OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Jenn Smith

Untitled (Flashlight), 2017. Acrylic and oil on panel. 22" x 20"

JENN SMITH's paintings and drawings feature Adam and Eve, a very chill Jesus Christ and a silly serpentagainst a rural Midwest background. Corntractors and signs of worship also populate her oeuvre. Her style is simple, evocative of a child's Sunday school drawings. But her exploration of evangelical belief and her own upbringing as an evangelical Christian is anything but simplistic. Humor and sincerity are both present, proving that you can take something seriously without believing in it. Jenn earned her BS in Studio Art at Illinois State University and her MFA in Painting from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has exhibited at Carrie Secrist Gallery (Chicago), the Back Room at Kim’s Corner Food (Chicago) and Julius Caesar (Chicago). Her work was most recently on view in Winter Romance at Andrew Rafacz Gallery (Chicago). Jenn lives and works in Chicago.

OtherPeoplesPixels: What’s your relationship to Christianity?

Jenn Smith: I was raised evangelical Christian in the rural midwest. We attended the kind of church where people would spontaneously begin speaking in tongues or fall down in a trance-like state. They call it being “slain in the spirit.” We thought we were living in the end times and the Rapture would happen at any moment, so there was a lot of excitement and fear. I’m no longer a believer, but many of the ideas and images from that time in my life continue to fascinate me.

Book of Acts, 2017. Acrylic and oil on panel. 20" x 26"

OPP: Your painting style is silly, cartoonish, and evocative of a child’s drawings. Have you always painted this way? Or is it a style that is particularly suited to the content of your recent work?

JS: I learned how to draw and paint representationally as an undergraduate, but pretty soon after that I started making abstract paintings, drawings, and collages. I continued to make abstract works off and on for about ten years. Then, in grad school, I decided I needed to paint figuratively. It was a big jump. I was pretty sure I’d forgotten everything I learned as an undergrad, but I knew it was the only way I could wrestle with more personal content in my work. So, I started to paint figures, animals, cars, cornfields, angels and snakes from my imagination, very simplified and without too much fuss. I’m not very interested in realistic representations of things. I like diagrams, game boards and flat, matte shapes and symbols. I look at a lot of medieval paintings. I like how they’re so often flat with a confusing sense of space. A too-short arm, an awkward gesture, or foreshortening gone wrong keeps things interesting. 

OPP: More than just being visually interesting, it seems to suggest that the reality you think you know is a lie. . . which brings me to the recent snake drawings, like Soon and Very Soon (Snakes #16) and Soon and Very Soon (Snakes #3). How do your goofy snakes relate to Eden’s snake?

Soon and Very Soon (Snakes #7), 2017. Colored pencil on paper. 11" x 8.5"

JS: I found the inspiration for the snakes in a deck of Bible character memorization cards a friend gave me as a gift. The cartoon serpent was depicted on the Adam and Eve card, slithering in and out of oval-shaped holes in a flat green cartoon tree. The cards were meant to be straightforward educational materials, but I felt there was some level of (unintentional?) sexual innuendo. . . I mean, snakes going in and out of holes and so on. . . It was kind of funny, but it also hit on my interest in the complexities of what is hidden and what is visible in a painting or drawing. My snake drawing series has allowed me to explore these ideas within a very limited framework, in almost a diagrammatic way, using a set of symbols including snakes, boxes, holes, lines, dotted lines. 

OPP: And what about your version of Jesus? Does he have a different backstory than what the bible taught?

JS: Well, he retains his biblical backstory—there’s no way to separate him from that, even if I wanted to. But it’s interesting to put him in other contexts to see what happens. There’s so much emphasis in evangelical culture that we should strive for a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus. So for believers, they don’t think about him as a historical figure or a far-away savior; they think of him as their best friend who they talk to every day. So I feel like I got know him pretty well when I was growing up. When I first started to include a Jesus-looking figure in the work I wasn’t exactly sure why I was doing it. But now I’m starting to wonder if the Jesus in the paintings is actually a version of me, in the same way the Jesus a Christian talks to every day is actually just a part of their own mind. 

Untitled (figure and Jesus), 2016. Oil on canvas. 22" x 20"

OPP: What does the word irreverent mean to you and do you consider your work to be irreverent?

