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.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Andy Diaz Hope

the Void (interior)
2010
Wood, mirror, 2-way mirror, novelty light bulbs, lead
38 x 24 x 36 inches

ANDY DIAZ HOPE’s background in physics and engineering informs his work as an interdisciplinary artist. Scientific investigation and philosophical contemplation are equally present in his sculpture, photography, and installation. He is a frequent collaborator with next week’s Featured Artist Laurel Roth. He exhibits internationally and lives in San Francisco, CA.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You have an interesting background. You entered Stanford as a PhD candidate in physics, but ended up with an MS in a collaborative program between the engineering and art departments. How did you end up switching? How does this start in science influence the work you make nowadays as an artist?

Andy Diaz Hope: I was raised by artist scientists and scientist artists. When I was 5, my dad left. My mom, who is a painter, my brother, and I moved in with my grandparents. My grandfather had his PhD in applied physics, and my grandmother had a chemistry degree, though she preferred painting and working in the garden. We had a really nice balance of scientific inquisitiveness and artistic creativity at home, but the general wisdom of the family was that art doesn’t pay, so go into the sciences. I chose applied physics, because it was the foundation of all the different types of engineering, so I reasoned that, if I had a good grasp of that, I could keep my options open.

Once I was in school and immersed in science and math, I realized that I needed more. I took a course in Visual Thinking that was a requirement for most engineering programs as well as the gateway to the Joint Program in Design and felt an overwhelming sense of relief. A program that focused on science and art? and I’d get an engineering degree? Awesome! I think I might have pursued the sciences had I been born during the Age of Enlightenment, but having missed that window, product design seemed more satisfying. Bill Moggridge and David Kelly were both fully involved at the time, and, while pragmatic on some levels, the program was steeped in the idealism that enlightened designers and engineers could really solve the world’s problems. In practice, product design didn’t satisfy me. I found that I wasn’t a believer of wanton progress and technology. From there, it was a gradual acceptance that I should commit to making art. Along the way I designed and built furniture, consulted on new technologies development, designed interactive spaces, and made large expensive interactive art works until I finally accepted my fate.

I think I approach art as a scientist might. Each body of work begins with a question that I begin to explore conceptually and test with various theories before giving it a tangible form.

the Light (detail)
2010
Mirror, lead, wood, video of tunnels and lights
12.5 x 14 x 74 inch

OPP: Morning After Portraits and Better Living are two bodies of mosaics made from gelatin pill capsules filled with pieces of deconstructed photographs. Illuminated Being is similar but with glass vials. 
How did you first start displaying your photographs in this way?

ADH: I have always been interested in photography and video and have incorporated them into my work. I feel that the power of a photographic image has been devalued by the explosion in the number of photographs taken as a result of the digital revolution. There is no cost to taking a photo anymore and very little cost to printing one even at a very large scale. I still believe that there are amazing photographs that stand on their own, but I think the viewers who appreciate and really take the time to contemplate the image have been desensitized.

I began working with capsules and breaking down and reassembling an image as a metaphor for how we are modifying our biology with recreational and pharmaceutical drugs, often with very little thought about the consequences. We are no longer just the whole of our heredity, but a sum of our heredity and whatever drugs we are taking to augment or ignore our heredity.

Monkey's Reentry
2005
C-prints, U.V. treated gel capsules, artist frame
15 x 18 inches

OPP: Do you experience the process of cutting up the photographs and inserting them into the capsules and vials as tedious or meditative or something else?

ADH: The process of creating the pieces is very time intensive but gives me a space of time to really think about the work I am doing. It also gives me a job to do when the act of making art as my primary activity is overwhelming. I can sit in my studio and put in 8–12 hour days while seeing tangible progress.

I think of the work I do as creating artifacts that will color the interpretation of our current times when future archeologists discover them. It’s a subversive act, and I’ll never know if I was successful. In order to create an artifact capable of surviving until its rediscovery, the object needs to show the time and effort invested in it so that it won’t be flippantly discarded. I think that this also works for the art viewing audience. People are attracted to the pieces because the process is mysterious and because they look difficult to create. The hope is that they will then further engage with the piece and try to understand why it was made.

Centering Device #1
2010
Mirror, lead

OPP: Over the last few years, you have been working with mirrors and kaleidoscopes in a series of "mirrored sculptures based on geological formations, reflecting fractions of their surroundings—some with infinite loops of light and video." I've read that these sculptures are intended to provide the viewer with an opportunity for contemplation, and there seems to be a shift from focusing on social issues (like drug culture or the contemporary impulse to label others as terrorists) to focusing on philosophical or mystical concerns. What precipitated this new work? How does it grow out of the older work?

ADH: All of my work stems from a desire for people to think more critically, to understand that the information we are getting is not unbiased or infallible and that the only way to be sure you lead a well examined life is to ask a lot of questions and figure things out for yourself. In this way, the mirrored pieces evolve directly from the older work. In the clamor of our capitalist-driven world, very few people are asking you the truly important questions. It’s not whether your deodorant will keep you drier or your phone is smarter, but are you leading a life that will live up to the scrutiny of your final hours. Maybe all you ever wanted was dry armpits. I sometimes wish I did.

All of my work is a reaction to my surroundings. I began the terrorist series in the early 2000s when the fear of terrorism was being used as a bludgeon to silence all sorts of people. I began the series dealing with drugs at a time when the pharmaceutical industry was beginning to directly market to consumers and many friends were teetering on the edge of turning their recreation into a lifestyle.

OPP: Can you talk about how the mirrors act as metaphors in the new sculptures? I’m seeing a connection between the form itself and the idea of the “well examined life” you speak of.

ADH: The mirror plays different roles in different pieces. In the Centering Devices, the pieces are created to negate the viewer from the reflection they see when they stand in front of the piece. People expect to see themselves when they stand in front of a mirror, and the hope is that the cognitive disconnect of seeing one's surrounding without oneself in the mirrors surface might lead to a moment of contemplation. What does it mean? I am nothing? I am everything? I am my stuff? I am a vampire? In other pieces, the mirror acts to camouflage the piece and make it blend into or disrupt the environment it is in. Some of the forms are abstracted representations of crystal structures or geologic formations. Other pieces feel like portals to me, creating a ripple in the geometry of our living space. The original installation of the work at Catharine Clark Gallery in 2010 sought to create a version of the Philosopher's Cave that Plato referenced in his Allegory of the Cave. I think of caves as cathedrals of time and geology—representative of both science and spirituality.

