OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Steven Pearson

Attempts to Contain are Futile
2009
Acrylic, Spray Paint, Paint Pen on Canvas
54.5" x 72"

STEVEN PEARSON combines numerous painting techniques and media to create dynamic,  colorful abstractions of digital information and everyday experiences. His compositions are orchestrations of chaos and balance that reveal a myriad of influences from fine art and pop culture. Steven has been an Associate Professor in the Art & Art History Department at McDaniel College since 2004. He is also the Director of the college’s Rice Gallery and lives in Westminster, MD.

OtherPeoplesPixels: I see a lot of different aesthetics and references in your work: graffiti, graphic design, comic books, and the history of abstraction in painting. Tell us about some of your influences.

Steven Pearson: My influences are extremely varied, from Baroque painters like Rubens and Rembrandt, to comic books and graphic novels. I started out as a narrative figurative painter and was influenced by the Baroque. I love the use of composition and movement in many of Rubens’ paintings and the way he carries the eye through every inch of a painting. I’ve tried to bring that kind of movement and use of space into my own work. In comic books, I’m interested in the use of the page and the panels. The panels are used to control the information, organize the story, and convey a sense of time, but within the panels themselves, there can be these moments of intense drama. It’s amazing how much can actually be conveyed in one page without overwhelming the viewer. There is a definite connection between those dynamic compositions of Rubens and the compositions found in a comic book. Good graffiti contains that dynamic movement and drama as well, but what interests me more in looking at graffiti is the layering of different murals and tags upon each other. It conveys a sense of history and time.

As for influences from the history of abstraction I’d have to say I am interested in the space and design of Al Held, Frank Stella, Franz Ackerman and Julie Mehretu; the rawness and brushwork of DeKooning and Terrence La Noue; the push/pull of Hans Hoffman; the openness to gain information and ideas from varied visual resources of Grace Hartigan; the use of color of the members of the Washington color school; and the potpourri of marks, images, information, and politics found in Basquiat. I’ve probably taken a little from each of them, plus many more over the years, and found ways to blend it together with my own sensibilities to create my own voice, which we all do. At least I hope I have, but it’s always a work in progress.

Mesmer
2011
Acrylic and Paint Pen on Birch Panel
48" X 48"

 OPP: You use a lot of different types of paint, including acrylic, oil, spray paint and paint pens, and this leads to a lot of very different kinds of brush strokes within the same painting. How did you develop this way of painting? Can you talk about the conceptual underpinning of this convergence of styles developing out of the medium itself?

SP: I enjoy contrasts. They add balance. Balance is an important part of life. We are constantly looking for it, and sometimes we even find it. Spray paint gives me a misty, speckled treatment of an area to balance the flat, opaqueness of acrylic. Loose, active brushstrokes balance the hard, taped edge. The paint pen gives me a clean outline that makes drips and splashes appear very controlled, balancing the chaos of chance that actually created them. Both as a figurative painter and an abstract painter, I was more conscious about trying to achieve variety of paint applications when I painted in oils. But when I switched to acrylics, I was doing the Heroes and Villains series and needed the paint to just sit flat, opaque, and have mostly a hard edge, so it wasn’t as important.

At the end of that series, I wanted to explore the nuances of painting a little more. But I also felt like I needed to be willing to bring in any medium necessary— and that made sense to the paintings—to add contrast and variation to the surface. As an undergraduate student in the early 1990s, I had silk screened into paintings, sewed collaged paintings together, and worked on various surfaces. Not all of these experiments were successful, or even good, but it’s that process of experimentation and discovery that is fresh and invigorating and keeps me coming back to the studio. I also believe that those areas of contrasting brushstrokes, or little introductions of a different medium draw a viewer in and keep them engaged.

Gaining Momentum (Corner Installation)
Photo by Alan Skees
2010
Acrylic, Spray Paint, Paint Pen on Panel
96" x 192"

OPP: I love that you acknowledge that not all experiments are successful. And I often find that I learn as much from my failures as from my successes. Will you tell me about a failure that taught you a lot about your own work?

SP: I will try to answer that with a general lesson I have learned, which is that all of the failures have taught me not to approach each painting like it will be a masterpiece and to not be too set on an initial idea, but be open to change and revision and let the work tell me where it needs to go. A specific example is the painting Gaining Momentum. I did that painting at the Vermont Studio Center, and I had a set idea and a small sketch I was working from in the first week or so of the painting. I wanted these two opposing forces (in my head, I was thinking of two Hokusai waves) coming at each other. After a week, I stepped back and looked at the painting and realized I had two colorful phallic-looking shapes opposing each other instead of two wave-like forces. Not the result I was looking for. After some commiseration, I took the the 16 panels off of the left wall, laid them on the floor and just loosened up. I poured paint, spray painted, and drew in charcoal until I had a ground that I could build on that wasn't overly planned out. Another interesting thing about that painting is I had intended it to be a 16' wide flat painting, but when I got into the studio provided for me at the residency, I found that there wasn't a 16' wide wall. So I mounted the panels in the corner, just to start working. After working on it for 2-3 weeks, I realized that the corner installation allowed you to get more physically immersed in the painting and be enveloped by the color.

 

Don Quixote's Folly was very similar. It took four months, several very ugly stages, and multiple configurations of the panels and overall shape to finally resolve it. If I wasn't prepared to push through several revisions and to be self critical, I would have either abandoned it in one of its incredibly ugly stages or tried to convince myself that it wasn't a bad painting. There are several paintings—that fortunately have never seen the light of day—that didn't get re-worked and resolved. I was convinced at the time that they worked. Luckily for me, I didn't have shows they were destined for, so I had time to think about them and either scrap them or paint over them. So to sum it up, I've learned from my failures to be open, count on revision, and to always know the location of a big dumpster.

Against Overwhelming Odds
2009
Acrylic, Spray Paint, Paint Pen on Paper Mounted on Panel
30" x 22.5"

OPP: The paintings from Dualities and Amalgamations (2009-2010) are a reflection of "our ability to receive and assimilate" the "flood of information on a daily, if not hourly, basis via a variety of technological means: emails, text messages, Facebook, Twitter, online newspapers, countless websites, as well as television and radio. In this sense, they are not pure abstractions. They are actually representations of information. But the viewer doesn't have access to what is being represented, because all the information is coded. In terms of contemporary painting, is pure abstraction even possible anymore? Is it interesting or relevant to your work?

SP: That’s a good question. Bob Nickas touches on that slightly in "Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting." He questions why artists who paint non-representationally reject the notion that their work is abstract. He suggests that the term abstraction should be used to cover artists who create representational abstractions, as well as artists who work from more formal, non-objective modes. Using abstraction as an umbrella word that covers a wide variety of abstract or non-objective painting makes complete sense to me as a painter in the 21st century. It is difficult and probably nearly impossible to remove yourself from the visual bombardment that we undergo daily, so how can someone paint pure abstraction? The questions will always be there: Where did you get that color? Why that shape?... and so on. I do think about it when I am creating painting, and I do like it when the sources of my visuals become so obscure that they are indecipherable, but I think my paintings would lose interest to me if I tried to actually divorce them from outside resources.

Too Good, Too Evil
2008
Acrylic on Panel
79.5" X 94"

OPP: I'd love to hear more about your series Heroes and Villains (2007-2008), which uses 1980s comic book covers as the source for your color palette and responds to the wood grain of your birch wood substrate as the source for the patterning. Why did you decide to put these 2 disparate sources together?

SP: I fell into that series on accident. I was about to build a new stretcher for a painting when I noticed a shape in the wood-grain of the birch plywood I was going to cut up for corner braces. The shape looked very similar to shapes that I would make when painting quick abstract studies on paper. I decided to do a couple of small paintings that just used the grain of the wood for the composition, with no additions brought in. After painting two of them I saw that I was using a contrasting combination of Liquitex Brilliant Blue and Cadmium Red Light. I like that combination together because of its intensity, but at the time I was painting them, I was watching Superman Returns. It made me think about the colors always used to depict heroes in comics, and conversely, the colors often used to portray villains. I decided to use the colors of heroes and of their arch nemeses as the palettes for my paintings, but I was afraid that if I tried to draw my own compositions, I would be too heavy handed in creating "hero shapes" and their villainous counterparts. I thought I could avoid that by using the wood grain as the "drawing" and letting the color represent those opposites. I also felt the use of the wood grain and the use of color as an addition was another way of introducing opposites. The wood grain was "truth." It was the natural pattern of the readymade substrate. The color was a fallacy added to that surface. It was another way for me to continue my focus on opposites and balance.

Continuation
2005
Oil on Canvas
72" x 96"

OPP: You have 2 upcoming solo shows in the fall/winter of 2012: Information Breakdown at Exhibit A Gallery at the Hamilton Street Club in Baltimore and Information Overload at the Visual Arts Gallery in Queensbury, NY. Was the work in these shows developed simultaneously? I'm assuming some connection based on the titles of the shows, but what will be distinctly different about the exhibitions?

SP: The work in Information Overload was developed first. In that series, I was focusing on a more intuitive process. These paintings are composed of shapes, forms, and colors of things I may have seen driving, or surfing the web, or walking, or driving. The paintings are built up and layered with these memories. In the process some get buried or fragmented, and some remain prominent and sit on the surface, much like the way we store and process information.

In this series, I also started tracing parts of the composition, or even parts of previous paintings, and would then repeat them and reconfigure them within a composition, cannibalizing one part to activate another. The painting Amalgamation is created from three previous paintings traced and recombined to create a new composition. This altered the memory and changed the story of those things. Some parts get enhanced and become more of a focus, and others become background. I think it is interesting composing a painting this way. It makes me think roughly of Jean Piaget’s adaptation process: assimilation and accommodation. We take in new information and incorporate it into our existing ideas (assimilation), or our ideas are changed based on new information (accommodation).

The paintings that will be in Information Breakdown are derived directly from the paintings in Information Overload, and from the process used to create Amalgamation. I started the first painting in the group that will be in the show, Over/Under, from traced portions of Amalgamation and Don Quixote's Folly. When I finished Over/Under, I traced it in 10" squares placed randomly over the composition and then transferred them to a new panel in random order to create a new composition. When that painting [Mesmer] was completed, I traced it in 10” squares and reconfigured it into a new composition [Intermittent Lucidity]. I am currently working on the fourth in that series that was traced from Intermittent Lucidity. All the information in the paintings can be traced back to Amalgamation and Don Quixote’s Folly, but it gets so broken down and re-ordered that it becomes nearly unrecognizable, altered, and new. I plan on repeating this process for 7 to 10 paintings, by which time I think the information will be so broken down, it will be like painting white noise.

To view more work by Steven, please visit srpearson.com.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Sara Holwerda

Barmaiden (Frame 4)
2011
Digital Image
16" x 11.5"

SARA HOLWERDA is a performance and video artist who uses movement and dance to explore the limitations of the represenations of the female body in western culture. Her references are varied and include painting, burlesque, vaudeville, movies, contemporary pop music videos, and YouTube tutorials to name a few. Sara recently received her MFA from Cranbrook and now lives and works in Chicago, IL.

 

OtherPeoplesPixels: Your performances and videos involve movement and dance. Do you have a formal background in these fields?

Sara Holwerda: Yes. I figure skated competitively for over ten years, and, as part of my training, I did ballet and yoga. In college I took modern dance at the YMCA and fell into some barefoot dance performances with middle aged hippies in the woods. (I went to college in Ann Arbor!)