JS: I think irreverence and a sense of humor have served me well in my life, but I’m still getting used to the fact that they’ve made their way into my work. As I said, I was making abstract paintings, which were pretty safe (also sort of boring) before grad school. I know that people find my recent work irreverent, and I think it probably is. But I also try to make it complex and layered and to allow a lot of space for the unknown.

OPP: Tell us about the Demons. They are the most abstract works. I interpret the titles as referring to dates, so I imagine that these works represent some kind of event or “dangerous influence.

JS: That’s a good guess! I usually don’t say much about the demon paintings because I think part of what makes them interesting is their ambiguity.

Demon '87, 2016. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 22" x 20"

OPP: You’ve been out of grad school for a little over a year. I remember my own first year out as particularly difficult. How’s it been? Has anything changed in your practice?

JS: It has been a real rollercoaster, but I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to continue making my work and have had opportunities to show it. I draw a lot more now, as a way to develop ideas and plan paintings, but also as an end in itself. I have intensified my practice of collecting Christian ephemera, which I share on Instagram. Painting is still the center of my practice and I don’t think that will change. I’m still excited about it every day.

OPP: What are you excited about in the studio right now?

JS: I’m working on a series of paintings on the front sides of wooden boxes about the size and shape of cereal boxes. They are hollow inside and have coin slots on top. They resemble the collection boxes we used to have on the walls of our church. I’m interested in the idea of having these paintings/boxes on a gallery wall where anyone can drop a coin or a folded-up note or anything else into the slot, and whatever is dropped inside becomes a permanent part of the piece forever. 

To see more of Jenn's work, please visit thejennsmith.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 Stacia was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (Michigan 2013), Heaven Gallery (Chicago 2014), the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago 2014), The Stolbun Collection (Chicago 2017) and Indianapolis Art Center (Indiana 2017). In March 2018, her solo installation Where Do We Go From Here? will open at Robert F. DeCaprio Art Gallery (Palos Hills, Illinois). In conjunction, the atrium will exhibit two-dimensional artwork by artists who were invited by Stacia to make new work also titled  Where Do We Go From Here?

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Anna Jensen

She Would Rather Imagine Herself Relating To An Absent Person Than Build Relationships With Those Around Her
Acrylic, goldleaf, glitter, and oil stick on canvas
60"x 72"

Van Gogh, Picasso and Andy Warhol meet family snapshots, Britney Spears and Mister Rogers in ANNA JENSEN's densely-patterned, psychological landscapes. Anna is deeply in touch with the Jungian shadow. She expertly balances humor and darkness, referencing her personal biography in a way that points to a universal, human vulnerability. Anna attended the University of Georgia in Athens and Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. Her work has been featured three times in Studio Visit Magazine and on The Jealous Curator. She has had solo exhibition at Honour Stewart Gallery (Asheville, North Carolina), Dockside Gallery (Atlanta) and, most recently, Nouvel Organon (Paris). Anna lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Could you talk generally about the balance of funny and sad in your work? How do you know when you've got it right?

Anna Jensen: I generally start painting without any conscious intention. A painting can begin as a figure drawing or me riffing off of a family photograph that moves me at that moment. Or I will just start mark-making and finger painting to see what memories or feelings are evoked. I go from there. I was playing with paint loosely on top of a more tightly-rendered piece and had this flash of memory from an incident when I was a child on a road trip with my family. The yellow and white splotches I was compelled to add to the image in the present all of a sudden represented the mustard and mayonnaise that my father once smeared on my brother's face in an inappropriate attempt to reprimand him. So the innate actions of my hands and the paint brought about this unexpected connection that was personally significant to me, and so I decided to keep it. It's always comforting with paint to know that you CAN paint over something if you choose to. And I often do. I paint and repaint my surfaces an insane number of times until I stumble—often through great effort—onto that perfect balance of funny and sad. It's a gut thing when I know I've found it. There's no formula. It's both difficult to find and effortless. C'est la vie!

A Foreboding Shadow Befell Her So She Drowned Her Future Sorrows
Acrylic, goldleaf, and glitter on canvas
40"x 30"

OPP: Tell us about your saddest piece.

