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.

OPP Art Critics Series: Anastasia Cazabon's Sleeping Beauties

By Ruth Lopez

An image from photographer Anastasia Cazabon’s series From the Secret World depicts a slim woman in a pink dress leaning into a kitchen sink, her head lowered so deep that just some stray red hairs from the nape of her neck are visible. The water is running.  Is she retching? Preparing to take a sip? Its status as the image on the artist’s website’s landing page invites a read as an introductory statement. Over the sink, a thin yellow curtain glows behind an assortment of glass fruit and orbs on a corner of the windowsill. Diagonal bands, painted yellow across the white kitchen cabinets, are angled to the same degree as the torso. Even the faucet is swiveled in the same direction. It is evident that every detail in this mise-en-scène has been carefully arranged and considered.[1]

The Boston-based Cazabon has worked on several series of color narrative photographs that are informed largely, according to an artist statement, by fairy tales and childhood memories. Images of beds and napping appear throughout Cazabon’s work, encouraging fairytale associations to beauties who have fallen into deep sleep. In an image from the series Love and Rivalry, a Band-Aid, complete with the specks of blood, is stuck to a window framed by red gingham curtains. Perhaps Briar Rose, who pricked her finger with a spindle, left it there after she woke up from her 100-year sleep. Even the photograph of a piece of blackberry pie with nearby spoon and coffee dribbles on a kitchen counter, in this context, seems to suggest that after one poisonous bite, someone collapsed out of the frame and onto the floor for a good long nap. 

Anastasia Cazabon, from the series Love and Rivalry

Cazabon explores the deep bonds of female friendship with its secrets and adventures. There is frolicking and hair grooming. The women who appear in Cazabon’s work are often partly out of the frame. They run off nearly out of view, into the night or the woods or sit with their back to the viewer on an unmade bed. One slips headfirst into the crack between a wall and a twin bed. Another naps on a mossy green velvet sofa, an arm shoots out from under a floral throw pillow with only the back of her blonde head visible.

Poetic still lifes add another layer of psychological drama to Cazabon’s magical realist-tinged images. The work of Gregory Crewdson also comes to mind as a sort of learned uncle to these much smaller and far less elaborate narrative images. While Crewdson takes on entire towns, Cazabon stays close to home, incorporating what exists nearby—from insects (dead or alive) to the texture and sheen of domestic textiles—into her compositions. 

There is narrative overlap and familiar motifs can be spotted in other series titled Stories and I lost something in the hills. At times, the story is linear as in the image of a wad of pink gum stuck on the black hair in the back of a head. Another character, partially obscured, seems ready to examine the situation. The following image shows a small, hairy wad of gum on a neutral carpet. A pair of scissors poke out from under a dresser nearby—like evidence purposely left behind for forensics. 

Anastasia Cazabon, from the series Stories

Anastasia Cazabon, from the series I lost something in the hills

Cazabon excels at planting small clues or mirthsome details. In an image of a woman’s torso behind a glass door, there is a bee that blends into the honey brown wood and is almost unnoticeable despite being at the center. Mostly the narrative sequences are less obvious and somewhat mysterious. 

Cazabon’s sensibility is expanded in her video Dream Logic—with the bonus of seeing ants move across the surface of a book while a woman naps nearby and hearing a chorus of crickets. Less successful are the eight images in the series Learning, where the application of hair, sleep and play motifs come off as clumsy and seem imposed onto what might have been straight-on documentary shots. Her recent video work also seems to still be finding its way. If any of Cazabon’s images have titles, they are not made known to the viewer. Perhaps the omission of titles is meant to foster ambiguity. Viewers are already being told a story, however, and while words might add a layer of meaning, they could still hold mystery. 

Anastasia Cazabon, from the series Learning

In general, Cazabon’s repetition of ideas and motifs speaks to fidelity and is part of the process of working out a problem or exploring a connection to an idea. For instance, there is a photograph of a pearl necklace being pulled out of the dirt at the base of an abandoned building and another image of a necklace caught in the rocks of a stream. Both are compelling and lovely and point to the artist’s commitment to refining her visual language. The danger, however, is that driving over the same ground can easily become a rut. At this stage, the artist appears to be under a spell but there is enough strength in her work overall to suggest she will awaken refreshed. 

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Editor: Alicia Eler

August 20, 2013

Chicago, Illinois

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Footnotes

[1] When I was invited to write an essay for OPP, it was with the understanding that I would only have access to an artist’s website. Normally, I will not review work that I can’t see in the flesh. Digital photography and video are two mediums that I felt I could study online comfortably because I see the screen a natural habitat for digital work. 

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This is the sixth and final essay in the  OPP Art Critics SeriesCheck out essays from the series here: 

  1. "Four Tips from a Critic to Artists" by Abraham Ritchie
  2. "Get Back (to the present moment)" by Claudine Isé
  3. "Look at Them, Please" by Danny Orendorff
  4. "Autobiography and Its Documentation" by Jason Foumberg
  5. "The Child is (Un)dead: Taxidermy Art as Victorian Post-Mortem Photography" by Alicia Eler (Managing Editor, OPP Art Critics Series)

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Valerie Hegarty

Break-Through Miami
2010
Paper, Tyvek, paint, glue, palm fronds, tin foil, wire, wood, feathers
12’ x 40’ x 30’

VALERIE HEGARTY’s painting, sculpture and installation simulate a collision between nature and culture. Crows attack three-dimensional recreations of still life paintings, and grasses take root and flourish in an Aubusson rug. Rosebushes grow through gallery walls. The damage sustained by these cultural objects and spaces is an incidental, insistent reminder of the ongoing cycle of death and rebirth that exists at every moment, even when we try to hide from it in the notion of the supremacy of civilization and culture. Valerie’s work is included in the permanent collections of The Brooklyn Museum, New Britain Museum of American Art and the 21c Museums. Valerie Hegarty: Alternative Histories, a site-specific installation that activates the Brooklyn Museum’s Period Rooms, is currently on view until December 1, 2013. Her numerous solo shows include exhibitions at Marlborough (2012), Guild & Greyshkul, (2005 and 2006), the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (2008), and most recently Nichelle Beauchene Gallery (2010 and 2013). Valerie lives and works in New York City.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Throughout your practice as an artist, you've explored decay, damage and impermanence. You make regular reference to vanitas painting, scavenger birds and shipwrecks, all implying a bittersweet reckoning with mortality. Were you initially more attracted to the aesthetics of decay, or the concept of it?

Valerie Hegarty: I was initially interested in the idea of deconstruction with decay and damage as a means to an end. It’s a representational device to deconstruct a painting, and the aesthetics of decay become a formal way to abstract a representational painting. I like the layering of meaning and the multiple narratives that occur. I’m not really interested in the fetishization of decay. Decay in my work is a way to talk about the breakdown of ideas that are no longer working.

Figure, Flowers, Fruit
2012
Installation shot

OPP: In your 2012 solo Figure, Flowers, Fruit at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery in New York, you referenced the history of portraiture and still life painting. But the works featured were more sculptures than paintings. The peaches in one still life explode out of the frame onto the wall. In a portrait titled Woman in White, flowers appear to be growing from the sitter's face and the bottom edge of the frame dissolves into a system of roots. Could you talk about the idea of nature overtaking culture?

VH: I think of my work as painting more than sculpture, but there is a transition in most pieces where a painting on the wall appears to explode or grow into three dimensions. I often cite Thomas Cole’s series of five paintings The Course of Empire as a reference for my work. In Cole’s series, civilization and the landscape are depicted in five stages with the pastoral being the most harmonious. As the series continues, civilization grows, leading to greed, decadence and war. Civilization destroys itself and collapses into ruin. The final stage of the series is Desolation: all evidence of man is erased, and buildings are eroded and reclaimed by nature. There is the implication that the cycle will start all over again with rebuilding and repopulation. I see my work as the desolation phase, where culture has broken down. Nature is taking over, laying a fertile ground for something new to grow.

