OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Matthew Hilshorst

Pretty Average Blowout, 2015. Acrylic paint on canvas. 18" x 25" x 4."

MATTHEW HILSHORST's "sincerely pessimistic" work includes painting, sculpture and a plethora of hobby craft techniques—latch-hook rugs, bottle cap murals, and electrical wire "paintings"—that sit right on the boundary between painting and sculpture. He conflates the grid of gingham tablecloths and latch-hook rug canvases with the grid of Modernist Abstract painting. His sculptural shrouds, towels and cakes made entirely of paint explore themes of gravity, decay and longevity. Matt earned his BFA in Painting from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis/St. Paul. He went on to earn both a Post Baccalaureate Certificate and an MFA in Painting from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His work has been including in exhibitions at Sidecar Gallery (Hammond, Indiana, 2016), Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (2015) and Peregrine Program (Chicago, 2013). Matt lives and works in Chicago.

OtherPeoplesPixels: What role does mimicry play in your work?

Matthew Hilshorst: I don't know if mimicry would be the right word. I am definitely trying to copy something or copy a technique in the way I make a thing though. It is more a form of flattery or reverence for the object and the way in which it is made. Real admiration led me to carve two egg beaters out of wood and then spray painted them chrome. I made them as realistic as possible so that they really represent nothing more than egg beaters. I love banal objects that someone painstakingly designed. I had Egg Beaters up on display at an office building downtown for almost a year. When I finally removed them people told me they had been trying to wrap their heads around why I simply put egg beaters up on a shelf. When I told them they were super delicate wood carvings, they were shocked. It immediately and completely changed their view of what they had been trying to understand.

Egg Beaters, 2003. Carved wood and spray paint. 7" x 1.5" x 1.5."

OPP: Are these works ironic or sincere? Is that question even relevant anymore in the way it was at the time they were made?

MH: It is still a relevant question. Those past works are completely sincere, although it may be read as ironic when the sarcasm or pessimism represented is misunderstood. I spend months and sometimes years creating individual pieces, so putting all that time and effort into creating something, it can't help but be sincere. I love making work that is task-oriented. Making a work that's too simplistic can feel unrewarding, while making a work without a preconceived notion leaves me overwhelmed and unable to begin. I try to give myself a new challenge with every piece, but I always know there is an end point before I start. I recently completed an 8'11" long stained and worn red carpet made of latch-hooked paint. It took me nearly two years to complete.  8'11" is an odd length, but it is as long as the tallest man to have lived was tall. The other measurements of the carpet are in relation to my own body. How it hangs partially on a wall and partially on the floor is also important. I consider every aspect of a work before I make it; little to nothing is arbitrary. But that doesn't always mean I get exactly what I intended. There are always challenges, set backs, and aspects I could have never anticipated.

Much of my work will have a craft look to it because the methods I use to create it are a main component of it. In other words, the process I use to make something is definitely part of the content. The carpets, rugs, towels, and welcome mats are my way of painting a thing where each latch-hooked piece is also a brush stroke, and each brush stroke represents a thread. I do paint very realistically with oil paint too, but I rarely get excited about doing it. I prefer to not represent something in two dimensions. The physical object is so much more satisfying than a representation of it. As I say that though, I'm working on a new group of oil paintings. Ha. 

The Red Carpet, 2016. acrylic paint and flocking fibers. 8'11."

OPP: What’s the new work about?

MH: The oil paintings? Bingo. Seriously. The new acrylic work is more about hostile hospitality. Lots of different takes on welcome mats and entry rugs. In the same way that throw-away gingham tablecloths physically display "Americana," so do welcome mats.  Thinking about the United States being so unwelcoming to refugees and immigrants has really permeated my new work, it would seem.

Worn Out Hand Towel, 2014. Acrylic paint on towel bar. 16" x 20" as displayed.

OPP: Captured Unicorn (2013) and Snake in the Grass (2013) are latch hook rugs in the conventional sense of the word. They are cut yarn attached to a gridded canvas, creating a shaggy surface. What’s different about Welcome Mat (2014) and Worn Out Hand Towel (2014)?

MH: I originally created Captured Unicorn for a medieval themed show at Bureau in New York and Snake in the Grass was made for a show here in Chicago at Peregrine Program. Both rugs were a new direction for me that ultimately greatly influenced most of my future work and methods of production. My work has been described to me as "basement art,” and I think that gets back to sincerity and irony so I decided to go full-on basement craft for my first latch hooked rugs. Both shows had a dedicated theme, so I was able to get away from traditional painting or sculpture and have some fun with fibers for those two shows.

I switched to latch hooking paint because I wanted to work with a larger color palette. I was going to start hand-dyeing and spinning my own yarn, but that started to seem like more of a drag as far as tasks go and made something simple like a latch hook rug way too complicated. Figuring out what ratio of paint to medium I needed, making endless tests, and learning that acrylic paint does not like getting colder than 50 degrees Fahrenheit presented challenges, but I knew I could easily manipulate color using paint which was my ultimate concern. I like making objects out of 100% paint because of its plastic perfection. It's also a great way to represent a functional object that only functions as art. Using only paint makes me contemplate gravity, time, and longevity, which have been underlying themes in all of my work. I make my own grid out of paint that I latch-hook into, removing a canvas or a separate support system for my paintings. Many of my paintings have to be viewed from above and can be displayed in many different, irreverent ways; they don't just hang on a wall.

Red Gradation, 2011. Acrylic paint on vinyl tablecloth on stretched canvas. 40" diameter.

OPP: What does the grid mean to you in works like Sagging Tablecloth (2010), Red Gradation and Green Gradation (2011) and Access (2013)? How do the shrouds and Thrown Paint, all from 2014, and Smear (2015) add to this conversation?

MH: I was shopping at an Ace Hardware store that was going out of business (probably late 2003) when I first started at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. There was a bin full of gingham patterned vinyl tablecloths, and I bought the whole pile of them. I hung them up in my studio and was mesmerized by the colors and the pattern. I sat staring and contemplating them off and on for a solid semester. They seemed to incorporate all the ideas that were in my head. They were mathematical and perfectly measured. Time and space were involved in their flatness and their infinite pattern. And they contained patterns within patterns. The tablecloths were bright and in basic colors, equally straddling ideas associated with Op Art, Pop Art, and Minimalism. The gingham pattern also has embedded cultural associations like American idealism, gatherings, mass production, eating, our throw-away culture, and classic picnics.

Originally, I painted pointillist landscapes on them by only using the squares in between the red checks and white checks. I wanted to create imagery that was ghostly and barely visible by hiding it within the pattern of the tablecloth, but in no way disrupting the grid. Those works aren't up on my website because I did the ghostly thing too well—they don't photograph well, or really at all, ha. I then started to create more pattern-based work like the two circular gradations, because it was more visually impactful than the landscapes. The grid continues to play a major role in all my other work including the bottle cap murals, the gridded structure of a latch-hook work, the layers to my graph paper cut outs, smear, the shrouds. I wish I could wrap my head around the fascination with grids, but it seems like some sort of micro/macro truth in organization that verges on spiritual. Basically, it seems to hold some sort very deep secret that I can't understand, so I’m constantly coming back to it and exploring it.

Checkered Drawing 1, 2008. Color pencil on paper. 18" x 24."

OPP: Talk to us about cake and about your cake sculptures and paintings.

MH: The cake paintings bring me back to craft and the method of making things. They came about while I was making my first all paint works. I use a piping bag to create my paint latch hook rugs and towels as well as Caught, Smear, and the Shrouds. I decided that since I was using a technique used for decorating cakes, a cake with a phrase or appropriate decoration could be powerful as a painting.

The cakes have messages about time, aging, gender, and gender roles in their construction. I grew up always being encouraged to be creative, but I was discouraged from being in the kitchen. I would have much preferred to watch and help my mom cook, but my place was in my dad’s wood shop. I made Con to bring up questions of gender roles, gender assignment and gender restrictions. Much like the tablecloth paintings straddle different art movements, I also wanted Con to be a yin and yang of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism. The Pieces of cake that seem to have been cut from Con are all in some way ruined. Maybe someone has run their finger through the frosting, a fly has landed on it, or a cigarette has been put out in it. Gender is brought up again in Pretty Average Blowout where 80 flaccid candles have been extinguished. This cake refers to the 80 years an average adult male in the United States can look forward to living. Once time and gravity take their toll, your celebrations are over.

I'm generally an optimistic person but my work has become sentimental and sometimes literally drips sarcasm. I guess it is sincerely pessimistic! That seems to be even more prevalent in recent work, especially since the election.

Con, 2015. Acrylic paint on canvas mounted on cardboard. 20" x 25" x 5."

OPP: What’s happening in your studio right now? How are current political events affecting your practice?

MH: These current and pressing concerns have affected my newest work for sure. Overall, it’s becoming darker and almost nasty. . .  but in a good way. These last few months, it has been really hard to concentrate and get to work in my studio. For at least a month after the election, every time I set foot in there, I struggled with the question, why is this important? Then I went to D.C. to protest the Trump inauguration and to walk with my sister and many friends in the Women's March. It sounds cheesy, but it was such a powerful and positive experience that when I came back to Chicago, I felt I needed to try to do something more.

It's only been a week since I've returned, but I contacted two other artist friends who had also been in D.C. and asked if they were in a resistance group. If they were, I wanted to join, and if they weren't, I wanted us to start one. There are now five of us dedicated to inviting people to create a group that will encourage and promote creativity, accountability, information sharing, and a way to make more of a visual impact around the city and at protests. As much as we kind of cringed at the look of the pussy hats, we all loved that people came together and each created a handmade pink hat which was worn as a unified front. We hope to invite many and become a group that channels the creativity of the Chicago artist community for good against evil.

