OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Julio Cesar Rodarte

Be Still My Soul, 2013. Acrylic on Shaped Panel. 22.5 x 24 inches.

Both figurative and abstract threads run throughout JULIO RODARTE's colorful paintings and illustrations. In work that celebrates sex and pleasure, he counters prudish taboos by rendering the body in geometric abstraction. Other works explore balance, symmetry and the interconnectedness of natural systems through pure, geometrical pattern. Julio earned his Associate Fine Arts degree at Glendale Community College in 2007. He has had solo exhibitions at A.E. England Gallery, Practical Art and the defunct One Voice Community Center, all in Phoenix. Two paintings will be included in Present Tense, a group show that opens on September 1, 2017 at MonOrchid Gallery (Phoenix, Arizona). You can purchase prints of his work here. Julio lives and works in Phoenix, Arizona.

OtherPeoplesPixels: First let’s talk about the queer, sex positive works like Friends Forever (2015) and Sit On It (2014). There’s a lightness, fun and joy in these paintings. Can you talk about how the bodies seem to merge into one another through your use of geometric patterns?

Julio Rodarte: The idea behind this series was to express that sex is not something dirty and perverse. It should be talked about it, rather than kept quiet. I remember when I was taking art classes and going to the museums and looking at these beautiful paintings of couples kissing. Sometimes they were naked, but there were no paintings of sexual intercourse because obviously sex is still a taboo. So, in my life drawing classes I would draw the human body by using shapes. That helped me draw better. By using geometric patterns, shapes and color I made something “dirty” look fun. I want the viewer to engage with my artwork, to take a deep view of what is in front of them. Sometimes people don’t quite get it first until they analyze it deeper and that’s when I know I have succeeded. Friends Forever was quiet a challenge, sometimes colors and shapes don’t get along with others and I go back and change things. The funny part of these works is when people ask me, if I get an erection by working on these type of paintings. I just think to myself “If you only knew all the work I put on it” and laugh. People are funny!

You Really Are My Ecstasy, 2017. Acrylic on Canvas. 60 x 80 inches.

OPP: Symmetry plays an important role in many of your paintings. What are your visual influences in works like Encounter (2011), Be Still My Soul (2013), Invasion (2013), The Pyramid of Love (2015) and Anahera (2017)?

JR: Symmetry is balance and balance is harmony for me. My first experience with symmetry was when I was a kid. My mom would make these beautiful cross-stitched designs for tablecloths or handkerchiefs, mostly flowers. She was so meticulous about her work, she would make in one corner one design and then another. Her work was extremely symmetrical and very addictive. She would use vibrant colors, red, blues, greens, yellow. My mom was my first art teacher, now that I think about it. She taught me beauty and balance. So in college, you explore painting and get to go to museums. I went to the Phoenix Art Museum and there was an Al Held painting on the wall. This painting was gorgeous, more beautiful than any realistic painting there. So when I got home that day I looked online for more of his work and I discovered other artists working in geometric abstraction like Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland and artists from Argentina working with geometrics, among many others. Every time I discovered a new artist, I fell more in love with pattern and color and that’s when it hit me that’s what I wanted to do.

ANAHERA, 2017. Acrylic on Canvas. 20 X 24 inches.

OPP: I can totally see that connection to embroidered tablecloths, especially in When it Ends, It Starts Again (2014). I also see pinball machines, video games and sacred geometry. I was thinking a lot about the presence of sacredness in play and in the everyday. Is this something you are interested in?

JR: I have never been a spiritual person. But I like to listen to a lot of vocal trance music, which in a way is spiritual and very uplifting. I like the progressive beats of this music, the melodic parts which combine vocals from mostly female singers. The title for the painting When It Ends, It Starts Again was actually a title by the DJ ATB from his album Contact released in 2014. My latest painting Miracle Moment was inspired by Andy Duguid's song "Miracle Moments" featuring the vocals of Leah. Parts of the lyrics are in the painting. so I guess vocal trance music is a source of inspiration for me. Some other paintings are also titled after vocal trance songs such as Higher.

TOGETHER AS ONE, 2016. Acrylic on Canvas.

OPP: Can you talk about balance in non-symmetrical works like Together as One (2016), Where Life Begins (2016) and Overenthusiastic (2016)?

JR: These paintings are so different from the rest. They don’t have symmetry but they have balance. Overenthusiastic was a really hard painting. I was adding pattern on one side but then I would do something on the other side, and it quite didn’t get along. I was going back and forth. Sometimes color helps to balance everything; sometimes it just ruins everything. I didn’t start with a sketch like I did with Together as One and Where Life Begins. Together as One I had a simple linear sketch with no color. So when I was painting it some colors were not getting along. The blue background was initially lighter and it looked awful. I went back and changed that and I decided that it was done. Where life Begins was an interesting process because it went by so fast. I knew how the outcome was going to look because I did my preparatory work. I didn’t go on an adventure like with Overenthusiastic.

OPP: Can you talk a bit about the imagery in Together as One and Where Life Begins? These aren’t entirely abstract.

