The following interview with Mary Jane Jacob continues from the Art21 blog; you can read that here. Our conversation is filtered through the lens of two books, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art and Learning Mind: Experience into Art that Jacob co-edited with Jacquelynn Baas. Those books were published by the University of California Press in 2004 and 2009 respectively. The third title in the series, Chicago Makes Modern: How Creative Minds Shaped Society, is due out through the University of Chicago Press this summer.
CP: One of the things that especially intrigues me about this connection (between Buddhism and contemporary art practice) is how it encourages a kind of anti-egotism, something that goes directly against the grain of our larger society. When so much about cultural production feels contingent on the legitimacy provided by recognition, monetary reward and public acclaim, it is difficult to comprehend an art practice that functions outside those expectations. I am particularly interested in what kinds of conversations arise between you and your students as you wrestle with this subject. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MJJ: It’s true that egotism, the get-all-you-can-help-yourself-ism of which you speak, is a prevailing strain of our society; we see it played out right now in the Republican primaries. But I would not like to call it “the grain of larger society” because, at the same time, there is a lot of desire for change. It’s expressed in a rising consciousness for the need to care for the earth, for community well-being. Not everything points to self-serving-ness. This other strain possesses a sense of necessity and a lot of optimism. Many understand that this selflessness today is urgent to take into action. It also has something to say about why art? I trust art in the social equation.
Among students it is in part a factor of their generation (young people embracing aspects of ‘70s counterculture) and in part a value of art, and notably in the modern era. While modernism brought us the solo, superstar artist, there was another side. This is the story of modernism we are telling in upcoming book Chicago Makes Modern: the role of art that is beyond self for the benefit of the greater good, for the common cause. The severing of art and spirituality is a much-mistaken myth about modernism; take for instance the convictions of Malevich, Moholy-Nagy, Newman, Reinhardt….
So for students who have their careers and lives ahead of them—who have chosen art, not just because they possess skills and interests, but because they often share certain social values, and who have a desire to probe and create meaning, to realize themselves and to communicate to others through art—the work that came through the “Awake: Art, Buddhism, and the Dimensions of Consciousness” program and which they can access through the Buddha Mind book speaks to them. I have found students ready, really hungry, for this. And many Asian students at SAIC have conveyed to me how this has given them a new way to look at their culture, at something they took to be tradition and not modern; they have felt a sense of integration.
CP: Additionally there is a way in which you tackle the idea of consciousness (and of course philosophy) — ideas which are not often (as far as I can tell) discussed in tandem with artmaking. It reminds me of a very early essay in Learning Mind: Experience Into Art, where Danto describes Modernism as a movement to separate and parse painting from sculpture (p.20).
MJJ: It seems like you could also say the same of philosophy and art and religion and science — of course, these subjects bleed into art making, but they seem to me to be generally reserved for a kind of personal artist-talk expose. More often than not, I feel like there is an emphasis on the social implications of art work, how it can function politically, but here there is a suggestion that it can function philosophically as well, as kind of tenant of meaning…is that a fair understanding?
It’s great you bring up Arthur Danto because he is a writer and a friend who was very important to me in the early ‘90s when I was trying to retool and find my way back to art and out of museums. What I love about Arthur is that he can write eruditely (he can cite and use so aptly references from all of Western culture) and at the same time bring it right down to street level (quoting an immigrant cab driver). He uses philosophy to understand our life now, and isn’t that what philosophy was intended to be. He also sees art as a valuable, fundamental part of life; not all philosophers do. But one who did, John Dewey, we might say had an art philosophy of life.
Considering the respect these thinkers had for art, I think they’d agree that artists have a lot to say—in their art and in their words, through their works and lives—that speaks to a larger realm of being. So I don’t know that I’d see “personal artist-talk” as “expose”; I’d hope with the best of them offer insights. At least that’s how I look at it. Maybe that’s why I align more with artists than other arts-related professionals.
CP: There seems to be a natural progression between the extensive work you’ve done discussing art that takes place in the public sphere — the way that such projects challenge conventional hierarchical expectations about art’s place in society. This examination of Buddhism seems to access a different aspect of that same conversation, though one no less political. I am very curious about whether you feel like you address and incorporate Buddhism as a religion, with it’s varied and immense associative/historical past, or if it is more like a kind of philosophical metaphor. I feel like Buddhism somehow becomes a corollary example that, grafted onto an artistic practice would lend new (and iconoclastic) insight. Insight that is not *necessarily* contingent on one’s becoming a monk….
