OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Kristyn Weaver

2011
Graphite on paper
38 x 25"

KRISTYN WEAVER courts absurdity anywhere she can, inadvertently referencing Internet memes that tap into the joy of shared ridiculousness. Her graphite drawings of cats in unexpected places and modified found object sculptures entertain, ultimately posing the question: Does art have to be so serious all the time? Kristyn received her BFA from The University of Texas at Austin (2004) and her MFA from Washington State University (2008). In 2010, she received the Austin Critics Table Award for Outstanding Work of Art in Installation. Recent exhibitions include Fakes II at the New Jersey City University Visual Arts Gallery in Newark and Man & Animals: Relationship and Purpose at Avera McKennan Hospital and University Health Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Kristyn lives and works in Brookings, South Dakota.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Talk about your interest in the absurd, both in general and in your work.

Kristyn Weaver: I have always reveled in the ridiculous and the ludicrous. I delight in silly things that don’t need to happen. Marveling at how someone’s brain conceived of something so perfect in its bizarreness. My philosophy of creation has always been that of enjoyment, both for me and for the viewer. In that, absurdity runs parallel to enjoyment. My hope is that if I enjoy something, someone else will, too. And that delight in the pointlessness connects us in a purer way than a clear message or narrative could. Art in itself is at variance with reason, yet we still endeavor to create it and seek it out.

Limp Stiletto (detail)
2005
Silicone rubber and leather
12 x 6 x 12"

OPP: A simple pleasure shared with another person is a profound human experience that is never pointless. To me, the connection is the point. It’s just an unexpected point that not everyone thinks should be the function of "capital A-Art." That’s one of the functions of entertainment, but many people want to guard the border between art and entertainment because they believe allowing that border to be fluid denigrates art. Do you think there is or should be a border between art and entertainment?

KW: In my opinion, the sooner we can get the masses to consider themselves legitimately entertained by "capital A-Art," the better. The type of entertainment that art provides inspires divergent thinking. I have always considered it to be more reminiscent of the way that we entertained ourselves as children when we were left outside to our own devices. There can simultaneously be very strict self-imposed rules and complete gratuitous freedom. It is wholly unfettered by reason, and you get out of it what you put in. That is why I aspire to make work that morphs from viewer to viewer and can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. Art is more denigrated by people choosing not to see it as a sincere form of entertainment. I find it disheartening when people feel that they have to “get it” to enjoy it. If only they could experience a moment of enjoyment without reason. The sooner that people consider themselves “entertained” by something other than Iron Man, the better.

The imagery I work with in both the drawings and sculptures is sourced from the everyday. They are populist images like cats, celebrities and so forth. Access to this subject matter is not exclusive; it really belongs to everyone. The question that I ponder when people say they don’t get it is why does the act of me creating/pairing/composing these different situations and making “Art” out of it and then placing it in a gallery change the relationship that the viewer has with it? Part of the reason I choose certain subjects/images is because they are accessible to the larger public and have the potential to attract others besides myself.

Nope... Face Down Garfield
2009
Mirror, plexi glass, contact paper, plush Garfield
42 x 29.5 x 12"

OPP: What isn't absurd?

KW: The collective absurdity. . . and ellipses. . . and cotton candy.

OPP: Speaking of absurdity, is Nope. . . Face Down Garfield a reference to Chuck Testa?

KW: Well, it is now. I had actually never heard of Chuck Testa before your question and I watched his video on YouTube. That man deserves a medal.

OPP: Instead of a traditional artist statement, you've written a treatise. In it, you first say that you don't want to use language to define your work, but then you go on to use quite a lot of words. It's very funny and also gives a clear sense of how you think about the nature of art. It feels like a piece in and of itself. How did you generate the Q&A format? Are these questions you were repeatedly asked or questions you ask yourself?

KW: I still hesitate to use words to define my work. I wish I could use images to answer these questions—insert picture of grandmother’s hands here. The work is already communicating with the viewer. Words have the potential to unnecessarily complicate things. . . but, I digress. The Q&A format came about as an attempt at a more succinct way of answering certain questions that I was asking myself. I referred to it as a treatise to add ridiculous formality to the whole stream of consciousness mess.

The Kittenseum
2007
Graphite on paper
24 x 32"

OPP: Since 2007, you've been making a series of graphite drawings of cats that have the feel of internet memes (although I don't think I've seen these particular memes anywhere). It all started with Kittenseum but continued with Staring Contests and your series of cats inserted into Steve McQueen movies. KnowYourMeme.com charts the early origins of cats on the Internet, but cites 2007 as a moment of major growth:

. . . the online popularity of cat-related media took a leap forward beginning in 2006 with the growing influence of LOLcats and Caturday on Something Awful and 4chan as well as the launch of YouTube, which essentially paved the way for the ubiquitous, multimedia presence of cats. The LOLcat phenomenon is thought to have entered the mainstream of the Internet sometime after the launch of I Can Has Cheezburger in early 2007. (Knowyourmeme.com)

Could you talk about the relationship between your drawings and the phenomena of cats on the internet?



KW: My series of cat drawings began because I had an epiphany that I should be making art that I wanted to spend time with and see happen, and not to question from where these desires stemmed or what it all meant. I think that the Internet viewing world at large had the same inclination. Cat memes fulfill our unabashed desire for release through frivolity. We don’t have to question why we like watching them or what it is that draws us to them. We can just sit and appreciate them for what they are (often for hours at a time). If I am going to put my art out there for consideration by the public, I want it to be something that is valid in its simple, joyful enrichment of the time that viewers spend with it. In summation, cats are fuzzy. I want to hug them, and so does everyone else.

Today I Cut Out the Words
2010
Newspaper
12 x 12 x .5"

OPP: In sculptural work, including your series of altered newspapers, rubber sculptures and altered school chairs, you use the repeated strategy of rendering everyday objects useless, at least in the way that they were originally intended to be used. Have you stripped these objects of function or have you created a new function?

KW: I suppose I have done a little bit of both. Most of the objects’ direct functions are to make one's life easier, and now, in their altered form, the ease of their use has been stripped. My sincere endeavor in creating these pieces is to have the objects to be viewed in a fresh way. Not necessarily in a different way than their initial pre-altered form, but just with an added dimension. It is my intention to transform them in a way that doesn’t obliterate their relevance or original form, but draws attention to something that might have otherwise gone without consideration. I want the viewer to ruminate on objects that take up space.

Lines Out
2013
Ball point pen on paper
18 x 24

OPP: It seems that that’s also what you are ultimately doing with your cat drawings and with the very notion of frivolity or absurdity. Forgive me for putting words in your mouth—and please feel free to disagree—but it’s like you are saying: “You think you know what frivolity and silliness is, but guess what, it’s something more profound than you think. Boo-ya!

KW: Perhaps it is more of a Shazam! than a Boo-ya! But yes, I suppose I want to say that the notion, desire and need for absurdity and frivolity are, in a strange way, serious and are just as deserving of one’s contemplation as anything else. The act of pondering and taking something away from a work of art doesn’t have to be only reserved for works that have somber themes. I want the joy that comes from encountering this work to be just as valid of an emotional experience as a deadpan work elicits.

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

KW: Currently, I am finishing up my second drawing of cats with rap lyrics and working on another pen-swirl drawing like Jonathon Livingston Seagull (2013) where I cover the entirety of a Sculpture Magazine. This one will probably take me the better part of a year, because I can only do so much at one time before it starts to make me feel like a lunatic. I have some sculpture projects on the horizon where I’ll be working with expanding foam. I also have plans for a new series of large drawings of various exploded diagrams. In addition to that, there is a Morris Louis inspired painting that I have been dreaming about for some time, and some expressionistic paintings on paper that I envision hanging sculpturally off the wall. I haven’t really done any paintings since I was at The University of Texas for undergrad, so. . . fingers crossed on those two.

If you want to see more of Kristyn's work, please visit kristynweaver.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibition I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For is on view at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) until December 6, 2013, and she is currently preparing for another solo exhibition titled Everything You Need Is Already Here (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014..


OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Nathan Vincent

Locker Room (detail)
2011
Installation
12' x 19'

NATHAN VINCENT's mother taught him to crochet at the age of 10. As an adult, he has employed the historically feminized handicraft of crochet to examine cultural signifiers and accoutrements of American masculinity—tools, cigars, a lazy boy, a lawn mower, a briefcase—playfully calling into question culturally constructed notions of gender. In his newest work, Nathan explores power dynamics, surveillance and aggression, rendering tools of brute force, including dynamite and language, soft and yielding in his chosen medium of yarn. Nathan earned his BFA from Purchase College, State University of New York. He was a finalist for the West Prize in 2008 and was an artist-in-residence at Museum of Arts and Design (New York) in 2012. His upcoming solo show at Muriel Guepin Gallery in New York opens December 13, 2013, and his installation Locker Room will be on view at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art from January 17 to March 16, 2014. Nathan lives and works in New York.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Have you been crocheting ever since you were a kid?

Nathan Vincent: After I initially nagged my mother enough to teach me to crochet, I went on to learn knitting. She didn't know how to do that, or wasn't interested in teaching me, so I purchased a knitting book for kids and taught myself. I made some granny squares, some socks, a scarf, and some mittens. After that I didn't really do anything with needlework again until I was in college. It must be like riding a bike though. I picked it up and remembered everything pretty easily. It was strange how it came about, too. My friend was crocheting herself a sweater, and I borrowed her hook for a couple hours and ended up with some random 3D shapes when I realized I could make sculptures out of this material!

Gazelle, Lion, Bushbuck
2009
Crocheted yarn, taxidermy inserts

OPP: What do you like about the process of crochet, as opposed to the result?

NV: The process of crochet is not only soothing but also rhythmic. Once you get going, it is very difficult to stop. Until your arm starts aching, and then it's easy to put it down. HA! I think I love its versatility best. There's something wonderfully flexible about deciding spontaneously that the piece you are working out needs to expand and all you have to do is add in a few stitches. Additionally, while I try to be very precise, crochet is wonderful at hiding mistakes, and I love that.

OPP: Because crochet is such a versatile medium with amazing formal capabilities and numerous cultural associations, there is some really fantastic, under-appreciated work out there. What other contemporary artists working in crochet are you interested in or looking at?

NV: Gil Yefman is working with some really interesting ideas, and I love his aesthetic. Sheila Pepe, of course, is doing great work with large scale installations. And, Jo Hamilton is amazing at portraiture!

Screw #6
2009
Crocheted yarn, metal hook
27" x 9" x 5"

OPP: Your crocheted screws (2004-2009) stand out to me. They speak vulnerably about masculinity and yet they remain playful like a lot of your other soft sculptures. They are reminiscent of flaccid male genitalia because you've embraced the natural sagging properties of the crochet instead of building an internal armature for the sculpture. What made you decide to make these sculptures different than the others? How do you think about those differences?

