Ted Larsen, Robischon Gallery Installation, 2013. Free-standing piece is titled “Lean on Me,” 2011, Valley Roll Sheet Metal, Enamel, Rivets, 60 by 42 by 30. Wall-mounted piece is titled “Structured Space, Happenstance, or Whatever Makes You Feel Good,” 2012-13, Salvage Steel and Rivets, 89 by 35 by 1.5 inches
I first became familiar with Ted Larsen’s work through art fairs. I am not a big fan of art fairs for many reasons which I won’t get into here but I have been to some of them. Ted’s works at the fairs were not big flashy pieces; they were modestly sized and rather quiet. But they all had very solid presences to stop me and to make me want to ask about the artist. And I had asked about Ted Larsen not once but probably at least three times at different fairs before I solidly registered his name in my head to make me go “oh that’s the artist I like” when I see the work. That might sound like I have no brain to memorize or his works are so unmemorable. Of course that is not my intention. The point I’m making is that it is close to impossible for me to come out remembering names or the works by particular people from going through numbers of art fairs which include thousands of art works in less than ideal viewing conditions. After a while, many works get categorized and generalized into certain types with generally unflattering connotations in my head. But good works by good artists do stand out repeatedly even if they are rather rare. Ted’s work was one of those. The work projects a recognizable atmosphere with its very efficient, smooth and potent visual narratives, most of them are very brief, economical and most of all very effective.
I became his facebook friend. And I have been fascinated by his process and the works, which are more complex, more diverse in varieties and larger both in the presence and the size than the ones I saw at the fairs. My interest in his work has been growing.
He’s agreed to be interviewed here and I am very happy.
Hiroyuki Hamada: So, Ted, how do you define “art” in a few sentences?
Ted Larsen: Limiting my response to what defines art feels like limitations on the definition of art and let me say, I abhor anything which limits art. So let me back up before I begin.
I don’t like art fairs either. I understand they have become a necessary venue for dealers, but the art fair itself poses considerable problems to the viewer. To discover the truth in a work of art one must slow down. Before I describe what art may be, let me say that it is often not found by going quickly, in loud environments, and with many people around. Potentially art might exist in other situations, like noisy, fast, crowded circumstances, but art fairs frequently do something else to art; they degrade it. For me the basic problem with art fairs is that they are designed to be fast. The best gallery spaces on the other hand are created to be slow. These are interesting problems for which dealers have to contend; artists don’t have to do this work. They have their own work to accomplish. Because most of the artists I know work by themselves and at a slow pace, the work they make must likewise be taken in slowly. (As a caveat, it is possible to become proficient at viewing artwork at art fairs, it would just take time to develop that skill for that environment. Personally, I don’t have the time on hand to develop that skill.)
This brings up a second and important other situation for art. The best galleries know how to “own” their spaces. Because they work in them everyday, they have a certain knowledge of how the space works with art. Art fairs don’t generally allow for this kind of working relationship.
More importantly, a well developed and mature artist knows how important it is for them to own their “space.” What I mean is this type of artist understands how important it is to be informed by their own work. The work becomes the artist’s master, giving them directions, requirements, and the terrain it must inhabit. The artist must become a scholar of their work. I am talking about the architecture of the work: its underpinnings, its foundation. This is the conceptual element which must be developed before work can be created successfully. The best art is created with a deep understanding of what it is attempting to accomplish. This gets to the first part of the conversation, what is art?
I believe “art” is something which exits between the viewer and the artwork. It is enigmatic. The artist brings to the work all of their background and life while likewise, the viewer brings their own life and history. Each element in this dance may not know about the other. The commonality is the artwork, which the viewer interprets through their own personal understanding. The more narrowly the artist chooses to focus their work, the more didactic it may become. The opposite holds true as well. By this I mean, if the artist works in a very open-ended and broad fashion, it leaves more room for interpretation. Issues around craftsmanship, skill, narration, form, media, style, genre, theory, and purpose are all focusing lenses. They may or may not add to the interpretation of the artwork. The condition of the viewer may add every bit as much as these lenses do. Great art exists in a timeless way, it lives beyond any one particular condition or state. It speaks to the individual as much as it does to the universal. It is alive and always open to interpretation.
HH: I like your description which brings the art in between the viewer and the art object itself and the addition of the word “enigmatic”. I very much agree. And obviously the width and the depth of the description imply the complexly of art and in turn the enormous complexity of the making process.
In one of your previous interviews you talked about setting limits in your making process in order to work more intuitively. Initially, I found it odd to limit the process but I quickly realized that we all put limits by having our own styles, approaches, materials, fields, numbers of components we work with and etc. I found it very instructive that you are conscious about this adjustment process in order to be productive while allowing yourself to grow as an artist. Are there any other things you have in mind to facilitate the complicated process of making?
TL: In the interview with Lynette Haggard (2010) I talked about some strategies of my creative process. I sometimes employ a rules based system in which I create games. These are ways of working. Working as an effect on the worker. While I cannot predict the effect on other people, I wonder what the effect of working will be one me. So I create rules based games for making work. I am interested in what I will discover about my nature in this process. I often work with serialize form and repetitive elements, compounding them to create new, unpredicted outcomes. Working this way means I wind up doing a lot of repetitive work. I create rules for this work to see how doing the work will effect me. Some of the rules might involve long periods of time while others involve significant amounts of unvarying procedures.
An example of working over a period of time was the development of the Serial Killer Project (2012). I created an object which I knew precisely how long each one would take to build. It was a serialized form: a ziggurat-shaped, horizontally-stepped structure. Taking this form as a base unit, I decided I would make multiples of this form. It was a highly repetitive process in which making the 27 total pieces took almost 7 months, one each 5 day week (I took the weekends off!). It was kind of like being a factory worker. It was a very blue-collar kind of process where everyday, at the same time each day I would be doing the same thing as other days. I thought it would drive me nuts and at points it nearly did! However, along the way, with the decision making component removed from the work, it became quite meditative and peaceful. It was a confrontation of my nature to play this particular game.
Lately I have been thinking about architecture and real-estate. The ideas, theories, and constructs which the artist builds the artwork upon are critical; think of this as the architecture. Critically they form what will evolve in every step in making the work. This is the content issue. But there is something even below the the architecture: the real-estate. While artists are concerned with creating new architecture, I don’t believe enough of them consider the terrain where it exists. It is my belief that artists need to find a way to “own” the entire place where their work resides. This is the context issue. Where the work is seen can alter how the work is seen and what is understood about the work. It can also inform the architecture of the work. They work hand in hand. If we separate them, they feel foreign from one another. There is heavy coding and semiotics in this way of thinking.
HH: That’s really eye opening that you put 9-5 schedule in the making process. I thought I became an artist so that I didn’t have to do that. Ha ha. I’d be killed many times in the repetitive process. Pretty funny title. I like how playful and free you are. Also, I understand that repetition can sometimes get us into an intuitive mode. It can be a gateway to the unknown as we see it used in religious rituals or music. It allows us to be connected to the selected parts while allowing us to be very sensitive to the special dynamics among the components we work with. Are there any other things you do to stay in that mode?
