OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Michael Hall

Oil on canvas
60"x 72"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Dawn Frasch

Doppelbangers (holding hands we both abandon sorrow)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Armchair Anarchist

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

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

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

Cake and eat

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

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

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

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

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

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

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Michael Dotson

Living Room
Acrylic on Canvas
50 x 60 in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art Gallery
Acrylic on Canvas
22 x 30 in

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

OPP: Any upcoming exhibitions?

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

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

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Molly Springfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Real Object
Graphite on paper
36 x 60 inches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Ryan Wilson Kelly

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick
Video Still of performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me be your scapegoat
Documentation of performance

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

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

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

OPP: What are the heads made of?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OPP: What are you working on right now?

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

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

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

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

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Meg Leary

Douse the Diva
Digital Video (still)

MEG LEARY is a Chicago-based performance and video artist who uses music theory strategies and music materials such as cassette tape and vinyl records to evoke the body in relation to objects, space, and sound. She is a classically trained vocalist, who often references this history in her visual and performance work. Leary received an MA in Performance Studies from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (2003) and an MFA in Performance from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006). Her upcoming performance and exhibition Muses & Valkyries opens on May 18th at Thalia Hall in Chicago.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You have an interesting history. You were trained as an opera singer at a young age. How does this early education in music affect the work you make now as a performance artist? How has it been awesome to have this other context informing your work?

Meg Leary: It’s funny. I never felt fulfilled by the technical expertise of opera. Being a classical singer it is not unlike being an athlete in which you train your mind and body to act in expectable outcomes. What always interested me was the failure of these things: stage fright, voices cracking, forgetting the words to a song. These things seem like less explored territory than the perfection of musical phrases - there are other people who do that better and have a concrete interest in that.

The feeling of using your voice to fill a space and impart emotion is the thing that I loved about opera. I still that get out of my work, but I get to explore the performative context of this act rather than the mimetic repetition of a musical score. I am really interested in the artifice of the “Diva” and use this as a tool in my work, particularly around issues of the body, gender, and queerness. As a “fat lady who sings,” I like to play with the viewer’s awareness around the cultural associations and stereotypes about classical singers.
Performance documentation

OPP: How has it been difficult to have this other context informing your work?

ML: Because I began in music, my creative vocabulary is very much based around music theory and principles. When I am thinking about art making, I can’t help but associate what I am doing with sound. So things like improvisation, harmonics and sampling are the concepts that I think about. This seems really natural to me, but in a visual art context, it sometimes feels like I am bi-lingual, constantly relating my first language to this new context. Ultimately, I think what I am trying to do is to break down the barrier between the two by taking music ideas into the visual and the visual into music.

OPP: I see your work as falling into two distinct camps: work about audio artifacts and their cultural implications, as seen in the Silly Putty Works and your formal paintings made with cassette tape, and work about sound itself and how we experience it, as in your performances, installations and videos. Could you talk about how each of these informs the other?

ML: In my mind, all of my work has the same message but is presented in different mediums. In practice, the formal work I do is a way for me to work out micro problems within macro ideas. By pulling out one idea and working with it in a very different way, it creates a more rigid frame with which to think about things, sort of like re-creating a social construction in order to expose it. I think that by working in these very different ways I am playing out the tension between my intuitive process and the very formal training I received.

Untitled, Silly Putty Work

OPP: Your piece Douse the Diva has been both a live performance and a video exhibited in a gallery. Do you think one way is more successful than the other? Did the different forms drastically change the responses of viewers in any way?

ML: I always think that my live performances are more successful than my videos. Maybe because my early training was in performance, and I feel more comfortable in that vein. I am really attached the ephemeral nature of performance because I enjoy improvisation. I think one of the best moments of Douse the Diva is when I wipe my face with my dress. That was a spur of the moment decision in that particular performance that I have kept in subsequent performances.