What stuck with me the most profoundly from my experiences as a figure skater are the athleticism, costumes, badly-cut music, and kitschy sensibility. I also spent a few formative years performing on a synchronized skating team with about twenty other girls. We were all dressed the same and had the same hair and makeup. We performed in circles and pinwheels and did kicklines... It was the closest I have ever gotten to being a Rockette, and it was bizarre in a lot of ways.

The experience of being active in a completely self-conscious way for all my teen years has followed me into my late twenties. Even though I'm only moderately active, I notice that much of my self-concept is still tied up in how my body looks and how it performs. There is something about being female that requires you to perform at some level all the time, and as an artist responding to this cultural condition, I feel the need to do performance work.

One and Three Women
2012

OPP: In many performances such as One and Three Women (2012) or The Fall (2012), you perform with others. Are you always the choreographer of these performances or are they collaborators in creating the work?

SH: In both of those performances, I am the director, choreographer, and costume designer/seamstress. These two performances are an interesting comparison. In One and Three Women, I am performing with the group intentionally because this piece is about both the shared experiences between women and the ways one person can be split and see herself in parts. It's also personal in a lot of ways, and it felt natural to be in it. In rehearsals, my other performers helped me visualize the movements, and there was some collaboration in those moments. It was a choreograph-as-you-go type process, in which I would trap us or tangle us up and have to figure out where to go from there.

For The Fall, I had a much larger castfive dancers, a singer, a Tree of Knowledge, and three paparazziso I had to be more prepared with my choreography. I drew diagrams and sent PDFs to everyone to make rehearsals go faster. The scale of the project made it difficult for me to both direct and perform effectively. I performed as a Marilyn Monroe imitator, because I felt I needed to return to that rolewhen I was seventeen, I performed Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds" solo in an ice show. That solo became an unintentional drag performance failure! My wig came off during a layback spin, and my middle-aged male partners were so nervous that they could barely velcro the "Cartier" on my wrists or lift me up. My inability to fit into this hyper-feminine role, which has been so iconic for so long, was part of my inspiration for the piece. Before I did this performance, I created the Marilyn fuchsia dress from that number as a burlesque costume, and I worked tearing off the costume bit by bit in The Fall. In retrospect, after going through the whole process of staging that work, I realized that I didn't need to perform this role. I learned an important lesson: with a large cast, I can direct more freely if I remove myself as a performer. I'm planning a re-staging of this performance, and I will not perform in it. 

The Fall
2012
Marilyn mimicry duet/ burlesque

OPP: Can you talk more specifically about The Fall and explain the performance to our readers?

SH: The Fall is the kind of work I imagine myself doing more of, and it's probably the most emblematic of how my mind works creatively. There is a lot going on in this performance. I wanted to create a performance collage, with cultural, historical, and personal symbols and themes butting up against each other. The Fall is a theatrical spectacle that takes place in a restaurant/lounge, that puts the viewer in the position of guest/consumer. They are consuming the spectacle, all the costumes and dancing bodies, along with cocktails. The photographers are performing as much as the chorus girls, and the "star" is a lip-syncing Marilyn Monroe mimic. In this setting, the iconic Marilyn Monroe becomes Eve in the garden. She's a temptress and culturally understood as a sexual being andmaybe as a resulta tragic figure.

The performance had three main parts. First, viewers were greeted by servers wearing feathers. They were staring, stomping, hissing, and passing out pomegranate drinks. After everyone was served, the chorus line of servers performed the second part: the champagne parade, in which they held bottles above their heads as they did an aggressive song and dance number. While this was happening, a Tree of Knowledge was juggling pomegranates. The two Marilyn Monroe figures were frozen, coming to life every once in a while to do a little shimmy and sing a bit. The paparazzi were mirroring the chorus line, snapping pictures of the chorus and the audience. The third section was the musical mimicry. One of the two Marilyns sang a mash-up of the "Diamonds" number with Nicki Manaj's "Super Bass" while the other Marilyn lip-synced. All the while, the chorus line  was chiming in, and the paparazzi were snapping pictures. The mimicry/ lip sync became a burlesque with the second Marilyn taking off the iconic costume piece by piece, throwing it to the chorus, and finally slinking off the stage to join the hissing chorus line. 

The next time I do this, I plan on having more Marilyns, maybe interacting with video projections, and I would like to make the environment more specific, getting the details just right. It was a huge production for me at the time, and I tested the limits of what I could do with the resources I had. I learned a lot, and now that I've already made all the costumes, written a script, and have had the experience of performing it, I can think about improving the rest of the work. I want it to be a surreal experience that takes place in a working bar that has been transformed into a pop culture Eden.  
 

Chair Dance II
2012

OPP:  Chair Dance II references  stripping, in general, and Flashdance, specificallyat least to someone who grew up in the 80s. You start by simply performing standard sexualized gestures that we all recognize from movies about strippers, and perhaps real strippers. But that mimicry quickly becomes a struggle.

 

SH: That film was definitely in my mind, as well as the "Mein Herr" number from Cabaret. Also, when I was researching burlesque performances for The Fall, I noticed the chair reoccurring as a prop. It's definitely a sexualized prop, and you expect the female performer to behave a certain way with it. The dance is metaphorical, with the chair as a stand-in for the male viewer's body. In the dancer's interactions with the chair, there's a metaphor for an idealized sexual relationship or encounter. The woman is performing for the pleasure of the man, moving in ways that are objectifying her and making her physically vulnerable. Certainly, it's fun and possible to do these dances for one's own pleasure, but I'm not sure everyone doing or watching a chair dance is cognizant of the implications of it. 

 

I also researched chair dances via YouTube tutorials and found the whole thing a bit absurd. In one video a woman is counting off seductive gestures in eight counts, like "and rub his thigh, six seven eight." It seemed so crazy, this choreographed sexuality. I wondered what was being left out. In working with the chair, I realized how limited the motion is for the performer, and thus, how limited the metaphorical relationship is. I was also researching other more violent dance forms, like the turn-of-the century Parisian apache (AH-PAHSH), where a woman is dragged, thrown, and strangled in a dramatized street fight between her and two or more menusually, she's playing a prostitute, and the men are her pimp and her client. I wanted to explore the kind of danger a woman can experience if she presents herself in such a practiced, sexualized manner, and how far from ideal the relationships she gets into could be. 

 

OPP: What was it like to make this video? Did your personal experience mirror the metaphor? 

 

SH: Making this video required a great deal of training and rest. For about three weeks, I practiced prop falls and stage fighting moves with a mat every other day. On the days in between, I would go to the gym and focus on my core and flexibility. The shooting of the video took two days. The first day, I didn't get the framing right, yet I performed my whole routine several times full out anyway, foolishly exhausting myself. I got caught up in the performance, and forgot that it had to read on video and that I may need to save some energy to shoot it again. On the second day of shooting, I got the framing right, choosing a tighter shot that showed the camera in the mirrors. I performed several times. Finally on the last few takes, I had the right amount of abandon in the falls and had a good sense of improvisationeven though, by then, I had my routine down. Somewhere toward the end, my right shoulder began to hurt, probably from falling on it for two days. It got really tight and I lost some feeling in my hand. I had to sleep sitting up for two weeks, taking nightly Epsom salt baths to relax enough to sleep.


Chair Dance II was also an emotionally challenging piece to make. I'm a survivor of domestic violence; nine years ago I was attacked by an ex-boyfriend. The situations I was putting myself into with the chair definitely paralleled my attack. I never intended it to be a re-enactment or strictly autobiographical—until I saw the footage, I didn't realize how powerful the connections were. Even though I am no longer at the mercy of that experienceI've had time, therapy, and a wonderful husband to help me healI need to acknowledge my history when it appears in my work, and I need to be kind to myself in my process. In this piece, I did everything I could to make sure I was always in control, even when it looks like I'm not, and that allowed me to wholeheartedly explore the chair as a prop and a violent metaphor without being overcome by my own personal history. 

Put a Ring on It
2010
Digital Video

OPP: Your stop motion animations Put a Ring on It (2010) and Candyman (2011) explore the representation of women's bodies in contemporary music videos and are set to the pop songs by Beyonce and Christina Aguilera which give them their titles.  Why did you choose stop motion instead of live performance for these pieces?

 

SH: This is a great question. In these works, I was very interested in the way that stop-action animation in particular depicts an illusion of motion and how each frame is mediated by an outside force. In other words, the paper legs I use in Put a Ring On It cannot move themselves, and must be arranged very carefully in every frame. I see this level of mediation in all our pop culture images, from stylists, makeup artists, editors, Photoshop, and social normsevery image we see is carefully composed, every movement is carefully choreographed. It's an unnatural, artificial presentation, and I felt animation as a process expressed these conceptual concerns. In Candyman, animation allows me to create the illusion that I am a blond, a redhead and a brunette in a trio, dancing with a sailor's outfit on, none of which are true outside Photoshop and sequential imagery. I liked how false the image is, and how weird and jerky the animated movements are.

 

I could also dismember the body in Put a Ring On It, which would be harder to do in performance! I also like the flatness of cut paper and the composite digital image. It reminds me of paper dolls and makes the animations feel a bit playful and childlike, which emphasizes the fact that young girls model behavior from these videos. There are hundreds of videos posted to YouTube with girls mimicking Beyonce. Making my own frame by frame imitation of that video felt like the most absurdly devoted way to re-create it, using the most simple and helpless materials.

 

OPP: Post-feminism is a term I hear as often as post-racial, and I'm shocked that anyone thinks we are post-anything. Why is it still important to be making work about the representation of women's bodies, roles, and movements in art and pop culture?

 

SH: I'm so glad you asked this! I was lucky to work with the wonderfully feminist-friendly Mark Newport in graduate school. He is a great supporter of my work, and since he responds to cultural gender norms directly in his own work (re-imagining hyper-masculine superheros and football players), he is engaged with the issues I'm dealing with and gave me a lot of thoughtful feedback. Unfortunately, I've also experienced quite the opposite male perspective as well. Recently, a few male artists and academics have reacted to my mimetic performances as simply seductive acts, adding to all the other images of women being seductive. They refused to engage with the feminist discussion that is the content of my work, could not acknowledge that I was challenging the male gaze by photographing and video taping myself, and didn't seem to understand the decades of female self-portraiture, body art and performance art that I am in dialog with. They acted as if there was no need for this. One even said to me, "There have already been like, four or five waves of Feminism." This floored me! He displayed his devastating lack of knowledge and dismissed my work in one fell swoop. This kind of ignorance of Feminism at the highest levels of artistic production and discourse proved to me that it is important to continue making this work, and that it is important for all women to continue to cast a critical eye toward the culture they consume and the messages they are receiving. 

 

Certainly, Feminism has evolved. After all, I can call myself a feminist and still wear bras and shave my legs. But I agree with you that terms like post-feminism are premature, and worse could be part of a movement toward what author Susan Douglas calls "enlightened sexism." We're in a strong backlash, and there are daily reminders of this that reassure me that I need to keep making work. It's 2012, and being a woman is still fraught with demands on our bodies and roles. I walk down the street, and a stranger demands I smile. I see an ad with a close up of a woman's wet lips putting something in her mouth. I hear of another state threatening to take reproductive rights away from women. I see another Judd Apatow comedy using pussy, having a vagina, or being gay as the worst-possible, "hilarious" insult one man can hurl at another man. I hear about the struggles of women to give birth on their own terms: without lying down, without an unnecessary C-section, without being rushed to labor by an impatient doctor.

 

It's dangerous to be a woman in this culture, and if we're not careful, we will all believe our greatest value is how we look, how we move, and how well we can please others. Through my work, I aim to expose these dangers, to reveal the absurdities of what culture expects of us, and to imagine new possibilities for expression.