NV: You hit the nail on the head. *smirk* I chose to make the screws because I was looking to soften objects that stand out as rigid, strong, obvious symbols of masculinity. As I started the pieces I realized that since they were already out of scale, I might as well exaggerate everything in order to speak to the issues around masculinity and femininity that I was so interested in. The elongation and knotting of these pieces pushes their confusion and compounds the references to genitalia.  

I think part of what you are asking is, why haven't I let all of my pieces take on the loose, sagging, fabric like qualities of crochet? This is a conscious decision on my part. For some time, I've been making representational work, and I'm interested in that moment when you realize that the object in front of you is actually made of yarn. This recognition and the humor, discomfort or bewilderment it causes compel folks to consider the ideas I'm putting in front of them. If all of the work was limp, it wouldn't have the same effect.

Locker Room
2011
Installation
12' x 19'

OPP: Did you know before you started Locker Room (2011) that you would crochet the entire room or did it evolve after you made a single sculpture? Did you have assistants?

NV: I set out to make an entire locker room. Of course, the execution of this changed over time and was refined as I started to make the piece. But, there is quite a bit of pre-planning in an installation of this size. I did have some assistance on this piece. It took me over a year from start to finish, and I had one friend who spent a week with me knitting away. I couldn't have finished it without her. (Thanks Courtney!) In addition, the Bellevue Arts Museum gave me a sum of money to assist in getting the piece done, and Lion Brand yarn donated all the yarn! It takes a village sometimes.

OPP: How do you feel about using assistants in your work?

NV: My ideas about employing assistants have changed over the years. When I first started making art, I thought it was a huge sell-out to have any help. I wanted my own hands to make every inch of every sculpture. I still feel a connection to the art and want to be involved, however, I have come to realize that my dreams are often bigger than there is time in the day. At some point if you want to make large scale projects, you just have to have help. So, I have enlisted a few people for projects since Locker Room. I still do all the designing and make all the swatches, but I hand off very simple tasks to others when time requires. For instance, I made over 1,000 sticks of crocheted dynamite for a recent installation, DON'T MAKE ME count to three!, and I definitely had help making the tubes for the dynamite. Because I feel the need to be involved and actually touch the art, I made a ton as well and assembled everything myself. On the whole, I do my own work. But sometimes you just need that extra pair of hands!  

As a side note, I have met some of the most interesting people by hiring assistants. I prefer to use community-based services like Craigslist to seek them out, and I have a small group of people I am now friendly with because of my artwork!

Men's Room
2007
Crocheted cotton thread, framed
14" x 19"

OPP: In recent work, you appear to be shifting away into new territory. For example, Joystick and Play with Me (both 2011) seem more about nostalgia and the differences and similarities between playing video games and doing handicrafts. And then there are the crocheted gas masks. Are these about connections between gender, aggression and war? Or is this a break from previous subject matter?

NV: That's a very good question. It's funny how clearly one thing leads to another within an artist's mind, but from the outside it's a completely different story! When I started working with crochet, I was very interested in ideas surrounding gender and gender permissions. I found it interesting that men were allowed to do some things and women others. Where do these ideas come from? Who decides these things? How does it affect us as individuals? What objects or symbols speak of gender and why? This is where the boy toys came from. For me, these objects are clearly cemented in masculine culture, as if to say, "This is what it means to be a man."

I was on this kick of recreating objects that said "boy" or "man," when I realized that a lot of the work I was making dealt with aggression and violence. I began to think deeper about this and noted that strength is almost always connected with masculinity. And, what is the easiest way to express strength? Through weapons. By projecting a sense of power. This led to my interest in power relationships, and I started to use yarn as a metaphor for weakness against these strong and powerful weapons. I am still dealing with these ideas today and picking them apart.

Be Good for Goodness Sake
2012
Yarn, wood, bench, astroturf, cameras, iphone
8' x 8'
Project Venue: Fountain Art Fair in Collaboration with Alex Emmart of Mighty Tanaka

OPP: I actually see the crochet and the yarn as representing the strength in those pieces. Obviously, dynamite has more brute force, more physical strength than yarn, but I think of weapons as representing fear. Humans never would have developed weapons if we hadn’t feared that we weren’t naturally strong enough to defend ourselves. In life or death situations, violence and aggression are necessary to defend ourselves. But in contemporary life, most violence is a response to an imagined threat, not an actual one. That’s why the connectivity and flexibility represented by the web of the crochet—not to mention the therapeutic, meditative  benefits—seems to offer an alternative to the fight/flight response. Thoughts?

NV: I can see your point about weapons being borne out of fear. That is definitely the case. And, I agree that most threats these days are imagined. For me the dynamite made of yarn in DON'T MAKE ME count to three! is analogous to a world of empty threats. We are often in power relationships where we follow orders or instructions—first from our parents, then our teachers and bosses and governments—because we are told to, without thinking about whether it is in our best interests. Because these threats exist—you'll get a spanking, you'll go to hell, you won't make enough money—we stick with the program, often missing the fact that the consequences are insignificant or inconsequential.

OPP: What other pieces exploring power dynamics are you planning or working on?

NV: I will be showing Be Good for Goodness Sake, an installation I made in collaboration with Alex Emmart, along with several other pieces related to the installation in December at the Muriel Guepin Gallery in New York City. This piece speaks directly to the power dynamics that exist in a world of constant surveillance. We've been told through the years by religion that the gods are watching us. We better not screw up or we'll suffer eternal damnation. As technology has developed we've found ways to install actual physical presences to watch over us and keep us in line. These ideas are explored through a series of security cameras, doilies, as well as broadcast footage and encourage the viewer to contemplate such issues. Is this something we are comfortable with? Does our behavior change when we are on view? And, what role do we play in this relationship?

To see more of Nathan's work, please visit nathanvincent.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibition I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For is on view at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) until December 6, 2013, and she is currently preparing for another solo exhibition titled Everything You Need Is Already Here (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Erin Minckley Chlaghmo

2012
Found textiles, acrylic paint, gouache, PVA
52" x 34"

Drawing on personal experiences of alienation, assimilation and identity construction, artist and educator ERIN MINCKLEY CHLAGHMO explores the shifting line between experiences of belonging and not belonging in her textile-based work. Her large-scale sculptures are amalgamations of found and printed fabrics, combining patterns which carry seemingly disparate cultural, racial and religious associations. Her use of textiles highlights the similarity between animal (scales and plumage) and human (armor and clothing) means of camouflage and protection. Erin received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012. Recent exhibitions include the first Interfaith Biennial at Dominican University (River Forest, Illinois), Fiber Options: Material Explorations at the Maryland Federation of Art (Annapolis, Maryland and Chroma at the Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts (Grand Rapids, Michigan). Flags Mistaken for Stars, Erin's collaborative project with artist Eric Wall, is on view on the roof of Lillstreet Art Center throughout October 2013, and there is a closing reception for the group show Fiber Optics on October 11, 2013 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Erin spends half the year in Chicago and the other half in Morocco, where she and her husband run an educational tourism company.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Could you talk generally about the interaction between the decorative and the protective in nature and in culture?

Erin M. Chlaghmo: I began to research camouflage a few years ago. I was interested in armor structures found in nature, such as fish scales, feathers, etc. There was this interesting moment where I realized that manmade armors are replicating those found on animals, and patterns that hide military vehicles, aircraft and soldiers are mimicking the landscape of a given region. Decoration is actually a survival technique. Without it, the form would be revealed as it moves or in contrast to the scenery. So, this is an integral part of how I build a motif or pattern structure. The individual unit or figure is disguised by the background or final form through the use of repetition and accumulation. The correlation to culture is that an individual can attempt to stand out or blend in depending on who they surround themselves with. Notions of belonging and un-belonging are themes that drive the work I make.

Manifest Destiny
2012
Fabric, felt, Moroccan textile, canvas, Heat 'n' Bond, hot glue, thread
12' x 14' x 3'

OPP: Why are textiles the perfect vehicle to explore belonging and barriers to belonging?

EMC: Fabric has a historical relationship to the body through garments, adornment, rights of passage and nomadic dwellings. Fabrics shape our lives. We feel at once welcome and familiar with certain cloths. We make associations to our personal experiences when we see materials like acrylic felt or wool or any material. Much of the work I make aims to start a conversation. An enormous textile like Phobia creates a relationship to the viewer's body and the architectural space, alluding to the infinite. It is bigger than me and you, and it is out of control. It is both scary and seductive.

OPP: You use both found textiles and print your own fabrics for use in your sculptures. Do you tend to print in response to what you find? Or do you seek out the textiles you need in order to execute your vision?

EMC: Pattern has the ability to signify culture. A textile's motif is a signifier of origin or utility: like a cross, an American flag or a Southwestern diamond shape. People have an immediate reaction to imagery on fabric and make assumptions about the content when it is recognizable. This is a complicated language to speak because I'm working with a plethora of borrowed and imagined patterns. It's sometimes very difficult to speak about personal experience through images that are collectively already familiar. I'm trying to mine imagery that is not familiar so that a viewer has to make a choice about their own relationship to the meaning of the work. I'm trying to ask the question: Can images belong to a certain culture? Can I borrow and alter them? What does it mean if I do this?

Many years ago, I went to JoAnn's Fabric looking for recognizable patterns. I found so many prints that shocked me: Confederate flags, cowboys and Indians, Kwanza, Virgin Mary, etc. I was disappointed that the only imagery of people was so cliché and politically incorrect. I wondered, "What in the world would you make out of this fabric? Why do people buy this? Do they buy this?" I couldn't imagine a pair of curtains or a quilt or a child's dress made from these prints! I couldn't see any imagery that I related to, even though it was familiar. I had hoped to make cloth that told a story about my life. I bought them all and decided to make an artwork that expressed my frustration. I wanted to comment on the images by painting and inserting imagery into the pre-existing patterns. I painted the Mormon temple into one fabric with an idyllic scene of churches because I felt right at home in a sea of steeples. I painted a small silhouetted teepee into the distant background of a pattern with silhouettes of cowboys on horses to represent the lack of historical accuracy when depicting the Wild West. I more or less left my paintbrush behind when I finished that body of work. I began to manipulate the fabric itself instead of adding pictures on top.

American History Caught with Its Pants Down
2010
Found textiles, acrylic paint, PVA, thread, zipper, ribbon
40" x 32"

OPP: In particular, you use a lot of Moroccan textiles. Could you tell us about your personal relationship to Morocco? Did your interest in Morocco stem from your work or did the work grow out of personal experience there?

EMC: I lead a sort of double life. My husband is a Moroccan immigrant, whose family members all still live in Morocco. We travel back and forth to visit them, and we also run a summer tourism company there. I am a cultural translator of sorts. When I'm in Morocco, my family there calls me Hayat. I don't even go by my own name. My habits are extremely different, and I speak Arabic fluently. So, I have assimilated, I guess, into this other society, but only for part of the year. This truly has deepened my art practice because it is the research I need to enrich the work I make. Living somewhere where I am between belonging and being foreign, understanding and rejecting cultural norms, being understood and feeling helpless. . . these experiences repeat themselves in other facets of my life—and likely most people have felt this way at some juncture. Adapting and assimilating takes us back to the beginning of this conversation, where I talked about camouflage. I can't change my race, but everything else can change. I feel like a chameleon, aiming to adapt to every new experience in life as if I was meant to be there. As if I belong.