AJ: They all break my heart and save me at the same time. I think life is so incredibly sad and yet SO amazing and wonderful. I love that paradox, although that in itself is gut wrenching. A Foreboding Shadow Befell Her So She Drowned Her Future Sorrows is, at first glance, happy and bright, familial. . . love filled. But, there is major sadness or doom waiting in there. A man looking at it in Paris said aloud, "this is like a knife in my heart." It was so touching to hear that he had such a strong response to the image. This piece is based on a found photograph of my mother holding my little sister in our childhood kitchen as I sit to the side morosely glugging a goblet of golden liquid. There is a double exposure creeping over the left side of the frame. It forebodes trouble to come. My eyes have dark circles around them, and I chose to accentuate the red-eye effect in my eyes while removing it from my sister and mom. There is also a spider hanging over my mother's head, likely a leftover Halloween decoration but also adding an eery sense of imminent danger.

My mom died suddenly when she was way too young. It was, of course, a terrible tragedy. It has been very difficult to accept living without her. I had some pretty serious issues with alcohol abuse as a teenager/young adult, so the photo was telling in many ways. I just had to make a painting from it. The patterns in my work most likely stem from these times in my life when I had a living Mom and a more traditional family situation. She decorated with many competing and/or complimentary patterns. At times, it felt very busy, but there was a certain flow and comfort in the partnering and placement. I'm definitely a nostalgia junky, so things like that really get to me. I can find the ugliest thing drop-dead gorgeous if it evokes a certain feeling. . . that feeling of heartbreak in the name of love.

OPP: Tell us about your funniest piece.

AJ: I think Finally I'm A Functional Alcoholic is pretty darn funny. The goofy, starry eyed look on her face while the fire burns behind her. The landing-strip pubic hair (as my eccentric friend coined it). Of course there's some sadness going on. She's perhaps blitzed in the face of impending doom. The flowers I painted flanking her were from a gardening book I found which belonged to my late mother. But, over all it is humorous somehow. . . at least for a moment.

What's Happening To Us, Daddy?!
Acrylic, goldleaf, and glitter on canvas

Your portfolio includes several commissioned pieces, which fit stylistically with the other works, but don't have the same content as the "psychological landscapes."  But I wonder if pet portrait commissions like Portrait of Laila for her daddy, Mr. Todd Shelton (2014), Brando Plays Ball In The House (in Heaven) (2014) and Portrait of Amazing (2014) actually have a conceptual connection to the other paintings that explore intense emotions like anger, fear, resignation, shame, sadness. What do you think?

AJ: I try to infuse whatever I do with some level of emotion. My dog Beulah is like my child, so I totally love and respect animals and want to convey that in the portraits. They really do have personalities. One little mark in the wrong place and it looks like a totally different creature and would be unsettling to the pet parent! Those were basically gifts. I am glad I did them, but I have decided to cut back on stuff like that because I really do need to eat!  And I can't seem to NOT put my all into whatever it is that I am working on, whether I am being payed for it or not. The Brando piece took me weeks for example. That wallpaper!

OPP: Do you have any rules about what kinds of commissions you will take?  

AJ: I'm doing a pet portrait for my uncle right now and a piece for a friend's family who lost their youngest son recently. After those, I think I might be done with commissions/trades/gifts for a while! I have a million ideas for paintings I NEED to realize. If I could crank out work really fast that would be one thing. . .  or if I was independently wealthy. But I can't, and I'm not. I recently spent ten days on a painting of a mummy for one of my sister's low-income students because in passing he said, "hey, could you draw me a mummy?"  and I said, "sure, kid!  I'll draw you a mummy!" Again, I don't regret doing those things and honestly it is unlikely that I will really stop. But, it is my plan to strictly focus on my personal vision for a good while starting soon.

NEW work in progress
Automobile series
Acrylic on canvas

OPP: Tell us about the Automobile Series, which you note on your website is "NEW work in progress." What's the inspiration for these new paintings?