 

As long as Kelly Ripa is on TV  in her skinny jeans, breezing through 1950s housewife duties without a man in sight and telling me how I can be "even more amazing" with a new kitchen appliance, I have more work to do.

 

To view more of Sara's work, please visit http://saramholwerda.com.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Isidro Blasco

TILTED
2011
C-Print, Wood, Slide Projectors
30x25x12 feet

ISIDRO BLASCO combines photography and sculpture in his indoor and outdoor installations which use common building materials like plywood to question our perceptions of space and perspective. He studied at the Architectural School of Madrid before becomming a visual artist. He exhibits internationally and has received several prestegious grants, including two Pollock Krasner grants in 1997 and 2010 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2000. Isidro lives in Queens, NY.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You are originally from Madrid, Spain, where you received your formal training in art and architecture, and you currently live in New York. You exhibit internationally, and have done residencies all over the world. Has any one place has influenced your work more than another?

Isidro Blasco: Definitively the American culture has had more influence on my ideas and my work than any othermore even than the Spanish culture where I am from originally. Growing up in Madrid, I always had everything American as my model, and when I finally came here, it was like I belonged here. It was a very familiar place for me. I had a lot to learn, of course, but everything had a place in me. I totally embraced this culture.

OPP: Have you noticed any glaring differences in the way viewers and other artists discuss and interact with art in the various places you've been?

IB: Yes, people have different reactions to my work in different places. When I show in China, for example, I get a lot of comments about the craftiness of my pieces. They love that I find pleasure making the structural supports of my installations, and they admire the elaborate craft of it. I have also noticed that in Europe, they generallyalthough I hate generalizationsget tired of my "one line" kind of work ("same line" some will say). I guess they need more conceptual ideas behind a piece. But the best feedback I've received has always been in Australia. There I find harmony. My work is understood exactly the way I want it to be understood, the way I have intended. It has some conceptual ideas behind it, but not too heavy. And it has a pleasure in fabrication without being only aesthetics.

WHEN THE TIME COMES
2010
C-Print,Plywood, Structural Wood, Paint, Slide Projectors
18x30x9 feet

OPP: Most of your work explores shifts in perspective. Many of your constructions, such as Seeing Without Seeing (2000) or the recent Deconstructed Laneways (2011-2012), blend into their environments if viewed from a specific spot, but are revealed to be constructions if the viewer moves just slightly. Other pieces, such as Tilted (2011) and The Middle of the End (2006), bring the outside inside or bring one location to another. How can this use of space talk about bigger picture kinds of issues?

IB: I believe that the question is not what we see but how we see it. And yes, that is a fundamental question. The how we see it will tell us something about ourselves and the time we are in, the context.

Throughout history, we have developed many tools and many different ways of representing reality. In my work, I try to use the tools that we use in our daily lives. I take the elements of the built environment that are available to me and use them. There is not a stage set up or anything like that. I am only interested in how I perceive reality and how I can share that perception with others.

OPP: Last year you went to Sydney, Australia where you created Deconstructed Laneways as part of a public art project called the Laneways Project. Tell us about this project.

IB: This was an amazing experience, and also Sydney is an amazing city. I love it there!
The city of Sydney does these non-permanent public art projects every year, and I was invited to do one. The idea is to revitalize downtown and to bring attention to out-of-the-way sites.

I decided to take several pictures from one specific place in the intersection of this given street and make a mirror-like construction that reassembles the same street. This large construction was placed just to the left of the street in question, and from some areas of the intersection you got the sense that you were looking at a mirror. But only for a few seconds. If you were just walking around there, you could see the overlapping of the different images and the distortion in general.

I got a lot of great feed-back: people wrote great comments on the back of the piece. It was pretty cool. I think most people liked it.

DECONSTRUCTED LANEWAYS
2011
C-Print, playwood, structural wood, hardware.
16x25x4 feet

OPP: What's challenging about making art for public space as opposed to the gallery?

IB: I've always had my doubts about public art. I just don't think it is fair to impose something, anything, on the people that are walking by those public spaces everyday. I am sure a lot of them don't like it or don't understand it, but they have to live with it.

That is why non-permanent public art is much better. You don't like it? Don't worry, it will be gone soon. We should be very careful with permanent public art. We may think that looks amazing, and most people may agree with us, but I am not so sure that will be the case in a few years. And also, most public art is made with the money from the taxes paid by those people that will suffer the art work...and nobody asked them!

But of course, I don't even want to imagine what kind of art we would see out in the streets if we asked everybody their opinions...most likely we will not see art at all in the streets.

OPP: I agree that there is some very bad public art out there that I don't enjoy looking at, but that work is always a challenge to me. I wonder, who likes this? Who picked it? Why don't I like it? I think it's good for people to be forced to deal with some things they don't like, because that's life anyway. Besides, isn't the architecture itself and the way the city grows and develops something we as citizens generally don't have any choice in?

IB: Sure, the architecture is there. Nobody is going to ask you if you like it or not. It is just there, and it can be very ugly sometimes. But at least it has a utilitarian use, therefore that is enough for most people. Also buildings have the advantage of becoming historical entities over time. This has happened over and over again. Remember the twin towers: nobody liked them before September 11th. On the other hand, public art, in most cases, will not became part of the historical background of the city. It will just become obsolete.

2004
Construction material
25x35x12 feet

OPP: When did photography first enter into your constructions? How has your use of it changed over time?

IB: I have always used photography in my work. At the beginning, it was not there in the final product but only in the process. And I still don't use photography in the conventional way. I take the photos, but at the end, I may only use whatever the camera had framed of the space that I am interested in. I go back and forth. Sometimes I use hundreds of images, like right now for the installation that I am working on for Wave Hill in the Bronx. But some other times, I prefer to leave the space almost empty, only building the surfaces that make up the space, and only framing them somehow.

OPP: Can you tell us more about what you are planning for Wave Hill?

IB: The theme of the show is "The Palisades" across the river, on the other side of the Hudson. I am building a large installation made with hundreds of photographs of the rock formations and of the bare trees. It will look like a wave that comes into the room from the wall and it goes back to the wall in a different part of the space. There is going to be a lot of overlapping, mostly in black and white with touches of bright colors here and there. My idea is to give the spectator the sense of flying above the Palisades Park. Everything (rocks, trees, paths) will be cut and made into three dimensional objects; some sections will be larger than others. A dream-like flyby. 

ELUSIVE HERE
2010
Blue Ray HD
Edition of 6

OPP: Your 2010 video Elusive Here, which grew out of writing you did for your doctoral thesis, adds psychological and emotional dimensions to the sculptures you are known for. It appears to be autobiographical, because I can imagine how the sculptures you make would grow out of some of these experiences. Is this the case? Any plans to continue making video?

IB: I made that video, or short movie (it's 19 minutes long), because I got a lot of money to make it. Comunidad de Madrid, a state organization from my hometown, gave me the money when I was putting together the show at one of their galleries. It is very unusual to get money in that way.

I keep writing. I write everyday about my perceptions, and, yes, they are autobiographical. Hopefully I will get another opportunity soon to produce another video/film like that one. It was a lot of fun to make it, an amazing experience.

Very different from my other kind of work. But in a way, it is the same. I am always talking about the same things: how is it that we interpret the space the way we do and how is it possible that we share that same way of perceiving with almost everybody?

To view more of Isidro's work, please visit isidroblasco.com.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Carlton Scott Sturgill

controledchaos8
2011
Ralph Lauren brand paint chip samples on panel
24 X 38 in / 61 X 97 cm

CARLTON SCOTT STURGILL's paintings, mosaics, and sculptures combine branded materials that evoke the upward mobility of the American Dream with appropriated imagery from amateur porn sites and Craigslist to explore the discrepancy between public persona and private desire. Sturgill received his MA from Chelsea College of Art and Design in London, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell me a little about your history as an artist… before you were working with paint chips as your palette.

Carlton Scott Sturgill: I started out as a painter, working mostly with oil, acrylic, and household paint. My first cohesive series of work consisted of paintings that juxtaposed pornographic images, which were concealed within color fields, with wholesome scenes appropriated from 1960’s advertisements. Third Date (2004) would be a good example from that series. I would paint the background image as a grisaille using acrylics, and then apply thin layers of tinted household glaze —the kind that you would use for faux painting techniques, such as ragging and sponging—until the background image was barely visible. I would then paint the 1960’s scenes in oils on top of the color field, further obscuring the background image.

When these paintings were seen in person, the viewers’ eyes were immediately drawn to the “top” image, so much so that a large percentage of the time people would walk away without having seen the more explicit “bottom” image. Only people that were patient enough to spend time with the paintings were eventually able to see what was concealed within the color fields. The paintings were like a one-way door; it took time to notice the background image, but once you did you would never be able to look at the painting again without seeing it. It was that observational shift that I became most interested in. I think that people looked at the paintings in much the same way they observed their friends, family, and others that populated their everyday lives. We often accept without question the public face that each one of us shows to the outside world, but if you look beyond the symbols that we use to piece together our personas—logoed clothing, nice cars, homes with manicured lawns—then you’re likely to see a very different person behind closed doors. My interest in the dichotomy between person and persona developed in this first series of paintings, and, to this, day, I’m still exploring it through my work.

Larry Flynt
2003
Acrylic and latex on panel
60 X 48 in / 152 X 122 cm

OPP: Could you talk about the specific materials you use now?

CSS: Yes. During the period I was just referring to, I started to place greater importance on the materials that went into creating my work. I began using Ralph Lauren brand household glaze, not because of a personal affinity for the brand, but simply because I needed large amounts of glaze and I could buy it at Home Depot in one-gallon cans. The first hint of meaning came when I realized that I was using interior household paint to separate the 1960’s images (the persona) from the pornographic ones (the person). To me, that thin layer of paint came to represent the barriers that we erect between our private spaces and the public sphere and the difference in behavior one exhibits depending on which side of the divide they happen to be on.

Working with a particular brand’s products enabled me to borrow and work with the associations inherent within the brand. I began working with Ralph Lauren paint by happenstance, but over time I realized that the brand was a symbol of many of the traits that people cobble together to create their personas: financial success, upward social mobility, suburban happiness—all the things that feed into the American Dream. By using their products as a medium, I’m able to connect with the audience at a gut level. They know what these signs, symbols and signifiers mean, because they’ve become part of the American vernacular. This urge to impart meaning through medium is another aspect of those early paintings that has become central to my work throughout the years.

Self-Pleasure (#1)
2005
Ralph Lauren brand paint chip samples on panel
48 X 48 in / 122 X 122 cm

 OPP: What are the sources for your imagery and titles? Are they the same?

CSS: The evolution of my source material closely tracks my change in medium, so much so that a shift in the source pushed me into dropping paint in favor of using paint chips. In that early series of paintings, the “bottom” images came mostly from Hustler Magazine. It was a nod to my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, and the city’s rather complicated relationship with sexual imagery. After the obscenity trials of the late 1970s (portrayed in the film The People vs. Larry Flynt), the magazine was banned for over twenty years in the city and surrounding county. In 1999, the controversy was sparked again when Flynt decided to take on the city and was once again tried for pandering obscenity. (Ironically, the squeaky-clean married prosecutor in the case was later involved in a sex scandal with a subordinate, which only intensified my curiosity about the differences between public persona and personal behavior.)

After the first series of paintings, I began to question whether my source material was appropriate for the work, especially with all of the associations that come along with commercial pornography. In the hope of finding something more “genuine,” I turned to online sources and began appropriating images from amateur and swinger websites. I was often working with small pixelated thumbnail images, which when enlarged, reminded me of the beautiful in-store displays of perfectly square paint chip samples that I would see every time I went to Home Depot to buy glaze. Once the connection was made, I became excited about working with the material and began collecting them en masse. I liked the fact that they were part of the suburban landscape and almost anyone could recognize and relate to them. After I began working with the paint chips, I continued painting for a few years, but over time I came to believe that the chips were a better medium for the work, and eventually I quit painting altogether.