To see more of Matthew's work, please visit matthewhilshorst.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (2013), Heaven Gallery (2014) and the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (2014). She created site-responsive installations for Form Unbound (2015) at Dominican University and SENTIENCE (2016) at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Stacia is currently preparing for a two-person show titled Resist the Urge to Press Forward with Brent Fogt at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) and Sacred Secular, a solo show at Indianapolis Arts Center in Indiana.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Erika Roth

Carb face (detail), 2016. Mixed media; Food diaries, asorted ribbon. yarn, pipe cleaners, Christmas tinsel, silk cord, sequins, various hair accessories. brownie pan on plywood. 41'' x 36'' x 41'' dimensions variable

ERIKA ROTH's intimately personal work speaks to several interconnected and widespread experiences—food addiction, body image and celebrity worship. In collages and assemblage sculpture, she combines her daily food diaries and images from celebrity gossip magazines with “female vernacular” materials like hair accessories, braids and ribbons. Following in the lineage of the feminist artists of the 1970s, she calls attention to pervasive cultural attitudes, reminding us that "the personal is political." Erika received a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. In 2016 she completed a year and a half long residency at Brooklyn Art Space. Her many group shows in New York include Trestle Project's recent A Symptom of the Universe, which highlighted artists as seers whose artworks "reflect shifts and departures in the collective unconscious." In December 2016, she was included in Project Gallery's exhibition at Aqua Art Miami, part of Art Basel Miami. In October 2016, Hyperallergic commented on “the popping textile assemblages of Erika Roth," shown at Gowanus Open Studios 2016. Erika lives and works in Brooklyn.

OtherPeoplesPixels: How do you think about excess, in your life, in contemporary culture and in your art practice?

Erika Roth: I am always interested in exploration, process, investigation, and discovery when making my work. I always make sure I have plenty of my supplies around me to make my work. I love to get my materials from the 99 cent store, where I can buy as much as I need. It takes a lot of material to make my work. I love craft materials because there is no scarcity—I can have as much as I want. The accumulation of materials gives my work a richness, a feeling that the work is alive, that it has vitality.

In my life there is no such thing as excess! I stockpile food, toiletries, gym clothes, even studio space and counter space in my kitchen. I always make sure I have enough of these things or spaces in my day to day life, which offers a kind of safety and security.

Anxiety, 2014. Mixed media; Food diaries, crimped curling ribbon, organza ribbon, sequins, small jewels, picture from magazine, gloss medium, pen, on canvas. 36" x 36"

OPP: What led you to shift away from rectangular, (more or less) two-dimensional work towards sculpture? It seems like Devoted to Suffering might have been the turning point.

ER: Yes, Devoted to Suffering was a kind of transition in my work. With most of my 2D work, I was trying to depict remnants or fragments that make up a landscape of thoughts from a woman who is obsessed with body image and food. The rectangle was a kind of snapshot into this world, for just a moment.

Then the 3D works became more of an evoking of an experience, really dramatizing the story of a woman who is obsessed with food and body image. The sculptural works let me invite the viewer in to experience her world.

There was also a practical part of my evolution from 2D to 3D work.  Before I got a studio I had very limited space to work in. When I found studio space I started thinking differently about the work, imagining it in a gallery setting. So I started to have the mental and physical space for the work to grow.

Sheet Cake, 2010. Mixed media; Food diaries, crimped curling ribbon, holographic curling ribbon, cut out picture from magazine, gloss medium, pen on canvas. 30" x 30"

OPP: Can you talk about the legibility (or illegibility) of the text in pieces like Skinny (2011), Creamsicle (2010) and Pink Frosting (2009) from the series food diaries? How important is it that viewers read this early work?

ER: When making my early work it was not that important to me that the text was legible. I was satisfied if a viewer could read or recognize a few words here and there. I was mainly interested in using and making my own materials at that time to depict some feelings and thoughts I had about food addiction. My own food diaries, where I write down what I eat each day, became the ground color for these works. I incorporated into my art a very personal part of my own story.

bonesunderneath, 2015. Mixed media; Magazine pictures, notebook paper, sticker, fake nails, googly eyes on baking sheet. 18.5" x 15"

OPP: Tell us about your recurring materials: curling ribbon, pipe cleaners, beads, hair accessories. What attracts you?

ER: I love my spools of ribbon for their colors and surfaces, and I use them as paint. I can do volumes of exploration with ribbon, as opposed to paint, which is more precious and costly. These materials are readily available and inexpensive, so that I can transform them into my own art materials without even going to an art supply store. Like the pages from one of my spiral bound food diaries, these are ordinary things that I mold into something more precious.

My materials are domestic. I use them to create the fabric of an ordinary woman's life. I use hair accessories partly because they hold things together. But these items also evoke gender and are very recognizable. I juxtapose the hand-made braids and the drugstore bought hair accessories to create a context where people can connect to my work, and they can find their own meaning.

Never ending Narrative, 2016. Mixed media; Food diaries, polyppylene film, ribbon, pipe cleaners, beads, glitter, rhinestones, pony tail holders scrunchy, barrettes, silk cord, sequins, journal, on canvas. 36'' x 84'' dimensions variable.

OPP: How do these materials relate to “the psychological landscape of food addiction, that gorgeous nightmare of attraction and resistance?”

ER: My work is autobiographical. It is my own story in my own voice regarding my relationship with food. In some of my work I have created cakes and brownies that I cannot eat. I make them beautiful and appealing but at the same time they are inedible. They evoke the nightmare of attraction and resistance.

OPP: Do you ever receive the critique that your work is “art therapy” because of its psychological and emotional content? How do you respond?

ER: I have never received that critique, but trust me. . . I am working out something, consciously or unconsciously, in my studio.

I cherish all my misery, 2016. From A Symptom of The Universe, Trestle Projects, Brooklyn, NY.

OPP: You employ chains, braids, twisted cord and yarn in your recent sculptures and installations. How does this visual motif—the form as opposed to the material—underscore the content of your work?

ER: The visual motifs in my work come from my love of glamorous fashion accessories, female memories, and domestic rituals. The chains are inspired by my love for Chanel handbags and accessories from the 80s and 90s. They also speak about being held down, in bondage to something that is outside of you. Braids are one of the first hairstyles we may learn for ourselves in early adolescence. We may have memories of a mother braiding our hair. The hair accessories are nostalgic to me and are part of a female vernacular. The twisted cords and yarns remind me of childhood art projects in school or at summer camp.

People have told me that my work looks alive, that my sculptures come across as creatures, that they have a kind of vitality. I think the visual motifs contribute to this feeling.

Surrendered, 2016. Mixed Media. 7' x 5.5' x 3.5' variable

OPP: Since food addiction is a common and often misunderstood issue, what do you want your viewers to understand about it? Do you feel a sense of responsibility that viewers learn something?

ER: For viewers who can identify personally, I want them to realize that they are not alone, that their struggles with food addiction are real, and that there is help and support out there, that they need to reach out and ask for it. 

But my work also appeals to people who don't have a personal connection to this theme.  They respond to my aesthetic, or love the materials I use, or just think the works are beautiful or interesting. I welcome these viewers too. 

To see more of Erika's work, please visit erikajroth.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Stacia created site-responsive installations for two-person show Form Unbound (2015) at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and SENTIENCE (2016) at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Her work was recently included in SHOWROOM, curated by Edra Soto, at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. Stacia is currently preparing for a two-person show titled Resist the Urge to Press Forward with Brent Fogt at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) and Sacred Secular, a solo show at Indianapolis Arts Center in Indiana.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews R. Mertens

Set it up and load it and you can walk away, 2015

R. MERTENS investigates the rising and passing away of technology and the human relationship to obsolescence. His installations combine the materials of recent predigital technologies—VHS tape, electrical cords, old TVs and computers—with the much older technologies of weaving and crochet, evoking monuments, shrines and ritual sites. Rob earned his BFA in Sound Art from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and his MFA in Fiber Art from The University of Oregon. In 2016, his work was included in the group exhibitions CARPA at the Museum of Contemporary Craft (Portland, Oregon), Extreme Fibers at the Dennos Museum Center (Traverse City, Michigan) and New Waves at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Virginia Beach, Virginia). His exhibition Paradoxical Acousmetres opened as part of Spring Solos 2016 at Arlington Arts Center in Virginia. Rob is currently an Assistant Professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where he lives.

OtherPeoplesPixels: What are the conceptual connections between the pre-digital technologies you use as materials and the fiber techniques of weaving and crochet?

R. Mertens: My initial interest in fibers came from my experience in Sound Art actually. In Chicago I worked as an intern for the Experimental Sound Studio during a period of transition for the studio. They were moving to a custom facility and I helped move equipment. Along with this I was backing up old cassette tapes to computer hard drives, this was in 2006, and home pc recording was really about to take off. ESS has an amazing collection of audio called the Creative Audio Archive which includes home recordings of Sun Ra, anyway it was this time period in which I was starting to think about how technology changes and how fibers/spun-string is often considered one of the earliest forms of technology. Thus, I’m interested in the evolution and progression of technology and record keeping.

Schematic Tapestry, 2013

OPP: It’s pretty common nowadays to think of all of our online, digital activities as being in opposition to our pre-digital lives. It often gets casually referred to as a distinct break, i.e. before and after the World Wide Web, but there are a lot of early technological precursors, as you acknowledge. Can you say more about the evolution and progression of technology?

