OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Ryan Pierce

Revisionist History, 2016. Flashe and spray paint on canvas over panel. 72 x 96 inches.

RYAN PIERCE's large-scale paintings operate more like pictoral diagrams of the interconnectedness of nature and culture than representations of the physical appearance of our world. In his most recent solo exhibition, Dusk is the Mouth of Night at Elizabeth Leach Gallery (Portland, Oregon), he continues his ongoing investigation of the "the historical links between natural history exploration and conquest." Ryan earned his BFA in Drawing at Oregon College of Art & Craft in 2003 and his MFA in Painting at California College of the Arts in 2007. In 2016 he was the Keynote Speaker at the Thin Green Line Conference (Oregon State University) and an Artist-in-Residence at the invitational Crow’s Shadow Institute for the Arts (Pendleton, Oregon). He also had two shows with artist Wendy Given: Nocturne at Whitespace Gallery (Atlanta) and Eyeshine at Portland State University. Ryan is a cofounder of Signal Fire, a non-profit that "builds the cultural value of the natural world by connecting artists to our remaining wild places." Ryan's home-base is Portland, Oregon.

OtherPeoplesPixels: The relationship of nature and culture is a primary theme in your work. How do you see this relationship?

Ryan Pierce: Dominant society tells us that nature and culture are separate and perhaps even mutually exclusive. It may sound simplistic, but I think this is at the root of so much injustice in our world. Judeo-Christian creation myths teach us about being cast out from The Garden, and capitalism builds on that binary to encourage the plundering of the Earth. Everything the European settlers of this continent associated with wildness (Native Americans, women’s bodies, predators, intact ecosystems) was simultaneously romanticized and denigrated to allow for its exploitation. Now climate change, in the form of more extreme and unpredictable weather events, is forcing the messiness of nature right into our lives and living spaces, breaking down our walls against the outside in very literal ways.

Retrospective, 2016. Flashe on canvas over panel. 72 x 96 inches.

OPP: In paintings like Retrospective and The Free Museum, tree branches seem to have grown through the walls and floors. Is nature reclaiming cultural spaces, returning them to the wild? (Or do the trees just want to see the art?)

RP: In these paintings, the floods and fallen tree branches have ruined the gallery’s climate control, but they’ve also possibly liberated these stuffy spaces. I often think about Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel Housekeeping, in which the eclectic aunt Sylvie allows weather and animals to move through the open doors and windows of the home, the sort of radical embrace of natural systems that eventually compels CPS to intervene. The Free Museum addresses an additional idea: What if all the sacred objects that were never intended to be “art” in a Western sense— objects stolen from their cultures of origin and housed in museums— what if they are all just sleeping, and the storm that destroys the museum walls and floods the galleries allows these things to become re-enchanted and primed for magic in the present day?

The Free Museum, 2016. Flashe on canvas over panel. 72 x 72 inches.

OPP: It often seems that your compositions move back and forth between depth and flatness within a single work. Can you talk about that perspective shift?

RP: That shifting perspective is probably related more to my stylistic impulses. I’m no minimalist, and ideally a viewer would look at my work for awhile and experience multiple levels of visual interest. Like many artists of my generation, I’m influenced by a panoply of picture-makers, including self-taught Balkan painters, comic books and probably the video games of my youth. In a sense, approaching a painting more as a diagram than an illusionistic space allows one to try to impart the essence of an aspect of nature, as opposed to its appearance. I jump back and forth between those approaches, or both in the same composition.

Mask for the Venomist, 2016. Flashe and collage on canvas over panel. 24 x 24 inches.

OPP: Masks show up in works like The Free Museum and Stanley Falls, where I take them to be literal masks, as exhibited in museums. But what about the series of paintings from 2016 with “mask” in the title? Mask for the Venomist, Mask for the Bandit Queen and Mask for Night Farming are just a few.

RP: I had a transformative art viewing experience some years ago, at the mask collection of the Museo Rafael Coronel in Zacatecas, in Mexico. The collection exceeds 13,000 masks from different Indigenous groups of Mexico, with maybe a third of that on display at any time. They often include imagery from animistic spiritual traditions, cloaked in biblical guises to survive the Spanish laws, and they're innovative and debaucherous and meticulous and funny.

I fixated on the mask as a formal starting point for the paintings where they're singular in the composition, piecing together objects that, along with the title, suggest a loose narrative. In the larger works like The Free Museum, the masks are stand-ins for looted archeological relics but I invented them all without source material because I didn't feel that it was my right to recreate any culture's holy objects.