The textiles brought home from Morocco are an incontrovertible match to ideas already present in my work. Repetition, infinity, accumulation and ascending shapes are present in zillij, Moroccan tile patterns, and other architectural designs. The fabric there is rich with color and texture and is inexpensive. So, I line plain fabrics with it to give them added detail.

Adhan (Call to Prayer)
2013
13' x 40'
Digitally printed polyester, thread

OPP: Assimilation is often used as a bad word here in the United States where our nation was built by immigrants and where we value personal identity so strongly. There are negative associations when immigrants feel compelled or are forced to assimilate to a dominant culture, and there’s a sense that we all lose something if they lose their culture. Besides we are all immigrants, too. . . except for the indigenous Native Americans. But choosing to be a chameleon is different; there’s less fear that something important will be lost forever. Thinking about adaptability through a biological lens makes it seems less urgent that we hold so tightly to our identities. Is identity itself just a protective armor, a temporary condition? Would it be as easy to assimilate if you moved to Morocco forever and never came back to the United States?

EMC: Identity is so much more malleable than one thinks. There are grandmas who used to be punk rockers. There are Muslims who used to be Mormons. The assumption that once you change significant identifier that you can't go back is not true. You may never practice the old religion, just like grandma is no longer going to see the Ramones in concert. But, she still retains that part of her (even if in secret). Identity is like collage. You keep adding and adding; layers are covered up and perhaps "lost forever." But they're still there underneath.

Also, people don't chose their family of origin or their race, but everything else can be changed. I grew up in a semi-Catholic, middle-class American family in Utah, and I converted to Islam and speak Arabic. Does the changed identity imply that I am less authentic? I propose that I am my best self, the person I was meant to be, when speaking in Arabic and fasting during Ramadan. I am a very flexible and adaptable person at my core. I like to accommodate others and see from their point of view. I am empathetic. I can blend in and communicate better in a foreign environment if I "do as the Romans do." That applies to every situation in life, not just living abroad. There's a fine line here between impostor and chameleon. I'm not pretending I'm Moroccan. I am fully aware of my whiteness and my origin, and so is everyone else. But, I am just trying to survive. The real me is inside. She is constantly donning different "armor,” not readying for battle, but adapting to my environment.

Many people live their life refusing to adapt. They never enter situations or environments that make them uncomfortable. They never associate with people that are not like them. This is the scary dilemma because, the longer you live your life afraid to adapt or refusing to relate to another who is physically or culturally unlike you, the more likely you are to build fear or hatred for the other. The "other" becomes a mystified person, assumptions are made, stereotypes are cast and barriers are built between you, but this border line is not real or tangible. This is the purpose of my life's work, both as an artist and as an educator. How do we break down these borders?

I also want to respond to the point you made about the word assimilation having a negative connotation. In the late 1800s, the first "Indian" boarding schools in America forced Native students to shave their heads, change their names, speak English and practice Catholicism. There is a heavy feeling when considering that assimilation could be forced upon a set of people towards a second group's aims. And although terribly atrocities were suffered by these children, they surely retained their identities. Their children are the ones who suffered loss of "authentic culture" and tradition. By the 1970s, 60,000 students attended these schools. The societies were considered "civilized," and the government abandoned the effort to educate Native Americans separately. Generations later, there is a huge push to educate youth about the Native languages and art forms. Now, many are uninterested and would rather play video games or get lunch with their friends at McDonald's. So. . . I'll need to ponder for a while about assimilation's reverse effects along a timeline of a few generations. I doubt that my children's children will regret not growing up the way I did. I'm hoping they appreciate living a life straddling two extremely different cultures.

Samurai
2012
Hand dyed and screen printed fabric, foil, discharge print, Heat 'n' Bond, thread, hot glue, felt
24" x 48" x 6"

OPP: You mentioned scales, which are are evoked in abstract pieces like Phobia (2013) and Exterior Perceptions (2013). They are used as armor in pieces like Choose the Right (CTR) (2012). They are decorative in your painted scale studies and mesmerizing in your latex wall painting Infinite Repetition (2012). Could you talk about this recurring visual motif in your work?

EMC: From small to large, overlapping and infinite, the scale or shingle pattern first appeared in a painting I made of a peacock. It was a labored process to create that artwork, and ultimately it didn't work to have spent so much time on the details of each feather. The thing I found that I liked the most about the bird was the layer pattern in her feather structure. This has been present in almost every work I've made since. The felt layers overlap (which hides the origin of each loop from sight) and get larger towards the bottom, and my paintings start at a central flower shape or tear drop and emanate outwards. The suits of armor all have this structure, too. Scales have for some reason kept my interest and flawlessly connect many bodies of work that are disparate in medium. Ultimately, it is a form that is abstract enough to be many things and nothing at once.

It is also a perfect way to illustrate the unit—the individual or unique original—repeated into an implied infinity. It becomes less about the singular and more about the plural or the gestalt. The human mind has the tendency to see the forest and not the tree. Another reference to camouflage and assimilation, the theories of gestalt name our brain's need to group things together by likeness, proximity, continuity and common fate and perhaps the human desire to belong. I guess, it's another metaphor for society. One worshipper is lost amongst a church full or worshippers; one prayer is lost amongst a lifetime of prayers. The scale is a physical representation of homogeneity and diversity amongst the whole.

To see more of Erin's work, please visit erinchlaghmo.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Everything You Need Is Already Here (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.


OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Juan Bolivar

Run to the Hills
2012
120 x 190cm

JUAN BOLIVAR's paintings hover between abstraction and representation. Influenced by abstract painters before him, he's enchanted by the possibility of pure, unencumbered form: simple geometric shapes, flatness, expanses of color. But his carefully chosen titles make it impossible for a circle to just be a circle. Juan graduated with an MA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College in 2003 and has had solo shows at Jacobs Island Gallery in London (2011), John Hansard Gallery in Southhampton (2008) and Lucy Mackintosh Gallery in Switzerland (2008). He has work in several upcoming group exhibitions in London: This-Here-Now at no format Gallery (November 2013), I'm Wanted Dead or Alive at Koleksiyon (December 2013) and Zero Tolerance at Lion & Lamb Gallery (January 2014). In February 2014, his solo show Boogie-Woogie will open at Tim Sheward Projects in London, where Juan lives and works.

OtherPeoplesPixels: The press release for your 2008 exhibition Geometry Wars states: "The phrase Geometry Wars describes Bolivar's 'struggle with abstraction'—whether to subjugate 'the square', and present it as pure form or whether to animate it into the world of figuration." Could you talk about your personal struggle with abstraction? Have you resolved anything since 2008?

Juan Bolivar: Yes and no. Many years ago I made what I thought were 'serious' abstract paintings. My aim was for the viewer to see nothing but sublime voids and experience a non-referential, plastic reality. Whenever I exhibited these paintings, the viewer's immediate impulse was to try and make sense of what s/he saw, and often viewers offered their interpretations, ranging from being able to see a room or a face. But it always caused me frustration, as I insisted nothing was there to be seen.

I once read that Georges Braque had a similar experience when he unexpectedly saw the vision of a small squirrel in one of his paintings, and, try as he did, he could not prevent this small creature from coming back to his cubist work. Likewise, I yearn for the idea of 'pure' abstraction—recently I found myself mesmerized by Gerhard Richter's Grey (1974) and Ellsworth Kelly's Orange Relief with Green (1991) at Tate Modern—but, at the same time, I can't help mentally drawing a wall socket or a silly mustache onto works such as these.

In February 2014, I will have my second solo exhibition at Tim Sheward Projects in Bankside, London. I plan to accentuate these conflicting polarities by appropriating and subtly altering some famous abstract paintings I saw earlier this year in the show Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925 at MoMA, not quite making fun of these works, but teasing them the way we only can with those people closest to us or whom we love the most.

The Great Suprematist
2008
190 x 140 cm

OPP: From a viewer's perspective, what I see in the abstraction is affected by what I know and whether I've read the titles. Hoodie, for example, struck me as so funny—and strangely poignant—that I'm still laughing a little. Clearly, it's Kenny from South Park. But if you've never seen South Park, perhaps it's a black circle on top of a grey circle and two white half circles on top of a pointed oval. Other pieces have a Rohrshach effect, like Hero. At first, I saw this piece as way more abstract than some of the others. Then when I read the title, the person jumped out at me, which of course changed what I saw in The Great Suprematist. What's the funniest (or weirdest or most offensive) interpretation you've heard from a viewer about one of your pieces?

JB: Art is a contextualized activity. Its meaning is dependent on the viewer and the context in which it is seen. So, yes, everything you say is true and very pertinent to the interpretation of my work. In linguistic terms, the optimum reader of a text is the theoretical reader, who most understands the embedded references and context of a text. Paintings are the same, and, to some degree, my work investigates how interpretation is a contested territory with its own sliding scale of hierarchies from South Park to high modernism.

One of the strangest and most challenging comments I have had about my work was simply: "What is it?" I think it was from an electrician carrying some work in my studio. He didn't mean to ask, "what was this image of?" or "what did it represent?" but literally “what was the object before us in my studio?” After I explained that the large, grey mass in the corner of the room was a painting, he then asked, "what is it about?" I had to quickly compress all the information flashing inside my head as I had a small short-circuit of my own, and I simply replied that my paintings were about other paintings. He didn't seem satisfied with this answer, but I realized that, for better or worse, this idea of contextualized references was central to my practice.

If You Want Blood ...
2012
43 x 75cm

OPP: Could you talk generally about how you use and respond to space in your work? As you are painting, do you think of space in a purely compositional way? When, if ever, does it take on metaphorical meaning?

JB: Some believe that time doesn't exist, so by default neither might space. The space, however, that painters deal with transcends this argument, and the reason is because they deal with pictorial space. Pictorial space isn't space at all really but more of a game. It is like the boundary of an American football field; one can only play this game within these lines. Outside these lines, the game disappears and does not exist. In the same way, pictorial space is a boundary governed by rules where artists play visual games.

The pictorial space most of us are familiar with in Western painting has been developed for many many years, first through religious iconography, then in the Quattrocento and finally during the High Renaissance. There is a wonderful book by the art historian John White titled The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space, which charts its journey. As result of the pictorial space that we now take for granted, we are able to accept things such as perspective and view the edge of the canvas as if framed by an invisible window to the world. Both of these are very sophisticated notions and actually took many centuries to develop.

This type of pictorial space was shattered by Malevich's Black Square (1914) and turned upside down by Mondrian, Picasso, Joseph Albers, Pollock and many other artists including Hans Hofmann, who addressed the flatness of a painting and the painterly materiality of this reality. Our visual language now is highly complex and layered, to the point that Mickey Mouse's ears owe as much to Cubism as they do to geometric abstraction. These are the complex layers that underpin the pictorial space I am exploring.