What I appreciate about video is the ability to make something new out of a performance - not to mention having it seen more widely. It is pretty rare (with the exception of Tapehead) that I have felt that a performance would be more successful if it began as a video. Ultimately, in a video, your image and your performance are mediated by so many factors (camera angle, recording device etc.). But, in person, you are actually confronted by a real live person - a video can never capture that energy. Video is a lot safer/ more controlled, and the responses tend to be more muted.
Michael Jackson, Off The Wall
De-magnetized cassette tape

OPP: Cassette tape makes a recurring appearance in your work. It's been in your abstract paintings, your video Tapehead (2010), and you made a wig out of it, which will be part of an upcoming performance. Could you talk a little bit about the significance of this material to you personally and in your work?

ML: I just think it is exceptionally beautiful material. The varying colors, reflection, and possible textures are really exciting to me aesthetically. I also think that it is a very poetic material; it is a constantly-degrading and delicate material with such a limited lifespan. I love the idea of a mix tape. It is such a powerful gesture and makes you so vulnerable and was something I did ALL THE TIME as a kid. I have a big box of all my old mix tapes I made, and they are artifacts of particular times in my life. I play the tape I made for my first year of college, and it is a snapshot of the emotion, angst and frenzy I felt… it’s pretty funny to listen to a tape of Mazzy Star and Nine Inch Nails and remember that I was singing Mozart all day!

I use cassette tape in my work as a metaphor for hidden information, which was the impetus behind the decision to make a wig out of magnetic tape. Hair is this thing that has enormous cultural significance, but it also contains so much information about your body (DNA, toxins, etc.) and can be analyzed to extract information. I think cassette tape is a lot like this… run a magnetic tapehead over it, and it reveals a wealth of information about sound, the person who made the recording and the culture it came from. I particularly love the paintings I have done where I use a recording of a loved one’s voice to physically put them into the painting. It may not be that evident to the viewer, but the work is imbued with the ineffable quality of that person’s voice.
Playlist 4
Oil paint, plaster and cassette tape on canvas

OPP: Oh, I love that idea! There is always so much buried personal information that is unaccessible to the viewer in paintings anyway... well, all art, really. That makes me wonder about Tapehead, in which you essentially lick the entire length of tape from an unidentified cassette, at times lovingly and sensually, at times violently. There’s a lot going on in this piece. While watching, I am thinking of your tongue as a playhead, of the difference between the voice in the video and what appears to be a mass-produced cassette and of the metaphor of your personal and emotional relationship to whatever music is on the tape itself. Is there any special significance to the cassette you used to shoot this video?

ML: To be honest, I did so many takes of this video that I don't know which album is the one that ended up in piece. The action is based on a sketch I saw by the poet Stevie Smith where a woman is holding a cat and saying "I love you so much I could eat you." I wanted to have that kind of physical interaction with music - almost consuming it. That feeling is not limited to one artist or tape for me.
Video (in frame)

OPP: You are in the middle of planning an ambitious performance event at Thalia Hall in Chicago. Can you tell us about the space and what you have planned?

ML: Yes, I am going to be doing an exhibition of visual and performance work called Muses & Valkyries beginning on May 18th at Thalia Hall. I am thinking about this exhibition essentially as a collaboration with the architecture. The space has been empty since the eighties and the walls are crumbling and filled with junk. I am using the space as a vessel for thinking about cultural memory, so the show references many eras of performance production from Wagner’s Ring Cycle to Michael Jackson’s Thriller and will include sculpture, performance, music, and dance. It will also be the first time that I have performers re-creating some of my past performances.

One of the unique aspects of this work is that it I get to take over a whole building for the performance, and then have an ongoing exhibition of the documentation and materials from the show that will exist in the storefront gallery after the performance is over. It is a rare and special thing for a performance artist to have the opportunity in the immediate to think about how the work will live on after the performance ends.
To view more work by Meg Leary, please visit megleary.com.

Support Meg Leary's upcoming show Muses & Valkyeries by donating to her Kickstarter campaign.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Keary Rosen

Simulacrum Series
Family Portrait
18" x 24"

KEARY ROSEN is an interdisciplinary artist working in drawing, photography, video, performance and kinetic sculpture. He often references science fiction narratives and imagined technologies from the past, exploring language and its associative meanings, as well as how our relationship to technology reveals our emotional experiences as human beings. Keary Rosen received his MFA from Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts in 2000. He currently lives in Raritan, NJ.

