OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews P. Seth Thompson

The Guttenberg Galaxy
2014
Archival pigment print

P. SETH THOMPSON “photographs” the blurred boundary between reality and fiction and the influence of American mass-media on our contemporary understanding of time, space and death. He digitally manipulates appropriated imagery from science fiction movies, home movies and news media, revealing a glittery, glowing world that is both strange and familiar. Seth studied Film and Video at Georgia State University, where he earned his BFA in 2005, and went on to receive his MFA in Photography from Savannah College of Art and Design (Atlanta) in 2012. His first public art piece, commissioned by the Decatur Book Festival, will be on view Labor Day weekend, 2014. Seth has been named one of Atlanta’s 2014-15 Walthall Artist Fellows. The Last One, his 2013 solo show at Poem 88, was recently featured in Art in America. His upcoming solo show, This Message Has No Content runs from September 13 to October 25, 2014 at Sandler Hudson Gallery in Atlanta, where Seth lives and works.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Your current aesthetic has a 1980s sci-fi feel to it, but you have a background in "straight" photography. I can see visual precursors to your current work in Jesus in the Bleach (2005) and Face Mask (2009), as well as the many images of space-related sites like The UFO Museum in Roswell, New Mexico and the Kennedy Space Center. How did your earlier photography lead to your current work with appropriated images from TV and movies? 


P. Seth Thompson: My earlier work was a reaction to the medium of photography. While in school, I grew tired and a little annoyed with seeing the same images and concepts over and over again. There was a lot of work about identity and marginalized societal groups. Not that I don’t think this is an important topic, but if we continue to label these groups as such, they will stay marginalized. I think photography has more to say at this point in its history. Photography needs to move into a dialogue about how it disconnects rather than connects us. As a gay man, I have never felt separate from others, except with regards to my right to marry in my state. But art continues to tell a different story. It’s almost like we don’t want the conversation to move in another direction because then we will become the majority.

So I decided to let go of all that and just start shooting whatever I found interesting. The resulting photos led me to understand that my aesthetic—saturated color, lo-fi and banal—was profoundly influenced by all the films I watched as a kid. (My favorite film is A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.) My next move was to bring back the concept and incorporate images from film and television that visually spoke to the viewer and make them want to know more about the work.

Four Portals
2010

OPP: Some sources are very recognizable: Jason in The Illusion of Death Perception (2010), Patrick Bateman from American Psycho in American: 2001 (2010), Anthony Edwards in The Protagonist (2014), to name a few. But many of your source images have been manipulated beyond recognition. Sometimes the titles give me a hint at the source, as with The Tannenhauser Gate (2012) and Voight-Kampff Test (fail) (2012). Is specialized media knowledge as a prerequisite for understanding your work?

PST: I love this question because I have been battling that since I began the work. I always recognized that most people wouldn’t know the source images. I try to make the work as visually compelling as possible to attract the viewer’s attention. It’s almost like a modernist painter’s mentality; people become transfixed with abstraction, like they figuratively go to another place when they are in front of it. I want my work to cross boundaries and allow for all people to get some sort of message from it whether it be the reference, the aesthetic or the medium itself. As long as they leave with something new, then I am good with that.

OPP: What’s the most surprising response you’ve had from a viewer who didn’t get the references?

PST: It’s a tough one, for sure. I think the most interesting response was to my image of Kim Kardashian titled K is for Kim. People are confused as to why I would choose her as a subject, and my usual response is something like, “I am fascinated by her and what she represents.” We consume her, and she becomes a part of our daily life. She becomes an ice-breaker for conversation at work or at social events. Don’t get me wrong. I can’t stand her. But that doesn’t mean she isn't part of all of us; she is a symbol of America’s consumption.

The Last One (Tommy Westphall's Universe)
2013
Archival pigment print
25 x 33 in.

OPP: As a nerdy, life-long TV fan, my ego needs me to say that I know what Tommy Westphall's Universe is ;-), but I'm not sure it's common knowledge. Could you explain the theory for our readers and talk about its connection to your 2013 solo exhibition The Last One?

PST: Tommy Westphall was an autistic boy played by actor Chad Allen on the series St. Elsewhere. In the series finale, the entirety of the show was only a product of Wesphall’s imagination. To add another layer, the characters on St. Elsewhere show up on other television shows like Law and Order, Homicide, and so on. There are over 256 television shows that are theoretically connected to St. Elsewhere, or a product of Westphall’s mind.  

In my exhibition The Last One, which is also the title of the series finale, I explored the idea of how images never show the truth. The viewer’s suspension of disbelief was active during the run of the show until the finale proved otherwise. The finale made the viewer feel duped into having any sort of emotion, even though the show was intrinsically fiction. I correlate this to our own reality. I believe we are all Tommy Westphall, creating a world inside our heads and never fully understanding the truth. But unlike Westphall, our world is not edited into an hour long television show and written as a common monomyth. We are constantly searching for truth and attempting to explain it to others, but we keep getting blocked by the images we consume daily. Images define of our world. They are false, suggesting all of life is false.

An Event Cannot Have an End Time in the Past
2013
Video

OPP: Two pieces—I knew you, I know you, and I will know you again (2013), a memorial for deceased fictional characters, and An Event Cannot Have an End Time in the Past (2013), a video that blends your personal home movie footage with footage of the 1986 Challenger explosion—add a lot of emotional depth your to blurring of reality and fiction. A common, shallow read of your work (and of others who acknowledge how much TV and movies have influenced their perceptions of reality) is anxiously bemoaning the fact that humans don't know the difference between fact and fiction anymore. But I think that's silly. Humans have always told stories in order to understand their place in the world. Could you talk about how cinema and television function as contemporary myth, especially in relation to our need to understand death?

PST: The advent of the video rental store changed my life because it came with a different viewing experience. I took full advantage of it; I was able to control the film with the remote and have multiple viewings. Because of this, I believe a more extreme paradox of fiction was born. I felt a close bond to the characters and when they died, I had an emotional reaction. The memorial, I Knew You, I Know You, and I Will Know You Again offers a way to discuss the idea that death is not the end, but just another part of the journey.  Even though you are gone, I will see you again. All I need to do is hit the rewind button. 

As an adult, dealing with the reality of death, I know now that the two are not emotionally synonymous. The Challenger explosion was the first time I began to understand the separation between actual death and fictional death, but at six years of age, it was still elusive to me. It was hard to understand how Big Bird and Christa McAuliffe could both exist within the television. It is not the idea that people cannot decipher reality and fiction, but that there is no separation between reality and fiction.

We are curious creatures, and our need to understand death is always at the forefront of our thoughts. My fascination with film and television is a way to understand loss, but also to understand the reasons we are here in the first place. . . to get past the limitations of our eyesight and begin to connect the dots, to figure out our place in all of this. I don’t fear death anymore because I know that it is inevitable. People always say you shouldn’t worry about things you can’t control. The only thing you can do is try and understand it.

In the Beginning, it is Always Dark
2014
Archival pigment print
25 x 45 in

OPP: You have an upcoming solo exhibition This Message Has No Content
 at the Sandler Hudson Gallery in Atlanta. Will you give us a preview?

PST: I started getting emails dated 12/31/1969 and that said “This Message Has No Content.” I thought this was kind of cool, so I looked up that date—nothing happened—and then following date. 1/1/1970 was the beginning of Epoch or Unix time, which is a system for describing moments of time in seconds. For example, the Challenger shuttle is 507296353. I thought the reason I was getting emails from 12/31/1969 was because it was the last day before events were described in Unix time. It was almost like someone was trying to contact me from the past, but it wasn’t coming through because the past never existed.

The new work is about the illusion of time, and I am using the act of watching a movie on VHS as a way to discuss this illusion. With a VHS, you were, for the first time, able to control your viewing experience. The film was measured in time with each scene corresponding to a series of numbers. In the image In the Beginning, It Is Always Dark, I am presenting the viewer a film still from The NeverEnding Story because it is the end of the film, but it is the beginning of the union of worlds.

To see more of Seth's work, please visit pseththompson.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, opens on July 25, 2014 at Design Cloud in Chicago.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Jason Judd

True North
2013
Digital print (Installation view)
16" x 20"
Photograph always depicting the flight of geese as flying north in the gallery

Subtlety is a strategy in JASON JUDD's photographs, videos and sculptural arrangements. Using the contemplative space of the white cube as a context, his quiet gestures revolve around the "boring, infuriating, troublesome" experience of a natural, human longing to stop life from moving, to hold on to this moment, even as it passes away. In 2013, Jason had three solo exhibitions: Adjustments: One Through Five at Open Gallery (Nasvhille), Essays in Navigation, Baltimore at Lease Agreement (Baltimore) and Example: Compass Deviations at Gallery 215 (DeKalb, Illinois). Jason is a Co-Director of the Chicago-based art and contemporary practices website Make-Space.net and Art Editor for BITE Magazine. Along with artist Iga Puchalska, he has recently launched Public Practice, an new initiative aimed at expanding engaging art programming in Rockford, Illinois, where Jason lives and works.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Could talk about framing nature inside the gallery in works like Shooting Star, Horizon Series and True North? Are these works about the sublime?

Jason Judd: I think my work is more about the finite world than the sublime. I have read a lot on the sublime and existentialism, only to find myself knowing nothing more about it. We have many experiences in our lifetime: the sublime is probably not one of them. I am looking at the limitations of our everyday. They are boring, infuriating, troublesome and can provide a different kind of poetics than speculation of the grand.

A Roland Barthes quote in Camera Lucida has always resonated with me: “I was like that friend who turned to Photography only because it allowed him to photograph his son.” I find myself, as an artist, in the role of that friend—sharing a desperation and urgency to capture something—the metaphor of the son is, at the same time, growing closer and farther away from us. I am not skilled enough in any particular medium to make something that is “beautiful”—by beautiful, I mean capturing the essence of the subject through heightened skill of a medium—nor am I interested in being skilled. Like the friend, my skill is born only out of necessity.