JR: Together as One is a painting inspired by connectivity. The first sketch I did was very similar to the final result. It was a very spontaneous drawing on a sunny day in Phoenix by the pool. I used to go tanning by swimming pool and take my sketchbook. I would draw nonsense drawings. Some never survived, but others like this one did. I guess I tend to relate how all things in this world all connected somehow. As for Where LIfe Begins is a painting that deals with nature and how it hangs on to survive in a very busy world full of human construction. I have a geometrical-looking star that represents the sun, a cloud watering three plants that represents nature and life. An empty building that symbolizes the darkness in humans and how we destroy natural beauty with the things we make and expand.

ELECTRIFY, 2016. Acrylic on shaped panel.

OPP: When and why did you first begin painting on shaped canvases? What makes you choose the conventional rectangle for some pieces and a shaped canvas for others?

JR: My first shaped painting was This or That Way? created in 2008 after discovering Elizabeth Murray, who’s artwork deeply impacted me. She inspired me a lot to be wild and adventurous. So I went to the woodworkers store bought my self some big pieces of MDF. I drew shapes, cut them carefully, assembled and gessoed them, and started to draw. It was a very spontaneous process but very detail-oriented. In 2010, I had my first show at Practical Art. The show was titled Shapes and it included all these shaped paintings. It was quite an experience and a very successful. Overenthusiastic was the last shaped painting I did, and the reason why is because I have not bought anymore MDF and cut new shapes. But I have a sketchbook full of shaped paintings I want to do, I just need a day or two to fully do all of these. If I don’t do it at once, I just not gonna do it because it’s time consuming just to prepare the surface.

1937-PINK TRIANGLE, 2017. Acrylic on Canvas.

OPP: One of your newest works is 1937—Pink Triangle (2017), referencing the pink triangles homosexuals were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps. Why paint this right now? Do any contemporary viewers not get the reference and simply see this as abstraction?

JR: You know, I was invited to participate in a show about the LGBTQ history organized by the Phoenix Public Library back in March. The show was titled LGBTQ: Rights and Justice. Looking at what the other artists were putting together, I realized that we were omitting gays that were put in concentration camps, humiliated, raped, starved and murdered. I needed to paint that Pink Triangle that identified them from the rest. People were taking pictures of it. I think most people know what that symbol means, even young generations. But my painting was meant to be more educational than artistic. Somebody offered me money for it, but I didn’t sell it. I won’t make money from the pain of others.

To see more of Julio's work, please visit juliorodarte.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (2013), Heaven Gallery (2014), the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (2014) and Witness, an evolving, durational installation at The Stolbun Collection (Chicago 2017), that could only be viewed via a live broadcast through a Nestcam. Now that the installation is complete, you can watch it via time lapse. Her solo show Sacred Secular is on view through October 4, 2017 at Indianapolis Art Center.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Ben Willis

Man Candy (detail), 2017. Acrylic, Flock, Glitter, Resin, Spray Paint on Panel. 14" x  24"

BEN WILLIS creates vibrant juxtapositions of color, texture and brushwork, which appear to be separated by clean borders. But in actuality, the smooth, one-directional brushwork never meets the swirling impasto at this sharp edge; the matte acrylic and the glitter never square off defending their own territory. Instead, each hovers above or below the other, floating harmoniously on layers of resin. Ben earned his BFA in Sculpture at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio (2005) and went on to earn his MFA in Painting at Arizona State University in Tempe. He received a Contemporary Forum Artist Grant in 2014 and has had solo shows at Rhetorical Galleries (2016) and Pela Contemporary Art (2013), both in Phoenix, Arizona. His most recent solo show Candy Man opens this Friday, August 5, 2017 at Fort Works Art in Fort Worth, Texas and is on view through September 9, 2017. The show is accompanied by Candy Castle, a group show curated by Ben, who lives and works in Phoenix, Arizona.

OtherPeoplesPixels: The title of your solo show Candy Man makes me think of the term eye candy. This description was often used in a dismissive way in my own grad school critiques. Have you encountered this kind of attitude about color?

Ben Willis: I envision Candy Man as an immersive experience in both color and pattern. The challenge has and will be creating an exhibition that has something for everyone. A lot of what we learn and how we speak in graduate school is for such a secluded group, that the majority of your audience members are lost before they begin.

When I was working towards my MFA I painted portraits of the artists who shaped my experience. Early on I kept hearing “you need to expand your color palette” or “find more ways to apply the paint.” I was encouraged to experiment but to also build towards a body of work that was cohesive and meaningful. I went on to use more complex paint mixtures by pushing color into a higher Chroma and found alternative paint application methods that didn’t use a brush. Ultimately my portraits had become more vibrant, but I was so invested in color, texture and mark that painting the figure seemed mundane.

PPAP, 2016. Acrylic, Glitter, Resin on Panel. 18" x 12"

OPP: What would you say to these haters? What don’t they get about color?

BW: I would educate them on the subjectivity of color. It has the ability to trigger emotional and symbolic responses, both good and bad. I’d assure them that it’s more than just eye candy at play and that there is intention behind that sparkly surface. Materials like glitter, flock and even spray paint have certainly been used with negative connotations in my experience, and I like to think of myself as an artist who is not afraid to break the rules if it enhances my message. The color palette references “sweet treats” and the overwhelming presence often displayed in a traditional candy store. In many ways, I want to create a visual experience that is both fun and satisfying yet leaves you hungry for more. I truly enjoy what I am doing right now and believe there is some healing power behind this body of work.