OPP: In 2011, you repeatedly "melted" George Washington's face in watercolor and acrylic paint. Although this decay or destruction of the human face and of the painting evokes all the same ideas as other vanitas work you've done, these read differently to me. Because the figure of George Washington is so loaded, I read this work as about the erosion of faith and pride in our historical American icons, and possibly about the erosion of their actual value as heroes. Yes, George Washington was the idealized father of the United States, but he was also a human being and a slave owner. When did you first decide to melt his face and what does this action mean to you?

VH: I first started to recreate paintings of George Washington in 2007 and have done a number of works over the years where his face and/or body are altered. On one level, I’m interested in a comic reference to the death of painting by creating a painting that appears to be self-destructing or vandalized. In the series of melted faces, I am also interested in the transition from what appears believable to the impossible, much like magical realism in fiction. There is a surrealist transition; the face is melting in a way that would not actually happen in reality. I also like the reference to the Gothic fiction story The Picture of Dorian Gray. The main character realizes that one day his beauty will fade, so he expresses a desire to sell his soul to ensure a painted portrait of himself would age rather than he. His wish is granted, and when he subsequently pursues a life of debauchery, the portrait serves as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul. With each sin, the painting becomes more grotesque. Using the iconic portrait of George Washington creates a commentary on the formation of American identity with the disfigured portrait revealing the return of repressed and darker elements of American history.

George Washington Seated Melted
2012
140 lb Arches Watercolor paper, watercolor, acrylic
12" x 16"

OPP: George Washington's portrait is not the only famous painting you've "destroyed" in your work. Niagara Falls, Fallen Bierstadt and Among the Sierras with Woodpecker all reference so-called masterworks by Albert Bierstadt, who was part of the Hudson River School. Why so many Bierstadts?
 
VH: I choose paintings that are considered “masterpieces” of American art and that I consider to be iconic images of the American landscape. For whatever reason, many of Bierstadt’s images of the American West rang familiar to me even though I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to identify the artist prior to doing research for my work.  It’s not important to me that there are a number of Bierstadts referenced in my work. I’m not really concerned with the artist, but the image.

OPP: Are these reproductions or recreations of Bierstadt's landscapes that you are "destroying"

VH: They are created reproductions that appear to be destroyed. As the decay is very carefully crafted and sculpted, the worked is actually constructed rather than deconstructed, although the illusion is the opposite.

There are definitely social and political messages in the decay that address American identity and the damage created through its formation—war damage, the oppression of peoples, damage to the environment through global warming and deforestation. 

My altering of these iconic images can also be a metaphor for how memory processes imagery. It’s a collage-like process: we have familiar images in our heads that we are constantly altering, editing and updating to reflect our current reality.

Fog Warning with Barnacles
2010
Foam, Winslow Homer poster, foamcoat, paper, paint, glue, Magic-sculpt, plexi, molding
28" x 32" x 3"

OPP: In your 2010 installation at Locust Projects in Miami, you combined anamorphic painting techniques, paper-mache and photography to create  "the impression that the gallery walls have been stripped back to reveal an old Miami building interior." But you've been creating architectural illusions in your installations since grad school. Some early examples in include Renovation (2002) in your grad school studio, Green Bathroom (2003) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and Childhood Bedroom (2004) at the Drawing Center in New York. Why does creating three-dimensional illusions continue to captivate you? Could you also talk generally about illusion and its value?

VH: I think of the projects you mentioned as drawings, collages or paintings. In essence I was creating the illusion that a section of the gallery wall was peeling away to reveal an older interior. To create this effect I glued painted layers of paper to the gallery walls and floors. These layers were often cut to the exact size of different architectural materials like floorboards, wallpaper and tile. Afterwards, I would peel and scrape the paper. Although the piece looked subtractive, it was actually additive. I called this work “reverse archeology,” and for me it was an investigation of memory. It was similar to making a drawing on paper, and then erasing it partially.

I think of the space created in this work as similar to the illusionistic space that is created in a painting. Except, in my work, the painting is extended out to the walls and the floor. I consider it a three-dimensional painting and that is how I consider most of my other work as well. The illusionism is a means to an end and not an end in itself. I’m interested in drawing the viewer in by creating uncanny scenarios that create surprise and curiosity in the viewer. Only when drawn in closer, can the viewer begin to ponder the line between fact and fiction and, I hope, delight in the discoveries.   

Pears and Oranges in a Bowl with Crows
2011
Wire, foil, epoxy, tape, paper, paint, glue, gel mediums
Dimensions variable (life size)

OPP: You have a very impressive exhibition record, including 13 solo exhibitions since you got your MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. That’s almost one a year and sometimes two in a single year! Did you approach any of the curators or exhibition directors of the galleries and museums where you’ve had solo shows, or did they approach you? Can you offer any advice to emerging artists about lining up solo exhibitions and studio visits?

VH: Yes, I have been extremely busy the past 10 years! I landed my first solo at Gallery 400 in Chicago by responding to an open call for proposals. Someone at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago saw that show and invited me to make a proposal for their emerging artist space. In NYC, I was approached by Guild & Greyshkul, my first gallery, after they had seen my work in a group show at The Drawing Center and had heard that I had been selected for a Rema Hort Foundation grant. I was approached by Museum52 in London to do a solo show after they saw a large piece of mine in the NADA art fair in Miami. So yes, every time I was approached by the gallery directly, but only because they had seen my work elsewhere in a group show.

My advice for emerging artists is to apply to all open calls at legitimate spaces because even if you are not selected, it still means a group of curators will see your work when when the proposals were reviewed. Keep close to your artist peers and be generous with sharing information. Often I am selected to be in group shows because a curator is familiar with my work or an artist friend recommended me. In NYC, it's very hard to approach galleries directly, or get an "in" simply because you know someone at the gallery. Gallerists generally want to discover their own artists. They are bombarded with people trying to get them to look at their work. Apply for anything that involves an application: grants, slide files, group shows, residencies, studio space programs. Do studio visits with your friends so they are familiar with your work and will think of you if they are asked to recommend other artists for shows. I applied for every single emerging artist opportunity in NYC and started getting chosen for things. That lead to group shows and then eventually being noticed. Most likely you will need another job to pay your bills. That is the norm for most artists, so prepare for that reality. It's not easy. But if it's what you want to do, don't give up.

To see more of Valerie's work, please visit valeriehegarty.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 John Espinosa

2006
Resin, foam, brass tubes, plaster, acrylic, birch, mdf32" x 48" x 48"

JOHN ESPINOSA's practice is a balance of object making and conceptual interventions. His sculptures make use of the poetry of physics to investigate the mechanics of how the world works and what it means. John received his MFA from Yale University’s School of Art in 2001 and has mounted solo exhibitions at Sandroni Rey Gallery (Los Angeles), Fredric Snitzer Gallery (Miami), The Museum of Contemporary Art (Miami) and, most recently, Charest-Weinberg Gallery (Miami). His work is in numerous public and private collections including the Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art (New York), The Miami Art Museum, The Museum of Contemporary Art (Miami) and The New Museum of Contemporary Art (New York). In September of 2013, he will launch Agency, a hybrid artist-run project space/commercial gallery in West Hollywood. John lives and works in Los Angeles.

OtherPeoplesPixels:
Can you define some of the consistent conceptual threads that run through the span of your practice?

John Espinosa: The base element or condition in my work is a type of turbulence that occurs in the natural flow of human knowledge. That flow could be related to time or matter. It could be a chronological, vertical circulation through human generations or a horizontal seepage that filters and spreads through the beings and artifacts at a single point in time. The distortion of the flow is often related to human interpretation or misinterpretation, and the turbulence becomes heightened around the abstract or the incomplete.

