Instigated in conjunction with “The Locational Turn? Reflections from Chicago on documenta in Kassel, Alexandria, Banff and Kabul” panel discussion held November 13 (2013) at the Block Museum on Northwestern University.
by Daniel Tucker
Anyone who tries to generalize about “the art world” owes you an explanation about which world they are describing. While there is undoubtedly overlap between major institutions, mid-sized institutions, high-end commercial galleries, universities, art schools, community colleges, apprenticeships, auctions, internships, craft galleries, non-profit galleries, informal and community-based cultural centers, residency programs, private philanthropists, collectors, public grants, magazines, theoretical journals, blogs, public art commissions, street art, artist collectives and individual artists – they can still seem worlds apart.
One world that can seem worlds apart is that of the Documenta exhibition, founded in 1955 by Arnold Bode, to occur every 5 years and reconnect post-war Germany to the contemporary art conversations and practices developing internationally. Produced by the documenta and Fridericianum Museum Event Company which provide the ongoing organizational infrastructure to keep the project going, the exhibition is largely guided by a curator. This position is akin to “being the mayor of a small city,” according to Michael Rakowitz, a Chicago artist exhibiting in this years show (1). In 2008 the search committee arrived on Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev as the curator, and she began her work on January 1st, 2009 re-inventing what has become over the last 13 incarnations, a crucial node in the intellectual and critical discourse of art around the world – itself producing conversations, catalyzing careers, and generally generating trends that will be talked about in years to come (in Chicago over the last year at the MCA, SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries and U of C’s Logan Center Exhibitions there have already been three exhibits of re-worked pieces shown at documenta13). In the summer for 100 days, from June 9th to September 16th of 2012, over 300 artists, writers, and thinkers participated in documenta13 in Kassel, Germany.
In 2012 a remarkable number of Chicago artists were invited as participants. Theaster Gates (with John Preus and Rebuild Foundation), Claire Pentecost, Michael Rakowitz, and Lori Waxman are all exhibiting works. A number of Chicago-based authors produced texts for the 100 Days 100 Books portion of the programs including Brian Holmes, WJT Mitchell, David Nirenberg and Jane Taylor. To have this many participants from one city would be unusual, but for it to be a city so detached from the commercial facets of art selling (gallerists, collectors, auction houses, etc) and so oriented towards political, community, and socially-engaged art is what makes the decision stand out.
Locally there has been a thriving art community in Chicago that is focused on strong social bonds, engagement with concerns and disciplines that exceed the focus of art, and political and ethical commitments around themes ranging from war and labor to housing and food. This has a long history in the city, dating back to the 1960s in terms of direct lineages with existing practices. It has developed in a particular and regionally-specific way, while art since the 1980s more generally in the United States has experienced a gradual engagement with political and social life. All over the country, but particularly on the coasts, there are art schools and universities initiating “Social Practice” focus areas for students interested in art that deals with social forms as a material in place of traditional art materials and mediums that have come to include clay, video, performance, paint, photography, sculpture, murals, and interactive websites, among many others.
Through my study of Chicago, I have observed that this turn towards “the social” is less of a turn, and more of a ever-present fascination. It has also been observed today, as well as in reflections on history that the work in Chicago has always been more serious than elsewhere. In a dialogue held at the South Side Community Arts Center, respected photographer from the Black Arts Movement Bob Crawford spoke to his experience doing a photo show in New York City, where he observed that “the Chicago photographers’ work was usually more political. And the New York photographers’ work was a little more “art,” narrowly.”(2)
Deeply familiar with the Chicago artists and authors participating in documenta13, I traveled to Kassel last summer to see their work and consider my hometown art scene in relationship to this massive global event. Below are a few scenes from that trip.
Jorg Doerig’s friends and family have joined him to go have his art critiqued. They pack into a small self-contained room, a sleek writers cottage of sorts, where Jorg unpacks his paintings of flowers, and a self portrait, and layes them out on some shelves and leaning against the wall along the floor. It was time for his appointment with the Chicago Tribune art critic and art historian Lori Waxman, who had been taking half-hour appointments with local artists in Kassel three days a week all summer. Over the visit she asks some questions, but mainly gives her attention to interpretation of the art.
“Why Paint?,” she writes in response to Jorg’s work. “For love of certain subjects.” She concludes.