The gallery is one of the few places where technical skill is not a requisite factor for judgment of quality. And yes, quality is a strange word to use while describing a sense of de-skilling of an object. But the conventions of the gallery offer a contemplative space where quality is malleable and the viewer is asked to participate. It is a place where I can say, I have personally spent some time with these images or objects, and these are the conclusions I have come to.

Genesis (a haunting)
2012
Looping video

OPP: You've used yourself and your family members as a subjects in several video works like Genesis (a haunting) (2012), Acts of Consciousness and Other Longings (2011) and Into the Son (2012), all of which emphasize the familial. More recent works involving sculpture, installation and photography center around experiences of nature in the gallery. What led to the shift in focus and means? How are these works more connected than might be assumed upon first glance?



JJ: Both bodies of work are based on the tension between longing and the tangible. In other words, what does longing look like? The videos involving me and my family were becoming very theatrical. I decided I did not want to personify my metaphor. I wanted the medium to be just as important in the metaphor as the subject and the subject not to be overtly autobiographical. If there were to be any theatrics in the new body of work, I wanted it to be made in the gallery. 

In Horizon Series, for example, I confront the space where the mountains meet the sky as metaphor for longing. I force the horizon line to be tangible by cutting it out of the large photograph. The image and medium become one entity. The image dictates the shape of the thin cuts, and the cut line reveals the tangibility of an otherwise romanticized and unattainable visual cue. With these cut pieces, I make physical and abstract decisions about how to deal with them as objects. When they are installed around the gallery, the scale is initially obscured. At first, the viewer experiences the line forming the cube at a one-to-one scale. Upon closer investigation, the immensity of what the thin line represents is revealed. The act of forming a cube with the lines is a physical manifestation of the idea of a three-dimensional illusion. The horizon line is actually something we can experience and understand only in the abstract, just as we experience a drawn cube.

Horizon Line (detail)
2012
Cut digital print of a landscape that is cut where the mountains meet the sky and installed around the gallery wall
Variable dimensions

OPP: You have your hands in a lot of pots. Aside from being a maker, you work at the Rockford Art Museum in Rockford, Illinois, you are Co-Director of and a regular contributor to Make-Space.net, as well as Art Editor for BITE Magazine. How do you balance so many different roles?

JJ: Balancing all these roles can be time consuming, but they allow me to maintain a productive and creative frame of mind. They keep me thinking rigorously and critically. Collaboration acts as motivation—others are depending on you as much as you are depending on them. It takes a lot of mutual respect, patience and vision to sustain a productive collaboration.

My other two co-directors from Make Space, Etta Sandry and Lynnette Miranda, are two of the hardest working people I know. I can truly say that I look up to both of them in many different ways. BITE is a great experimental, online collaboration because I have never met my Features Editor, Daniel Griffiths—or any of the other editors, for that matter. They live across the globe, spanning New York, London and Singapore. The Rockford Art Museum is a comfortable place for me because it is a collaborative atmosphere with passionate people. Everyone at the museum has welcomed my ideas, skills and experience that have came from these other roles. But how do I really balance all of these roles? Barely.

Movements
2014
Road brick, plaster casts of road brick
Bricks set in new formation at each exhibition

OPP: And how do these other roles relate to or inform your studio practice?


JJ: I have thought about the relationship between the projects I am involved in and my studio practice many times. Sometimes I throw up my hands in frustration and say, “I guess all of it is my practice!” But that’s not true. That is too easy—it is a simple way to avoid being critical about my interests and myself as a person.

Honestly, I believe the most important aspect of the relationship between the roles and my studio practice is the tension and flux. The very thing that inspires me is the thing that keeps me away from the studio. Visiting other artists’ studios is wonderful. Afterwards, I feel like I not only understand the artists’ work on a personal level, but it also reveals a strength or weakness in my own work. That fact is, I have learned more about what art is and what making means through conversations, interviews and studio visits than I ever have in academia.

Bird, Boat, Now (Detail)
2014
Photograph, cigarette burn
9 x 12 inches

OPP: What’s your favorite piece of your own work?

JJ: I think Boat, Bird, Now is my favorite piece, probably because it is still fresh to me. It tackles a lot of the same issues that Horizon Series does, but in a more compact, poetic way. The cigarette burn forces a connection between the boat and the bird while intersecting the horizon line. I am trying to control a beautiful image or moment in a physical way, or trying to relate to a moment that has passed but has been captured.

OPP: You've also recently launched a new initiative called Public Practice. What's your mission?

JJ: My wife Iga Puchalska and I moved to Rockford in July 2013. We immediately saw a need for more contemporary art and programming. Rockford is pigeonholed as one of the most “dangerous” or “miserable” cities in America, but it is gaining a lot of energy from creative people who are starting from the ground up.

Public Practice is not a physical site; rather it is a collection of culturally relevant, interdisciplinary projects. Our mission is to provide smart, engaging, challenging art programming to the Rockford community and beyond. These projects materialize through the collaboration between Public Practice and other organizations, spaces, businesses and artists. Each collaborator utilizes its own strengths and resources to formulate a project that is aimed at exposing the public to contemporary art with the goal of developing new social perspectives while expanding dialog between Rockford’s community and contemporary art practices.

We aim to be an educational entity, to the public as well as to the collaborators and ourselves. We invite the public to work with us, not as a means to an end, but in order to emphasize the practice of exchanging ideas through creative foundation. Iga and I are approaching Public Practice with a sense of sincerity, experimentation and resourcefulness. We are very excited because this project can have a very real impact on the community.

Parade
2013

OPP: Do you have any projects lined up yet?

JJ: We just had our first successful project called Parade on June 13, 2014. In the spirit of collaboration and public engagement in the arts, we organized an art exhibition with artist Jesus Correa and Rockford Art Deli. We considered the parade as an art medium and the floats as art objects. Parade started in the public and invited the public to participate. Local and regional artists were invited to create "floats" to accompany them during the parade, which ended at an art exhibition at Rockford Art Deli. Along with the artists, the public was encouraged to join our sidewalk parade—which they did in great numbers! We had well over 100 people in the parade, representing the very diverse Rockford community. We hope to make this a yearly occurrence.

We are also teaming up with Conveyor, a space for live storytelling, to create a programming-heavy exhibition series. Because the aim of the project is to approach the artist’s practice as transparent, invited artists will be asked to create an alternative approach to programming. This programming will act as a springboard to demystify or intensify contexts within the work that is being exhibited. We are happy to have James T. Green as our first artist!

To view more of Jason's work, please visit jasonajudd.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 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. 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 is currently looking forward to creating a site-responsive collage installation in her hometown. NEXT: Emerging Virginia Artists opens on July 11, 2014 at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, VA.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Mark Zawatski

99-4
2012
Digital photograph
16" x 16"

MARK ZAWATSKI asks us to consider the authenticity of manipulated images in his painstakingly-composed mandalas and fields of color and pattern. Each digitally-constructed photograph takes hundreds of hours to create and involves repetitive, but unique gestures of the hand, subverting our expectations of the boundary between the digital and the handmade. Mark holds a MFA in Sculpture from Yale University and BA in Art from The University of California, Los Angeles. He teaches photography at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse and Ithaca College. His work has been exhibited at the Wright Art Gallery (Los Angeles, California), Fullerton College (Fullerton, California), The Gallery at the Ann Felton Multicultural Center (Syracuse) and the Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, Connecticut). Originally from Los Angeles, Mark lives and works in Syracuse, New York.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You received your MFA from Yale in Sculpture (1999). How and when did you shift to digital photography as your primary medium? What was your sculptural work like?


Mark Zawatski: Video, installation, performance and photography were part of my sculpture experience. I also made Fluxus-like collections and cases out of plexi glass that contained manufactured objects along with unique systems of hundreds of handmade objects constructed of wax, wire, paint and foam.

In 2008, I started making photograms of manufactured objects as a way of looking at simple image-making. Man Ray’s photograms always appealed to me for their simplicity, abstraction and beauty. There’s a sense of playfulness, performance and the passage of time captured in those pictures. This led to an interest in the process of making pictures.

Smith
2011
Digital photograph
36" x 36"

OPP: Are your composites made of photographs you actually took or are the thousands of images that go into each piece scavenged from other sources? How important is it that viewers recognize the objects?

MZ: I photographed the objects individually. Sometimes they are remnants of products I consumed or manufactured, transitory objects I acquired. I wanted to document the physical ephemera of everyday life: objects we've all seen and used many times before but probably overlooked. For example, the objects in Gothic are remnants of products I consumed over a three-year period. I limited the collection to white items made of plastic: lids from juice and milk bottles, contact lens solution caps, dish soap caps, eye drop caps and laundry soap caps.

2012
Digital photograph
16" x 16"

OPP: How is the process of creating the fields in Local Places (2013), which are made from "hundreds of manipulations of a single disposable drinking straw" different from the process of creating the Circles and Stars (2011-2012), which include a variety of objects?

MZ: Lines is the first series made from a single photograph of a drinking straw. The image was duplicated and placed into individual columns. I continued to make more and more parallel lines, altering their color as I went. Prior to this, my photographs contained “straight” digital images with no manipulation. Ultimately, these are photographic drawings with a nod to photo history and an emphasis on process through the repetitive duplication and hand placement of each drinking straw. The lines look machine perfect, but there are subtle variations among them.

In Lines, I was interested in how appearance and meaning often don’t match up or can be misleading and confusing. They are meant to be optical illusions, fields of confusion that pull your eye in different directions. I wanted to disrupt the expectations we bring to experiencing photographs, which traditionally rely on single point perspective and lead viewers to see or believe something specific. The Lines have a conversation with Bridget Riley paintings, but the illusion is made of simple yet realistic photographs.

The images in Local Places series are made by fusing two separate line fields to create a single picture that vibrates and moves reflecting how we attempt to reconcile both appearance and meaning simultaneously. I also wanted to make a connection between what we think of as local and impersonal mass-produced culture.

Circles and Stars were even more time consuming than creating the labor intensive Lines. Each image took between one and three months to create, and in some ways could be seen as performance pieces. The largest piece is made from over 1,000 images and required many repetitive yet unique movements. It was a significant challenge for me to stay focused on the work for so long. While I was making the work, I thought about the performance and conceptual aspects of work by artists like Agnes Martin and Richard Serra. But I was also thinking about Jeff Wall and questions of truth in photography. I wanted to examine the possibility of a manipulated digital photograph being a form of authenticity.