Reflection Engine
2011
Hand-carved walnut, mirror, candle light bulbs, brass, gold leaf
36 x 61 x 92 inches

OPP: You've worked collaboratively for a long time with Laurel Roth on several tapestries woven with a Jacquard loom as well as a series of chandeliers made from hypodermic needles, U.V. coated gel capsules, and Swarovski crystal, and most recently, Reflection Engine. How did this collaboration begin and how has it evolved through the years?

ADH: We’ve always discussed our work with each other and helped each other on pieces, but our real trial by fire was when, early in our relationship and art careers, we both quit our jobs and moved to India to collaborate on designing India’s first wine tasting room. Living in Mumbai, trying to get things done in a country with very different business practices, and being in over our heads was a great way to knock all the rough edges off our collaborative process. Our first collaborative art piece was the first installation of Pharmacopeia at the Headlands Center for the Arts. It gave us an opportunity to play with materials we had been using without the pressure and weight of an art show. My work tends to deal with humanity’s impact on ourselves, while Laurel’s work often deals with humanity’s impact on our surroundings. Our collaborative work allows us to bring both of these foci together and explore ideas in a way neither of us would on our own.

OPP: Has the work you make collaboratively with Laurel changed the work you make in your individual practice?

ADH: One of the benefits of our collaboration is that it forces us both to adhere to a higher standard of intellectual rigor. You really have to be able to understand and communicate the concepts you are working on or the other person will call you on it. I think this intellectual rigor carries to my personal work and helps me get through moments of weakness when I get lazy with my concepts.

Trinity (detail of Grandma's mandala)
2007
Custom chromed chandeliers, hypodermic needles, gel capsules, Swarovski crystals
96 x 96 x 72 inches
Collaboration with Laurel Roth

OPP: What are you working on in your studio right now?

ADH: Collaboratively, Laurel and I are working on the 3rd and final tapestry of the series as part of our fellowship at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The tapestries are very involved both visually and in terms of research, and I’m really excited about the ideas we’re coming up with.

We are also working on an artist residency program we are creating at Double Down Studios in Sonoma county which involves first building the living space and the studio.

In my solo practice, I am working on some new mirrored video pieces similar to the Light, and Geode, and, when inspiration fails me, producing new editions of sold work from Better Living for a show we will have in Rotterdam later this year.

OPP: The fellowship program at the de Young is in its second year, right? Tell us a little about the program and the experience of being part of it.

ADH: We're just getting started with our fellowship and are excited to take full advantage of the opportunities it offers. So far, the experience has been great. The staff is incredibly supportive and helpful. On top of having access to the collections at the de Young and the Palace of the Legion of Honor, which have an amazing depth and breadth, the fellowship comes with a stipend that has really given us the peace of mind to be able to focus on our work and not struggle with the economics of trying to be artists for a little while. We're also very excited to be able to discuss the themes of the new work with the curators in the various departments within the Museums and bring their expertise into the work.

To view more of Andy’s work, please visit andydiazhope.com.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Michael Hall


BCS, FT-FC, H88
2010
Oil on canvas
60"x 72"

MICHAEL HALL’s paintings, sculpture and video are concerned with the contemporary reinterpretation of history and historical artifacts. He examines the struggle between control and protection, nostalgia and the mythic image, often using animals and objects as symbols for emotional experiences. In 2010, Hall was awarded a Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors Grant. He has an upcoming exhibition (Fall 2012) at Patricia Sweetow Gallery in San Francisco, CA, where he lives and teaches.

OtherPeoplesPixels: In 2009, you were in residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin, CA. Reclamation, the body of work that emerged, examines the now defunct military bunkers which dot the coastline in painting, sculpture and video. Tell us a little about how the project developed and about how the bunkers play into your interest in "the contemporary reinterpretation of history and historical artifacts."

Michael Hall: When I was at the Headlands I was looking for a way to bring together two divergent influences in my life—art and the military. I was born into a military family and grew up on bases all over the world. I had been exploring the ideas of protection and control in my work but wanted to shift to dealing explicitly with the military. I do a lot of research into my subject matter. I began to read about the history of these sites, their function, their decommissioning, etc.

At first, I constructed a replica of one of the structures and made a video where the bunkers were disappearing from the landscape. The paintings followed. The tradition of coastal landscape painting depicts a peaceful, serene and undisturbed landscape, but I wanted to inject the reality of the bunkers and their forgotten histories into those idyllic spaces. What struck me as I hiked around the Headlands and the coast was how these structures had just been left to rot and were largely forgotten about (though there are a few that have been restored and are run by the NPS.) Scattered about this picturesque California coastal landscape were these traces of two world wars, impending threat and the history of a complicated military influence. I strongly believe that if we ignore our past we wind up repeating it. I also wanted to highlight the importance of Nature in their history. These man made structures, built both in an effort to protect people and its land, will ultimately succumb to the elements, and the land will reclaim and redistribute its parts. Given time, it will be erased, and its history, if unattended, will be forgotten.

Surrogate
2010
Lumber, concrete, grass sod with sound of field recordings from the California coast
39"H x 60"W x 66"L

OPP: Several bodies of work, such as Ephemera, This is Not Your Beautiful Life, and Search Results, not only use photographs and digital images as source material for painting, but meditate on photographs and digital images as historical artifacts. I'm very interested in the way your work gives the personal history associated with photos equal footing with the collective history associated with the bunkers. It's really smart and complicates how we think about the discarded and the forgotten. Have you ever exhibited these bodies of work together?

