OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell us a bit about your history and development as an artist.
Judith G. Levy: First I’d like to thank you and say how pleased I am that you invited me to be one of your featured artists. Thank you for this opportunity to speak about my work and my artistic evolution. During my high school years, I was fortunate to have had excellent art, creative-writing and history teachers who really encouraged me and taught me my first lessons in taking intellectual and creative risks. While at Hunter College in New York City, I really began to learn about conceptual art, performance and film-making, and I was exposed to so much exciting work by other students and by the professional artists in the city. I made drawings, paintings and photographs, and I shot film. I shared everything, except the film footage, with my friends, keeping it private until I was ready to figure out how film was going to fit into my work. This did not happen until many years later.
During my college years, I understood little about the possibilities of thinking conceptually in an interdisciplinary way and nothing about the use of humor in a legitimate art practice. Nor did I know how to let the concepts drive my work. I did, however, create what I now know were mixed media installations on the walls in my house. For many years, family obligations and earning a living took up much of my time, but I always voraciously read newspapers and novels, watched narrative and documentary films, wrote stories, and made my wall projects and drawings late at night.It’s easy for me to see where the roots of some of my work reside. I grew up in a home where politics and history were discussed frequently and where ideology and dogma were questioned with Talmudic intensity. I was also aware of my family’s secrets as well as the omissions, inventions and alterations in their narrative descriptions of their lives and the lives of our extended family members and friends. I began to understand that memory, both voluntary and involuntary, is patched together with fragments that may change over time.
When I was in the seventh grade, I did research in my school’s library and wrote a glowing report on all the good that President Andrew Jackson did for our country. It was only later that I learned, on my own, that he was responsible for Indian removal, ethnic cleansing, and The Trail of Tears. I had not read about these events and actions in the books in my school’s library. Around the same time that I wrote the Jackson report, I was reading a lot of fiction that didn’t hold back a thing. Books, like Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith, which I’d found hidden in my father’s tool shed. Smith’s book, published in 1944, is a story about racial strife in a small, Southern town. It, along with Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Roth’s Call It Sleep, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Agee’s A Death in the Family, began to articulate for me what I knew intuitively and experientially—that events have considerable context and that people have complicated feelings and motives for both their actions and inactions. I began to realize, as author David McCollough wrote, “History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
OPP: Have you always been an interdisciplinary artist?
JGL: Throughout my life, I was evolving into an interdisciplinary artist, but I didn’t really know it until about 2008. I was fulfilling my exhibition obligations for a Lilly Endowment Creative Renewal Arts Fellowship that I’d been awarded the year before. This fellowship grant encouraged travel, and I went to Germany and Poland to explore my family’s origins. In Poland I made a short video for my upcoming exhibition, and it really wasn’t a very good film. However, I also made a successful, interactive installation about memory, an animation, some paintings, a comic strip and some collages. It was around this time that I really began to think, focus and create in a new way. I fully embraced an interdisciplinary approach to conceiving and making work, and it seemed like the most perfect, complete and natural thing in the world to do, like breathing. And like breathing, it didn’t feel like a voluntary choice, but rather that the most intrinsic and essential element of my artistic existence had come home to roost. An interdisciplinary practice was going to allow me to create layered, complex, yet accessible work that would rely upon all of my skills as a visual artist. At the same time, it would permit me to integrate my interest in writing, filmmaking and performing, as well as tap into my longtime passion for fiction, history, politics and culture. Kansas City has been an excellent fit for me, and I’ve lived here for a little over four years. I have found the arts community to be very supportive of my interdisciplinary practice and full of opportunity.
OPP: Personal and collective memory, history, revisionism and historical bias are recurring themes in your work. Did you ever consider being an historian? How much is historical research part of your art practice?JGL: Recently writer/filmmaker Errol Morris was quoted as saying, “I despise versions of postmodernism that suggest that there is no such thing as truth, that the truth is up for grabs, relative and subjective… Narrative does not trump all; it does not trump the facts. The facts are immutable. You may not be able to apprehend them or they may be elusive, but they are there.”
I create narrative inventions to attempt to undo omissions, falsehoods and revisions that occur all the time. I’m seeking the truth, with the emphasis on seeking. Of course, I realize that because I use invention, it may seem as though I’m doing the very same thing that I criticize and question in others. However, my intention is not to reconfigure or rewrite the truth, but to make work that gets closer to it.