Little Juan, 2017

OPP: Big Juan (2016) and Little Juan (2017) evoke a classic quilt pattern known as Tumbling Blocks. Are you influenced by quilts? If not, can you talk about how you’ve come to work with repetitive squares and triangles?


BW: As far back as I can remember, my mother has always made quilts as well as crocheted various blankets and garments for the entire family. My father is very much a handy man and for all intents and purposes a wood worker. I hadn’t considered it much before, but would certainly be steering you in the wrong direction if I said my parents and up bringing haven’t played a role in my work.

What really tipped the scale in terms of pattern and abstraction relates once again back to portrait painting. My process involved visiting other artists to capture poses in their studio. It was a great challenge trying to replicate the artist’s physical presence in front of their work. I distinctly remember several paintings using impasto techniques, hard edges and geometric shapes. At the time, there was something about that style, using tape and thinking about what paint can do that felt fresh and exciting.

Original Woodie, 2016. Acrylic, Glitter, Resin on Panel. 18" x 12"

OPP: Tell us a bit about your process which involves layers of epoxy resin, glitter and dry pigments as well as acrylic and spray paint. Have you always worked in layers this way? 


BW: All of the panels I work on are handmade. I start with a variety of primers from traditional gesso, spray paint, acrylic paint, resin and collage. From there, it’s more of a classic way of drawing or working general to specific. A loose pattern is sketched on top of the primer followed by resin often mixed with a combination of flakes and pearls (glitter and dry pigments). I build up layers but feel like there is a lot more intuition and freedom involved allowing the composition to evolve on its own.

It’s rare for me not to use a variety of media on any piece and I have always worked in layers. For example, my oil paintings are never really just oil paintings. I typically build up value on canvas with compressed charcoal. The drawing is then sprayed with fixative and squeegeed with amber shellac. From there I use a scumbling technique to build up layers of oil paint as I progressively work towards finer detail.

#groundrules, 2016. Installation at Rhetorical Galleries. Photo credit: Airi Katsuta

OPP: What were the ground rules in your 2016 show #groundrules at Rhetorical Galleries? Did the hashtag #groundrules work the way you’d hoped?

BW: I’ve been working full time as a preparator at Phoenix Art Museum for almost two years now. My job entails closely handling valuable historical and contemporary objects. I think a big portion of the idea for this show came from what I see on a day to day basis.

For #groundrules I wanted to create the same road blocks visitors are confronted with in a museum—don’t get to close or touch the art, no flash photography, no food, no drinks—but in a shipping container. I posted said rules both on social media and on a large didactic at the entrance of the space. I used the same censors and warnings we use at work and even recorded visitor interactions (they were warned). The only real change was that there was no security to stop occupants from acting out.

In my opinion, the entire process revealed rules that exist when it comes to interacting with art and that there is value in finding new outlets to allow your audience to connect with your work. I would say the hashtag was a success and provided new avenues for getting my ideas outside of Phoenix.

So Post Post Modern, 2016. Acrylic, Resin, Glitter on Panel. 18" x 12"

OPP: You’re in the process of curating a show called Candy Castle, featuring the work of Derick Smith, Christina West, Adam Hillman, Sean Augustine March, Sean Newport, Rachel Goodwin, Wheron, Kristina Drake and another of our own Featured Artists Dan Lam. How is the process an extension of your studio practice? What was your curatorial process like?
 
BW: The idea for this companion show to Candy Man was spawned during a conversation with Dan Lam a little over a year ago about Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas. I’m told it’s not out of the ordinary for artists showing at the Nasher to curate additional works on view during the run of their exhibition. The space at Fort Works Art is quite large and stunning. I knew it would be difficult to truly utilize it entirely on my own and felt I could expand my reach by getting more artists involved. 

From a curatorial stand point it has been about finding work that speaks to my senses. I was still thinking in terms of color, texture and repetition but also looking for artists who are currently pushing the conversation on materials and form. Eye Candy, as you put it earlier, is an underlying theme in both shows paying some homage to the Hasbro board game Candy Land. As the creator and curator, my aim is to provide a sense of adventure for all ages through concepts of desire, play, nostalgia and maybe just a tiny bit of death.

The experience thus far has certainly provided a new set of obstacles and amazing opportunities for collaboration. There certainly is and will continue to be a lot of takeaways that will benefit my practice moving forward. I am grateful to everyone involved for the opportunity and support.