Also, I hear you about the context. Some artists end up having their own spaces to show to make sure the context is right–Noguchi comes to my mind. Do you have any particular ideas in how to ensure that the work has the right context?
TL: The strange thing about being an artist for me is how it mixes the blue-collar-construction-type-of-worker with the poet/philosopher. I really resonate with how Carl Andre described his status as worker-artist. Most of the artist practices (if you don’t mind my calling it that) I admire are fairly labor-intensive, even if they don’t appear to have much labor involved in the work. I also like that we call it “work.” The 9-5 workday that I developed for the Serial Killer Project was made to reinforce the “work” aspect of making “work.” Otherwise and generally I don’t really follow that regime!
I find that I am best able to make critical, creative decisions for about 4 hours a day. I have also found I am at my best in the morning. I generally get into the studio sometime near 8am, but I work through the afternoon. Lucky for me, a good bit of my work is labor intensive and doesn’t require my full creative attention. There is always wood which needs milling; steel which needs processing; or cleaning the space for a safe environment to work. I make most of the important considerations in the morning while I am fresh and leave the hard labor, (milling, welding, grinding, sanding, processing materials) for the afternoon. Finding that first step into the work can be a slow process. It also takes me many weeks and sometimes months to fully understand the work. I have to live with it in the studio long enough for me to be impartial to it in order to successfully evaluate the work.
“Painting is the practice of applying paint, pigment, or other medium to a surface (support structure)-Wikipedia Quote.
What if the paint/other medium applied is already made (as is normal for 95% or more for most artists). Yesterday I spent time getting my painting materials. 5 hours with a sawzall got me the hood from an early 1980’s school bus, the hood from a 1970’s Ford F-150 Pickup truck, and the tops from two Chevy 70’s Custom 10 pickups. This seems like it is significantly more difficult than going to the store!”
Over my almost 28 years of being an artist I have discovered many things about myself. Some of my insights I accept and some of them I push back against. I don’t really try to stay in any particular “mode” as you put it. Maybe I am just always in that mode (which can be problematic!!!) I guess one thing I definitely do is not to overwork. Doing that just makes the whole of my decision-making process muddled and slow. In the middle of the day, I take the dog for a walk. In the early morning during the summer and early fall I often go for long mountain bike rides outside of town. If I don’t get out for early AM rides I take one at the end of the day. In the winter, I often take a day away from work to go skiing. For me these activities are like moving meditations. I can find solutions and working strategies in these situations. Like I said, finding the first step into the work can be a slow process, and I may not find it sitting in the studio.
I am searching for something in my work which I find somewhat inexplicable. I choose not to over-evaluate what that discovery may be, and I have also decided not to add words to something which is non-verbal. I am not a fan of the current moment’s drive to have the artist articulate all things in their work. I think it is fine to talk about the systems we make to work within, but to describe the nature of the work itself presents problems. That said, part of the joy of being an artist is knowing the long and beautiful history we are apart of; therefore, it is incumbent on all artists to know that history.
For me, context is much more than the place where the work is installed. Context is the place where the work “lives.” It is the conceptual environment and not just the theories in the work. It is the whole field of what we consider in making the work. We need to “own” it thoroughly. We cannot afford to abdicate any portion of that real-estate when it informs what we make. This is part of the discovery we are involved with in making the work.
That said, context is also the place where the work is installed. Sure, work could be placed in coffee shops, restaurants, very commercially-driven galleries, at street fairs, and many other like-places. Nothing is wrong with any of these places generally, but something might be incorrect with these places specifically. Choices have to be made. (Choosing can be difficult!) Finding an appropriate place to install work sometimes means having to wait to exhibit work, saying no to certain places, and not working with certain people. It is important to remember content and context are always in conversation. They influence one another. A wrong or inappropriate place to install work does contribute information to its content.
HH: Hmm… I’ve been suspecting that perhaps I might be somewhat lazy and your account seems to make a strong case for it. You are disciplined! My argument against that has always been that it is hard to know when to dive in. But surely you’ve also pointed out the importance of taking time to examine before you start and the difficulty of it… I’ll have to keep in mind what you said about the studio practice.
By the way, I just noticed something interesting. I always find it really special, fun and engaging to talk to artists who’s work I enjoy and who’s process I can relate to. I’ve had many such interactions with artists, writers, composers and etc., when I used to attend art residencies a lot. We knew the basic concepts through what we do in our studios and we could start the conversation immediately. As I read your reply, I notice that I am enjoying our differences more than what we have in common. I think that’s quite significant when in many social occasions we try to find things we share, and quite often, slight differences we find can antagonize the atmosphere, seemingly without any good reasons.
I guess I brought that up because I’m increasingly aware of what art can do to our societies. Something positive, you know? And understanding each other through art while accepting our differences can be one of the ways, I guess. And that also relate to your notion about the context. Our culture, our community and our various social settings can definitely be parts of our works. What do you wish your work to do in those larger context? Or is that something you think about at all?
TL: The problem, if you could call it that, I have is not finding my creativity, it is harnessing it, directing it, and channelling it. I feel as if I have many more ideas than I have time to realize them. Therefore, it is part of my practice to find clarity and then direct my efforts towards a clear-eyed solution. Otherwise I could just bounce around endlessly. That all said, because I have a challenge in finding my focus (which must be part of my nature), I do allow myself several theoretical systems or threads to develop during one period of time. Because I am suspicious of my work for some period of time after I make it and I generally have several works in process/development at one time, this allows me time to consider different perspectives.
This brings up something I feel is important. Immanuel Kant developed the theory of Pluralism in his seminal text The Critique of Pure Reason, which basically meant that there were multiple modalities of perception. Pluralism was a new way to describe and understand the world; we were allowed to consider the multiple aspects influencing perception that take place, often at once, or as states of conditionality. Pluralism and theories of epistemological relativity (the basic theory that there is only one absolute truth or validity) form an important aspect of my philosophical working position. If there are multiple ways to understand (and see) an issue, and our understanding of the topic is based on our position relative to the problem, it follows that it is important to fully “circumambulate” the matter at hand to fully understand it. This allows me to have multiple genre threads all at once, so long as they all involved in resolving one central meta point.
The work I make is intended to question some of the basic constructs and beliefs of Minimalism as well as High Art practice generally. The work I create is not intended to be merely self-referencial; it points to other aesthetic and social issues as well. If I felt my work was only self-referencial and didn’t hold the possibility of illuminating other humanistic topics I wouldn’t do it. We live in an important and pivotable period of time. Making work which would merely be pleasing and decorative would be the worst! Art can be a kind of medicine for culture and society.
HH: I agree that coming to contact with the essence of a work is a lot like channeling to a larger reality–or something–than finding a creative machine enclosed in our mind. I find the process to be one of the most essential acts to stay human. I always think that a lack of this deep observation process to connect to this mystic ground can lead to dehumanized aspects of our lives today.