My projects often harvest and diagram these naturally occurring abstractions. In other instances, they function like a vector or a by-product of cross-contaminated reference points that I find or create myself. Multiple narratives or concepts often overlap or bleed into each other and mutate into something else altogether.

The way the morning broke was quite unusual
2010
Kool Aid, memory foam dyed with UV sensitive acryllics, and black dye, water pump, pipe, fiberglass, wood, polyurethane, acrylic tanks

OPP: Several sculptures involve the seeping of liquid out of a vessel, leaving behind a colored stain or residue. One example is The ones you see and the ones you don’t (2006), in which blue and green paint corresponding to David Bowie’s famously mismatched iris coloration leak out the back of a sphere embedded with the inverted image of his face, leaving a permanent stain on the wood base. Another is The way the morning broke was quite unusual (2010), in which Kool-Aid is pumped up through the center of the sculpture, eventually soaking back down through layers of dyed memory foam, staining them like a sunrise. What else do these pieces have in common?

JE: The staining in both pieces is a kind of residue, and both contain embedded references related to the human impulse to worship.

I used Kool-Aid in The way the morning broke was quite unusual to refer to the Jonestown Massacre, when hundreds of followers of self-proclaimed messiah Jim Jones committed mass suicide by ingesting cyanide via the grape flavored drink. I wanted the fluid to seep through an object that had both chronological (time) and geological (earth) characteristics. The staining maps the circulation of this charged fluid through these terrestrial and chronological formations.

The ones you see and the ones you donʼt conflates David Bowie’s heterochromia with the claimed phenomenon of the miraculous weeping idol—most often it is a statue of the Virgin Mary that cries tears of blood. This piece is an inverted statue of a pop idol that sheds miraculous tears according to the color pigmentation of his eyes. While researching weeping idols, I came across the term “false idols,” which implied a sort of void physicality to me. The ones you see and the ones you don’t inverts the way idols are typically represented as three-dimensional statues. The material presence of the sculpture is embodied in the negative space, in what is normally not there. So the orb is a kind of solidified aura, and the tear stains and gold mark are a residue. It’s like when you peel a sticker off of something and parts of the paper and adhesive stay behind.

Reference images from John's research

OPP:
Are you thinking about the residue metaphorically or metaphysically?

JE: Residue implies the existence of a previous presence or activity. When it is contextualized in certain ways, its meaning can leap from the physical, matter-of-fact to the metaphysical. In The ones you see and the ones you donʼt and The way the morning broke was quite unusual, the residue is both a literal trace and a symbol for all the extracurricular connotations it drags into the object.

OPP: Your 2009 piece Remote Viewing addresses this idea, too. You describe it as "an object of undisclosed materials and dimensions set in the Florida wilderness," but really the piece is the conceptual framework you set up:

In late 2009, Fountainhead Residency program in South Florida, I acquired a plot of remote undeveloped land deep in the Florida wilderness. Over the following months, I installed a sculpture made specifically for that land. The only visual documentation of that object exists as a video that is similarly placed at an undisclosed location on the internet. Both the real object and its virtual counterpart visible only by chance encounter.
Has anyone ever found the real object or virtual documentation? Do you have a secret hope that someone will find it, or is it truly unimportant to the meaning of the piece?

JE: To my knowledge, no one has seen the object. Honestly, I secretly hope no one ever does because for me the most exciting element of the project is the idea of a visually anarchic condition in which an object can exist with infinite potential visualizations. But, I do love imagining its discovery as it allows me to partially experience what it might be like for others to hear about this project for the first time. That moment, when each person constructs their own unique image in their head, is to me the most interesting sculptural aspect of this project.

An Infinite Collapse
2005
Fifty gallons of saltwater harvested from the Bermuda Triangle, hermetically sealed inside a tank made of marine grade aluminum and interior lined with pvc. The exterior of the tank is airbrushed with Wildfire UV sensitive acrylics and Rosco super-saturated flat black scenic paint.
24" x 74" x 36"

OPP: Your 2011 exhibition The Forest (Glass Delusion) at Charest-Weinberg Gallery in Miami grew out of an unexpected discovery in your studio. What did you find and how did it lead to the plexiglass sculptures called Mirage Artifacts?

JE: In 2008, I moved into a new studio space in the Glendale area of Los Angeles. A few months in, I decided to remove a built-in shelf that was eating up useful space. As I removed the shelf, the drywall behind it, which was old and rotting, quickly started to crumble apart, revealing the wall behind it. To my surprise I unearthed this really beautiful, enigmatic drawing. At first, I just thought that it was a plumbing or electrical diagram. But as I pulled down more of the rotting drywall, more drawings appeared and these had figurative elements—an eye and a head—incorporated into the abstract, linear diagram. I knew immediately that this would be source material for a future project. So, I documented the diagrams, and then covered them back up with drywall. Then a few months later, I began a series of projects that were based directly on interpretations of the five diagrams that I discovered. 

The first of these projects was the group of plexiglass sculptures called Mirage Artifacts (2011). The linear pattern of one of the found wall drawings was used as a footprint to determine the translucent plastic’s three-dimensional shape in each sculpture. That found wall drawing had three distinct types of lines, each of which I extracted and isolated from the other two. By layering them in different orders and intuitively building out three dimensionally from those patterns, each of the six Mirage Artifacts has a unique form. But if you look through the form, the translucency of the object allows you to still see the original pattern of the found drawing; only exploded out in three dimensions.

OPP: Have you executed any other of your planned projects based on the other diagrams?

JE: In June 2013 at Carter & Citizen in LA, I presented a new sculpture based on one of the drawings. Recently, I discovered the history of two of the prior tenants of my address. A jewelry maker used the space for 15 years, and an artist used it prior to him. So it is very possible that either of these two people made the marks—or a random worker could just as easily have made the marks during the construction of the structure. This new sculpture takes this history into consideration.

The Forest (Glass Delusion)
Installation shot

OPP: You've recently opened a brand new gallery called Agency in West Hollywood. You are familiar with the site inside the Pacific Design Center, a luxury mall focused on high-end design objects because you co-ran a hybrid artist run project space/commercial gallery called Wharton + Espinosa from 2012-2013. How will Agency be different than Wharton + Espinosa? Tell us about your inaugural exhibition.

JE: The impulse remains the same. Agency is an artist-run contemporary art gallery. The goal is to develop a quality sustainable program and enduring relationships with represented artists, all without giving up my own artistic project and aspirations.

In September, Agency will launch with solo exhibitions by Brendan Threadgill and Nicolau Vergueiro.

Brendan will present a new series of drawings made with layers of powdered uranium ore and graphite. These Uranium Drawings reference atomic diagrams and nuclear blast patterns. They integrate a mixture of Medieval and contemporary concepts of astronomy and physics with allusions to esoteric and spiritualist iconography. These works are largely inspired by the cultural and economic history of Southern California, where abundant yoga studios and ashrams reside in concert with defense contractors, military think tanks and weapons testing ranges. This apparent contradiction has been a part of the fabric of Southern California for over a hundred years and forms what Brendan calls the "military-meditative complex."

Nicolauʼs new works situate charged imagery in an uncomfortable relationship with the decorative. Over the past year, he has been embedding found newspaper images into poured latex to create synthetic, tapestry-like objects that drape and hang off of cast aluminum armatures. The technical process renders the complicated content of the images undecipherable and embeds it deep into the material subconscious of the object. Other works integrate fabrics printed with equally charged images, such as that of a stealth bomber, reduced and repeated so that it disappears into the cloth as pattern. The effect is of an uneasy familiarity or subconscious level form of recognition.

OPP: How did co-running Wharton + Espinosa affect your studio practice over the last year?