OtherPeoplesPixels: In your statement, you acknowledge the influence of sci-fi on your work. Tell me about your personal history in relation to sci-fi. What's your favorite sci-fi text of all time?

Keary Rosen: I naturally gravitated to science fiction writing because I appreciate the sometimes fantastic and covert ways the genre attempts to grapple with certain philosophical quandaries that I am interested in (issues of racial equality, issues of quality of life, issues of power, issues of surveillance, artificial life vs. organic life).

There are a number of novels and short stories that I’ve read many times. I don’t have a single favorite… I’ll give you a list of works that never fail to inspire me: 2001 A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, R.U.R. by Karel Capek and the whole Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams. 

In addition to written works, I’ll geek-out even more by divulging that I’m also a huge fan of sci-fi television and cinema. 

I’ve begun paying homage to my favorite sci-fi works in the drawing series M-Class Planet. In these drawings, I’ve inserted myself into imagery I’ve either appropriated directly from a visual source or gleaned from specific narrative descriptions. (I am a droid. I am Dave Bowman piloting the space pod. I am Powell on the back of the of the robot chasing Speedy. The robots rebelling against humankind are modeled in my image.)

25" x 31"
Graphite on 4 ply Bristol Paper

OPP: One of the interesting aspects of sci-fi movies and TV in particular is the way the visual representation of the future is quickly dated. Like, in 80s movies, the things the computers could do were amazing and fast, but they still had an MS-DOS interface, which is laughable now. It seems that your work is exploring specifically these outdated projections of future technology in your life-size sculpture 1.530R The Robot. That's no Cylon! It's more like Rosie from the Jetsons. I'd love to hear more about this piece. What was the video projected on the belly of 1.530R The Robot?

KR: 1.530R The Robot is an amalgamation of many atomic age tin toy robot designs from the 1940s -1960s. I’ve always been interested in automata, and tin toys are a modernist/contemporary continuation of that tradition. I like the idea that a simple or low-tech device can generate movement. 

It’s true, 1.530R is no Cylon. I chose to create a form that looked dated because I wanted to reference a time period that began using media and commerce to popularize this kind of image as a symbol to represent a preoccupation with the technological advancements that were taking place and how they might impact the future.

1.530R The Robot is a seminal work for me. Within this work was the genesis of a lot of the conceptual ideas and working methodologies I’ve explored. It was the first time I used the robot as a form, and it was the first time I worked collaboratively on a film.

The 16mm black and white film that is projected onto the belly of 1.530R The Robot was conceived as a B-Movie style horror story/critique of our current mental healthcare system. 1.530R The Robot was an actor in the film. In the installation, 1.530R The Robot doubles as a film artifact and projection screen.

The Atomic Treatment Installation
Installation includes: an antique iron and marble theater table, two antique theater chairs, a 1950’s 16mm film projector, a 1960’s reel-to-reel tape player and 1.530R The Robot

OPP: The Barker is a kinetic sculpture with sound. It appears to be an alien life form, either kept alive or imprisoned in a glass vitrine with a speaker. The viewer is able to hear its booming voice spout "excerpts taken from an early 19th century American Dictionary."  It's gross, in an awesome way, to watch this creature speak, and the timbre of its voice creates the sense that what it is saying is very important, despite the fact that it doesn't seem to be. Why did you choose the dictionary as a source, and how did you decide what it would say?

KR: The Barker was a real breakthrough, in terms of technology and studio process. Up until this piece, the kinetic devices in my work were mechanical in nature (gears, motors and belts) and the forms were generally composed of rigid materials such as ceramic and steel. I would spend a great deal of time tracking down parts or fabricating custom gadgets. In The Barker, I began working with cast silicone and, most importantly, digital technology. 