RM: Part of my interest in technology is the moment when society shifts away from a progression, i.e. when laser disc was abandoned and VHS became the medium of choice. Those dead ends have a parallel in the natural world; species die out and leave fractions of biodiversity behind. Specifically, I find the long-coming extinction of VHS tape, 9-track tape, and the true hold out—cassette tape—to be fascinated and connected to larger notions of loss in culture.

While I was living out on the West Coast I became interested in two distinct but similar things. I learned about The Museum of Jurassic Technology in California and about Pre-Columbian Andean Khipu. The Museum of Jurassic Technology is an experimental archive founded by David Hildebrand Wilson and Diana Drake Wilson "The museum's collection includes a mixture of artistic, scientific, ethnographic, and historic, as well as some unclassifiable exhibits" (Wikipedia). It approaches those subjects from a more flexible understanding of historicity and creativity with the understanding that narratives grow and change through time. Khipu is Quechua for "knot" and is/was a record-keeping, tied cord. It’s a system of knots used to represent language and numeric values. Both the museum and Khipu influence my work in how I think about lost or eschewed narratives found in works of art. Khipu were largely destroyed by the Spanish during invasion of South America. Roughly 600 hundred from 1500 and before still exist today, and though there has been a great deal of scholarship focused on deciphering the cords, the idea that these objects carry lost meaning is potent and meaningful in itself. This connected with the construction of "true" and "flourished" archives led me to the construction of my past work.

Angelas, 2014. VHS tape, cotton, plastic, large Transducers. 15 x 9 x 1'

OPP: What does obsolescence mean to you and how do you employ it (or ignore it) in your work?

RM: The idea of obsolescence is at the core of much of my work. Working in Fibers, which is typically characterized as a craft medium, I am often confronted with the roll of function in my art, and the idea of obsolescence in regards to function seems very direct. What happens when things lose function or are made disregarding function? Does it expedite the process of becoming obsolete? Can new functions emerge out of obsolescence?

OPP: I’m gonna turn that one around on you because I think, in your practice, the answer is clearly yes. What new functions can emerge out of obsolescence? Both in general in our contemporary world and specifically in your practice?

RM: In my practice specifically I think the new function is related to identifying cultural belief structures and developing a visual understanding of why our contemporary culture is obsessed with Apocalyptic or Post-Apocalyptic narratives. The work is a sign post for discovering what we already know but aren't critical of, i.e. our impending endings. So the work is symbolic in function.

I see more specific functions emerging out of technological obsolescence in up-cycling, recycling, and a focus on sustainable systems. This is generally the conversation most people want to have around my work, taking broken and old things and recycling them as art.

Untitled Mask, 2013. Electronic components, VHS tapes, ethernet cable, electrical wire, 4-harness twill weave, crochet, macramé, needle weaving; 8’ x 8’ x 5’

OPP: Many works reference shrines, rituals and monuments. In your project statement for More Something from Nothing (2014), you state: "The line between art and spirituality in contemporary art is an often tenuous one. Spiritual Art or art about religion is generally characterized as either polemic or naive. In other words, it is didactically critical or unabashedly uncritical. I often wonder if art and spirituality can be sincerely and critically united." Have you discovered any answers since then?

RM: I’ve read some of James Elkins’ writing on this topic and that statement is speaking directly to what you’ve said. My interest stems from a Psychology of Death class I took at SAIC taught by Tim O’Donnell. In that class we discussed the ways in which humans have coped with the idea of their demise. There are common strategies people use: believing in life after death, i.e. religion; returning to nature; living on and transcending through Art; and living to create a legacy for the next generation. This has affected the way I approach my art making.

I’m an atheist making work about spirituality that is neither uncritical nor critical of religion. I am simply looking at the creative capacity of humans to develop belief structures and noticing the similarities of modernism and religion. Minimalism is often seen as the purest form of modernist principles, and I think there are some very clear parallels between Greenbergian theory and religious Fundamentalism.

Monument to Repetition, 2015

OPP: I 100% agree. I’m curious and interested in how Greenberg experiences midcentury abstraction and minimalism. I appreciate his first-person experience. It even fits with some of my own art-viewing experiences. The problem enters when he turns that personal experience of art into Dogma, i.e. defining “good” art as only the kind that fits his experience and his unexamined bias. So why do you think the opinion of this one man held so much weight and had such a deep and long-lasting effect on how we evaluate “good” art?

RM: Timing mostly, his philosophy was coming in at the end of modernism in a way- as art was boiling down further and further to be about itself and reduced to its essential elements, it’s no surprise that postmodernism emerged. Thus the generations of people who had devoted a life time of practice and study to modernism held on for dear life to the hard-edged box of Greenberg's ideas. Also the visual language had a lineage of 30+ years, so the historian could confidently talk about it, and humans, being the way they are, are happy if they can assuredly have something concrete to say and feel "right" about it.

OPP: Tell us about Nothing from Something, your new series “influenced by minimal and post-minimal art from the 60s-70s.” How is this influence showing up in your formal decisions?

RM: In moving to Virginia, I wanted to develop a series of pieces I could send to exhibits across the country. My starting point was looking to my art heroes: Robert Morris, Claire Zeisler, Sheila Hicks, Marina Abakanowicz and Eva Hesse. I was hoping there is an understood reference to “Making Something from Nothing” by Lucy Lippard. The sound components to these pieces reference the condition of feminism in our current culture and the confusion around what feminism means, noting the continued importance of the original text and relevance to Fiber Art education.

Paradoxical Acousmetres, 2016. Installation.

OPP: Tell us about your recent show Paradoxical Acousmetre.

RM: Paradoxical Acousmetres, as defined by Michel Chion, signifies “those deprived of some powers that are usually accorded to the acousmetre.” The Acousmetre is “the very voice of what is called the primary identification with the camera.” In cinema it is the omnipresent acousmatic voice of the narrator. Therefore, the Paradoxical Acousmetre is a narrator-creator identity, which is uninformed of the divergent path the “visual narrative” has taken from their “spoken narrative.”

In a sense it’s a continued investigation into failure and was part of the Spring Solo Series at the Arlington Art Center. I was interested in finding areas around the Center to do street performance/installations, which are linked to various laser cut Felt pieces housed in the gallery with an immersive sound installation. 

To see more work, please visit robertmertensartist.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Stacia created site-responsive installations for two-person show Form Unbound (2015) at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and SENTIENCE (2016) at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Her work was recently included in SHOWROOM, curated by Edra Soto, at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. Stacia is currently preparing for a two-person show titled  Resist the Urge to Press Forward with Brent Fogt at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) and Sacred Secular, a solo show at Indianapolis Arts Center in Indiana.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Cara Lynch

Inheritance: In Memory of American Glass, 2016, Ditmas Avenue stop, F subway line, Brooklyn

Inspired by craft objects and folk art, CARA LYNCH is staunchly opposed to aesthetic elitism. She embraces surface embellishment and pattern in sculpture, print and public works. She taps into the devotional power of heavily-encrusted talismans, while celebrating the visual pleasure of rhinestones, feathers, beads and glitter. In 2012, Cara earned her BFA in Studio Art with a Minor Art History at Adelphi University (Garden City, New York). Since then, she has studied Printmaking at Columbia University, Papermaking at the Women's Studio Workshop in Rosendale, New York and Advanced Sculpture at Hunter College. Cara recently closed her solo show Love Tokens and Talismans, supported by Queens Arts Council Grant, at Local Project (Long Island City, Queens). In spring 2016, she installed her first permanent, public work for the NYC Metropolitan Transit Authority at Ditmas Avenue stop of F subway line in Brooklyn. Cara lives in New York, New York.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell us about your research into the “sailor’s valentines, mourning jewelry, memoryware, kitschy trinkets, and historical amulets or talismans” that informed your recent body of work called Love Tokens and Talismans.

Cara Lynch: I have an interest in those things that are not traditionally included in the fine art world: craft objects and processes and folk art. I am interested in why we make things and the purposes and power of these objects. I see the embrace of these traditional crafts as a political statement when included in a fine art context or conceptualized in this way.
 
While my research for this particular body of work initially began viewing images online, I also spent time at the New York Public Library looking through books of reliquaries and walking through the Met looking at various ceremonial and talismanic objects. I spent time at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, pouring over their incredible collection of books on mourning jewelry and love tokens. Many of the forms I created are directly influenced by these objects, but my main interest is in the traditions and functions of these objects: to memorialize experiences, express devotion or provide protection or good luck.

You're Tacky & I Hate You, 2016. Cast hydrocal, rhinestones, feathers, paint, wood, hardware. 12.5 x 15 x 3 inches

OPP: How do these influence manifest in your sculptures? What are you loving, mourning, remembering or warding off in this work?

CL: I grew up very Catholic, and I am very interested in how objects become symbolic or get their power. For Catholics, the Eucharist, rosaries and other sacred objects are given their power by the beliefs of the faithful. In some other religions, this is not the case; the power becomes inherent in the object itself. As artists, we are granted a certain power through our making of objects. In many ways, making becomes our faith.

The sculptures are very much about my own experience, mourning the passage of time and struggling with the reality that we can’t always attain our desires, whether for physical objects or for abstract experiences, like equality or affirmation or holding on to the present. The pieces combine casts replicating a number of objects I’ve saved from my childhood or collected from trim stores along my walk to work through the garment district in New York. I am memorializing my own experience through these pieces, as well as empowering the “non-elite” in some way.