MJJ: Thanks for recognizing that the subject of Buddhism and art has something to do with my work in the expanded public art arena. I said at the beginning of this interview that some program officers in foundations criticized negatively my “organic” process of curating. However, during the early days of the “Awake” program a foundation president, who had greatly help find the program, came up to me at a session break and said, “I see how the Buddhism project relates to your work with the Spoleto Festival.” [I have worked for two decades on site-specific and community projects in Charleston South Carolina, starting with the exhibition “Places with a Past” in 1991.] I was astounded; I had been trying to come to terms with what , at that point, I felt more in my gut than my head. So it was amazing to hear these words, this perception from another.
With the Buddhism project we always made clear this was not about religion, not a cultural study either. It was to see what this wisdom tradition can tell us about the art experience in making and in viewing. This was a level of primary research for us as artists, curators, and educators. Some of what I took away was generosity (we see this as a mode of art practice today as well as in general in the way art is offered to others, including the notion of the gift), interdependence (and here I think of the intrinsic relationship of artists and audience, object and viewer), interconnection (this has a lot to say about our relationship to others and to the world), potentiality and the concept of “not-empty” (the unknown, the creative space), non-attachment (the way art is a generative process), and the beginner’s mind (that something doesn’t have to be wholly new and, in recognizing what came before us, we should neither possess the hubris that we are the first and unique, nor be deflated that everything has already been done; rather to possess the beginner’s mind is to take something into yourself, revitalize it by having it live within you, and with this, innovation is always possible).
So Buddhism is not “grafted” onto artistic practice. Instead, as I feel you mean when you say it can lead to “insight,” Buddhism offers things consistent with the art process, and for some artists it can aid that process. So the next book in a couple of years from now (tentatively titled Artway of Living) will continue this thread. On the one hand, it will deal with socially engaged artists, so the public art aspect remains. On the other, through artists’ firsthand narratives and, yes, their insights, it will dwell on questions at-once philosophical and practical: How can you sustain your art practice? How can you sustain your life as an artist? What is it to live the life of an artist? What is it to live your life as a work of art?
I’ve been following Dmitry Samarov’s work for a few years now, about as long as I’ve been living in Chicago. Oddly enough, I first became acquainted with Mr. Samarov through Twitter, which at the time he was just starting to play around with and I was still trying to ignore. How things change. From there, I found his website, Hack, where he chronicles his experiences as a Chi Town cab driver through sketches, drawings, and short written pieces. On Hack, Samarov’s drawings and writings go hand-in-hand–it’s hard to imagine one without the other, actually. I’ve followed Dmitry’s work through his website, found some of his writings archived on the Chicago Reader’s site, and even engaged in a few 140 character-length conversations with him on Twitter. But I’ve always wanted to interview Dmitry, and with the October 1, 2011 publication of Hack in book form (by the University of Chicago Press, no less!) and a slew of shows opening this and next month (including one at Lloyd Dobler Gallery), I realized that now was the ideal time. In this interview, Dmitry gave what is probably my all-time favorite answer to a question, delivered in his typical bone-dry style: “The dream, though, is and always will be to be unemployed.”
I’m very grateful to Dmitry for taking the time to answer my questions (via e-mail, natch)–maybe someday he and I will have an actual face to face conversation. Certainly there will be lots of opportunities to have a live encounter with Mr. Samarov over the next few months–including the book release party for Hack on October 1st at the Rainbo Club, 4-8 pm–a link to his full schedule can be found at the bottom of this post.
Claudine Isé: Can you take me through a typical day for you, a day that involves both work as a cabdriver and work as an artist?
Dmitry Samarov: I usually get up somewhere between 11am and 1pm. I make tea or coffee, then check email and Twitter and nose around the internet a bit while waking up. Next I work on whatever painting or drawing I’ve got going, or, write a new Hack story if one needs writing. In other words, I try to get at least one creative thing done before leaving the house. Typically though, I don’t have more than two or three hours to devote to these things before I have to go out and drive the cab.
I drive from sometime in the afternoon until anywhere from 2 to 5am, depending on the day. I rent the cab 24-7 so I can take it home, saving the commute to and from the garage, and allowing me to work the hours that I want. In order to make a living at it however, I need to put in 11-15 hours a day. If there’s a movie, a show, or something else that I want to do during work hours, I can always take a break and do it. All I’m out is the money that might’ve been made. It’s one of the few real perks of the job: the freedom to be without a boss or manager asking you why you’re not at work.