I was invited to participate in the testing/evaluation of a new user-friendly and multi-functional robotic motherboard through an outreach collaboration between The Pittsburgh Art and Technology Council and Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Laboratory. The robotic motherboard made function control and response a simple matter of programming. I had gone from analog to digital! The motion range inherent in the robotic motor and motherboard naturally suggested speech patterns and I went from there.  

There is an inherent absurdity of this grotesque form doing anything, much less giving advice or information. I culled its script from a 19th century American dictionary, because I wanted to work with codified, authoritative, precise, and potentially dated definitions of words. The words I chose to look up included: origin, creation, death, reason, aggression, animal and breed. I selected excerpts from those word definitions and their lists of examples for The Barker to blurt out. The statements ultimately become disjointed tidbits or morsels of much larger abstract concepts we have attempted to explain.

The Barker put me on a path that ultimately led to the work I am currently creating. It is an installation that consists of a landscape environment inhabited by three Komodo Dragons that have the ability to sense and speak to viewers (I am utilizing the same digital technology used in The Barker). Each creature will have a unique voice and perspective, both literally and philosophically. They will be on top of and surrounded by rocks of various sizes and shapes. These rocks are cast out of urethane resins.

The Barker
28” x 38” x 63”
Birch Plywood, Oak, Poplar, MDF, Naugahyde, Acrylic, Silicone, Qwerk Robotic Unit, Motion Sensors, Speaker, Light Unit.

OPP: You've done several collaborative videos with Kelly Oliver, in which you write and perform the text and she films and edits the visuals. How did this collaboration evolve? Is there any back and forth, or do you each stay in the roles you've chosen?

KR: Kelly and I met in art school. At the time, she was studying painting before gravitating toward film. We’ve been married for 10 years. Her method of making video is very poetic and indirect, based on edits of disjointed and mysterious images. The pacing and narratives emerge and submerge. My text pieces work within these same parameters. An important part of my process is to establish a rhythm and character that feels appropriate in regard to the content. It seemed like a natural progression to collaborate on work together, and the results have shown around the world at film festivals, galleries and museums.

Second Firing
Running time: 2 min 30 sec

OPP: Writing and language is a recurring part of your work, whether it is the monologue of The After-Dinner Speech, the appropriated statements of The Barker, or the non-sensical poetry of First Firing or the Lincoln Library of Essential Information Volume I and Second Firing, in which the audio is a running list of words that are linked more by sound than meaning. (My favorite phrase is "placenta polenta placebo gazebo.") Has language always been a part of your art practice? Could you talk about how you approach writing?

KR: I created my first pieces built around words and the spoken language as an undergraduate. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in oral and written communication.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly unique about my writing process. Whether I start with research, accumulated stream of consciousness writings or wordplay, it always eventually transitions to a process of editing and composing. 

When I complete a written work that I know I will read for a recording, I begin to experiment with voices. The voice I choose determines the speed, emotional responses and mood.

OPP: Tell me about a piece from your past that you think was a failure, but taught you a lot about your work.

KR: Why? What did you hear? Were you at that opening where the Mars Rover’s battery died?! Seriously though, I’m that person who likes to work through the burn. If something isn’t working, I have to keep at it until I am satisfied.

To view more of Keary Rosen’s work, please visit kearyrosen.com.

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OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews David Leggett

Acrylic, felt, pom poms, silver leaf, and wiggle eyes on canvas

DAVID LEGGETT’s paintings and drawings synthesize the personal and the cultural. His egalitarian use of craft materials, paint and ink emphasizes the balanced treatment of his subject matter, which ranges from the silly to the profound. He has tackled such topics as the history of painting and the high/low divide, race and our perceptions of ourselves in relation to the images presented to us by pop culture, sex and desire as they relate to self-esteem and carnality. Leggett received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007. He lives and works in Chicago, IL.

OtherPeoplesPixels: When asked how you would describe your work to a stranger in an interview you did with LVL3 last year, you responded with a great tagline: "it’s everything wrong with the world with bright colors." How do the bright colors (as well as the craft materials like pom poms and glitter) function in your work? Is it about a kind of optimism? Or is it a deflection of all the bad stuff?