MH: I’ve never shown them together, but I’m very glad you drew that conclusion. Most of my work is concerned with history and it’s collision with the contemporary. With the photo-based work I’ve collected old photos and the ephemera, like processing envelopes, for years. I find them at paper sales, yard sales, junk-yards and just on the street. Like the bunkers, they are often discarded and forgotten, but as you pointed out, they are far more personal in nature. I get lost in thinking about these discarded memories sometimes, imagining the lives of the people in the photos: where they are now and how whole family albums end up in the trash.

But there is also a larger significance to these photos and ephemera like the processing envelopes. They are cultural touch-points. So much can be revealed about a time or location by a single snapshot or the graphics on a local developers envelope. Despite their small and personal scale they can be monumental—more than just anthropological. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about them as the physical objects—as relics, in a way. Chemical based photography, and to some extent printed photography, is becoming more artisan, boutique and rare—which I think is an exciting moment in the history of photography. However the antique photo, the snapshot— even those from the early 90’s—are still physically with us. They are huddled in piles at junk yards and antique paper sales or they are carefully kept by family members. I’m interested in these objects and the images and questions they bring up. Is it nostalgia, anthropology, an archive? Is it an ongoing dialogue between painting and photography? Yes.

How they stack up
2009
Oil on canvas
18" x 18"

OPP: "Bete comme un peintre," the title of one body of work based on photos, is a quote from Duchamp, right? Could you translate it for us and talk about why you chose this title?

MH: The basic translation is “Stupid like a painter.” Duchamp threw that gauntlet down in his pursuit of redefining what art could be—trying to remove the authority and hierarchy of painting in the Arts. As one who identifies largely as a painter, I’m thankful for this. It freed up painting in a lot of ways. Many were understandably insulted by this phrase (some continue to be), but it also became a badge of honor for some painters that gave importance to the emotional or intuitive response in painting. At one point, I identified with that, but when I titled that show I was also feeling very self-conscious, having just come out of graduate school. My head was full of theory and justifications, and here I was painting from my collection of old photos. It was a way to acknowledge that self-consciousness and allow myself to paint from what I was intuitively drawn to. Since that show, I’ve come to engage in a close relationship with photography. I take photos and video and use it as a tool but have found it to be a compelling subject matter for painting. There has always been a back and forth between painting and photography since photography first liberated painting from being a tool of replication. I think there is an amazing ongoing dialogue in its historical battles and dependence and the freedom both mediums share now.
Held Together
2011
Watercolor on paper
32"x 37.5"

OPP: In Embattled, a series of watercolors of humans battling animals or animals battling each other, and Banded, a series of watercolors of the process of banding birds for tracking, you explore the "dynamics of protection and control." This is a recurring theme in your work. I'd like to hear more about how the animals in these paintings become allegories for human emotional experiences.

MH: There’s a long history of giving animals anthropomorphic qualities. I’ve always been drawn to it, because it allows you a way of approaching a subject without over-explaining it. The image can become metaphorical and open. I’ve spent a lot of time observing animals. I get transfixed by them. I always had animals like dogs, horses and birds growing up and went regularly to zoos, aquariums and animal parks. Maybe because of that, I anthropomorphize human behavior with my observed behavior of animals as well. I think there is a lot of wisdom in the animal kingdom. Sometimes we just have to reframe it.

When the Sea Surrounds
2005
Oil on panel
24"x 30"

OPP: On your website, you have an archive section of older work that is visually quite different from the work you've made in the last 5-6 years. You acknowledge "Often things have a way of coming back around. Others are strong works, but from a train of thought that will not be pursued again. These works took me somewhere though and that should not be forgotten." I couldn't agree more. Could you talk about some of the themes or images that had a way of coming back around?

MH: It’s funny because I had forgotten about that section of my site, so I recently looked back over it. I think there are a lot of similar things going on, just a different approach. I was steeped in mythology when I was making that work and heavily influenced by ancient, esoteric text and imagery like Masonic symbols, Aesop’s Fabels, the I Ching, early Christian symbology, Tibetean tangka paintng, etc. What I came to realize was that I was overlaying too much and creating overly complicated fields of imagery that sometimes made it impenetrable for the viewer. They were more successful when they were simple and direct. The interest in history is still there though, but I’m really enjoying the sense of the mythic in that work now.

To see more work by Michael Hall, please visit www.michaelhallpaintings.com.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Dawn Frasch



Doppelbangers (holding hands we both abandon sorrow)
2010

DAWN FRASCH’s paintings, drawings and videos are intensely visceral, teetering on the line between the beautiful and the grotesque. Her work references both art history and pop culture, using the female form, not as an object, but as a vehicle to explore subjective experiences of trauma, desire, and horror. Dawn exhibits internationally and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You make paintings and drawings, but you also make videos that combine stop-motion animation with live action, and some of these make use of the imagery from the paintings and drawings. Could you talk a bit about your influences and how each of your media feeds into the others?

Dawn Frasch: Artists I love, like James Ensor and Géricault, kept objects in their studio to work from. These guys use masks, dead fish, and exhumed body parts, all of which which inspire me as well. James Ensor combines dramatic narrative, comedic exaggeration, and relates it to the political and the daily. He inspired me when I was around 19 to start a practice like this. I tried painting fish from life, but that gets smelly so fast. I started making my own objects as well as collecting them. I always wanted to make movies, so it was natural to bring these objects to life that were alive in the paintings.

Switching mediums also allows me to change the points of reference for the viewer. It expands my audience and venue possibilities. My video visually references TV and movies. The dialogue is part original/ part appropriation. Sometimes it’s from the Bible, the original epic drama. In my painting, I appropriate from narrative painting. In my drawings, I reference comic books. 

Working this way keeps a cyclical recycling of ideas. I got into art as a way to deal with depression and trauma. After making it out of a bad situation and going to art school, it was humiliating to find out the stories and creations that kept me alive were cliche and embarrassing. I recycle images, like fetuses and monsters, from this past, reinventing and expanding their context. I find the transformation of cliches to be very liberating. I know it's selfish to search for personal liberation through art, but it can also be a way to connect with people who are also searching for transcendence whilst relishing in the dregs of reality.
Behind your lips there's a nightmare no one sees (Medusa)
2010

OPP: I don’t think that’s selfish at all. I think that’s actually always, at least partially, a driving force in making art. And people who won’t admit that are lying or simply not very self aware, in my humble opinion. Would you mind telling us about the first time art liberated you or a time when you became aware of art’s transformative power?

