrospective, Like a Valentine, curated by Sara Krajewski, was on view at Henry Art Gallery October 27, 2012 – January 27, 2013.
I met Peter Burr and Christopher Doulgeris for the first time about five or six years ago. “Hooliganship,” the name of their performative duo, was on tour with the second issue of a DVD cartoon compilation called Cartune Xprez. They came to do a screening/performance at the old Green Lantern Gallery. Cartune Xprez is Peter Burr’s curated compilation of independent, short animation—sometimes I think of it as an animated equivalent of an intensely gratifying literary magazine, or portable gallery exhibition. The biannual DVD is an event of imagination that colludes and clashes on the brink of psychedelic experience, precisely because it celebrates the idiosyncratic visions of its participants. As is often the case with non-commercial media, my appreciation for the project serves as both a reminder and a relief, reminding me that the larger behemoth of mainstream culture is not the only world of creative insight. When Hooliganship arrived, we set up couches for audience members while Peter and Christopher inflated neon crystals that glowed in the dark. We couldn’t plug them all in, because we kept blowing the fuse. We projected the video on the street-side window, so pedestrians outside would have another experience in reverse. Christopher and Peter both wore tight fitting neon yellow sweat suits and when the screening began, they rose—aside from the crystals, the room was otherwise dark—playing instruments (a clarinet and a guitar). Meantime, these very idiosyncratic cartoons by various artists screened in the background. It’s probably one of my favorite experiences from running a space. The habitat of the cartoon-world had been built out into our literal experience, lending additional form to the 2-d and sometimes crude projected imagery. As I said, that was years ago—at that time they were traveling with their first 2006 video. Since then Cartune Xprez has released two additional DVDs and, having recently seen the 2011 edition, I wanted to ask Peter Burr some questions about how he curates, what he loves about the project and how he situates his practice in relation to the more commercial television outlets we are accustomed to.
Caroline Picard: Where does your love for cartoons come from?
Peter Burr: I can’t entirely say I LOVE cartoons across the board. I love the way an individual’s spirit is captured when making a motion picture, especially an animated one. It takes such tenacity to produce anything of substance in cartoon form. There’s this sweet spot for me where the cartoon balances the energy and ideas and images so casually and confidently that takes my cake. A large number of commercial productions and studio jobs lose my interest in the way things get overwrought. I think that’s where CARTUNE XPREZ emerged for me…… as a platform to showcase those sweet spots in one place.
CP: It’s interesting to me that you wouldn’t boast an unequivocal love for cartoons given that you must dedicate so much time curating work for CX. Can you talk a little bit more about that sweet spot? Is it a sweet spot peculiar to the cartoon genre? And what do you mean by ‘overwrought?’
PB: Perhaps on point, my day-job is making children’s cartoons which, as I reread my last response (and your follow-up question), probably colors my approach to CARTUNE XPREZ. As with any medium, I believe, our ability to accept creative work with ‘unequivocal love’ is challenged when market forces dictate the decisions behind the practice. This feeds my desire to give life to CX, creating a platform outside the commercial industry that holds a space for ebullient animated spirits. There’s a bravery behind a lot of the work CX shows that just doesn’t exist in most main-stream cartoons I come across. I guess that’s part of that sweet-spot you’re asking about….bravery, independence, risk, failure. It’s work that is not outright trying to appeal to a mass which in turn yields really strange, really personable results.
CP: Do you have a sense of the community of contemporary cartoonists?
PB: I can’t keep up! Sometimes I feel like I could be surfing around the Internet 8 hours a day, 5 days a week and still never have a clear sense of what animation artists are out there. When I was in university back in the 90s I started to explore independent animation for the first time, searching blindly with vague keywords like ‘animation + art’ or ‘cool + cartoon’ and it ultimately just tired me of the web. Granted, I was learning how to use search engines for the first time and YouTube didn’t exist, but still; in the course of that year I think I only ever found one artist (mumbleboy) who clicked into my sensibilities. In subsequent years of peeling my eyes for this kind of work I’ve found that most of the work that gets integrated into CX emerges when I go on tour and just talk to people. It’s a lot more fun than sitting on my computer trolling the net, but of course it also keeps my vision somewhat limited to the countries/cultures I visit.
CP: What would you say your aesthetic is? (that thing you’re looking for in independent cartoons) and how does it differ from your commercial work?
PB: That’s a tough question! I can’t really speak to a single aesthetic, but I can talk about some of the core values that we try to put forth with the project.
Let’s see……the boundary for work that comes into the CX world outlines a quest for independent, mostly single-artist productions. This means that we exclude music videos and other types of work that could be construed as ‘selling something.’ Studio productions tend to get left out too, mostly because I find a special magic imbued in single-artist or small collective projects that comes from a tenacious, intuitive, working process. Rarely does work we show seem storyboarded or acutely planned (even though some of it, in fact, is). Takeshi Murata is a great example of this. Take a video like PINK DOT…… It comes across as a crazy compression error that coalesces around some striking images from Rambo. Of course, these aren’t straight accidents, which becomes especially clear if you compare Takeshi’s work from this period (2005-2008) with other datamosh videos on youtube. The means of representation here feel glued to the topical concerns. I suppose this is the ‘aesthetic’ CX gravitates towards.