JE: I had  to make decisions much more quickly, and I was forced to disengage from the studio for long periods of time. In the past, my decision-making process was methodical and filled with many trial and error stages. I never really disconnected from my work because, with the exception of grad school, I have had a live/work space since I first started to make art. Over the last year, I spent the least amount of time ever in the studio. But simultaneously—other than my two years at Yale—I experienced the largest number of daily interactions with others about ideas and art. At the gallery, I had to engage on a regular basis in those discussions with people who have varying levels of expertise. That was great. It led me naturally to rethink and reconsider things that I had previously been doing on automatic pilot. That change, along with the alteration of decision making speed, were two of the key factors that I wanted to affect my studio practice when I considered my decision to open a gallery. But the ultimate effect on my work? We'll have to wait and see.  

To view more of John's work, please visit john-espinosa.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 Katie Vota

Douglas Fur
2011
Cut Paper
28" x 40"

KATIE VOTA’s delicate cut-paper works appear to float off the wall, casting shifting shadows that evoke the gentle motion of leaves rustling in the breeze. The combination of material and image—paper, sometimes cut to the brink of disintegration and enlarged micrographs of the cellular structures of natural dye plants—is a testament to the simultaneous fragility and robustness of nature. Katie was an artist-in-residence at ISLAND Hill House in Michigan in 2011. Later that same year, she received a Fulbright Fellowship to study natural dyes in Cuzco, Peru. Her work is currently on view in the group exhibition Under Construction at the Indianapolis Art Center through August 4, 2013. She will be a first year MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the fall of 2013, and you have 9 more days to support her education by contributing to her Indiegogo campaign. Katie lives and works in Chicago.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Could you explain the process behind your current cut-paper work? How is delicacy integral?

Katie Vota: I start with the most fragile thing I can think of—an idea of form and line derived from a delicate slice of plant, laid on a slide to be viewed at a microscopic level. It’s truly beautiful to think that everything in the universe is made up of such tiny pieces, of atoms, of cells. I build my images from cellular micrographs. I draw and re-draw in big, sweeping lines and gestures, preserving the essence of the plant I’m referencing. It’s the least precise, least delicate part of the process. Then, I draw again, but this time with an exacto knife.

Cutting is a painstaking, methodical process. It’s a more precise form of drawing that’s  akin to a scientific process. My space and hands must be clean—ah, the perils of working with white paper! I can’t lean on the paper at the edges of my mat or it will damage the paper’s structure. A delicacy of touch is required with cutting tools or I’ll cut too much away.

Cutting is a subtractive process. It’s like chipping away at a stone block, or relief carving—the piece emerges slowly over time. I cut a while. I hold it up and look at the reflection in the windows of my studio. I walk away, have a cup of tea or pet the cat. Then I come back and look at the reflection again. I sit down and keep working. Deciding it’s finished is about balancing the amount of detail present in the work with whether or not it will buckle in on itself because I’ve cut too much out. A cut paper piece can be too delicate.

When I exhibit these works, I hang them about an inch off the wall so that they cast shadows that change and move. Delicacy is the fragility of the paper floating away from the wall; it seems to weigh nothing, to occupy so little space. This lightness allows for intricacy in the form of a single line that moves through the entirety of a piece. The works move and sway slightly if there’s a light breeze or if you're walking past quickly. In those moments, I think of them as breathing, as if the plant within the piece has found a new life.

Hardwood
2011
Cut Paper
40" x 14"

OPP: This work is specifically based on the cellular imagery of natural dye plants, correct? How has your interest in natural dyes evolved since your 2011-2012 Fulbright trip to Peru?

KV: Correct. I first fell in love with the process and labor of natural dyeing during my senior year of my undergrad at MICA. I love the nuance of color found within the dyes, the presence of the hand in the work, the physical process of collecting the plants, and the staggering amount of chemical knowledge required to understand the differences between dyes. So I went to Peru on my Fulbright to expand my knowledge. I worked with 13 dye plants in the Cusco region of Peru. Although the plants were native to Peru, the colors they yielded were similar to what I could get from plants here in the States. I began to wonder: Are the cellular structures of good dye plants similar? And can I then infer whether a plant is a good dye plant by looking at its cellular structure? 

The color a dye plant yields depends on so many variables—rain fall, soil type and acidity, climate/temperature, amount of sun—that it’s hard to get repeatable results. There isn’t much research on the topic. Initially, I tried to find scientists to help me take cellular micrographs of my plants. When that proved difficult, I switched tactics and began scavenging for existing micrographs from databases that catalog plants seeing rapid effects from disease and climate change. It turns out I was right. You can see structural similarities between plants of the same family, all of which give the same color.

I’ve come to have a contextual understanding of the growing world around me, of how the actions of people affect the world. I can walk down a street and feel a sense of connectedness with my surroundings, rooted in my knowledge of local wild craft dye plants. I started examining and pH testing the soil as well as the dye baths, to better understand why I was getting color variations. I decided to start growing my own plants, including Yarrow, Coreopsis and Madder, so I could control the variables that affect color. I discovered how much I enjoyed growing things.

Being so involved with plants created a domino effect. I can’t help but care about the quality of my dirt and how the chemicals I use in dyeing effect the local water table. I think about the quality and locality of the food I eat, about giving back to the planet that sustains me and gives me the resources to use plants as dye. 

Plus, there’s something magical about the fact that many of the plants we take for granted—weeds and garden plants, for example—give us colors in infinite variation. I’m fascinated by what might have caused these plants to evolve in this way.

Broken Path Gradation
2009
Weaving with natural dyes
26"x72"

OPP: How did your older work in weaving lead to your current body of work?

KV: In the fall of 2009, about the time natural dyes began appearing in my work, I was working exclusively in weaving, manipulating structures on the loom to create large, fragile open weave textiles. There were too many structural limitations on the loom, so I started “translating” the weavings onto paper. I projected light through them and traced the shadows. Then I began cutting into the paper to create faux open weaves. Something clicked, and I began working between paper and weaving, allowing one to influence the other. The structure of the paper works would decay until it was almost unrecognizable and suddenly I’d have an "ah-ha!" moment and I would go back to the loom with something really fresh, something I never would have come to otherwise.

OPP: Could you expand on the theme of decay in your work?

KV: I approach decay as part of a cycle of transformation and recreation. Natural dyes are fragile. They fade over time with exposure to light. As I projected light through the weavings, I ran the risk of destroying the color. By using these dyes, I embed decay into the work because their colors are fugitive. Every time I show them, I have to consider how the exhibition space will affect their color. Are there windows? A skylight?

Decay and transformation show up in the site-responsive installations I’ve done. I love the freedom of someone saying “here’s this space, breathe life into it.” In 2011, I was given a chance to show in an old brewery that had since been turned into a music venue. It was dank and humid. The staircases were dark and dirty and littered with cigarette butts. The space was chilly and had high rounded ceilings; it used to hold beer casks. The paint was peeling away. I created a cut paper piece that mimicked the look and feel of the paint. I was so drawn to its faded colors and the slight greying that resulted from exposure to moisture. I suspended the piece from the ceiling and let the paper be exposed to the moisture and decay in the same way the paint had. The piece cast shadows on the walls and looked as if it belonged there, floating, sagging and swaying.When I took it down, it had to be recycled. There was nothing more that could be done for it—it had decayed past saving, but that was the point. 



Nine Types of Light
2011
Cut Paper Installation
6' x 24'

OPP: You'll be starting graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the fall of 2013. How do you feel on the verge of being an MFA candidate?

KV: I can’t decide if I’m more excited or terrified. I’m leaning towards excited. Since I finished new work for Under Construction, a group show that opened in June at the Indianapolis Art Center, I've had the time to just goof off, generate ideas and make mock-ups. This summer feels like the calm before a storm. . . the more time I spend wandering aimlessly through my sketchbook, the more I want it to start already.

OPP: Tell us about your plan to make it happen without taking out any privatized loans.