To watch her type (a mirror of her laptop monitor is displayed on a screen facing the artist and a steady-stream of passer-bys) is akin to watching a live poetry reading. Nothing else can compare to the experience of watching someone invest herself in the creative practice of another. While art criticism has become a game so detached from the making and the maker, Waxman reinvests herself in people and their artistic output. And she herself is on display, revealing the writing process, her process.
Most artists Waxman critiques in this project, titled “60 WRD/MIN Art Critic,” have never had their art written about. For the most part she has executed this project in smaller towns throughout the United States with the support of a writers grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation. In these settings, her presence incites tremendous excitement.
She consults an online thesaurus. What is a synonym for “Lovingly”? Jorg stirs, he smiles and looks around at his friends. What a strange experience, to have someone craft language before your eyes about your heartfelt and time-consuming creative activities.
In “What Dust Will Rise?” Michael Rakowitz presents an entire room of enclosed vitrines and display tables immediately conjuring the space of a museum, a special collection or an archive. Upon closer look, you notice handwritten notes in thin black marker ink on the glass panes of the display shelving. Like many artists in this installment of documenta, Rakowitz engages in the legacy of the Nazi presence in Germany and in the present military operations and occupation of Afghanistan. The building in which his installation is presented, the Fridericianum, was a library when it was bombed in 1941 and all but 15% of the books were destroyed. The artist elegantly draws a parallel between that sited history, infusing it in the present, with the interrelated history of Taliban destruction of cultural artifacts in Afghanistan – most notably the Buddha statues in Bamiyan.
Presented on the tables I encounter replicas of books destroyed in that bombing, carved out of stone quarried in Bamiyan by artisans Rakowitz commissioned in Italy. Proceeding through the space, books from other bombings, fires, and cultural assassination appear. Many of the books were original printings with intricate woven and printed cover art, shown here in rich three dimensional carvings of the cover, spine, and worn pages – all beautifully carved with precise details. Other books take the form of an open spread, drawing attention to the content through subtle and surprising connections with the form or the act of destruction that inspired the installation. Others, like the oldest lexicon of classical medieval abbreviations, are just devastating because of what they contain, and what knowledge and culture was lost.
Surprise is the crucial word for this experience. As I proceed from case to case and book to book, I keep thinking that I have comprehended the scope of the artistic gesture. And then the next object or collection startles me. He did what? I think. He really brought some building fragments from dismantled public housing in St. Louis, the Twin Towers, and the Berlin Wall? Yes. Stone carving chisels from Bamiyan made from the remnants of exploded cars and abandoned tanks belonging to the occupying forces? Yes. Surprise after wonderful surprise, the installation unfolds with linkages and nuances that dispel an attempt at easy summary, but provoke curiosity in an unwritten narrative about our ongoing human projects of creation and destruction, war, imperialism, pre-modern and modern.
A highlight of the exhibition, this surprise echoes the best parts of documenta13, an exhibit without an overarching theme – forcing each work to be viewed for what it is.
Entering from the garden into the narrow glass doors on the side of the Ottoneum, I am excited to see the work of Claire Pentecost in such an ideal location. Prominently and symbolically located in the the first theater built in Germany, now serving as the Museum of Natural History, the installation is the entrypoint for an entire building full of works about seeds, science and ecology – one of the most coherent sub-themes within this massive and themeless exhibition.
Pentecost produced this work in residence at The University of Kassel Faculty of Organic Agricultural Science in Witzenhausen and following her participation in a soil workshop at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania.
The outcome is a multi-modal installation all centered around a proposed currency called Soil-Erg. She made dozens of drawings with pencil and mud, illustrating a heterogeneous paper money version of Soil-Erg, each depicting a different ecological scene or significant activist and research figures working with food and science. Above the two walls of paper currency, are differently sized medallions of soil. The elaborate tables at the center of the room are piled up with ingots of soil, reminiscent of fantastical gold stashes from Indiana Jones or Fort Knox.
Along the back wall is an intervention into the museum’s collection – a move made by a number of artists who found inspiration in the specificity of the temporary exhibition venues. On the left there is a glass display unit from the collection of the Otteneum that shows slices of soil from different depths of the earths crust. To the right, Pentecost fabricated a similar companion unit that serves as a compost pile that will accumulate over time. The insides are equipped with microphones and through use of a headset you can literally hear the energy, heat and process of the decomposition of organic waste. On one wall of the unit, a hand-written chart depicts the phenomenon of corporate land-grabbing in the global south where North American and European companies are buying up massive farm land and even creating “soil farms” throughout Africa and Latin America.