Although public and private narratives, history, revisionism and historical bias are definitely recurring themes in my work, I have never considered being an historian in spite of the extensive amount of historical research that goes into my work. I think of myself as an interdisciplinary artist whose work is conceptual. Historic and cultural research is a crucial part of my artistic practice. It can be very time-consuming, because my work depends on getting the facts and the details right. This means that when I’m creating a family tree for Hansel and Gretel, I am reading about such things as fraternal orders in Germany prior to World War I, 18th century spellings of German names, German emigration to the United States, the formation of the Progressive Party in Kansas and the flu pandemic of 1917. In Huckleberry Finn, both for the video and the family tree, I researched the early Black Press in the Midwest, lynching in the United States, abolitionists in Missouri, Mark Twain’s childhood friends, the history of slave names, the growth of African American churches and indentured servants. For The Lone Ranger’s video, family tree, postcard album and family artifacts, some of the subjects I studied are: the Texas Rangers, 19th century horse and cattle ranches, volcanoes in Turkey in the 1700s, John Muir and Sarah Bernhardt’s performance in Kansas City in 1906.
I spent many months on The Last Descendants project, because every invention must ring true in order to successfully create suspension of disbelief. This is crucial. If I don’t succeed in making you believe that I am interviewing the last living relative of The Lone Ranger, the whole thing will fall apart. I also must find all of the historical and factual information I need, so that when I reference a Civil War battle, the sinking of the Titanic or the Spanish Flu Pandemic, everything is correct.
OPP: Many of your works reference the ways we glorify moments and places from history, by using materials associated with tourism like souvenir plastic photo viewers, as in Memory Cloud (2009). I'd like to hear more about these installations.
JGL: Memory Cloud is an interactive installation that I created for the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2009. It was based on a small prototype I’d created for my Lilly Endowment Creative Renewal show in 2008. I was thinking about what Susan Steward describes in On Longing, as “the conventional view of time in the everyday lifeworld” and how she contrasts traditional, linear notions with a model “offered by fiction” in which “the time of everyday life is itself organized according to differing modes of temporality, modes articulated through measurements of context and intensification." My attachment to little, plastic, souvenir viewers goes back to my having received one that included an image of me sitting on a horse during a childhood visit to a dude ranch. Every time I looked into the viewer, I felt as though I’d instantly entered into a private, miniature world and that I was miniature, too. It occurred to me that I could create something that captured the vast, shifting, non-verbal aspects of memory by creating a large, amorphous cloud comprised of hundreds of these plastic viewers while using them as sculptural elements. At the same time, I thought I could articulate memory’s visual and narrative specifics in the images within each one. I figured that this interactive installation would inevitably provoke memories and prompt conversation, as participants verbally shared their remembrances with one another. I also thought that many of the people who looked into the little viewers would engage in silent, private recollections as they, too, entered into tiny worlds of remembrance.In creating Memory Cloud, I was also thinking about the Midwest, where I’d felt welcomed and where I've made my home for over 15 years. I was interested in what I was observing about how Midwesterners tried to describe themselves. It seemed to me that people in the middle of the country had a harder time defining their regional identity than people living on either coast. I wondered if the coastal oceans had buffeted definitions in place for those living closer to the edge.During my Creative Renewal Arts Grant trip to Poland and Germany, I got closer to my own identity and family history, as well as to the duality of my Jewish and non-Jewish heritage. I visited Tarnow, where my Polish Jewish relatives had been murdered and Leipzig, where some of my German Lutheran family members had supported the Nazi regime. In Memory Cloud, I became very interested in creating a visual, interactive installation that would be simultaneously poignant and provocative. I also wanted to create something that people could touch, so that as they held one of the plastic viewers, each holding a unique, found image of Midwesterners from the 1940s to the 1970s, it would fold them into the enormity of their own histories and associations. I believed that every time someone picked up a plastic viewer and viewed an image, his or her own set of memories would be aroused and appear intact, or in fragments, or hardly at all. I also care deeply about how photography captures the “everydayness” that Harry Harootunian writes about in his essay “Shadowing History." The taking of a photograph is so often an effort to create memories, and Harootunian acknowledges that in order to remember, we must transform an experience into something that can be retrieved at a later date. I also think that my use of found photographs in this and in other work is using signification and re-signification to acknowledge the overwhelming presence of beauty, sadness and death in all experience.
OPP: And what about the postcards in Panoramic Postcard Installation (2010)?
JGL: I used many pieces of vintage postcards to create new images that looked like old ones. I’ve always seen postcards as tidbits of public history and culture. I've always liked them, not just as souvenir items, but also because of the incongruity of personal messages being sent in a very public manner. So I embarked on using portions of found postcards to augment their seemingly innocuous purpose and transform them into provocative statements about our American past. I believe that souvenirs are historical and cultural representations and that a picture postcard of the Old South or a miniature Berlin Wall inevitably shrinks any struggle with meaning. I was determined to use the same form and appearance to counter this, and I wanted to make pleasant-looking postcards as a way to seduce the viewer into a challenging conversation.
