Heaven Abyss, 2016. Oil, ashes and charcoal on burned panel. 43"x 57"
Informed both by "Czech fatalism and American optimism," TOM PAZDERKA's interdisciplinary practice is loaded with symbols of conflicting ideologies: burned books, raw two-by-fours, buildings crashing down, remote rustic cabins and the famous, solitary individuals who retreated there. In Freedom Club, he highlights underlying connections between notorious (Ted Kaczynski) and beloved (Henry David Thoreau) cabin dwellers. In Twenty Years of Progress, he explores a never-ending cycle of creation and destruction in drawings on charred book pages. Tom earned his BFA at Western Carolina University in 2012 and his MFA from University of California, Santa Barbara in 2016. He just closed a solo exhibition called Into Nothing: New Paintings in Ash and Oil at the Architectural Foundation of Santa Barbara, that was accompanied by a public discussion with artist Maiza Hixson titled Art(ists) of Survival. Since June 2016, Tom has been an Artist-in-Residence at Red Barn Project Space, UC Santa Barbara, where he curated the group show Somewhere or Nowhere At All. In June 2017, his solo exhibition American Gothic will bring the Residency to a close. Tom lives and works in Santa Barbara, California.
OtherPeoplesPixels: In your artist statement, you say “Often I
combine a particular Czech fatalism with an American optimism to
strange effect.” Can you say more about how you bring this fatalism and
this optimism together in your choice of materials, images and subject
Tom Pazderka: Yes, great question right from
the start. Czech culture is by nature fatalistic and pessimistic about
the future. It comes from centuries of struggle for its own voice and
freedom from the rule of neighboring nations and empires. For the past
one to two hundred years, there has been an unofficial national
discussion about the ‘lot of the small nation’ and what this really
means. History is offered as a solution and as an obstacle to national
progress and interests. Throughout history, Czechs have struggled for
freedom from oppressive forms of religion, then feudalism, the
aristocracy and monarchy, the empire, then communism. Finally, with
today’s freedom comes another kind of servitude in the form of
consumerism and political and cultural deferral to the West. It’s only
taken 25 years for pessimism and fatalism to rear its ugly head again.
America and Americans do not have this issue. The world to them is open and wide. Perhaps an entire century of victories and becoming one of the world’s superpowers is a way to achieve cultural hegemony and solidify positive feelings of optimism for the future, regardless of the true nature of these victories. Even the smallest of American grassroots movements—no matter how big or terrible the opposition is—always maintains optimism and hope for change. American nature seems to be one of persistent triumphalism that seems to go back centuries to the Protestant work ethic. This is unheard of in Central Europe. If I was to boil it down I would say that America seeks to constantly renew itself at the expense of the old, while Europe and Czech in particular, seek to solidify and reconcile its present with a chaotic and problematic past at the expense of its future.
Outpost, 2016. Burned image and woodcut on recycled pallets. 72" x 72"
OPP: So how does this affect you personally?
TP: I was born in the Czech Republic, while it was still Czechoslovakia, but moved to the U.S. when I was 12. I have been in the country long enough to be considered half Czech and half American. But I often feel like I am neither Czech nor American. The particularities of the two cultures at play here are sometimes in opposition. I, myself, have become infected by the optimist bug. This is why I am drawn to dark and beautiful imagery and the grit of raw materials. I am attracted by things that are terrifying but also aesthetic. And I use a lot of wood because it’s a humble material, readily available everywhere, but at the same time it is what the U.S. is built upon.
Falling Twilight, 2014. Charcoal on burned book paper. 120" x 48"
OPP: A recurring strategy in your work is burning images onto tiled two-by-fours and book pages. How do construction and destruction meet, physically and conceptually, in your series Twenty Years of Progress (2014).
TP: In Twenty Years of Progress
I chose several significant events that took place between the years
1994—the year I emigrated to the U.S—and 2014, when returned to the
Czech Republic for an artist residency. All of the events have
negotiated destruction in some way. Some were quite notorious, such as
the burning of churches in Norway or the demolition of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. But one of them went completely unnoticed and that was the demolition of the building of the former Czech Communist Party newspaper Rude Pravo (Red Law).
It was as if the shame of those years had to be erased without fanfare
and masked by a new type of ideology; what replaced the building were
offices and a shopping center.
The physical destruction came through actually burning books in a pit—a symbolic act for the willful destruction of knowledge. The charred remains of the books were then used to make works like those in Twenty Years of Progress. Years earlier, I had used torches to ‘draw’ into wood. The resulting images were quite strong because they became part of the substrate instead of sitting on top of it. They were burned into the wood like memory is burned into one’s mind. Then there was the smell. During my grad years, the joke was that everyone knew when I was around because there was a strong smell of a burning fire inside the studios. Conceptually, destruction seems to always precede a new beginning.
Lost Wisdom: a Secular Book Burning, 2012. Burned books
OPP: That makes me think of the Phoenix, rising from the ashes. Fire, in particular, is important in your work.
Yes, fire is this basic element that gives warmth and comfort but can
hurt or kill if one gets too close. I also think of fire in metaphysical
terms, as the fire inside that burns with anxious desire for knowledge.