I find it interesting that you are describing having multiple pieces going in your studio as examining different perspectives. Are you always conscious about the central theme of the group? I work on many pieces at once also but I always thought that’s because it helps me to be more objective about the pieces–which I am sure you are aware of. But looking back what I’ve done, your description applies to some of my making process as well. By the way, I hope the readers are as intrigued about your answers as I am.
TL: Let me shift gears for a second. I really admire your work! There are qualities which seem closely related to what I am interested in pursuing. The forms and surfaces of the work are absolutely delicious. There is a sensuousness to it which both allude and misdirect simultaneously. They are very subversive! As much as the work inhabits the world of the senses, it is equally intellectually rigorous. There are hints of Tadao Ando, Constantin Brancusi, Le Corbusier, Brutalist architecture all while resting softly on something which is quite other-worldly. The work contains all kinds of humanness with suggestions of something much more grand, in fact spiritual. The sublime is put forward for consideration in your work.
Let me answer your question regarding my awareness of any central themes in my work. You know how it goes; we develop belief systems which define who we are; they become the lens through which we see our choices, and therefore, define what we do. While I am continually redefining my sense of self and what I believe to some extent, I don’t actively think about philosophy daily. I live both a structured life and one which allows a fair bit of freedom of my time. Sometimes when I go into the studio I know exactly what needs to be done and other times are much more experimental. (I am in the latter mode right now.) I value the results of my time in the studio, and I value the process of working every bit as much. I spend considerably more time engaged with the working aspects of my practice then living with the results (I wish I could say I collect my work, but the simple truth is I cannot afford my work!). My life with the work after completion is generally limited while the process is continual. Because the process is always happening, my ways of working are always developing.
HH: Did I make you talk too much about the indescribable field of the making process? I get frustrated when people do that. Ha ha ha. There are areas where words just fail…at least my words. And I often try not to define things too much in those places in order not to limit anything in the pool of possibilities. And quite often, the essential parts are not even visible to our conscious mind at that stage. They are buried in the obvious impressions…
And thank you for your beautiful descriptions about my work. I feel that one thing we make sure in the making process is that the work actually engages the viewers at the deeper levels. We actually want to move the viewers at the cores of their beings as opposed to just laying down instructions of how the viewers should be reacting or why. And I believe the delicate making process we discussed above is extremely important in what we are trying to do.
Could you talk a little bit about your latest works?
TL: I have included two working exhibition statements. The first formulates my thoughts regarding two dividing phenomenological aspects of perception.
Most of the phenomenological artwork you encounter in the art world is pristinely made, where craft sort of disappears because it is so perfect. However, there is another kind of phenomenal aesthetic as well. It is not built on the premise of craftsmanship disappearing. It is much more crude. In either case, perception is central to what is seen; and what is seen is based on a kind of visual trickery. In either case, it is necessary to see beyond what is actually seen. That is the trick involved in both aesthetics. If there is trickery involved in making a work of art, it lays in the architecture (both physical object and the theory with which it is made) of the work. The trick is how it is perceived and how the underlying architecture (both its physical presence and the ideas which make it) is understood.
There are two opposites which divid phenomenological perception; one is the pristine and the other is the rickety. These differences point toward something bigger; the differences between something clean and something rickety is really what defines the difference between something spiritual and the supernatural. In this definition, the spiritual is the realm of god, where nature is pure while the supernatural is the domain of magic, the artifice where perception is based on illusion. The clean is spiritual; the dirty is supernatural; the light is spiritual, the dark is supernatural; the rich is spiritual; the poor is supernatural. At this point, the logic begins to fray. There is heavy coding and semiotics in all of these distinctions between the spiritual and the supernatural.
My work draws on the idiom of minimalism, with all of its possible connotations, yet heavily draws on the architecture of the supernatural, where craft is drawn into question, resolutions seem uncertain, and visual perception as well as value judgements (good taste versus bad taste or high brow versus low brow aesthetics) are questioned.
The second involves my interests in the connections between drawing and painting (sculpture too!) and the objectness of these concerns.
Acclaimed Naturalist and author Peter Matthiessen makes the statement, “it is the responsibility of the writer to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.” It is a true enough statement and holds tangency to other forms of communication: in this case, visual art. Therefore, it could be said that it is the responsibility of the conceptual artist to visually show the semiotics of art with all of its associated meaning-making images (analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication) and the minimal artist to distill form and create a literal, objective approach to the subject. While I don’t consider my work to fit neatly into any particular category, I do feel deep affiliations to both conceptual and minimal principles. As a contemporary artist, it is my responsibility to re-evaluate historic art movements and their contexts.
While working primarily with alternative and salvage materials, I am creating work which signifies the connection between drawing and painting. In some of these works I used my old drawing table in conjunction with colorful salvage steel. Because I have a heavy drawing hand, I chose to show that hand metaphorically. I used a router which allowed me to create deep recessed lines which I then inset with salvage steel. The subsequent geometric patterns refer to drawn images. In others works I used pre-painted materials over the top of physically dimensional structures to create perceptual links between drawing and specific conceptual theories behind drawing, namely that drawing can infer the idea of space. In a series of shaped painting-like structures I overlaid brightly colored materials to draw out the historical references within both the Conceptual and Minimal High Art practices. The titles of the work often allude to their meanings as well as offer insight into their material natures. These works blend both my mark-making with mass produced, now-salvage materials in which I had no hand in making, but considerable effort in altering. All of the work is made to question the basic underlaying principles of what constitutes drawing or painting and the value we place on how these practices are historically described.
Art is alive and can critically reflect the moment in which it is created. Artists often attempt to make judgements about historical artworks and the movements which effected them. Challenging established meanings is different from changing these meanings. We are in the midst of a total re-evaluation of our entire society, from our aesthetics to our politics, our distribution of wealth to our natural environment. Likewise, this body of work offers its own re-evaluation and re-contextualization of Minimalism and Conceptualism and offers new outcomes to old solutions.
The reason I am including these in my response to your question is to illustrate my interest in establishing working paradigms, limits, parameters to what I am developing in the studio. Sometimes these are written before I begin work, often during the work, and at other times towards the end of a new body of work. I almost never write at the end of a project. Most of the writing involves quick notes while working which later get modified into these kind of statements. I like taking notes and keeping track of my thinking.
I have not written anything yet for the beginning of this new project. I have several threads I am considering. One involves patterned relationships to other patterns; think of pattern on pattern on pattern and you will get the general idea. One is based on component parts in association to other component parts; think of looking into the engine bay of your car and how all of the components are assembled in relation to each other. While both threads have a certain kind of connection to each other (formal or functional relationships), they are very different visually. They also resolve physically in quite divergent manners. In this way working, one of these routes will show itself more clearly to me and I will follow that path. As of yet, I don’t know. I kind of like not knowing.
The final thing I would like to respond to is about the issue around control. As I said earlier, I have no idea what the viewer brings to seeing and therefore I can’t predict, solicit, or guarantee any particular outcome whatsoever. I’m not a magician! In fact, it really is none of my business what they experience from my work. I’m sure that sounds strange, but it’s the truth for me. Don’t get me wrong, I “need” people to resonate strongly with the work; that’s how I pay my mortgage, send my kids to school, and eat! However, if my endeavor is to get people to resonate with the work, that feels salacious and not truthful to the work for me. So I try to leave that out of the creative process.