Mask for the Welfare Rancher is a direct jab at the bozos who orchestrated the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge a couple years ago. The degree of entitlement necessary to seize Federal land for any reason other than to return it to its original Paiute caretakers, let alone to claim it for a bunch of ultra-rightwing Mormon militiamen. . . ugh! I hope they're just a plastic bag hanging on the cruel barbed wire fence of this decade, soon to degrade and blow away.

Casta, 2016. Flashe on canvas over panel. 46 x 42 inches.

OPP: Tell us about Signal Fire, which you co-founded in 2008.

RP: Signal Fire’s mission is to “build the cultural value of the natural world by connecting artists to our remaining wild places.” Public lands activist Amy Harwood and I started Signal Fire as an attempt to merge our respective communities, to get artists outdoors for inspiration and to fall in love with public land, as well as to provide activists with new, open-ended strategies for their campaigns.

Eight years and 350 artists later, we have a real community of people who are sharing critical dialogue about wildlands and ecology, and our role as culture-makers is catalyzing social change. We offer a residency in wall tents, backpacking and canoe retreats, and an immersive arts and ecology field program called Wide Open Studios. Our Tinderbox Residency sponsors artists to work as temporary staff among environmental groups and our Reading In Place series offers a day hike book club in the Portland area. We highlight the work of our alumni in exhibitions and events, such as a film festival this coming fall.

Amy and I share the administrative work with our Co-Director Ka'ila Farrell-Smith, a splendid painter and activist, who brings her work in support of Indigenous survivance into everything she does. Amy and Ka'ila's leadership has helped our organization to evolve from a mix of arts, ecology and recreation, to highlighting the social justice issues that should be integral to any conversation about public lands in the American West.

The Mountain That Devours Us, 2016. Flashe and spray paint on canvas over panel. 42 x 46 inches.

OPP: It took a while to get in touch with you to do this interview because you were actually out in the wilderness, with no reception for long stretches of time. I think many contemporary artists believe they need to stay connected to social media all the time, posting on Instagram and checking Facebook. Why is disconnecting a good idea for all humans? What about for artists specifically?

RP: I’m actually writing these answers in a tent in Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness, on week one of a four-week trip. The stars are brilliant tonight and I can hear a rushing, glacier-fed creek, about fifty feet away. Some of the students on our Wide Open Studios trips are young enough that they've never gone a week without a cell phone before.

I'm not a technophobe, but I believe solitude is healthy and increasingly hard to find. Disconnecting is good for building one's attention span and patience to work through a challenge without clicking away. It's reassuring to feel a lasting sense of surprise and the profound smallness that comes with living outside, away from the built environment. It cultivates wonder.

The friendships forged while backpacking through bugs and storms are precious and enduring. The internet is the gold rush of our day: sure, a few artists’ work goes viral, but most of those people are either a flash in the pan or they were damn good to begin with. For the rest of us, myself included, it's a mildly unfulfilling time suck. Every time I hear the little voice encouraging me to scan around for obscure things to apply to, or to sign up for new ways to network online, I try to redirect that energy back into the work itself, or else go do something IRL.

To see more of Ryan's work, please visit ryanpierce.net.

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 Geoffry Smalley

Paper Tiger
2013
Graphite on Paper, Cut Paper Overlay

According to GEOFFRY SMALLEY, "to understand the history of American team sports is to understand our national development." To this end, he thoughtfully and humorously examines the "Big Three" (baseball, football and basketball) in painting, drawing, collage and sculpture. Painting on top of existing reproductions, he injects sports arenas into famous Hudson River School landscapes and mashes up team uniforms and mascots with the animals that inspired them. Geoffry earned his BFA from the University of Illinois, Chicago and his MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has exhibited extensively in and around Chicago. Most recent was his solo exhibition Past Time at Packer Schopf Gallery in the summer of 2014. When he isn't making art, Geoffry works as an art conservator at Joel Oppenheimer, Inc. in Chicago, where he lives.

OtherPeoples Pixels: Tell us about the work in Past Time, your most recent solo show at Packer-Schopf Gallery in Chicago.

Geoffry Smalley: For several years I've been exploring social and political issues related to American sports, and Past Time is the latest body of work. In my daily dealings as an art conservator, I think about the works I treat, their place in American art history and the nature of authenticity. I have to hide my hand when treating an art work, and because of that I began to think of ways I could use historical images for my own purposes. At the time, I was also reading about the rise of sports during the Industrial Revolution, which reflected America's progression into the modern age.