Tygers of Pang Tang
2012
25 x 21cm

OPP: The paintings in Law & Order, your 2013 exhibition at Tim Sheward Projects in London, are titled after classic rock and heavy metal bands from the late 1970s to the early 90s—Rush and Deep Purple are two examples—and songs, such as The Final CountdownHighway to Hell and Winds of Change. Each painting also includes some visual reference to recognizable abstract painters including Piet Mondrian and Josef Albers. Could you talk about your intention behind the juxtaposition of these popular music and fine art references?

JB: The paintings in Law & Order comprised of two groups: one group was of small works based on postcards purchased from MoMA and Tate Modern of seminal abstract works, and the second group—landscape in format—incorporated these seminal works, appropriating and twisting their meaning. The postcard series' works were titled after rock bands, and the color field landscapes after rock songs, highlighting the source relationship connection between the two.

Besides loved ones, friends and family and my quasi-spiritual beliefs, there have been two constant, guiding forces in my life: geometric abstraction and rock music. Hard as it may be to imagine, bands such as as AC/DC, Saxon, Journey and Rush have gotten me through tough times as much as Mondrian, Albers, Ellsworth Kelly and Peter Halley have. I have always wanted to somehow incorporate these two forces. At first, this seemed idiotic and juvenile. But I later realized that by combining these two aspects in a painting through titling and imagery, I am creating a symbiotic situation that qualifies my relationship to both, whilst at the same time challenging our expectations of these cultural hierarchies.

Bands like Deep Purple are quite well known, but SaxonTygers of Pangtang or Budgie, who are all from a similar period in British rock, are far less known. In the same way, Wyndham Lewis, Vanessa Bell or David Bomberg are less well known in the Western cannon, but are equally important to British abstraction. Whilst in New York earlier this year I saw an early Vorticist work by David Bomberg at MoMA, and I got goose pimples as if watching some rare early footage of Led Zeppelin's rendition of Dazed and Confused. I have come to accept that my relationship to abstraction is very nostalgic, just like my relationship to music.

Bushman
2003
190 x 160cm

OPP: Do you have a favorite piece of your own work? Will you pick one and give us the inside scoop on what it means to you and why you were thinking about when painting it?

JB: I am a firm believer that the really good paintings have little quirks and are never perfect-perfect. The actress Jennifer Grey describes how following rhinoplasty surgery "she went in the operating room a celebrity and came out anonymous." It's hard to say why her acting career didn't flourish. What many people don't know is that in 1987, just a few weeks before the release of Dirty Dancing, she was involved in a very serious car accident. One can't help thinking this accident may have had an effect on her, but people often cite her post-rhinoplasty visage—her natural nose represented her individuality to the public—as the reason.

I have very few favorite works. I often feel a sense of dissatisfaction when I finish a piece. It is a paradox. If one is too pleased or enamored with a work, it usually means that it isn't very good, but it doesn't stop us from searching for that perfect moment the way a tennis player aims to hit the ball at the sweet spot of a tennis racket.  

Two weeks before my Goldsmiths College show in 2003, I had finished a set of paintings that I had planned to exhibit. I was due to have one final tutorial, and I thought it would be a formality. Two hours later, after a lengthy discussion, the visiting tutor threw me a curve ball and announced that he thought this body of work wasn't at all finished and that there were some works that could also be taken out. I went into panic mode, but now I understand what he meant and I am immensely grateful for his intervention. With hindsight, I see that the group was too flat, too neat and trying to be too tasteful. Basically too boring. There was no tension.

He went away, and I looked at work I had made a year earlier too see where things had changed and gone flat. Out of nowhere came Bushman, one of my favorite works of all time. It's a silly and ridiculous painting, and at the same time it employs a very sophisticated language. But most of all, I am not really sure how it happened, and I don’t fully understand what makes it work. The painting was born out of adversity and a desire to surpass my expectations and—oddly enough—because I didn't really fully understanding my own work. It's difficult to recreate all of these circumstances and conditions, and I don't think that one can or should. But as I mentioned earlier, I have a solo show at Tim Sheward Projects in February 2014. So, as they say: Watch this space.

To see more of Juan's work, please visit juanbolivar.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Everything You Need Is Already Here (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.


OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Madeline Stillwell

Pigeon House
2011
Materials found onsite and in the city of Rennes, France
Performed at Centre Culturel Colombier (Former Military Base and Pigeon House)

American artist MADELINE STILLWELL improvises with intention in her site-specific performances. She uses her body as a drawing tool, alternately struggling against and collaborating with found construction materials and trash that she collects onsite. Her physical actions become metaphors for human experiences—breaking through barriers, climbing the walls, emerging from the rubble, rolling around in the muck, untangling oneself—making marks as she literally and figuratively works through each space. Madeline received her MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2008. She has performed and exhibited widely throughout the United States, Canada and Western Europe, most recently in the group exhibitions Re-Made // Re-Used at REH Kunst Berlin and A Night in the Park at das Moosdorf in Berlin. Madeline lives and works in Berlin, where she is an Adjunct Professor in Performance at the Evangelische Hochschule Berlin.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Talk about the repeated motif of emerging from or breaking through a barrier in your performances. I think of birthing and butterflies emerging from cocoons while watching the video documentation of the performances.

Madeline Stillwell: On a visual level, I've always enjoyed the sensations that occur from seeing something pushing itself through another thing. The meeting place between opposing materials engaging in a temporary dance of overlap has always stirred something powerful in me. Ocean waves lapping against a gridded surface, for example, or wet cement swirling gently through the blades of its mixer. Ultimately, I believe we humans are never alone; we are always acting in response to nature, to culture, to circumstance, to each other. We are constantly confronted with life's given situations, and often times find ourselves struggling against the limitations of our own minds. I am fascinated by such barriers because so many unexpected possibilities can open up from finding our way through something that appears at first to be a roadblock. It is about the will to grow. Coming out on the other side of a personal, social or physical barrier can be one of the most satisfying of all human experiences.  

Pedestal Piece
2011
3-part performance
8 minute video (part 1)
Pedestal, clay, plaster, and found construction materials

OPP: How important are the specifics of the materials that you use in your performances, beyond the fact that they are often found garbage in or near the sites you perform in?

MS: The materials I collect and use for my work function as my palette. I search for materials that will bring tension and yet create a harmonious visual composition. I find myself attracted to materials that come from real life, have an industrial patina to them and contain a functionality that is in question. For example, in site-specific performances such as No more sugar for the monkey or Read? Read What?, I wanted to equalize the relationship between our discarded waste and excess and the very structures that exist to build up and accumulate such waste. In a similar way, the works Pigeon House or Pedestal Piece insert abject construction materials (dirt, rubble, mud, plastic, etc) into the gallery context. While breaking myself through a gallery wall or breaking myself out of a gallery pedestal, I call into question the structures—the white cube, for example—that exist to keep an institution erect. That said, I prefer hovering closer to parody and within the realm of human imagination, such as in my most recent videos Stasi Prison or Stick Werfen, rather than pushing my work in any specific political direction. Perhaps if I'm really honest with myself, I simply choose materials that turn me on. I am, after all, smearing them all over myself. :)

OPP: Your movements seem very intentional: when they are clunky, they seem purposefully so. When they are graceful, your performance is similar to modern dance. Are the performances choreographed or improvised?

MS: Intention plays perhaps the most important role of all in my work. I truly believe it doesn't really matter what you use, what you do or how you do it, as long as you are clear with your intentions and you are open to accepting and incorporating the unknown along the way. This is not just true in art-making. It applies to walking down the street and to living the life you want to live. It is always much easier to keep going in the same habitual patterns that feel comfortable, than it is to truly follow our intentions, incorporate the unknown and be willing to change. Because of this, I never choreograph in the traditional sense. I resist processes of memorization because I want to get away from the assumption that there is a right way of doing things. It is easy for us to fall into such mind patterns if we practice and over-practice something again and again.

For each work of art or performance, I set up a series of intentions, and the rest is improvised. I incorporate spatial intentions, like "I'm going to start here and end over there," or physical challenges, such as "I’m going to try to climb along those pipes which are five meters from the ground without falling." Also quite important are my mental structures, such as "I'm going to have a conversation with my ex," or "I'm going on a road trip with my family” or “I’m going to contemplate escape.” Finally I also set formal goals such as “I’m going to both make a sculpture and become a sculpture” or “I'm going to make a drawing in space.” 

All of this is easier said than done, however. It is difficult to stay true to your mental game when you are standing with the lights between your eyes. After a "failed" performance experience, it is often difficult for me to really know what went wrong. It usually has something to do with losing sight of the original intention or letting it slipping away. I take some comfort in sports psychology.  In this post-performance interview, I speak about the delicate balance between intention and letting go.

Aluminum Drawing Collage
2011
Cut photographs and acrylic on aluminum
80 x 100 cm

OPP: How do your background, your daily life and teaching affect your work?

MS: My early experience (ages five to twenty) with jazz and modern dance, musical theater, classical piano and vocal training allows me to think of my body and voice as natural and viable tools for art-making. My mother holds a degree in Performing Arts, one of my sisters is a dancer and choreographer and my brother is a set designer for the stage. I suppose you could also say it runs in the family. But I decided to study visual art because I've always had visions in my head that I want to manifest in a tangible way. It stressed me out to memorize choreography or lines from a play. Somehow, I didn't trust that process as much as I did the spontaneity of making a form from a lump of clay. By the end of graduate school, I realized I could communicate on multiple levels by translating movement or sound into tactile experience (and vice versa) so my current practice embodies that.

Additionally, the performance class I now teach at university also influences my practice. The class is based around structured improvisation as a means to communicate using our bodies, voices and material. We explore experiences like talking without words, acting versus reacting, emotional versus pedestrian movement and sounds, having a conversation with only facial expressions (no voice or gesture), balancing on one another, using materials as a means to express something, drawing in space, setting an unspoken goal together in the moment and finding an end. We work both in the studio and in public urban places, including the subway, the farmer's market, a public park or the university hallway. When not performing, the students are challenged to direct each other on the spot. Each student must plan a structured improvisation and direct a small group. By the end of the course, students work together to structure and perform a piece of their own creation in front of a live audience.

On a daily basis, my physical practice, which combines swimming, biking, pilates, yoga, voice-journaling and singing, allows me to stay fit enough to use the full range of my strength as well as the full range of my imagination.

OPP: What is voice-journaling?

MS: Voice-journaling is my way of getting things expressed and off my chest. It often happens spontaneously while out in the world or when I'm alone. It helps me to clear my head and process my artwork. It's also a way to communicate with another person privately, like writing a letter without the pressure of having to send it. In this way, it's more like "writing letters" to myself. The Only Capacity, You're Gonna Love It and I Hate It Here (I Heart Michigan) all made in 2007, are videos that use excerpts of voice-journaling.