I question what role tourism plays in our understanding of public history, and I am suspicious of glorification. Perhaps this stems from what I understand about the relationship between glory and power and how aggrandizement of position, policy or purpose can wreak tragic havoc upon people, places and things. Remember my discovery about The Trail of Tears. In my Panoramic Postcard, Frederick Douglass Park, Valor, Virginia, I created a tribute to Frederick Douglass that includes depictions of a statue of George Washington from a Kansas City, Missouri park; a refurbished slave auction house from South Carolina; images of Newport mansions; and many other pieces of postcards from all over the United States. By putting them together into a fictional depiction of a tourist site, I explore how public history is described and how commercialism contributes to a limited understanding of what actually happened. This postcard addresses the North’s role in the slave economy of the South, Washington’s flawed and limited definition of democracy, and commercial tourism’s efforts to turn a slave auction site into a spruced up tourist attraction. Here I investigate our inclinations to redefine what actually happened in order to forget what actually happened.
The back portions of these postcards contain image descriptions that mimic typical postcard language. It seems to me that the traditional language on postcards has often upheld prevailing notions that circumvent the truth. For example, Splendid Country Roads, Refuge Co., South Dakota, is a postcard that depicts Indians sitting by the side of the road near their teepees and also shows two touring cars with sightseers taking in the beautiful, pristine views. On the far right side of the postcard is the Statue of Liberty. The postcard also shows two roads, split in the middle by trees. The description reads: "Touring by automobile is a fine way to explore America’s natural beauty and also visit with Indians who sell their handmade crafts."
I certainly think it is important to acknowledge the role of irony in my work, for the implication is that the land in the postcard was stolen from the Indians who are living on the side of the road, the cars are intruding upon nature, the statue of liberty is replicated in a cornfield, and the split road is a metaphor for two avenues of justice: one for those who have power and the other for those who don’t.
OPP: You've had work on billboards and flags and in the Indiana State Park. And you did a collaborative performance called Everybody Loves a Parade (2008) as part of On Procession, an art parade sponsored by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Could you talk about your experiences making public art and why you chose some of the forms and venues you chose?JGL: Most of the public art I have created has been in response to a call for work. The exceptions were two Girls Brigade (2007) solo exhibitions, one in Chicago and one in Minneapolis. The Girls Brigade project explores child warriors, Celtic history and the use of signage to create group affiliation. In Chicago, near the former NavtaSchultz Gallery, Girls Brigade figures, flags and a banner were exhibited on Lake Street. I was really happy about showing this work in Chicago, where I was able to create an alley filled with Heraldic flags and place figures of the Girls along a very busy street. In Minneapolis, several Girls Brigade figures hung on the exterior wall of Soo Visual Art Center’s building. In both of these cities, I think many people saw the work, because they happened to be walking or driving by it. I like the serendipity in this. I also like that public work becomes part of the environment. In making outdoor work, I have explored commercial products such as polyester banner and sign material, Sintra, and marine-grade plywood. In 2008 I’d been reading Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion, and I was thinking about Lippmann’s writing about democracy, partial truths, stereotypes and the public’s lack of information. I was paying particular attention to the chapter, "The World Outside and the Picture in Our Heads," which explores how we form world-views and beliefs through erroneous and partial information as well as through limited direct experience. I had also been investigating the possibility of being able to wear a video on my body as an emphatic way to express personal opinions in public settings. In 2008, when the Indianapolis Museum put out a call for work for On Procession, I collaborated with another artist, and we created a two-person performance piece for the parade called Everybody Loves A Parade. This work consists of matching military, camouflage outfits and DVD chest packs that display identical video compilations of historic, military parade footage and youth parades set to the music of "The Washington Post March" by John Philip Sousa. The two of us marched in the parade, while wearing the outfits and DVD players. Everybody Loves A Parade explores the glorification of war through military parades and suggests that most of us understand little about the past, because we did not experience it. Because we are tempted to emphasize the most appealing aspects of history, we often compartmentalize events and shape them to fit preconceived ideas.
Creating work for a specific site or show can catapult something I’ve been thinking about into becoming reality and prompt me to think about my materials. For example, in responding to a call for work, such as The Dining Room Project in Kansas City at The Paragraph Gallery and The Epsten Gallery, I was able to create You Never Dine Alone, a video installation about the mundane, conflicted and poignant interactions we have with others when we dine and about memories of food. I created an interactive installation consisting of a table, two chairs and two place settings, one for a gallery guest and the other for the monitor that displayed a looped video. The video contained 18 brief segments of individuals eating and speaking about subjects that range from the death of a grandfather to a school cafeteria food fight.