Pentecost’s participation in documenta13 is itself heterogeneous. She is one of the few exhibiting artists who also made a book for the 100 Books 100 Days project, she gave a number of lectures and workshops, made a video for the website dealing with the importance of seeds to culture, and was an instructor at the summer retreat on the theme of “retreat” at the Banff artists residency in Canada.
The immersive “12 Ballads For Huguenot House” is spearheaded by Theaster Gates along with his design collaborator John Preus, studio manager Theo Boggs, and a rotating cast of staff from his non-profit Rebuild Foundation. Walking into the house, I immediately feel a complex social energy. People buzzing around, up and down the stairs, posting schedules for the day’s activities and consulting with one another about what the morning has in store. The video and audio pieces scattered throughout the 2nd and 3rd floors of the building are still being switched on, and some people just waking from bed. Art tourist’s are poking their heads into the sleeping quarters, asking the people clearly in bed, “do you sleep here”? The Huguenot House is undoubtedly alive with real humans and the art pieces themselves were just a small component of the overall project. It may have one artist’s name attributed to it, but something this alive is the work of many.
Mobilizing people to invest in places and buildings is one of Gates’ strengths. The building at 25 Friedrichsstrasse in Kassel had been empty since World War 2. Under very different historical forces, there are homes in Gates’ neighborhood in Chicago, Grand Crossing, that have also been abandoned for decades (though not quite as long as in Germany). As a crucial facet of his participation in documenta13, a deal was made where a house in Chicago would be purchased and its wooden and metal guts would be converted into objects to repopulate the building in Kassel and at a later date visa versa, forming a kind of architectural material exchange. This insistence that elite cultural institutions should subsidize projects in the places where he lives and works (which has now grown to include a number of Black communities throughout the midwest through the work of Rebuild Foundation) is something Gates unabashedly names in his public presentations.
And in the case of Hugenot House, this subsidy to Chicago cultural possibilities that lie in the future of that local project, have been reciprocated with real life-force being breathed back into the long abandoned building. Throughout documenta, it has been the site of performances, daily yoga classes, community meals and what are said to be the best parties in Kassel every Wednesday night throughout the four months of the exhibition.
Conclusion: The Rematerialization of the Art Object?
As Paul Chan, another participating artist with Chicago ties, commented in a recent interview during documenta, “It is a funny time in art when making something quiet is seen as radical.”(3) The expectation has been implicitly fostered through curation and critical writing that new art needs to be participatory. It is not dissimilar from trends in governance and commerce – participation is the key to the hearts and minds!
As a counterpoint to this trend, these four projects start from complex social problems and engaged in the social processes necessary to activate and engage those problems, and then they made art objects and forms. Finding material resolutions to distill the complexity of the world into a form is one of the contributions artists have historically made to the societies in which they live. The work presented at documenta13 by Chicago artists produces a productive challenge for the debates around socially-engaged art practice and its treatment in educational and art presenting institutions. Formalist reactionaries now commonly antagonize participatory art with the same odium as was applied to performance artists in the decades past while Social Practice fundamentalists claim that objects are dead and process is the new vanguard. Perhaps these artists show a third way, a marriage between the qualities artists have long attempted to capture with material forms and the complex social processes necessary to engage the complex social world in a meaningful way.
1) Rakowitz, Michael – Conversation with the author (7/5/12)
2) Crawford, Bob – AREA Chicago (2008), http://areachicago.org/bob-crawford-and-margo-natalie-crawford/
3) Chan, Paul – Bad at Sports (2012), http://badatsports.com/2012/episode-358-paul-chan-with-john-preus/
[Special thanks to Judith Russi Kirshner, Marcia Lausen, Jennifer Reeder, Lisa Yun Lee, Carolina Ariza, Ayreen Anastas, Rene Gabri, and Scott Berzofsky]
CHICAGO — The CTA is enlisting the help of Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates to design artwork for its planned $240 million terminal at the 95th and Dan Ryan Red Line station.
The project, expected to cost $1.3 million, would be the largest art project in the CTA’s history, according to the agency. Ten people would be hired for the project that would also establish an apprenticeship program for local students.
Recently, while trolling the facebook site for Works Progress, an artist-led public design studion in Minneapolis, I came across a thread on Colin Kloecker’s page (who co-runs the studio with Shanai Matteson) compiling a list of must-reads on the subject of Creative Place-making. What I gathered from the thread and then from talking more with Colin is that we share an interest in how new funding opportunities, that are becoming available under the rubric of “creative place-making” (most significantly through granting organizations like ArtPlace), are affecting and intersecting with socially-engaged practices. Most recently this conversation came up in Chicago when Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation along with the University of Chicago and the Bruner Loeb Forum held a conference called The Art of Place-making.