Top of The Falls
2013
Digital photograph
16" x 16"

OPP: Have you ever have any issues with carpal tunnel syndrome or tendinitis?

MZ: Haha. . . no, not yet. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve damaged my eyesight from staring at my computer screen for so long.

OPP: The compositions in Circles and Stars (2012-2013), Dots, and some pieces from Gothic (2011) reference mandalas. What brought you to that form?



MZ: A search for form led me to the circle. Maybe that’s a sculptural concern applied to photography, but a circle is a simple organizing structure. The Dots are meant to be simple pictures. Each one is composed of photographs of tiny, plastic discs. As photographs, the discs become reduced to pixels of color and are barely recognizable as actual objects. It’s the moment when a photograph becomes an abstraction.

While it wasn't my intention to reference a mandala with the circular pieces, I like how mandalas promote a meditative space both for the creator and the viewer. These pictures for me were about process. I wanted to create a photograph that would cause the viewer to do a double-take, to invite them to consider the handmade processes that go into making a digital photograph. 



Untitled
2012
Digital photograph
16" x 16"

OPP: All art manipulates the viewer, right? And all art media have authenticity. Why do you think people view digital photography as inauthentic? Do you think the average person still expects a photograph to be "true?"

MZ: Maybe it’s the simplicity of the technology that invites distrust. In just seconds and with minimal skill, a picture can be manipulated, its focus altered and its meaning changed.

The photography community still reinforces the notion that there is a truthful photography and a manipulated, false photography through competitions than ban manipulated works. I’ve heard the occasional story of a disqualified, winning photograph that is revealed to have a tiny bit of color adjustment. This is mirrored in the beliefs of most people who also make the same distinction between fake photography and real photography. But when you press people to define that boundary, when essentially all images are digital today, people are uncertain as to the criteria for digital truth. We are only a decade into consumer digital photography, and as in early photo history, people aren’t sure what they’re getting. Most people have no idea what a digital image is or how it’s created. But they can tell you that film is a piece of plastic with silver stuck to it, and that confers truth.

OPP: Does the prevalence of smartphone cameras and Instagram filters affect these perceptions at all?

MZ: Instant, online images only add to the anxiety. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are constantly having this conversation in our heads about the real or altered nature of pictures we consume. This skepticism has become an automatic response to digital images. Not that this is new. Since it’s inception, digital photography—like early color photography—has been disdained by the photographic community. So, there’s already a built-in bias. It’s only now that the technology has become integrated into our daily lives through smartphones and online content that we are confronted with the increasing frequency of these questions. Digital pictures are confusing to decipher and interpret. It’s this uncertainty that I’m investigating.

To see more of Mark's work, please visit markzawatski.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 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. 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 is currently looking forward to creating a site-responsive collage installation in her hometown. NEXT: Emerging Virginia Artists opens on July 11, 2014 at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, VA.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Patrick D. Wilson

Subdivision
2013
Laminated C-prints

The photographed-covered, fractured planes of PATRICK D. WILSON's discrete objects read as multifaceted mirrors, reflecting the details of a larger, surrounding environment. He employs the interplay between surface, volume and depth to reveal the complex amalgam of geometry, texture, meaning and memory that comprise geographic and architectural spaces. Patrick received his MFA in Sculpture from San Francisco Art Institute in 2005. He has exhibited extensively throughout California at institutions including the SFMOMA Artists Gallery (2010), Berkeley Art Center (2011), Headlands Center for the Arts (2012) and the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art (2013). He was awarded a 2012-2013 Fulbright Fellowship to travel to Chongqing, China to document the city’s pervasive construction sites. He recorded his experience on his blog and exhibited new work in a solo show at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute (2013). Having recently returned to the U.S., Patrick is in the process of relocating to Brooklyn.

OtherPeoplesPixels: What was your first piece that combined sculpture and photography?

Patrick D. Wilson: Infinity Crate was the first piece I made combining sculpture and photography. I used downloaded images of stars photographed through a telescope to cover the outside of a small meteor-shaped crate sculpture. I made this piece in response to some of the reactions I was getting to my sculptures including Low Earth Orbit, Crash Site (2007). Viewers would often ask, "What's inside?" I always thought this was a strange question to ask about an artwork, as I would assume that the artist is showing me what they want me to see. Ideally, the viewer will imagine what objects are inside any of my crate or box sculptures. I once jokingly replied that the sculptures were filled with infinite space. I initially made this piece as a humorous response, but I felt that the photographs actually created that paradoxical sense of space on the surface of the vessel. So I started to explore other ways of replicating that.

Westfield Centre Skylight
2009
Laminated photographs
12" x 20" x 12"

OPP: Sculptures like Westfield Centre Skylight (2009), Cloud City I (2010) and The One That Looks Like a Cloud (2010) are reminiscent of crystal formation. Is this a visual reference for you?

PDW: A lot of people see crystalline structures in these works, but there isn't really a conceptual link to that. It's not something I am conscious of when I compose them. I think it's just that crystals also have very apparent geometries and form in these conglomerated structures that are similar to the way my sculptures are built up.

I think more about architecture and rocky landscapes when I am sketching these. I hope that the arbitrary geometric formations will create an intuitively habitable space. The sculptures are like architectural models, which invite viewers to imagine themselves inhabiting the space as if the tiny rooms and hallways were real. Photographs similarly lead a viewer to imagine the environment beyond the edge of the frame. Both of these forms encourage a nearly-automatic, imaginary transformation without any form of verbal suggestion. This involuntary image production occurs all the time when we watch television or listen to the radio, whether or not we are fully conscious of it. It's the part of us that stitches stories out of fragmented scraps of perception. I take advantage of this unique function of the human mind to create spatially-constrained objects that also suggest an environmental or immersive embodiment.

Right now, viewers feel very connected to the hard edges and geometric faces because of the amount of digitally-composed imagery they are consuming. I imagine these sculptures will look quite different in ten years, and that my compositions will adapt with the compositional tools that I have access to.

House Crisis
2010
Wood and laminated photographs
33" x 33" x 28"

OPP: There are many steps to your artistic process: taking photographs, designing using three-dimensional modeling software and fabricating your sculptures. Is there any part of the process that you enjoy most?

PDW: I definitely like taking the pictures the most. I imagine myself to be visually mining the environments for their interesting materials and textures. It's sort of out-of-body approach to looking. Really there are two separate phases to the photography. In the first phase, I photograph entire scenes as a way of contextualizing the work and to figure out where my interest really lies. That process informs the three-dimensional models. Then I have to go back for the second phase to get the surface photographs that will fit the sculptural form. I don't generally use pictures of entire objects to get the textures. I photograph smaller parts. That way I get better resolution, and I can photograph from angles that create interesting geometry on the sculpture.

OPP: Is there any part you wish you didn't have to do?

PDW: Assembling the cut photographs is probably the most painful. I always think I am going to enjoy it. But about half way through the process, I start to melt down because it requires a lot of slow, careful handwork, which usually has to be redone at least once. Anything creative is already done by that point, and there isn't even any problem-solving to do other than keeping the dust and air bubbles out of the adhesive. But it's a good chance to space out and listen to a year's worth of podcasts.

Materials Yard
2013

OPP: You were awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to travel to China in 2012-2013. What led you to Chongqing specifically?

PDW: My general topic was construction sites. Chongqing is a gargantuan and rapidly-expanding area of China, so it seemed like there would be plenty of relevant material for me there. Wikipedia puts the population of Chongqing at over 29 million, though the actual urbanized population is probably a third of that. I was fascinated by the idea of this inland, industrial megalopolis that most people hadn't heard of, especially prior to its recent corruption scandals. It was off the radar for people who weren't specifically interested in China, and I assumed that meant that it was sheltered in some ways from the westernization you see in comparable cities like Beijing and Shanghai. The Sichuan Fine Arts Institute is also there. They have a sculpture department that is very famous for public works, especially government-commissioned, large-scale monuments. This seemed to be a very unique part of the sculptural universe, so that drew me there as well.

OPP: What’s fascinating about construction sites for you?

PDW: Virtually all sculptors have a fascination with industry and its capabilities. Construction sites are one field within the industrial landscape. The sheer accumulation of materials—steel scaffolding, concrete, plywood—is exciting to anyone who is a maker. But I am particularly interested in documenting the construction site as a continuous, nomadic event that exists independently of architecture and development. The construction site is more than a stage in a building’s life; it is a roving matrix of material and labor that is the generative edge of the urban world. It's a necessary agent of change, but it creates so much waste, pollution, noise and human toil. It is the dark and dirty complement to the shiny image that is presented by real estate developers. It is this value-neutral beast with its own momentum and economy that is hidden behind the curtain of progress. That conception of a construction site's existence continues long after the buildings are bulldozed.

Kashgar Column
2013
Wood and laminated C-prints
32" x 18" x 32"

OPP: Could you highlight some of the new work created in China that was in your solo exhibition at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in October of 2013?

PDW: The most successful piece in the show was Kashgar Column. Kashgar is in Xinjiang province near the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. It was an extremely inspiring place. I didn't feel like I was in China anymore. The relevant issues in my research shifted; the geography took over. The images on the outside of that sculpture are of the doors saved by the families in the old city of Kashgar. I read that the doors are thought to contain the family history and must be moved with the families when a home is demolished. When I left Chongqing, I gifted that piece to the sculpture department at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute and brought a duplicate copy of the constituent photographs home in a plastic tube.

Learning to make sculpture in Chongqing was definitely more challenging than I expected. You would think that a city that builds as much as Chongqing does would have limitless access to materials, but procuring the materials I wanted was difficult. Fractal Architecture is a piece that I made in a furniture factory where they fabricated Ming Dynasty-styled furniture. I was invited to work there after complaining to one of the sculpture professors about the quality of the wood I was finding. When I got to the furniture factory, I found that they actually used a lot of oak imported from the U.S. I lived there several days a week—it was more than two hours away from my apartment—and worked alongside their crew. Most of the workers spoke local dialect, so I could only communicate directly with the two that also spoke standard Chinese. That was a great experience in making because we largely communicated through our shared language of the craft.