Road Trip (Machine Pipe Drawing)
2011
2-part performance
15 minute video (Part 2)

OPP: Drawing is a fundamental part of your practice. I'm thinking of performances like Road Trip (Machine Pipe Drawing) (2011) and I've Been Digging in the Garden (Untitled Wall Drawing) (2011) and your Drawing Collage, Diagram Drawings, Music Drawings and Video Drawings. Could you talk about the connection between drawing and performance in your work?
 
MS: For me, drawing is gesture-making. First comes the stage fright of the blank page, then the music starts and then you go. Just don't look back until you're finished. That way you won't over think what you're doing, and more life can result from the marks you make. A primary function of drawing by hand (or body, in my case) is to leave a mark, to act, to respond to something, to communicate. When I set the mental goal for myself of “making a drawing,” I am always curious to see what kinds of gestures are left behind because they become markers of spontaneous decision-making. Such gestures can serve as a kind of memory map of improvisation. In the same way that a photograph captures a moment in time, so does slinging a clump of clay onto a wall. Even though they have two very different results, there is an inherent risk-taking in making a mark, whether that is drawing lines on a piece of paper, stepping out onto a stage or trespassing into a construction site in order to take a photograph.  

Gesture-making, or art in general, can be seen as both a tool for finding meaning and a tool for letting go of meaning itself. While arranging and rearranging the structures we find around ourselves, the conscious and unconscious gestures we make create waves of impact in our lives. In such gestures, we recognize the threads of harmony and moments of clarity that allow us to make sense of our experiences within the chaos of an irrational world. 

Untitled (Drawing Collage White)
2012
Cut photographs, silkscreen and acrylic on paper
40 x 60 cm

OPP: You've made a lot of work in Germany, including a performance with two dancers at Temporary Home as part of Documenta 13 in Kassel (2012). How and when did you first have the opportunity to perform there? Has the reception to your work been different in Germany than in the US?

MS: I first came to Berlin for a short residency at Takt Kunstprojektraum in the summer of 2008, and I'm still here. I was instantly drawn to the tension of the city's history, and I felt a huge amount of admiration for the endurance, tolerance and freedom that exists in the city's mentality. I felt at home within a constantly changing community of international artists, and I was drawn to the aesthetics of the raw industrial spaces and materials I first found in Berlin. I am still drawn to the construction sites in Germany and to the absurd logic of how they are organized and re-organized. In the United States, construction sites are usually hidden behind walls of wood. Here they exist as living parts of the street itself, so that you can see the pipes embedded in the sand below as they are constructed. I love living in a city whose guts are exposed.

When it comes to the reception of my work, I have found German audiences to be extremely well-educated about art history and architecture, emotionally intelligent and unafraid to engage in discussion about art. This includes my university students as well. There is a true love of discussion in the German culture. German people are unafraid to offer criticism or dissent; neutrality of emotion and independence of mind are valued higher than pleasing others or being well-liked. What I appreciate most about American audiences, on the other hand, is their enthusiasm, acceptance and appreciation of the unique. Their unchained, youthful sense of history means they highly value the reinvention of the self. I find that a certain amount of naiveté in American culture actually allows for a pure and fearless go-get-em mentality when it comes to following one's vision.

Perhaps that is what drives me to invade construction sites and climb through pipes and suspend myself in a crane while Singin' in the Rain! Or perhaps I'm more German now, organizing and re-organizing until everything falls to rubble.

To see more of Madeline's work, please visit madelinestillwell.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Right Here, Right Now (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Alexander DeMaria

Magazine Kora
2013
Magazine rack, banjo strings, hand made magnetic pickup, hardware

Artist and musician ALEXANDER DEMARIA’s creative practice incorporates drawing, sound, sculpture, performance and cut paper. His intricately detailed two-dimensional works reference folklore and heavy metal culture, emphasizing an experience of adolescent escapism. In contradistinction, his recent instruments built from found objects and collaborative, improvisational performances using the instruments reveal a mature version of play, wonderment and imagination. Alexander received his MFA in painting from the Massachusetts College of Art in 2007. He has attended numerous artist residencies including The Wassaic Project in Wassaic, New York (2011), Sumu Artist Residency in Turku, Finland (2010) and Ox-bow School of Art in Saugatuck, Michigan (2009). Currently, he is in residence with his collaborator James Horgan at Raumars in Rauma, Finland until October 2013. Alexander lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Music and sound are central to your art practice. Do you also have a formal music background or a music life that is separate from your art practice?

Alexander DeMaria: I have very little formal training in music, but I've played in bands for a long time, often with other visual artists and always—at least initially—as a distinct activity from our art practices.

The first real sound art project I did was Under the Same Shadow, an ongoing sound and installation collaboration with artist Owen Rundquist. The project is rooted in our mutual interest in mythology, cultural research and heavy metal. Our first exhibit was at Fountain Gallery in Brooklyn, and we have since done projects in Boston, Richmond, Virginia and at the Sumu Residency program in Turku, Finland.

We were very clear when we started the project that it was sound art, not a band (though we do now play in a band together). Middle Kingdom, another collaboration, began as a band. Jamie Horgan and I started making experimental noise music with some very basic electronics I was building: guitars, disembodied tape heads, toys, recorders, drums, scrap metal. . . really anything we could get our hands on. That project developed slowly into installation and it was only after a couple of years that we saw it as part of our art practice. Until October 2013, we’ll be in Rauma, Finland together, building instruments, constructing temporary performance spaces, organizing music shows and working with school groups on both instrument construction and musical performance.

Currently, I play in a black metal band with Owen called Anicon (along with Nolan Voss and Lev Weinstein) and record solo under the project name Ypotryll. I have an upcoming release on the Different Lands label. I also run a small cassette label myself called Mineral Tapes, which I use to publish small editions of experimental albums. I have tapes by Sashash Ulz and Invisible Path coming out very soon.

Tuomiosauna
2010
Installation with Owen Rundquist: wood, tile, stone, moss, electronics, radio, sound
75" x 116" x 86"

OPP: How do you define the difference between sound art made with musical instruments and music?

AD: I think it's mostly about the intended context and suitability of the actual recording or performance to that context. When Owen and I started making sound together, we knew that we wanted it to be experienced in a gallery or art space, not at a metal show. Even though the form of the sounds bears a very strong resemblance to more traditional musical forms, it was never intended to be experienced in traditional musical venues. By contrast, the kind of sounds that Jamie and I started with were very abstract, often droning, dissonant and noisy, but we initially intended to play them live at music events. In each case, we were looking for something unusual for the chosen context.

OPP: Your instruments made from found objects are beautiful as sculptures. Were they originally created to be played or displayed?

AD: The instruments were definitely always made to be played. Most of the Ypotryll recordings are done with these instruments. Some of them play better than others, but none of them is considered a finished piece until I've recorded some music with it.

Performance at Shoot the Lobster
2012

OPP: When you perform publicly with these instruments, do you compose for them or is more improvisation? What do they sound like?


AD: Almost all the instruments are electric so I do use a number of effects pedals. This recording, made at a rehearsal for the performance Jamie Horgan and I did at Shoot the Lobster in New York, was made with the Yellow Two Neck, the Nomad, the Reverb Drum and the amplified Kalimba. I play everything live and use a loop pedal to layer up the sounds in real time; there’s no over-dubbing or anything. It's a really good representation of the live sound.

Also, in the photos of this particular performance you can see a group of people standing around me holding hands. The Nomad is a touch sensitive keyboard, so skin contact between the little bolts and the bike spoke at the bottom produces a note. For the performance, wires ran from the instrument to the audience. When the audience members linked hands one by one they built a big droning chord that started the set.

As for composition, I usually have a trajectory in mind for a performance and maybe some sounds that I know I want to hear, but everything is ultimately an improvisation.

OPP: What's it like to play them?

AD: Each instrument is pretty idiosyncratic. Because they're all found objects and kind of scrapped together, learning to play them is really interesting. I always think I know what it will sound like, but I'm almost always wrong. If I'm disappointed by some aspect of the sound I thought I'd find, I'm usually pleasantly surprised by something else I didn't expect.

Portraits of Pain
2008
Cut Paper
78"x 36"

OPP: The motifs of ritual, folklore and heavy metal permeate your work, connecting the music and performance to the visual work. Many of your drawings evoke album cover art. Skulls and burial-related structures appear repeatedly, representing rituals related to death. It got me thinking of rituals associated with music. For example, the ritual of listening to a breakup song on repeat is a way to process loss. And going to a huge, blockbuster concert is as much about being connected to the other fans as it is about listening to the music. Is a jam session a contemporary ritual? 

AD: Music is connected to tons of contemporary rituals, both private and public, from listening to it in our homes to playing it on stage. The imagery in some of the drawings and especially in the work from Under the Same Shadow is definitely trying to identify some of those small rituals and relate them to specific, older cultural references like burial poles or saunas, for example. That being said, the word "ritual" has recently been over-used, particularly amongst metal bands. It seems to be used simply for dramatic effect or it is often confused with pagan or new age cliches that rob it of its power.

OPP: I know what you mean about words being over-used—and often mis-used!—but I’m also a believer that things become cliché because they are universal, because as humans we need to experience them over and over again. The cliché is a site of a shared human experience. But that’s my interpretation. I’d love to hear in your words what you love about music and why it is such a big part of your life.

AD: I agree, cliches exist for a reason and often do get at something really universal. And really, although the word gets bandied about too much, all music is a kind of ritual. There's no need to burn sage or wear a mask to make it so. I think that actually gets to your question about music for me personally. I really enjoy making all kinds of things: art, music, furniture, dinner. . . that "ritual" of creation is the most pleasurable part for me. The time that's spent working on something and figuring it out is often much more important than the finished product; sometimes it's really more beautiful. With music, that creative moment can be the entire thing and the recording, (if there is one) is simply a record of the action. Whether improvising or playing something composed, there is something fragile and uncertain about creating music that I really love.

2009
Ink on Paper
30"x22"


OPP: The Forest in the Basement (2010), a series of densely-detailed ink drawings, seems to be about cycles of death and rebirth. The title evokes for me the image of a fertile, untethered wildness growing in a contained space where it shouldn't be able to grow. At first it seems awesome; then it seems sad because maybe the forest will die in the basement where there is no sunlight. Will you pick your favorite piece from this series and talk about how it relates to the title and to your overarching intentions in this body of work?

AD: The Forest in the Basement for me refers to the growth of a young person's imagination in an environment that might not be the most inspiring. The forest is a place of enchantment, magic and endless possibility and the basement refers to the spaces were I would hangout as a kid. My family had a finished room in the basement which was always where the kids would go to play, so that's part of the imagery. But I also used to love digging through attics and basements for lost treasures, which is another part of the reference. Finally, a lot of the music I've been involved with also takes place at basement shows which was a part of my thinking in the title.