The websites where I source my images have evolved over the years. I’ve used images from websites that specialized in swingers [easygoing4424 (2006)], leaked celebrity photos [drlaura1.jpg (2006)], and amateurs [ba0606.jpg (2006)]. The titles have changed as well. Some reference the poster’s handle, while others are named after the computer file. For the last few years, I’ve been getting most of my material from the "Casual Encounters" section . The titles for these works come from the subject line of the post [Gorgeous Wife....ISO Stud Tonight – mw4m – 32 (North Cincy) (2011)]. Craigslist postings have become my preferred source for subject matter. They often include both images and text, so you get a better idea of the subject as a person looking to explore their sexuality.

Thinking about a threesome - mw4w - 28
2011
Ralph Lauren brand paint chip samples on panel
Detail

OPP: You've talked about the pixelation in earlier pieces, such as easygoing4424 (2006) and Self-pleasure #1 (2005). Newer works, like Muscles1111 (2011) and bananas725 (2009), are more posterized. Can you talk about this shift?

CSS: In 2004, I moved to London for graduate school and ended up living in the United Kingdom for three years. I had already started working in the pixelated style when I moved overseas, but not long after the move, a couple of factors converged, pushing my work in another direction. The first was a matter of process. I enjoyed the effect that the pixelated work had on the viewer: the images were completely invisible from up close and only became clear through distance. But once I developed a solid technique for building the image, the challenge of creating the works quickly diminished. There’s only so many ways that you can put one square next to another. To put it frankly, I began to find the studio work excruciatingly boring. I needed a technique that would challenge me throughout the creative process.

The second factor came about from the amount of travel that I was doing while I was living abroad. For the first time, I had the opportunity to see an incredible variety of artwork that spanned millennia. In London, I could spend the morning at the Tate Modern looking at the Young British Artists from the 1990s and then hop the tube to the British Museum to see the Elgin Marbles. I can point to two types of art that had a dramatic effect on my work, one ancient and one contemporary. The first were the Byzantine mosaics that I had the opportunity to see at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and especially those at the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. I found the craftsmanship involved in shaping and piecing together these intricately designed mosaics inspiring, and it helped me to break away from the square format that I was using at that time.

The other influence came from the street art that I was seeing in Paris, Berlin, and all around me in my neighborhood in east London. I grew up seeing New York-influenced freestyle graffiti. But in the mid-2000s, stencilled street art was really beginning to dominate the urban landscape, especially in Europe. It felt like you couldn’t walk down a city street without seeing work that was breaking down images in a new and interesting way. Once I began carving the paint chips using scalpels, my style landed somewhere between the two: a simplified image that still has the intricacy and attention to detail of traditional mosaics. I think that this is where that posterized effect first emerged.

OPP: Can you break down the current carving process for us?

CSS: It has changed dramatically over the years, which is apparent if you compare my first “carved” work born2boogie (2006) with a work like Muscles1111 (2011). Some of the changes are obvious: the expansion of the palate from four to hundreds of colors, the increase of the size of the overall work, and the reduction of the size of the bits of cut paint chip, which can sometimes be less than one millimetre square. Other changes came about simply because I had to create my own process; after all, I didn’t have a resource to teach me how to carve paint chips so that they fit perfectly together or how to adhere them to the board without tearing the painted surface and exposing the white backing. It’s a fairly detailed process, but basically it involves breaking down the image into an outline drawing, choosing a palate of colors for each section from the 700 or so in the Ralph Lauren collection, using the drawing as a guide to cut each piece using an extremely sharp medical scalpel, and fitting them together to build the image one piece at a time. It’s a slow process, but I will say that I never find it boring.

friday night fun - mw4mw
2009
Ralph Lauren brand paint chip samples on panel
12.5 X 17.5 in / 32 X 44 cm

OPP: The abstract color bar "paintings" are especially interesting, because they are more subtle than the recreations of porn imagery. They tie sexual desire to the art world in an unexpected way, because they reference modernist painting. They make apparent that aesthetics emerge as a result of desires—desires that aren't usually named in the work itself. Do you agree or disagree?

CSS: I agree . . . mostly, but for different reasons than one might expect. In order to explain, I’ll need to go into the evolution and a bit of the process of making stripped mosaics. If you’ve ever seen one of the Ralph Lauren brand chips, you might remember that it’s a solid square of color with the name of the hue and a cataloguing code printed on the front in a metallic ink. From the very beginning I was interested in utilizing the text. In the pictorial work, it allowed me to communicate to the viewer that the work was created using paint chips instead of paint, but I had always wanted the text to have a more central role. Seven Decorating Schemes (2007) was my first attempt to slice the chips and rearrange the letters. Color names like "Linen" and “Rust" were merged to become “Lust," and, in the process, I created a striped composition. Unfortunately, after I finished that piece, I didn’t really know where to go with the process. I considered using several sources for text, but nothing really fit so the process stayed on the back burner for a couple of years, until I began using Craigslist as a source and found the text just as fascinating as the images.

In order to create the work, I had to match each grouping of letters from the Craigslist text to a corresponding grouping from the paint chip names, which already had a hue assigned to them. Therefore, the Craigslist text helps to determine the colors used in the work. For example, there is only one hue name that has the word “sex” in it—“Essex Cream." So if a person (or a couple) used the word “sex” in their Craigslist post, the final composition would include a pale yellow. By adding color to black-and-white text it was almost like I was visually representing the personality of the poster through their words. So yes, I agree that the aesthetics emerge as a result of desires.

Having said that, it was not my original intention for the striped works to reference modernist painting. That was just a happy accident that came about as a result of the process, but it was something that I learned to exploit. You mentioned that these works are more subtle. I like the fact that if ten people walk into a gallery filled with the striped pieces, nine of them will think “modernist painting” and not investigate further. I’m interested in that small percentage of viewers that are willing to take the time to question their initial assumptions and dig a little deeper to find out what lies beyond the facade. In this case, the resemblance to modernist painting is simply a way to camouflage the sexual desire embedded within the work. I like the fact that someone could hang a work like this in their home, and, depending on the light in the room, almost no one would discover the text hidden within the composition.

OPP: I think you are right, but it's pretty sad that so many people have so little attention for detail. To me, if you haven't noticed the text, then you didn't really look at the piece. At the same time, this inattention to detail can also be viewed as turning a blind eye to hidden truths, and that resonates with some of the themes you've already talked about. Plus, in the context of your work, modernist painting becomes just like the Ralph Lauren brand: something that confers status on the owner.

CSS: I tend not to think of people’s lack of attention for detail as something sad, but instead as an opportunity to give the viewer a feeling of delight—or shock, or disgust, or arousal—when they finally see something that they hadn’t noticed before. The French street artist Invader is a good example of someone that is an expert at hiding things in plain sight. I remember seeing his work for the first time in a busy neighborhood in Paris. It was a small, brilliantly-colored mosaic that was placed on a building just above everyone’s line-of-sight. I felt like I was the only person on that crowed street that was seeing it. I had stumbled upon a secret that I could keep to myself or share with others, depending upon my mood. A few people noticed that I was looking up and glanced to see what I was looking at, turning the experience into a social activity. Since then, I’ve seen his mosaics in Berlin, London and New York. I look out for them now, so seeing his work has fundamentally changed the way that I view my surroundings.

The same thing happens when I show the striped mosaics. If there are only a few people in the gallery, then people are more likely to miss the text and stick to the work’s persona as a modernist painting. But if they see another person reading the text, then it usually prompts them to investigate further. Or better yet, a viewer might actually bring a friend over to the work and show them the text, making it an even more intimate experience. In a crowded gallery, it’s like a nuclear reaction. People discover the text and then show others what they’ve found; then they show more people and so on. So it really doesn’t bother me when someone doesn’t notice the text. I just think of them as someone who hasn’t seen it...yet. The delay in seeing makes the eventual discovery all the more interesting.

Cougar/Milf needs a boy toy – MW4M – 41
2010
Ralph Lauren brand paint chip samples on panel
12 X 18 in / 30 X 46 cm

 OPP: The Bridle Creek Casket (2008) stands out as so different from the rest of the work, although I see the connection to the bouquets made from Ralph Lauren shirts, because they look so funerary. What is being mourned in these pieces? What led to the building of the casket?

CSS: The casket and the flower arrangements came from a series of work titled Afterlifestyle, which I worked on after moving from London to Brooklyn in 2007. Living overseas during a time of war was an eye-opening experience. In the United Kingdom, I was constantly aware of developments in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Discussion of the wars was everywhere; you read it in the papers, heard about it on the radio, and it was a common topic of conversation amongst friends and colleagues. Ironically, the only time that I escaped the coverage was during visits to the United States. With the exception of the occasional faded yellow-ribbon car magnet, you could go weeks without realizing that you were in a nation that was embroiled in two wars. I would go to restaurants and stores or watch television and see very little evidence of shared sacrifice. It was as if everyone had taken the “go to Disney World” advice and applied it to their everyday lives.

With the Afterlifestyle series, I wanted to explore the theory that widespread over-consumption can result in a self-induced social blindness. I was questioning whether the pleasure that comes from excess can trump grief and anxiety, even in the most extreme circumstances. Can one really reflect on the geopolitical situation during a trip to IKEA? Is it possible to worry about your own mortality while selecting a sofa? Consumer products seemed to be the materials with which people build and adorn their own private suburban oases in order to separate themselves from the perceived dangers of the outside world. I wanted to see what would happen if you extended the good feeling that comes with the “Good Life” beyond the normal clothing, furniture and the other accoutrements of material success. It was my way of envisioning a society where the American Dream extended beyond life. If I could create a product that made preparing for one’s own death more like picking out a new pair of shoes or selecting a wallpaper pattern, would the experience become more enjoyable?

So to answer the question, I made The Bridle Creek Casket to see if purchasing a coffin has to always be a sorrowful experience or if it is possible to take the buyer’s mind off of their ultimate demise if the coffin is made from reclaimed heart pine siding with a 400-thread-count Egyptian cotton percale lining and hinges from a century-old barn in Maine.

The Heritage Pointe Spray
2008
Ralph Lauren Shirts, reclaimed barn wood, wire, floral tape
30 X 20 X 12 in / 76 X 51 X 30 cm

OPP: Anything new in the works?

CSS: Yes, in fact I’m in the middle of what might be the greatest periods of change since I stopped painting and started using paint chips. I’m on schedule to show with my gallery, Masters and Pelavin, in New York every other year, so I have a full two-year period to develop a body of work between shows. I haven’t had this much uninterrupted time in the studio since graduating with my BA, so it has given me the opportunity to completely re-evaluate my studio practice. Lately I’ve been fascinated with the role nostalgia plays in consumer culture, especially with brands such as Ralph Lauren and Anthropologie. I’ve made several road trips between New York and Cincinnati, stopping at antique stores along the way and picking up objects to incorporate into my work. When I show again in 2013 you’ll see many of the mosaics housed in vintage mirror frames, some of them double sided, incorporating both the text and images from Craigslist posts.