David Leggett: Color has always interested me. The artists that I was interested in as a child and as an adult had vibrant color palettes. All the cartoons I loved as a kid use vibrant colors as well. I do not think of the colors I use as being optimistic. I see color as a tool to bring the viewer in for a closer inspection. I work with subject matter that can turn some off. Color can be used to make medicine go down if you will. That could also be said about craft materials. I started using craft materials in order to problem-solve in my painting. I felt my painting was very rigid before I used craft materials. I wasn’t trying to figure out one painting from the next. When you work with craft materials you have figure out how to use them, so it doesn’t look like craft materials on canvas. It’s too easy for those materials to look like a child at play.
That Where They Made Me At
acrylic and shoe polish on canvas

OPP: Who are some of the artists you love? And what were your favorite cartoons growing up?

DL: Pedro Bell, Gary Panter, Sigmar Polke, Harvey Kurtzman, Jim Shaw, and Mike Kelley were a few of my favorites growing up. I loved the Smurfs, Ren and Stimpy, and Thundercats.

OPP:  You often use the form of the tondo, a large round painting historically used for religious subject matter. Could you talk about this formal choice, either in general or in relation to a specific piece?

DL: I don’t shy away from any subject. I cover religion a lot. Tondos are interesting. They are a part of art history, and I like using that reference in my work. In Uncle John, I’m making a memorial to all the Johns of the art world. The idea of a gold leaf tondo with just the name John referenced Christianity even though that wasn’t my intent. Working with more than one meaning is one of the many things I use in my work.
Unforgivable Blackness
acrylic on canvas

OPP: Many of the tondos also feature recognizable figures from pop culture, as in Silver Dechanel (2010) or Rick Rossing It (2010). What about in a piece like Chocolate Rainbow Connection (2010), which features Kermit the Frog? Are there religious connotations here?

DL: I don't think of them having that meaning, but I'm aware that some viewers have taken that from the work. I like things being open for the viewer.

OPP: My favorite thing about your work is the way the tone continually moves back and forth between the sweet and the profane. I see this especially in the recurring motifs of boobs and balls on heads and scoops of ice cream. Does this resonate with your interests?

DL: Yes it does. There are many thoughts and ideas that go through my mind when I make work. My personality is very much a part of my work. I have a dark sense of humor, and it comes out often in the things I do. I also bounce back to being more practical at times and that also reflects. I feel everyone has the same way of thinking to an extent.
How to get to Grape Street
Blog drawing

OPP: You currently have an exhibition at Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago called Coco River Fudge Street, which consists of 152 drawings from your blog of the same name. How are the blog drawings different from other drawings? Has the digital form of the blog affected your analog work?

DL: The only real difference is the time. I have very limited time to work on the blog drawings. I’m always trying to beat the clock. I also find myself making things I might not have if I didn’t have to produce a drawing a day for the blog. It was a fun challenge.

It made me keep things simple. Certain things wouldn’t work on a blog. Colors and textures wouldn’t show up as clear due to my using a scanner. This changed the direction I originally had for the blog. I wanted to do all paintings which is nuts.

OPP: Tell us about your process.

DL: There isn't really a process to the blog drawings. It's whatever comes to mind within that day. I will use whatever trials I have, but I try to keep it simple so I'm not spending the entire day on one thing. That is the opposite of my other paintings and drawings. I have materials and subject matter planned ahead of time. I'll also gather source materials.

Old Negro

OPP: Will the blog keep going now that you’ve had the show?

DL: I was thinking about doing a fan appreciation month in the near future. As for another entire year of blog drawings, I don't have it in me. It's a lot of work, and I would like to travel. You have to stay put when you are doing a daily drawing blog.

OPP: What were your drawings like as a child?

DL: It was all pen and ink. I wasn’t a huge fan of color back then. I would go through hundreds of sheets of typing paper to draw on. I would draw my favorite comic characters and cartoons. I later realized I was good at making caricatures of kids I didn’t like in school. It’s funny how things never change.
To view more of David Leggett’s work, please visit davidleggettart.com.

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.