To see more of Ben's work, please visit benwillisart.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (2013), Heaven Gallery (2014), the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (2014) and Witness, an evolving, durational installation at The Stolbun Collection (Chicago 2017), that could only be viewed via a live broadcast through a Nestcam. Now that the installation is complete, you can watch it via time lapse. Her upcoming solo show Sacred Secular open on August 11, 2017 at Indianapolis Art Center.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Hector Hernandez

Hyperbeast Lives

HECTOR HERNANDEZ's photographs of bodies in motion, swathed in brightly colored fabric, examine the figure's relationship to space. Face and gender obscured, the human bodies are stripped of all markers of human identity, allowing them to become otherwordly hyperbeasts. In 2012 he was nominated for "Austin Artist of the Year Award" in the 2D category by the Austin Visual Arts Association. His work was recently shown at SXSW 2013 and in Cantanker: The End at Big Medium Gallery in Austin, Texas, where Hector lives.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Your work strongly references fashion photography with its emphasis on the female body as an object, but it resists that designation because the accumulation of repeated poses and visual motifs asks me to muse about the intent of the images in a way I never would with fashion photography. Are you influenced by fashion photography?

Hector Hernandez: Interesting that you bring up fashion photography. To be honest, fashion photography has never been a source of inspiration for me. I can see why people might think that it is, but no. I can say that my recent work has been somewhat inspired by Christo and Jeanne Claude’s The Gates and a desire to experiment with movement. What I am trying to do with my new work is to capture that one second in time when everything is perfect: the power of the body, the energy going through the fabric and the balance of light.

Who are you?

OPP: You (almost) always obscure the identity of your models by hiding their faces, either with masks, sheets or pompoms. In early work, your models seem to be predominantly female, which brings to mind the discourse surrounding the male gaze and the objectification of the female body in art history. But some of the images also reference superheroes, who are masked for a very different reason. Could you talk about this recurrence of the masked female in your work? What does it mean to you?

HH: I have always been interested in the idea of identity in art. Some of my work is an attempt to explore this concept, but also to have the viewer feel that they can relate to my subjects. 

My exploration began with the Astro Girl series. Astro Boy, a Manga character from the 1950s, is this little, shiny, cool-looking, powerful boy-robot that seems to be perfect. Created to replace a scientist’s dead son, he is summarily rejected for the very fact that he is not human. So, while we may see the face of a shiny perfect little boy, behind that mask there is another story. The same is true for all of us. Behind our masks there are other stories, other perceived imperfections.

In my Astro Girl series, I created a character that is supposed to represent physical beauty and perfection. But despite the model’s perfection, she wears a smiling mask. By photographing her at awkward angles and poses, and in odd situations, I am attempting to expose what lies behind the mask: the vulnerabilities we hide and our fear of showing people who we really are.

The superhero series was really about indulging myself. I’ve always loved superheroes like Batman, Superman, Spiderman and their associated imagery and stories. I decided to create my own character, Mrs. Nitroglycerin. Since there are plenty of male superheroes out there, I created a female character with her own look and weaponry. The look I came up with draws on some recognizable superhero imagery, but I also tried to make her stand apart and to make it clear that she is nobody’s sidekick. 

Mrs. Nitroglycerin

OPP: Does Mrs. Nitroglycerin—interesting that she’s a Mrs., not a Ms.—have an origin story? Tell us about the design of her mask and her axe.

HH: The idea was to make a female supervillain, the anti-Capitan Planet. Mrs. Nitroglycerin isn’t planting trees; she’s cutting them down. I wanted her character to have a colorful weapon, and I thought that an axe would be the perfect accessory.

At the time, I was experimenting with different materials and started working with foam sheets. I love the possibilities that are open to me when working with foam. There are lots of color choices, and the material is easy to manipulate. When it came to designing Mrs. Nitroglycerin’s look, I decided to use a Batman mask as a foundation. The iconic shape of the mask would give the viewer something that was instantly recognizable, but by adding the layers of color and texture, I hoped to create a unique look and character.
 
When I was done, all she needed was a name. I wanted something that sounded dangerous . . . explosive. And, what’s more explosive then nitroglycerin? I decided to make her a Mrs. to give her a bit of a backstory. There is clearly a husband out there, maybe estranged, maybe missing . . . Is he her better half or her worse half? Who knows?

Hyperbeast

OPP: Hyperbeast and Hyperbeast Lives, your most recent bodies of work, are very different. It's clear how they grew out of the older work, but some of these models could be either male or female. And the bodies are less sexualized than in earlier work. Was this intentional? What is a hyperbeast?

HH: I agree that the Hyperbeast series is very different from my older work, but still heavily influenced by the same inspirations. This new series is still about form, life, light and movement. When I first began the series, I was interested in creating new characters, but I also wanted to add an element that I felt had been missing from my previous work. Color. The explosion of color is the “hyper” in hyperbeast. Bold, untamed and vibrant.

The move towards gender ambiguity in these pieces is deliberate. No flesh is exposed, and I do in fact use both female and male models in the series. The creatures are not human at all, and because of this I feel that their genders should be left unrecognizable.

I began the series by experimenting with fabrics and how light reflected on them. When I added movement, the fabric changed from something I recognized as a piece of cloth, thin and fragile, to a mass of shapes and light. The hyperbeast was born. 

I imagined that these creatures exist in some other universe, that they roam wild somewhere, like lions or giraffes in Africa. I am simply capturing them in their natural habitats. Then again, I sometimes imagine that these hyperbeasts exist in our own world at some hidden level. They could exist, hidden to us in the same way that atomic and subatomic particles used to be hidden. These creatures could be a part of our world, dancing and living in the same spaces where we exist.