There is tension expressed in these objects: between high and low, art and craft, class and taste, sentiment and spectacle. By embracing the decorative and the domestic—newer pieces sometimes include casts from copper cake pans—I hope to grant power to myself and to all women. By embracing “low,” craft materials, and elevating them in some way, I am making a political statement for the working class and challenging “high art” and academic aversions to the decorative. By creating beautiful objects, I make my fantasies attainable in some sense.

Fetter Better, 2016. Detail. Cast hydrocal, found ornament, chain, glitter, paint, iridescent pigment, wood, hardware. 10 x 20 x 5 inches

OPP: Your talismans are cast hydrocal, embellished with automotive paint, spray paint, glitter, faux pearls, rhinestones, chains, and tassels. It’s visually hard to separate the solid, cast object from it’s surface embellishment. Can you talk about these two distinct parts of the process: casting a solid substrate versus embellishing it?

CL: I am very interested in embellishment and the decorative. I think this stems from my interest in both thinking about desire and devotional objects. The solid cast objects are kind of funny, because they really are embellishments themselves, made more concrete and solid through a transformation of material. Embellishing the transformed embellishment seemed to be really aggressively decorative or feminine—a little like overkill and kind of funny to me.

Casts are also reminiscent of memories. They are a replication, an attempt to reproduce. The embellishment allows me to put this sentiment in tension with other interests. I am able to temper the feminine quality with a little bit of masculinity, for example, through the application of automotive paint.

Sex and the City, 2014. Archival handmade paper (pulp painting). 20 x 30 inches

OPP: Your pulp paintings appear to be speaking the same language as painting, drawing or print, but these designs are actually part of the substrate, not added to the substrate. Can you briefly explain the process for those not in the know about paper-making techniques?

CL: Paper-making is a really amazing process. Plant based fibers are beaten into a wet pulp, then suspended in water and caught on a screen to form a sheet. Pulp can also be pigmented and “painted” with. Essentially, you are creating an image with a very physical material itself in various colors, rather than with paint, ink or pencil. It has a temperament of its own.

To create the colors and patterns in this series, I pigmented the actual pulp in separate batches. The various hues of pulp were stenciled and layered onto wet sheets of freshly pulled paper, building up in some areas more than others. After working on a wet piece for some time, It would be pressed, combining layers of material into one flat sheet. In this way, the patterns are part of the actual paper, not applied to the surface.

Pennants for the Working Class, 2016. Screenprint on felt flags, brass grommets, craft materials. Variable, each measuring 10 x 16 inches

OPP: In Pennants for the Working Class (2016), you’ve transplanted the “patterns derived from American household glass objects, including depression glass, carnival glass, and early American pressed glass,” from utilitarian, three-dimensional objects onto the flat surface of the flag, which has a more symbolic function. Can you talk about the functions of pattern in general and how you use it in your work?

CL: Pattern can draw attention to an object, create a tensions between surface and object, or refer to something beyond itself. In my work, pattern often symbolizes something beyond my initial interest in surface and decoration. In many works, I am referring to histories behind the patterns. In this case specifically, I see the patterns from these glass objects as symbols of the American dream. These patterns were found on glass objects that were highly affordable, widely available and also really beautiful. This is in contrast to their predecessor, cut crystal, which was only available to the wealthy. For this piece in general, I was really thinking of the pennant flag as a symbol of prestige and pride, borrowed from the vernacular of yacht clubs and ivy-league universities.

Pretty Bomb, 2016. Lithograph. 22 x 15 inches

OPP: Earlier, you mentioned “academic aversions to the decorative.” Why do you think this aversion exists? Have you noticed a sea change in the last 5 years?

CL: I think this academic aversion to decoration and beauty is tied to a classist and sexist system. Higher education in the arts was sought partially to professionalize art making. The way artists did this was to become very "serious" about their work, substantiating it with theory and criticism. View points other than the dominant, historically-male—rooted in theory, science, knowledge—were left out of the picture. As Duchamp said, "artistic delectation is the danger to be avoided." This kind of thinking was perpetuated through the discourse, banishing beauty (and consequently, a slew of other things) from the presiding conversation. To some extent, beauty itself is a social construct, defined by social class, taste, gender, and a number of other factors. But this is all really interesting! I feel like we should be embracing it, instead of shutting it out. 

I have noticed a change in the last few years. The Pattern and Decoration Movement artists really began this years ago. I think a number of artists are really embracing and playing with decoration and beauty today. I immediately think of people like Polly Apfelbaum, Jim Hodges, Grayson Perry, and younger artists like Jen Stark and Evie Falci. The embrace of contemporary art by the mainstream I think, in part, has encouraged this. 

However, I think some very highbrow academic circles continue to resist decoration and beauty. This may be because they have the most invested in the dominant discourse. . . Beauty isn't serious enough for them.

To see more of Cara's work, please visit www.caralynchart.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Stacia created site-responsive installations for two-person show Form Unbound (2015) at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and SENTIENCE (2016) at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Her work was recently included in SHOWROOM, curated by Edra Soto, at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. Stacia is currently preparing for a two-person show titled Resist the Urge to Press Forward with Brent Fogt at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) and Sacred Secular, a solo show at Indianapolis Arts Center in Indiana.

Artists Answer: Whether you have one or not, in your experience, what is the value of an MFA?

We've invited former Featured Artists to answer a series of questions about being an artist and to highlight a new work made since the time of their interviews. Some questions are practical; some are philosophical. These compilations will be interspersed with new Featured Artist interviews every month and will include links back to older interviews. And don't forget to sign up for the monthly blog digest if you prefer to get all your Featured Artist action in your inbox once a month.

Sara Holwerda | Read the Interview

Chair Dance (Adagio) at RP13 from Sara Holwerda on Vimeo.

Chair Dance (Adagio) at Rapid Pulse '13, 2013. Performance. Viola accompaniment by Johanna Weisbrock

As an artist living in Chicago that did not go to graduate school in Chicago, I feel that the value of an MFA, at least in the city, is directly linked to the art community that it was obtained in. There are many artists who have developed a strong community here out of local MFA programs, and as a result it is often difficult as an "outsider" to have the same access to opportunities as someone who got their MFA from a local program. I have had great experiences with several local performance and video venues, and have found that this subset of the local artistic community very warm and welcoming. In a bigger city with a deluge of MFA's, maybe it becomes more about finding your niche and making a few great connections within that.

Coy Gu | Read the Interview

Just Not With A White Girl, 2016. Oil, acrylic, charcoal on bristol board, half smoked joint, silicone, Wonder Bread plastic bag on canvas. 30 x 35 inches

In practical terms, an MFA allows for teaching, which is the most stable form of income for an artist. If that MFA is a name brand one, it'll open doors and provide access you otherwise wouldn't be privy to. Of course, one will meet a network of artists through an MFA program and learn new things from professors and peers. However, one could join an artist community and/or studio building and experience similar things.

Anna Jensen | Read the Interview

Was A Supply; Now A Return, 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 16"x12"

I dropped out of college six times. There is something about the smell of an institution that is very inspiring at first and then ultimately sends me into a panic of feeling trapped.  It’s not that I lack discipline or the respect of learning from those with more experience.  I’m sure art school benefits many people when it comes to learning technique and making future professional connections among other things. But, I think self-motivation and  development via the school of hard knocks are just as key.  Also for me it felt like a waste of time to pack up all my supplies and strap a 5ft x 6ft painting to the top of my car several times a week just to go in and discuss my work with bored, unfocused kids who brought in their projects on sheets of notebook paper.  Not that they were ALL that way, but I was in my twenties and the other students were fresh out of high school. I had a gut instinct that I knew what I wanted to do and could do it without a traditional school environment.  So I ended up using my public library card a lot!  And I'm proud of the career I've had on my own terms.

Jacinda Russell | Read the Interview

Room 107, Boise State University, 2015. Archival Inkjet Print. 20" x 30"

Obtaining an MFA was a life-changing event in my career. I did not attend graduate school with the intention of teaching. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my relatives who had acquired a terminal degree, and it was an important goal in my early twenties to achieve the highest level of education in my field. Its worth is greatly contested today due to the debt that many students accumulate. I fully realize that my circumstances may not be warrant the price that many people pay now, but I would not have exchanged the experience for anything. I learned how to speak about my work and how to research and defend every aesthetic and conceptual decision. These are skills I use daily as a professor of art and lecturing artist. My peers at the University of Arizona—twenty years later—continue to be the ones that I turn to for advice. I took advantage of every opportunity with visiting artists and scholars (as a research assistant to A.D. Coleman in the archives at the Center for Creative Photography and as a studio assistant to both Barbara Kasten and Judith Golden). I have never found a comparable community in the art world since graduate school. It is also providing background for many of the stories that I photograph for my current series tentatively named Art Department. I would not hesitate to say to the MFA is a gift that keeps on giving.

Megan Stroech | Read the Interview

Catch and Release, 2016. Digital print. 24 x 36 inches

For me, getting an MFA was integral to my further development as an artist and gave me the confidence and motivation to continue pursuing my work. It really forced me out of my comfort zone in terms of making the work and most of all talking and writing about the work which becomes incredibly important in the evolution and progression of the work. I attended a smaller state school with a program that came with a tuition waiver, modest stipend and allowed for us to gain a good amount of teaching experience over the course of three years. However, MFAs from those very notable institutions often come with an incredible amount of debt that is seemingly impossible to ever pay off especially in the beginning stages of an art career. Because those programs do have so much stature and clout, they have the power to propel some artists to the next level of their career path, and can often seem like the most lucrative option even with shouldering all of that debt. In many ways I'm grateful for the path I chose, and feel that more emphasis should be placed on the actual work that artists are making versus their pedigree.