Fantasy has been important to me since I was very young. In both art and music, I tend to make things that allow me to escape reality. The drawings in this series are about creating a world that I would have loved as a teenager but can still return to again and again as an adult. In a number of the drawings characters are built of many small things or have rooms hidden in their clothing. Each character's "inner bits" have a mood and feeling that represent for me that more complex network of feelings and ideas that surround the larger theme. In Age Old Hymns, for example, the character represents an adolescent image of a goddess of sex and death in a variety of really obvious ways but also in the endless maze of rooms that make up her structure. She is church-like, baroquely complicated and full of small surprises. So while the nude breasts and corpse paint have their role in setting the theme for the drawing, my hope is that all the tiny details allow the viewer to share in the intricate web of associations—desire, mystery, guilt, wonderment—that go along with that fantasy. I hope in this drawing, as in the whole series, that there is some feeling of the adolescent fantasy, and also of my adult reflections on the psychology of that fantasy and on act of imagination itself. But that feels like a really dry, academic way to put it. . . Really, I just hope people will get lost in this world with me.

To see more of Alexander's work, please visit www.alexanderdemaria.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Right Here, Right Now (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Kathryn Refi

Every Day I Was Alive, 13,636
2013
Lipstick on paper
43.5" x 55"

KATHRYN REFI Googles herself. She repeatedly counts and marks the number of days she's been alive. She searches microfilm for events that occurred on the date of her birth and uses objective methods of compiling data from her daily life, including recording sound and light and tracking her own movement on maps. This data is the source of her drawings and paintings. However, the real subject of her work is not "Kathryn Refi," but rather the mystery of existence and the noble futility of attempting to comprehend it through limited means. Kathryn graduated Magna Cum Laude from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1997 and received her MFA from the University of Georgia in 2002. She has had solo exhibitions at Solomon Projects (Atlanta), the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art and Fugitive Art Center (Nashville). Kathryn lives and works in Athens, Georgia.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Talk about the presence of futility in your work.

Kathryn Refi: In my work, I am grasping at something I can never get a hold of. It seems like this grasping and searching is part of the human condition. Hopefully we are always struggling to better understand ourselves and the world around us, looking for meaning while simultaneously accepting the possibility that there is none to be found. I'm in a constant state of searching that has no end goal. Sometimes it feels futile but is none the less crucial. The faith in the process, maybe even in the futility, becomes a goal in itself. It is a way to combat nihilism. My work is a search for meaning in my life through quantification and visualization of certain aspects of my experience. I approach this subject from different angles and through different means to see what bits of insight I might glean.



Every Day I Was Alive, 13,556 (detail)
2012
Ink on paper
11 x 8.5 inches

OPP: I think of your work as a series of existential gestures. To be aware of futility and act anyway is a way of asserting that we exist, whether or not it yields results. Are you influenced by Existentialism or any other philosophical or spiritual modes of thinking about existence?

KR: Only in a very broad sense. I read a lot of Sartre and Camus in high school, but I haven't read any explicitly philosophical or spiritual works since then. Seriously. I'm not very interested in reading about thinking. I'd rather just be open to the world around me and do the thinking internally. I actually just looked up "existentialism" to make sure I knew what it meant. Part of me really fights any philosophical associations or terms because it starts to feel too academic, intellectual and potentially alienating for myself and my audience. I'm very wary of exclusionary references to philosophers, authors or schools of thought.

OPP: What or who has influenced your work?

KR: The single greatest influence on my work is a teacher I had during undergrad at Maryland Institute College of Art named Sherman Merrill. He was not a visual artist. The class I took with him was a liberal arts class called "History of Ideas." We studied the Protestant Reformation, U.S. expansion across the Western frontier and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was a tyrant of a teacher, very serious, and he worked us hard. If he saw that your hand wasn't moving to take notes he would yell at you. On the first day of class he told us that when we entered his classroom we were entering the world according to him, and that everything we would be and had ever been taught was subjective. We weren't supposed to question what he was saying to his face but rather know in our minds that what he was teaching us was colored by his own life, even though we were studying historical events. On the short answer and essay exams he gave, we had to begin each answer with "According to Sherman Merrill. . ." We had points deducted if we failed to start our answers this way, even if what followed might be mostly uncontested historical information. It made such a lasting impression on me. It has affected the way I view the world ever since, strengthening my skeptic leanings. Now I move through life with the knowledge that everyone is seeing the same thing slightly differently. I am fascinated by this multiplicity of perspectives.

Searching for Kathryn...
2011
Pastel on paper
11 x 8.5 inches

OPP: In your project Searching for Kathryn Refi (2011-2012), you drew the first image that appeared as you typed your name in a Google image search bar, one image every time you added a letter. Here we see that futility of looking for oneself outside of oneself—a trap that many people are caught in in the age of social networks, selfies and Google. Who hasn't Googled themselves? I know I tend to do it when I'm at a loss or lonely. But the project also brings up a more profound truth about the nature of self: the images in that first slot change. Some of them are already different from when you drew them. Was this an intentional part of the project?

KR: Yes, I was aware of the changing aspect of the search results and how the resulting drawings are a record of a definition from a certain place and time. This feels appropriate on a historical and personal level. Yesterday's heretics might be today's sages. What was once a prescribed medicine is now a known poison. As we gain more information, our definitions of people and events change. This includes information gathered objectively through a scientific method or subjectively through personal experience. So many of our definitions are cultural. A culinary delicacy in one region may be considered inedible in another. Our definitions are always changing, which is a positive. It relates to the question of whether or not there are any absolute truths.

OPP: Are there any absolute truths. . . "according to Kathryn Refi"?

KR: I don't know at this point. I think I used to have more of a belief in/need for absolutes than I do now. I would like to say that an absolute truth would be something like "causing someone non-consensual physical harm is wrong." That's fairly certain, right? But what about in self-defense? War? There are always caveats and exceptions and very quickly the waters get murky.

November 2nd, 1975: O.J. Simpson, of the Buffalo Bills, tries to score
2010
Charcoal on paper
43.5 x 33 inches

OPP: November 2nd, 1975 is your birthday and the title of a series of drawings based on images sourced from microfilm of newspapers, the internet, and family photos of events that occurred on that date. Again, you take a common musing that most of us have had and turn it into series. As with Searching for Kathryn Refi, you use yourself as a starting point, but the project really isn't about you as an individual. What's it about?

KR: It's about getting outside of oneself and assuming a more global perspective. The date I have always defined as the date of my birth is known to others very differently, if they think about it at all. I use myself and my personal experience as starting points to explore the greater idea of the experience of life. Sometimes I worry the work could be seen as navel-gazing, so I make sure that it has an entry point for viewers that will lead them to think about their own lives.

OPP: In projects like My Address Book (2003), Color Recordings (2006), and Driving Routes (2004) you used your personal experience as a filter for compiling objective data that is translated into visual output, but these projects are less about a personal sense of identity than your recent projects. Do you see these earlier projects as fundamentally different or the same?

KR: That's an interesting question and something I'm circling around the edges of, metaphorically. I don't see the earlier work as fundamentally different, but I've recently become aware that something is changing. A shift is occurring, and my artist statement isn't quite accurate anymore. But I can't yet pinpoint what is happening or why, and I honestly don't want to right now. I'd rather just let the process unfold on its own. Even though all of my work is made within a specific framework that guides the visual imagery, I am always thinking "I have no idea what I'm doing and whether or not this is stupid." So some degree of intuition occurs before I set up the parameters of each body of work. In the midst of it, I can't make sense of it, but maybe in the future I will look back and see the greater context of how the work is developing now.

My Address Book
2003
Oil on panel
Overall dimensions variable, 8 x 8 inches each

OPP: I’m really glad you mentioned that sense that your artist statement is no longer quite accurate. I’ve had that experience many times, and I’m sure we aren’t alone. It’s so exciting to feel the deep pleasure of discovery and surrender. But it is so frustrating to have to put it into words before I’m ready, which mostly occurs because of a deadline for an exhibition proposal or a grant application. During those moments, I experience a separation between my art practice and my art career. Do you see these as distinct from one another?

KR: I would be happy if I never had to talk about my art again. (But your questions have been very considered and thought-provoking, so I haven't minded responding to them!) I get frustrated when I am expected to concisely verbally explain what my work is about. It is something that I can't put correctly into words. That is why I am a visual artist, not a writer. Sometimes even I don't know what my work is about. If I always did, I don't think making it would be as interesting for me. I understand that sometimes the viewers wants to make sure that they "get" a piece of art, but I also feel like it's not that simple. It's not a one-liner. And if the work isn't engaging for someone, that's fine, they can walk away. I think we all need to be more comfortable with not knowing.

Somewhat unfortunately, this results in me being a poor advocate for my work. As I am generally not interested in convincing people of anything, I am definitely not compelled to convince someone that my work is awesome and they should buy it or exhibit it. Because, you know, maybe they shouldn't.

To see more of Kathryn's work, please visit kathrynrefi.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Right Here, Right Now (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Will Holub

Memorial
2013
Paper, gel medium and acrylic on linen
16" x 16"

WILL HOLUB’s figurative paintings based on publicity stills of actresses and vintage photographs of prizefighters and Army Air Force Navigators emphasize the act of looking and being looked at. His work focuses on American cultural archetypes of glamour and masculinity. His abstract accumulations of the meditative repetition of ripped paper offer a haptic antidote to the scrutiny of only looking at the surface. Will studied painting and film-making at the University of Toronto, and completed coursework in illustration at the School of Visual Arts. His numerous solo exhibitions include shows at the Santa Fe Center for Contemporary Art, Chiaroscuro Gallery in Santa Fe, Braunstein Quay Gallery in San Francisco and the Gail Harvey Gallery in Santa Monica. You can view his work in-person at the group show Metro Montage XIII at the Marietta/Cobb Museum of Art (Marietta, Georgia) until mid-September 2013. Will lives and works in the Mystic region of southeastern Connecticut.
 
OtherPeoplesPixels: You have two ongoing modes of work that are visually very distinct from each other. On the one hand, your figurative paintings are based on movie and publicity stills of actresses and vintage photographs of prizefighters and Army Air Force Navigators. Your other body of work is comprised of textured, abstract paintings and collages. How is the process of recreating a photograph in paint different from creating an abstraction by tearing up paper and applying it to the surface? Are these different ways of making a painting more alike than one might expect?
 
Will Holub: Making a painting based on a photograph is fundamentally a labor-intensive exercise in hand-eye coordination. It is also a constant reminder that a photograph is not the thing it depicts. Such basic and helpful awareness is also a primary link with my textural abstractions, since the irregular shapes of the hand-torn fragments I use in building up textural surfaces demand decisions instantaneously as each one is glued into place. As a result, both kinds of work also impart the calming benefit arising from attentiveness.

OPP: From a process point of view, do you prefer working one way to the other?

WH: The figurative paintings require the use of my dominant right hand alone for most of the work, while the abstractions allow me to work with both hands, which balances muscle use more and allows me to work for longer periods without taking a break. That also may have something to do with the stimulation of the right and left sides of the brain that ambidextrous work provides. After nearly 30 years of art-making, I can honestly say that I love making both kinds of work, and my appreciation for the differences and similarities in their processes continues to grow even as they evolve.