Gaston Bachelard wrote a great, short book on this subject called Psychoanalysis of Fire. He identifies certain archetypes—from the arsonist to the Promethean figure— who are drawn to fire.
Despite what we know about the world through science and religion, we know very little about fire itself. Fire is not a just a simple consequence of heat. There must always be an excess to heat to create fire and an excess of something to fuel the fire. . . otherwise it disappears. As such, fire is simply a manifestation of some inward potential that moves outward. Enough heat and a spark create fire, but the physical manifestation itself is as elusive as electricity. One cannot touch it or feel it or grab it, but one can definitely be burned by it. The movement of fire creates powerful meditative states in its observers, and I know this because I’ve stared into fires since I’ve been a young kid.
Drawing for Genius and Madness, the Thoreau Kaczynski Tableau, 2012. Recycled wood and charcoal. 36" x 17" x 2"
OPP: You’ve been exploring the cabin as a form and a symbol for several years. When did the cabin first show up in your work?
TP: I can pinpoint this pretty precisely. In 2012, I made a drawing on on some scrap two-by-fours of two cabins: one was Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin and the other was Ted Kaczynski’s Montana cabin. The scrap wood was made to look like it might have come out of each cabin as a sample of a floor. I called the work Drawing for Genius and Madness, the Thoreau Kaczynski Tableaux because I intended it to become a larger work, an installation perhaps. When I came across the images of the Kaczynski cabin and compared it to the images and floor plans of Thoreau’s cabin, I was immediately struck by the similarities. There were differences, of course. But on the whole, the size and layout of both cabins were eerily alike. This is when I got really interested in the writings of and about Thoreau and Kaczynski. What were the circumstances that made these two who they were/are and how might this be significant to the American experience? I was then introduced to the work of filmmaker James Benning, who built replicas of both cabins in the mountains of California for very similar reasons. Benning’s work culminated in a very provocative book called Two Cabins with critical essays by Julie Ault and Dick Hebdige (with whom I studied at UC Santa Barbara). The essays describe Thoreau and Kaczynski’s relationship to the strange tapestry that is the American experience of wilderness and to one another.
Freedom Club: Martin, 2016
OPP: How has your thinking about what the cabin symbolizes changed over the years? When did your interest in the cabin shift to an interest in the cabin dwellers?
TP: From early on the cabin seemed to me to be the symbol of
freedom, a particular kind of American freedom, tinged with a rustic
patina of traditionalism. The more I dove into research about Thoreau
and Kaczynski, other patterns started to emerge and now I tend to think
of the cabin more as a place fantasy, similar to ‘the room’ in Andrei
where one’s innermost and deepest desires are supposed to come true.
This is of course a trap, because nobody truly knows what one desires.
By going to a place where desires become reality, one’s confronted with
the very knowledge that desire is nothing more than desire for desire
My entire graduate thesis, Psychoanalysis of the Cabin, was based on a reading of the cabin as a place of refuge not just for individuals but also for the entire nation that used the symbol of the cabin as a nostalgic vehicle for a collective national unconscious. Scenes of rustic Arcadia show up in post-apocalyptic sci-fi films like Oblivion, and since the filming of Birth of a Nation, where the last showdown scenes take place inside a log cabin, Hollywood’s been unable to extricate itself from the Romantic fantasy of a rustic nationalism.
Once I’d exhausted the material on Thoreau and Kaczynski, the figure of Martin Heidegger and his hut in the Black Forest of Germany emerged. It was an opening into the cabin life of Europeans, which is entirely different from the American experience. I partly grew up in a cabin in the mountains of Czech Republic and all of a sudden here was a method by which to understand that experience. I began to read studies done on what’s called the ‘cottaging’ culture in Czech Republic and what little there is known about the tiny house movement in the U.S. This is where some of the cabin dwellers first appear, but mainly as a result of their relationship to one another, either directly or indirectly through similarities in outlook or politics.
Freedom Club Cabinet of Ted and Henry, 2016. Photo credit: Tony Mastres
OPP: What strikes me about all the cabin dwellers you’ve chosen is that they are all men, except Leni Riefenstahl—but in this case, the exception might prove the rule. I don’t want to imply that the qualities of nationalism, individualism, madness and desire for dominance are only present in men. But I do see them as conditioned by Patriarchy and cultivated by looking at History through a patriarchal lens. What are your thoughts on how Patriarchy affected these Cabin Dwellers?
TP: I think that historically, our culture has
focused mostly on the men that managed to be seduced by escape and
solitude and then occasionally turned their otherwise non-participatory,
non-social behavior into anti-social behavior. Ted Kaczynski is a case
in point. The most obvious example here is Henry Thoreau, a philosopher,
metaphysician, radical, curmudgeon and anti-social in one person. Our
conditioning as a society comes at us from many directions, the
strongest of which seems to be media. When the story broke on Kaczynski,
it was hard to make out what was actually true about the person who was
being portrayed. Thoreau was shunned during his lifetime, and nobody
read Walden until well after his death. Why or how Thoreau’s work was
appropriated as symbolic Americana is anybody’s guess. Rebecca Solnit
identifies several counter-intuitive issues at play in the figure of
Thoreau in her short essay The Thoreau Problem.