After I get home, I’ll unwind with a movie or TV show or with looking around the internet (I don’t have a TV). Sometimes, if I can’t sleep or it can’t wait til the next day, I’ll write or work on an illustration for Hack. I hardly ever do any non-Hack-related work late at night.
CI: You studied painting and printmaking at SAIC in the early 1990s. Looking back now, what were the most important things you learned while studying there?
DS: It’s an open question whether my time was worthwhile or not. That being said, I certainly had a few teachers that made an impression. I took Dan Gustin’s figure painting and figure drawing classes nearly every semester I was there. Those classes strengthened my already-strong interest in perceptual painting. To this day, what gets me jazzed most is looking at something or someone out in the world and attempting to make marks that convey some small sense of having been there. The second most influential teacher I had there was Mark Pascale. He taught lithography but, even more importantly for me, was just starting to work as a curator at the Art Institute’s Print & Drawing Room. He’d pull boxes and boxes of Rembrandt etchings, Lovis Corinth gouaches, Lucien Freuds, Max Beckmanns, and many many more for me to peruse. Even though I doubt he was ever personally much interested in my work, his generosity in getting me access to work that might help me get where I was going left a lasting impression. I still speak to him occasionally and have met few more articulate or funny people in this city.
The larger question of SAIC influence is an open one as I said before. Because of the kind of work I did (and continue to do), the school was never going to be a place that I’d truly thrive in. On the other hand, they had all the facilities in the world to put in the time and get better at what I probably would’ve done anyways. The trouble with art schools is that they tend to be inordinately concerned with current art world trends rather than giving students the rudiments of what they’ll need to keep making work past graduation. As an example, during my time there Jeff Koons gave a visiting artist lecture and you would’ve thought that Jesus had returned to anoint the next generation for all the excitement it caused; in my world, Koons isn’t fit to clean a grad school painter’s brushes. My time there certainly made it plain to me that I didn’t want to teach or participate in any similar art school program after graduation. So, perhaps by negative example, it was an important experience for me after all.
CI: To what extent are you able to make drawings and sketches while you’re in the cab? I imagine that sometimes you need to work quickly to get a certain face on the page, or to write down certain things that a fare or a fellow driver has said to you. Are you constantly taking notes or do you just have a really good memory?
DS: None of the illustrations for Hack were done on site apart from the pen sketches of taxis like this one [illustrated below]. Most were done from memory days or weeks or sometimes years afterward. As to writing, over the past couple years I’ve used text messages and Twitter for a sort of note-taking. I’ll look back through a couple days’ worth of messages and if something keeps nagging at me I’ll expand it into a story.
I have done a ton of artwork in the cab though. A couple years ago I did a series of gouache paintings of taxis out at the O’Hare and Midway Airport Taxi Staging Areas. There are also many pen sketches of similar subject-matter scattered throughout the Sketchbooks section of my website. I’ve done a fair amount of cityscapes like this one [second illustration below], from the front seat as well.
DS: I don’t think I’ll ever stop making paintings and drawings about living in the city. The workplace-related pictures were certainly made out of necessity and lack of alternate options. If I could stop having a day-(or more accurately)night-job, I’d walk away and never come back. I’ve tried to make do with the financial and time restrictions of not being a full-time painter. What else would I be doing work about but the places where I spend most of my time? I’ve done a lot of work that’s not cab- or bar-related as well of course, but there’s no way that something that you do 8 to 14 hours a day can truly be ignored.
The dream, though, is and always will be to be unemployed.
CI: The writing compiled in your book Hack was first published on your blog, also titled Hack. When did you hit upon blogging, or perhaps better described in your case, web publishing, as a way of putting your work out into the world? It’s been a very successful medium for you and I’m sure an inspiration to other artists and writers. Also, you use Twitter in a way that I really enjoy – as a way of having friendly conversations and exchanges, not as a tool for rank self-promotion. I’m curious though, why did you take up Tweeting?
DS: Hack first started as a sort of ‘zine or illustrated book that documented my years driving a cab in Boston (1993-1997). I didn’t know how to turn on a computer until late-2003. I was briefly married to a computer programmer and got a crash course in the subject at that time. We launched my website at the beginning of 2004 and I revived Hack as a blog sometime late in 2006. It’s not a blog in the usual sense, that’s for sure. It’s not a diary or particularly personal in the way many blogs are. For the most part, I’ve tried to string phrases together in some way to relate some of what I’ve seen from behind the wheel.