Artplace was there in attendance, my highlights were the presentations by Kennedy Smith and Walter Hood, presenting on the importance of small business development and creative urban design respectively (arguably the two poles of Theaster’s initiatives.) There were tours of the various properties and lots of conversations about what is unfolding at Dorchester Projects, Stony Island Arts Bank, the Washington Park Arts Incubator, and all the rest in development. One of the moments that stood out for me came in a meeting leading up to the actual conference where Theaster convened community members, local organizations, and neighbors at Dorchester Projects to talk about what was going to happen at the forum and getting feedback on a smaller-scale. I ended up in a break-out group on the Washington Park Arts Incubator and the community-building initiatives now in formation. I don’t pretend to fully understand the complexity of that project, in that neighborhood, with that set of partners, and while I am really excited about what’s happening there, I am also struck by the enormous responsibility being placed on an artist residency program sited in a neighborhood with a historically decimated economic infrastructure. A lot of people spoke about needing educational programs or job training, or of the difficulty in explaining to the neighborhood why they should embrace this place. And I thought, this is a really complex, long-standing socio-economic context to wade into and a lot is being put on artists to have a significant impact in the shaping of that conversation. Perhaps that’s just naive, but I also think it bears repeating. These issues are really, really complicated, the struggle against gentrification is a hard battle and the issues of good versus bad economic development are very deep and hard to parse out. And it is kind of a bizarre world in which artists are put forward to lead the way, while being asked to speak about economic development and community impact. Perhaps that’s where they should be, I’m not sure.
So with that in mind, while cribbing Colin’s list and adding some of my own, I thought it would be interesting to compile a list that reflects the dialogue as it is in this very moment. With the 10th anniversary of Richard Florida’s book “The Creative Class”, the much-criticized and massively influential book on urban development that ties arts funding to innovation culture and business development, rather than inherent social good, we’re primed to revisit the failures and the successes that are now the received wisdom as to the state of arts funding.
Creative Place-making from the government:
The original white paper from the NEA
In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.
And from ArtPlace on “Vibrancy Indicators”
ArtPlace is a collaboration of 13 leading national and regional foundations and six of the nation’s largest banks. ArtPlace is investing in art and culture at the heart of a portfolio of integrated strategies that can drive vibrancy and diversity so powerful that it transforms communities. To date, ArtPlace has awarded 80 grants to 76 organizations in 46 communities across the U.S. for a total of $26.9 million.
And then the analysis:
Dead End on Shakin’ Street in which Thomas Frank explains how Creative Place-making pits Cincinnati versus Rockford versus Kansas City versus Akron in the vibrancy test. It is perhaps unfair to pit funds for city tourism over what should go towards universal health care coverage, but it might as well be put in perspective. A very trenchant and important critique here.
This guy has some beef with Frank, writing from Asheville, NC. I think he misunderstands Frank’s larger point which to me is about pointing out the disinvestment in the public sector on a wide scale, not that universal health care is being specifically defunded via the millions spent on vibrancy initiatives. He also writes for what looks like a marketing firm called Placemakers. They “cultivate livability.”
The Fall of the Creative Class, a first person story of why following Richard Florida’s plan to the letter in deciding where you live might not be a good idea by Frank Bures. Madison-bashing and a totally baffling set of unrealistic expectations aside, this has some good analysis. Also as a side note, the part in here where an overweight woman who he imagines as never leaving her apartment stands in as a symbol of his existential angst is totally problematic. Fat people are not signs of the world coming to an end.
Richard Florida responds to Bures directly here in his “What Critics Get Wrong About the Creative Class and Economic Development” which is basically a rehash of the correlation versus causation debate and then Bures responds back here. And more from Richard Florida in More Losers Than Winners in America’s New Economic Geography.
Ian David Moss from Fractured Atlas and Create Equity blog (which is really good) has some great analysis in Creative Place-making has an Outcomes Problem. This will truly take you deep into art administration nerd-dom but his critique of ArtPlace and its vibrancy indicators is coherent and worth reading. And there are links at the bottom of his post that will lead you to more Florida backlash.
Roberto Bedoya on Creative Placemaking and the politics of belonging and dis-belonging writes about creative place-making strategies of community engagement not adequately meeting the challenges of spatial justice and how “place-making” has to contend with the very real histories of displacement, colonization and indigenous struggles. As Bedoya writes, “Creative Placemaking activities’ relationship to civic identity must investigate who has and who doesn’t have civil rights.”