AJ: Cars, especially older cars, are so structurally and energetically beautiful. They hold so many hopes and memories. . . from the mundane to the grandiose. It is about the physical aspects—color/shape/shine—as well as the nostalgia and personalities they evoke. I didn't think too much about it at first, but have since been flooded with all kinds of memories of the cars in my personal  history. My mom was a traveling saleswoman, so she always had a company car. As she moved up in her job, the cars got better and better. It was always so exciting when she would get a new one. . . that new car smell! And when she would pick me up, the air conditioning was such a relief from the Georgia heat. But, my dad always had junkers.  He is a mister fix-it type. . . he was an engineer, but circumstances landed him in home repairs/renovations. As a family we were never super well off, so my mom's company cars were a real luxury. My first car was a 1983 Volvo. It had been sitting in a field for years before I got it, so the inside was completely green with mold. Although I cleaned the heck out of it and smoked a million cigarettes in it with my friends, I don't think it ever lost all of that moldy smell.

I started the Automobile Series in an attempt to produce a bunch of work more quickly, less obsessively. But, they took on a life of their own, and now I am in over my head with all of the ideas I have for how to complete them. They are probably more involved and OCD-inducing than any before. There are a few more that I haven't added to my website yet because they are just TOO personal or not nearly ready for show. I just wanted to let people know that although I haven't presented finished new works in a while, I HAVE been busy. There is just never enough time in a day, as we all know.

OPP: You've just returned from Paris, where you had your first international solo show at gallery Nouvel Organon. Tell us about the show and your experience. Also, how do you decompress after a big solo show?

AJ: That show was an incredible experience. It involved so much risk, investment and hard work, but it was beyond worth it. I just can't say enough about it. I learned so much about the city and about myself. I made lifelong friends, which is priceless! I sold eight pieces—not too shabby! We had multiple events in the gallery to keep it creative and exciting. Spoken word, poetry and musical artists performed in the space. An amazing Butoh duo created a piece relating to my work, and they even had me paint their feet in the performance. The whole month was a beautiful time for everyone involved. That being said, I'm happy to be "home" and back in my studio.

At Least We Got Together For Lunch Last Week
Acrylic, goldleaf, and glitter on canvas

OPP: How do you decompress after a big solo show?  

AJ: In the earlier days after a big show, I was so frazzled from all the build-up and hours of talking to strangers—immediately following the concentrated solitary time that went into creating the work—that I hightailed it to a Mexican restaurant to have a LITTLE food and a LOT of frozen margaritas. I found that I didn't leave there feeling much better. As I've become more seasoned, I have learned that some down time simply hanging with my dog is an immediate stabilizer. Exercise and, of course, more painting helps as well. The social and showing/talking part of this job always leaves me feeling a bit shell shocked. But, I'm so appreciative of the human connections I make on those occasions. I'm honored and grateful that people show up and make themselves vulnerable to speak up and share their response to the work. It's incredible. This is a mysterious and perplexing "job" to have, and I question it all the time. But, art has existed all this time for a reason. A BIG reason. So I always come back to realizing the value in staying on this path. However winding. . .

To see more of Anna's work, please visit annajensenart.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 Kristyn Weaver

Graphite on paper
38 x 25"

KRISTYN WEAVER courts absurdity anywhere she can, inadvertently referencing Internet memes that tap into the joy of shared ridiculousness. Her graphite drawings of cats in unexpected places and modified found object sculptures entertain, ultimately posing the question: Does art have to be so serious all the time? Kristyn received her BFA from The University of Texas at Austin (2004) and her MFA from Washington State University (2008). In 2010, she received the Austin Critics Table Award for Outstanding Work of Art in Installation. Recent exhibitions include Fakes II at the New Jersey City University Visual Arts Gallery in Newark and Man & Animals: Relationship and Purpose at Avera McKennan Hospital and University Health Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Kristyn lives and works in Brookings, South Dakota.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Talk about your interest in the absurd, both in general and in your work.

Kristyn Weaver: I have always reveled in the ridiculous and the ludicrous. I delight in silly things that don’t need to happen. Marveling at how someone’s brain conceived of something so perfect in its bizarreness. My philosophy of creation has always been that of enjoyment, both for me and for the viewer. In that, absurdity runs parallel to enjoyment. My hope is that if I enjoy something, someone else will, too. And that delight in the pointlessness connects us in a purer way than a clear message or narrative could. Art in itself is at variance with reason, yet we still endeavor to create it and seek it out.