To see more of Patrick's work, please visit patrickdwilson.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 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. 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.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Genevieve Quick

AstroAquaAnaglyph: Scaphandre
2013

Artist GENEVIEVE QUICK is fascinated by the historical lineage of image-making technology from Victorian projectors like the magic lantern and the zoetrope to modern day cameras, space satellites and telescopes. Her low-tech versions of these instruments are constructed from model-making materials like foam core and styrene, and her subtractive drawings on transfer paper replicate the aesthetics and display of photographic negatives and simple 3D effects, reminding us of the profound role these mediating devices have played in the human exploration of previously uncharted spaces and ideas. Genevieve received her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute (2001). Her recent solo exhibition Vertical Vistas at Royal Nonsuch Gallery in Oakland, California closed in February 2014. She has received a Center for Cultural Innovation Investing in Artists Grant (2011) and a Kala Fellowship (2011) and has also been awarded residencies at the de Young Museum (2011), MacDowell Colony (2010), Djerassi (2004), and Yaddo (2003). Genevieve lives in San Francisco, California.

OtherPeoplesPixels: What was the first machine you ever built?

Genevieve Quick: The P4 Series (Periscopic Panoramic Pinhole Photography) (2006) was the first machine I built. Before this piece, I was making these oversized landscapes out of modeling materials, like really big miniatures. I began thinking about integrating mirrors and lenses into the landscape itself as a way to explore the relationship between image and object. But the landscape became secondary in P4, and I ended up housing it inside an octagonal, cabinet-like form with a rotating pinhole camera attached on the top. Hiding the landscape inside this new piece forced the idea of landscape as an image, rather than as an embodied interaction.

TerraScope
2007
Foam-core, paper, dowel rods, mirror, Fresnel lens, model trees
89" x 74" x 52"

OPP: Could you talk about your choice to use lo-tech materials like foam core and paper to build optical machines like ScopeScape (2007), TerraVision (2005) and SnubSubScope (2008)?

GQ: I use foam core, styrene and paper because they are materials used in model making or prototyping. I draw upon engineering, architecture and design through my materials and the fabrication process. But I make devices that are completely redundant and fantasy driven; they have no real world functionality. Rather than more durable materials like wood, metal or injection molded plastic, I use materials that convey a sense of an incomplete and ongoing design process. More conventional materials, combined with the level of detail in the work, would make the objects too plausible and real.

OPP: Why is it important that these machines are “redundant and fantasy driven?”

GQ: Coming from sculpture with a limited knowledge of optics, I tend to think of things in mechanical or analog ways, rather than in mathematical or electronic terms. Current, emerging and useful technologies tend to be digital, but I'm not interested in writing code. And for that matter, Sony does a much better job than I could ever do. I am, however, really interested in how high-tech imaging relates to its analog ancestry. For instance, the front ends of digital and film cameras are similar; both need to respond to the physical world and the way light travels. The back end, where imagery is stored and later processed, is different. But even still, both operate similarly: a light sensitive sensor in a digital camera has replaced light sensitive film. While the objects I make have no real practical application, they allow me to break down vision or imaging in ways that are consumable. I think of what I do as a macro approach; my sculptures offer a way to think about generalizable ideas.

Astroscopic Series
2009
Blue transfer paper in light boxes

OPP: You've combined drawing and photography in several projects, including Analog Missions and Other Tests (2010) and your AstroScopic Series (2009) by creating hand-drawn "negatives" that are displayed on light boxes. Could you talk about the photography references in these drawings?

GQ: I’m interested in blurring the boundaries of photography through the materials and processes of sculpture and drawing. These drawings are a low-tech approximation to how photography works. The transfer paper I've been using is visually similar to a film negative. The imagery is inverted, left to right and in terms of value. The blue transfer paper references cyanotypes, an early photographic process that uses Prussian blue, light-sensitive chemistry. Until recently, cyanotypes were used for the blue print processes of architectural and engineering drawing, so this process has always had one foot in photography and one in drawing. I've since expanded the materials to grey transfer paper—following the development of photographic processes from cyan to black and white photography—and gridded vellum, which references drafting. Calotypes, another early photographic process, were actually paper negatives. So, all of these images are also displayed in light boxes to reference the photographic process, and they are capable of producing prints. The imagery all relates to space exploration or testing. The images in the AstroScopic Series are all space telescopes and the Analog Missions and Other Tests are all based on the testing that scientists do on the ground before launching the objects or people into space.

A Trip to the Abyss 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Far Side of the Sun and Moon
2013
Two channel video on stacked broadcast monitors
17:22:02

OPP: Recently, you've drawn a clear connection between space travel and deep-sea diving in your video A Trip to the Abyss 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Far Side of the Sun and Moon (2013), which pairs underwater clips and outer space clips appropriated from over 50 science fiction movies. Your AstroAquaAnaglyphs (2013) are works on paper that appear three-dimensional with 3D glasses. They compare space suits and underwater diving suits. What's fascinating to you about these different domains of exploration?


GQ: Given their lack of a breathable atmosphere, as well as gravity and pressure issues, sea and space are both completely inhospitable places for humans. But there are a wide range of technological mechanisms that allow astronauts and scuba divers to briefly inhabit and see these places. Since most of us are unable to go to either, these devices get transformed or complimented with photography and video technology to create a sort of remote vision. The visual experience can be so disembodied and mediated, both for the astronauts/scuba divers and for everyone else looking at the video or photographs. 

AstroAquaAnaglyph 8
2011

OPP: Growing up in the 80s, I remember a sense of awe about space travel. It seems like when space is in the news, no one is really impressed anymore, like the mystery is gone. People seem more interested in the iPad than Mars. Has our collective cultural interest in space been surpassed by the advent of the internet and technology for personal use? I'm wondering if this is just because I'm older now, or if our collective attitude has changed. Thoughts?

GQ: I think that there is still a lot of public interest in space. But there is a difference in how we are thinking about space travel. Basically we’ve abandoned manned flights and are thinking about robotic or mechanical means of exploration, like the Hubble Telescope and Mars Rovers. While I agree that NASA’s golden era is over, private enterprises (like Space X and James Cameron) and foreign countries are pursuing manned space exploration. I don’t think that private enterprise will create great discoveries or inventions, but will allow wealthy non-professionals to buy an experience that was previously reserved for astronauts, who were the physical and intellectual elite. If trickle down economics technology actually works in this case, it could provide greater accessibility to space travel for common individuals, much like what happened with airplanes.

OPP: Do you think mediated experience of mostly inaccessible spaces adds to or detracts from a collective sense of wonder?

GQ: It definitely adds to a collective sense of wonder. After all, every experience is mediated by our senses. So, mediation itself doesn't really affect our reading of imagery. The bizarreness of deep sea creatures like the Dumbo Octopus, which was only recently discovered, is completely amazing. It just proves how much we still don’t know. Since we first mastered the ability to capture an indexical likeness, we've been using lens-based technology to see things not readily perceptible to the naked eye. Muybridge and his galloping horse, x-ray photography, surgical applications of fiber optics and space telescopes are all attempts to visualize ideas or things that humans had never seen before but had hunches about. They've all, at least momentarily, satisfied and sparked our sense of wonder. 

To see more of Genevieve's work, please visit genevievequick.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 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. 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.


OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Becky Flanders

Babydoll teeth
2013

BECKY FLANDERS' photographs of feminine archetypes peeing while standing up playfully and provocatively comment on cultural constructions of gender, while her photographs of vaginas with mandalas nestled inside add nuance to the political by introducing the possibility of relating to the vagina as a site of the sacred. Becky received her MFA in Studio Art from the University of South Florida in Tampa. In 2013, her work was included in the group exhibitions Post Coital at Mindy Solomon Gallery (St. Petersburg, Florida), Subversive Narratives at Balzer Art Projects (Basel Switzerland) and Ransom at Wayfarers (Brooklyn). Becky lives and works in Tampa, Florida, where she owns the Mermaid Tavern with her partner and is in the process of renovating an abandoned, mid-century warehouse to house artist studios and workshops.

OtherPeoplesPixels: In general, do men and women respond differently to your work?


Becky Flanders: The work definitely sparks a lot of dialog about conceptions of gender, sex and bodies. I especially love when the work opens the door to talking openly about female genitalia and the way women touch, interact with and relate to their bodies. While it’s no longer a Victorian-level taboo subject, it’s still not so often broached, particularly in a professional situation or with complete strangers. I love it when people I’ve just met tell me interesting stories about touching themselves now and as children, birth control mishaps, squirting, bathroom politics, personal gender gripes, the shape and size of their labia or, if they’re trans, what exactly they have in their pants and how they feel about it.

I get objections to the work from both sexes, but truly more often from women who feel that the work is somehow a debasement or a betrayal of the feminine. I’ve never felt that the act of exposing any part of my body was ever giving anything away or taking anything away from me, but some women feel disturbed by the exposure. Some think that it is a rejection or a cheapening of femininity. Some reject it as being too second wave, but they’re missing my point. One of my most basic goals is to expand and refine the conception of the feminine to include my own experience of it. I’ve always felt like a gender outsider, and yet I’m happy with my body and very comfortable in my skin. I know I’m not alone in that.

With men, it runs the gamut as well. There are always people who want to poke holes in anything feminist, and I’ll debate with them. But if people are into my work because they are turned on by it, that’s fine, too. It’s not my explicit goal to turn people on sexually—although I’ve considered making porn-related work at some point in the future. But now, I want the work to be luscious and titillating in a broader sense. The sexual is sacred to me and that is part of it.

Swamp 1
2013

OPP: In almost all of your Female Standing Urination photographs, the face of the figure is either off camera or masked. Sometimes it's a result of the angle of view, as in pieces like Stomach (2013), or the photograph is a close-up, as in Methods 1, 2, and 3. But then there are studio shots like Pan, Egypt, and Venus of Willendorf. Was your choice to mask the peeing figure a practical or conceptual decision, or both?