And here’s a hilariously raw assessment of Richard Florida’s consulting group “The Creative Class Group” implementing a program to train “community catalysts” in Charlotte, North Carolina; Duluth, Minnesota/Superior, Wisconsin; and Tallahassee, Florida, conducted by Knight Creative Communities Initiative (KCCI) that Frank Bures talks about here. And a similar aggregate of the arguments with Can Creative Placemaking Be Proven? The (New) State of the Arguments.
Enjoy the rabbit hole!
Photo by Eric Rogers
I spent a blissful week away from all things Internet last week, and have come back from my mountain vacay with an RSS feed that, thankfully, was not as much of a drag to plow through as I’d feared. In fact, quite a few interesting articles popped up that I thought were worthy of note. And you know me, I like to share.
*Triple Canopy’s latest issue has a first-person piece, Matter of Rothko, written by David Levine about his father’s complicated legal and personal relationship with Mark Rothko that, oddly, manages to be dry and deeply moving at the same time.
*Art administrator, writer, and former B@S guest blogger Thea Liberty Nichols contributed a slew of really good Chicago-themed interviews to Art:21 blog last week. Read Nichols’ conversations with Selina Trepp, Liz McCarthy of Roxaboxen Exhibitions, Jasmine Justice, Lilly Carré, and PictureBox Inc, along with Houston’s Aurora Picture Show.
*Also on Art:21 blog, Francesca Wilmott writes on Theaster Gates’ “creative rehab efforts” in Hyde Park, St. Louis.
*Hennessey Youngman aka Jayson Musson, the dude the art world is currently crushing on (okay okay, that includes me too….), will be part of The Dialogue: The MCA Chicago’s Annual Conversation on Museums, Diversity and Inclusion on September 7th. Jeez, couldn’t they have thought of a better title for this event? It makes it sound so dull and institutionalized….like some kind of corporate “diversity workshop” where your participation is most definitely not optional. Hopefully Youngman’s participation will spice things up a bit, although I am already raising my eyebrows at the fact that Youngman is being brought to the Museum under the rubric of a “diversity” program and not as an artist in his own right. But, I will hold off on my comments until after I see the program. Tickets are $8/members and $10/non-members. Order online here. And if you haven’t listened to it yet, Mr. Youngman was interviewed on Bad at Sports’ Podcast a couple weeks back on Episode 306. Good stuff.
*This is fantastic: Shawnee Barton (who guest blogged over here on B@S awhile back) rejects those who wrongly rejected her. Read the letter she wrote over at Chicago Art magazine, it’s a hilariously polite ‘fuck you’ to the organizers of Art San Diego.
*This is the opposite of fantastic: Jerusalem’s Museum of Tolerance to be Built Atop a Muslim Graveyard. According to Groundswell’s article, some of Edward Said’s relatives are buried there, along with numerous Muslim saints and scholars, and some of the region’s longest Muslim family lineages. This is the same project that Frank Gehry left in 2010, although that was apparently due to scheduling and financial reasons.
*This is a couple weeks old, but if you’re a fan of our Mantras for Plants series here on the blog, you’ll be into this NYT article: What’s Left Behind, on scientists who are “recasting vacant lots as community assets rather than urban blight” by studying them to discover their ecological benefits.
*Would you be embarrassed to list “Winner of the Donkey Art Prize” on your CV? If not, applications are being accepted through February 2012. €30 per artwork application fee required, natch.
*Miranda July, photogenic artist extraordinaire.
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–whether painting figures on a 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: I’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 bachelor’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 was… 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), and the gallery owner kept telling me, “You should go to the Art Institute”…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 didn’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 didn’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 don’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 that’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 don’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 don’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. I’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 around…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, it’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)”—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 field—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. 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? 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 don’t dedicate my life exclusively to painting. For 8 years, before and after college, that’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 didn’t have anything else to say with it. I don’t think that anymore, but that’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 ‘The Greatest Companions’, exhibited at Mutherland and Rowland Contemporary.
CP: In wanting to erase the boundaries between the audience and spectator and the audience as an integral participator—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 corner—Tell me about Dock6!
ES: Dock 6 is a collective of independent designers, furniture-makers and fabricators, including Dan Sullivan, my husband. They’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. That’s how it occurred to me to propose to Dock 6 Collective the Design and Art Series. 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 I’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.