DF: The one that stands out the most clearly is all the fetus art I did after my first abortion. I'm soooo glad I was able to have one. I was 16 and in a horrible situation. I had to go to Delaware because of Rick Santorum's "awesome" laws. I didn't have any regrets AT ALL. I was pretty obsessed with death at the time, but there was still this left-over energy that I didn’t know where to put. I made a lot of fetus art, and it felt really exhilarating.

Also, when I was younger, I drew Garfield, and it looked "right.” That was magical.

OPP: Your drawings from 2009 amaze, disgust, and excite me. I'm thinking of pieces like Manny Eater and Crab Snatch, in which the labia are grotesquely large and blob-like and take over everything around them. They are truly gross, but in exactly the right way to challenge assumptions about woman's bodies. I'd love to hear more about these pieces.

DF: Those pieces are a spin on the Kuniyoshi prints of Tanuki from around 1844. Tanuki are a mythical racoon/human hybrid who can magically enlarge their testicles. In the prints they use this power to do practical things like make soup and cross rivers. It was fun to play with the cliche of bragging about giant balls to prove confidence. The mythical creature in mine was Lazy Pig, a character from one of my movies that I play wearing a muppet-like mask. She uses magic to perpetuate sloth, like grabbing a sandwich from the fridge instead of getting up.

When I made those pieces, it was a summer break from grad school, and I was incredibly depressed. I couldn't get out of bed. My dog died, and my girlfriend dumped me. The sex with my ex was insanely consuming. I felt consumed by desire in a similar way that the labia consume and take over everything. I never planned to show them to art people. I definitely thought my comic loving friends would get a kick out of them. I also had bedbugs at the time. They were posted on my wall and my exterminator thought they were funny and gross. Humor can be a defense mechanism. It’s not only a survival skill, but also a relatable point of access for the viewer. Also it's one of my favorite parts of being alive. The connection between two humans laughing about something upsetting together is an amazing bonding experience. These pieces were a huge breakthrough for me. They solved a problem of how to deal with the female body and still carry on the themes of my earlier work. I think its important to retreat from an audience and try ideas without worrying about the response. These labia attacks have continued to operate in my work as a cyclical structure to talk about the masturbatory nature of expressing one's feelings through art with self deprecating humor.
 
Pussy Intimidation
2010
watercolor on paper
12"x15"

OPP: There's so much awesome grossness in your work: zombies, blood, disembodied breasts, fluids of all kinds, mashed-up food covered in fur and maggots, the endlessly-expanding labia mentioned above. It's clear to me that you are dealing with the Abject, but most interesting to me is that there is a particularly feminist flavor of the Abject (as opposed to what Mike Kelly or Paul McCarthy does), The gross things you do to the female body don't read as a reiteration of the male gaze, but rather as a challenge to it. Are you coming from a feminist point of view?

DF: I do personally identify as a feminist. Whether or not my art is feminist art is up to the viewer. My use of the Abject is an attempt to feel empowered to transcend my body and mortality, so reflecting back to my biography and identity can be frustrating. Before I had the female image in the work, being a female artist was always part of the dialogue anyway. Literally, dudes would say, it's pretty good for a chick, and shit like that.

I didn't feel connected to feminism until I moved to the bay area. The Riot Grrrl version of feminism made so much sense to me. If women feel they have no voice in their local scenes, they can take it upon themselves to represent their own interests by making their own zines, music, and art. Of course, I really loved the taking back of the meaning of derogatory terms for empowerment. That's super fun. I was really lucky to be discovered by one of the bay area's legendary geniuses Janelle Hessig. She eyed up my sorry-ass scrabblin’ in my sketchbook on the street and started chatting me up. Her way of looking at the world was unapologetic and hilarious. Learning from her was like when Roddy Piper puts on the glasses in They Live. Coming back to the east coast with those glasses was challenging. The crazy sexist shit that comes out of  people's mouths can be laughable because of the cluelessness. I've said really thoughtless things about women, too, but sometimes I still wanna smack those garbage mouths.
 
OPP: Give me an example of the cluelessness.

DF: I had a fancy dinner with a gallery owner that teaches media culture at a prestigious university. He denied the existence of the male gaze, and his proof was "chicks love horror movies where women are degraded; it's all fun.” I argued with him a bit, but he was power-trippin’ pretty hard, because he knows I'm not represented by a gallery. He's obviously just a foolio, but it's good to know these voices are in the art industry, so I can be prepared and ask galleries the right questions.
 
Free Love is creepy
2011
Detail

OPP: What’s your relationship to the male gaze and how does your work add to the discourse around it?

DF: It’s shaped by being a queer woman who is seduced by these images and repulsed by the obvious fallacies. I feel empathy with others who are seduced by these images of women. Images of hardcore porn are virtually unavoidable, making the pornographic a part of our daily routine. It's insidious how these images of hairless airbrushed idealized female forms warp the societal view of sexuality. It perpetuates this myth of a static beauty, when the reality of beautiful things is that they evolve and decay.

I'm really enjoying expanding and flipping cliches of the male gaze. The labia monsters transform from a passive female into an active more phallic monster. I have also been taking venus paintings and making the lounging beauties more passive by dismembering them. They have ovaries on the outside which was related to an absurd idea I had that men have to act so macho because they have these vulnerable sacks hanging out. I was imagining how vulnerable it would feel to have my ovaries dangling outside my body. It's all very playful and ties into the many themes in my work. My work is about human issues as well as female issues.


Armchair Anarchist
2009

OPP: Could you talk about the sandwich with olives for eyes? He/she/it shows up in several drawings, in your video Armchair Anarchist (2009) as a main character called Sandwich and in In the Ancient Brain of No Memory (2011) as a reincarnation of Peter Paul Rubens. When did you first use this character/image? How has he/she/it evolved in your work?