BF: That choice initially arose from my irresistible desire to mask my own face and faces in general. It’s like the seventh veil. Growing up, I always felt more social anxiety about the exposure of my face than that of my body. Facial expressions have never come naturally to me. They are willful, conscious, often painstaking acts. On the contrary, sex and nudity comprise a space in which I could remain naturally blank-faced, yet not invisible or abject. That space has always been a palliative. As a young person, it was a real confidence booster, almost therapeutic.

But conceptually, the face is a site of the dispute of power. We cannot even legally mask our faces in public now. Facial expressions are daily acts of submission or resistance, a daily game in a culture of spectacle and persona. I always fantasized about being free from this, wandering in public like a ghost. In the work, I wanted to contend with the realm of the body, separate from this facial dialog. I want to consider the figures as archetypes, icons, goddesses. They are not specific individuals.They are platonic forms, abstractions.

Goddess 1
2013

OPP: I assume that the peeing figure is you, but the identity doesn't matter in terms of the content. Still, it makes me curious about the practical concerns involved in these photographs. Part of the implication of the entire series is that it isn't that difficult for a woman to pee standing up. But is it difficult to photograph?

BF: Yes, it’s usually me, mostly because I prefer to work alone, without communicating verbally or directing as part of my process. And no, it’s not difficult to pee standing, though you should practice in the shower first to learn how not to drip. Though if you have trepidations about touching yourself, you might be out of luck.

Some of them are exceedingly difficult to photograph because I am both in front of and behind the camera. This is important both conceptually and practically for me. I’ve sometimes worked with another photographer, or an assistant to help carry equipment through the swamps and look out for park rangers. But my ideal shooting situation is alone in the studio with a set that I can manipulate slowly and take my time on. I shoot with a Toyo 4x5 field camera, and I use a cable release, which is the only thing I’m not hesitant to remove from the shots in post production. I often take a lot of polaroids to perfect the setup, and position myself within the shot.

The first person perspective photographs of the Omniscient Sadistic Fantasies series (Heart, Mirror, Stomach, Baby) are the most difficult to shoot because I’m basically trying to put my body in the same location as the gigantic tripod and camera, and none of the equipment can get into the shot. The camera must go where my head should be, and my head is bent backwards and off to the side. This is uncomfortable, and I can’t see where I am aiming. The cable release goes in my mouth because my hands are busy in the shot. It takes a lot of concentration and multitasking. Also, I have to constantly drink water and take vitamins to keep the pee somewhat yellow. I had to learn how to tolerate impartially emptying my bladder over and over again for hours at a time. It’s kind of fun actually. When I’m in the zone, I can’t even feel the mosquitoes biting me.

I choose to shoot in film for technical and aesthetic reasons, but I think this process is a good metaphor for a woman’s relationship to her genitalia. It’s “complicated” (not really), tricky to work, sometimes painful, very analog, incredibly performative, and she can’t really see what she is doing without external reflection of some sort.

Daily meditation 2
2012
Archival Inkjet Print
20" x 30"

OPP: In 2012, you did a series of photographs called of Gorgons and Ana Suromai. Each photograph of a vagina with a mandala peeking out from behind the folds of the labia is titled as a numbered Daily Meditation. Could you address the idea of the vagina as a gateway to sacred space?

BF: Think Kali, a creator/destroyer, or Medusa. The gorgons with actual eyes are both. They might swallow you up or turn you to stone, they might settle feuds or calm the angry sea. There are countless fascinating myths about effect of the sight of a vagina.

I think of these photographs as icons, almost in a religious or meditative sense. They represent a platonic aspect of the feminine and consciousness diverted to the genitals rather than the head. There is also a relationship between yoga and meditation and the poses and forms that I use. These images came to me whole; I just had to get them out. I’m always mining mythology and symbolism for content in my work, also history and natural history. It’s not fashionable anymore to work with religions or mythologies other than those you’ve inherited, but I love Joseph Campbell. However the original impetus to do ana-suromai work came from reading The Story of V, A Natural History of Female Sexuality, by Catherine Blackledge. It’s a goldmine of a book. 

Hurricane 1
2013

OPP: Your Hurricane paintings from 2013 broaden the read of the Gorgon and Ana Suromai photographs by drawing visual connections between our personal experiences of our bodies and the bodies of others and our understanding of the larger weather systems on the "body" of this planet. What does the eye of the storm have to do with the vagina?

BF: I currently live in Florida. Hurricanes are a reality here. Like the alligators, you get used to them after a while and may even begin to feel somewhat fond of their power to destroy. A hurricane is a weather system that has become so large, so singular that it is given a name. In Florida, the destructive power of nature is right there in front of you on a daily basis, along with the extremes of beauty and exhaustion. The feminine is often equated with nature. Though this is a trope that feminism has long since rejected, I definitely continue to mine it, sometimes mockingly, sometimes in earnest. I grew up close to nature, and it’s dear to me: the wild, the feral, the willful, headless power.

I suppose you could say the hurricanes are another aspect of the gorgons, like a goddess who changes aspect. They are a similar metaphor, and very much a meditation for me to make. I made these drawings during the summertime, when thunderstorms are a daily and powerful occurrence in Florida. They take over the landscape, not only during the 30 minutes of deluge and surface flooding, but also in the aftermath. The summer rainy season is a time of sisyphusean striving to keep nature from swallowing what humans have built. Whether by vines or by mold, leaks or floods, she will eventually have you one way or another.

The drawings are based on photographs taken by satellites. Until relatively recently, it wasn’t possible to see these storms from above. There’s that metaphoric connection to female genitalia: the storm cannot see itself completely unless externally reflected. This also applies to feminine persona in general. The human power to reflect is one of our greatest, like we are the way the earth has of looking back upon herself and reflecting.

I, the State Am the People
2013

OPP: It might appear to the average viewer that your hand-embroidered Aphorisms from Nietsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra were made by another artist, but there's a connection to your photography. What is it?

BF: The work may only be related to the body and feminist pieces in that it is political and somewhat anarchist, but I suspect there are other links which will be revealed over time. I’m beginning to explore the political in a broader sense: the relationship of individuals to the state, the language of extremism and revolution and Americana and its symbols and icons. The What is Value? pieces are also part of this process. The embroideries started with translations of Nietzsche quotes from a particular chapter in Thus Spoke Zarathustra called “the State,” but I have branched out to other quotes and language, some of which I write, but most of which I gather.

I’m interested here in the language of memes. I studies memetics in the earlier days of the internet, but it has taken off with the public at large in recent years. I’m at once fascinated and horrified with the effect that the conscious use of memetics seems to be having on language usage and thus on the transmission of thoughts. The current supposed dividing lines in popular American politics, i.e. the deep polemics of the right and the left, serve mainly as an obstruction to dialog. They seem to be a tool created to control thought and keep people divided and distracted. I think the whole thing is a big charade, and I’m trying to see through it.

Stitching is more of a commitment than the posting or sharing of a Facebook meme. The sheer amount of time it takes to render these texts (about an hour per letter) runs me backwards and forwards, questioning my belief about the statement. Do I mean it in earnest, in irony, in nostalgia or sadness, or in a complex combination of ways? Or perhaps I don’t even “mean” the statement at all, but put it out for consideration alone and as part of a constellation. It’s an attempt at grounding.

These pieces are also a bit nostalgic in terms of their relationship to technology. I sometimes have nightmares that we are being fog-marched via silicon valley into a fascist-capital-slavery state (loosely quoting Willie Nelson here), into a technological age beyond human utility. I am not generally a luddite, but lately I’m gripped with the feeling that we are speeding into a progress trap, and I can’t help but attempt a feeble protest with my meditative embroidery.

To see more of Becky's work, please visit beckyflanders.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 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 at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) recently closed, and she is currently preparing for another solo exhibition titled Everything You Need is Already Here (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Priscilla Briggs

Opening Soon (Grand Gateway Mall, Shanghai)
2009
Lightjet Prints
Grid of 4, 20" X 30" each

PRISCILLA BRIGGS investigates representations of capitalism, consumerism and the global market in her photographs of malls, tourist markets and manufacturing districts throughout the world. She emphasizes the role of advertising imagery as an influential backdrop in the creation and reflection of personal and collective cultural identities. Priscilla’s photographs were most recently seen in the group exhibition Art in the Age of Globalization at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and she has had solo exhibitions at The Phipps Center for the Arts (2010), the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, (2009) and Minnesota Center for Photography (2008). Her work is included in the rotating Midwest Photographer's Project at the Museum of Contemporary Photography and the permanent collections of the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Hillstrom Museum. Priscilla is currently at artist-in-residence at the Chinese European Art Center  in Xiamen, China, but her home base is Saint Paul, Minnesota.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You've spent a lot of time photographing malls and other market spaces throughout the world. I'm curious about your personal experience being in spaces that revolve around consumerism. Can you tell us about an early shopping memory?
 
Priscilla Briggs: I grew up by the seashore in Maryland where I spent a lot of time on the boardwalk—a carnivalesque tourist haven. There were a few shops that I visited over and over. My absolute favorite store sold a menagerie of horribly kitschy blown-glass tchotchkes, such as a pair of translucent pink swans made doubly fabulous by a spray of optic fibers. I spent many magical hours in that store, but I never actually bought anything. I wasn’t interested in owning a single glass figurine. It was more the experience of being surrounded by a room full of beautifully reflective and colorful glass objects that I enjoyed. In retrospect, I equate that experience to my adult enjoyment of art installations by artists like James Turrell or Sarah Sze

Singing Buddhas
(Gift Shop, Bangkok, Thailand)
2004
Color Coupler Print
9" x 13"

OPP:
What's your personal experience with malls?

PB: Malls are akin to museums. They are designed spaces full of objects for sale that are really artifacts of our culture, reflecting what we value, what we find desirable, how we live. The accompanying advertising inserts these objects into our lives, and embeds them within mythological narratives that most of us can’t help but internalize in some way. These affect and reflect our sense of individual identities and our collective identity as a culture.
 