KV: SAIC gave me a financial aid package, but after scholarships and federal loans, there’s about $3,000 left. It’s not a large amount of money, but it’s not something I just have lying around. I started an Indiegogo campaign so that I won't have to take out a private loan on top of my federal loans. I’m offering editions and prints, small cut works and even some of my previously-exhibited large works as incentives. People of all different demographics and income brackets can own a piece of my work. 

Goldenrod
2013
Cut Paper
22.5" x 60"

OPP: How is crowdfunding particularly relevant to visual artists?

KV: Sometimes I feel like people in the sciences might have an easier time getting donations than those in the arts. Potential funders look at their projects and say, "yeah, curing cancer is something I can put some money towards. But what does art give people?" I had this problem in choosing a country to apply to for my Fulbright grant. Many countries only wanted scholars, scientists, doctors—people who could do physical good on the ground. But what about cultural enrichment? Isn’t that important too? 

I’ve seen friends raise money via Kickstarter and Indiegogo to do research and large-scale art projects that otherwise would have been outside their budgets. It doesn’t take much. If 100 people donate $10 each, that’s a good chunk of change.

And, as I’ve seen time and again in community arts, people like to be involved in the making of art. The ability to fund a project lets people feel connected to the work. They helped it come into being and that gives them sense of accomplishment and ownership. 

Most artists don’t have a steady cash-flow in order to make larger works, so crowdfunding allows them to dream bigger and to make those larger works a reality. As grants and art endowments continue to shrink, it will be harder and harder for artists to land the funding to make work. That’s not a great place to be, but most of the artists I know are resilient and will find a way. I think crowdfunding is going to be one of those ways. 

To contribute to Katie's Indiegogo campaign, go here.
To see more of Katie's work, visit katievota.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.

OPP Art Critics Series: Four Tips from a Critic to Artists

By Abraham Ritchie

Viewing art through the internet has fundamentally changed the way we experience it. This OPP Art Critics Series challenge, which asks a collection of critics to look at art through the "lens" of a website, recognizes that reality and places a premium on the art rather than a geographic location. The OPP challenge felt similar to a typical anonymous online web encounter of artwork. After looking at a number of artists’ websites,  I found the site of Patrick D. Wilson, an artist I’ve never met and who lives and works literally on the other side of the world from me in China. There’s no replacement for experiencing artwork in person, but there’s also no escaping exploring the online experience of artwork, either. The artist should not try to deny this reality but rather embrace the possibilities and make the most out of it they can. This essay will give a broader view of what makes for a successful and effective online viewing experience, especially for those seeking more information about an artist and their work.

Patrick D. Wilson. House Crisis (2010). Wood and laminated photographs, 33" x 33" x 28"

When it comes to a critic looking for more information on an artist they’ve just encountered, my first recourse is almost always to do a quick Google Search to find their professional website, then maybe seeing if the artist is on Facebook (if they have a Facebook Page or a publicly viewable profile) or Twitter. It's hard to overstate the importance of this tenuous first encounter, which is completely passive from the side of the artist, and intensely active from the side of the critic. When I'm researching more about an artist, I delve into what the artist has set up on their website, exploring an artist’s oeuvre, academic career, exhibition history, personal history and social media accounts in order to have a more informed opinion about the work.

Incomplete or unsatisfactory websites hinder a critic’s work and in some cases even causes them to skip writing about an artist altogether. During one panel I recall a colleague being asked how he decided which works to write about. Given the choice between works of similar quality, his very honest answer was simple: "Usually the ones with the best images online." Without a complete, well-maintained web presence that successfully makes that first connection to someone seeking information, artists may be losing crucial coverage of their work—without even being aware of it.

Wilson made that first connection, immediately drawing me in with the single work on his landing page. House Crisis immediately struck me as Buckminster Fuller-esque with hints of dystopian elements as a polyhedral, skyscraper-like object burst through and over a more traditional wooden house. As an image, the photo communicates the artwork clearly. It’s a straightforward, high-resolution (consider making your images suitable for print publishing with 300 dpi resolution at least), well-lit documentation of a compelling sculpture that lets the artwork stand alone as the center of attention. Here are four tips for artists who want to create compelling websites.

This encounter on the artist’s homepage illustrates my first word of advice: Lead with your best work. You wouldn't apply for a grant using an artwork you were unsatisfied by, so why put anything less than that on your homepage? I wanted to learn more about the artwork on Wilson’s landing page, since the title was nowhere to be found (hint, hint). I clicked on the image but it was not linked to another page.  

Here’s a second suggestion: Follow up on a successful first encounter by making it easy to access more information or other artworks. Fortunately, websites are easily organized by the artist and easily navigable by the visitor to the page via tabs up top. This made it easier to view more of Patrick Wilson’s artwork. 

That’s my third piece of advice: Keep your site organized by eliminating page redundancies, encouraging exploration within your site, and keeping navigation options simple. Since the work itself hinted at something domestic and ominous, I wasn’t surprised to see that the work that interested me from the homepage was titled House Crisis, and dated 2010, a significant year in the global Great Recession and attendant global housing bubble crises. Wilson’s other work intrigued me and I kept exploring his ideas and art. I particularly liked the polyhedral motif that recurred in many artworks, but in ways that seemed fresh each time, not like a crutch or a “brand.” Infinity Crate (2009) struck me as a creative, not to mention alluring, response to the way science tries to understand massive concepts—like how a simple equation can explain the mind-boggling relationship between mass and energy.

Patrick D. Wilson. Subdivision (2013). Work in progress, laminated C-prints.

Letting visitors know what you are currently working on is essential, too. We can track the development of ideas from an array of past work into the new works that are in-progress. You let us know that you are actively creating something, which is a good time to inform the visitor of your upcoming exhibition where we could see the piece in its completed form. Showing your newest work and the creative process behind it starts a virtual relationship between critic and artist. I was able to see the new work that Wilson was making. I learned through his website that he was working in his studio on the piece Subdivision (2013), which again employed a polyhedral structure creating a sprawling construction of housing construction. Through its rubble, this piece creates close-up views of angles depicting both detritus and new construction scaffolding. Leaving the geometric approach, Solar Storm (2005) took basic and familiar materials like track lights and light filtering scrims and transformed them into an indoor Aurora Borealis. Similar to Wilson’s other works, this concept was aided by the aesthetic appeal of the piece that came through in the photos online.

Patrick D. Wilson. Solar Storm, 2005. Aluminum, acrylic, computer controlled LEDs. 300" x 84" x 84.

Properly interested in these works and more besides, I attempted to find information about the artworks and the artist himself; if the pieces had been exhibited before, if Wilson shows with a gallery, his CV all of which are unfortunately absent from his page. 

That’s my fourth and final word of advice: Tell your history. Most people online don’t know you, so introduce yourself through your work and don’t forget to include exhibition and educational history. Tell people about your artistic interests with a brief artist’s statement; don’t worry about including the latest trendy theoretical terms, just tell it like you’d tell me in a bar. Cheers!

Abraham Ritchie is the Social Media Manager for the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. He writes for Chicago’s Newcity Newspaper  and Bad at Sports. He has written for the National Endowment for the Arts, the United Kingdom's Spectator and Madison Newspapers, Inc. His opinions and commentary have been featured on Chicago Tonight, Chicago's WBEZ 91.5 FM, WGN 720 AM, Chicago Tribune and Art21. Abraham Ritchie is the former Senior Editor for ArtSlant and former Deputy Editor for FlavorPill Chicago. He holds a BA in Art History from University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MA in New Arts Journalism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Follow his adventures on Twitter: @AbrahamRitchie.

This is the fifth essay in the  OPP Art Critics SeriesRead the previous essays: "Get Back (to the present moment)" by Claudine Isé; "Look at Them, Please" by Danny Orendorff; "Autobiography and Its Documentation" by Jason Foumberg; and "The Child is (Un)dead: Taxidermy Art as Victorian Post-Mortem Photography" by OPP Art Critics Series' Managing Editor Alicia Eler. 