Catskill Creek, Citi Field
2012
Acrylic on Ink Jet Print

OPP: I'm especially interested in the sports vistas, in which you insert contemporary arenas and stadiums into romantic landscape paintings. 

GS: The vistas are reproductions of Hudson River School paintings onto which I have painted images of various sports arenas. Painters like Thomas Cole and Asher Durand held cautiously optimistic views of society's progress. They believed in the sublime, the closer-to-God power of untamed nature. They captured these unspoiled vistas at the very moment our country steamrolled west and grew into the industrial superpower it is now. Sports flourished in the same way. At a time when workers first began to have leisure time, baseball emerged from rural America. It was played at what was then considered a rapid pace, under the sun, during the growing season, affected by the elements. Football is industrial manufacturing plus military readiness: taking land by force, specialized individual moving parts choreographed to achieve a singular, larger goal. Basketball picked up football’s individualized machinations but added a more free-form individualism to the mix. As Americans left the rural landscape to congregate in cities, immigrants, settlers and native-born people tried to assimilate their variegated histories into an homogenous American identity. Sport offered a common site and a common language where that diversity could be bridged.

OPP: Team names and mascots are a jumping off point in many of your drawings on found images, as in Chief and Cowboy from 2014, as well as Seahawks, Orioles and Eagles from 2011. It seems like most professional sports team names are either history or animal references. Is this the case? Why do you think that is? Can you think of any exceptions?

GS: I believe team names are derived from the tradition of using animal totems as a way to harness the mythic powers, internalize the traits and externalize the characteristics of certain creatures. In football you have the Eagles, Lions, Panthers, Bears—all predatory, strong animals. Baseball gives you Cubs, Orioles, Cardinals and Blue Jays—not really striking fear into an opponent with those names. But there are also historical and social references—49ers, Cowboys, Brewers and Steelers—which reflect each team’s hometown industry/identity and blue collar fans. Of course you have the tradition of “honoring” Native Americans by making them mascots. From Chief Wahoo to Chief Noc-A-Homa to the tomahawk chop, there are racist slurs appropriated with great popularity across all sports. The traditional Thanksgiving NFL matchup of the Cowboys vs. Redskins is also indicative of historically entrenched nationalism and racism that still bubbles beneath the surface. Team names are meant to carry with them meaning and identity, and do so quite powerfully, sometimes with unintended consequences. There just a couple exceptions to the animal/historical references, where a team name actually invokes either more etherial or benign powers. The Heat, the Thunder, The Sox from Chicago and Boston. . . hard to take umbrage with the fact that Miami is hot or that Chicagoans wear socks.

Bears
2011
Acrylic on Book Page

OPP: Could you talk generally about the strategy of the cut-out in your work? You've used it in collage, drawing and sculpture, and it appears to be both a aesthetic and conceptual strategy.

GS: I have used the cut-out for about 15 years, originally as a way to isolate all or part of a specific image from the collage-like paintings I used to make. It began as an attempt to understand why I used a particular image, how re-contextualizing an image changed or added to its meaning. That isolation evolved to be more of a strategy of simultaneously concealing and revealing, taking images past straight representation and into a more mysterious place. The cut-out also acts as an interruption, a pause or glitch in the image a viewer is trying to decipher. Not being given the whole story at once allows for a slower absorption of information and keeps the question alive longer. It's always more interesting when you don't know the answer. On a base level, cutting and collaging is an extension of my drawing practice, a way to regroup and quickly realize thoughts.

Ring Stock Ballyhoo - Swarm
2010
Collage
Variable (16x19)

OPP: I'm seeing a lot of forms that evoke the Fleur-de-lis and other coat-of-arms designs. Some examples include the graphite helmet designs in Starbury (2011), the decorative flourishes in Antique Sorrow (2008) and the cut-out gold foil in Dale Earnhardt Portrait Cartouche (2007). What do these flourishes mean to you? How has your use of them changed over time?

GS: Those forms mostly come from the Rococo. I was picking on NASCAR, talking about the spectacular, florid, over-the-top displays of eye candy that NASCAR embodies. The Rococo is often discounted as a movement entrenched in frivolity and poor taste, one of shallow and selfishly playful intent. Just beauty. I used the forms to create what I called “portrait cartouches” of NASCAR drivers, comprised of all the sponsors’ logos on their fire suits. As with the cut-out, decorative forms serve dual purposes. As aesthetic forms, they bring shape and content to an image. In Starbury and similar images from Past Time, I conflated athletic and military display, imagining athletes “in the trenches” or as modern-day gladiators and warriors. I began to think about contemporary athletes’ tattoos as parade armor worn by Medieval and Renaissance kings. That armor was never worn in battle. It was a narrative display of power.