Most malls feel like safe, contained spaces. They are primarily occupied by chain stores that you can find nationally, if not all over the world. Many people like the reliability of that kind of consistency; they find it comforting and efficient. My work is fairly critical of these spaces and the unbridled consumerism they are designed to encourage. Although I do shop at malls occasionally, I try to frequent and support stand-alone locally based businesses that are less corporate as much as I can. I rarely went to malls before I started photographing them and now, after spending so much time there for work, I have no desire to linger.

OPP: What drew you to malls as sites to photograph?

PB: My work has evolved from a foundation in environmental portraiture, with a shift in focus from the unique individual to consumer culture identity. Because the market drives a capitalist society, I was drawn to that as a subject, initially looking at how advertising narratives influence one's personal sense of identity. When I moved to Minnesota 10 years ago, I couldn’t resist the call of the Mall of America, such an obvious icon of capitalist consumerism. Then I read an article about a mall craze in China: over 500 malls were built in a five-year period, some five to seven times the size of the Mall of America. I was intrigued by what this would look like in a country with a history of communism, and that’s how my work segued to China.

Levels (MixC Shopping Mall, Shenzhen)
2009
Lightjet Print
36" X 54"

OPP: Your 2010 series The Road to Shantou juxtaposes interiors and exteriors from "a manufacturing district in Shantou where most of the brassieres in the world are made within the 50 square mile area between Chendian Town, Chaonan and Gurao Town." The fact that all the billboards feature white women and all the garment workers are Chinese makes the discrepancy between worker and customer so evident. You mention the Chinese history of valuing female modesty in your statement. In photographing in the factories, did you get any sense of how the people there experienced the advertising that surrounds them in their daily lives? What did you learn that isn't in the photographs?
 
PB: The Chinese are very matter-of-fact people. I think they take the advertising at face value and probably tune it out. What’s striking about this area is not so much that the billboards show scantily-clad women—this has recently become common in cities all over China—but that the sheer amount of this imagery makes walking through the streets like living in a Victoria’s Secret catalog. One thing that is perhaps not evident in the photographs is that the advertisements are directed at the Chinese distributor rather than the end-customer. Most foreign wholesalers will place their orders at big wholesale export fairs like the Canton Market in Guangzhou, so there are very few foreigners who come to this area. The use of primarily Caucasian and Arabic models is partly due to the belief by many Chinese that these women are sexier and more curvaceous than Chinese women. In the same way that many American women wish they were as skinny as the models in magazines, many Chinese women often wish they were curvier like the Western models in their advertising.

Untitled #30
2010
Giclee Print
18" X 27"

OPP: Global Market pairs images from the Mall of America in Minnesota with images taken in various outdoor markets and shopping centers in Cuba and Thailand. Talk about the overlap of consumerism and tourism in this body of work and your use of postcards in the 2008 installation at Minnesota Center for Photography.

PB: I first used the postcards in the Market exhibit, which was comprised of photos from the Mall of America only. The postcards referenced the MoA as a tourist destination—people actually fly from other parts of the country to spend a week at the Mall of America. I included text on the back of the postcards, providing statistics about American consumer habits, and used titles to connect the image and text conceptually. The postcards made the exhibit more interactive. Visitors could take a postcard right off the shelf and purchase it.
 
Global Market expanded on the idea of the tourist market and included images from Thailand and Cuba because I had the opportunity to travel to those countries through my job as a professor.   
 
Tourist markets are fascinating in that the souvenirs sold there are often objects that are designed to represent the culture being visited, specifically in a way that distinguishes it from other cultures. I have often found these representations to be more a reflection of what the tourist hopes to find rather than what exists in reality—the toured have a stake in maintaining that façade in order to keep the tourists coming and spending. Gary Larson summed up this kind of performing of culture very well in his Far Side cartoon of Polynesians scrambling to hide their TV, VCR and lamp as a Caucasian man in a safari outfit walks toward their hut, with the caption “Anthropologists! Anthropologists!”

For example, Copy an image of a Long-Neck Karen woman holding up a postcard with a picture of herself on it, was shot in a refugee village in Thailand. After tour companies started dropping off busloads of tourists in their village everyday, the villagers started charging admission to the village, gave up their farming practices and each opened a stall in front of their house to sell souvenirs. They also started wearing traditional dress everyday rather than just on special occasions. When I invited a representative from the Thai tourist commission to speak with our students, he referred to the villagers as “the product.” Two of the postcard images in the show were of Hill Tribe children on the side of the road with a sign that says “Take the Photo 20 Baht.” I included information on how to practice community-based tourism in Thailand and ways to help the Hill Tribe Villagers on the back of the postcards and titled them Take the Photo I & II.  All the other postcards could be purchased for a dollar, but these two were free.

Painter #1 (Pan Jin)
2010
Oil Painting
36" X 54"

OPP: Wushipu (2010) investigates the workspaces of Chinese production painters through portraiture and still life photography. This body of work is very connected to your other work in that it investigates a market where the East and the West collide, where Chinese workers are satisfying Western demands for luxury goods. But it also brings up the issue of value as it pertains to painting and photography, copying and originality, art and craft. What's your take on the labor these painters do? Are they artists? Is the labor the same as what the garment workers do?
 
PB: Your question sums up what this work is asking the viewer to think about. The work the painters do is distinguished by the Chinese oil painting community as either “commercial”—work that is a direct copy of a photograph or masters’ painting and used for decorative purposes—or “creative” work that is an original fine art composition. The painters I photographed for the Wushipu series are making “commercial” paintings, which comprise 80% of the multi-billion dollar oil painting industry.

In my opinion, this labor is definitely not fine art, but while one painter told me he hated painting and just did it for money, many of the painters aspire to a more high-profile career in which they are respected as fine artists. They see their commercial work as a way to build their skills and pay the rent. 

It’s difficult for artists in China to gain recognition as fine artists if they haven’t gone to one of the top universities. Some painters who did not go to university complained that it is elitist because those universities require that you speak English to get in. I’m guessing that the English requirement is there because texts about contemporary art and theory are generally not written in or translated into Chinese. Because the commercial painters don’t have the access to such texts, it is difficult for them to work or think within the contemporary art context or to understand how value is assigned to art work. I believe many of these painters could do more interesting work under different circumstances and with a better art education, but they are trained to copy masters rather than to experiment or think of an idea of their own. Many think a painting is good if it looks exactly like what they’re copying. In spending time with this community, I have met some highly skilled painters who are incredibly inventive people living the life of an artist, but making carbon copy paintings so they can feed their families.
 
What entertains me about this industry is that many of these paintings are sold in galleries in the U.S. and Europe with a fake name signed to them. For instance, a gallery in Venice may want tourists to believe they are buying a painting of the Venice canals by a Venetian artist so they sign an Italian name to the painting. No one would buy it if they knew it was painted in China.

To see more work by Priscilla, please visit priscillabriggs.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 work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Right Here, Right Now (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Hector Hernandez

Hyperbeast Lives

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

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

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

Who are you?

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. Nitroglycerin

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

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

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

Hyperbeast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dogs of War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Amy Elkins

Rick (Tight Head Prop Forward), Princeton, NJ.
2010

AMY ELKINS's photographic portraits question traditional assumptions about gender, identity and emotion, revealing vulnerability and fragility in the masculine experience. Her work has recently been seen at the 2012 International Young Photographers' Exhibition in S. Korea and The Bursa International Photo Festival in Turkey. Based in Portland, Oregon, Amy is currently an artist-in-residence at Villa Waldberta International Artist House in Munich, where her work is also on view in Next Generation: Contemporary American Photography at Amerika Haus.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Your work has some painterly references even though you are a photographer. What are your influences in terms of portraiture?

Amy Elkins: I think this is something that I do quite subconsciously. I studied painting, drawing, collage, printmaking and other forms of hand-to-paper art-making for years before taking my first photography class. While I fell in love with photography and the way that it could instantly transform or capture reality, I’ve always been drawn to painting. I remember the first time I walked through the Metropolitian Museum of Art and saw early Dutch and American paintings depicting people in dramatic light and lavish environments with rigid and elegant postures…that visual contrast resonated with me. 

I've been abroad in Munich at a residency for the past few months, and I constantly find myself in so many museums. I've easily spent hours/days just looking at the awkward qualities in these paintings—the gestures, expressions and environments.

Contemporary photographer Rineke Dijkstra’s series of young matadors had a huge impact on me, and I still believe they are incredibly compelling. I'm also influenced by Lise Sarfati and her portraits of young inmates in Europe, Fazal Sheikh’s daylight studios in refugee camps, Carl de Keyzer’s Siberian prison camp portraits and definitely the works of August Sander


Brendan, Brooklyn, NY
2008

OPP: In your statement for your ongoing series Wallflower, you say: "In a reversal of the traditional male gaze, the images confront some of the cultural grounds underlying gender, opting to focus on the beauty, sensitivity and vulnerabilities found in a sex that has long been held to masculine expectations and stereotypes." Can you define the notion of the female gaze in the same way the male gaze has been defined throughout art history? 

AE: I think the two types of gazes we are referring to can be seen very differently depending on the type of work we are connecting it with. Throughout art and photography history, the male gaze is used to explore and portray female sensuality, sexuality, beauty and vulnerability. This portrayal suggests to the audience that women should be seen this way. I am not trying to reverse the role of power that has been assumed by the male gaze. I am simply turning the gaze around a little and exploring the notion that females aren’t the only gender susceptible to fragility and vulnerability. Society looks at gender in very black and white terms, and those terms seem so far from the actual vast gradient of what makes up who we all are. In my image making, I ask the viewer to engage in questions regarding gender code and societal standards of masculinity and femininity. 

OPP: Two bodies of work, Black is the Day, Black is the Night and The Sunshine State, are ongoing explorations of inmates on death row. The pieces are portraits but not in a traditional sense. I'd like to hear more about both of these projects.