Limp Stiletto (detail)
Silicone rubber and leather
12 x 6 x 12"

OPP: A simple pleasure shared with another person is a profound human experience that is never pointless. To me, the connection is the point. It’s just an unexpected point that not everyone thinks should be the function of "capital A-Art." That’s one of the functions of entertainment, but many people want to guard the border between art and entertainment because they believe allowing that border to be fluid denigrates art. Do you think there is or should be a border between art and entertainment?

KW: In my opinion, the sooner we can get the masses to consider themselves legitimately entertained by "capital A-Art," the better. The type of entertainment that art provides inspires divergent thinking. I have always considered it to be more reminiscent of the way that we entertained ourselves as children when we were left outside to our own devices. There can simultaneously be very strict self-imposed rules and complete gratuitous freedom. It is wholly unfettered by reason, and you get out of it what you put in. That is why I aspire to make work that morphs from viewer to viewer and can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. Art is more denigrated by people choosing not to see it as a sincere form of entertainment. I find it disheartening when people feel that they have to “get it” to enjoy it. If only they could experience a moment of enjoyment without reason. The sooner that people consider themselves “entertained” by something other than Iron Man, the better.

The imagery I work with in both the drawings and sculptures is sourced from the everyday. They are populist images like cats, celebrities and so forth. Access to this subject matter is not exclusive; it really belongs to everyone. The question that I ponder when people say they don’t get it is why does the act of me creating/pairing/composing these different situations and making “Art” out of it and then placing it in a gallery change the relationship that the viewer has with it? Part of the reason I choose certain subjects/images is because they are accessible to the larger public and have the potential to attract others besides myself.

Nope... Face Down Garfield
Mirror, plexi glass, contact paper, plush Garfield
42 x 29.5 x 12"

OPP: What isn't absurd?

KW: The collective absurdity. . . and ellipses. . . and cotton candy.

OPP: Speaking of absurdity, is Nope. . . Face Down Garfield a reference to Chuck Testa?

KW: Well, it is now. I had actually never heard of Chuck Testa before your question and I watched his video on YouTube. That man deserves a medal.

OPP: Instead of a traditional artist statement, you've written a treatise. In it, you first say that you don't want to use language to define your work, but then you go on to use quite a lot of words. It's very funny and also gives a clear sense of how you think about the nature of art. It feels like a piece in and of itself. How did you generate the Q&A format? Are these questions you were repeatedly asked or questions you ask yourself?

KW: I still hesitate to use words to define my work. I wish I could use images to answer these questions—insert picture of grandmother’s hands here. The work is already communicating with the viewer. Words have the potential to unnecessarily complicate things. . . but, I digress. The Q&A format came about as an attempt at a more succinct way of answering certain questions that I was asking myself. I referred to it as a treatise to add ridiculous formality to the whole stream of consciousness mess.

The Kittenseum
Graphite on paper
24 x 32"

OPP: Since 2007, you've been making a series of graphite drawings of cats that have the feel of internet memes (although I don't think I've seen these particular memes anywhere). It all started with Kittenseum but continued with Staring Contests and your series of cats inserted into Steve McQueen movies. KnowYourMeme.com charts the early origins of cats on the Internet, but cites 2007 as a moment of major growth:

. . . the online popularity of cat-related media took a leap forward beginning in 2006 with the growing influence of LOLcats and Caturday on Something Awful and 4chan as well as the launch of YouTube, which essentially paved the way for the ubiquitous, multimedia presence of cats. The LOLcat phenomenon is thought to have entered the mainstream of the Internet sometime after the launch of I Can Has Cheezburger in early 2007. (Knowyourmeme.com)

Could you talk about the relationship between your drawings and the phenomena of cats on the internet?

KW: My series of cat drawings began because I had an epiphany that I should be making art that I wanted to spend time with and see happen, and not to question from where these desires stemmed or what it all meant. I think that the Internet viewing world at large had the same inclination. Cat memes fulfill our unabashed desire for release through frivolity. We don’t have to question why we like watching them or what it is that draws us to them. We can just sit and appreciate them for what they are (often for hours at a time). If I am going to put my art out there for consideration by the public, I want it to be something that is valid in its simple, joyful enrichment of the time that viewers spend with it. In summation, cats are fuzzy. I want to hug them, and so does everyone else.