DF: I've love comics and comic exaggeration. I love finding comedic expression in daily life, like found objects and found faces! I use this as another strategy to connect fantasy to the daily. I use tomato seeds for teeth, floppy meat for tongues. The olive eyes specifically is a Sesame Street reference. Sesame Street was my first relationship with media and is integral in my relationship with fact and fiction. The way I use food is connected with intimacy and desire. Whenever I am really happy, my appetite is insatiable. I talk to sandwiches while I'm eating them because I love them so much. Sometimes I talk to imaginary sandwiches that I wish I had. They are meant to be held in your hand, and they look like a little face.

My movie Armchair Anarchist uses this relationship between the main character lazy pig whose best friend is a talking sandwich. The desire for sex and food is blurred, and lazy pig eats her best friend. Getting lost in desire and destroying the thing you desire the most has resonated with a lot of people I chat with. I'm continuing with talking food in the comic book I started which is a prequel to Armchair Anarchist. The impending Apocalypse is caused by women using bone marrow stem cell reproduction to eliminate men from the human race....all rational systems break down, emotions rampage....an unusual side effect happens... the birthing of living sandwiches!!!!  It's called Pussy Intimidation. I told this to a guy friend recently, and he said he wouldn't have the balls to use the word pussy. Then he went on to talk about cocky male artists, how he looked up to them, and how he was gonna get tattoos of them by his balls. He actually pointed to his balls. The more I gave him the blank stare, the more he talked about his balls! Hahahah. So hilarious.

Cake and eat
2009

OPP: What's going on in 2012 for you, either in terms of upcoming exhibitions or new work you are excited about?

DF: I'm currently printing and binding/stitching copies of my the comic. It will be available on my website soon. The amazing artist Josh Bayer let me sell some at his table at MoCCA recently. The whole event was packed with inspiring artists. I'm silkscreening and getting prints and shirts available, too.

I’m also really excited to have 10 new paintings in a group show about female sexuality at Ten Haaf Projects in Amsterdam. That show opens June 2.

I have a new video in the works called Easter Special, which is based on the story of Mary Toft. In 1726, Toft tricked doctors into believing that she had given birth to rabbits by inserting dead animal parts into her uterus. I found out about this story through a book of etchings.

So yeah, lots of new forms and projects, as always.

To view more of Dawn’s work, please visit dawnfrasch.com.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Michael Dotson

Living Room
2010
Acrylic on Canvas
50 x 60 in.

MICHAEL DOTSON’s large-scale acrylic paintings investigate luxury and fantasy in impossible spaces, referencing the simulated world of video games with a saturated color palette and an abundance of crisp, straight lines. The paintings are visually arresting, but decidedly un-sensual, emphasizing, the “dichotomy between the interaction and detachment prevalent in virtual reality.” Michael Dotson lives in Brooklyn, NY.

OtherPeoplesPixels: When I first saw your work, I immediately thought David Hockney meets video game graphics. I'm thinking particularly of paintings like Living Room (2010), Dream House Interior (2010) and Swimming Pool #4 (2010). Are either of these sources an influence for you?

Michael Dotson: I think the best thing I have ever heard someone say is that I was like "a more modern David Hockney from Outerspace." David's paintings and early video game graphics both had a way of reducing pictorial information in an elegant manner.  They also demonstrate how weird you can get visually and have something still be legible as this or that.

Video of the making of Side by Side
2009
Acrylic on Canvas
30 x 46 in.

OPP: Could you describe your process, from idea inception to execution?

MD: It tends to vary a lot between pieces, but I like to keep it loose. I would say that the idea only serves as a catalyst to start a work, but once you start laying down shapes and colors, you have to react to those. It's almost like a game of Telephone, and every decision you make is an interpretation of an interpretation of your original idea. I am very slow at making paintings and usually by the end I don't really remember what I was thinking in the beginning. I used to make paintings where I would have them all sketched out on Photoshop beforehand and then just replicate a print out. That kind of work is very boring for me, and I would like for anything to be able to happen at any time.

Art Gallery
2009
Acrylic on Canvas
22 x 30 in

OPP: The luxury objects in your paintings look like 3D computer models of things instead of the things themselves. Do you have experience actually building models like this for computer games like Second Life or The Sims? Have you ever played these games or any other virtual reality games?

MD: I have never played those games and am not really a video game person. When I was younger my brother was always really good at video games. Most of the time, I would just watch him play, so I guess I learned to enjoy them passively.

I don't have much 3D modeling experience, although I have messed around in Google's Sketchup program a tiny bit. For me, the computer is too malleable; things can be changed so easily that decisions become unimportant. I like working in a manner where you have to make bold decisions and then deal with them.

Untitled
2008

OPP: Many of your earlier paintings and drawings contained figures, specifically celebrities and fashion models. But now the figure is nowhere to be found. Instead we see a lot more luxurious interiors and objects. What led to this shift?

MD: Coming into my last year of undergrad, I just made a decision not to use photos as reference material anymore. Before that, my work always relied on a lot of time looking for things to draw and paint, and I didn't like having to depend on that for making work. In a way, the figure never really was in the work; I never made pieces with a figure occupying a space. Rather the work always highlighted the discontinuity of the figure with the rest of the picture. I would often have the bodies truncated, showing that they derived from a previous frame and that they were drawings of flat pictures, not drawings of people. In terms of the paintings now, there are no figures in them, because, in my mind, no figure could exist in these places.

OPP: Interesting. The connection I saw between that older work and the new work was the impossibility of fantasy, whether it be the fantasy attached to celebrity or the fantasy attached to a luxury lifestyle. But now, it seems more about the impossibility of the space itself. Is that more in line with your interests?

MD: You’re absolutely right in making that connection. I think I have just tried to get at the core of that idea to the point where the picture doesn't really need to have luxury objects or celebrities in it. The painting is already a luxury object and has potential celebrity, so I feel like I can really just paint whatever I want.

Pseunami
2005
Acrylic
6'x8'

OPP: What's in-progress in your studio right now?