AE: I’ll talk about Black is the Day, Black is the Night first—it’s the catalyst for Sunshine State—and a project that isn’t currently on my website: Parting Words. Black is the Day, Black is the Night began through my correspondence with men who were and still are serving primarily death row sentences across the United States. It all began one rainy afternoon in Brooklyn when I came across a website for prisoners seeking pen pals. There were advanced search options for those who were serving life in prison and those serving on death row. Out of morbid curiosity, I clicked on the death option. What unraveled before me felt equal parts disgusting and mesmerizing. I saw hundreds of profiles staring back at me. After a lot of thought and recurring visits to this website, I decided to write several men serving death row sentences and two men serving life sentences who had entered prison as juveniles. I sent them letters introducing myself. I began my interactions with very simple questions about identity, memory, time and distance. I was curious about how being so far removed from society impacted their notions of self, of others and of home. I was curious about how facing life or death in prison as a result of acting out on a violent impulse brought them into a heightened mental state of stress and vulnerability.

I never thought any of these correspondences would turn into a photography project. Simply put, I was curious about their lives. I knew that this was a rare opportunity for me to be in touch first hand. I felt it deeply connected with the multifaceted exploration of masculinity I had already been working on. I never expected what ended up unfolding. There was such sincerity in the letters, and such a readiness for collaboration. So I began constructing images from the text they were sharing with me, and then I would send those images to them. They critiqued and sometimes decorated their cells with the images. This went on for years. These images were the only types of portrait that I could make of them. 

Of the seven men with whom I originally corresponded, I remain in touch with only one. He has been in solitary confinement since 1995 for a crime he committed at age 16. One man was released in 2010 at the age of 30 after 15 years in prison. Three men opted out of the correspondence. One man was executed in 2009, and another met the same fate in March 2012.  

19/32 (Not the Man I Once Was)
Portrait of a man having thus far served 19 years of a Life without Parole (solitary) sentence where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.

OPP: How are your other two projects different from Black is the Day, Black is the Night?

AE: Sunshine State and Parting Words spurred off of Black is the Day, Black is the Night. That's when I became more involved in my research about the U.S. death penalty. Sunshine State encompasses every mug shot from one of the most populated prison death rows in the country. For every portrait, I remove all details of the original image until it becomes just spectrums of color and light. Through this process, I speak to the loss of self within such a massive prison population. I do this knowing full well that these experiences are just part of an even more massive, nationwide prison death row population.

In the forever ongoing project Parting Words, I combine mug shots from every inmate executed in the state of Texas with their last words. The new portrait is made entirely of text and gradiations. The portraits are recognizable and clear when seen from far away, but as the viewer approaches them they dissolve into text. These are the last vestiges of each man that still remain. This project began when one of my prison pen pals in Texas was executed. 

OPP: Can you expand on the underlying connection between violence and vulnerability in your work? It's present in both the inmate projects and Elegant Violence, which is an ongoing series of portraits of rugby players.

AE: This is a connection that I have been making only in my most recent work, but have wanted to explore for some time. In Wallflower, I look to male subject matter in a way that pushes and challenges gender stereotypes by placing both masculine and feminine together in one frame. Because the men are out of context—they are sitting bare and in a created/fictional environment that is neither mine nor theirs—the viewer is left to read simple body language and gesture against a floral paper backdrop. The subject's vulnerability comes through in the portrait, and the relationship between sitter and photographer. 

Recently I looked again at gender stereotypes. Rather than push against or challenge notions of gender, I examined the idea that men act on violent and competitive impulses. How do those impulses create vulnerability? The physical exertion, the rush of adrenaline, the injuries...these create a less guarded portrait of heightened vulnerability. The rugby athletes are not entirely focused on me and my camera but rather on what they have just experienced in the game. 

The letters and images I made with inmates over the years look at the vulnerabilities of living a life in infinite solitude, or of facing one's death as a result of acting out on violent impulses. The men I portray had already served 12-26 years in prison when I first contacted them. Time forced a break in their notions of self. Through our exchange of letters and art, we looked into memory collapse, changing notions of self and how infinite time impacts both. The act of violence is broken down in both projects, but that's mostly due to circumstances. I often look for that moment of vulnerability, that moment of being unguarded. That moment is when I feel compelled to make portraits.

Lucas, New York, NY
February 07, 2010

 OPP: I like the term "longitudinal portrait" that you use to describe your bodies of work Lucas and Gray, which are both portraits those individuals. What's it like to photograph the same person over a series of years, especially a young boy going through the process of adolescence and becoming an adult man?

AE: I love what unfolds before the camera when I make extended portraits. There’s a patience that has to exist because I know that the project(s) could go on for years; they could endlessly shift in direction, too. The only concrete elements are the subjects themselves. Their lives and environments may shift in numerous directions. I have no idea what future portrait sessions might be like. 

This is true for both Gray and Lucas. Gray had a serious medical condition that had the ability to shift the way he felt and the way his body, face and mood appeared before the camera. His body was physically altered through illness, surgery and recovery. I started photographing him when we lived together in 2004, and I've followed him ever since. The project is loose and flutters in and out of both of our lives.

The project with Lucas began when I met him at a friend's wedding. He was 12-years-old. He was at the wedding with his parents; I contacted them a few weeks later to ask if I could make his portrait. I didn’t necessarily think that I would photograph him for years to come, but here we are several years later and I'm still working with him. It happened organically. We both agree that this has to continue. Over the years, Lucas has literally grown up before the camera. There are so many subtle shifts I catch during these portrait sessions that would otherwise go unnoticed in the day-to-day. In this project, things are far more structured and formulaic; I photograph him every 3-4 months. The shifts are massive when look at the images in sequence. I find this fascinating.

Constellations and the New Arch, Brooklyn, NY
2008

OPP: Right now you are in residency in Germany, correct? Tell us about the residency. What will you be working on while you are there?

AE: Yes, I am currently a month into the Villa Waldberta International Artist Residency Program, which provides artists (writers, actors, poets, film makers, photographers, painters, sculptors, musicians) with a furnished apartment in an historic mansion. It's located in the countryside, an hour's train ride outside of Munich. Each artist receives a stipend. I am here for two months thanks to a nomination from Curator Stefan-Maria Mittendorf, who recently assembled an exhibition of American photographers (including Alec Soth, Doug Rickard and Laurel Nakadate, among others) called Next Generation: Contemporary American Photography

Given that the work environment is very different than my own fully equipped studio back home, I’ve learned to work in new ways. I’ve spent quite a lot of time editing images that I've taken in my past seven weeks abroad. I shot formal portraits for a new project that I worked on during my two-week stay in Copenhagen. I also shot informal, lo-fi images that I see as a response to being a foreigner traveling alone for an extended period of time. This is a new experience for me. I’ve been experimenting with printing these lo-fi images on various paper types. I played with sequencing them into several small books/zines, temporarily titled Whilst I am Drawing Breath, which is taken from a poem by Rose Ausländer

Both projects are too new to talk about in further detail. They are still very much evolving. I have a little under a month left here, and while I’ll continue to work on these projects I also plan on attending Paris Photo and visiting London and Salzburg before heading home. My trip back includes a four-day layover in Iceland where I will soak in geothermal pools, and another several days in NYC to work on Lucas. When I return to Portland, I'll shake off the jetlag and start making work prints. I’ll have been out of my regular reality for three-plus months, and will definitely be ready to jump back in. 

To view more of Amy's work, please visit amyelkins.com.


OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Helen Maurene Cooper

Junk nails with jam on Mexican cookie
2009
Ink jet
40 x 26"

HELEN MAURENE COOPER is concerned with the traditions of storytelling mutated by pop culture. Her work engages various photographic traditions from her recreations referencing portraiture and pop culture to her large-scale macro photographs bordering on abstraction to her recent documentary photography. She is one half of the collaborative duo Baccara, a 2012-13 BOLT Artst-in-Residence at Chicago Artists' Coalition. She is also a  co-founder and co-director of Azimuth Projects which aims to expose new audiences to Chicago's bountiful art community. Helen Maurene lives and teaches in Chicago, IL.

OtherPeoplesPixels: In your statement, you mention that your works are influenced by "[your] preoccupation with longing, desire, and the containment of wildness." Could you say more about "the containment of wildness?"

Helen Maurene Cooper: I think my preoccupation with "the containment of wildness" has a lot to do with the cultural climate and the media imagery present in my growing up… Maybe, it’s about the disconnect between the representations of women—luscious flamboyant and proud—on the covers to all of Mom’s country music albums and their sad, whiny songs. Maybe it’s about music videos from the 1980’s and the subtle racism that masquerades as cultural fetish: numerous visions of Africa, wild life, woman on safari… long, curly, wind-blown hair; bi-racial relationships; the desert; the jungle. Maybe it’s about coming of age in the AIDS crisis, protection foregrounded in desire. These are some thoughts. I have more, but really as long as I can remember I have looked for visual representations of that which is uncontained, which is then naturally reflected in my art.

OPP: That makes a lot of sense to me. You bring up the representations of women that you were seeing as you grew up... there is something particularly feminine about your work. But I say that with hesitancy, because I want to avoid essentializing the female experience or defining the feminine only in relation to the media... but would you agree that the wildness your are talking about is specifically feminine?

HMC: Completely, but it has to do with the performance of femininity: the complexities, the artifice and the authentic (if that even exists). In the time between my undergraduate and graduate schooling, I did a photography project in Philly about trans people living as women. When I was shooting Birds of Appetite, the process of adorning myself—my nails, fake eye lashes, makeup and clothing—was much like what I witnessed the women I photographed in Philly do… it was drag in its own way.  

Cat tails
2007
Archival Pigment Print
30 x 40"

OPP: When constructing photographs, do you tend to have an idea for an image and then seek out the appropriate costumes, props and backdrops? Or does it happen the other way around?

 MHC: The way I construct a photograph really varies from piece to piece. My graduate school work, Birds of Appetite, began with general image-based research. I took hundreds of stills from Veronica Hart films, and I plastered my studio with variations of gestures and scenes that were used as the basis for creating my own narratives. I then produced and directed images with myself as the actress, sometimes with a male counterpart. The positioning of bodies was the primary principle. I then chose the location and added costuming where it was appropriate. As the work evolved, the components shifted. Sometimes, I would find a wig or a garment and build a scene around that. At one point, I was really interested in the zoo as a backdrop, so I scouted locations from the camel house to the primate house and then picked costumes and color palettes based on those chosen locations. When I begin staged photography projects, I usually give myself some kind of starting point that helps me organize my brainstorming, such as pulling film stills and building from there. Once I am pleased with the images I am producing, I allow myself to deviate from the process and pick another element as the leading criteria. 