Kaplooie
2008
1:24 Scale Hobby Model, Cut-out and Bent Sintra, Enamel, Decals
16" x 22" x 15"

OPP: How do you decompress after a solo show or the completion of a big project? Do you need a break before returning to the studio?


GS: I definitely need to take a break. I usually spend a little time away from the studio after a show, until my feet get too itchy to keep me away. I see an exhibition as an opportunity to get some perspective on where I am with my work in general. It’s good to see all the pieces out of the studio, having a dialogue together. I take that back to the studio with me. After cleaning and rearranging, I research, make drawings and listen to a lot of baseball on the radio to prepare for the next thing. 

OPP: And what's your next thing?

GS: While making work for Past Time, I had thoughts and ideas bouncing around that didn't fit with that show, so they got put on the back burner. But as I stated above, feet get itchy. I have been thinking about how the landscape/stadium idea relates to religion. Certain stadia and arenas are considered pilgrimage sites for fans. Naturally, inside those sites are relics, items imbued with the history and iconography of the residents housed within the building. I’m working on ideas for sculptural forms that play with sports reliquaries and trophies. . . nothing fully-formed yet. But I’m excited to get back to work.

To see more of Geoffry's work, please visit geoffrysmalley.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary 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 instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago. Stacia recently created a site-responsive collage installation in her hometown. NEXT: Emerging Virginia Artists runs until October 12, 2014 at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, VA. Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, is on view at Design Cloud in Chicago from July 25 - October, 24, 2014.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Judith G. Levy

On The Seventh Day, movie trailer
2011

JUDITH G. LEVY uses humor, story-telling and the suspension of disbelief in her interdisciplinary practice to explore the intersection of public and private history. Her work reveals how personal experience, culture and historical events shape our identities, and her investigations of memory focus on what we remember and what we forget. She is the recipient of several grants and commissions, most recently an Andy Wharhol Foundation Rocket Grant. In 2012, her short film On The Seventh Day will be screened at the following film festivals: The New York City International Film Festival, The Rhode Island International Film Festival, The Boston LGBT Film Festival, The Vegas Indie Film Festival, The Palm Springs Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and The Columbia Gorge Film Festival. Judith lives in Lawrence, KS and works in her studio in Kansas City, MO.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell us a bit about your history and development as an artist.

Judith G. Levy: First I’d like to thank you and say how pleased I am that you invited me to be one of your featured artists. Thank you for this opportunity to speak about my work and my artistic evolution. During my high school years, I was fortunate to have had excellent art, creative-writing and history teachers who really encouraged me and taught me my first lessons in taking intellectual and creative risks. While at Hunter College in New York City, I really began to learn about conceptual art, performance and film-making, and I was exposed to so much exciting work by other students and by the professional artists in the city. I made drawings, paintings and photographs, and I shot film. I shared everything, except the film footage, with my friends, keeping it private until I was ready to figure out how film was going to fit into my work. This did not happen until many years later.

During my college years, I understood little about the possibilities of thinking conceptually in an interdisciplinary way and nothing about the use of humor in a legitimate art practice. Nor did I know how to let the concepts drive my work. I did, however, create what I now know were mixed media installations on the walls in my house. For many years, family obligations and earning a living took up much of my time, but I always voraciously read newspapers and novels, watched narrative and documentary films, wrote stories, and made my wall projects and drawings late at night.

It’s easy for me to see where the roots of some of my work reside. I grew up in a home where politics and history were discussed frequently and where ideology and dogma were questioned with Talmudic intensity. I was also aware of my family’s secrets as well as the omissions, inventions and alterations in their narrative descriptions of their lives and the lives of our extended family members and friends. I began to understand that memory, both voluntary and involuntary, is patched together with fragments that may change over time.