MD: I have just been working on a lot of smaller paintings right now. Scaling down was a lil’ harder than I expected, but I am getting the hang of it.

OPP: Any upcoming exhibitions?

MD: I am in a couple group shows coming up: one in March at Circuit12 Contemporary in Dallas, and another in May with R.K. Projects in Providence RI.

To view more of Michael Dotson’s work, please visit michael-dotson.com.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Molly Springfield

Sentences on Conceptual Art, 1968
2007
Graphite on paper
11 x 17 inches

MOLLY SPRINGFIELD makes painstakingly precise drawings of found text and images that reveal her hand and explore the differences between originality and reproduction, seeing and reading, and technology and labor. In 2012, she will have solo shows at Thomas Robertello Gallery in Chicago and Steven Wolf Fine Arts in San Francisco, and her entire Proust translation project will be included in a major exhibition organized by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Springfield lives in Washington, DC.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Your conceptual drawing has a cleverness to it in that you draw copies of photocopies of texts which often speak directly about the act of drawing, copying, and translating. But it is your investment in making the painstaking drawings that keeps me thinking about what you do and why you do it. This gets me thinking about you as the maker and what you are revealing about your connection to the texts themselves. The drawings seem upon first glance to be completely devoid of emotion, but the more I think about the work, the more I am struck by the devotional aspects of your drawing practice. Does this resonate with you?

Molly Springfield: These comments resonate with me very much and speak to some of the questions that I deliberately try to raise and work through in the drawings. That the drawings are devoid of emotion is something I hear fairly often. And to be fair, I can understand how a viewer might find them humorless or academic at first glance. But I have a strong personal connection to every text I draw, and I couldn't put in the extreme amount of time and physical labor into each drawing if I didn't have that. 

It's been suggested to me that there's a performative aspect to my work, and many viewers say that they find themselves imagining me making the work and wondering about the time and labor required for each piece. I wouldn't go so far to say that what I do is really performance, but the issues you raise about devotion, labor, and the hand are pretty central to my work.
Chapter IX (detail)
2008
Graphite on paper
22 x 17 inches

OPP: It seems that the thing you are getting it can never be accomplished without the presence of human subjectivity. What does it mean to you to do by hand what can easily be done by a machine?

MS: It's very important to me that my work is done by hand. When I draw the texts, no matter how carefully I try to produce a faithful copy, I introduce imperfections. My imperfections are layered on top of the mechanically created imperfections introduced during the original printing and in the photocopying process. I think once people realize this, my presence in the work becomes more apparent.

OPP: Can you describe your experience of drawing words? Do you listen to anything while you do it? Do you think about the meaning of the words or do they stop being language while you draw?

MS: I don't read text as I draw it. I draw a text letter-by-letter, so that individual words become abstract in my mind, and I don't perceive whole words or sentences. When I come to the end of a line, I usually take a break to make sure I haven't made any glaring mistakes. Like a lot of artists, I listen to NPR while I work. And, oddly enough, I like to listen to audiobooks. When a drawing is particularly labor intensive, it really helps me get through it by getting lost in a narrative that isn't the one I'm drawing.
A translation (detail)
2007
Graphite on paper
11 x 17 inches

OPP: Is there ever a time when you wish you could be drawing something other than text?

MS: Many of my photocopy drawings contain images as well as text, but, yes, I sometimes get tired of drawing text. When I was working on Translation (a "translation" in drawings of the first chapter of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time), I got particularly frustrated and bored at times, but working through those moments became very much a part of the work for me.

The drawings I'm working on right now are larger and, though they contain text, have other elements as their central focus. I wouldn't call them a complete departure, but they involve a lot of visual and formal experimentation and are pretty different from anything I've made recently. I'll show them in my upcoming solo show at Chicago’s Thomas Robertello Gallery in June.

OPP: I can’t wait to see it. Can you tell us more? What’s your source material for this new body of work?

MS: The life and work of the Belgian information scientist, Paul Otlet, as well as my own writing about him, is the source material for this project. Otlet developed the Universal Decimal Classification, a more complex version of the Dewey Decimal System that some people liken to an early, analog form of hypertext. His life ambition was to catalogue and cross-reference all of the world's published information into a single archive that could be accessed remotely by anyone, anywhere. This was during the early twentieth-century, so obviously the necessary technology didn't exist. But over the course of his career, he built a physical archive of around twelve million index cards cataloguing individual documents using the UDC system. People could search the archive in person, or send queries via letter or telegraph.

I stumbled on Otlet while researching classification systems for the Marginalia Archive and then I wrote an article about him for Triple Canopy. After writing the article, I felt like I had said what I needed to say and wasn't sure if I needed to make additional visual work. But I came back to my research over the summer and began making drawings. Otlet illustrated his writings with really quirky charts and other imagery, so my drawings incorporate altered versions of his illustrations combined with pages from the index of an Otlet biography that was one of my main sources. I'm also using drafts of my article as source material for an additional drawing. The drawings are much more formal than anything I've done, but I hope they'll speak to the visualization of information and the research and writing process.

The Real Object
2006
Graphite on paper
36 x 60 inches

OPP: I've witnessed how little most viewers are willing to read when walking through a gallery or museum. Is there such a thing as too much text in a gallery setting? How much do you expect viewers to read your drawings as opposed to looking at them?

MS: Yes, I think there can be too much text in an exhibition. I think viewers sometimes rely too much on wall text to explain things quickly rather than taking the time to experience work and form their own understanding.

I try to make work that contains all the information a viewer needs to understand and access my ideas. Of course, text-based work is uniquely situated to do this, but there has to be a visual balance. I want viewers to read and look, but I know that most people just aren't going to read all of the text in a single drawing or exhibition, and I don't insist or expect that they do. So, I try to guide viewers toward the most important parts of a drawing or installation. Sometimes a passage of text in a drawing might be underlined, or marked in some way for emphasis. With Translation, I installed the drawing more like a document displayed in an archive rather than as art on a wall. It was an approach that I felt encouraged reading, and I think it was successful.