There Is Nothing Like a Dame #9
2012
Oil on Wood Panel
9" x 12"

OPP: My favorite series is There Is Nothing Like a Dame, which is based on screencaptures from the musical South Pacific. You've painted only the male characters, singing while shirtless or bare-chested. What strikes me is that even though I know they are singing, they look like they are screaming or yelling. Some look aggressive and others look like they are wailing in pain. What do you think these men are so upset about? Or do you see them that way?
 
WH: My intention had been to find something tender and vulnerable amidst all the hypermasculine, military posturing of the period. I had not considered that the singing sailors in South Pacific might look like they were in pain, but given that Joshua Logan, the director of the film, was a bisexual man working in the fiercely homophobic America of the 1950s, it very well might have been his own "hidden-in-plain-sight" message.

OPP: I think there is vulnerability in the aggression I see, especially because you’ve frozen them in time. It’s like they can never escape the longing embodied in the song. I was reading it as about the precarity of the heterosexual masculine experience of that time: that the straight men are also victims of a cultural climate that limits their expression of longing and desire. Longing is universal, but the expression of it is often culturally dictated. I didn’t know that the director was bisexual, and now that I’ve just gone and re-watched that scene on Youtube, it adds a whole new dimension to the movie and to your paintings. Do you think viewers who haven’t seen South Pacific or other musicals from this era understand this work differently?

WH: Familiarity with American movie musicals of the 1950s is not required to appreciate the paintings on their own terms, but perhaps the paintings might arouse some curiosity among the uninitiated. That said, your interpretation and the responses I've received from several curators indicate that the paintings may be functioning as a kind of psychosexual litmus test for viewers.

Marilyn Maxwell
2010
Oil on Wood Panel
10" x 8"

OPP: Your 2010 series PROOF OF HEAVEN: Women of the Golden Age was selected in 2011 to be included in the Brooklyn Museum's Feminist Art Base. In your statement in the database, you say "Back in the 1970s, after the violent struggles of the Civil Rights movement and during the exhilarating early years of Gay Liberation, it never occurred to me that I wasn't already a feminist." I'm glad to hear it, but I have to admit that it's still pretty rare to hear a man identify as a feminist. I'd like to give you the opportunity to talk about what being a feminist means to you.
 
WH: There are a lot of male feminists out there who just don't claim the title. After all, how could any working man married to or partnered with a working woman not fervently want her to receive equal pay for equal work and have access to affordable and high-quality childcare and paid family leave? But however encouraging this may be, the ever-widening gap between the wealthy one percent and the millions of people in poverty or struggling on the edge of it constitutes the greatest threat to ever creating a truly egalitarian society. We must all fight for justice and equality now, regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation and the feminist agenda holds the key to winning.

To see more of Will's work, please visit willholub.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Right Here, Right Now (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Priscilla Briggs

Opening Soon (Grand Gateway Mall, Shanghai)
2009
Lightjet Prints
Grid of 4, 20" X 30" each

PRISCILLA BRIGGS investigates representations of capitalism, consumerism and the global market in her photographs of malls, tourist markets and manufacturing districts throughout the world. She emphasizes the role of advertising imagery as an influential backdrop in the creation and reflection of personal and collective cultural identities. Priscilla’s photographs were most recently seen in the group exhibition Art in the Age of Globalization at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and she has had solo exhibitions at The Phipps Center for the Arts (2010), the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, (2009) and Minnesota Center for Photography (2008). Her work is included in the rotating Midwest Photographer's Project at the Museum of Contemporary Photography and the permanent collections of the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Hillstrom Museum. Priscilla is currently at artist-in-residence at the Chinese European Art Center  in Xiamen, China, but her home base is Saint Paul, Minnesota.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You've spent a lot of time photographing malls and other market spaces throughout the world. I'm curious about your personal experience being in spaces that revolve around consumerism. Can you tell us about an early shopping memory?
 
Priscilla Briggs: I grew up by the seashore in Maryland where I spent a lot of time on the boardwalk—a carnivalesque tourist haven. There were a few shops that I visited over and over. My absolute favorite store sold a menagerie of horribly kitschy blown-glass tchotchkes, such as a pair of translucent pink swans made doubly fabulous by a spray of optic fibers. I spent many magical hours in that store, but I never actually bought anything. I wasn’t interested in owning a single glass figurine. It was more the experience of being surrounded by a room full of beautifully reflective and colorful glass objects that I enjoyed. In retrospect, I equate that experience to my adult enjoyment of art installations by artists like James Turrell or Sarah Sze

Singing Buddhas
(Gift Shop, Bangkok, Thailand)
2004
Color Coupler Print
9" x 13"

OPP:
What's your personal experience with malls?

PB: Malls are akin to museums. They are designed spaces full of objects for sale that are really artifacts of our culture, reflecting what we value, what we find desirable, how we live. The accompanying advertising inserts these objects into our lives, and embeds them within mythological narratives that most of us can’t help but internalize in some way. These affect and reflect our sense of individual identities and our collective identity as a culture.
 
Most malls feel like safe, contained spaces. They are primarily occupied by chain stores that you can find nationally, if not all over the world. Many people like the reliability of that kind of consistency; they find it comforting and efficient. My work is fairly critical of these spaces and the unbridled consumerism they are designed to encourage. Although I do shop at malls occasionally, I try to frequent and support stand-alone locally based businesses that are less corporate as much as I can. I rarely went to malls before I started photographing them and now, after spending so much time there for work, I have no desire to linger.

OPP: What drew you to malls as sites to photograph?

PB: My work has evolved from a foundation in environmental portraiture, with a shift in focus from the unique individual to consumer culture identity. Because the market drives a capitalist society, I was drawn to that as a subject, initially looking at how advertising narratives influence one's personal sense of identity. When I moved to Minnesota 10 years ago, I couldn’t resist the call of the Mall of America, such an obvious icon of capitalist consumerism. Then I read an article about a mall craze in China: over 500 malls were built in a five-year period, some five to seven times the size of the Mall of America. I was intrigued by what this would look like in a country with a history of communism, and that’s how my work segued to China.

Levels (MixC Shopping Mall, Shenzhen)
2009
Lightjet Print
36" X 54"

OPP: Your 2010 series The Road to Shantou juxtaposes interiors and exteriors from "a manufacturing district in Shantou where most of the brassieres in the world are made within the 50 square mile area between Chendian Town, Chaonan and Gurao Town." The fact that all the billboards feature white women and all the garment workers are Chinese makes the discrepancy between worker and customer so evident. You mention the Chinese history of valuing female modesty in your statement. In photographing in the factories, did you get any sense of how the people there experienced the advertising that surrounds them in their daily lives? What did you learn that isn't in the photographs?
 
PB: The Chinese are very matter-of-fact people. I think they take the advertising at face value and probably tune it out. What’s striking about this area is not so much that the billboards show scantily-clad women—this has recently become common in cities all over China—but that the sheer amount of this imagery makes walking through the streets like living in a Victoria’s Secret catalog. One thing that is perhaps not evident in the photographs is that the advertisements are directed at the Chinese distributor rather than the end-customer. Most foreign wholesalers will place their orders at big wholesale export fairs like the Canton Market in Guangzhou, so there are very few foreigners who come to this area. The use of primarily Caucasian and Arabic models is partly due to the belief by many Chinese that these women are sexier and more curvaceous than Chinese women. In the same way that many American women wish they were as skinny as the models in magazines, many Chinese women often wish they were curvier like the Western models in their advertising.

Untitled #30
2010
Giclee Print
18" X 27"

OPP: Global Market pairs images from the Mall of America in Minnesota with images taken in various outdoor markets and shopping centers in Cuba and Thailand. Talk about the overlap of consumerism and tourism in this body of work and your use of postcards in the 2008 installation at Minnesota Center for Photography.

PB: I first used the postcards in the Market exhibit, which was comprised of photos from the Mall of America only. The postcards referenced the MoA as a tourist destination—people actually fly from other parts of the country to spend a week at the Mall of America. I included text on the back of the postcards, providing statistics about American consumer habits, and used titles to connect the image and text conceptually. The postcards made the exhibit more interactive. Visitors could take a postcard right off the shelf and purchase it.
 
Global Market expanded on the idea of the tourist market and included images from Thailand and Cuba because I had the opportunity to travel to those countries through my job as a professor.   
 
Tourist markets are fascinating in that the souvenirs sold there are often objects that are designed to represent the culture being visited, specifically in a way that distinguishes it from other cultures. I have often found these representations to be more a reflection of what the tourist hopes to find rather than what exists in reality—the toured have a stake in maintaining that façade in order to keep the tourists coming and spending. Gary Larson summed up this kind of performing of culture very well in his Far Side cartoon of Polynesians scrambling to hide their TV, VCR and lamp as a Caucasian man in a safari outfit walks toward their hut, with the caption “Anthropologists! Anthropologists!”

For example, Copy an image of a Long-Neck Karen woman holding up a postcard with a picture of herself on it, was shot in a refugee village in Thailand. After tour companies started dropping off busloads of tourists in their village everyday, the villagers started charging admission to the village, gave up their farming practices and each opened a stall in front of their house to sell souvenirs. They also started wearing traditional dress everyday rather than just on special occasions. When I invited a representative from the Thai tourist commission to speak with our students, he referred to the villagers as “the product.” Two of the postcard images in the show were of Hill Tribe children on the side of the road with a sign that says “Take the Photo 20 Baht.” I included information on how to practice community-based tourism in Thailand and ways to help the Hill Tribe Villagers on the back of the postcards and titled them Take the Photo I & II.  All the other postcards could be purchased for a dollar, but these two were free.

Painter #1 (Pan Jin)
2010
Oil Painting
36" X 54"

OPP: Wushipu (2010) investigates the workspaces of Chinese production painters through portraiture and still life photography. This body of work is very connected to your other work in that it investigates a market where the East and the West collide, where Chinese workers are satisfying Western demands for luxury goods. But it also brings up the issue of value as it pertains to painting and photography, copying and originality, art and craft. What's your take on the labor these painters do? Are they artists? Is the labor the same as what the garment workers do?
 
PB: Your question sums up what this work is asking the viewer to think about. The work the painters do is distinguished by the Chinese oil painting community as either “commercial”—work that is a direct copy of a photograph or masters’ painting and used for decorative purposes—or “creative” work that is an original fine art composition. The painters I photographed for the Wushipu series are making “commercial” paintings, which comprise 80% of the multi-billion dollar oil painting industry.

In my opinion, this labor is definitely not fine art, but while one painter told me he hated painting and just did it for money, many of the painters aspire to a more high-profile career in which they are respected as fine artists. They see their commercial work as a way to build their skills and pay the rent. 