Another great example of this can be found in the work of Bruce Bickford, an older gentleman whose work is mostly known from his days as Frank Zappa’s in-house animator. Like Murata, his work is baffling on both technical and conceptual levels. I’ve watched some of his pieces hundreds of times and I still read new ideas in them each time I watch. Part of this comes from Bruce’s utter dedication to his practice. He lives alone in a dreamy complex outside Seattle where his art practice is the focal point of everything including house chores. (There’s a great doc called MONSTER ROAD that you can watch to see what I’m talking about). Anyway, it’s this commitment to a practice that I really admire and like to put forth with CX.
CP: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the way you research cartoons, the way you follow artists and their various practices. It seems like that must be an integral part to your administration-life with CX. What kind of other duties would you include in that? What does it take to put out one of your compilations?
PB: I think about my ‘research’ as a way to put framework between my consumer interests and my desire to produce. Yesterday this meant watching a couple hours of cartoon network before and after Ben Jones’ PROBLEM SOLVERZ to see what cable TV is nesting around some of the artists CX has affiliated with. Day-to-day, these research duties are a lot more casual (I haven’t owned a TV in about a decade so it took some work to find a place to watch cable for a few hours). Thanks to the fact that I live in New York City, freestyle conversation with wonderful artists/critics/organizers is quick to come by. Going on tour provides a similar stimulation. One of my favorite research paths in recent times came when I was in Riga, Latvia with our FUTURE TELEVISION tour. I spent a week there after our show, which gave me time to learn about the cartoons my friends there grew up on. I was blown away by the trove of Soviet animation that had been produced in the 80s. For months afterwards I dug through Russian-language video databases, finding some gems like Captain Pronin and Pereval. This kind of exploratory work is so much fun!
The heavier administrative duties are a bore to talk about…… emailing venues, learning new video compression techniques, managing boxes of amaray-cased DVDs, etc. Its like an episode of “The Office” without the employees.
CP: What is your vision for CX? To me, it kind of seems like it’s fulfilling itself as it is. I mean, I so love and enjoy each of the DVDs you’ve already put out, I’d be psyched if you just did that forever. That said, I can imagine you think about the project differently, or imagine moving in different directions, or presenting the work in different ways. Can you talk about that a bit?
I think my fundamental vision for this project has a lot to do with integrating youthful dreams with my adult experiences. This certainly IS fulfilling in itself! Its also really squirrely and challenging. The biennial compilations feel like a good way to bring some permanence to our activities and touring has been a sweet way to stir up the project’s spirit (bringing new energy and voice). You’re right, though….. in tandem with what we have now I DO envision the project working in different directions. I think about LIQUID TELEVISION, POSTERDISC, RAW MAGAZINE, CHOOSE-YOUR-OWN-ADVENTURE, THE EXPLODING PLASTIC INEVITABLE and still watering the plants at home.
This Wednesday night kicks off a new performance from Wynne Greenwood in Seattle, WA. Her new piece entitled Sister Taking Nap: A Meditation About Human Evolution will be performed at On the Boards. Greenwood is best known for her Tracy + the Plastics performances where she performed as all three members, Tracy, Nikki, and Cola. In the video portion of the Culture for Pigeon album the band mates create music by opening Pringles cans or by waving a cape. After several years of performing as the band including performances at the Whitney Biennale and for Miami Basel Greenwood called it quits.
In the Spring of 08 Greenwood unveiled a new series of work at Susanne Vielmetter in Los Angeles that incorporated sculptures and installations into her “music” video, Big Candy.“Sister Taking Nap is a one-act about human evolution where objects such as an animal cage, a suitcase and a TV double as small stages for posing the question: What must we give up in order to survive?” Recently Greenwood spoke with Miriam Katz for Artforum’s 500 words:
“I’m interested in sculptures as sites of performance and interaction, and sculptures as performers. The suitcase, the TV, the animal cage, and the sleeping sister are set pieces that are to be stood on––I see them as personal stages. I started making the sculptural set pieces before I began to conceive the narrative of the performance. I wanted to make objects that had an objective and that had a role in determining how and even why someone interacted with them, moved around them, and had a relationship with them. The set pieces and narrative developed together, informing each other. The language that I use to talk about (and to) these pieces also helps determine their worlds. This is a sister taking a nap. Not just a woman taking a nap, or a person taking a nap, or a person sleeping. To me, a nap offers different, possibly conflicting realities. It suggests having time for a nap, but also need for one. A privilege and a right. Escape and renewal. A place between deep sleep and awake. Where dream and reality can get confused.”
On the Boards
100 West Roy Street
Seattle Center (Queen Anne), Seattle
Opening Night: Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Closes: Sunday, April 19, 2009