OPP: Your later series Hoodwink also uses custuming and props as it "juxtapose[s] the self-conscious language of portraiture with exaggerated bodily details and urban niche cultural signifiers?" What are the origins of this body of work?

MHC: It’s hard to talk about Hoodwink with out talking about Hard Candy. Both projects happened simultaneously and, to a certain extent, are still in progress. They come out of the very strange racially/ culturally segregated organism that is Chicago. Since finishing graduate school, I have taught photography in the Community College system primarly to nonwhite and economically disadvantaged students. Both bodies of work are very much a product of conversations with my students regarding financial and cultural barriers in the city.

The first iteration of this work, which never made it to a website, was a much more literal collaboration. I asked my male students to generate lists for me of slang they thought would be funny to hear white men say. I then took those lists to an airbrush artist and had him make t-shirts for me with these sayings.Then I went to bars in Wrigleyville and asked white men to pose for me wearing the shirts. The images I made in that four-month period leave me cold; there is something about them that is so stupid, it misses the point of cultural appropriation. The men I photographed were so not in on the joke. I then tried the same idea out at a few lesbian bars, but much to the same end, visually uncoupling and just embarrassing.

Untitled with Cupcake
2010
Archival Pigment Print
50 x 60"

OPP: How do the signifiers of race, class and gender play out in relation to the portraiture you reference?

HMC: I was watching a lot of hip hop videos at the gym and was so attracted to the aesthetic of the women in them that it made me want to return to female subjects and to play with their tropes of femininity. I wanted to make portraits, I wanted the control of working in a studio, and I liked the scripting of clothing. For me, this is a more natural method of playing with cultural appropriation. Much like with Birds of Appetite, I picked a visual starting place: Mannerist painting, which is seductive, formal and gestural as hell, much like the hip hop videos. I chose to have my models wear accessories similar to women in the videos—acrylic nails, acrylic hair and plastic jewelry—all things that are put on the body that do not represent identity, but point to race and class within an American context. Most clothing came from Rainbow at Chicago and Kedzi, the wigs from a wig store in the same shopping center, weave and graphics by Kara Wabbel of Barbara and Barbara and backdrops from China via Ebay.   

OPP: Is the process of shopping for the shoots as important to you as the photo shoots themselves?

HMC: The process of shopping is one of the necessary details; there is pleasure in the hunt and making the puzzle pieces work. But it is not as important as shooting the picture. 
 
Pink grill
2009
Pigment Print
19 x 24"
 
OPP: So let's talk about Hard Candy specifically, because that series does something slightly different, but related to what Hoodwink does by focusing in so close to the details of the accessories you mention. It's a series of large-scale macro photographs exploring the aesthetics of nail art in relation to decadent materials like icing, glitter, and candy. The compositions are formal and have an intense lushness and sensuality. They definitely evoke a sense of longing in me. They make me want… abstractly. What I mean is, they awake a desire for things I didn't want before I saw the photographs. Do you have a personal connection to nail art?

MHC: I got my first set of acrylic nails when I was in graduate school shooting Birds of Appetite. I was scripting myself as characters based on ultra-feminine personas from B-movies, porn and country music of the early 1980s, and all those characters had long, oval, sculpted nails. I would sit in the nail salon and wait for my polish to dry, all the while longingly looking at the designs on the hands of women around me. In my first year of teaching college, I began to notice the nuances in nail design on the hands of students and clerks at various stores. I began asking questions about these shops and, with vague intersection coordinates, began to venture into various neighborhoods on the far west side. As Americans, we know the cultural norm. The stereotype is that all nail shops are Asian-run, but what exists in pockets of Chicago is a very different model. Hispanic and African-American women run the shops, operating as independent contractors. I could go on all day about the financial model, but the pertinent part is that Chicago has a very specific nail culture, and shops run by Hispanic and African-American women often use very different styles and techniques than those seen at Asian shops. The style and model comes out of Detroit.

There is a name for every type of design and acrylic add-on, subtraction and cultural element. The titling in each of my photographs is significant. If the women I photographed had had her nails done at an Asian shop, the photograph is titled “Design with…" If the nails come from an African-American shop, then the photograph is titled with the language assigned to the design: money, junk, 3d, inlay, stripes, lines, drag, etc... It’s somewhat annoying to me that nail art has become so popular and really co-opted in the past year, but, again, it isn’t the nail art of or produced by working class women that has become popular. It is nail art for privileged women, done in high-end salons. Nail art in Chicago and the Midwest is its own thing; it’s very insider. I get my nails done in other cities, but you can’t find a tech in New York or Philly who knows how to lay acrylic, inlay or do detail brush work the way you can in Chicago. It’s very specific to the cultural flavor of urban Midwest living.

I tried to photograph nails for a year and a half before I finally broke down and just got my own acrylics. Wearing large acrylic nails changed my ability to make photographs; any women in the know could look at my nails and tell what shop I had been to. The quality of the work is something that really identified me as an insider. I photographed my students and clerical workers at Harold Washington College for a solid two years. Currently, I am still shooting but making more abstract images, with larger color and sparkle fields.   Untitled
2012
14 x 11"

OPP:  Recently, you've been taking portraits on site at the nail salon in Chicago where you have been getting your nails done for years. Could you talk about the shift from the photographs of the nail art itself to photographs of the nail artists and clients who have their nails done?

MHC: I actually started going to a new salon in March, and my tech and I are the same age—most of the techs are in their early 30s. The shop is known for its raucous techs and clientele. Collectively there is good amount of gossiping about men, and there’s a lot of watching of reality TV and commentary on everything. Because the shop is such a social place, asking to photograph in the salon didn’t feel like a major invasion (even though I am white and they are not, we are of very similar economic demographics), and I thought they might be receptive to the idea.

I was looking at Sammy’s, New York, 1940-44 by Lisette Model a good deal this summer. It’s a bar portrait of a women and a solider. These two figures take up the majority of the frame, with small headspace for two male characters in the background. The flash falls on the woman. Her make-up, clothing and hair are highlighted, and there is sweetness to the moment she shares with the sailor. I loved the details of the female character's face and the intimacy shared between two people in this image. I spent a good deal of time thinking of how I could play with this strategy of intimacy and isolation in space. And I spent even more time gazing across the nail table at Mz. Carla, my nail tech. The desire to photograph her and, specifically, to photograph her from that distance of the table became really strong. I liked the space between us and the idea of isolating a figure so that you really didn’t have too much contextual information. It took several weeks of negotiation with Mz. Carla and other women in the shop, but I have now steadily been photographing every to  every other week. I always get my nails done, and then I hang out for another hour or two and photograph. I take 4x6 prints of the shoot from the week before and give them to the techs and to their clients.

OPP: It's interesting to me that you flip back and forth between staged studio photography, where you are in control of everything, and this on-site shooting that requires you to just respond to whatever is happening in front of you. It seems like most photographers do one of the other.

HMC: It’s a very different type of photography than I’ve done in years. The strategy is more in the documentary tradition, but the work is still evolving. In many ways, it’s much harder than making staged photographs. I have to move quickly and recall strategies of street photography as I frame and shoot.  Also, this new work requires a vulnerability and an openness that can, at times, feel awkward. I’m feeling very challenged and rewarded. 
  Baccara at the Starving Artist benefit
Promotional image
2012

OPP: You also have a collaborative practice with Madeleine Bailey known as Baccara. How did this collaboration start? How has it been fruitful?

MHC: Baccara began as a case of mistaken identity with artist Madeleine Bailey. We were both MFA candidates at SAIC and overlapped briefly. A few years later, we were introduced at a party and immediately began to talk about the possibility of collaboration. When we look back on that night, we are still surprised that we proposed such closeness without knowing one another. In the past two years, we have created several bodies of work, done our own homemade residencies in Indiana and created a shared studio practice. This summer we were in a two-person show at Electricity is Magic in Toronto called White Noise Syndrome and are currently 2012-13 BOLT residents at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition with a shared studio space.

To give you something more formal, our artists’ statement reads: “Drawing on mythologies of romance and stories of mistaken identity, our name channels the image of the Black Rose as depicted through the Harlequin romance novel ‘Knights of the Black Rose.’ While the Black Rose is not found in nature, botanists have manipulated the genetics of several varieties of roses, creating a hybrid black rose that actually appears to be a deep red or purple. Appealingly, Baccara is also the name of a successful female Spanish musical duo, whose hits melded disco, pop, and elements of Spanish folk music in the 1970s. With particular affection for ’Yes Sir, I can Boogie’ and ‘Sorry, I'm a Lady,’ we took the name of the genetically modified flower and the campy folk disco band and made it our own: as Baccarra, we are a Chicago-based female duo that produces photographs and works on paper as well as performance and narrative based videos, embracing artifice and the absurd through childhood games and sexual parody.”

Baccara, is a two-headed, red-headed monster, a powerful friendship, a creative union and a business partnership.

OPP: Can you tell us about the collaborative performance Baccara did at the Starving Artist benefit for Chicago Artists' Coalition a few weeks ago?

MHC: Baccara created a sensorial experience in which guests at the Starving Artist benefit selected one of two chocolates provided by Vosges Haut-Chocolat. Guests were then blindfolded and guided to select their preference between each of two scents, sounds and tactile experiences. Three masked assistants (Jackie Rivas, Alysia Alex, and Kaylee Wyant) assisted in this procedure and photographed every aspect of the event. Props used were two scent vials, one ipod with headphones, one brass object and one pheasant pelt. Madeleine and I were dressed to embody each of the two choices, one being baroque the other being “gypsy passion." Approximately 400 chocolates provided by Vosges were hung from the ceiling using a series of empty frames stretched with screen and strung with thread. Given the guests sensorial choices, they were photographed in front of one of two backdrops. The background represented their taste, and they were given a corresponding chocolate: the absinthe truffle was wrapped in burlap and corresponded to the “gypsy passion,” and the lulu truffle (created for this event) was in purple silk and was paired with the baroque background.
 To see more of Helen Maurene's work, please visit hmcooper.com.