Travis Townsend | Read the Interview

Painted Boatstack, 2016. Wood and mixed media.

I don’t think that an artist with a degree is automatically a better artist than someone without a degree.   And I find it frustrating that the MFA degree is considered “expected”.  With that said, I do have an MFA, and my experience was quite positive.  I feel confident that I would have found a way to be an artist without the MFA, but in my two years of graduate school I progressed quickly, learned lots of theory, looked at and considered a wide range of challenging work, and expanded my circle of artist friends.   And met my wife!
 
However, there are some crappy MFA programs out there that don’t seem to do much for their students. And some that are far too expensive. Crippling debt is no way to begin your career!  Young artists should not be convinced that the MFA degree is some sort of golden ticket to artistic success. 

Molly Springfield | Read the Interview

Chapter IX, pages 246-247, 2015. graphite on paper. 16.5 x 25.5 inches

I have an MFA and I can't imagine being where I am now without one. The graduate programs I attended (I also have a post-bacc certificate) gave me the time, space, and resources to become a professional artist. And, most importantly, a cohort of artist friends who know and understand my trajectory as an artist in a way no one else can.

I don't think you can talk about the value of an MFA program without talking about how much they cost. My advice for anyone thinking about applying to MFA programs: Go to the best program you can get into that costs you the least amount of money. Like anything else in life, what you get out of something is determined by what you put in. Getting an MFA from a trendy, highly-ranked, expensive program isn't a guarantee of art-world success. But, unless you have a full-fellowship, it is a guarantee of burdensome student loan debt.

In my experience working with MFA students, I've come across people who probably should have waited before starting their program. They aren't used to working independently. They haven't had the life experiences that fuel productive art-making. So they spend too much of their time catching-up rather than moving their practice forward. Don't be in a rush. The experiences and opportunities of your MFA program will be all the more valuable if you're prepared to take full-advantage of them.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Zach Whitehurst

untitled (s15.5), 2015. Ink, Watercolor and Pencil on Paper. 16" x 12"

ZACH WHITEHURST's process-driven practice results in meticulous, textured and patterned drawings. In a often-monochrome palette, he both fills the void of the page and uses negative space in decisive ways. The resulting images evoke aerial views of landforms, bodies of water and cities, as well as collections of rocks or unnameable found artifacts. Zach completed his BFA, Magna Cum Laude (2003), and his Post Baccalaureate Study (2006) at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He went on to earn his MFA in 2008 from Tyler School of Art, Temple University in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. In early 2016, Zach's solo show Dissecting Pattern opened at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery and he recently gave an artist talk at the Brooklyn Art Library. Zach lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Repetitive mark-making is the foundation of your practice. What does repetition mean to you outside of your studio? Where do you encounter it? How do you experience it?

Zach Whitehurst: In the studio my obsession with repetition is more complicated, but outside of the studio, repetition for me is mostly about patterns. There has always been something appealing and comforting to me about pattern. I see it everywhere. In architecture, nature, books, music, numbers, everywhere; the way bodega owners stack fruit outside their stores, subway tiles, the bark on a tree, bar codes, textiles. . . the list is endless. And pattern, for me, is not limited to a same shape or theme being repeated over and over. Sometimes my favorite patterns are the ones which form from a lack repetition.

Pattern and repetition are things that I have always been draw to. I think that I have a bit of an obsessive/compulsive nature and for me there is something meditative and therapeutic about pattern and repetition, especially in terms of routine and organization.

untitled (s16.2), 2016. Ink on Paper. 14" x 17"

OPP: Tell us about the recent introduction of color into what has previously been a distinctly black and white oeuvre.

ZW: For a long time I didn't want to introduce color into my work because I didn't want to take away from the process and pattern. The patterns I was using were, at times, so complex that they needed a minimal plane (white paper) on which to be presented and a minimal tool (black ink) with which to be made. Those drawings were all about process and pattern and often the larger organic shapes—as in the Repetitive Series—which formed as a result. When I was making those pieces, I was very drawn to the simple act of mark making. I would take a pen and paper and let the drawing come out of the process.

More recently, my work has evolved and has become, at times, more experimental. The process I use to make most of my work is, while minimalistic, also very time consuming. The larger pieces can often take so much time in the studio that I don't have any time to work on new ideas. As a way to experiment with new ideas, media and with color, for a year, I did a small 5”x7" drawing everyday. These were involved enough for me to flush out new processes and ideas but small enough to almost be “sketches.” This allowed me to maintain my studio practice and experiment at the same time. A lot of the new work that I have been making has come out of that experimentation. I have started to introduce color, but cautiously and purposefully. The process is still as important to me as the final piece and I am hesitant to have any of my drawings become too heavily imbued by color.

untitled(rs7), 2012. Ink on Paper. Detail

OPP: What’s your favorite mark-making tool and why?

ZW: I have tried, used and  continue to use many different tools in the studio. But the one that I can't live without, the one that I use everyday, is the Sakura Pigma Micron pen. Size 01 (.25mm) is probably the size that I use most often. For me, it's about the consistency of the line, the durability of the tip, and the quality of the ink. I've been using them for years and they have always performed well. Often I am working with a repetitive pattern that is very detailed and which involves tiny shapes. The Micron gives me the ability to work consistently on a small scale without the lines bleeding into one another.

untitled(rs11), 2012. Ink on Paper. 24" x 19"

OPP: I interpret your drawings as partly about a compulsion to fill space. . . what do you think? And can you talk about the moments you choose not to fill the space of the page, as in the Repetitive Series?

ZW: I don't know that I would say that they are "about" a compulsion to fill space, but I would agree that I often do have a compulsion to fill the space (depending on the series or piece) - and I think that this can come through in the work. In the Repetitive Series, I was working on a creating an organic process for myself to not fill the entire space and the series grew from there. What is exciting for me about that series is the negative space, especially when it is very tight. I like the energy and excitement that comes out of keeping the shapes just far enough apart to leave some space between them. At times in the series, I took that process to its extreme by leaving barely any negative space on the page at all. I have some forthcoming work which highlights the discomfort of leaving a piece "unfinished" or a space not "completely" filled.

untitled (gs12), 2014. ink on paper. 19" x 24"

OPP: Your Repetitive Series evokes aerial views of landforms and cities as well as drawn maps, whereas the Grid Series make me think of geology, rock collecting and the cataloging of found artifacts. Both of these are about observing the world, documenting it and trying to make sense of it. Thoughts?

ZW: I would agree that those elements exist and that the drawings from those series can be interpreted in those ways. And I have heard many people describe other things that they see or feel that are different from these. I can see elements of numerous ideas and themes in my work—most of which are entirely the result of the subconscious.

I have a very active "daydreaming" part of my brain that runs on autopilot most all of the time. It's sort of lives between the conscious and subconscious. It feeds from a constant stream of information gathered through conscious observation and study. When I'm working, it's running in the background, processing the information and informing/influencing the subconscious. The larger themes or concepts that come through in finished pieces result greatly from this cycle; starting with conscious thought, filtering through the middle layer and ending up in the subconscious. 

Almost all of my work is process driven. In the Repetitive Series, the overall shapes of the drawings are completely organic and resulted from a desire not to fill the entire page with pattern. Within each of these larger drawings are little "moments" that I found more aesthetically pleasing or exciting than others. I wanted a way to highlight those. That led to the Grid Series, which started a just a way to capture these exciting "moments" and give them a space to inhabit all on their own.

untitled (s14.9), 2014. Ink, Watercolor and Gouache on Paper. 20" x 16"

OPP: What’s different in your New Drawings?

ZW: The New Drawings are much the same in the sense that they are mostly process-driven works. Many of the different directions that I have gone with the newer work are a result of explorations from the year of small drawings that I did. Rather than create work out of research and concept and use process more as a means to the end, I let the process drive my work. Often I notice themes subconsciously seep into in finished work that relate to different aspects of research that I've done, or different ideas or concepts that I am interested in, but I hardly ever start from from that side of the fence. I am constantly trying to figure out how things are made or put together and am always interested in the processes behind the "product" and this is the same approach I take in the studio.

To see more of Zach's work, please visit zachwhitehurst.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Stacia created site-responsive installations for two-person show Form Unbound (2015) at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and SENTIENCE (2016) at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Her work was recently included in SHOWROOM, curated by Edra Soto, at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. Stacia is currently preparing for a two-person show titled Resist the Urge to Press Forward, with Brent Fogt at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) and Sacred Secular, a solo show at Indianapolis Arts Center in Indiana.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Lara Odell

Illustration for a story in the New York Times Sunday Review about having to say goodbye to something you love, even when it's a very old Saturn. Gouache and cut paper. 2016.

Painter, illustrator and graphic artist LARA ODELL uses gouache and cut paper to create emotionally-evocative works, whose power extends beyond their commercial origins. She enlists the challenges of cut-paper—the difficulty of precision and the moveability of the parts—to underscore the alienation, anxiety and loss represented in the images. Lara has art degrees from UC Irvine, SUNY Buffalo and Alfred University. Her illustration credits include The New York Times Magazine and The Rumpus. In summer 2016, her drawings were included in a Perimeter, an online journal published annually. Her work was recently included in the group exhibition UNPACKED at the PACKARD in Long Beach, California. The show will run until December 3rd, 2016. You can follow Lara's cartoons at laraodell.blogspot.com. Lara lives and works in Long Beach, California.

OtherPeoplesPixels: When did you first start working with paper cut-outs? What does this medium offer that drawing and painting alone do not? 