Ultimately, no matter how readable the text within a work, I'm trying to create a visual experience. How the work is experienced visually, within a physical space, is what matters most. I hope that if the initial visual experience engages the viewer, they'll be more willing to spend some more time reading and perhaps oscillating back and forth between reading and seeing.
Translation (Installation at Thomas Robertello Gallery)
2009

OPP: You have invited people to submit copies of their own annotations in books that have been personal to them for your in-progress project The Marginalia Archive. This new work is definitely bringing in more emotional content by highlighting individual readers' personal connections to the texts they read, and your role as artist has shifted slightly from maker to archivist. Are there plans to draw these copies, or is the archive the final form? Any upcoming plans to exhibit this work?

MS: I have drawn submissions from the archive and plan to draw more, though probably not as faithful copies of the original documents. Whatever drawings I end up making I'll show alongside the archive. I exhibited an early test run of the archive last spring at a college where I was a visiting artist, and learned that the project needs to be tweaked to better encourage contributions. The project asks a lot of the viewer: find a book you've annotated, make copies of it, fill out the form, send it to me. So, I need to rethink how I can better facilitate participation. I hope to work all this out over the coming months and show the project again soon.
Kindle
2009
Graphite on paper
22 x 17 inches

OPP: Of course, the very fact that it is difficult to elicit participation gets at something significant in your work: the slowness of your drawing process in relation to the speed of our digital lives. Many of us can’t slow down. But reading takes as long as it takes. If you are reading a book or using an eReader, the reading itself hasn’t changed. Just the interface. You have another in-progress project called Dear eReader which explores “the recent development and influence of electronic reading devices and book-scanning,” to use your own words. Could you describe this project?

MS: This project is still in the very early stages, so it's a bit harder to talk about, but it began with a drawing of a Kindle. Making that drawing got me thinking more about e-readership and what happens when we experience a text in digital form versus book form, or codex.

It can be very awkward to read nonlinearly on an e-reader. It's more like reading a scroll, which was once the information technology that the codex replaced. So, my next thought was to make an analog Kindle, one where the text is an actual scroll. In practical terms, this involves me writing complete texts onto vellum scrolls and casting handmade paper into Kindle-like forms for the scrolls to run through.
 
I've completed one Kindle sculpture, but I'm not totally satisfied and plan to revise my mould making and casting process. To say that my sculpture learning curve has been high is an understatement, but I want the project to encompass work that is more varied in terms of media and subject. I've been very lucky to have access to the resources at Pyramid Atlantic, a paper-making facility here in the D.C. area, and I think it's been good to work outside my comfort zone. I don't have a firm timeline for the project; like reading, it's going to take as long it takes.

OPP: Your work was just included in It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image + Text Work by Women Artists and Writers (2011), an anthology that is exactly what it says it is. What does it feel like to have your work contextualized alongside such prominent artists as Eleanor Antin, Louise Bourgeois, Adrian Piper, and Carrie Mae Weems? Were any of the artists in the book a major influence for you?

MS: Well, it feels pretty great! It's an amazing, beautiful book and I feel incredibly lucky to be included. I'm very much influenced by the conceptual art of the late 1960's and '70s, so I do feel a special affinity for Eleanor Antin, Adrian Piper, and Susan Hiller, and am a big admirer of many of the artists in the book, like Ann Hamilton and Fiona Banner. Today, we sometimes take it for granted that the parameters of artmaking are so broad. Many of the women in It Is Almost That were part of the generation that made that possible. In that sense, I owe a great debt to all of them.

To view more of Molly Springfield’s work visit mollyspringfield.com.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Ryan Wilson Kelly

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick
Video Still of performance
2011

RYAN WILSON KELLY references iconic figures from history, pop culture and myth in his allegorical performances and videos. Hand-made props and sets feature prominently, often adding humor and humility to his exploration of the solitary figure engaged with his own existence through creative labor. Kelly teaches at both the community and collegiate level and is also involved with several puppet theaters and theatrical prop construction for low budget films. He lives in Philadelphia, PA.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You have both a BFA and an MFA in Ceramics. How did you end up working more in video and performance with an emphasis on costumes?

Ryan Wilson Kelly: This is kind of a curious path, I know. I think I fell in love with all of the process and the challenge of mastering such a demanding material. It demands a strong work ethic, which meant that I was surrounded by other dedicated people. I fell in love with the huge history of this material and how it really mirrors the history of human development and technological advancement. Its stigma as a “craft” media and association with the decorative arts also fed my interest in alternative histories or lesser-known historical narratives.
   
But making static objects has always left me dissatisfied. Even in undergrad, I was creating interactive and kinetic pieces. I just don’t like it when things are done. 
   
In grad school I think the box was a bit too confining, and I was encouraged to choose the material that was appropriate to the idea, not force the idea into the material. This was very liberating. By incorporating other materials I felt that I was only using clay where it was most needed and hence more valuable to the idea as a whole. I should say that I was (and still am) using large quantities of clay to sculpt heads and props that I then make a paper mâché shell of. So clay is still an essential part of my process. 
   
Making things that looked like props led very quickly to me using them as props and now to my developing interest in performance and video.
The Clay Studio, show of props
2008
Installation shot

OPP: The props and sets for your performances are well-crafted and wonderful as objects by themselves, as you showed when you exhibited the props for Herculean: On Artistic Labor at The Clay Studio in 2008. Can you explain the balance of time between creating the props and sets, conceiving of the performances and actually performing? What’s the most pleasurable part of your practice?

RWK: Its hard to say how much time I spend researching. My diet of media, books, film and image research are as much a form of entertainment as they are formal inquiry. A film I may have casually seen five years ago or a short story I read on vacation may suddenly click as a visual or narrative reference that needs to be reinvestigated.  Certainly when I fixate on an idea for a project, I try to immerse myself in the subject through reading and watching films, but I’m not an academic. I have the freedom to be a bit loose with the details or to mix my metaphors to reach an artistic end.

I think the making of objects is the most time consuming but still the most pleasurable part of my practice. I am never as fully engaged as when I am in the throes of a project, working on five different things simultaneously, painting a backdrop, sewing a costume while the paper mâché dries, painting and re-painting, building props out of wood, carving foam etc. 