Sculpture is something I’ve dabbled in over the years, but in my current work, it has taken a starring role. With the sculptures you’ll see the flower arrangements made from Ralph Lauren shirts combined with micro-paint chip mosaics—often composed inside of R.L. gift boxes or on the back of shirt hang tags—and vintage items such as tables, shelves, and blown-glass taxidermy display domes. The palate of the entire collection of work is very floral, with lots of greens, pinks, violets, and yellows. I’ve also become interested in the variety of ways gardens have been depicted as sexual sanctuaries throughout the ages—from the more judgmental themes in Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights to the lighter depictions of medieval Gardens of Love in 15th century art and poetry—so there are also strong religious themes emerging in this body of work.

To view more work by Carlton Scott Sturgill, please visit carltonscottsturgill.com.

What I Like about Artists’ Websites : by Jason Foumberg for OtherPeoplesPixels

OPP: Today we have something special for you! A guest post from OtherPeoplesPixels' pal: art critic, writer, curator & all-around gentleman, JASON FOUMBERG. We're excited to have his experienced take on what makes a great artist's website. If you’re interested in writing about artists’ practices for the OPPblog, you can send a proposed topic and links to work samples to blog [at] otherpeoplespixels.com

JF: Hi, I’m an art writer based in Chicago, and I often work on special research projects that detail currents in contemporary art. For example, I might get an assignment from an editor like this: “Report on radical approaches to contemporary sculpture. 500 words due Friday.” To begin, I’ll sketch a few ideas and then think about artists who expand the article’s concept. I love to write about emerging artists and to give them their first spotlight in print, so I don’t reach for the nearest contemporary art textbook for examples; I’m looking to the web. Websites are usually my first contact with an unfamiliar artist. If I like what I see, then I schedule a studio visit or attend a show. So here’s some tips for maximizing the effectiveness of your website:

New work: Differentiate newer work from old. Have a separate, changing section that shows me what you’re up to now. And update it often.

Image captions: Is that gouache or dried pig’s blood? Media descriptions are important. Dimensions and dates are handy too.

News: What’s going on in your life? Maybe you don’t have a current or upcoming show, but are you away at a residency? Relocating your studio to the forest? Geeking out on a new recipe for egg tempera? All of that is relevant.

Text: You think visually—that’s why you’re a visual artist (and that’s why we love you). But sometimes photo documentation of your work doesn’t quite capture the subtleties. Or maybe your project is concept-heavy, for which the viewer needs to know a lot of preliminary information. Text is helpful here, sometimes even necessary. It can even be as simple as: “This is a project where I painted every sweater that Bill Cosby ever wore.” Good to know.

Interesting digression: I read tons of artist statements and press releases (and occasionally sit on grant and exhibition jury panels). Too often, artists’ texts are terribly difficult to get through. It’s not just grammar or spelling that leaves a bad impression; usually there’s too much highfalutin verbiage, misleading introductions, or bland jargon. Here are some writing tips: put your main ideas up front, be clear, concise, and unique, and make it personal.

Links: I know it’s kind of a circa 2002 idea to put a links page on your website, but if I’m interested in your work and I want to know about other artists in your community, a links page is helpful. Share the love.

Organization: Don’t make viewers open 18 folders to finally see one image. Categories are fine, but think about streamlining your portfolio.

Websites are a good way for me to keep up with what you’re doing. After I see your show, I’ll want to stay informed about your latest projects. So keep it up(dated)!

Was this helpful? Jason collaborates with artists on exhibition catalog essays and design, artist statements, grant proposals, press releases and website texts. As an editor Jason works with artists to refine the message and intention of an artist’s project. You can get in touch with him though his site at jasonfoumberg.com

JASON FOUMBERG contributes art criticism to Frieze, Modern Painters, Photograph, and Sculpture. He is the editor of the art section and contributing columnist for Newcity, an alt-weekly based in Chicago. Jason serves on grant and exhibition panels, is a visiting critic for art schools, contributes essays for museums and university galleries, and curates contemporary art exhibitions.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Regina Mamou

Chartres Cathedral
2012
Digital C-Print
55 x 70 in.

REGINA MAMOU's large format photography explores collective and personal memory in relation to geography and space. Her conceptual practice revolves around extended research and time spent at her chosen shooting sites. Regina is currently an adjunct lecturer in the Art Institute of Chicago's Department of Museum Education and has recently been a study leader on AIC travel programs to Cuba. She lives in Chicago, IL.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Your work seems to teeter on the edge between conceptual and documentary photography. How do you identify as a photographer?

Regina Mamou: I identify as a conceptual artist working in photography with a practice that embodies the interests of a researcher and documentarian. I rarely photograph a location that I have not traveled to or spent an extended period of time investigating. I differentiate my work from travel or tourist photography in that I am cautious about taking photographs. My process is slow and methodical, as I am shooting in large format, using a Calumet 4x5 monorail view camera, and this technical process actually slows me down considerably. I appreciate the delay, however, and use it to my advantage.

For example, when I was in Amman, Jordan, completing the project Mapping Collected Memory (2009–10) on a 15-month Fulbright Fellowship, I was studying Arabic intensively for the first 7 months. I used my off-hours to conduct preliminary research. During this time, I mentally plotted my shooting locations while driving and walking around the city, memorizing different points of interest. Much of the work occurred as an attempt to visualize these key locations before they ever became still images. As a foreigner in the Middle East, I felt nervous about depicting and representing a place, without having a personal relationship to it first.

Most recently, I finished the project Pictures for Conceptual Living (2012), based on the utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana. I visited the town prior to creating the images, and I spent several months ruminating on the set-up of the images, as well as the area’s history, before returning to the location. 
Richard Meier's Vision for Athene, Night (Center Panel, Triptych)
2012
Digital C-Print
70 x 55 in.

OPP: What was your first experience as a photographer? 

RM: My first experience as a photographer occurred as a teenager. I would often photograph a subject just to see how it would turn out as a still image. I really did not have a particular style at this point. I was simply curious about the technical processes of the camera. I made many errors with the equipment, but I was often more interested in my outtakes than my composed shots. Over time, my practice has sort of flip-flopped, so that my images have become meditative and composed.

OPP: You have dealt with the themes of memory and trauma in relation to geography and the body. It seems like your earlier work was more personal, in that you used yourself more often as a subject, and now you are working with more collective memories. I'm wondering if the video Trying to Remember (2007) was a transitional piece for you? In terms of timing and because it links trauma to location, it seems that it might have been a turning point.

RM: Trying to Remember was definitely a turning point in my work. It was one of the last pieces that I made as an MFA student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Prior to this, I had spent most of my time producing still images and videos in domestic settings, e.g. my apartment or interior spaces, including underground pedestrian tunnels and warehouses. These enclosed spaces felt comfortable to me for a variety of reasons. There, I could take my time and configure the camera without being on public display. I could explore intimate and vulnerable subject matter in a private setting.

My earlier work deals with illness, specifically an experience that I went through when I was in my early twenties. As I became distanced from this period in my life, the experience drifted to the background in my work. I think of Trying to Remember as my debutante piece in a way. I literally stepped out in a public space, and produced my first video in an outdoor setting. It was incredibly challenging, both mentally and physically, because I was self-conscious in my new surroundings, and it was brutally cold. Even though the piece only lasts about 5 minutes, it took me over an hour to create the work. So, it was an endurance piece in the sense that I was determined to produce this out of doors; I would not leave until I was satisfied, even though I was positioned by a major road, and anybody driving by could watch me. The concept for the video was completely improvised, and when I arrived on location, I realized that the discomfort and dislocation that I felt in a new environment, and a sense of confusion, could be played up for the camera. This sense of trying to reclaim familiarity in an unfamiliar situation aptly described my desire to seek out a new shooting style in my subsequent projects, and led me to completely shift my interests. 

Trying to Remember
2007
Still from Digital Video, Single-Channel
5 min 17 sec (looped)

OPP: Could you talk a bit about the differences involved in shooting on site, responding to a location, and shooting inside with yourself as a subject? Do you prefer one way of working?

RM: Working inside with myself as a subject served me for a period of time: it was a necessary working process. But eventually, to put it plainly, I became bored with using myself as a subject. I felt that I had exhausted all of the angles, there was no nuance left in the process. I did not want to make self-portraiture my artistic oeuvre; it can be incredibly limiting and confining. Learning how to research a particular environment and planning an excursion to document a location excites me. There is more chance and spontaneity involved in the process. I cannot control an external environment in the same way that I can with my domestic setting, but this has been a positive outcome for me. All of these elements also fit with my current position as an adjunct lecturer at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of Museum Education, and as a study leader on international travel programs. I research and plan lectures for a wide range of adult audiences. I am constantly learning and expanding my knowledge about particular periods of art and making new connections with the museum’s collection. I enjoy connecting the dots between my work as a lecturer and as an artist, as there are many overlapping elements and threads here. Incorporating extended research into my artistic practice is a fertile source. 

From top to bottom: 78 rpm (1s) (4s), 78 rpm (2s) (2s), 78 rpm (4s) (1s)
2011
Digital C-Print
28 x 66 in.; each image 20 x 24 in.

OPP: You've mentioned your 2009-2010 Fulbright Fellowship to Amman, Jordan. Why did you choose this site?

RM: I was born in the Detroit area to an Iraqi father and American mother. This experience has shaped my interest in learning the Arabic language and traveling to the Middle East. My extended family immigrated to the United States during the First Gulf War from 1990 to 1991. They had temporarily lived in Amman after leaving Iraq. I have childhood memories of my father watching CNN’s coverage of the war and calling his family in Amman after they had just left Baghdad. I grew up hearing stories about and seeing media coverage of the Middle East. I listened to the language between members of my extended family. But, I had never visited this place. I didn't have my own perspective and memories about it. After graduate school, I decided that it would be important to visit Amman and to live there. I wanted to have an extended experience with Jordan, not just as a tourist.
Circles 1–8
2010
Digital C-Print
40 x 50 in.

OPP: Tell us about the project you completed there called Mapping Collected Memory.

RM: I became drawn to the concept of forming my own perspective and memories in the Middle East. As I began studying the Arabic language and researching my proposal for the Fulbright, I came across “Urban Crossroads,” a regular column written by Mohammad al-Asad, the founding director of the Center for the Study of the Built Environment (CSBE) in Amman. In one particular article by al-Asad, “Amman Street Maps: A New Frontier,” he details the process of navigating the city using visual aids, as opposed to formal house numbers and street addresses, which were only recently implemented in the city in 2007.

Through my Fulbright project I developed Mapping Collected Memory (2009–10), a project based on navigating Amman using verbal directions and visual aids. When I arrived in the city, I sent out a call for participation through various art organizations for informally guided tours of the city, where I could learn about popular and unusual landmarks and points of interest in Amman. I would document this process through video, and later, I would return to the locations to document the landmarks, and to make portraits of my guides. So, you see, the project was conceptual in nature, it was an ephemeral experience of navigating the city, a process that could only be traced through documentation: the product of these guided tours became the photographs and videos. The conundrum of this action is that the imagery explicitly speaks to my experience of the city, not necessarily of my guide’s actions, as I am deciding what to photograph, how to compose the images, etc.

OPP:  Did the resulting project end up in line with what you proposed? What kind of unexpected things changed the project as you went along?

RM: In some ways my final work lined up with what I had proposed, but in other ways it did not. Mainly, I had not considered that Amman is more of a driving city than a pedestrian city. I had conceived of the project around walking tours, and I realized that most people did not walk from their starting to ending points; they drove or took a taxi. So I had to fit vehicular transportation into the project. I shot a lot of video footage out of taxis, in addition to walking around. Also, I shot most of my work starting at 4:00 a.m. on Friday mornings, which is the start of the weekend in Jordan. The reason being that I was incredibly self-aware when I was using a large format camera and wanted to be able to take 20–30 minutes to compose an image. As a result, the light usually indicates that the images have been taken at sunrise, and the spaces are very still and unpopulated. I think this is an interesting contrast to the city, which is normally bustling and full of traffic during the day. It imbues the images with a sense of calmness that I didn’t necessarily experience on a daily basis.