Lara Odell: I started working with paper cut-outs about four years ago. A cut-out has an unanticipated element that the immediacy of painting or drawing doesn’t. Since I’m working on all the elements separately, I won’t really know what they look like together until I compose them into a singular image, set it on the copy-stand, light it, and view it through the lens of my camera and then on my computer. On the other hand, my process involves a lot of drawing and painting, so it is difficult, finally, to separate what one offers that another does not. I’d say that the cut-outs are both drawings and paintings as well as expansions upon those practices: instead of drawing a line, I’m cutting a line with scissors, delineating and altering shapes as I go. Also, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the cut-outs are sculptural, but they are works in relief, so there is another level of illusion or artifice going on – are the shadows real or painted? And because all of the component pieces exist independently of each other, there is an active improvisation when creating the compositions of moving and removing, placing and replacing, and so concepts of impermanence (or at least a defiance of certainty or finality) come to mind. It is important to me that the execution and materials reflect the content.

One of two illustrations for The New York Times Magazine, about the increasing loss of government jobs and how it's affecting mainly African-Americans. Gouache and cut paper, 2016.

OPP: Many of your cut-outs are illustrations for articles. For example, one illustration for The New York Times Magazine supported an article about how the increasing loss of government jobs is affecting mainly African-Americans. Another, for the Dove Self-Esteem Project, illustrated how a girl's first love influences her self-esteem. Many others are illustrations of stories and essays for The Rumpus. But viewed on your website, they are coherent as a body of work exploring a sense of emotional precariousness. I see loneliness, anxiety, and alienation. Are you intentionally picking illustration gigs that feed your own interests?

LO: Thank you for noticing that. I think that, yes, those themes tend to be a driving force and are central to all of my work, no matter the assignment. I’m not sure if this is an asset or not. I’m a relative newcomer to the illustration world, and I am not at the point where I have the privilege of selecting illustration jobs that align with my own interests. I typically say yes to what is offered. However, I think that to be a skilled and sensitive art director is to intentionally seek out an artist who is likely to sympathize and engage with the content on a familiar, intimate level. Maybe I’ve been fortunate in that many of the assignments I’ve received have resonated with particular preferences I have, but maybe that is true for most illustrators, in that they’ll be selected for certain jobs because they may already seem to have a sympathy for the content in mind.

Based on the essay "I Did Not Vanish: On Writing" about finding a way to speak through writing. 2013. Gouache and cut paper. 9" x 13"

OPP: Do you ever exhibit these works in galleries outside of their original context?

LO: Yes, I like showing the work because of the opportunity to see how the pieces relate as a cohesive body of work. Its also important to me to show them in a real-life setting in order to expose the hand-made features: the tactility, imperfections, detail, and nuance of color that gets lost on a computer screen or printed page. I've recently participated in three shows in Long Beach, California, where I live. Last fall, I exhibited the original cut-outs at the Long Beach Library, and this summer I exhibited prints of the cut-outs at a local diner. The cut-outs are currently part of a group exhibition organized by the Arts Council for Long Beach of this year’s Professional Artist Fellows at the old Packard Building in downtown Long Beach.

Cartoon, 2016.

OPP: A practical question for aspiring illustrators out there: how do you get clients?

LO: Here are a three things that may have helped me find clients: 1) Directly emailing art directors of publications I’d like to work for; 2) Submitting my portfolio to art / design / illustration blogs that attract a large number of viewers, like It’s Nice That; 3) Submitting work to competitive illustration annuals like American Illustration (these cost money which is depressing). Honestly, I am still wondering myself. It seems to take a relentless perseverance of continually reaching out and introducing yourself and then constantly reminding people you exist.

Broken Hearse and Tree, 2016. Gouache and cut paper

OPP: Tell us about all the mechanical vehicles—hearses, police cars, airplanes—that fall apart in your hands.

LO: I try to be aware of objects or situations that I think would lend themselves to the process and effects of a cut-out. The airplane was one of the first cut-outs I made. The shape of the airplane is also cut out of the sky (background), as if the sky was not atmospheric, but a flat plane (ha) with maybe nothing behind it. For me, that registered a feeling of existential terror. The windows of the plane are not windows, but flat elliptical shapes that for me double as passengers, floating off into space.
 
With the vintage police car, I was attracted to the simplicity of form and color. The cut-out version almost resembles a toy car or a still from a children’s animation. The piece made me a little sad . . . like when you think something is real, and then it is not. If the police car represents a kind of authority, to have it break apart calls to mind the fragility of authority, the tenuous (in)ability to trust authority, and the failures of authority . . . and with these apprehensions come fear, disillusionment, uncertainty.
 
Whereas both the airplane and the police car were based on found photographs, the hearse was modeled on a photograph I took. It wasn’t obvious to me at the time, but I began working on the hearse when my mom was in the process of dying. I know that sounds literal, but at the time, I had almost continuous thoughts of death and dying so I guess it makes sense. The breaking-apart hearse / the destruction of the hearse / the exploding hearse: it felt like an angry, violent act. It was a gesture of defiance, which is ironic and misguided, but there nonetheless.
 
I could say that the vehicles are stand-ins for things and people from our everyday lives that transport us—sometimes as reluctant passengers.

To see more of Lara's work, please visit laraodell.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Stacia created site-responsive installations for two-person show Form Unbound (2015) at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and SENTIENCE (2016) at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Her work was recently included in SHOWROOM, curated by Edra Soto, at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. Stacia is currently preparing for a two-person show titled Resist the Urge to Press Forward with Brent Fogt at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) and Sacred Secular, a solo show at Indianapolis Arts Center in Indiana.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Ryan B. Richey

Lawn Job

RYAN B. RICHEY paints humorously poignant vignettes that exude a humble awe of the everyday. His signature close-cropped compositions suggest an intimate point of view, one so close, in fact, that we can't always recognize what's in front of us. Ryan received a BFA and MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has published written work in online literary journals including independent presses Beard of Bees and Spork. Selected solo exhibitions include Everyday Romances (2016) at Illinois Wesleyan University, Ghostbuster (2015) at Loyola University, and Gathering Smoke (2010) at the now-defunct Rowley Kennerk Gallery. His work has also been featured in numerous group exhibitions, including the recent Chicago and Vicinity at Shane Campbell Gallery. Ryan’s work will be included in an upcoming group show—also features the work of Mel Cook, Em Kettner, Celeste Rapone, Allison Reimus—at Roots & Culture in Chicago. Close to Me opens on January 27, 2017. Ryan lives and works in San Francisco.

OtherPeoplesPixels: What’s the underlying thread that ties all your paintings together, whether style, content or process?

Ryan B. Richey: The paintings I make come from a combination of stories from my past and daily ruminations. A while ago, I started writing down everything I could remember throughout my life and what my relatives told me about their lives. I continually add to these writings as the present becomes past, and experiences begin to take shape. The writings serve as a reference when I begin imagining a new painting. I often think about how I internalize the world around me. I consume individual and collective experiences, personal outlooks and political views everyday. I think about how they relate to the past, future and to everyone on a micro and macro level. Every painting I create is tied to this narrative.

Husky

OPP: Your titles ground your imagery by adding an emotional tone, which I would describe as humorously poignant. Is that an accurate description of the tone you want to evoke? Could you talk generally about pairing language with image for effect? Have your strategies for titling changed at all over the years?

RBR: I really like those two words to describe my work, “humorously poignant.” The word and image pairings usually begin with the text. I go through a struggle between the image and words, oscillating between the too obvious or not obvious enough, too cheesy or sentimental. I relish in the challenge of taking on overdone ideas and making them my own.  The crux of the challenge is to have all of life captured. Things are funny and sad and weird, funny, beautiful, ugly and unknown. My goal is to uncover the vulnerability of living, and for me it’s also punctuated by a desperateness to belong. I want to communicate a universal truth to everybody, and be someone everybody can relate to. My paintings, narratives, and titles, are an extension of this yearning. 

The titles of my paintings have evolved. My older works had titles that included most of the text from which they came. Through the years, the titles have been consolidated to a sentence, a few words or only one.

Laundry Day

OPP: Can you talk about your use of the zoomed-in and cropped perspective in paintings like Misfit, Ether Arms, Laundry Day and Sad Song?

RBR: I like to have just enough visual information and text for the viewer to be able to figure it out. Zooming-in and cropping are a few of the tools I use to focus on my subjects. I also employ the perspective from how the viewer would see the image, which also determines the painting’s size. My paintings are intimate experiences for the viewer. There may be a vast sky, but the you can only see so much of it at one time. Most of what I focus on are small moments in life, like the sandwich you are bringing up to your mouth or a glimpse at the hand of a loved one.

L Couch, 2008. Fabric Charcoal Chairs on Paper

OPP: Back in grad school, you were working with fabric and charcoal to make portraits. I’m looking at works like L Couch, LOVE and Elvince, all from 2008. Now it appears you work exclusively in painting. Have you turned away from sculpture?

RBR: I don’t feel that I’ve turned away from sculpture altogether. I base my art medium on what makes the most sense in terms of delivering the message, understanding the context and working with the physical space of the show. Most recently my paintings have sculptural elements: underneath the oil paint is a surface of carved gesso, and carefully added textural elements.  

Most recently I have been working on a project that represents spending time with family. I have been making little pillows out of relative's clothes that I would like to like to display where the wall meets the floor all along a space. In 2014 I collaborated with the members of ADDS DONNA for Sunday Afternoons, a show that took place at SWDZ Gallery in Vienna, Austria. I drew each of the ADDS DONNA member’s facial portraits to pair with a piece of their clothing which created a three-dimensional portrait of each of the members.