When I was in the seventh grade, I did research in my school’s library and wrote a glowing report on all the good that President Andrew Jackson did for our country. It was only later that I learned, on my own, that he was responsible for Indian removal, ethnic cleansing, and The Trail of Tears. I had not read about these events and actions in the books in my school’s library. Around the same time that I wrote the Jackson report, I was reading a lot of fiction that didn’t hold back a thing. Books, like Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith, which I’d found hidden in my father’s tool shed. Smith’s book, published in 1944, is a story about racial strife in a small, Southern town. It, along with Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Roth’s Call It Sleep, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Agee’s A Death in the Family, began to articulate for me what I knew intuitively and experientially—that events have considerable context and that people have complicated feelings and motives for both their actions and inactions. I began to realize, as author David McCollough wrote, “History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”

Memory Cloud
2009
Plastic viewers, 35mm slide transparencies, metal armature
Photo by Tad Fruits, IMA

OPP: Have you always been an interdisciplinary artist?

JGL: Throughout my life, I was evolving into an interdisciplinary artist, but I didn’t really know it until about 2008. I was fulfilling my exhibition obligations for a Lilly Endowment Creative Renewal Arts Fellowship that I’d been awarded the year before. This fellowship grant encouraged travel, and I went to Germany and Poland to explore my family’s origins. In Poland I made a short video for my upcoming exhibition, and it really wasn’t a very good film. However, I also made a successful, interactive installation about memory, an animation, some paintings, a comic strip and some collages. It was around this time that I really began to think, focus and create in a new way. I fully embraced an interdisciplinary approach to conceiving and making work, and it seemed like the most perfect, complete and natural thing in the world to do, like breathing. And like breathing, it didn’t feel like a voluntary choice, but rather that the most intrinsic and essential element of my artistic existence had come home to roost. An interdisciplinary practice was going to allow me to create layered, complex, yet accessible work that would rely upon all of my skills as a visual artist. At the same time, it would permit me to integrate my interest in writing, filmmaking and performing, as well as tap into my longtime passion for fiction, history, politics and culture. Kansas City has been an excellent fit for me, and I’ve lived here for a little over four years. I have found the arts community to be very supportive of my interdisciplinary practice and full of opportunity.

OPP: Personal and collective memory, history, revisionism and historical bias are recurring themes in your work. Did you ever consider being an historian? How much is historical research part of your art practice?

JGL: Recently writer/filmmaker Errol Morris was quoted as saying, “I despise versions of postmodernism that suggest that there is no such thing as truth, that the truth is up for grabs, relative and subjective… Narrative does not trump all; it does not trump the facts. The facts are immutable. You may not be able to apprehend them or they may be elusive, but they are there.”

I create narrative inventions to attempt to undo omissions, falsehoods and revisions that occur all the time. I’m seeking the truth, with the emphasis on seeking. Of course, I realize that because I use invention, it may seem as though I’m doing the very same thing that I criticize and question in others. However, my intention is not to reconfigure or rewrite the truth, but to make work that gets closer to it.

Although public and private narratives, history, revisionism and historical bias are definitely recurring themes in my work, I have never considered being an historian in spite of the extensive amount of historical research that goes into my work. I think of myself as an interdisciplinary artist whose work is conceptual. Historic and cultural research is a crucial part of my artistic practice. It can be very time-consuming, because my work depends on getting the facts and the details right. This means that when I’m creating a family tree for Hansel and Gretel, I am reading about such things as fraternal orders in Germany prior to World War I, 18th century spellings of German names, German emigration to the United States, the formation of the Progressive Party in Kansas and the flu pandemic of 1917. In Huckleberry Finn, both for the video and the family tree, I researched the early Black Press in the Midwest, lynching in the United States, abolitionists in Missouri, Mark Twain’s childhood friends, the history of slave names, the growth of African American churches and indentured servants. For The Lone Ranger’s video, family tree, postcard album and family artifacts, some of the subjects I studied are: the Texas Rangers, 19th century horse and cattle ranches, volcanoes in Turkey in the 1700s, John Muir and Sarah Bernhardt’s performance in Kansas City in 1906.

I spent many months on The Last Descendants project, because every invention must ring true in order to successfully create suspension of disbelief. This is crucial. If I don’t succeed in making you believe that I am interviewing the last living relative of The Lone Ranger, the whole thing will fall apart. I also must find all of the historical and factual information I need, so that when I reference a Civil War battle, the sinking of the Titanic or the Spanish Flu Pandemic, everything is correct.

Memory Cloud, detail
2009

OPP: Many of your works reference the ways we glorify moments and places from history, by using materials associated with tourism like souvenir plastic photo viewers, as in Memory Cloud (2009). I'd like to hear more about these installations.