OPP: The shift out of the white cube and into the world helps me see the figures as creatures. In the studio shots, I read them more like sculptures, but in Hyperbeast Lives, they do become more alive. Are abandoned buildings the natural habitat for Hyperbeasts? Or will you eventually photograph them in other environments?

HH: When I started on this series, I did want the Hyperbeasts to look like sculptures. The idea was that the creatures were sort of like hunting trophies. I was the taxidermist mounting the beasts and making them look alive.
 
But after experimenting in the studio, I wanted to see the beasts completely free in the wild. I’ve always loved the way old abandon buildings look, so that’s where I went to find them. But, I do think that they live other places, too . . . I’ve caught glimpses of them here and there.

Dogs of War

OPP: I'd like to hear more about your mixed media work, which combines your photographs with appropriated imagery from comics and advertisements. Would you pick your favorite mixed media piece and talk about the juxtaposition of the imagery you chose?

HH: I started working with mixed media four years ago and had very clear ideas about what I wanted to do. The intention was for every mixed media piece to represent a distinct moment in my life that had some kind of impact or that shaped who I am today. The piece that I feel illustrates this idea most strongly is Dogs of War. In this piece I juxtapose images of an Imperial Walker with advertisements and images of crying women.

As a child, I loved Star Wars (and still do). I loved every aspect of it: the toys, the movies, the characters and especially the story. But, it is fundamentally a story about war. As a child, I didn’t understand what that really meant. That changed somewhat when I was seven with the bombing of Libya. I remember very clearly the day that I sat down with my grandmother to watch the evening news that was flooded with images of the bombing. The destruction, the talk of war, and Tom Brokaw’s repeated assertion that “we were a nation at war” convinced me that the fighting and the bombings would arrive at my doorstep any minute.

Yet, at the same time that these frightening realities were being reported, there were still commercial breaks. Along with the footage of bombings and interviews with soldiers’ crying mothers and wives there were commercials for cleaning products, cars, sodas, chips, and Star Wars toys. Dogs of War is my attempt to collect those disparate images and ideas from that one moment.

OPP: What was on the last role of film you shot?

HH: The last time I used film was back in 2008. I shot two roles but only developed one. The shots in that one developed role included some that would later lead me to the Astro Girl series. The undeveloped role actually contained some pictures of my mom’s dogs. My mom actually asked after those photos for about a year, but I never got around to developing them. I should probably do that at some point . . . 

To see more of Hector's work, please visit hectorhernandezart.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Dena Schuckit

A Bird On a Bonnet
2013
Acrylic on wood
23.5" x 31.5"

DENA SCHUCKIT’s colorful, dynamic paintings act as poetic abstractions of explosions, car accidents, house fires, war and other disasters as seen in Internet news site slideshows. She explores the age-old conflict of man versus nature through a lens of optimism by revealing the beauty in the moment before the reality of the chaos crystalizes. Dena received her BFA from the University of California at Santa Cruz and her MA from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. She was a master printer with Crown Point Press for 12 years. Her work is featured in collections at the University of the Arts, London, and the Parsons School of Design, New York. Dena lives in London, England.

OtherPeoplesPixels: On first glance, most of your paintings appear to be abstractions. But very quickly, I begin to see the referents to explosions, car accidents, house fires, war and other disasters. Could you talk about the interplay between abstraction and representation in your work? Was your work ever more abstract or more representational than it is now?

Dena Schuckit:
I work from the photo slideshows that run online next to stories of events like earthquakes, wild fires and other natural or manmade disasters that are usually a world away. The slideshows change the way we experience the news. We’re all accidental photojournalists now, on hand to document and immediately transmit every event around the globe as it happens. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that everyone, everywhere, has a cell phone that can take a picture shoved into a back pocket. Digital media bring this barrage of images from far-away places into our homes without any real context to help viewers wrap their brains around the actual impact of these events. They’re abstract both in a formal and conceptual way.The photos are vivid, accidental landscapes from the world I know, but that world is completely out of context. They are gorgeous rearrangements—fragments of things I recognize—but they are presented in puzzling, perplexing compositions. I’m drawn to their abstract quality, and I don’t want to mess with that in the way I interpret them. My work has always been semi-abstract. It’s easy to remain abstract with this source material because the paintings aren’t based on any one specific headline event or incident, and the news photos that I’m working from are already somewhat visually abstract. That said, I do try to paint little people into the panels somewhere so that there’s a suggestion of scale and perspective. Otherwise the paintings appear completely nonrepresentational. Even as abstractions, they’re still landscapes, and I like that viewers can sense some space or depth.
Blast Boom Bust
2012
Acrylic on wood
28" x 39.5"

OPP: I'm instantly attracted to the color and composition of your paintings. Personally, I find them very beautiful. Are you making horrible events more beautiful than they are or are you revealing some terrible beauty that already exists in tragic events?