Today I Cut Out the Words
12 x 12 x .5"

OPP: In sculptural work, including your series of altered newspapers, rubber sculptures and altered school chairs, you use the repeated strategy of rendering everyday objects useless, at least in the way that they were originally intended to be used. Have you stripped these objects of function or have you created a new function?

KW: I suppose I have done a little bit of both. Most of the objects’ direct functions are to make one's life easier, and now, in their altered form, the ease of their use has been stripped. My sincere endeavor in creating these pieces is to have the objects to be viewed in a fresh way. Not necessarily in a different way than their initial pre-altered form, but just with an added dimension. It is my intention to transform them in a way that doesn’t obliterate their relevance or original form, but draws attention to something that might have otherwise gone without consideration. I want the viewer to ruminate on objects that take up space.

Lines Out
Ball point pen on paper
18 x 24

OPP: It seems that that’s also what you are ultimately doing with your cat drawings and with the very notion of frivolity or absurdity. Forgive me for putting words in your mouth—and please feel free to disagree—but it’s like you are saying: “You think you know what frivolity and silliness is, but guess what, it’s something more profound than you think. Boo-ya!

KW: Perhaps it is more of a Shazam! than a Boo-ya! But yes, I suppose I want to say that the notion, desire and need for absurdity and frivolity are, in a strange way, serious and are just as deserving of one’s contemplation as anything else. The act of pondering and taking something away from a work of art doesn’t have to be only reserved for works that have somber themes. I want the joy that comes from encountering this work to be just as valid of an emotional experience as a deadpan work elicits.

OPP: What are you working on right now in your studio?

KW: Currently, I am finishing up my second drawing of cats with rap lyrics and working on another pen-swirl drawing like Jonathon Livingston Seagull (2013) where I cover the entirety of a Sculpture Magazine. This one will probably take me the better part of a year, because I can only do so much at one time before it starts to make me feel like a lunatic. I have some sculpture projects on the horizon where I’ll be working with expanding foam. I also have plans for a new series of large drawings of various exploded diagrams. In addition to that, there is a Morris Louis inspired painting that I have been dreaming about for some time, and some expressionistic paintings on paper that I envision hanging sculpturally off the wall. I haven’t really done any paintings since I was at The University of Texas for undergrad, so. . . fingers crossed on those two.

If you want to see more of Kristyn's work, please visit kristynweaver.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibition I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For is on view at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) until December 6, 2013, and she is currently preparing for another solo exhibition titled Everything You Need Is Already Here (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014..

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Michael Arcega

Piñata Mobile (installation view)
Paper materials, wheat paste, dum-dums, mylar, string, cables, steel, and mixed media.

MICHAEL ARCEGA's research-based, interdisciplinary art practice is informed by historic events, political sociology and linguistics. Working primarily in sculpture and installation, he uses wordplay, material significance and joke formats to explore how unbalanced power dynamics affect the development of cultures. Michael is a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow in Fine Art and a 1999 Artadia Award recipient. He has been an artist-in-residence at Headlands Center for the Arts, Fountainhead Residency and Beamis Center for Contemporary Art. His work has been exhibited at such notable venues as the deYoung Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the Orange County Museum of Art, The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Cue Arts Foundation, and the Asia Society in New York. Michael received his MFA from Stanford University, and he currently lives in San Francisco, California.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You've dealt with the themes of conquest and colonialism throughout your practice. Earlier work such as Conquistadorkes (2004), War Clubs (2008) and SPAM/MAPS: World (2001) addressed the conquest of people and land through force. But more recent work—which we'll turn to in a moment—addresses lexical borrowing and cross-cultural exchange. Even though the subject matter is serious in all your work, the tone is humorous and playful. How does linguistic humor and wordplay serve your conceptual goals in dealing with this subject matter?

Micheal Arcega: Great question. I’ve always been interested in language and its sociopolitical contexts. Humor comes naturally to me, and it’s a great way to cloak a topic that is often dense or problematic. Both language and humor are subjects and strategies I use in order to address serious topics.