I wouldn’t know what kind of impact or inspiration the thing has had on other artists, it’s not for me to judge, but I know a few people have enjoyed reading my stories over the years and there’s some satisfaction in that, without a doubt.
I started using Twitter sometime late in 2008, I think. I’d been sending text messages to friends about what was happening or what I saw in the cab for awhile and Twitter let me share these with a few more people. It’s quite a challenge to say what I want to in 140 characters but I’ve enjoyed trying nonetheless. I’ve done plenty of rank self-promotion on there as well though. I’m not sure how much longer it’ll remain compelling. MySpace has all but disappeared and Facebook will hopefully go away soon too, so who knows? If I finally figure out some way to get paid regularly for my artwork, I’ll probably drop off the social networking scene altogether. Or at least, I’d like to think I would. We’ll see.
CI: You are and/or have been a cab driver, a bartender, a writer, an artist, a “sketch-artist” — all of which seem to require similar skills, such as being able to listen, to observe (often from a distance), to keep calm and to be able to think and act quickly and “on your feet” (as it were). All of these positions also seem to require a large amount of empathy and acceptance of human foibles, it seems to me. In a lot of ways all of your roles have more than a bit in common with that of a shrink. Is it hard for you sometimes, to maintain a sense of openness or empathy to the strangers you encounter by the dozens each day? I would imagine that if you feel pissed off or even just psychologically closed-off, it might impact the work because it’s coming from “that place” of anger or pissed-offedness. Or maybe that’s the point? I guess what I’m asking is, is it sometimes hard for you to remain “open” to people, because people can be difficult to be around….
DS: I’ve been accused of being cynical and misanthropic most of my life. I don’t know whether that’s so or not. Many times people just don’t get my tone or my odd sense of humor. I’ve been working service-industry jobs since I was 13 or 14 and I’m about to turn 41. That’d be a lot of years to hate the human race. In my own way I love people or at least I love watching them. They never cease to amaze. I’ve felt removed or apart from most crowds I’ve ever found myself in. It’d take someone smarter than me to figure out why that is but coming from another country probably has something to do with it. The critical distance has allowed me to observe others with clear eyes in my good moments. Being “one of the help”, not a social equal, has allowed me to eavesdrop and overhear in a way a participant never could. For whatever reason all these years haven’t soured me on the human race. We’re full of faults, to be sure, but I don’t hold myself above those that I see; put in their place I’d likely be making an ass of myself as often as they do, and hopefully, be funny and sad just the way most of ‘em are.
I don’t know that I’m “open” but I don’t judge (in the sense that I don’t feel it’s my place to correct others’ behavior); my role is to see it, hear it, and show and tell the world about it. It’s what artists have always done: shown those around them the world they live in.
CI: A lot of your work makes me think of the caricatures of Honore Daumier – your work isn’t overtly political, like his was, but it does deal with human folly and excess – especially drunkenness, or the ways that a person comports themselves in front of others when they think no one (except you) is looking. Anyway, I’m curious, which artists have had an influence on the way you think about your own work? Which artists do you love, just because?
DS: Daumier’s great. I assume you’re thinking about the illustrations of passengers in the book here. There’s definitely a caricaturish or grotesque aspect to many of those pictures. I’ve loved Breughel most of my life, as well as Lautrec, Goya, Guston, and so many others that have parodied the human form in various ways. Doing pictures for Hack has always been a challenge because what I love to do best is just to look at something and react and that’s just not possible there. Also, I often don’t think of those pieces as stand-alone visual statements but solely as illustrations to the stories, so, when doing them there’s no way not to think about book illustrations from the past and how image and text interact. Because I’m a visual artist first, doing these pictures has always been a way into the prose for me. They help me write.
CI: Tell me about your upcoming exhibitions.
DS: Here’s a listing of all my upcoming events, but as far as art shows go:
1. Rainbo Club: “Pictures of Books” September 24-October 21
I’ll be showing oil paintings of books on my bookshelf. I’ve returned to this motif every so often for about 14 years now. The way the books lean against each other and the colors of the spines resonate against one another has always fascinated me. Also, as someone who primarily deals with a deeper space (in cityscapes or rooms) the shallow space of a bookshelf scratches a different kind of itch. It’s probably as close to abstraction as I’ll ever get. Finally, it’s funny to me to have a show of paintings of books when I have an actual book coming out.