Thoreau writes of country life, the cabin and solitude, but nothing
about the fact that he frequently went to town to purchase items he
needed or that his aunt did his laundry. I believe that the Patriarchal
lens you mention is used to clean up the image of a man from a vaguely
ambiguous idealist to one of a resolved activist for strong values. This
lens narrows and simplifies what would otherwise be a much more
interesting portrait, and this is the case of all of the individuals in
I’ve opted for inclusion of a couple women, Leni Riefenstahl, who more or less went into hiding after the second World War and Judi Bari, a fairly notorious anti-logging activist involved with Earth First! A third woman was going to be Hannah Arendt, whose work on culture and totalitarianism is exceptional, but her main and only tie to cabins was through Martin Heidegger.
I believe that culture, and Western culture in particular, conditions men to be escapist. This is where we get the idea of the man cave, a place within one’s home to which a man can momentarily escape from the pressures of the outside, including the family. Women are conditioned differently, I suppose to be more oriented toward social groups. This is why it is difficult to find women among the above mentioned Cabin Dwellers. That is not to say that women do not go to cabins, they just do not tend to go on their own, or at the very least they do not tend to plan various acts of domestic terrorism from a place of solitude.
I also have to point out that the cabin as escapist refuge seems to be more an American phenomenon. Again, this is not an absolute, but in Czech culture, cabins and cottages were used primarily as second homes for entire families (similar to Scandinavia), not just for the sole purpose of an escape for the male head of the family. There are of course exceptions. In the U.S. however there seems to be a line of a kind of Eden associated with the cabin stretching back to early American history with the Homesteading Act, Thoreau and Emerson at the beginning and Edward Abbey and Ted Kaczynski at the end. Each instance is a type of exercise in existential freedom and self-exile. The flip side to the Kaczynski scenario could perhaps be the case of the Lykov family in Russia. They escaped persecution for their religious beliefs by hiding in the far eastern portion of Syberia, living virtually isolated for more than four decades until Soviet scientists rediscovered them when they flew overhead in a helicopter sometime in the 1970s. Agafia, the last remaining Lykov, is still living in the same hut, living off the land, and practicing religion as her ancestors have always done.
Bringers of the New Dawn, 2017. Oil on burned wood panel with charcoal and ashes. 50 x 33
OPP: You’ve described American history and culture as “a
history of space and stuff (objects, property, etc) which contains its
absolute inverse, the unspoken history of lack and loss (spirituality,
individual rights, etc). This opposition is itself driven by the
strictly American concept of power, and the myth of growth at the
expense of everything else.” This statement resonates with me so
strongly right now in the third month of the Trump Administration. Has
this current political moment spawned any new directions in your work?
TP: I have to say yes. While I wasn’t a close follower of the presidential campaign because deep inside I knew that Bernie did not stand a chance of winning, I was nonetheless keenly aware of the situation. Trump represented everything that is currently wrong with Western culture: vulgarity, baseness, an absorbing self-interest bordering on pathology and above all an insatiable drive toward power that means nothing beyond itself. The Ego’s desire to announce itself endlessly plays itself out in the figure of Trump first as a real estate mogul, then as a celebrity and finally as president of the United States. But this desire for endless adoration and validation creates an abyss in its wake. What this abyss is, is currently unclear. I tend to personalize a lot of my work so that the abysses that I paint now are directly related to personal loss. It is then a bit easier to point outward, toward our culture and say, this is our collective loss that we try to cover over with a seemingly endless supply of stuff and entertainment so that we may not deal with our own responsibility and grief. As a result, my work has become much darker and brooding. I’ve eliminated all color and left only black and white. The paintings I make now are sooty black from the ash and charcoal I use to smear over the burned surface. Sometimes I think they should be uglier, but the small amount of optimism I still have keeps the images rather beautiful to look at. I make no reference to cabins, except for the fact that I paint on wood and leave some of it exposed. I think that this move leaves the cabin symbolically in place. The latest turn back toward painting is a direction I started to call the American Gothic, after the famous painting by Grant Wood. Wood’s painting is an enigmatic piece. The only reason that it’s called American Gothic is because of the Neo-Gothic window at the top of the house. Everything else about the painting, including the architecture of the house and style of clothing, is rural American. The painting is for that reason not about the couple in the foreground, but entirely about the house in the back. I find this kind of ambiguity fascinating because it seems to me to be the opposite of today’s climate in which everything has to be spelled out.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (2013), Heaven Gallery (2014) and the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (2014). She created site-responsive installations for Form Unbound (2015) at Dominican University and SENTIENCE (2016) at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Resist the Urge to Press Forward, a two-person show with Brent Fogt, is on view at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) until April 15th, when there will be a closing reception and artist talk. Stacia just completed Witness, an evolving, durational installation at The Stolbun Collection (Chicago), which could only be viewed via a live broadcast through a Nestcam. Now that the installation is complete, you can watch it via time lapse.