DS: The paintings I make are abstract. I don’t think they’re either horrible OR just beautiful. But I do think they’re beautiful. I reinterpret the elements of the collected images that drew me to them in the first place: color, composition and, most importantly, a mysterious sense of place.  The photos that I work from are engaging primarily because they’re NOT horrible or terrible in and of themselves. That’s the irony of them. They’re unique, abstract compositions created by chance events in nature and captured immediately; the dust has literally not yet settled there. We know that the events from which these photos are isolated have serious effects on the people involved, but that’s something we infer. As snippets and fragments contained by the four sides of my computer screen, these landscapes are far, far removed from the environment they’re representing. They’re a surreal "calm after a storm" or an unfamiliar and intriguing terrain. They’re familiar elements shaken up and rearranged, heaped and piled into some pretty interesting architecture. I’d say they’re even inviting. They’re the world we all live in, completely different from the one we inhabited a moment ago.
Bumper
2009
Acrylic on wood
10.5" x 12.5"

OPP: Tell me about your process of collecting and organizing the source imagery for your paintings.

DS: I was pulling these abstract frames from events around the world down to my desktop for months before I started painting from them. I just wanted to think about them, to not forget. I began collecting images to remind myself about color and mood, and then I slowly started organizing images into vague categories by type or subject: crowds, building collapse, under sea, above sea.

When I start a painting, I sift through these slideshow images and shuffle them around to make connections, like an imaginary collage. A composition materializes in my mind, and that’s where I start. Then the painting evolves as it does. Source imagery is shuffled in; source imagery is shuffled out. Each piece takes on a life of its own until all the rubble has settled into something I couldn’t have planned.

OPP:
It’s interesting to think about the translation of information and imagery back and forth between the physical world and the digital world. First, by-standers and photojournalists capture real world events digitally and upload them to the Internet. Then you download them and re-interpret them back into a concrete physical form: a painting. Is the act of painting connected to the not-forgetting you mentioned before?

DS: I think the collecting is just feeding my hoarder monster. It’s satisfying the same urge as finding raw material like pieces of wood or metal on the street and dragging it home for some future project. I think most artists have piles like this—stashes of material saved and organized in some way for later use. The digital stash takes up far less physical space than the wood and metal, which is a bonus.  There’s so much surreal raw material and information to work from in these photos. As a group, they map our ever-changing environment. Then the painting is a sort of figurative exploration, a delving into new realms. To begin a new panel, I collage bits and pieces in my head, but I still need to see the source to remember details and elements. Each photo is unique and contains something special I don’t want to forget: colors, angles, textures.
Green Smoulder
2010
Acrylic on wood
20" x 16"

OPP: Talk about your instinct to create order out of chaos. You've mentioned it as part of your process. Do you see this as an aesthetic instinct specific to artists or as human one?

DS: As an artist, my source material is based in chaos, my working space is an absolute catastrophe, and my paintings, I think, are a riot of color and texture. Maybe it’s different for minimal artists, but then again a minimal artist is still tasked with finding some order in the chaos outside his or her studio.The world is a chaotic place. On a huge scale and on a tiny scale, in big groups and individually, we attempt to rein in the bits and pieces. We shuffle and reorganize and categorize to gain some control over our environment. But that’s never going to happen. It’s an impossible endeavor.

OPP:
  A line from your artist statement really struck me: “Like confetti from a popper, expanding energy sends colorful riots of material into momentarily suspended chaos where the abstract arrangements that result hang in poses new and unfamiliar.” It’s a completely accurate description of what your paintings look like, but the poetry is very disconnected from the horror we know will be experienced by the people who are affected by these various disasters. Is it fair to say that your paintings are not about the explosions and fires and disasters themselves, but about the poetry of that captured moment just before anyone has to deal with the consequences of the events represented?

DS:
My work is definitely not about disaster. I don’t think there’s any horror in my landscapes either. The opposite is true, actually. They’re about navigating a new and constantly evolving terrain in the man versus his environment conflict and doing it with optimism, a sense of calm and hope for regeneration and safe passage. And some whimsy as well.When I started collecting the headline photos, which are random images I found mesmerizing for all their mystifying and awesome and somewhat scary qualities, I became interested in 18th century notions of the sublimeKant’s dynamic sublime and also Edmund Burke's ideas—and the relationship between beauty and fear. But the act of painting from these photos is a personal resolution to look on the bright side, to find the beauty in all the uncertainty.

To view more of Dena's work, please visit denaschuckit.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago)

OtherPeoplePixels Interviews Nathan Prouty

Hot Spots & Rocks bits and bobs
2011

NATHAN PROUTY's small-scale, abstract, ceramic sculptures ellicit a wide range of associations. They read as toys, trophies, fetish objects, consumer products and isolated body parts. Each whimsical and colorful piece maintains an uncanniness and sense of humor that makes it impossible to dismiss as eye candy, while simultaneously engaging the viewer in the pleasure of looking. Recurring formal motifs like piles, shafts and nubs offer the viewer the opportunity to contemplate the attractiveness of the sculptures, as well their ambiguous referents. Nathan's work has been exhibited at Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts (Newcastle, ME), The Clay Studio (Philadelphia), The Fuller Craft Museum (Brockton, MA) and Lacoste Gallery (Concord, MA) and is featured in The Best of 500 Ceramics: Celebrating a Decade in Clay (2012), published by Lark Crafts. Nathan is currently an MFA candidate in Ceramics at Ohio University.