Jokes have formats that I like to use, and embedded in those are a formal rhythm and pace. For instance, simple jokes start with a call and response. Then, there’s an inversion—a kind of magic or alchemical transformation happens—and, finally, laughter or a moment of revelation for the audience. I aim to include these stages in my work.

Language has become more of a subject than a strategic element in my recent work. I’ve been exploring a more complex linguistic model—Contact Language Generation. Pidgin and Creole languages often develop between two or more cultural groups when power is unbalanced. Plantations, for instance, are places where many people from varying ethnic groups are controlled by a powerful state or group. I'm thinking about Hawaiian Creole English from Hawaiian plantations and Gullah in the plantations in the Southern U.S. The existence of these languages are a testament to peoples’ amazing ability to adapt, challenge and subvert an oppressive system. I’ve been interested in finding a visual equivalence for this kind of subtle protest—the kind that happens under the radar. So, I hope my work doesn’t overtly exclaim, but rather calmly questions.

O.M.G. (installation view)
Poly-tarp, tent poles, mosquito netting, rescue & utility ropes, carabiners, and mixed media
Size varies per installation

OPP: You’ve written that your series In Tents: Visualizing Language Generation and Sociopolitics “explores Pidgin and Creole languages through the visual language of temporary architecture.” Can you explain how the tent sculptures do that?

MA: The parallel I’m making has to do with the stability of language against the permanence of architecture. For instance, if a Neoclassical building is like formal, spoken English, then an unsecured lean-to is like pantomime with some words thrown in. Pidgin languages are fairly unstable and are under negotiation with their speakers. These would be like architectural forms that can change at any time. Temporary tent encampments, which spring up in response to natural and/or economic disaster, are contemporary examples that can be conflated with historical slave plantations where many ethnic groups were forced to co-exist. Creole languages are developed on the site and are usually stabilized by a new generation. These languages are native and unique to the cultures, landscape and the sociopolitical context involved. So, the tents that I made—including a lamp post, toilet, mailbox and fire hydrant—represent the moment in language generation that is unstable but deeply informed by the dominant architecture of the urban landscape.

OPP: In 2011, you made two pieces about the transformation of one thing into another. In Loping Honoring (a translation/ a correction), the national anthem of the Philippines was “corrected” in Microsoft Word and sung as an opera. Here the transformation is instantaneous and occurs through technology. The "correction" can easily be understood as an error. In Lexical Borrowing: Saw Horse by the Sea Shore—Understanding Manifest Destiny, you transformed an American kayak into a Pacific outrigger canoe as "a material analog of how linguistic shifts occur." This is a representation of a much slower transformation over time. Tell us about the process of transforming one vessel into the other. Is there a moral implication in this kind of transformation as it relates to linguistic shift?

MA: Both works are commentaries on oppression and imperialism. Firstly, Lupang Hinirang, the national anthem of the Philippines was a colonial construct. In the transformation from Lupang Hinirang to Loping Honoring, technology has been misused, causing the national anthem to become illegible. Language collapses into a series of markers of “high” culture (e.g. opera), and becomes a mere echo of the solidarity in the national anthem. My intent here was to expose the entropy caused by empire.

In Lexical Borrowing: Saw Horse by the Sea Shore—Understanding Manifest Destiny, I present a case or proposition that could be understood as reverse colonization. The American kayak begat a new model that leads to a Pacific outrigger canoe named Baby. The object on the bottom of the sawhorses is a makeshift outrigger that was added to the American canoe that needed to be stabilized during a tidal shift on the James River. The makeshift outrigger, fashioned from branches and empty plastic soda bottles, is proof that influence from the Pacific is affecting the continent. In essence, the piece signifies the decline of empire through challenges to its technologies and the replacements of its markers of power. This work is motivated by the possibility of change for the future rather than the lament of the past.

Lexical Borrowing: Saw Horse by the Sea Shore—Understanding Manifest Destiny
Mat board, wood, found plastic bottles, river water, and mixed media
4' x 7' x 3'

OPP: Since your sculptural and installation practice is very research based, you must spend as much time reading as creating objects. What's the ratio of time spent "in the studio" versus researching? Do you prefer one part of your practice more? 