When I Arrived I Came Here First
2008
Digital C-Print
64 x 48 in.

OPP: You've also done some curatorial projects. Was this something you set out to do or something you were invited to do? How does curation fit into your art practice as a whole?

RM: The curatorial projects that I have participated in, both in physical space and cyberspace, were invitational opportunities. I have really appreciated these experiences to curate, which leaves me with a newfound appreciation for the amount of work that goes into producing an exhibition. For example, I co-curated with Scott Patrick Wiener, Remember Then: An Exhibition on the Photography of Memory at Harvard University. This was an incredible learning experience, and a challenging one. For Remember Then, Scott and I were both abroad at this point; he was in Germany and I was in Jordan. The exhibition coordination was complicated, as we were working with 20 artists based in the U.S. and abroad, and we worked out most of the details via Skype. But I learned a lot about the process, many dos and don’ts. I have found that being an artist has its major advantages as a curator, since I think about how I would want my work to be treated or handled in many situations; I am able to put myself in the artist’s position. I have been wearing a lot of hats over the past two years – curator, artist, writer, lecturer – and all of these roles have contributed to developing a wider, more diverse and informed practice as a visual artist; one always informs the other.

To view more of Regina's work, please visit reginamamou.com.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Doug Crocco

Turn Your Back On The Hate They Want You To Become
2008
Color Pencil on Paper
32"x40"

DOUG CROCCO uses color pencils to create detailed drawings which reveal the uncertainty of our cultural and ecological moment. He uses pithy text and pop culture visuals to explore where we are as a culture in relation to the precarity of crumbling structures. He received his MFA from Claremont Graduate University in 2003. Doug lives and works in Los Angeles, California.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You work in exclusively color pencils. How did you start using this drawing medium?

Doug Crocco: I've always drawn with color pencils. As a child, I would redraw things like garbage pail kids and cartoon characters with them. In undergrad I played around a lot with assemblage and painting and built a large body of work that was heavy and hard to manage. All the while, I habitually maintained intense sketch books. Since I move a lot, eventually the weight of the paintings lost out to the transportability and ease of storing works on paper. I can put 100 works in a box and that equals a win for me. :)

OPP: What do you love about the medium?

DC: I love drawing period. I love the activity, the hand to surface interaction. I love the freedom of the line. The line can go anywhere and become anything. I also love how color pencils, which are wax, become like paint when you build up the surface. It can become like liquid if you know how to manipulate it.

The Prism of Narcissism
2011
color pencil on paper
17"x14"

OPP: What are some of the limitations?

DC: I don't believe drawings have limitations. In fact I believe the opposite: drawings are transformative, in the sense that you can draw anything. I can draw a sculpture or an abstract space. I can draw a landscape or a flat text piece. Technically I can create the feel of printmaking, painting, or images that are loose sketches of ideas or movements. To draw is to be liberated and to know no limitations.

OPP: Your 2008 series Entropy is a juxtaposition of visuals and text which represent seemingly disparate modes of operating in the face of uncertainty. The colorful drawings with Winnie the Pooh backgrounds evoke a (potentially) overly-sunny disposition, while the black and white drawings evoke heavy metal and hard rock, leading me to think of anxious aggression. Can you talk about this juxtaposition?

DC: This body of work was meant to create a dialog between the images which you have picked up on. The Poohs, as I call them, aren't purely saccharin. I actually find them quite sad, as they plead the viewer to contemplate archetypal idealism while simultaneously being confronted with images that celebrate aggression and dark energy. For example, VIVA DEATH is based on a Bush era campaign button that read "Viva Bush." It was used to target the Hispanic American vote. I turned it into black and white and inserted death, so that it reads live to die, or long live death. I also liked the yin-yang feel of it, conceptually and visually. So when you have an image that reads HOLD ON TO OUR LOVE which implies love is escaping you, next to VIVA DEATH, you are simultaneously engaging polar paradigms that may seem disparate but are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. It is up to the viewer to identify with the imagery. These works also reference the ideas in two books I would recommend, The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff and Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace by Gore Vidal.

Executive Power
2008
Color Pencil on Paper
40"x32"

OPP: A lot of your work seems to be about the idea that something is falling apart, both in terms of nature and culture. I see an underlying sense of anxiety peaking through a thin coat of optimism. I can't decide if the optimism is real or just sleight of hand, as used in the advertising you reference in the graphic text you draw. Are you more anxious or more optimistic about the state of things?

DC: Well, if one reads the newspapers, it's easy to come to the conclusion that, yes, in fact, things are falling apart. There are more global crises than I have fingers to count them on, and someone mentioned to me the other day that the end of the world was in December. As every day on the calendar ticks off, people are becoming more and more anxious for good reason. I recently made a piece called Cliff Notes on The Rise and Fall of Western Civilization, because the book would take to long to read, and I only have the attention span to read headlines anyways. I have some musician buddies that made an album called Americas Idle. Brilliant.

In general, I am optimistic, because I think you can't suppress or pervert the good nature of humans forever. I also believe that there is enough money and brainpower on this planet to fix anything, despite the ambitions of a few to hoard wealth and dictate the course of history. Yes, I have a degree in advertising and employ some of the tricks of the trade. I like to think of it as my brand of inverse MK Ultra. But, at the end of the day, it is important for all art to maintain some sense of mystery.
 
Sea Change
2012
color pencil on paper
17"x14"

OPP: Can you talk about the shift to abstraction in your newest drawings, Quantum Structures?

DC: Yes. It's actually a nice transition from your last question. While not completely separate from my other works, these are more about the invisible. I wanted to create a group of conceptual abstractions that dealt with things that were governed by the laws of nature and not men. They were also a nice break for me to create visual mathematical puzzles. For example, I made an image I called An Algorithm For Fire, which is a fun idea. I recently read The Grand Design, or, as I call it, Stephen Hawking's quest to rationalize why a computer talks for him. Before this, I read a bunch of books on M-theory. I'm fascinated by the superstructures and laws, whether man-made or omnipresent, that govern our lives. I am also interested in the here and now; perhaps I'll draw some nano tech snow flakes next.

OPP: When you talk about the laws of nature vs. the laws of man, I think of an older body of work called New Forms (2006). The hybrid animals could either be the result of man's muddling in nature or the result of some kind of evolution that we can't understand yet. Can you talk about your intentions in this body of work?

DC: I grew up in Miami, but my mother is what you might call a Los Alamos Baby. Both my grandparents worked at Los Alamos Laboratories for over 30 years. When I was a kid, my grandfather told me stories about what was going on there. Beyond all the nuclear research, they are also heavily involved with genetic engineering. I have been making work referencing those stories and these sort of ideas since 2000. However, they are more mainstream now. I just read how scientists have altered cows so that they produce milk that lactose intolerant humans can ingest. I also read about how Monsanto recently made corn that explodes the stomachs of insects. While the possibilities of bio engineering are mind blowing, I feel we are playing with fire. My last piece of that series was entitled Serpents, which is also the title of my favorite Jeff Koons piece. Both have a candy-coated, creepy feel that I get when I think about whats going on.

Rabbidillo
2006
Color Pencil on Paper
19"x24"

OPP: Do you have an overall favorite piece by another artist? 

DC: I love art. I am a self-described looker, and, in saying that, I can back it up. I go to a lot of the big art fairs and, having lived in NYC and LA, I have seen hundreds of gallery and museum shows. I also look at tons of art online. I'm telling you this to justify my answer of no. I have no favorite piece, because there are hundreds that I love. I think the easiest way to appreciate my taste is to take a second to look at my other website: www.cult2vader.com. It's a visual image bank of things that I'm looking at, and I update it often. The images are all hyper-linked, so if you see something you like, you can easily get more info. I often refer collectors who I consult for to it as a starting point.

OPP: What's your favorite piece of your own work?

DC: It's usually the one I just made. Right now it's a toss up between my latest flag piece and an abstract piece Mr. Hawkins could appreciate called The Possibility of Infinite Possibilities.

To view more of Doug's work, please visit dougcrocco.com.


OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Giselle Hicks

And Then It Was Still
2012
Vitreous China, Glaze, Wood
Detail

GISELLE HICKS makes sculptural objects and installations, which reference emotionally charged sites within the home, such as the bed and the table. Her intricate inlaid surfaces echo her belief that "their surfaces [are] absorbent, retaining traces of our presence and our histories." Hicks is a long-term resident artist at The Clay Studio and will soon begin at short-term residency at Red Lodge Clay Center in Montana. Her work is on display through the summer at the Ferrin Gallery in a show called COVET. Giselle Hicks lives in Philadelphia, PA.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Do you identify yourself a ceramicist or as a sculptor? Is this distinction even relevant?

Giselle Hicks: I identify as a ceramic artist. I used to think that was a limiting distinction to make, but clay is a complex material. It has taken a long time to understand enough about it to be able to say what I want to say with it. I think of it as learning a language: with practice, you start to think in that language. At this point I think with the clay. I don’t see that as limitation. Rather I am getting closer to being able to clearly articulate my ideas with this material. 

I am conscientious about the material being conceptually appropriate. I often wonder if I could express my ideas through another, more immediate or less complex technical process. But there is something about the weight and density of the material, as well as the labor and time-intensive process that appeal to my artistic sensibility and concepts. Making, particularly with clay, is a way for me to feel located in my body and in a space. I value manual labor, working with my hands and body.

I was drawn to ceramics on a basic, sensorial level. I liked the way it felt, smelled and looked. It seemed to offer endless possibilities for transformation. I could make it look like fabric, wood, metal, paper, or mud. As a student, I wanted to learn everything about the material or—to follow the language metaphor—I wanted to be fluent in this material. Eventually, I became enamored with the expansive history and its place within our material culture.

Pattern Language
2010
Slip cast porcelain, terra sigillata, wood, graphite
Detail

OPP: You've been an ARTS/Industry resident artist at the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Wisconsin in 2005 and in 2012. Tell us about this program and how it has expanded or changed your work.

GH: The ARTS/Industry residency at the John Michael Kohler Art Center provides artists with time, space, materials and exposure to technical knowledge within the factory. The studio space is on the factory floor adjacent to the associates casting toilets and sinks. Artists use the same materials, glazes, kilns that are used in the factory to make their own work.

It is a fantastic and strange environment to work in. It is big, loud, and hot. I marveled at the scale and complexity of the systems engineered to produce and distribute toilets and sinks. I loved walking through the factory every day. The novelty never wore off.

The first time I applied, I wanted to learn more about slip casting in order to create multiples as a means of increasing the scale of my work. Since then, I almost exclusively use the slip casting process to make my work. The technicians and engineers at the factory were incredibly generous with their expansive knowledge of the material and helped me to troubleshoot throughout the process—whether it was building a mold, casting, glazing, firing. There is a big learning curve in that environment, and the material is engineered specifically to cast toilets and sinks. We were working with the same material, but in a totally different way and for different purposes.

The residency changed my understanding of what is possible with this material and what I am capable of doing with it. My imagination continues to expand when I daydream about work. I am so incredibly grateful for my time there.
The middle is where we begin
2010
Slip cast porcelain, glaze, wood plinth
13 x 2’ (height variable)

OPP: Does access to facilities affect what you are making at any given time?

GH: Absolutely. The times I was able to work on a larger scale were at Kohler or in grad school where I also had access to large kilns, appropriate equipment, and a large studio to produce the work. The scale of the work is important to me. I want the work to be the size of a real bed, quilt, table, or curtain, because though I refer to them as ‘beds’ or ‘quilts’, for instance, they really are abstractions of those things. I want the viewer to recognize them through their scale and proportions, then understand or experience the work from there.