OtherPeoplesPixels: In your artist statement, you say, "I have a problem. I am an image junkie" and later "My sculptures are the consequences of my addiction." This, of course, has the same humor in it that I also see in the work itself. But do you really think your image collecting and hunting is more excessive than other artists?

Nathan Prouty: I wouldn’t say that my attraction to images is more or less obsessive than other artists. If there is one truth about art weirdos like us, it is that we spend a large chunk of our lives in our own headspace. But looking outward is a huge part of—if not the reason for—what we do. As artists, we have a stronger drive to look and to ask questions about what we are seeing. The seeing and the asking become so intertwined that they fuse together into one process. But understanding the world through looking is just one method of processing and filtering and understanding the crazy thing that is the human condition.

 When people write or talk about my work, they tend to glom onto the Internet imagery idea, maybe because of my blog or because of my statement. The work responds to Internet culture and Tumblr-style image de-contextualizing, but that is not the main subject or inspiration of the work. I’ve just noticed that this is a relatively recent read, and it’s interesting. But it’s too simple of an explanation. It is an easy way for people to feel they’ve figured the work out. They'll say, “Oh, he's mashed together a bunch of images he found online. Now I get it!”

I position myself with self-depreciation and humor in my work, statements and writing because I genuinely believe that we shouldn’t take everything so seriously. But the humor also disarms people who have convinced themselves that they hate "capital 'A' art." Suddenly they can’t stop looking at the giant pile of sparkling unicorn crap in the middle of a pedestal. I love seeing the work manipulate the entrenched prejudices of viewers.

The universal language of humor is one of the most powerful things we have in our toolkit as humans. It primes us to relate to each other and to make our way though the slog that is life on this blue dot. I have to live in that space of goofiness and chuckles to stay sane. If there is a negative in my way of seeing, it is that I have a tendency to go dark and cynical really quickly. But the work itself is so happy and goofy that it compensates for all the darker stuff and enables me to keep my head above those murky waters. I’m not really a quote guy, but Joseph Campbell said we should “participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world…” I try to live by that as much as I can.

"Bobo Getches Snatches the Matches"
2010
Earthenware, Wood, Plexiglass
9" x 3" x 7"

OPP: Most of your sculptures are painted earthenware. Can you tell us a bit about this material?

NP: Clay is the axis around which things revolve in my studio. But I ditch it in heartbeat if it gets in the way for any reason. It’s not really a point of pride or something to champion from the rooftops. It’s a matter of pragmatism and efficiency. I use whatever it takes to get the job done: paint, glaze, underglaze, china paint, embossing powder, flocking, glitter and resin. One of the quirks of clay—and here I'm generalizing a bit—is a pretty major trade off between strength and color. You can either have bright, awesome, saturated color on lower temperature clay that is more fragile or you can have so-so colors—browns and grays and all that crunchy, hippy, macramé stuff—on really high-temperature, robust ceramics. That’s the mug you want in your hand at the  Renaissance Fair, when the guy dressed in the crappy jester costume says something about your mother. High fire stuff is strong and dense and can really cause some Ren Fair damage! That’s why a lot of the functional stuff you see is brown; at those higher temperatures, the color just burns out. There are some absolutely stunning effects you can get at that higher temperature range, but I’m really in love with the versatility of the color and surface of the lower range material. A majority of my surfaces are glazed. The commercial glaze you can get off the shelf these days is pretty amazing in terms of its color range. I do use paint for texture on the plexiglass bases, but that’s about it these days. Within the old-school ceramics crowd, there is this unspoken rule that unless you mix the glazes yourself, you are not a "real" ceramicist, which is just a bunch of dogmatic jock-potter junk. I do and use whatever it takes to get the result I want.

OPP: What's it like to work with clay?

NP: Clay is a royal pain in the ass to work with. It’s fussy and fragile and dirty. It is probably one of the most inconvenient media to work in, but it is also awesomely versatile if you know how to tease what you want out of it. Clay has this insane ability to mimic. Ceramics can look like plastic, steel, grass or Formica.

The labor is crazy with clay, but the clay I use is the dumbest stuff that’s available. It's low-fire white stuff meant for summer camp ashtrays and kindergarten blobs. But it is plastic and flexible as hell and takes colors really well. Secretly, I love the fact that I am using clay that was meant for children’s projects to make my work.

2012
Ceramic, underglaze, acrylic, wood, glitter, resin, silken cord, mixed media
Detail

OPP: What do you hate about clay?