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Allen Brewer

Bette Davis
2010
Oil on panel
14" x 14"

Artist, illustrator and educator ALLEN BREWER is searching for the truth. He uses a variety of conceptual strategies to erase traditional means of personal perception and the conscious pursuit of artistic style in an attempt to get at the "thingness" of his subjects. For his Blind Drawings and Blind Paintings, he doesn't look at the substrate as he draws. For his most recent solo project VERBATIM at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, he recreated works in the museum's permanent collection based solely on the written descriptions given by museum goers. Allen has exhibited at Burnet Art Gallery at LeMeridien Chambers, The Soap Factory and Soo Visual Arts Center, all in Minneapolis. He also works collaboratively with last week’s Featured Artist Pamela Valfer. In 2012, Brewer and Valfer participated in the EVA International Visual Art Biennial (Limerick City, Ireland). For their next project, they will collaborate on a project for the Minnesota Biennial at The Soap Factory. Allen lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

OtherPeoplesPixels: For your series Carbon Drawings, you copy found vintage imagery using typewriter carbon. In reference to this series, you state on your website: "The result is a 'ghost,' devoid of any human embellishment or direct mark making. . . By eliminating my own perception of the thing, I am getting closer to its truth." Why is the truth of a thing important to you? Can you ever really find it?



Allen Brewer: Truth is something I’ve always questioned. Growing up, we are fed a steady diet of embellished truths. . . fables, half-truths and white lies. All of these are meant to soften the blow of disappointing factual realities such as our impending death, trust in others and “true love.” My attempt to find out what is real or true is hopeless. I realize that. Yet I think we can find some truths in the search, whether it’s an uncanny moment that speaks louder than the event or a unique pairing of line and form to construct a more accurate reality.

Pathetic
2010
Colored pencil
30" x 40"

OPP: The more I look at all your work which attempts to erase the hand and perception of you as the artist, the more I think about the difference between perception and interpretation. Perception is how we experience the external world through our senses and interpretation is the meaning and value we ascribe to that information. Your actions direct me toward an object or image and—to use your word— its "thingness," but, for me, the truth doesn't lie there. The truth is in the feedback between a thing and a human, in the interpretation. I always go back to thinking of you and why you, as an artist and as a human being, choose to copy or recreate one thing and not another. Do you think erasing perception highlights the role interpretation plays in meaning-making? Or are you not concerned with interpretation?



AB: I am concerned with interpretation, especially since it’s all we have to make sense of objects and events. We have a limited language that helps in this process. But, ultimately, the “thingness” attributed to such objects and events means nothing; a spiraling into Platonic theory essentially disproves the primacy of the form’s physicality over the idea of the form. By erasing—as best I can—my interpretation of the “thing,” I attempt to present a more objective idea of the “thing.” I’m interested mainly in the open-endedness of ideas, which for me, represents the truth. I seek to present an unvarnished transcription with which the viewer can find their own truth, not a myopic narrative or interpretation. Truth is a slippery subject; there are lies everywhere we look. My work deals directly with photography and text. We tend to complacently accept these two standards in media as truth, which is a phenomenon I recognize as imperfect.

VERBATIM
2013
Installation shot

OPP: Introduce us to your most recent project VERBATIM, which just closed at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA). It takes your exploration of transcription one step further by including a go-between, another level of mediation between you and the work of art you are transcribing.

AB: VERBATIM started out as a site-specific experiment with two goals: 1) to present work based solely on the museum guests’ written interpretations of artworks within the museum, free from my own agency, and 2) to use this process to further expand upon my compulsion towards mediated work. I placed description forms throughout the MIA, asking guests to isolate one artwork, write about it in detail and then turn it in for me to decipher.

Once in the studio, I read and re-read each description, forcing myself to forget my knowledge of said piece and to construct the work based solely on the literal (Platonic) meaning/idea of each written word. For instance, people tended to use overly romantic phrases and emotion when writing, which, according to my imposed rules, were unusable. Instead, I relied on descriptors and nouns that could exist as more universal systems and codes. Hierarchy also helped sort the large ideas in the descriptions from the smaller moments, which aided in the ever-growing rulebook of this project. Eventually, I realized that I was dealing with an ever changing expanding/contracting conceptual issue: language. The end result was an exhibition that mimicked the permanent collection of the MIA. VERBATIM was a reflection of famous works filtered through the barrier of language and nuance of interpretation. I’ve gained confidence and insight with this project, causing me to integrate mediation more seamlessly with intent in my work.

OPP: I'm interested in the fact that "people tended to use overly romantic phrases and emotion" when describing the works of art. It seems to imply that the museum goers who participated in VERBATIM experienced visual art more through their emotions than through their eyes. Was this a surprise to you? Does this say anything about the true nature of visual art?

AB: The responses I received—about 200 in total—were split between personal, emotional reflections and overly-analytical lists of sizes, materials, proximities and diagrams. I could tell who had art education by the writing style and word choice, but I didn't let that particular phenomenon guide my choice or which pieces to recreate. I looked for a unique voice in the description, one that exemplified the contracting and expanding nature of language itself. The way in which people write about art is revealing. Each person who took time to describe a work used their own codes and systems of description, which made my task that much more difficult. Not only did I have to decipher that code and its context, I also had to somehow address it as a universal. In hindsight, if I had another go at this project, I would ask 200 different people to describe only ONE piece, then make work based on the 200 differently nuanced descriptions, similar to Francis Alys’s St. Fabiola project. The true nature of visual art will always exist as a collection of subjective voices, giving it credence within a certain context.

Lips
2011
Oil on paper
12" x 9"

OPP: You will be collaborating with last week's OPP Blog Featured Artist Pamela Valfer for the upcoming Minnesota Biennial at The Soap Factory. How are the two of you approaching this exhibition? 


AB: ,,,—read as Comma Comma Comma— is the title of the biennial. The meaning in those marks gives freedom to presentation, installation and meaning. They literally mean (to me) “and then. . . and then. . . and then. . .” The co-curators are David Petersen and John Marks, former directors of Art of This, an artist-run venue in Minneapolis with month long exhibitions and one-night events. AOT was a space for emerging and underrepresented artists who were willing to take risks with space and presentation. There was a refreshing fluidity there, and the program included artist talks, lectures and workshops.

,,, will resemble that platform, and Pam and I have respected the approach by continuing our idea of post-studio collaboration. We are married and share a small studio, so there is no room for ego and secrets once we enter it. Our working concept is that of opposition, concerned with the slippery space between reality and meaning. That’s all I can say for now, as we are currently working and thinking. I can tell you that we are not making traditional collaborative pieces, by which I mean the passing back and forth or the simultaneous partnership of one substrate. We are each making new work that represents or embodies the concepts in our solo work,. Then we will experiment with those pieces as dialog and conflation on a shared wall in the studio—a practice space, if you will. The Soap Factory, a 12,000 square foot, uninsulated structure is 100+ years old. The wall surfaces include exposed brick, drywall, metal, wood and glass. All of these factors will guide Pam’s and my decision-making process, for it would be a shame to NOT recognize the specificity of the exhibition space.

Phenomenological evidence of natural occurrences
2012
Found objects
Installation shot of COMMON PLACE, a collaboration with Pamela Valfer

OPP: And I'll ask you the same question I asked Pamela: how has collaboration changed your solo practice?

AB: The collaborative process has reinforced the fact that perception is NOT universal. Working with Pam—or anyone for that matter—is akin to the first day of school. You show up to a group of strange faces, all with their own histories and sets of rules. In order to survive, you must make friends and be willing to be vulnerable and open to seeing the validity of their ways. You may disagree with your mates, yet you’ll see them again in the morning, so humility and flexibility keep you from killing each other. In the end, you’ll shed the idea of difference in favor of something shared. The opinions and perspectives Pamela offers make the self-questioning in my own work more meaningful. She reminds me (as I hope I remind her) that we are not islands operating in vacuums.  We’re more like an archipelago. . . a series of islands connected by a zip lines.