OPP: You have a body of work called Textiles. Many pieces refer directly to quilts in their titles, such as White Quilt (2005) and Floral Quilt (2011). Others, like Floral Panel with Horizontal Tiles (2011) remind me of folded linens stacked up after doing the laundry. What's most interesting about this work for me is the tension between the hard and the soft. You are referring to functional things that carry a lot of emotional weight in all our lives. Quilts and pillows and linens embody care, comfort, and warmth. They are very connected to our bodies. But porcelain is hard and often cold. Can you talk about the opposition of hard and soft in this series?

GH: When I first started making these pieces in 2005, I was thinking about seduction. I wanted the viewer to be drawn to the familiar objects because of the beautiful pattern and material sensuality—they invited touch, appearing soft and pliable. But when the viewer came within an intimate proximity of the work, s/he found the work to be hard, unyielding, and cold. I was skeptical of the power of beauty and the false expectations that it could create.

Now I think about wanting to translate that emotional weight that you mention into a physical form or presence—to make it take up space, permanently. I imagine that the surfaces of the bed and table absorb and retain the traces of our presence. Stories, secrets, voices and gestures become part of their structure. As I use these objects or inhabit these sites, routinely and ritually, they take on a symbolic charge. The weight and density of the symbol increases as experiences layer over and weave into one another. I want to give form to that symbolic weight. And I want it to be beautiful as well as strong and dense and permanent.

My recent and most general artist statement, which describes my compulsion to make things, speaks to this . I know we all hit the snooze button as soon as artists mention memory in their artist statements, but here goes… Memories have a weight that can be felt within the body. Though they change over time, fading or shifting, there is often a sense or a tone associated with them when they surface. This is something difficult to name, but I am compelled to give that weight a form, to move it out from within my body. My work is an attempt to manifest that sense visually and physically.
Embedded
2010
Slip cast porcelain, glaze
Detail

OPP: There is some intensely intricate drawing on the surfaces of most of your pieces, as seen in the Textiles and in Embedded (2010).  Please explain the process by which you add the designs to your porcelain sculptures.

GH: The patterns I use are inlayed into the surface of the clay using a technique called mishima. First I make a prototype of the form out of plaster or clay and make a mold of that. I then cast the forms using a porcelain slip. When the hollow form comes out of the mold, I draw the pattern into the surface with a sharp stylus. Once the carving is complete, I paint a colored slip over the whole design, then sand the entire form with steel wool once the form is bone dry. The colored slip remains in the carved line. I use a glaze over the design formulated to run in the firing, but cool to a matte, sugar-like surface. The form looks soft and the pattern is softened and blurred and often looks aged or weathered. I also want the pattern to be embedded in the surface of the clay so that it is part of the object, just as embroidered thread is woven into the fabric of a quilt.

With a piece as large as Embedded, I carved the line into the original prototype so I wouldn’t have to carve the intricate pattern into each of the ninety-one pieces. It saved quite a bit of time. But usually I enjoy the time it takes to draw on each piece. I gravitate towards processes in my studio that are labor-intensive, repetitive, and rhythmic. Repetition provides an element of predictability, which allows space for the unpredictable and the uncontrolled to enter my realm without being overwhelming or destructive. It opens up space where my imagination can roam around.
 

And Then It Was Still
2012
Vitreous China, Glaze, Wood
50 x 80 x 24"

OPP: Your most recent sculpture And Then It Was Still (2012) is a 3D still life. In your statement about the piece, you talk about the "struggle to hold on to and make still the complex beauty […] in the small, fleeting, everyday moments." This piece made me think instantly of Memento Mori, although it doesn't have any of the traditional elements like skulls, hour glasses or dying flowers. There is something about the flowers frozen in their living state, but it this hard, monochrome material that seems almost funerary, like a gravestone or monument. Does this resonate with you?

GH: Yes. The idea for this piece came from wanting to hold on to something beautiful that had passed. That desire had elements of both mourning and celebration.

In Elaine Scarry’s book, On Beauty and Being Just, she says that when one encounters true beauty, it incites the desire to replicate as a way of possessing the original beautiful thing through a new language or form. The act of replication provides a new sensory experience by which to experience or re-experience the original beautiful thing. When we see a beautiful flower, we want to draw it, make it, or take a picture of it. When we meet a beautiful person we want to write a song or a poem about them. Beauty, by definition, is self-generating. Beauty begets more beauty.

But I think there is something kind of sad about this pursuit to replicate or hold onto the beautiful thing. It is a vain and futile pursuit, in that you can never truly have the original beautiful thing, moment, or feeling back. The futility is balanced out by the hope that propels us forward towards replication of the beauty. In the 17th century European Still Life paintings, the fragile beauty of flowers is made permanently still in the exquisitely painted object and, thus, shared across time as a concept of beauty.

The beauty I find myself chasing is in the small, fleeting moments of human interaction —the characteristic or sense of a person, an exchange with a loved one, or an exuberant meal shared with family and friends. I want to make those things still, to give them form and make them take up space. Even though they are invisible and ephemeral, they are so powerful upon impact. They are dense and layered, and I want to study them, marvel at them, and re-live them. My work gives me a way to do that.

To see more work by Giselle Hicks, please visit gisellehicks.com.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Dan Schank

Top Model
2011
Mixed media: pencil, gouache, watercolor, india ink and paper collage on board
16" by 20"

DAN SCHANK's mixed media works combine painting, drawing and collage to reveal a desolate post-apocalyptic, but surprisingly decorative landscape. He uses aesthetics to balance a tendency to see only doom in his world of ruins, asking the viewer to also note the triumph of nature as it wins its territory back from civilization. His newest series Dropouts will be at Rebekah Templeton Contemporary Art in Philadelphia from September 13th through October 20th, 2012. Dan Schank lives in Erie, PA.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Please tell us about the process of making your collage, paintings and drawings on board. How much is cutting? How much is painting? Does one part come before the other?

Dan Schank: For about seven years, I've worked exclusively with cut paper on panel. Almost all of the painting is done on small sheets of paper (usually with gouache, pencil and India ink), which are later cut according to my specifications and adhered to the board's surface. Generally, at least two-thirds of the overall labor is done before I begin attaching things to the panels. The painting process takes the vast majority of my time, because the imagery is almost always repetitive and highly detailed. Cutting things out is time consuming as well, for the same reasons. On the other hand, the process usually comes to life for me when I finally get to arrange all the bits and apply them to the surface. This stage is the most intuitive, risky, and rewarding, despite taking the least amount of time.
Wrap It Up
2009
Mixed media: pencil, gouache, watercolor, india ink and paper collage on board
12" by 12"

OPP: What's most interesting about your work for me is the juxtaposition of the decorative with the post-apocalyptic. Your work is filled with walled-in, fortified dwellings that are partly built on old clothes and blankets and cushions. There's a lot of push and pull between soft and hard, protection and comfort. But the decorative elements don't only come from decorative objects. Sometimes the smoke, clouds and fire are patterned as well, as in Broken Eggs for Breakfast (2008). How do aesthetics, like pattern, color and flatness, relate to your subject matter?

DS: There are a number of potential problems I encounter while working with apocalyptic imagery. For example, any time I aestheticize an image of social unrest, I run the risk of treating real-world inequality as something titillating and exotic. There's been an interesting conversation about this issue surrounding the rise of “ruin porn” photographyand the emergence of Detroit as the photographic emblem of contemporary squalor. At their worst, these images can supplement a growing fatalism about shared social spaces in America. When the visuals are too bogged down in death and decline, it becomes hard to recognize any need for social responsibility or potential for transformation. Many of the contradictions you've noted in your question (soft/hard, decorative/disturbing, etc.) are, in a sense, my attempt to transform my own ruinous imagery into something less distant and more intimate.

My work is in large part a response to the physical landscape that surrounds me. For example, in the part of Philadelphia I lived in for nine years (Fishtown), gentrification produces as much waste as decay or neglect. In that part of town, old row homes are constantly being destroyed, dismantled or upgraded. These transformations produce plenty of discarded remains, and often make class distinctions in the neighborhood (which is an oil-and-water mix of working class families and aging hipsters like myself) explicitly visible. In Fishtown, ultra-modern, eco-friendly condominiums sit wedged between corner stores and boarded up buildings. It's not simply a landscape of desolation or abandonmentit's also a world of scaffolds, plywood and endless construction. Innovation, inequality, commerce and counterculture coexist simultaneously. I have conflicting feelings about this, some positive and some negative. Hopefully my approach to aesthetics reflects my uncertainty.

Something that I think has been a bit lacking in the critical response to “ruin porn” is a real engagement with its depiction of the non-man-made world. When I look at the “feral houses” of photographer James D. Griffioen, for example, I don't immediately lament the “death of an American city” or whatever. Instead, I marvel at the ability of the natural world to reclaim human spaces. The images are, in a sense, full of life. It's just plant life instead of human life. Obviously, there's a danger here of reducing real social conditions to the sublimeif I lived beside one of Griffioen's specimens, I'm sure my aesthetic admiration for them would wear out quickly. Still, I really respond to his concept of natureas something resilient, invasive, wild, and unwarranted. It's like “the return of the repressed” applied to botany. By decentralizing the human fingerprint, Griffioen's images force me to reconsider my place in the world's ecology, as well as my presumed hegemony over it as a member of the human race.

My paintings are obviously and intentionally apocalyptic. But my work isn't only a response to urban decay. It's also a response to human innovation, “natural world” innovation, and my own weirdo anxieties. Its apocalyptic bombast is always tempered by the intimate circumstances of my everyday life. I think this is where the softness you recognize in the paintings fits in. I'm not interested in rendering some icy culture-in-decline. I've lived a life of considerable privilege and that's not my reality.
Be Quiet
2006
mixed media: colored pencil, gouache and paper collage on board
18" by 24"

OPP: These landscapes are completely unpeopled. In some pieces, it seems that the shirts and ties and blocks are just remnants of a dead civilization. But in others, like What's Next (2010), houseplants and smoke coming from the chimney makes me think that people have survived. Are there people inside the dwellings you draw? Do you have stories for them?

DS: For me, it's more about rendering a universe than telling a story. There are no linear narratives hidden within my paintings, but I like to think they all take place in the same world. The artists who influence me most – like the painter Philip Guston or the filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liangtend to produce work that exists within its own evolving, idiosyncratic (yet clearly defined) universe as well.

I definitely don't look at my landscapes as remnants of a dead civilization for reasons listed above. But I do avoid depicting people directly. There are a number of reasons for this. One is a matter of scale. I love playing with different concepts of spaceperspectival space, decorative space, isometric space, and so onand this makes proportional scale difficult to comprehend. I like this uncertainty, and I fear that if I added a recognizable figure to my ingredients, the other imagery would automatically organize itself around it. In any landscape painting, it's always tempting to imagine oneself inhabiting the space depicted. I like the idea of someone looking at my work and having to really think through how (and where) that might be possible.

I also try to bestow as much personality as possible onto the objects I depict. In a sense, I think of the “stuff” in my work (potted plants, laundry, deck chairs, etc.) as figures. When I was a kid, I always loved the fantasy of my belongings coming to life. This might sound sentimental, but I try to retain a bit of that spirit as an adult. When I think of objects having, let's say, a lifelike significance, it becomes harder to ignore them, discard them or take them for granted. I guess I want to live in a world where people are more eager to notice things in general. By denying the easy empathy of a face or body , I try to encourage more active engagement.
Public Relations
2011
Mixed media: pencil, gouache, watercolor, india ink and paper collage on board
30" by 40"

OPP: Your style evokes the flatness of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints. Is that an influence for you?

