OtherPeoplePixels Interviews John Early

Semicolons and salt shakers
Installation View

An existential thread runs through the work of interdisciplinary artist JOHN EARLY. His rearrangements of discarded car parts encountered in his everyday life, a video of his son painting the sidewalk with water and room-sized sheets of paper covered in shoe prints, scuff marks and stains from his studio floor: these all are records of ephemeral marks made by human beings. John received his BA from University of Virginia (2000) and his MFA from Washington University (2010). He has exhibited extensively in group exhibitions including shows at Center of Creative Art (2011 and 2012) and White Flags Projects (2009) in St. Louis and Whitdel Arts in Detroit (2013 and 2014). Recent solo exhibitions include Objects in mirror (2014) at The Garage in Charlottesville, Virginia and Semicolons and salt shakers (2014) at beverly in St. Louis, where John lives and works.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Could you talk about your interest in mark-making?

John Early: My interest in mark-making is a conceptual extension of drawing, which at its core is the record of a gesture. There’s something very primal and human about the act of making a mark. In reference to why he makes art, Felix Gonzalez-Torres said, “Above all else, it’s about leaving a mark that I existed.” I find that both beautiful and profound. I’m very much interested in this view of mark-making—one that frames the mark in terms of evidencing presence. Looking back, this interest has been with me for at least the past fifteen years. One piece that immediately comes to mind is from a fellowship exhibition in 2001. It consisted of scuffs and smudges made by a basketball on the gallery walls as visitors shot at a hoop I installed at the far end of the space. I think a couple of people were annoyed with this ball ricocheting everywhere, but it was a lot of fun. 

Swivel swing
Graphite and stool

OPP: Swivel swing and Standing snow angel, both 2010, invite viewers to become aware of their own arm span through mark-making. Your static-shot video Star gazing (2011) reminded me that if we are receptive to the information our senses offer, so much is going on all the time, even when it seems like nothing is happening. To what extent is your work about embodied mindfulness or noticing?

JE: My work definitely touches on those themes quite a bit, though they aren’t the impetus for pieces like those you mentioned, which often begin with simple questions. What might it look like to measure the wingspan of everyone in the world? What would it be like to watch a single ray of sunlight travel from the sun to the earth? (The duration of Star gazing—8 minutes and 20 seconds—approximates the time this would take.) Of course, such inquiries could be pursued or “answered” in any number of ways ranging from the scientific to the poetic. My approach to such wondering focuses on experiential knowledge, human scale and the element of time, which, taken together, invite new experiences of familiar things. 

Star gazing
Digital video
8:20 minutes

OPP: I've been thinking about the title of your recent exhibition Semicolons and salt shakers (2014) at beverly in St Louis. The function of semicolons and saltshakers is to bring out the existing flavor of a sentence or a dish. This is a really exciting framework for your dry-wall sculptures that emphasize the boundary between the floor and the wall. That space is always there, but somewhat overlooked unless one is painting the molding. Does my read jive with how you think about the work in that show? 

JE: I really love that read. I’d never given much thought to any associative or symbolic link between the two words. I liked the idea that a semicolon signifies a pause—which points back to the idea of noticing you mentioned earlier—and a salt shaker is a nice alliterative complement that also doubled as an allusion to the everyday. This is a prominent theme running through all the work included in the exhibition: photographs, sculptures and a video of my son painting the sidewalk with water.

The drywall pieces were scale models of the walls of my home studio. This conflation of space in which I both live and work is integral to my recent work, so I felt it was important to transpose elements of that space into the gallery. In planning out and envisioning the exhibition, none of the pieces made sense apart from the context in which they were made and currently lived. Traditional modes of display—white pedestals and wedges; wall works centered at 60 inches or whatever—often don’t work for my pieces. Even with pieces I’ve shown in multiple venues, I tend to install them differently each time they’re exhibited. Context just has such an enormous impact on how we experience any artwork. Anyway, I suppose I view all of my work as installation-based to some degree.

Objects in mirror
Found car parts

OPP: Could you talk about the difference between object arrangements like Untitled (Twain) (2013) or the various works made from found car parts from Objects in mirror (2012) and your photographs of found object arrangements like Salad Spinner (2014) or Cairns (2013)? When do you choose to exhibit a photograph of an arrangement instead of the arrangement itself?

JE: The sculptural pieces you reference are projects in which objects are gathered over time and organized in response to a particular space or context. Untitled (Twain) was part of a pop-up project I did with the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis where several of us drove around town one morning collecting interesting debris—literally anything one of us saw that piqued our interest—and created a temporary sculpture that we juxtaposed with Richard Serra’s Twain (1982). A conversation between eight huge sheets of Cor-ten steel and an arrangement of colorful refuse seemed like a nice one to have. Similarly, Objects in mirror—an ongoing project with multiple iterations—consists of collecting automobile parts I see throughout the course of my day and arranging them in the form of a midsize sedan.

The photographs are part of a series extending these interests in modest materials and ephemerality, with each image acting as a “certificate of presence” (to borrow a phrase from Roland Barthes) that bears witness to the commonplace stuff of the world by calling attention to a particular encounter with it. Because the nature of these photographed “arrangements” is typically very temporary—my son dumped out the wooden blocks and bike helmet from the salad spinner (after all, it was his creation to begin with)—I haven’t often faced the question of whether to exhibit an arrangement or a photograph of it. For the beverly exhibition, however, I did include several individual objects that were also present in photographs I showed. 

Salad spinner
Digital image

OPP: As a contributor to Temporary Art Review, you interviewed your neighbor, fellow artist Tuan Nguyen, in March 2014. You asked a really great question about how being a father has impacted his art practice. Now I want to ask you to please answer your own question.

JE: Thanks, that was such an enjoyable conversation. In the nearly five years since becoming a father, I’ve definitely experienced greater freedom in my art making. I mean, sure, part of this is due to the general posture of wonder that children have toward the world. And I don’t mean to downplay that, but I think an even larger reason for my work changing in this way is more of a practical one: I simply don’t have as much time to work in the studio as I did previously. Some of my earlier work could become a bit belabored on occasion, but I feel more freshness in my work now. I’ve been forced to be more decisive, which has been great. Giving up some of those old habits of over-thinking took some getting used to, but it’s been nice to shed that skin and transition into a new phase of making. 

First "a"
Embroidery, peach crate, roll of tape, books, and a jar of dust
Dimensions variable

OPP: What about your most recent forays into embroidery? My assumption about Maroon Alex (2014) and First “a” (2014) is that you are documenting/memorializing/making more permanent your son’s first marks, like the embroidery is a “certificate of presence.” What led you to embroider instead of photograph these?

JE: I’m not sure how this series might evolve, but the impetus to use embroidery stemmed from the practice of sewing cross-stitch patterns to celebrate and remember significant events in the life of a family, such as the birth of a child. I grew up in a home with embroidery, mainly cross-stitch, on our walls—some patterns were quite ornate and included plants, animals, the alphabet and a short sequence of numbers—so I felt a connection to the visual language of the cross-stitch. I thought it would be a fitting vehicle through which to explore commemoration and remembrance, albeit of less momentous "events" in the life of my family today. This required learning the basics of embroidery, as I had no previous experience with it at all. I liked that it made me slow down. In a world where we continuously record anything and everything, to practice a relatively slower, more limited mode of "capturing" was a nice change of pace and perspective. There are several complex early scribble drawings done by my first son that I have visions of translating into cross-stitch form, which really I'm looking forward to. But I’ve been excited about them for about a year already, so we’ll see if they materialize!

To see more of John's work, please visit john-early.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 exhibitions include solo shows 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, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created  When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.