It’s difficult for artists in China to gain recognition as fine artists if they haven’t gone to one of the top universities. Some painters who did not go to university complained that it is elitist because those universities require that you speak English to get in. I’m guessing that the English requirement is there because texts about contemporary art and theory are generally not written in or translated into Chinese. Because the commercial painters don’t have the access to such texts, it is difficult for them to work or think within the contemporary art context or to understand how value is assigned to art work. I believe many of these painters could do more interesting work under different circumstances and with a better art education, but they are trained to copy masters rather than to experiment or think of an idea of their own. Many think a painting is good if it looks exactly like what they’re copying. In spending time with this community, I have met some highly skilled painters who are incredibly inventive people living the life of an artist, but making carbon copy paintings so they can feed their families.
 
What entertains me about this industry is that many of these paintings are sold in galleries in the U.S. and Europe with a fake name signed to them. For instance, a gallery in Venice may want tourists to believe they are buying a painting of the Venice canals by a Venetian artist so they sign an Italian name to the painting. No one would buy it if they knew it was painted in China.

To see more work by Priscilla, please visit priscillabriggs.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Right Here, Right Now (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Joseph G. Cruz

not a fact, still extremely real
2012
Photography stands/lights, saw horses, crate, mdf, stainless steal, insulation foam, plexiglass

JOSEPH G. CRUZ investigates the methods by which culturally and historically significant sites and events accumulate meaning through their varied representations. These subjects, such as the Matterhorn and the first walk on the moon, are starting points in his research-based art practice. The resulting installations include found objects, sound, text and sculpture and exploit the vernaculars of set design and museum display. In Fall 2013, Joseph will be an MFA candidate in Sculpture with a minor in the History and Philosophy of Science at Notre Dame. He recently completed the year-long BOLT Residency at the Chicago Artists' Coalition; his solo show in the BOLT Project Space opens on September 6, 2013. He will also be representing BOLT at EXPO Chicago in a booth that was juried and curated by Dieter Roelstraete. Joseph currently lives in Michigan City with his wife and their dog; at the time of this interview, they have a daughter on the way.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Research plays a big role in your art practice. To what degree are your research and the creation of objects intertwined or separate and distinct modes of thinking?

Joseph G. Cruz: My work is fueled by a love for the research, but I don’t make a distinction between research and creation in my practice. I see both as modes of exploration. There is a phase of research that is exclusively reading and field research. Then there is a phase of object-making that is like thinking with my hands. Sometimes I create a system by which the physical objects do the research by transcribing subjective, historical texts into “objective” data and translating them back into other subjective formats like sound. 12 transcribed notions (2012) and my Alfred Hitchcock’s "The Birds" piece (2010) are specific examples of how the work translates historical texts into subjective formats.

My enchantment with research isn’t just a love of discovery. It's also a love of the inventiveness of creating seemingly random contextual connections: historical, technological, cultural, scientific, pop, whatever. I tend to limit the object making to processes and materials defined through the research. Then I mix and match methodologies from the connecting topics I discover to create conceptually driven work.

Each body of work examines a particular cultural, historical or scientific subject, as if it were a leitmotif in a larger story. I work on different pieces within a body of work simultaneously and always think of them in relation to each other. The individual pieces can exist as autonomous objects, but they can’t come to full fruition unless they are viewed in context with one another.

A taxonomic split often occurs when scientists discover - through the prosthetics of DNA testing and computer analysis of song - that what appeared to be a single species, is actually two separate species which look identical
2010
Title card

OPP: What kinds of creative endeavors were you engaged in when you were younger?

JGC:
My junior high and high school years were all about skateboarding, surfing and DIY music culture. I started off playing bass and drums in a number of different bands, playing everything from hardcore to instrumental scores. The board sports are all about original interventions. Skateboarding revolves around how you use the skateboard in relation to architecture. And surfing is much more creative and expressive than most people realize. It's all about creative adaptation. You have to anticipate the way the wave bends and flows and find a way to perpetually keep sliding down the face.

Those years were about creating new forms of agency and identity, although how successful or aware of that fact we were is another story. Now that I think about it, that time was probably the most important formative aspect of my artistic personality. The practice just evolved into a more abstract, social architecture.

differentially similar
2012
Wall paper, laminated flooring, 1959 postcard, ebay-claimed “victorian print”, insulation foam, dyed sand, plaster, debris from not a fact, still extremely real

OPP: In 2012, your solo show not a fact, still extremely real at Comfort Station in Chicago revolved around various representations of the Matterhorn, employing and commenting on romantic, historical and scientific narratives. The Matterhorn is the subject of all the work, and yet it isn't. What's the real subject?

JGC: First off, thank you for asking that question. It’s true that my interest is not in the Matterhorn, per se, but rather in its agency and how it presents itself to us over time and how that has changed. I’m not pretending we live in some sort of Tom Robbins-style existence in which objects think and feel like humans. I’m thinking more of observing an object—in this case, the Matterhorn— over a larger span of time, to the degree that we, as individuals, have less control over it. The historical object gains its own agency. To paraphrase Werner Heisenberg, it's important to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.

The subject of this body of work is more of a verb than a noun for me. I’m trying to understand it through a trans-contextual investigation. That's the reason all of the works in that show reference different modes of knowledge production.

It starts with Edward Whymper, who triggered the golden age of alpinism with his worldwide tour of lantern lecturers about his first ascent of the Matterhorn. Four people died on that climb, and that’s where the proclivity toward spectacle emerges. I made a few pieces that mapped the romantic language from these lectures and translated it into a player piano piece. Kant’s writings about the sublime point outward via the Swiss Alps, and we see the techno-contemporary sublime via the Large Hadron Collider, which sits under the same ranges. Many years later, Disney created a famous roller coaster, and the Matterhorn now exists in many of our computers as a generic default screen saver. How do we understand the Matterhorn today? Why do we understand it that way? What are the implications or symptoms involved with that understanding? I guess it is more about mediation in scale. The Matterhorn is basically a soap box, and its repetition in the show hopes to dissolve itself. Think Marcel Broodthaer’s Department of Eagles.


OPP: I like the idea of the Matterhorn having agency and asserting itself over time through these various representations. But each of the instances you mention can also be viewed as a kind of violence to the mountain or toward nature in general. They are attempts to dominate the site of the sublime experience, to beat it into submission, to tame the shrew, if you will. So, does the Matterhorn gain its agency through the accretion of representations, in spite of them or through your side-by-side presentation of these representations?

JGC: Well, we’re not talking about actual mass, but the more abstract materiality that both stems from and is the representations of it. According to material culture studies, an object gains agency when used by humans for specific means. Things do far more than simply effect what humans do; things transform and impact the specific way in which human beings perceive and understand our situatedness. Mediating representations act as surrogates in that they not only stand in for the thing, but also create a new psychological space for the thing. The simulacrum doesn't give us the real thing, but what it gives us is still real. Not many of us have been to the moon, but we have a general agreement on what the moon is. This is more real than the physical experience of the moon. So there are shifts in the historical understanding of the Matterhorn as these representations accumulate, although I wouldn't say those shifts are necessarily linear.

everafter
2010
Installation view

OPP: Several earlier pieces—10 milliseconds of Utopia (political illustration?) (2009), re-entry shock (2008) and everafter (2010)—employ the visual motif of suspended taxidermy animals. They are suspended literally and transparently on strings in the air, indicating a suspended moment in time. The fact that we can see the strings relates to something you say in your statement: "The work seems to be telling a story while talking about how the story is being told." In what other ways do you talk about the story being told while telling a story?

JGC: I try to operate in a similar way to The Colbert Report or The Daily Show. The humor and umph in these shows doesn’t lie in the specific news story. It is in how they float around the periphery of the implied rhetoric and in the semantics of the stories being told. It’s that periphery which most interests me. I try to create an “and/or” situation when deciphering information.

Most of the pieces you cite were made during undergrad and were seeds for my current practice. I worked at the Field Museum, doing soft-sample taxidermy in the Ornithology Department. I was thinking about how visual rhetoric functions in dioramas, both from the audience’s point of view and from backstage.

My installations are like dioramas or movie sets that the viewer can walk around. I present a well-crafted front view, and then I exaggerate physical set-building methods “backstage.” I place spotlights on the extension cords and unpainted stage supports, exposing the hardware which supports the façade. All this is only available once you walk around the “set.” 

The installation If one looks down at the earth from the moon, there is no virtual distance between the Louvre and the Zoo includes a sculpture that references a landscape or a meteorite of sorts and looks like a scale model. From one side, it looks like a big rock on a pedestal. But when you walk around it, the pink insulation foam out of which it is carved is exposed. The illusion is revealed. A piece of glass cuts through the two sides, so that you can see a reflection (the façade) while simultaneously peering through the transparent glass to see the foam.

With those taxidermy birds in mid-flight, I aestheticized the strings that support the frozen moment in order to shift the viewers’ attention from the spectacle to the geometric structures and shadows of the strings which metaphorically and literally hold them up.  

If one looks down at the earth from the moon, there is no virtual distance between the louvre and the zoo.
2010
Pedestal, stage, recycled taxidermy, shadow, glass, foam, acrylic, and misc. scale model material.

OPP: You were a 2012-2013 BOLT resident at the Chicago Artists' Coalition in Chicago. You have a solo show coming up in the BOLT Project Space and you'll be representing the residency with a project at EXPO Chicago in September. Will you give us a sneak peak of the work you'll be debuting at one or both of these venues?
 
JGC: I am really excited and honored to be doing these shows and a little intimidated about representing BOLT at EXPO. It’s a young program that is really special and has some wonderful people behind it. It’s amazing how much momentum it has gained in only two years, but it still needs to be recognized and understood for how amazing it is outside of Chicago.

Assembling Vestiges, my solo show in the BOLT Project Space, loosely borrows its name and strategies from Deleuze’s assemblage theory. The jumping off points for this show are representations of late 19th century polar expeditions, space exploration and satellite imagery. It takes on a lot of curatorial strategies influenced by Thomas Demand’s La Carte D’Apres Nature at Matthew Marks Gallery and Mark Dion’s OCEANOMANIA at the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco, in that it involves time travel, actual artifacts like crystals from Antarctica and lunar meteorites, a couple of works from other artists (like a commissioned Turner reproduction). All of the pieces are vestiges of the research and some are vestiges of actual sculptures. For example, there is a series of broken silica molds and bronze slag. These are byproducts of sculpture, but the sculpture isn’t present. In this new work, I’m employing a more complicated notion of how the story is being told by presenting the agency of the environment (i.e. polar weather) via the color shifts that result from the extreme cold in Herbert Ponting’s first film of the Antarctic. It’s a very different show for me and a big experiment in moving my practice forward.

The EXPO booth is a satellite installation (forgive the pun) called Assembling the Lunar. It includes a sound installation which translates a recent topographical mapping of the far side of the moon into sound frequencies, a microscopic illustration of the night sky on the night of the first moon walk, a generic collectors’ edition lunar meteorite, and miscellaneous formal moves that reference horizon lines.

To view more of Joseph's work, please visit josephgcruz.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Right Here, Right Now (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.