HH: Oh, yes, certainly. You don’t want to be manipulated by other people’s perceptions in the process. Although, I have found that sometimes people can shift artists’ perspectives in looking at the work, helping them to gain understanding of the essence. And as you indicated, there is certainly an aspect to “speak for those who cannot speak for themselves”. But the process, I believe, is ultimately rooted in our own perception and the practice of gaining access to the deeper reality. It is not a straight forward process and I feel that you strive and struggle to make your own path with passion and honesty.
And I very much agree that we have a great need to reevaluate the values and norms today. And the fact that the quality, which usually is associated with words like rickety, dirty and poor, becomes a part of the building blocks of the solid presence in your work does make me wonder about some aspects of the minimalism or high art, which are often expressed as flawless, as if they are the logical conclusions proven to be sound and correct, but ONLY as long as we are sticking within the norms and values of the accepted standards. There is something limiting and authoritative about the realm of the high art and that can easily be translated into the issues we face today in the real world. I think those are very thought provoking statements.
Thank you so much for taking time in answering my questions, Ted. I have a lot to digest.
I have one last question. Could you name some artists you are interested in today?
TL: Allison Miller, Joseph Ferriso, Joe Fyfe, Chris Johanson, Colby Bird, Alexander Goilizki, Carroll Dunham, Katherine Bernhardt, Matt Connors, Daniel Cummings, Tony Feher, Fergus Feehily, Sergej Jensen, Jonas Wood, Chuck Webster, Jered Sprecher, Anne Seidman, Stanley Whitney, Mary Heilmann, Thomas Nozkowski, Mark Grotjahn, Richard Tuttle, Andrew Masullo, and the late great Paul Klee just to name a few. But there are many other artists whose work I admire and think have contributed significantly to today’s aesthetic dialogue.
Interesting that most of the people I mentioned are primarily known for their paintings. While dimensional space interests me intensely, it is really painting which informs me most. That said, the other day I was reading a lovely transcribed passage by Phyllida Barlow where she talked about how sculpture vanishes. Her take on it was quite fascinating. When you circumambulate a sculpture, the view you see from one perspective is gone when you arrive at another position. She noted how different this quality is from painting, where no matter where you stand, it appears the same. I liked that a lot. I am going to have to consider her words carefully.
Thank you Hiroyuki for this conversation. It was quite enjoyable.
HH: Wow, what a list. Thank YOU, Ted. I feel that I need to come back to you someday and continue our conversation…Ted Larsen (b. 1964, USA) is a nationally exhibiting artist and Pollock-Krasner Foundation recipient with a BA from Northern Arizona University. The work he creates supply commentary on minimalist belief systems and the ultimate importance of High Art practice. Since 2001, Larsen has used alternative and salvage materials in his studio exercises.Ted Larsen’s work has been exhibited widely in museums in the US, including the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, The Albuquerque Museum, The Amarillo Museum of Art, The Spiva Center for the Arts in Joplin, Missouri, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art as well as in over eighty gallery exhibitions. He has received grants from the Surdna Foundation and the Pollock Krasner Foundation, as well as residencies with the Edward F. Albee Foundation and Asilah Arts Festival in Morocco, where he was the selected to be the USA representative. He has guest lectured at The South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts in Greenville, South Carolina; University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico; The Palm Springs Art Museum, Palm Springs, California; The New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Site Santa Fe, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Texas Society of Architects, Dallas, Texas.Larsen has been featured in Art in American, ArtNews, SouthWest Art, Mountain Living, Architectural Digest, Sculpture Magazine, and Art Gallery International magazines. He has had reviews in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Denver Post, and The Dallas Morning News amongst others. Larsen’s work appears in the books Art On The Edge, Biennial Southwest, The Curtain of Trees, New American Paintings, and Millennium Collection. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) produced an interview with Larsen.Ted Larsen is included in the collections of The New Mexico Museum of Art, The New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, The Edward F. Albee Foundation, Proctor & Gamble, The Bolivian Consulate, Reader’s Digest, PepsiCo, The University of Miami, Krasel Art Center, Dreyfus Funds, JP Morgan Chase, Forbes and Pioneer Hi-Bred, Inc.
I met Charles through a job I did at an art organization. We worked together only for a week but he gave me a strong impression as a sensitive person who was willing to be honest about who he is.
One night we went to a Vietnamese restaurant that he frequents. As we ate and chatted about our lives, food and so on over our bowls of Pho, he told me that he was skeptical about marriage, basically pointing out that there is not much in finding out how different you are from your spouse and realizing that you have to share things you don’t even like with a stranger. I just burst into laughter. There is certainly that aspect even for the happiest marriage. And he had a pleasant skill of framing the difficult matter with an optimism, warmth and a sense of humor. And he also sounded caring and very happy about his girl friend. Life is very complex as we all know.
I guess he wants things around him to be certain ways. He also says that he can’t live in the city because he can’t have a garage where he keeps his large motorcycle. And his attitude doesn’t stop with how the physical world around him is set up. As a black person who needs to make sense out of what is going on in a largely corporatized world, where racism and other means of exploitation are institutionalized in highly sophisticated ways, he can be relentless and uncompromising in stating his case. But he does it with a style, sense of humor and realistic complexity reflecting our own limitations and ideals.
Here is an excerpt from his 2003 writing, The Complete Brief History of Club Negro, describing Club Negro which appears in a series of performances regarding a mythical character Arthur Negro.
“Club Negro is a place where Black Americans find themselves politically listless and ineffective. It is where luxury and comfort are the goals we seek to obtain. It is here where black people congregate with blinded eyes and zipped lips. They see no, hear no or speak no points of view on racial politics, economics or the educational disparities between the black and white communities. They speak not a word on the outright violent injustices perpetrated at the hands the ‘men in blue’, A.K.A. the ‘Po Po’. It is an illusory state of leisure shielded by denial, wealth and celebrity. At Club Negro one is not subject to the stop and frisk realities on the streets of America (I was going to write, “the streets of the inner city, but experience tells me it’s any street, anywhere).
It is a place of complacency where the lack of collective outrage towards conditions, which persistently burden black men and women, is the norm and not the exception. The leaders, people of principle with the courage to speak without concern of retaliation from sponsors or political contingencies, have perished. Whether assassinated, bought and compromised or marginalized by their own political fatigue, those people of courage and conviction are gone and no one has filled their shoes or taken the baton. No one of integrity has come to the fore to inspire the activism that defined the 1960′s.”
Here is a life sized photo realistic statue of Arthur Negro by Charles McGill from 2006.
More about the legendary Arthur Negro: The Biography of Arthur Negro II
Here is another piece of his, Killer, 2011. It is made with his signature material, golf bags. I find it shockingly funny, urgent and poignant at the same time. To me it’s one of the best works of art illustrating our predicament today.