DS: When I first started seriously painting, a lot of my imagery was coming much more directly from a Pop Art aesthetic. By the time I got to grad school, my work was becoming much less of a response to pop culture, and I began looking for a different approach. One thing I've retained from my early days is an interest in drawing, line-work, and gesture. I struggled to find a way to renew the drawing flourishes I'd developed through comic book imagery and the like, while distancing myself from the ironic trappings that can come from it. The Ukiyo-e printmaking tradition is something I turned to to sort this all out. There's a disciplined elegance to the draftsmanship that I really admire, as well as a flat-but-panoramic sense of space that helps me to organize my imagery.

I don't want to make too much of this, though. Ukiyo-e printmaking isn't something I've studied in great detail intellectually. And I certainly don't want my work to be seen as any critique of its ideology. But it's absolutely a style and practice I admire greatly. In fact, answering this question reminds me that I should devote more time to reading up on it!
Ride Lonesome
2012
Mixed media: pencil, gouache and paper collage on board
24" by 30"

OPP: Speaking of floating worlds, tell us about your newest series Dropouts.

DS: This will be my second solo show with Rebekah Templeton. They've always been very gracious and open-minded about my ideas, so I decided to try something more thematically unified than usual for the exhibition. In a nutshell, the paintings in Dropouts all respond to utopian sea colonization projects. I'll try my best to summarize the admittedly (gleefully?) convoluted concept behind it...

I got the idea for the series after reading an essay by the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, someone whose work and ideas I really admire. In it, Curtis tells the story of Knut Kloster, the co-founder of Norwegian Cruise lines. Kloster was apparently an extremely idealistic person who thought he could use his cruise ships as a way to introduce affluent communities to the third world, thus showcasing a more benevolent version of capitalism in the process. In Curtis' assessment, this proved disastrous, and the cruise ship industry slowly evolved in favor of the hedonism and escapism that defines it today, for better or worse.

The essay got me thinking of the “cruise ship at sea” as an updated (and extremely sanitized) variation on the  fantasy of the Western frontier. Frontier fantasies also tend to lurk beneath a lot of apocalyptic narratives. The romance behind both seems connected to the Hollywood Western mythos and the concept of manifest destiny. In the cruise ship fantasy, the ocean becomes a sublime terrain for tourists to venture off into. Instead of heading west in search of gold, one heads toward the Caribbean in search of rest and relaxation. In the apocalyptic version, a nuclear explosion or zombie epidemic transforms local space into a danger zone of potential catastrophe, thus rendering the familiar unfamiliar and promising foreboding, nomadic adventures of the kind John Wayne endures in Stagecoach.

These ideas sent me off on a week-long googling adventure, in search of anything and everything about utopias-at-sea. Eventually my cyber-sleuthing lead to more recent organizations like the Seasteading Institute, which takes the frontier fantasy a step further. At the Seasteading Institute, a group of libertarians and “anarcho-capitalists” (funded in part by Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal) are attempting to literally construct inhabitable islands in the ocean to escape the confines of government regulation. There's been a lot of press about the idea of “seasteading” recently, most of it taking its practitioners to task for being ridiculous (which is fair enough, in my opinion). But I also see seasteading as a perverse end game to the rise of extreme individualism that's occurred during my lifetime. These projects are like bizarro-world hippie communes, where all notions of social justice have been weeded out in favor of absolute self interest. Humankind becomes quite literally “an island unto itself.” As anti-establishment outposts, they're a far cry from the “property is theft” model of the 60's and 70's. Their utopia is my dystopia, I guess. Seasteading is emblematic of what I see as a growing inability to imagine social relations as something distinct from market relations.
In the Dropouts project, I've been combining some of the imagery pertaining to these utopian architectural models with my usual iconography. I'm also thinking a lot about the romance of the sea and its often melodramatic history in paintingthrough the imagery of the shipwreck, for example. It's been challenging to begin with source materials that are still, for the most part, an imagined ideal or fantasy. As I type this, with the exception of anomalies like the long-gone Republic of Minerva, no actual seasteads have been established. So the project stresses the fantasy element to a greater degree, and is more explicitly dystopic. For years, I've been painting ambiguously animate ruins of one kind or another. This time I'm beginning with ideological ruins in need of greater rehabilitation than usual.  

To see more of Dan's work, please visit danschank.com.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Laurel Roth

Plumage
2010
Mixed media including fake fingernails, nail polish, barrettes, false eyelashes, jewelry, walnut, Swarovski crystal
61" tall, 37" wide, and 22" deep

LAUREL ROTH uses such diverse art practices as carving, crocheting, weaving and assembling to make sculptures in an even wider range of materials. Her work explores parallels between humans and animals, using the cultural codes of her materials to reveal the nuances of the human impulse to modify ourselves and the natural world around us. She has been a long-term collaborator with last week’s Featured Artist Andy Diaz Hope. Roth exhibits internationally and currently lives in San Francisco, CA.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell us about your history as an artist. How has your earlier career as a park ranger influenced the work you make?

Laurel Roth: What drew me into natural resource conservation, even before I was a park ranger, was the idea that humankind and nature could work together and that I could be a part of that process. It was a mediation between society and the wild, a spot that felt somehow very fitting to me, and I continue to explore it in my current work. It’s also very focused on interactive systems and adaptation, both of which I’m interested in.

OPP: How is being alone in the studio similar to being alone out in nature? How is it different?

LR: I would compare it more to gardening, which I love, in that there is an element of collaboration and control that I don't feel if I'm just spending time in nature. I guess that you could say that being in nature is a learning from observing experience and gardening or making art is a learning while participating in experience.
Lap of Luxury: Persian Cat
2007
Hand carved and polished Polysulfone industrial plastic, base (not shown) walnut, Swarovski crystal, aluminum
2.5 x 3.25 x 4 inches

OPP: Man's Best Friend is a series of hand-carved and polished sculptures of dog and cat skulls in walnut, acrylic and Polysulfone industrial plastic, adorned with Swarovski crystals. What makes this work interesting to me is that these sculptures are so beautiful, but there's also a critique of human attachment to animals as objects. Can you talk about this place where beauty and critique meet?

LR: Beauty can be a snare that opens people up and makes them more receptive to things they might otherwise dismiss or become defensive about. No one wants to be clubbed over the head with someone else’s opinion—and I actually intend most of my work to be more of an exploration of something that troubles or intrigues me than a diatribe against it. I love animals. I’m kind of obsessed with them as pets, in the wild, and as metaphors in art for aspects of ourselves. I love the variety of ways in which they seem to experience the world, and it makes my world a bigger place to try and understand that. There’s a beauty in the humanity of people yearning for animal companionship in a world where we’re so separated from nature, but there’s also a willful selfishness to breed them to the point that they are physically uncomfortable or unhealthy for our own aesthetic pleasure.
Food #5, Pig
2009
Walnut, gold leaf, Swarovski crystal
11 x 6 x 7.5

OPP: Peacocks is a series of mixed media sculptures made with fake fingernails, nail polish, barrettes, false eyelashes, jewelry, walnut, Swarovski crystal, to name some of the materials. What came first: an interest in these specific materials or an interest in the peacock as a metaphor? Can you talk more about the idea of plumage and how the peacocks relate to us as humans?

LR: I had been doing work about birds and adaptation to urban living when I began the Peacocks series. In this case, the material came first, seen in a 99 cent store, but the rest came naturally. The first one I made, though smaller than the rest of the series, was the largest sculpture I had made at that point. Like a lot of my work, it took so long to make that I had plenty of time to think about and refine the ideas while I worked, so the sculptures became progressively more refined. It started with peacocks as a fairly recognized symbol of beauty. I’m interested in the choices that humans have about what they eat, with whom/when/if they mate, etc. So, looking at fashion and beauty accessories as a means of communicating mating status let me look at society in a whole new light. The fake nails and barrettes represent not just the beauty of the feathers but also the concept of humans donning mating plumage voluntarily. Many of the sculptures show two birds in mid-fight, but I work to keep it slightly ambiguous as to whether they might be mating or fighting and which one might be dominant.

OPP: Swarovski crystal and polished walnut are expensive materials, while the barrettes and fake nails are not. This leads me to thinking about the social constructions of economic class and how taste develops in relation to it. How do these ideas play out in your work?

LR: I didn't want those pieces to focus on one economic class too much, because that conversation can easily subvert the subtler one about collective human behavior that interested me. The colors and some of the materials—the fingernails and barrettes—can almost bring an element of kitsch that I tried to temper with the richness (no pun intended) of the forms and other materials.

OPP: You have worked collaboratively with Andy Diaz Hope for many years. How has the work the two of you make together influenced the work that you make alone?

LR: Having each other to collaborate with allows us to tackle more complicated themes and projects. Hard as it can be, we both have to be receptive to questioning from each other, which expands concepts in exciting ways but also keeps them more rigorously examined. That spreads into my solo work, too. It’s also inspired me to be more interested in engaging the viewer (Andy is a very sociable guy who likes interactive work).
Allegory of the Infinite Mortal
2010
Woven jacquard tapestry
76" x 106"
A collaborative tapestry woven through the Magnolia Tapestry Project, designed by Andy Diaz Hope and myself.

OPP: One of you collaborative projects is a series of tapestries woven with a Jacquard Loom through the Magnolia Tapestry Project. Could explain for viewers about the Jacquard Loom and MTP? What was it like to design these pieces collaboratively?

LR: Andy and I were inspired by the Unicorn Tapestries of the late 15th century while we were working on a collaborative show called Future Darwinist. We wanted to create a tapestry that stayed true to that inspiration and used the more formal tapestry structure and motifs to explore current scientific themes—namely, the end of Darwinian natural selection and the beginning of human-centric evolution. We realized that we couldn’t weave it ourselves and were fortunate that the folks at the Magnolia Tapestry Project decided to work with us. We spent months taking botanical illustration, reading and studying, painting, and compositing the individual elements into a massive Photoshop file. Magnolia had the expertise to help us translate that into a weavable file with an appropriate color palette—each color is made of a selected palette of woven threads with carefully controlled color changes. It’s then woven on a computer controlled Jacquard Loom in Belgium. Jacquard looms were the first machines to use punch cards for programming and were an important step towards the invention of computers, so that fit perfectly with our theme of exploring current science and technology through aesthetics and practices from the Age of Enlightenment.

The collaboration went pretty smoothly, both between Andy and myself and our partnership with the Magnolia Tapestry Project—so well, in fact, that as part of our current fellowship with the de Young Museum we’re working on the third tapestry in what turned out to be a triptych! People often ask whose idea a piece was or which of us worked on which aspects of our collaborative work, but it really doesn’t work that way for us. It’s a fairly free flow of ideas back and forth that constantly change and evolve until we’re both satisfied.
Biodiversity Reclamation Suits for Urban Pigeons: Carolina Parakeet (detail)
2009
Crocheted yarn, hand carved pigeon mannequin, walnut stand
8 x 9 x 13 inches

OPP: What new idea are you excited about in your individual practice?

LR: I’m looking forward to developing two bodies of work that I started in the last few years but haven’t had a chance to develop as fully as I’d like—Biodiversity Suits for Urban Pigeons and the Hominid series. The Biodiversity Suits are a series of small crocheted suits that disguise pigeons as extinct birds. Two of them will be on display later this year at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. The Hominids are hand carved and polished wood sculptures of various hominid skulls, one of which will be part of a show at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC and then the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.


To view more of Roth’s work, please visit loloro.com.