OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Deb Sokolow

You tell people you're working really hard on things these days (detail)
graphite, charcoal, ink, acrylic, paper on panel
7 ft x 25 ft

DEB SOKOLOW creates large-scale drawings that combine text and image in complex narratives with multiple beginnings, endings, and course-changes. Weaving together facts and fantasy, her signature 2nd-person narrator expertly pulls the viewer into her paranoid musings. She ultimately leaves us with an entertaining and profound experience of doubt, questioning the nature of reading in the gallery and the function of art in general. Sokolow lives and works in Chicago, IL.

OtherPeoplesPixels: The first time I saw your work was in 2003. It was Rocky and Adrian (and me), a 9 ft long drawing which catalogs the love story of Rocky and Adrian scene by scene while inserting alternate scenes in which the narrator becomes the love interest for Rocky. Since then, you have become well known for your use of a paranoid 2nd person narrator in your drawings. What precipitated the switch from me to you?

Deb Sokolow: What precipitated this switch was a desire to tell a story in a way that would immerse a viewer/reader in the narrative. This is hard to do with text-y art that exists on a wall and not in a book, because I think most people are resistant to doing a lot of standing and reading. So I decided to switch from narrating everything in the first person (i.e. “I have an uncomfortable encounter with my neighbor, Richard Serra, the failed-sculptor-turned-body-butcher-for-the-mob”) to the second person (i.e. “you have an uncomfortable encounter with your neighbor, Richard Serra, the failed-sculptor-turned-body-butcher-for-the-mob”). The idea is for the viewer/reader to take on the roll of the protagonist when reading the story, and hopefully develop a connection or some level of personal investment in it. Also, I’ve never wanted to make diaristic work, so the decision to switch from I to you was a way to move the story out into the world, so that it could be about anyone’s real or imagined experiences, and not just my own.

OPP: Were Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 1980s an influence for you?

DS: Absolutely. I’ve attempted to work in a Choose Your Own Adventure type format, but can only manage to create 3 to 6 possible endings. I’ve discovered that it is so much harder to do this with a story that hangs on a wall as opposed to a story that resides in a book.

Whatever happened to the Pentagon (restaurant)?
graphite, ink, acrylic, correction fluid on multiple papers, pins
5ft x 4ft

OPP: And you have experience working in both formats. Whatever Happened to the Pentagon (restaurant)? (2007) is both a large-scale drawing and an edition of 100 accordion-fold books. Could you talk more specifically about the differences in creating a text drawing that evolves linearly as opposed to one that is more of a rhizome, as is more common in your large-scale drawings?

DS: People will usually read a book from beginning to end, so for the most part I know how they will experience the story. When I’m working in a less linear format, such as with some of the large drawings, I am less certain of the path a viewer/reader will take when following the story. It’s so much harder to make the work because I’m constantly struggling to develop a strong enough visual hierarchy so that there is one or a few obvious entry points in the piece, but not too many so that it runs the risk of being too chaotic and unreadable. Writing for a book is also difficult because there is less space for tangential story lines. Recently, I’ve been working with footnotes in the books as a way to organize some of those tangents.  

How do these people manage?
graphite, ink, acrylic, collage on paper
11 x 8 1/2 inches

OPP: You never try to hide erasures and edits in the drawings. These changes are integral to the visual aspects of the work. You even made these changes a performative part of your 2010 installation You tell people you're working really hard on things these days at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, adding and removing elements over the course of the exhibition "as contradictory evidence and new observations were acquired." Could you talk about how this aspect of your work developed?

DS: Initially, when I started making large drawings with a significant amount of text, I was frustrated with myself for making a lot of mistakes on the paper and using quite a bit of correction fluid. But then I came to terms with the mistakes when I realized they were as important to the drawing as the final product. And lately, I’ve been thinking about this writing process, its erasures and edits and indecisiveness, as a type of time-based drawing process.
You are one step closer to learning the truth
graphite, ink, acrylic on wall
141 feet long
installation shot

OPP: You have exhibited widely in Chicago, nationally, and internationally. Does any one exhibition opportunity stand out as having been particularly suited to your work or particularly transformative for your work, pushing it in new directions?

DS: There was this one project, Dear Trusted Associate, which was first installed at the Van Abbemuseum in The Netherlands, and then exhibited again a year later at the Smart Museum at University of Chicago. Both times, the piece existed primarily on a forty-foot scroll of paper with some amount of writing and drawing spilled out over the edges of the paper onto the wall. Showing the project a second time was a real challenge for me. Not only did I have to re-create the parts on the wall, but I actually had to re-do everything that was on the paper, too, so that the story would fit within a different wall configuration. Also, the Smart Museum asked me to add a new chapter to the end. So, in the end, I decided to re-write the entire piece, and came up with a more edited-down piece that included additional commentary of a contradictory nature from a more jaded, older version of the narrator who, looking back in time, disagrees with his/her initial version of how the story is told. This playing around with tenses was something new for me. I don’t think I would have experimented in this way if I hadn’t had the extra time or reason to fine-tune an existing story.

OPP: Could you tell us a bit about how each piece evolves? Is the story fully formed in your mind before you start drawing?

DS: The basic story is formed in my mind before I start figuring out how it should exist visually, but the tangents happen as I'm physically making the work, and I don't usually know how a story will end until I'm almost finished with the piece.

OPP: Do you have a favorite piece from your own work? Is your favorite piece your best piece in your opinion?

DS: Someone tell Mayor Daley the pirates are coming might be my favorite piece. I don’t know if it’s the best piece I’ve ever made, but I’ve always liked how ridiculously naive the narrator is - so much more naïve than the way I write the narrator’s voice in other projects. I keep thinking I should revisit that level of naivety again. 
You tell people you're working really hard on things these days (detail)
graphite, charcoal, ink, acrylic, paper on panel
7 ft x 25 ft

OPP: Have you heard anything from Richard Serra about your inclusion of a fictionalized version of him in your 2008-2009 drawing Dear Trusted Associate?

DS: Not yet. I’m still using him as a character in the work, still playing around with this idea that his life as an artist would be so completely different if he’d come to Chicago to try and make it as an artist, but failed miserably and had to take on a day job butchering bodies for the mob in order to maintain a studio practice. I’m starting to write alternate versions of the lives of other larger-than-life individuals, most recently Willem de Kooning and the cult leader, Jim Jones. My father was a political scientist, and one of his former students, (now Congresswoman) Jackie Speier, was part of the delegation that had been shot at while visiting Jonestown in 1978 to investigate allegations of human rights violations. Jackie was shot five times and still managed to survive. Her story and that of Jim Jones have always loomed large in my mind.

OPP: That sounds like the basis for a new story. Is it a piece you are working on right now?

DS: I am starting a project about Jim Jones, and Jackie Speier might be a character in it, but it's in the initial planning stages, so I'm not entirely sure how it will all pan out. I'm also trying to figure out which, of three upcoming exhibitions, would be the most appropriate venue for the project, since the nature of the project might be fairly disturbing. I can't install a piece about evil, torture and death just anywhere!
To view more of Deb Sokolow’s work, please visit debsokolow.com.