OPP: The Last Descendants (2011) is a video series and installation, in which you interview the living descendants of the fictional characters Huck Finn, Hansel and Gretel, and The Lone Ranger. The interviews use fiction and humor to talk about how the personal biases of individuals affect the way we remember the past. To me, the implication is that history is always a kind of fiction, because there is always some perspective left out. What were your intentions with this series?JGL: In The Last Descendants, I do use public history, fictional narrative and humor to explore how we understand, describe and remember personal and public events. I am interested in how these personal and public narratives get constructed. I use historical facts, fiction, invention and the suspension of disbelief to question what we know and how we know it. For example, in the Hansel and Gretel video, the male character John talks about a relative in glowing terms, until his sister Diane corrects him by stating that the man was a “deserter” during the Revolutionary War. In another reference to a relative, he skirts the issue of a Nazi affiliation. John also brags about belonging to a fraternal order in Germany, and he fails to say that it doesn’t include women until asked by the interviewer. In Huckleberry Finn, the surprise is that Huck’s living relatives are African-American and that Huck and Jim were half-brothers, because Huck’s father raped a slave. This information counters the vague background that Mark Twain gave Huck and emphasizes the horrors of slavery. In addition to having the characters in these videos invent, color or obscure their familial history, I want to place personal stories in the context of larger fields of time and place. I do this somewhat in the video interviews, but I especially focus on it in the large, family trees that include many decades of war, epidemics, immigration, persecution, as well as indications of triumph, love, faith and courage. Both the videos and family trees are provocative and underscore my feeling that personal and public history is largely interpreted. It depends on who is telling the story, how the story is being told and why. Although I invent things, my intention is quite a different one from those who deny the Holocaust or question President Obama’s birth certificate. It is important that I also include information on the family trees that isn’t usually included, such as murder, rape and robbery. I use the suspension of disbelief to create a hybrid of fact and fiction and to show that what we think we know about people, events, personal friends or public figures may not be the truth. The display case containing The Lone Ranger’s personal possessions and family heirlooms addresses the use of objects to create personal and public narratives about the past. These objects arouse our nostalgia in a way that can interfere with getting closer to the truth, but they also provide a great deal of joy and solace, as they let us touch and hold bits of history in our hands. It felt critical to me to use familiar fictional characters as a point of departure, because this provided rich, familiar ground for exploration and development. I believe that by using these characters, I made it easy to engage the audience in work that addresses challenging subject matter.
OPP: Your work is funny, but not stand-up-comedian funny. It's more wry-smile funny. I was totally amused with the defensive reaction of the Lone Ranger's great-great-great niece when she is asked what she knows about his relationship with Tonto. She says, "Look, I've heard this homosexual thing before, and don't get me wrong. I have nothing against gays. I saw Brokeback Mountain and I liked it… but I would like to set the record straight." How is comedy perfect for talking about important social issues like racism and homophobia? What are the potential pitfalls?JGL: I’m really glad you like the humor in my work. It is important to me to use humor and irony, when I can, to address difficult subjects. I think it is easier to see things about ourselves, if we see them in others first, and laughter just helps that along. I don’t usually use the words “funny” or “comedic” to describe my work, although some may say the work is funny or comedic at times. The premises are serious, but I like to use humor to create believable characters. I couldn’t resist setting the Lone Ranger’s great-great-great-niece up the way I did to reveal her feelings about LGBT issues, because we are still dealing with these civil rights and and humanitarian concerns in the United States. I also like to debunk heroes like The Lone Ranger, not because I don’t like them, but because I’m cautioning us to examine how much power and adulation we give to any one person. In Huckleberry Finn, we chuckle when one of the sons exclaims that he isn’t going to receive a “Finn Family Fun” t-shirt anytime soon, because the white side of the family isn’t interested in having a family reunion with the black side of the Finn family. I am clearly fabricating this narrative. However, we know that this kind of prejudice continues to exist. The risk I take in using humor and irony to address political and social issues is that I might not be effectively humorous or ironic. If I miss my mark, then nothing will work. I think humor and irony can be respectful and still potent. Here again, I don’t think I’m writing comedic scripts. I think I use humor and irony to illuminate important questions and issues, and the issues are paramount. OPP: What new projects are you excited about?
JGL: The first project I’d like to describe is the one I’m very excited about and currently working on. Last year I received an Andy Warhol Foundation Rocket Grant through the auspices of The Charlotte Street Foundation and The Spencer Art Museum. I am creating a video called NV in KC (Envy in Kansas City). I created a fictional narrative and use documentary-like interviews to explore envy among artists and institutions in Kansas City. My intention is to explore a subject that is rarely discussed among artists and to help define some of the creative challenges that artists face. In this project, I use humor to deal with some of the difficult aspects of envy. Local artists, musicians and performers are participating in this project, as well videographers and lighting and sound crews. We are completing the first edit now, and we hope to have the project finished by late fall.
After I complete NV in KC, I’ll be working on an installation, thinking about a short video and exploring some 2-D work that has been on the back burner.
To view more of Judith's work, please visit judithglevy.com.