To view more of Allen's work, please visit allenbrewer.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 Pamela Valfer

Set #1: Cabrini Green/Good Times (detail)
2013
Graphite on Paper
108" x 96"

Artist and educator PAMELA VALFER explores theories and experiences of contemporary hyperreality in her mash-up drawings of real and fictional landscapes and painstakingly pixelated renderings of mediated versions of actual architecture. She received her MFA from the University of Minnesota in 2002. Her work has been exhibited at Burnet Art Gallery at LeMeridien Chambers (Minneapolis), The Bindery Projects (St. Paul, Minnesota) and CUBE Centre for the Urban Built Environment (Manchester, England). Since 2007, her work has been included in The Drawing Center’s curated artist registry. Pamela also works collaboratively with Allen Brewerwhose work will be featured here on the OPP blog next week. In 2012, Brewer and Valfer participated in the EVA International Visual Art Biennial (Limerick City, Ireland). For their next project, they will collaborate on a project for the Minnesota Art Biennial at The Soap Factory (Minneapolis). Pamela lives and works in Minneapolis.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Could you talk about the exploration of hyperreality in your most recent piece Set #1: Cabrini Green/Good Times?


Pamela Valfer: The project is essentially a commentary on the cultural or subjective construction of "reality." "Reality" is not straightforward; it's complicated idea. I use Brutalist architecture from the 1950s to the mid-1970s as the tableau for this idea because it is a great metaphor for constructed idealism as it was set forth by one group of people to solve the problems of another group of people in relation to planned urban housing development. The ideas underlying these Modernist architectural designs were based in utopian thinking that impressed a kind of social engineering upon urban, low-income, city-dwelling populations. In the end, many of these buildings and communities—Cabrini Green being a perfect example—failed due to shoddy construction and high crime. Rather than focus on the building itself, I became interested in looking at the projection of this building through the television show Good Times. The source image I chose was not of the actual building, but rather of a television set based on Cabrini Green. The set itself is the subject. It is the copy of the real, constructed out of cardboard, paint and foam. This is the space where actors play out imagined scenarios from the daily struggles of the real families of Cabrini Green. These are all veneers. This is where hyperreality exists. It is the new reality; the copy becomes the original, simultaneously commenting on its own failure through the lackluster truthiness of the construction (set design, actors et al.). This is my experience of Cabrini Green, my knowledge developed topically through a pop culture edifice.

Landscape Simulation: The Shining/Gilligan's Island/Magnum PI
2012
Graphite on Paper
48" x 48"

OPP: There's a similar collision of fiction and reality in your series Landscape Simulations. These graphite landscapes pair landforms and architecture from movies with real world landmarks and/or they combine existing landforms and architecture in ways that we couldn't physically experience. One piece places Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye on the surface of Mars, as seen in a Star Trek episode. Another places the historic Checkpoint Charlie—which is actually in Berlin—in Gordale Scar, a limestone ravine in North Yorkshire, England. About the series, you say, "No hierarchical importance is placed on the notion of my 'real' experience versus a mediated one, a contemporary truism that is pervasive throughout our relationship with nature." I think the assumed hierarchy that privileges the "real" over the mediated emerges when simulation is confused with substitution. What do you think?

PV: For one, I think that "substitution" denotes a "one is better than the other" attitude and therefore becomes a  hierarchical approach. I am more interested in presenting these possibilities on equal footing because what we experience directly and what we are given to digest through the mass media culture are often inseparable. Culture shapes our reality and our reality contextualizes culture. This blending becomes interesting when it collides with our connection to nature. Many of us—myself included—are removed from a direct connection with it, so many of our ideas come from the above-mentioned grey zone. I think it is this distance that allows us to objectify and denigrate nature, dislocating our relationship further into a digestible reality.

OPP: A mediated experience of nature is not the same as a direct experience of nature, nor is it an unreal experience. Has this mediated experience of nature ever stopped you from having a direct experience of nature? How do simulations of nature enhance or detract our experiences of the natural world?


PV: Experience and reality are, in essence, tricky territories to explore. The project was born out of living in the west of Ireland for four months. Ballyvaughan, where I lived, is a small town nestled on the coast and is strikingly beautiful. It was a truly immersive experience with nature that I had never had before. During my time there I noticed that all my references for such familiarities were formed from my adolescent experiences of pop culture and not necessarily from direct experience. This got me thinking about how perception is often constructed out of constructions. If our minds are filled with constructions, then I feel it is important to know who is doing the constructing that we take as real. My pop culture recollections are as real to me as standing in a field: a point that is important to recognize. 

Landscape Simulation: Planet of the Apes/ Tatooine/ County Clare, Ireland
2011
Graphite on Paper
19" x 28"

OPP: I would agree that both experiences are wholly real, but aren’t they qualitatively different? I don’t mean that one is better than the other, just that each experience has a different quality to it. Do your pop culture recollections affect your physical experience of nature?

PV: Yes, they are qualitatively different but quantitatively the same. These pop culture memories serve as real memories amongst the many lived and fictional memories. As our new experiences are synthesized through our previous experiences, it stands to reason that, yes, past experiences—both real and fictional—contextualize the now. In terms of the physical, no; in terms of the metaphysical, yes.

OPP: Is drawing the ideal medium to explore simulation?


PV: I chose drawing specifically for its ability to mimic a simulation. I could have easily done the work with paint, for instance, but felt that drawing was the proper vehicle for my ideas. Drawing is a presentation of reality, but at the same time lacks a kind of truthiness in its atonal qualities. It presents without giving: a kind of hollow exchange. If I had executed these in paint, I feel my effort would have been too cheeky. Paint can mimic reality too closely with its seductive colors and illusionary possibilities. Drawing, on the other hand, has a built in failure to that end. It presents an idea but ends before delivering, at least in the way that I built the drawings. I endeavored to remove all personality of mark. It was important for the drawing marks to not convey a sense of self, rather to be a neutral space in which an emotional position is not asserted. I am not interested in presenting personage within the work.

Set #1: Cabrini Green/Good Times (detail)
2013
Graphite on Paper
108" x 96"

OPP: You've begun collaborating with next week's OtherPeoplesPixels' Featured Artist Allen Brewer. You've known each other for years but never collaborated until recently. How did this collaboration begin? 



PV: True. We first became open to the idea of collaborating when we had an exhibition at Occupy Space in Ireland for EVA International Visual Art Biennial in 2012. We realized that we couldn’t approach it as a standard two-person show because the exhibition site was spatially challenging. We didn’t exactly know how this would shape up. We just trusted in the process and decided to leave the possibilities open, abolishing any preconceived notions of how this would behave visually. The final decisions about the show were made in the space itself. We made our own work singularly, but, once in the space, we revisited the work with a new sense of possibility. It allowed us to see our previously constructed works with fresh eyes. We became open to new prospects and juxtapositions not previously offered with the singular work, which was quite freeing. Allen and I checked our egos at the door for sure. We ended up collaborating with each other as well as the space, often creating new works by combining already completed pieces. Rethinking and reconstructing allowed for unexpected results. This was a new experience for both of us and we were extremely happy with the outcome. It created the potential of a post-studio process.

Common Place
Two person exhibition with Allen Brewer
EVA International Visual Art Biennial, Istabraq Hall, hosted by Occupy Space, Limerick City, Ireland
2012

OPP: Has it changed your solo practice in any way?

PV: For sure. I am certainly open to more possibilities now in how I approach my ideas and work. Everything is on the table. I am no longer pigeonholed into one way of working, rather the idea leads the medium and vice versa. For instance, I am currently working on a performance project with Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit for the Mike Kelley's Mobile Homestead project. I might not have considered performance as a methodology/medium previously, so instances like this support my new vision of working.