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain was a show hosted at Pilsen Village in Thrift in 2010 that included Pea in My Bed, a piece I created in reference to the popular fairy tale The Princess and the Pea. The small pea disrupting the massively large, stacked mattresses is an analogy we can all relate to.

Over the Bridge

OPP: You were a Chicago-based artist for quite a long time and most of your exhibitions are there. But now you live in San Francisco. How has it been adjusting to a new art scene? What’s different in San Francisco?

RBR: This process of moving has inspired a number of new paintings too. Of course the weather is consistently pleasant, which leads to good painting conditions. But I miss being physically close to the Chicago art community. Before I left I helped with getting ADDS DONNA into their new space. It was a labor of love. Everyone, please support galleries like ADDS DONNA. They are vital to the art scene in Chicago.

I haven't been in the Bay Area that long, however, I have found some spaces that feel like home, Chicago. Kirk Stoller runs a space out of his dwelling, c2c project space, that connects artists from the coasts. Takeshi Moro has a gallery in his house, tmoro projects, which reminds me of The Franklin, Terrain, and The Suburban. He cooks the best food for his openings too! There is also Minnesota Street Projects that has a Mana Contemporary vibe. Jessica Silverman Gallery is my favorite blue chip space. There is a lot going on in Oakland. I like the Land and Sea gallery there.

Used Cars

OPP: Do you have a favorite painting that doesn’t get enough props in your opinion? Will you tell us the background story?

RBR: A painting that I really enjoy is Laundry Day. It sprang from the years I spent doing our laundry at Yo-Yo Coin Laundrymat in Chicago. This painting was about relationships to me. It highlights how two people can be mixed in each other’s lives and sharing the same experience. It also brings to surface the cycles we go through, as well as the routines.

A painting that has sentimental value to me is Used Cars. All of my cars have been used cars. As a teen I was driving home one night from my job as a dishwasher at Ponderosa Restaurant when my car broke down out in the country. The hood was up and the stars were reflecting in the windshield. It was sad, but beautiful. My mom came and towed me home using a quilt we connected to both cars, which became another painting.

To see more of Ryan's work, please visit ryanbrichey.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Stacia created site-responsive installations for two-person show Form Unbound (2015) at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and SENTIENCE (2016) at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Her work was recently included in SHOWROOM, curated by Edra Soto, at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. Stacia is currently preparing for Resist the Urge to Press Forward, a two-person show with Brent Fogt at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) and Sacred Secular, a solo show at Indianapolis Arts Center in Indiana.

Artists answer: What's the role of the artist in contemporary culture?

We've invited former Featured Artists to answer a series of questions about being an artist and to highlight a new work made since the time of their interviews. Some questions are practical; some are philosophical. These compilations will be interspersed with new Featured Artist interviews every month and will include links back to older interviews. And don't forget to sign up for the monthly blog digest if you prefer to get all your Featured Artist action in your inbox once a month.

Erin Washington | Read the Interview

Untitled (take care of yourself), 2016. Chalk, acrylic, gouache and found object on panel. 16" x 20"

I struggle to define this (although perhaps it is a justification in my mind). The days of teaching right after the American election results were a trial. How to define the role of the artist in contemporary culture when I myself am unsure how to justify making art right now? How to digest that conversation and regurgitate it for students in an appealing, easy-to-understand nugget?

My students guided me more than I was able to guide them. I am still not sure if this was coincidence, or a reaction to everything, but one student pursued sub-conscious drawings: he drew his stream-of-consciousness while blindfolded. We worked out a system where people would switch paper for him so that he did not look at the finished drawings. He stated that he did not want to see the drawings, did not want them to influence each-other. I wondered if there was also a desire to not have his id revealed to him. I've definitely accidentally made political drawings after the election, and have been shocked/embarrassed/frustrated that my id-anger is seeping into my most vulnerable drawing-practice. I also want to close my eyes to that.

In another class, I asked the students if they wanted to talk about what was happening, or if they would prefer to just make work, to take agency in one of the few environments that they have lots of control over. They chose the later. One student remarked, "now we need to work more than ever...times like these is when making art is important." I am slightly more cynical than that statement, but it was what we needed to hear, and I appreciate that she said it.

Gwenyth Anderson | Read the Interview

A2O, 2016. Snow melt, vessels, animation projection, audio

"Contemporary culture" is so vast… Art probably plays a different role depending on where in the world you are, and even then from person to person. In regards to the cultures I participate in or regularly encounter: I think art's role today is a collection of confused or uninformed rituals and tools. Abstract thinking, forming an experience for an audience, guiding material into a shape, creating moments out of sound, representing research with imagery. These are powerful vehicles for experiencing surface and stepping beyond it. But that stepping beyond is rare in the everyday. After I've left a gallery, or stopped listening to/watching something: it often becomes a memory or reference point, not embodied and lived in by us collectively. That’s why it feels confused.

So, I guess the role of the artist is to dip peoples’ toes into a pool of something profound, without fully understanding, or while people tell each other stories about what’s happening.

Molly Springfield | Read the interview

spun between the sun and, 2016. graphite on paper. 34 x 25.5 in (2 panels, 16.5 x 25.5 inches each)

I've been thinking about these questions within the context of our country's current political climate, which I find extremely disheartening. It seems like a large part of our population is completely uninterested in understanding the experiences and viewpoints of people who are different from them. I don't want to believe there is this much lack of empathy and moral imagination, but lately it's hard to feel otherwise. But I still believe in the ability of art to help bridge these gaps. I don't consider the work I make to be political. And I think it's very hard to make good, effective political art. But all art—of whatever form or discipline—helps us to inhabit other people's minds and other people's worlds, and in that way helps us be better humans.

Darren Jones | Read the Interview

#hell #wordsmyth #alphabeTART #TEXtart, 2016. Text photo, Dallas

I'd answer the question with another: DOES the artist DESERVE a role in contemporary culture?

Not automatically, not necessarily and in the majority of cases, no.
The work of most artists does not justify the presumption of a role in contemporary culture, because most artists do nothing to warn, evolve, highlight, critique, call-out, agitate, or connect to, contemporary culture, effectively. The recent election is an example of this failure. Being offered a position within the vanguard force at the spearhead of society is a privilege that must be earned. Few artists today, qualify.

Abdul Abdullah | Read the interview

Why can't I be angry, 2016. Velvet banner, embroidery and ceramics. 120cm x 120cm

The artist has many roles, but the role I am drawn to is that of the critical, indulgently subjective interpreter of the world around me. I sometimes feel I act in the role of a journalist who has an unashamedly flagrant disregard for the rules.

Snow Yunxue Fu | Read the Interview

Pool, 2016. Video Still 7

I believe artists are a special group of people who are blessed to see, hear, and feel a little more for their generation and time so that they have potentials to keep the society and humanity in check.

Bianca Kolonusz-Partee | Read the interview

Welcome to Ceylon, 2015. Recycled product packaging, colored pencils, map tacks & adhesives. 15"H X 43"W

Artists are invaluable for really investigating and revealing points of view that are not mainstream and for bucking the status quo. It’s important for me to use the visual language to pull the viewer in but expressing what I see as the pivotal issues of right now is key for me. People are becoming numb to realities of life with our digital world, to global issues and just connecting with their place. That is hard to compete with, but if I can get folks in front of my work I'd like to try.

Judith Levy | Read the interview

SHADOW, 2016. Video Still. See film trailer

The artist tries to make sense of the complex world in which we live and to understand how we came to be the way we are. We make art, because we want to communicate these ideas to others. Artists are commentators, meaning-makers, and troubadours of change. Artists create art to answer questions that may not have answers but need to be asked. We make art to share our questions and reveal our attempts to answer them, even when we are filled with self-doubt. Artists take the kinds of risks that require integrity, self-examination, courage, intelligence and some tomfoolery. The art we make shows, in a new way, something important that we believe has universal application and necessity, and we seek innovative ways to reach our audience. Artists tackle contemporary dilemmas almost always without cynicism, since the making of art demonstrates that it is worthwhile to connect, create dialogue, ask for engagement and seek revelation.

Rebecca Potts | Read the interview

The Magician's Assistant is Actually in Charge, 2016

Interpreter, perhaps an inventor of a third language in which two other languages can both communicate.
Interloper, a thief stealing in and out of other worlds bringing back whispers for those who care to listen.
Investigator of rules, of properties of matter, of form, of light, of cultures, of secrets.
Identifier of undervalued or untold stories/systems/forms, of the future.
Iconographer, a coder or decoder.
Illustrator of our time, our place, or our lack of placement in it.
Informant, always a risky position to hold, but a necessary one in which to keep momentum.
Inker, one who is bound to the marks made, unlike the slipperiness of the spoken word.
Investment, to some, unfortunately not all for the right reasons.
Interior Decorator, see above.

Caroline Carlsmith | Read the interview

Jericho Labyrinths, 2016. Ink on paper

The role of the artist is to contribute to a conversation that has been taking place for longer than we can collectively trace. Like any conversation, the caliber of a statement might be subject to criteria like relevance, interest, style, and whether it might lead to new insights and discussions. An artist might choose to make any kind of statement, whether of good quality or poor. Their role is that of speaker. But any good speaker is usually a good listener as well.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews P. Roch Smith

curley Q, 2016. 4 ½” (l) x 38” (w) x 5” (h). bronze

Toys are the foundation of P. ROCH SMITH's bronze sculptures and installations. Mass-produced, plastic toy soldiers have lost their useful appendages; their weapons, arms and legs have been replaced with dramatically larger branches, compromising their balance and their purpose. Skateboarders perch precariously on the edges of Legos, on the backs of galloping horses, and on more Legos balanced on unstable constructions of tinker toys. Still more figurines push bronze balls uphill, lift houses at their foundations and carry Legos like lumber. Roch unifies the disparate toys in bronze, mini monuments that celebrate their hard work, conflate work and play and question cultural expectations of masculinity. Roch earned his BFA from Emily Carr University of Art and Design (Vancouver, British Columbia) and his MFA from York University (Toronto, Ontario). His numerous solo exhibitions include three recent shows in Toronoto: play–replay (2013) at Earl Selkirk Gallery, equilibration (2015) and fields of play (2016), both at loop Gallery. Roch lives and works in Toronto, and you can follow his work-in-progress on Instagram @rochsmith.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell us about your favorite toy as a kid?