I used to have the feeling that after making an object, no matter how long it took, when I was finished, the object was dead to me. I think that, in some way, by creating objects that are meant to be performed with, I’m holding them in this creative suspended animation. The creative energy still lives with the objects for me when I’m performing with them.

Let me be your scapegoat
2012
Documentation of performance

OPP: Many of your costumes are huge heads that make the performer look like a pez dispenser, creating a comic sense of inflated self-importance (or inflated cultural importance?) for the figures represented. It doesn't seem to be a jab at the actual people (or animals, in some cases), but rather at our collective relationship to them or to the ideas they represent. Response to my read?

RWK: I think you’ve got it with your parenthetical “inflated cultural importance”.  Wherever I use the oversized head in my work, it is more my intention to visually emphasize their significance, to increase scale so as to increase the sense of significance. I know the awkwardness of the scale can be seen as humorous, but I hope that it acts more as part of the visual welcome wagon, an entry point rather than a diminution of the subject through humor.

I should say that this is also coming out of a love of objects that I’ve seen: old masks, puppets, carnival costumes and paraphernalia from old pageants and political campaigns. By making things that are informed by these references, I hope that they carry some of the spirit of them, too.
A Congregation of Loose Associations
2005
Detail of the three celebrated figures, Vaclav Havel, Madeleine Albright and Lou Reed Earthenware with encaustic wax on crushed velvet pedestals

OPP: What are the heads made of?

RWK: My process for making the heads is still linked to my training in ceramics. I start with a plaster “dummy head” and add onto that with clay, fleshing out the features. Once the sculpting is done, I cover the clay in plastic and then in several layers of paper mâché. Once this shell of paper mâché has dried, I cut it off the original form.  These sections then need to be reattached, repaired and painted. This leaves me with a relatively lightweight and durable version of the clay original. 

OPP: Talk about the aspect of your work where other people are wearing the heads, not just you. Is it important to have viewers interact with the heads?

RWK: It varies from piece to piece. I do value the activation of my work, though I don’t always engage my audience with direct physical interaction with the pieces. I think it is entirely dependent on the idea. But wherever possible I like there to be some souvenir element or physical interaction to reward and engage the viewers.
Souvenir polaroids in the image of Whitman
2008
Souvenir polaroid photography courtesy Francis Schanberger

OPP: I've noticed that your performances often revolve around hyper-masculine icons from history, myth and pop culture. Superman, Teddy Roosevelt, Walt Whitman, and Hercules are a few.

RWK: It makes me laugh to think of Walt Whitman as a hyper-masculine icon. Perhaps through the virility of his poetry and the awesomeness of his beard he could be grouped this way. Let me say that the fact that my references are all male stems from my knowledge that I am usually the one acting out the character. Even though me dressing up as Teddy Roosevelt is as much a form of Drag as anything else, I feel like I can more convincingly pull these characters off. I am also gay, and I think that many of my choices represent a type of masculine identity that I am drawn to and aspire to. 
   
What I would add to your observation is that each of them is singular or solitary or were seen as acting without the help of others. They are each engaged in some sort of heroic or exalted labor or pursuit that is to varying degrees an allegory for my own artistic labor. And yes, my use of them is not meant to be a direct association of myself with them, but rather they are allegories for what I am striving toward.

OPP: That’s actually closer to what I meant. I should clarify. I see the traditional literary hero as a particularly masculine construction. When I say that, I’m not talking about biological gender; I’m talking about the collective cultural associations with gender. By hyper-masculine, I was referring to the qualities associated with the traditional hero, the qualities you mention. Solitary, engaged in exalted labor, acting without help: that’s definitely Whitman. I love that you say performing these characters is a form of Drag, because Drag is about performing gender and the collective cultural associations with gender. There is an inherent critique of those associations in Drag, as much as there is pleasure and humor and an engagement with those associations. It seems that the nuance of your performances revolves around this paradox: that you are both critiquing and aspiring to these qualities.


Fortress of Solitude
Performed in september of 2009 at Allegheny College's "8 hour projects"

OPP: Could you pick your favorite piece that functions as an allegory and break it down for us?

RWK: The piece that I made for the Eastern State Penitentiary, Crusoe’s Cave, is a favorite of mine. For this project I was invited to make a piece specific to the space, an early 19th century prison designed on the Quaker principle of penitence through solitary confinement. The environment itself was so loaded and fit so well with the idea that it had an amplifying effect on the piece as a whole. What’s even more is that I am distantly related to Alexander Selkirk, the marooned sailor whose real life story inspired Daniel Defoe’s work of fiction.

For this piece I made a costume and props to turn the already cave-like, crumbling prison cell into a tableaux of Robinson Crusoe’s domestic life. I recreated the many handicrafts described in the book. Through this process and through my research, it seemed that the mastering of these crafts served to keep at bay the gnawing existential doubt that he would ever be rescued. This satisfied my over-arching theme of the solitary figure engaged in labor, but also drew a correlation between Crusoe’s labor and the activities and those of the former inmates of this cell.         
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
2012
Documentation of performance

OPP: What are you working on right now?

RWK: I am currently working day and night to finish props for a show opening May 4th at Napoleon Gallery in Philadelphia. The theme I’m working with here is the 19th century paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope who lived most of his life in Philadelphia (where I now live). Cope was famously one of the two chief participants in what is referred to as the “Bone Wars.” He and his rival competed to unearth, catalogue and name more extinct creatures than the other.

I am focusing here on the end of Cope’s life, where he died alone and broke in a crowded row-house in Philadelphia, piled high with papers and specimens, plagued by nightmares and fever dreams that he was being eaten alive by dinosaurs.

For the performance, I’m turning the gallery into a tableaux of his crowded study. I will cycle between examining and documenting specimens and throwing myself on a cot to cue a projection of his fever dream. In the image above, dressed as Cope, I am shackled to a mountain top where a Pterodactyl comes down and eats my liver, a direct reference to the Prometheus myth.

To view more of Ryan’s work, please visit www.ryanwilsonkelly.com.