I am also currently working on a collaborative project with Allen for the upcoming Minnesota Art Biennial at The Soap Factory. We are taking the best of our past collaboration experience and trying to push it forward one step further. We are making work both together as well as independently for the show with the idea that much of the work might shift or change once in the space. In essence, making the work on-site and once again trusting in the process over outcome.

To see more of Pamela's work, please visit pamelavalfer.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 Christopher Ottinger

2013
Film strip projector, lab stands, DCX lens, ground glass, daylight filter, wood, enamel
Dimensions variable

CHRISTOPHER OTTINGER mines objects that relate to the history of media technologies in order to understand human perception and the relationships between humans and machines. He uses projection, mirrors and the guts of discarded electronics to create sculptural machines that appear to look at themselves, asking viewers to consider the presence of consciousness in technology. Christopher received his MFA from Washington University in 2011. In 2012-2013, he was in residence at BOLT, where he will remain as a mentor-in-residence for 2013-2014. In the spring of 2014, he will also be an artist-in-residence at the Media Archeology Lab in Boulder, Colorado. Christopher lives and works in Chicago, Illinois.

OtherPeoplesPixels: What is media archaeology? How does it influence your practice?

Christopher Ottinger: For some, media archaeology is about the artistic and theoretical practice of mining the technological media past in order to re-envision the technological present and to suggest alternate paths technology might take in the future. For others, it’s just media theory in a fancy hat. Personally, I think it’s a bit of both. In my own practice, media archeology frames the theoretical conversation around my work, but I tend to think of myself as more of an alchemist than an archaeologist in the studio.

OPP: To “alchemist,” would you add designer, inventor or tinkerer?

CO: Probably a mixture of the three—definitely a tinkerer, though. I like to play mad scientist and dissect old junk. That’s the fun part. There is also a fair amount of prototyping, experimentation and research that goes into the work, but I feel most like an artist when I rip the guts out of a broken video camera or an old television set and discover some new use for those objects. Perhaps taxidermist should be in there as well.

Blue Ghost and Incandescent Ghost
Installation shot from Ghost Machine
2013

OPP: Your recent solo exhibition, Ghost Machine, in the BOLT Project Space in Chicago features three pieces that are part sculpture and part machine. In NTSC Ghost, three handheld projectors cast the image of the familiar SMPTE color bars onto a spinning screen. Blue Ghost uses a piece of glass to project the image of static from one cathode ray tube to another, while Incandescent Ghost turns an old film projector into a camera obscura that sees itself. What was the premise of the show? Could you talk about the intersection between sculpture and machine in your work?

CO: The meaning of this body of work only became clear to me recently. My brother wrote the essay for the show. He and I had been discussing the work in terms of the history of moving images and inquiries into the nature of technological objects. My brother then introduced psychoanalysis into the conversation. We started asking questions like, “what does it look like when machines think?” and “what is infancy like for a machine, from a cognitive standpoint?”

It didn’t really come together, however, until Sarah Nardi from the Chicago Reader asked me why these objects appear to be looking at themselves. It occurred to me that these objects aren’t just machines trapped in a state of arrested development. They represent machines at a very specific moment in their development as beings. These works are machines standing at the threshold of consciousness. They have not yet formulated a language with which to assert themselves as autonomous beings, but they are taking that first step.

The sculptural or furniture-like aspect of these works places them in a domestic context that is both familiar and alien. This is similar to a television set, which is both a piece of furniture and has the ability to summon ethereal worlds out of thin air.

Machines For Seeing Modify Perception (detail)
2011
Digital print, glass, lightbox, mercury glass tumbler
Dimensions variable

OPP:
Are the machines metaphors?

CO: My use of metaphor in this body of work comes from reading about object-oriented ontology. This sounds like a super nerdy branch of philosophy—which it is—but Ian Bogost’s book, Alien Phenomenology, is fairly useful in terms of ideas. In short, Bogost’s theory is that, in order to understand the nature of a thing, we must attempt to understand the thing from the thing’s perspective. Obviously, this is impossible. We’re never going to really know what it’s like to physically be a hammer or a teapot, but Bogost suggests that we can estimate that experience through a kind of productive metaphor.

My sculptures function as visual metaphors for the pre-cognitive experience of machines. Language has not yet formed. The machines are concerned only with sensation, but there is no thinking to give these sensations meaning. It’s like early childhood development research for technical objects—Melanie Klein is probably turning over in her grave right now.

Blue Ghost (Detail)
2013
Wood, enamel, hardware, blue CFL, cathode ray tubes, electronic components, plate glass
Dimensions variable

OPP: Ghosts and machines show up repeatedly in your earlier work as well: Snow_Ghost (2008), Ghost Machine #3 (2011) and Phone Ghost (2011), to name a few. The phrase ‘ghost in the machine’ originally refers to Gilbert Ryle’s critique of the Cartesian assertion that the mind and the body are distinct from one another. In Ryle’s book, The Concept of Mind, the machine is the human body. But over the years the phrase has been recontextualized through science fiction and pop culture as a way to explore our fears about technology. There seems to be a lot of confusion online about what the phrase means, but the semantic shift is telling: what we think about technology is connected to what we think about human nature. How do you think about ghosts and machines?

CO: Whether we’re talking about Descarte or a film like I, Robot, I see the ghost that inhabits the machine as consciousness. Of course, we don’t actually have conscious machines yet, so the consciousness revealed here is more like an impression or a representation of a consciousness that’s still forming.

Nevertheless, these technological ghosts allow us to gain some insight into what experience or thought might be like for a technological object. The recurring ghost machine in my work is basically a device for conjuring a machine’s consciousness, like a technological séance. There are countless examples—Pepper’s Ghost and Robertson’s Phantasmagoria—of pre-cinematic technologies that were used to “summon” specters out of thin air. I’ve recreated some of these technologies, but made them more about media technology itself, rather than about demons or spirits.

I agree that what we think about technology is connected to what we think about human nature. That relationship is also changing. As machines become more intelligent, their natures begin to resemble our own. We are becoming more dependent on them to make sense of the world around us. Considering technologies like smartphones or augmented reality gizmos like Google Glasses, it’s not difficult to envision a time when a conversation about the relationship between human and machine is not a conversation about difference or otherness but rather about a shared ontology.

Somewhere between living and extinction (prototype)
2012
Wood, enamel, hardware, electronic components, vinyl record, 45rpm turntable, sound

OPP: Would you tell us about a failure in your studio that led to an unexpected success?

CO: This is an interesting question because, in order to formulate a response, I would have to identify what I consider to be a success, and I’m not certain that I know what that is. But I can offer an anecdote about building NTSC Ghost. The interaction of the projectors and the rapidly spinning screen in this piece create a volumetric hologram. Originally, though, I set out to make a piece where the screen moved very slowly. Long story short, I aimed a Super 8mm projector at the motor/screen assembly one day and powered the whole thing up, not realizing that I had the motor turned to its fastest setting. For about three seconds, this miraculous image appeared on the screen. Then, the motor, its housing and the screen all went flying through my studio because none of it was bolted down. I ran out of my studio trying to avoid flying debris. Once the dust had settled, I realized this piece was—somewhat violently—telling me what it wanted to be.

OPP: What are you tinkering with in your studio at the moment?

CO: The usual: trying to figure out new ways to electrocute myself. Seriously though, mostly I’m just experimenting with some new materials. I recently got an Arduino, and I’m trying to learn how to do some basic coding for some kinetic pieces I’ve been playing with. I'm also putting a show together for Heaven Gallery in Chicago for spring 2014, so I've been doing research and doing studio visits for that. The show is still in the early planning stages, but I'm thinking it will deal with media archaeology in some way.

To see more of Christopher's work, please visit christopherottinger.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 existential significance of participating in mass media culture 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 will mount a solo show titled I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.