JGL: Memory Cloud is an interactive installation that I created for the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2009. It was based on a small prototype I’d created for my Lilly Endowment Creative Renewal show in 2008. I was thinking about what Susan Steward describes in On Longing, as “the conventional view of time in the everyday lifeworld” and how she contrasts traditional, linear notions with a model “offered by fiction” in which “the time of everyday life is itself organized according to differing modes of temporality, modes articulated through measurements of context and intensification." My attachment to little, plastic, souvenir viewers goes back to my having received one that included an image of me sitting on a horse during a childhood visit to a dude ranch. Every time I looked into the viewer, I felt as though I’d instantly entered into a private, miniature world and that I was miniature, too. It occurred to me that I could create something that captured the vast, shifting, non-verbal aspects of memory by creating a large, amorphous cloud comprised of hundreds of these plastic viewers while using them as sculptural elements. At the same time, I thought I could articulate memory’s visual and narrative specifics in the images within each one. I figured that this interactive installation would inevitably provoke memories and prompt conversation, as participants verbally shared their remembrances with one another. I also thought that many of the people who looked into the little viewers would engage in silent, private recollections as they, too, entered into tiny worlds of remembrance.

In creating Memory Cloud, I was also thinking about the Midwest, where I’d felt welcomed and where I've made my home for over 15 years. I was interested in what I was observing about how Midwesterners tried to describe themselves. It seemed to me that people in the middle of the country had a harder time defining their regional identity than people living on either coast. I wondered if the coastal oceans had buffeted definitions in place for those living closer to the edge.

During my Creative Renewal Arts Grant trip to Poland and Germany, I got closer to my own identity and family history, as well as to the duality of my Jewish and non-Jewish heritage. I visited Tarnow, where my Polish Jewish relatives had been murdered and Leipzig, where some of my German Lutheran family members had supported the Nazi regime. In Memory Cloud, I became very interested in creating a visual, interactive installation that would be simultaneously poignant and provocative. I also wanted to create something that people could touch, so that as they held one of the plastic viewers, each holding a unique, found image of Midwesterners from the 1940s to the 1970s, it would fold them into the enormity of their own histories and associations. I believed that every time someone picked up a plastic viewer and viewed an image, his or her own set of memories would be aroused and appear intact, or in fragments, or hardly at all.

I also care deeply about how photography captures the “everydayness” that Harry Harootunian writes about in his essay “Shadowing History." The taking of a photograph is so often an effort to create memories, and Harootunian acknowledges that in order to remember, we must transform an experience into something that can be retrieved at a later date. I also think that my use of found photographs in this and in other work is using signification and re-signification to acknowledge the overwhelming presence of beauty, sadness and death in all experience.
Frederick Douglass Park, Valor, Virginia
2010
inkjet on paper mounted on Sintra
23" x 61"

OPP: And what about the postcards in Panoramic Postcard Installation (2010)?

JGL: I used many pieces of vintage postcards to create new images that looked like old ones. I’ve always seen postcards as tidbits of public history and culture. I've always liked them, not just as souvenir items, but also because of the incongruity of personal messages being sent in a very public manner. So I embarked on using portions of found postcards to augment their seemingly innocuous purpose and transform them into provocative statements about our American past. I believe that souvenirs are historical and cultural representations and that a picture postcard of the Old South or a miniature Berlin Wall inevitably shrinks any struggle with meaning. I was determined to use the same form and appearance to counter this, and I wanted to make pleasant-looking postcards as a way to seduce the viewer into a challenging conversation.

I question what role tourism plays in our understanding of public history, and I am suspicious of glorification. Perhaps this stems from what I understand about the relationship between glory and power and how aggrandizement of position, policy or purpose can wreak tragic havoc upon people, places and things. Remember my discovery about The Trail of Tears. In my Panoramic Postcard, Frederick Douglass Park, Valor, Virginia, I created a tribute to Frederick Douglass that includes depictions of a statue of George Washington from a Kansas City, Missouri park; a refurbished slave auction house from South Carolina; images of Newport mansions; and many other pieces of postcards from all over the United States. By putting them together into a fictional depiction of a tourist site, I explore how public history is described and how commercialism contributes to a limited understanding of what actually happened. This postcard addresses the North’s role in the slave economy of the South, Washington’s flawed and limited definition of democracy, and commercial tourism’s efforts to turn a slave auction site into a spruced up tourist attraction. Here I investigate our inclinations to redefine what actually happened in order to forget what actually happened.