Here is another great one. Again, he is superimposing the racial reference on the object of the racial/class privilege. He is treating the surface to emphasize the enigmatic shape of the bag as if to delineate the surreal nature of the silence over the continuing mistreatments of blacks. The result, again, is comical but seriously heart-breaking at the same time.
Here are a couple of his latest ones fully exploring his choice of the unusual materials.
An Interview with Charles McGill
Hiroyuki Hamada: Charles has agreed to be interviewed here. I know that you are busy with the new teaching job in NYC. I really appreciate you taking time for this.
Charles, when we were at that restaurant, you told me about how you got into art. I was moved by your story of how people around you were encouraging and it also cultivated your teaching philosophy. Could you talk about that a little?
Charles McGill: First of all thank you for asking me to participate in the discussion. I think people who influence young people barely know how profoundly their words or actions may be received. It may not show immediate positive impact but a seed was planted. That was the case for me. I was always making art and knew I had an ability pretty early in life. But that I could actually do something with the talent was lost on me. Until a high school art teacher, David Menichello, asked me if I was going to art school I had no previous designs on pursuing art as a life style or career. My answer to him was, “Do you think I could go to an art school?’ His reply pretty much changed my life – if you wanted to you could go to any art school in the country.’ From that day forward I began to take myself seriously as an artist and began setting goals for myself. The first of which was to go to art school.
I went to a small junior college in Pennsylvania called Keystone Junior College; it has since become a four-year institution. It had a very strong art department which was small so I received the attention and individual instruction I needed coming out of high school as a middle of the road student… I really just never applied myself so I didn’t produce much in the way of promise for a bright and productive future.
But at this particular college I was encouraged and my talent was recognized and cultivated. Not only that but I began to recognize my talent even more and the results of all the instruction started to show… Hey, I’m pretty good at this drawing and painting stuff. I also learned discipline and a solid work ethic that I continue to rely on and cultivate to this day.
I think if I’d gone to the larger art school right out of high school my abilities may not have blossomed quite the same way. The environment at Keystone was key. By the time I graduated and transferred to SVA I was a top recruit and a solid artist/student who could hold his own anywhere.
I attribute that to the encouragement and compassion of my early instructors at Keystone but especially to Mr. Menichello.
Lastly, my mother and father encouraged me greatly with the decision to go to art school. But frankly, any decision I made to go to college would’ve been supported. A lot of students don’t go to art school because their parents are concerned about making a living. My parents were concerned with me getting an education and the fact that I was good at something was enough for them. Their support was instrumental.
I am still learning from those early influences and I wouldn’t know where’d I’d be if it weren’t for a few keen eyes for talent who recognized and encouraged mine.
HH: I can really relate to what you went through Charles. I also met a teacher, Karl Jacobson, when I went to a community college, who basically turned me into an artist. I learned two things from him. First, as you described, I learned that it was OK to be an artist. I also didn’t grow up in an art family so it really didn’t occur to me to take that route. And I also learned from him what visual art can do to you. I was into making things, drawing pictures and so on, and I knew how to have fun doing all that, but I didn’t quite know how to put things together to make something with a cohesive whole, which has an impact to move people. It was quite shocking to see what he could do with his visual language–his speciality was drawings and paintings–and learning how to make it happen for myself was a life changing experience.
When did you become conscious about this strange thing: Art? I’m talking about realizing the mystery in the dynamics of the elements, the chemical reactions and the whole process of giving a birth to a whole that is bigger and more significant than the parts? And how do you define art in your words?
CM: I have to say that it was a series of paintings, The Heads, in 1985-86 that really catapulted me into the mystery of art and its potential to reveal deep emotional content. Again, a teacher of mine at SVA, Jack Whitten, put his finger into my chest and said to me regarding the first few pieces of this series of paintings, “You’ve asked the question – Who am I? Man once you begin to answer that question you can’t be afraid of stepping on people’s toes.” Since that day, I have tried to remain as uncompromising as I can be to be true to my own vision of what I want art to be. I go to great lengths to guard that vision and make work that I feel isn’t being made. I don’t like direct creative influences so I try not to study much contemporary art. I go to galleries and museums but I am cautious not to overindulge because I really don’t want to be influenced directly or subtly. I’ve always worked like that. I respect other artists for sure, but I would hope that they have a vision they want to protect and cultivate, too. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant, but its just the way I have found to best follow the vision for my art that works best for me in the studio. I have learned to trust my vision and trust working methods that prove most constructive to me. I was talking with another artist recently who said she believes in working in the studio every day and that artists should make something everyday… I don’t believe that. There are other ways to be creative and to stimulate that part of the brain that is responsible to the art-instinct. Taking a break from the studio is essential for me. Rest is sometimes more productive than some silly belief that making work every day is essential to being an artist. Shit, I’ve taken years, literally years off from making work and it was the best thing I could’ve done for myself because it broke a habit and that habit was creatively destructive. Everything I’ve done since I attribute to that hiatus.
As far as what I think art is or how I define it I would have to say that I think it’s a way to remain curious about life and leave evidence of that curiosity in my wake (or in storage.. LOL!). A lot of times I feel like a kid on permanent recess from class….recreation (re-creation) time. I get to look at the world and my environment and ask the questions that relate directly to what my relationship to it all is. What is art? Art is evidence.
HH: Ha, I like that; “art is evidence”. In terms of the first part of your answer, it relates to an issue I always wonder about which is striking a balance between who we are as artists (as well as individuals) and opening our eyes for discoveries and explorations. It reminds me of musicians talking about staying away from your habitual hand moves in playing instruments. You mentioned about “other ways to be creative and to stimulate that part of the brain that is responsible to the art-instict”. Could you elaborate on that? Maybe with particular examples? I always feel that if more people are willing to tap into that deeper mode of thinking, perhaps, we can expand our considerations for our deeper relationships to ourselves, environment, society and so on…besides we will have more options for solutions. Also, when you are in the studio, are there things you do or don’t to stay close to the “art-instinct”?
CM: Well I don’t think it’s a good practice for me to do art for the sake of doing it. I am not afraid to not make art for periods of time for fear that I will lose my identity or cease being an artist. So not making art allows me to use my imagination in life to record and expand my consciousness so that when I return to the studio I have cleared away the clutter. I heard an old Chinese (I think) proverb that read: The condition of maximum capacity is emptiness. I can’t recall where I read it but it always stuck with me. So if I want to make art for the long term I need to avoid ‘burn out’ by not becoming a factory for the art. When I had my years long hiatus the reasons I stopped making art were many but a primary reason was the obligation I put on myself to make art that was capable of changing people minds about issues. Heavy emotional content was a must and it weighed heavy on my own consciousness. So when I returned to the studio after several other things fell back into place I told myself I wasn’t going to make art unless I was having fun making it. So I jumpstarted the work with satire. Club Negro was the early version of the work and it was made up of ‘jokes’, ironies, plays on words and outright clever musings. It worked and gave me a way into making work that was my own and didn’t rely on the abilities or results of other artists for inspiration or visual advice.