P. Roch Smith: My favorite toy was my GI Joe Air Adventurer. My two older brothers and I each got a different model one summer in the 1970s when we were in Charlottetown on holidays. It was the version with the “lifelike hair” and “Kung-Fu grip” and came with an orange flight suit. We created so many scenarios with those figures. We were always saving up money to buy new uniform kits and accessories like a Jeep and hang glider. When I was at art school in Vancouver, I started to use my GI Joe in photographs and sculptures and he became a way to speak about play, masculinity and memory. As a kid, I can remember asking my mum how to sew because I needed to fix a tear in his flight suit. The hackneyed black stitching is still there after all these years.

I think it was probably the start of my interest in the tactile—the real. Instead of representations of reality, I had the capacity to manipulate artifacts and create scaled down landscapes or playscapes. I wasn’t very graphically-minded as a kid. I didn’t (and still don’t) do a lot of drawing. But the idea of manipulating objects in real time and space was pretty liberating. 

phantoms (detail), 2007. Plaster GI Joe figures. Dimensions variable to fit gallery.

OPP: Is it your favorite toy as an adult?

PRS: There are some items which hold memory so strongly that it is tough to find a replacement. While I have collected and inherited many figures over time, my original GI Joe is still my touchstone. I have accumulated a lot of GI Joe gear over the past 20 years that I keep in crates in my studio. As a maker of objects, I think a lot about the artifacts and memories we acquire and carry. As we move through our lives we are in a continuing cycle of acquiring,  discarding, modifying and mythologizing. Respect for the real, for the integrity of the object, and the act of making are all integral to me.

This summer, I wanted to cast some bronze versions of a selection of GI Joe rifles so I took out the crates. My 11-year-old daughter, who had never seen all these figures and equipment, was kind of stunned. Her response was, “Dad, you sure have a lot of dolls” which I thought was pretty great and knocked all my theorizing down a peg.

hide & seek (no. 1), 2016. 8" (l) x 26” (w) x 48” (h). Bronze.

OPP: How do you both employ and subvert the monumentality of bronze in your recent show fields of play?

PRS: The choice to work in a reduced scale really dictates how the work might be read in terms of its monumentality or conversely its anti-heroic stature. Taking a plastic original and transforming it into bronze upsets the usual notions of value and materiality. I use an organic burnout foundry process where each original figure or branch is lost during the casting process. Each sculpture is a one-off; the mass-produced is returned to the singular. Some people categorize bronze as historically-weighted, but I view it merely as a means to an end. 

At first glance, the pieces don’t appear that impressive or imposing. With further viewing, however, viewers begin to register the level of detail and the fact that the figures are doing things that are structural (e.g. holding up a larger house form or a tree branch), and that plays with one’s expectations of what is possible. The figures need to be transformed from plastic to metal in order to do the “heroic” actions that their small scale simultaneously minimizes.

house stack - prototype, 2014. bronze and assorted hardwoods

OPP: Are you more interested in balance or precariousness?

PRS: With sculpture, balance is critical. I dislike using hidden fasteners and pins to defy gravity. However, I am continually drawn to representing moments that are precarious: an object that is just about to topple over; a figure that is straining to keep a much larger object aloft; or an object balanced in a way that strains credulity. Tentative moments capture my imagination: things at the margins; moments just before something uncertain happens; or a memory that is just outside the reaches of easy recall. I ponder how these moments might be represented in concrete form.

OPP: Do these formal and structural challenges become content, metaphor and allegory in your work?

PRS: Viewers often see the Myth of Sisyphus as an allegorical arc in my work. I am partial to Camus’ interpretation of Sisyphus as one who undertakes an honorable pursuit by completing an insurmountable task and then having the integrity to repeat the feat over and over again. It is what most people do everyday, going about their work. I often joke that everyone has to work in my studio—meaning that all the toys have to be engaged in an action that requires a great effort. My underlying ethos is that working is a supremely human condition of being and is what links us in a fundamental way.

sisyphus, 2013

OPP: You did a lot of early work using the form of the white dress shirt. Now tiny toy army men are a recurring visual motif. I see these as representing the limiting, culturally-masculine roles of businessman and soldier. Are you commenting on masculinity?

RPS: Definitely. I think a lot about how masculinity is constructed, presented and examined. Arguably clothing is one of the most immediate ways we convey identity and where we position ourselves or are positioned by others in society. We wear “uniforms” every day.

The white shirt as a marker of power is so prevalent as to be generally invisible or is seen as normative. By taking the shirt and elevating it as an artifact—whether behind a glass frame or left to decay in a forest—I was hoping to make the power of the shirt evident and visible and hopefully lead to a questioning of its effects. The white shirt is such a longstanding uniform and represents a circumscribed notion of what it is to be male. The endurance of this trope fascinates me: male political leaders, businessmen, experts and talking heads wear them as a symbol of implied credibility. But I’m not sure that this blanket respect is at all deserved.

Toy soldiers are scaled-down, idealized versions of the romanticized reality of war. There is certainly nostalgia involved as it has been a few generations since these toys have been in use as children’s play things. The contemporary equivalent of the toy soldier would be video games where gamers fight bloody online battles. While toys require imagination to function, video games are a more scripted form of play. Toy soldiers speak to the desire to “play war” but without the graphic reality of war ever intruding. It might be a universal impulse.  A few years ago I came across a photo in the paper of Syrian children “playing war” with cardboard AK-47s and RPGs, which is something I don’t think we would readily see in North America. 

The miniature invites us to be omnipotent and to imagine and control what occurs. It is within this ecosystem that I can physically alter the toys and re-imagine new narratives.  I must be honest, however, and acknowledge that playing around with the toys is a ton of fun. A lot of my work begins with, “what if I took this and joined it with that.” It is within the final resolution, however, that some themes that question masculinity emerge.

as i came upon a clearing (installation view), 2005. Bronze GI Joe figure torsos, tree branches. variable dimensions

OPP: What do these uniforms say about the societies they exist within?

PRS: I think that military dress is perhaps a more honest expression of the hierarchies and unmarked castes that exist in our lives. In the military, a uniform can be read like a book to garner a lot of information about a person’s rank, unit, valor (decorations) and service time. Of course, these judgments occur outside the military, but I would argue it is of a more insidious nature. Similar readings are made but are done so under the myth/belief that we have some modicum of equality. However there are still clear class structures which exist between blue and white collar workers. It is interesting to think that the military, which has no qualms of putting one in a hierarchical system, results in a lack of artifice, which at once flattens and spotlights the structural nature of identity.

duet (detail of right side figure), 2016. 4 ½” (l) x 56” (w) x 6 ½” (h). bronze

OPP: Bronze sticks, branches and string have been present in your work for years. Could you talk about the relationship between these organic references and the toys, especially in your most recent exhibition, fields of play?

PRS: The original idea for fields of play came from a friend at university whose hippy/anti-war parents finally relented and gave her some plastic army men to play with when she was a kid, but not before cutting off all the rifles and weapons that they originally held. Turning this story over in my head in the studio, I decided to replace the guns with branches and unify the results in bronze. Organic forms such as branches possess a beauty and formal clarity. Coming from the earth, they are an odd pairing with the mass-produced, plastic soldiers. Fusing the natural to the plastic/industrial creates at once a disconnect and a unity. My hope is that the resulting objects are hybrids that are opened for reconsideration. It begs the question whether replacing guns with branches alters the reading of the figures and their purpose.

I always have a lot of materials lying around to try out ideas. In the exhibition, I also cast yarn from inside old baseballs into bronze. String is a connector; it binds elements together. At the scale of my figures, a string becomes a rope. It becomes a means of grounding and holding the figures. The drooping ropes are a conceit in that an actual string would not fall exactly in that way but it is a close enough approximation so that the viewer believes the illusion.

slackline, 2016. 36” (l) x 60” (w) x 24” (h). Bronze and LEGO blocks.

OPP: Do you see art-making as a type of play?

PRS: As kids growing up in Canada, we used cutoff hockey sticks for all sorts of play artifacts: swords, guns, clubs, bats. Our parents often used them to prop open a window or act as a door stop for a sliding door. These examples remind me of the fluidity of objects and that the creativity of (mis)use is often more interesting than the intended purpose of the original object. I think that this type of re-purposing is what allows me to fuse the organic with the manufactured. I am pulled into the playfulness of using materials in the studio much like when I was a kid, always searching for one object that could be turned into or used as another. The genesis of so many solutions is centered in of creative play.

To see more of P. Roch Smith's work, please visit rochsmith.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Stacia created site-responsive installations for two-person show Form Unbound (2015) at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and SENTIENCE (2016) at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Her work was recently included in SHOWROOM, curated by Edra Soto, at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. Stacia is currently preparing for a two-person show with Brent Fogt at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) and a solo show at Indianapolis Arts Center in Indiana.