The back portions of these postcards contain image descriptions that mimic typical postcard language. It seems to me that the traditional language on postcards has often upheld prevailing notions that circumvent the truth. For example, Splendid Country Roads, Refuge Co., South Dakota, is a postcard that depicts Indians sitting by the side of the road near their teepees and also shows two touring cars with sightseers taking in the beautiful, pristine views. On the far right side of the postcard is the Statue of Liberty. The postcard also shows two roads, split in the middle by trees. The description reads: "Touring by automobile is a fine way to explore America’s natural beauty and also visit with Indians who sell their handmade crafts."

I certainly think it is important to acknowledge the role of irony in my work, for the implication is that the land in the postcard was stolen from the Indians who are living on the side of the road, the cars are intruding upon nature, the statue of liberty is replicated in a cornfield, and the split road is a metaphor for two avenues of justice: one for those who have power and the other for those who don’t.

Civil War #8
2007
flashe and acrylic on board
16"x20"

OPP: You've had work on billboards and flags and in the Indiana State Park. And you did a collaborative performance called Everybody Loves a Parade (2008) as part of On Procession, an art parade sponsored by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Could you talk about your experiences making public art and why you chose some of the forms and venues you chose?

JGL: Most of the public art I have created has been in response to a call for work. The exceptions were two Girls Brigade (2007) solo exhibitions, one in Chicago and one in Minneapolis. The Girls Brigade project explores child warriors, Celtic history and the use of signage to create group affiliation. In Chicago, near the former NavtaSchultz Gallery, Girls Brigade figures, flags and a banner were exhibited on Lake Street. I was really happy about showing this work in Chicago, where I was able to create an alley filled with Heraldic flags and place figures of the Girls along a very busy street. In Minneapolis, several Girls Brigade figures hung on the exterior wall of Soo Visual Art Center’s building. In both of these cities, I think many people saw the work, because they happened to be walking or driving by it. I like the serendipity in this. I also like that public work becomes part of the environment. In making outdoor work, I have explored commercial products such as polyester banner and sign material, Sintra, and marine-grade plywood.

In 2008 I’d been reading Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion, and I was thinking about Lippmann’s writing about democracy, partial truths, stereotypes and the public’s lack of information. I was paying particular attention to the chapter, "The World Outside and the Picture in Our Heads," which explores how we form world-views and beliefs through erroneous and partial information as well as through limited direct experience. I had also been investigating the possibility of being able to wear a video on my body as an emphatic way to express personal opinions in public settings. In 2008, when the Indianapolis Museum put out a call for work for On Procession, I collaborated with another artist, and we created a two-person performance piece for the parade called Everybody Loves A Parade. This work consists of matching military, camouflage outfits and DVD chest packs that display identical video compilations of historic, military parade footage and youth parades set to the music of "The Washington Post March" by John Philip Sousa. The two of us marched in the parade, while wearing the outfits and DVD players. Everybody Loves A Parade explores the glorification of war through military parades and suggests that most of us understand little about the past, because we did not experience it. Because we are tempted to emphasize the most appealing aspects of history, we often compartmentalize events and shape them to fit preconceived ideas.

Creating work for a specific site or show can catapult something I’ve been thinking about into becoming reality and prompt me to think about my materials. For example, in responding to a call for work, such as The Dining Room Project in Kansas City at The Paragraph Gallery and The Epsten Gallery, I was able to create You Never Dine Alone, a video installation about the mundane, conflicted and poignant interactions we have with others when we dine and about memories of food. I created an interactive installation consisting of a table, two chairs and two place settings, one for a gallery guest and the other for the monitor that displayed a looped video. The video contained 18 brief segments of individuals eating and speaking about subjects that range from the death of a grandfather to a school cafeteria food fight.

Huckleberry Finn: The Last Descendants, video trailer
2011

OPP: The Last Descendants (2011) is a video series and installation, in which you interview the living descendants of the fictional characters Huck Finn, Hansel and Gretel, and The Lone Ranger. The interviews use fiction and humor to talk about how the personal biases of individuals affect the way we remember the past. To me, the implication is that history is always a kind of fiction, because there is always some perspective left out. What were your intentions with this series?