So when I say other ways to stimulate the art instinct I mean being in life and doing things that take me away from the act of making art and allow me to be an artist doing other things (as an artist). So when I take a day trip on my motorcycle I look at landscape and depth of field and I see as an artist… I think about my teaching and my own studio practice when I see how values and color depict physical space in life. Observation has always been the artist’s best used tool whether they paint or draw from observation or just take time to observe because, after all, it is called visual arts. So my art-instinct is stimulated while I engage in life outside the studio doing ‘non-art-related’ activity.
Agnes Martin gave an example once to me (I don’t like to quote her because she also said some very racist things to me during my studio visit with her) but it’s more the message and not the messenger that I like. She said she had a student who wanted to be at the beach but felt she had to make work because she was an artist and that’s what artists do. She felt like she was denying herself the pleasure of being at the beach on what were fabulous summer days. Agnes replied to her that it was better to be at the beach thinking about the studio and making art than it was to be in the studio distracted by thoughts of the beach. I never forgot that.
As far as what I do in the studio to stay close to the instinct, I almost would rather not say because it does feel vulnerable. But some of what I do is to always have the tv on and perhaps some music, too. I want a degree of outside stimulation that my conscious brain can focus on so it’s not focused on what I’m doing per se. If it’s able to listen to popular culture on the television it is like a child who watches tv and is oblivious to its surroundings to a degree. Likewise, my brain seems to not pay too much attention to what the art instinct wants to do… sort of like the brain becomes a spectator so that the subconscious mind can engage in the subconscious activities of art making. If I consciously make work in the studio I end up watching myself do it. I don’t like to watch myself make art. So, here comes the vulnerable part – I do a lot of angry art making. Much of it has to do with the material and how difficult it is to work with. There is a lot of ripping, cutting, tearing, sawing, pounding etc. and in that process I get frustrated, angry, rageful and lost. Ive made work that has blood all over it as a result of cutting myself without even knowing it only to find out sometime that there are smears of blood everywhere on the piece and I don’t know how or when it happened. I am then working on a very subconscious level and have engaged the art instinct which to me is primal and necessary, visceral and vital. What is left is ‘evidence’.
I hope that doesn’t sound dramatic or narcissistic. Its just a typical day in the studio. I’ve heard people say that their time in the studio is like meditation, zen and all that… mine is a wrestling match and it’s no wonder I need long breaks in between. When I return to the studio I usually have forgotten how I started the last few pieces, what I did to make them, etc. and the formula for making the work is changed again. It insures I will not copy myself.
HH: I think a lot of artists can relate to what you say about the process. I’m glad that you articulated it. A few months ago, I spotted my musician friend, Ron Anderson, quoting Captain Beefheart when describing a performance of his: “If you’re guilty of thinking, you’re out. If your brain is part of the process, you’re missing it. You should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. If you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing”. And I’ve been doing lots of drawings recently and it’s really odd that the great ones sometimes are the ones I don’t even remember doing. There is certainly something about being oblivious. And I often notice solutions to a work out of the corner of my eyes, almost slipping away, while I’m paying attention to something else. It really fits your description about using music or TV in lifting your conscious mind. It’s really interesting that the actual creative process can be very counter intuitive and it’s very different from generally considered ideas of being productive or efficient. I mean, like, going to the beach thinking about making is better. Ha ha. But I do think that really does make sense.
I found it very interesting that Club Negro came out as a result of deciding to have fun in the studio. It is hilarious but the content is dead serious. There is a magical quality to how the difficult content is laid out so spontaneously and so poetically as if your “art-instict” took over the difficult content while you are having fun with jokes, plays on words and so on. The same thing can be said about some of the golf bag pieces with the social commentaries.
Do you plan at all before the wrestling match? Sketches, ideas, preliminary investigations of some sorts? By the way, thank you for revealing the very personal process. I have no intention of being judgmental about artists’ making process, especially when it’s working. As an artist myself I do know how hard and mysterious it is to come up with a meaningful work…
CM: I explained my process to an artist friend of mine, Steve Digiovanni and he remarked that I was in constant need for catharsis when working in the studio and I told him that it was the perfect explanantion for what I feel goes on when I work…it must be cathartic but not just once but continually. That was a very well articulated observation.
I never work with sketches or any preconception. In fact I try to forget anything that came before so that each piece feels like an entirely new journey. As I mentioned earlier my breaks away from the studio allow me to begin with a certain amount of ignorance relative to any previously used ‘formula’ for lack of a better word. I don’t plan anything. When I research my material which generally consists of driving around the region collecting vintage-style golf bags from all kinds of people, I am thinking much like I would be if I was sketching ideas or preliminary constructs. The meeting of people and seeing new areas, driving new roads, etc. all that goes into making the work. That’s where my head is at when I am preparing to make work…. it has to be serene and new… sometimes I stop into diners or hole in the wall lunch spots. I found a great Vietnamese place about and hour and a half into New Jersey . I cant remember the town but this place made a great bowl of Pho…But I digress! About the only thing I’ve done to prepare is to sometimes line bags up relative to the color relationships – whether they work well as a palette. If they do then pretty much any arrangement, as long as it’s compositionally sound, will work.
I’ve never worked well with ideas beforehand – I don’t trust them, they handcuff and stifle my art instinct.
HH: I like that your description about getting the materials elaborates a little on working outside of your studio and how it prepares you for the struggle in the studio.
You know what, the sort of process you are describing really requires you to be open, honest and flexible to yourself, the materials and everything else that is involved in your life. I really believe that that sort of thinking process is a positive thing for anyone in terms of gaining deeper and wider understanding of ourselves, our environment, and how we relate ourselves to the larger schemes of matters. Do you get to share that sort of process with your students? Do they get that? I don’t think I really understood that until I went to college. I always find it odd that this fundamental part of the making process is missing from art education in schools.
CM: I share a lot of the art making reality with my students… I teach drawing and painting because I know what I’m doing teaching those two disciplines. I teach what I know, not what I do. Many times I have no idea what I’m doing in the studio. As much as that frustrates me, I prefer to not know what the outcome will be rather than to have a preconceived result in mind. Anytime I’ve started with a preconception, I’ve ended up with something that is either one of two things: one, something entirely different from what I planned or two, a complete fake, a copy of something I made prior. I’ve been known to rework pieces years later because I’ve lived with them long enough and they never resonate truth, they seem fake and inauthentic. I pull them out and rework them knowing that I’m either going to ruin the piece or make it better but I can’t live with the piece the way it is.
I think students presume working artists or their professors make art without much difficulty….like it just comes out like a manufactured product made by some machine or something. In fact when I begin a class I show my student a lot of my bad early work…work that I made before I had real training in all the fundamentals. Most of it is late high school and undergraduate work. They see a development of drawing skills and an evolution of painting and color comprehension… I show this work to them so they can see that I worked hard to develop my skills for painting and drawing. I want them to see that one can develop their skills and understanding of their craft with a solid work ethic and discipline.