2. Saki: “Music & Baseball” October 1- October 31
This show will contain album and CD cover illustrations, concert sketches, as well as other music-related artwork that I’ve done over the years. As well as a series of portraits of the 2011 Chicago White Sox that I did for a short-lived baseball column from earlier this year.
3. Lloyd Dobler Gallery: “Hack: Pictures from a Chicago Cab” October 14- November 19th
This will bring together most of the taxi-related artwork I’ve done. There will also be a few of the Hack stories displayed on the walls along with the original artwork that went with them.
CI: Thanks so much for talking with me, Dmitry!
A few noteworthy links and stories for your midweek perusal…plus a freebie at the bottom.
****College Art Association (CAA) has made eighty-one audio recordings from the panels at last month’s conference in Chicago available for download. They’re kind of expensive ($149.95 for the complete Set of CAA 2010 Conference Recordings on Interactive MP3 Audio CD-ROM or MP3 download; $24.95 for an individual panel MP3 download), but if you couldn’t come up with the cash to attend the conference in full, like moi, this could be a great way to access the panels you missed in person. I’ll be choosy, but will most likely buy at least one.
****“Palestinian Avatars”: This is fascinating; apparently, the movie Avatar and its indigenous aliens the Na’vi have been appropriated by Palestinian rights activists, who painted themselves blue and wore costumes inspired by the Na’vi during a recent protest in Bil’in, a Palestinian town divided in half by the wall. This post on Provisions Library provides further background along with some pretty brilliant analysis: “The most striking aspect of this re-appropriation of a distinctly American, Avatar meme, is the irony. And right across the barbed-wire fence opposite from Bil’in are Israeli soldiers whose weapons supplied by American taxpayers. So, as Joseph Nye would explain, that’s an example of U.S. “hard power.” Then, on the other side, the Palestinians to score by appropriating imagery siphoned with sophistication from the mighty currents of American “soft power.” Wow. Elsewhere, you can find additional photographs of what’s been dubbed the “Palestinian Avatar” protests here, along with a video of the demonstration.
****Artnet’s Charlie Finch asks “Who is Dakis Joannou?” Finch speculates that Joannou’s future as the Chairman of J&P (Overseas) and J&P-AVAX, both publicly traded Greek companies, “could yield two divergent prospects for a complex, interlocking business, dependent on amortization and wide debt-to-capital ratios. The first is that Dakis is smart enough and aggressive enough to take advantage of buying opportunities during a worldwide recession and increase his bottom line significantly. The second is that J&P is so overleveraged and so dependent on the luxury market that it is at serious risk of default, should its capital pipeline dry up. J&P’s low stock price would indicate a potential problem in this area.” If it’s the latter, it’s probably safe to assume that Joannou may indeed peel off some of that Skin Fruit in the not-so-distant future.
****Ikea plans to commission major works by contemporary artists Piotr Uklanski, Jeppe Hein and Jim Lambie for its “airport-sized,” Moscow-based development slated for 2012.
****Auction sales for work by African-American artists surged at recent Swann sale, and the market for art by African Americans continues to grow.
****The Grand Rapids Art Museum will present GRAM and Ox-Bow: Joint Centennial Celebration Exhibition and Artist Series this summer. 30+ artists from throughout Ox-Bow’s history will be featured at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in a special exhibition. (via Curated).
****I Like Your Work: Art and Etiquette: a pamphlet published by the contemporary art journal Paper Monument, addresses the topic of “manners in the art world” via interviews with 38 artists, critics, curators and dealers. Read this excerpt, a series of questions about art-world politesse posed to artists Michelle Grabner and Ryan Steadman, online here.
****Ohhhhh. So. Incredibly. Beautiful: An Elizabethan Bestiary: Retold. Go click on this one right away, you won’t be disappointed.
****I am not one of those women who is “into shoes”, but Dezeen’s top ten list of past shoe features makes me wish I were a bit more of a fetishist when it comes to this particular area of my body. Though no way in hell would I ever wear these french bread loafers.
****Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, by Ted Cohen, is now available for free download at The University of Chicago Press website – for the month of March only. (The Chicago Blog). The U of C Press offers a free downloadable book each month, so check back to see what else they’ll have available for you in the future!
****An exhibition of Grateful Dead paraphernalia opens at the New York Historical Society…and no, its not that kind of paraphernalia.
****And finally….all you need to know about Professional Female Stoners. This is not, unfortunately, a description of an up-and-coming growth sector in the jobs market.