MA: I’m not sure if I can quantify the percentages of my practice because it changes all the time. But there is definitely more academic research and administrative work than there is actual production. This is fine with me. I am invested in making, but my practice is grounded in conceptual art.

I try to make my work pleasurable. I allow my research to be guided by things that I’m curious about. Sometimes there are difficult tasks, but it is always rewarding. This pleasure keeps me engaged in my work and helps make it sustainable for the long haul.

Eternal Salivation
Plants and animals
7.5’ x 15’ x 10’

OPP: Your most recent exhibition Baby and the Nacirema (2012) at The Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco was an art exhibit that took on the guise of an anthropology exhibit. After Baby—the Pacific outrigger canoe you mentioned before—was created, she went on a journey. Could you tell us about Baby's expedition and about the Nacirema and the collection of their cultural artifacts?

MA: The departure point for this fictional work is the conflation of two narratives: the Lewis and Clark expedition—representing all westward expansion in America—and Horace Miner’s Nacirema. Both cases describe a people inhabiting North America. Lewis and Clark surveyed the continent for the coming colonists. They described the topography, indigenous peoples, flora and fauna through the text and objects they sent back to Thomas Jefferson. Many decades later, anthropologist Horace Miner described the colonizer’s neurosis about their overly complex lives after decimating the native population. My exhibition, Baby and the Nacirema continues this inquiry, but it takes on the point of view of the colonized, indigenous North Americans, observing the Nacirema culture through the lens of the Pacific, rather than the Atlantic. Nacirema is "americaN" spelled backwards.

The premise of the exhibition was that Baby and crew went on an expedition across North America to describe this invasive culture of the Nacirema. They collected cultural artifacts and used them to unlock the meaning of a significant Nacireman text (The New Colossus), cataloged objects and inventions (Cultural Phonemes) and described important symbols and icons (Piñata Mobile). They also displayed Baby (Medium for Intercultural Navigation), the symbolic, yet seaworthy vehicle that was used for the expedition as well as photo documentation of its creation.

The visual language of museums informed the overall tone of the project. Wunderkammern and early collections are extensions of an empire just like cartography. Also, patents and land grants established “legal” ownership of land, but these were alien concepts to indigenous North Americans. Historically, some collecting institutions have functioned as a repository for colonial war booty. For instance, a lot of specimens from the Lewis & Clark expedition ended up in Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum. As much as I love them, museums, maps and collections are the residual marks of imperialism.

Nacireman Inventions: Cultural Phonemes
Polymer clay and wire
Size varies per installation

OPP: Why is it important that, as Americans, we "other" ourselves?

MA: “Othering” ourselves allows for empathy and sympathy. As members of the most powerful nation, we need to be even more empathetic. Otherwise, we can become more self-centered and psychotic as a nation. I believe individual citizens from the United States and other developed nations have greater responsibility because these nations have greater influence due to their global/social position. For students of anthropology, linguistics, sociology or any other social science, the interpretation of the cultures they study will inevitably have a bias. "Othering" ourselves allows us to develop more neutrality and objectivity, which can yield a more accurate picture of the subject at hand.

OPP: Is it useful to do this type of exploration through visual art?

MA: I’m not sure if visual art is the best place to look for lessons, although it’s definitely capable. Those in the arts don't have a responsibility to educate viewers about morality or facts. I believe that art—in the broadest sense of the word—is one of the many places where we can articulate truths that aren’t necessarily facts. It is one of the best places to ask questions, leaving the viewer/participant to seek the answers.

OPP: Are you working on any new projects?

MA: Right now, I'm in residency at Al Riwak Art Space in Bahrain, which will culminate in a solo show that opens on May 28, 2013.  The work focuses on translations and mistranslations, and the form of the show is developing onsite, determined by the circumstances in Bahrain. I’m interested in the loss that occurs during translation and how we try to fill in the gaps. There might be issues with legibility, but there will always be that situation when two or more cultures try to communicate with one another.

To see more of Michael's work, please visit arcega.us.

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 Judith G. Levy

On The Seventh Day, movie trailer

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
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

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
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
flashe and acrylic on board

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

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

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.