I think these examples give them a real insight into their own creativity because some of the early college work ends up not being as good as some of the work they begin producing months later. I remind them of my early work samples and they agree that they actually are painting or drawing better than I was at the same stage…. But, my later college work gives them something to shoot for…it builds their ambition, whereas the former examples build their esteem. I think it’s important for the students to see their professor’s state of creative vulnerability. I really do try to convey that making art for me means that the doubt and vulnerability are always present and that too much confidence can inhibit deeper experimentation. I hope this makes sense. I know I understand what I’m saying, LOL.
So when I talk about the creative reality for an artist I highlight the fact that making work involves a lot of hard work, discipline and focus on the larger picture…the vision of the artist.
I usually show the DVD ‘The Mystery of Picasso’ sometime during the semester. It’s a great example of how an artist thinks and how that thought process is reflected in the way the page is constructed. You can actually watch Picasso think by the way his hand moves, hesitates and makes marks upon the page. If you’ve never seen that DVD then you must see it, even if you don’t like Picasso!
Anyway, to your point, this aspect of the fundamental part of the art making process is not neglected in my classes. It is a featured teaching tool because it gives much needed insight to the students so they know that doubt, fear and indecision are each parts of the process and contribute greatly to the creative solution.
HH: I feel so good knowing that many students are coming out of your class!
One last question. I know that you already said that you look at other artists’ works with caution because it might affect your making process. But can you name a few artists who are doing interesting works today?
CM: To further clarify what I mean by that I can offer these two examples: When I was in graduate school I saw an Anselm Kiefer exhibition. I was so moved and affected by the textures and enormity of the work, that what do you think I did? I went back to my studio and began making work that was big, textured with roofing tar, all kinds of found materials and had a lot of visual impact. Although it was my own work I knew it was derived from that one Kiefer exhibition. It took me two years to shake that influence. The work I produced was authentic but heavily influenced by that one artist. I was conscious of it and made a decision to not make that same mistake again.
The other example has to do with dialects and region. I spent some time in a region in the south one summer a long time ago and within a few weeks I had a southern twang on certain words. I didn’t even notice it – it had to be pointed out to me before I realized I was even doing it. That made an impression on me because I realized how powerful the brain is and also how easily influenced it can be by the environment and things I hear and see.
Those two experiences have given me lessons that have helped me in my own studio practice. Trust my voice and vision, know my craft and be ever-willing to make something I’ve never made before that makes me feel uncomfortable somewhere in the process. As I mentioned earlier, I prefer doubt and anxiety over confidence and clarity when I make work. I get clarity and confidence after the work is made and I see that the process I trust is actually working for me. Others may not see it or be as moved as I am and that’s ok.
That said, you caught me at a good time because I was very moved by a few artists whose exhibitions are up right now. The first was Peter Dreher at Koenig and Clinton. He painted the same glass in the same position thousands of times over 40 years, mostly in shades of black, white and gray, mixed with the most minimal of muted color. His purpose from what I was told was to reexamine the object anew each time as though he’d never seen it before. To paint it without taking the object for granted. The paintings are simple and beautiful. I mentioned one of my favorite quotes to the gallery director: The condition of maximum capacity is emptiness. I think I mentioned that earlier. But what I saw was him emptying his mind each time to fill it with the visual newness he experienced each time he reexamined this object. She looked at me and pointed and said you’re right, ‘he is dealing with emptiness’. The discipline demonstrated in the small works is, for me, a great example of a process I try to use in my studio – I try to make something different each time with the same materials, in a different way, beginning each with few preconceptions, and I try to let the materials dictate the course.
The second show was Peter Buggenhout at Barbara Gladstone. His massive, jagged and dusty sculptures are remnants of failed infrastructures or ruins of some sort. They are they kind of objects that I respond to but no more or less than Peter Drehers work. They affect me much the same way because I am not so much looking at the product as much as I am looking at the process. I think both artists, if put in a room together, would come out with more similarities than differences when it comes to how they make art although the outcomes are very different visually. They both may not even ‘like’ the others work but their shared beliefs about working would cause them both to acknowledge their respect for each others work. Of course I am making a presumption here but I don’t think I’d be far off the mark. The last show I saw that made an impression was the Julian Schnabel exhibition at Gagosian. Say what you will about Schnabel but that mother fucker can paint his ass off!
HH: Well, Charles, thank you so much for spending time with me. It’s been great to hear what you have to say. I look forward to seeing more of your work, and please keep in touch!
Here are a few other works by Charles.
Charles McGill is represented by Pavel Zoubok Gallery in New York and is an Assistant Professor of Painting and Drawing at The Borough of Manhattan Community College in TriBeCa. He is a 2014 recipient of the Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant. Charles lives and works in Peekskill, NY.
You can know more about him and his work at his site.
You go up to the 4th floor, you turn left after getting out of the elevator to look at the description of the show. There, you can see the work which intrigued me the most in the show: A statesmanlike, official looking portrait of President Obama placed high up on the wall. Beneath it, people gather to read the description about the show.
“Why is he there?” I ask my wife. We are at one of the most prestigious cultural institutions where, at least to me, openness and examinations of possibilities should be encouraged, and the shapes, positions and the contexts of humanity in our lives should be explored without any authoritative boundaries. I was disturbed to see him introducing the show, greeting a few thousand museum goers everyday. For a starter, this president joins a meeting every week with the people from the spy agencies, generals and other officials to discuss who should be assassinated with remote controlled planes. This president engages, without due process, the executions of suspects which include the US citizens and innocent bystanders. The attacks are often aimed at wedding ceremonies, funerals, and they often include “double tapping”, a war crime according to international laws, in which a successive attack is aimed at rescuers, desperate relatives in tears and the brave people who volunteer to help the injured victims. My wife sort of avoids the question saying “I don’t know”. We often get into arguments when I start talking about things of this nature.
I really hated to ruin the day with a fight. After all, it was my birthday and she came out to pick me up in the city where I was working for a week. It was nice to see her after a week of separation, but I felt the burning anger and sadness thinking about the deaths and the destruction, the words “why is he there?” just dropped out of my mouth. My wife might have rolled her eyes, but that was not unusual. I also forgot about it after 5 seconds. We were back to our fun outing.
Moving along, looking at art works, I might have taken a picture or two. I thought one of the cardboard sculptures on the wall was nice. My wife complained that she didn’t like anything except for the pots with dinosaurs on them. I wanted to say that some of the works seem to be like blue prints or recipes. They seemed to include instructions or narratives but they didn’t actually create the magical tastes in my mouth, or the profound shock of transformation in my head. But before I could actually open my mouth and say it, we weren’t walking together anymore. I guess I tend to think in a day dreamy manner sometimes, my wife would get mad because I think in my head and I fail to actually say it, resulting in, well, ignoring her without meaning to do so. In short, we were just appreciating the art works in the show.
Anyway, we moved to the 3rd floor. By that time, however, I was feeling something again. I noticed that I was repeating the words “why was he there?”. The portrait: his piercing eyes, the image of the people swarming beneath him. And I almost forgot to mention this but you could also hear low ominous sound effects coming from a sculpture around the corner adding to the undeniable unsettling feeling. Come to think of it, the placement was sort of odd too, stuck at the corner, sort of too high as if it was calling your attention to bring out the question “why is he there?”