NP: One of the things that drives me crazy about clay is “the community.” I say that with a big eye-roll and sweeping air quotes. I think it’s awesome that the medium has this robust base of people that get together to "talk clay," and there is such a widely distributed academic community revolving around ceramics. But at the same time, I am skeptical. It can result in some pretty lazy thinking. There is very little criticality in our corner. While it’s nice that everyone gets a trophy for showing up, it creates some steep, uphill battles for ceramic artists, who are not interested in spending a week obsessing over kiln design or who went to which MFA program. And because there is such a culture of subpar criticality, it’s easy to overcompensate and try to shove tons of concept and meaning and academic language into work that should just exist on its own. This is where the academic MFA factory really becomes the default way of surviving and thinking, which is a bit troubling to me. I am too much of a skeptic to trust any "default" just because it is "the way things are done." I might be contradicting myself. I don’t really have a thesis there; I’m just making observations based on my own experiences. Ok, now I'm hopping off my soap box.

A lot of the clay work that is "making it" out there in the larger art world right now is this stuff that is clunky and poopy and super-summer-campy—I don’t know how else to describe it. Like, chunky ashtrays with drippy glazes. Sterling Ruby and Arlene Shechet, are two that come to mind. Let me be clear though that they all make really beautiful work—I would kill for a Sterling Ruby piece. But the fact that curators and museums, suddenly willing to consider ceramics and rushing to jump on the bandwagon, are gravitating towards that genre specifically and somewhat exclusively is a bit odd. For those people who really know the material, the clunky ham-fisted look is water way under the bridge, and I question why there is not more innovative, diverse work getting picked up. It’s out there, but we never see it "cross over." The net needs to be cast WAY wider, and the ceramic folks bear most of the responsibility in making that happen although no one wants to cop to it. I think this is somehow tied into the same reasons we still see Peter Volkous being included in "cutting edge" contemporary ceramics exhibitions. Again, he makes great, powerful work, and I'm not suggesting that it should be shoved aside. But it is time to bring some additional voices and ideas to a wider audience.

"Hercule"
2010
earthenware, glaze, acrylic, mixed media
5.5" x 3.5" x 3.5"

OPP: Your sculptures are abstract, but I see a lot of recurring forms in them, including shoes, both male and female sex organs. Sometimes they look like unusable, complicated wireless mice. I get the sense that it doesn't matter to you if what I see is where you started from, but would you pick your favorite piece and give us the insider info on what you were thinking about when you made it?

NP: Oh man. Yeah, I really love that viewers can bring their own associations to the work. But I feel guilty sometimes because it’s too easy for me to just shrug and play innocent with the content—“you see whatever you wanna see, man!” At the same time, it is hard to delve into and thoroughly unpack the meaning because the work is kind of about everything, and therefore it's kind of about nothing. It's about the everyday, in all the many ways that word has meaning.  

It's sex, death, love and angst all wrapped up in a poop joke. And I am ok with the poop joke being front and center. It's the punch line that is delivered first, and you as the viewer need to work backwards towards the actual set-up of the joke, which may or may not have some more serious undercurrents bubbling up. But if all you see is the poop, I can't get uppity about it. All that said, what I say in my statement is also true: the pieces are a consequence of crazy amounts of input from all corners, not all of it necessarily visual. It’s not just about the imagery but also the implications behind that imagery. Any given piece is actually some neurotic algorithm of history, advertising, emotion, design, desire, frustration and nerdiness.

Right now, my favorite piece is Hercule. It came out of my Masterpiece Theater phase, when I was watching a bunch of PBS murder mysteries and period pieces. Hercule Poirot, created by Agatha Christie, is the main character in this great, campy PBS show that has been running forever. That piece is the only one I still have in my possession, and I think I’m going to keep it for myself. It’s this dainty, small pink thing that lies low and flat. It has a certain formal command of its own space, similar to the character in the TV show—dainty, meek, but razor sharp and easily underestimated. It holds this blob covered by these little strips of bandages or toilet paper, almost like a hat. I was thinking about old-school Universal Studio monsters like the Mummy and about toilet paper and its uses and connotations—what an odd thing! The base of Hercule—in fact, the bases of most the pieces—references countertops and laminate surfaces of the post-war American material boom. Thanks to new chemical technology, anything could be made to look like anything else. The little slice of 1950s kitchen countertop that Hercule sits atop represents the insane abundance of products and material wealth that was part of the new, post-WWII American reality.

"Chimpy Hits the Deck"
2009
lowfire white earthenware, porcelain, glaze, luster, wood, plexiglass, paint
9" x 5" x 9"

OPP: You are in your second year of graduate school at Ohio University. How has your work changed since you've been there?

NP: Oh boy. When I decided to go back to school, I made the conscious decision to seriously reevaluate what had become habitual in my studio practice. One thing that has really cracked wide open for me is the idea of placement. I have started to think about the hierarchy and taxonomies of display within the home. If I hear one more grad student talk about the "realm of the domestic," I think I might barf. Yet I find myself right there too, somewhat begrudgingly.

I make these precious, fetishized objects, and they go out into the world. But what happens next? Lately, I’m thinking about the display of cherished, sentimental objects. Why does grandma’s clock go on the mantle, but that weird mason jar full of seashells that you brought back from Myrtle Beach goes on the back of the toilet tank? I’m thinking about the emotion and memory that objects absorb and about the beauty and wondrousness of us as a species, as viewed through our junk. The little, old lady down the street cherishes that crappy, dollar-store resin angel with all her heart. It’s enough to make you tear up. It’s crazy and beautiful at the same time.

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

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).