JGL: In The Last Descendants, I do use public history, fictional narrative and humor to explore how we understand, describe and remember personal and public events. I am interested in how these personal and public narratives get constructed. I use historical facts, fiction, invention and the suspension of disbelief to question what we know and how we know it. For example, in the Hansel and Gretel video, the male character John talks about a relative in glowing terms, until his sister Diane corrects him by stating that the man was a “deserter” during the Revolutionary War. In another reference to a relative, he skirts the issue of a Nazi affiliation. John also brags about belonging to a fraternal order in Germany, and he fails to say that it doesn’t include women until asked by the interviewer. In Huckleberry Finn, the surprise is that Huck’s living relatives are African-American and that Huck and Jim were half-brothers, because Huck’s father raped a slave. This information counters the vague background that Mark Twain gave Huck and emphasizes the horrors of slavery. In addition to having the characters in these videos invent, color or obscure their familial history, I want to place personal stories in the context of larger fields of time and place. I do this somewhat in the video interviews, but I especially focus on it in the large, family trees that include many decades of war, epidemics, immigration, persecution, as well as indications of triumph, love, faith and courage. Both the videos and family trees are provocative and underscore my feeling that personal and public history is largely interpreted. It depends on who is telling the story, how the story is being told and why. Although I invent things, my intention is quite a different one from those who deny the Holocaust or question President Obama’s birth certificate.

It is important that I also include information on the family trees that isn’t usually included, such as murder, rape and robbery. I use the suspension of disbelief to create a hybrid of fact and fiction and to show that what we think we know about people, events, personal friends or public figures may not be the truth. The display case containing The Lone Ranger’s personal possessions and family heirlooms addresses the use of objects to create personal and public narratives about the past. These objects arouse our nostalgia in a way that can interfere with getting closer to the truth, but they also provide a great deal of joy and solace, as they let us touch and hold bits of history in our hands. It felt critical to me to use familiar fictional characters as a point of departure, because this provided rich, familiar ground for exploration and development. I believe that by using these characters, I made it easy to engage the audience in work that addresses challenging subject matter.

The Lone Ranger: The Last Descendants, video trailer
2011

OPP: Your work is funny, but not stand-up-comedian funny. It's more wry-smile funny. I was totally amused with the defensive reaction of the Lone Ranger's great-great-great niece when she is asked what she knows about his relationship with Tonto. She says, "Look, I've heard this homosexual thing before, and don't get me wrong. I have nothing against gays. I saw Brokeback Mountain and I liked it… but I would like to set the record straight." How is comedy perfect for talking about important social issues like racism and homophobia? What are the potential pitfalls?

JGL: I’m really glad you like the humor in my work. It is important to me to use humor and irony, when I can, to address difficult subjects. I think it is easier to see things about ourselves, if we see them in others first, and laughter just helps that along. I don’t usually use the words “funny” or “comedic” to describe my work, although some may say the work is funny or comedic at times. The premises are serious, but I like to use humor to create believable characters. I couldn’t resist setting the Lone Ranger’s great-great-great-niece up the way I did to reveal her feelings about LGBT issues, because we are still dealing with these civil rights and and humanitarian concerns in the United States. I also like to debunk heroes like The Lone Ranger, not because I don’t like them, but because I’m cautioning us to examine how much power and adulation we give to any one person. In Huckleberry Finn, we chuckle when one of the sons exclaims that he isn’t going to receive a “Finn Family Fun” t-shirt anytime soon, because the white side of the family isn’t interested in having a family reunion with the black side of the Finn family. I am clearly fabricating this narrative. However, we know that this kind of prejudice continues to exist.

The risk I take in using humor and irony to address political and social issues is that I might not be effectively humorous or ironic. If I miss my mark, then nothing will work. I think humor and irony can be respectful and still potent. Here again, I don’t think I’m writing comedic scripts. I think I use humor and irony to illuminate important questions and issues, and the issues are paramount.

OPP: What new projects are you excited about?
 
JGL: The first project I’d like to describe is the one I’m very excited about and currently working on. Last year I received an Andy Warhol Foundation Rocket Grant through the auspices of The Charlotte Street Foundation and The Spencer Art Museum. I am creating a video called NV in KC (Envy in Kansas City). I created a fictional narrative and use documentary-like interviews to explore envy among artists and institutions in Kansas City. My intention is to explore a subject that is rarely discussed among artists and to help define some of the creative challenges that artists face. In this project, I use humor to deal with some of the difficult aspects of envy. Local artists, musicians and performers are participating in this project, as well videographers and lighting and sound crews. We are completing the first edit now, and we hope to have the project finished by late fall.

After I complete NV in KC, I’ll be working on an installation, thinking about a short video and exploring some 2-D work that has been on the back burner.

To view more of Judith's work, please visit judithglevy.com.