I had to tell my wife that I had to go back to the 4th floor to see what the portrait was all about. A big mistake, of course. Later I was accused of leaving her wondering in the museum alone. But the question kept repeating in my head “why was he there”. I could not help it.
This is what the description on the wall said:
“Many of Dawound Bey’s photographs–including the others on view elsewhere on this floor–reflect on the nature of portraiture. They explore the limits of what the genre can and cannot do, using it to pose complex questions of identity and our relationships to history. Bey’s portait of Barack Obama is, by contrast, an excellent but straightforward example of the genre. It is included here as a tactical move within curator Michelle Grabner’s quasi-pedagogical strategy; Grabner notes that this image can be viewed as “a signifier of both civil unity and political and racial instability, a punctuation of nationalism and hierarchy in a shifting field of artworks that occupy the fourth floor””.
OK, so the museum does acknowledge the portrait as a “punctuation of nationalism”, and “a signifier of both political and racial instability”. But the president’s portrait, which is positioned to preside over one of the most important cultural events in the city, is also seen as a symbol of “civil unity”.
There is a civil unity based on justice and humanity and a civil unity based on violence and fear.
The Obama administration has succeeded in rounding up the entire population of the planet under the vast NSA global network. The government is collecting everything we do online and more. They send out bugs to infect our devices to spy. They infiltrate democratic movements to hunt down dissenting voices. They threaten journalists with unjust laws and imprisonment. And as the elected officials talk about peace and democracy, they keep 1000 military bases across the globe with 57% of our taxes going to the defense budget. The US fights numerous covert and overt wars, all of them are offensive and are based on the special interests of the multinational corporations and the giant banks. At home, the police force is militarized. We have 2 million people, mostly minorities and mostly for victimless crimes, incarcerated in domestic prisons, the running of which is out sourced to private corporations, providing virtually free labor for the major US corporations. OK, I’ll stop but my point is that it’s the “civil unity” by the rule of fear.
There is no word about any of that in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. We may talk about gay rights. We may talk about women’s rights. We may express and explore the boundaries of our culture and our perceptions. But we are unified under the piercing eyes of our commander in chief. Why is he there? Because he is the symbol of our corporate cage. We are free and creative as long as we stay inside of our cage. And the more I see our moral and ethical obligations neglected in our art community by our silence, the brighter the president’s portrait on the 4th floor shines.
Of course, that is just all in my head. But I fantasize and I’m dying to want to believe that one of the curators of the 2014 Whitney Biennial sees it through. She is compelled to step out of the cage and poses important questions as a responsible human being: Why is he there? Don’t we know what is going on? What is art for? What is culture when our basic values are based on corporate interests? Don’t we care?
As we left the museum, the entire building seemed to be a giant art monster with President Obama’s portrait as the head and the long line leading out of the door as its tail.
This story really moved me. It happened in the 90s in Japan. The economic bubble of the 80s had burst and the corporate oriented restructuring and austerity measures gave some people a newly found reality of surviving outside of the corporate routines. The underground station of Shinjuku, Tokyo was filled with cardboard houses populated by the homeless people.
It’s a story of young artists who themselves lived on the edge of the corporate cage, relentlessly trying to be true to humanity…
I came across their website recently and the English translation was missing in the descriptions of their art works which are crucial in telling the story of those artists. I offered to translate some of them and here is a first set of images which tells about how they got started.
Photos are by Naoko Sakokawa.
The very first Shinjuku Underground Station West exit Cardboard painting.
Initially, I wasn’t intending on painting those cardboard houses at the underground corridors at all. I was set to street-paint in Shinjuku, guerrilla style. I walked around Shinjuku with paint cans with “TAKEWO”. But the seemingly open, unrestricted big city didn’t have any place for the guerrilla paint job. We looked and looked but it was all systematic. We just walked around aimlessly with disappointment.
We just stood around hopelessly. The city was gigantic and oppressive. As we followed the river of people in despair, we came across the village of cardboard houses at the Shinjuku Underground Station West Exit. We stumbled onto one of them, knocking the cardboard door:
“What do you want?” A large man with a menacing face answered.
“I’m an artist and I would like to paint on your cardboard house,” I answered.
“Like I said, I would like to paint on your cardboard house.”
“OK, go ahead.”
That’s how our cardboard house painting got started. We, “TAKEWO” and I, spent all night painting two of the cardboard houses that night. We kept hearing distant sounds of people screaming and shattering glass, and the underground corridor was filled with the police siren and the ambulance siren every once in a while.
In the summer night, our rebellion was born in the underground of the mega city.
This piece is considered a representative work of ours that survived the forced removal of homeless people by the city of Tokyo on 1/24/1996. It’s THE Shinjuku Underground Station West Exit cardboard house painting.
Yamane mentioned the words “Left Eye of Shinjuku”. The image of those words got the three of us started. It was an all night live painting. The battle of us three. It was so intense that we drew some audience.
Across from the West Exit rotary there is a monument called “An Eye of Shinjuku”. It’s the right eye. And the one we painted is the left one. Makes sense. It’s the pair. The giant eyes had emerged in the Shinjuku underground corridor. The underground became a creature with a soul, baring its teeth against fucking Japan.
Just in case, I must say that the “Left” of “The Left Eye of Shinjuku” has nothing to do with the left wing. So those middle aged dick-wad lefties dragging around the 60s shouldn’t mix this up with that. We are not piece of shit like you all. By the way, it’s odd but when we finished painting this one, we somehow felt that when this painting is gone, that’ll be the time this village will be gone.
The Left Eye of Shinjuku which survived the forced removal had prevailed as a symbol of the underground kingdom.
Then the big fire of February of 1998 came. Soaked in water, the painting was disposed of by the City of Tokyo, and the village has disappeared as well. The Left Eye of Shinjuku really died with the cardboard village.
A piece made with circles.
I wished my work to be weirdly “inevitable” to the time and the space, not to be about my personal ideology, my philosophy or my process.
I drew lots of circles. A circle doesn’t have edges. It’s round, and it looks the same from any angle. And it’s somewhat humorous. I was edgy but I drew lots of circles.
When we become excessive, we lose the essence. I also wanted my expression to include a healthy dose of looseness and a sense of humor. But that was pretty tough. We often ended up painting with a grabbing-someone-by-the-neck sort of an attitude.
Myself screaming savagely with a knife in my hand, myself being inclusive with a sense of humor, many thoughts went through my mind.
But I felt that the experience which transformed me positively the most is when I touched the warmth of humanity.
This might be a picture when the cardboard village was being removed.
Far into the picture there is the word “sin” (罪) and to the left, there is the word “no”(無), the piece reads “innocent”(無罪). It was a piece done as a reaction to the not guilty verdict of 1/24/1996 to an activist for protesting against the removal of the cardboard village. Later the verdict was reversed. The activist became the sinner and the city committed a sin of eradicating the cardboard village. A sin is manufactured according to the convenience of the society. The society is made up with individuals. While we fight among each other, we are harming the planet. It might be correct that we are all born sinners.