An Interview with Charles McGill
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.
Arthur Negro I, 2006 by Charles McGill
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.
Killer, 2011 by Charles McGill
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.
Cadillac, 2009-10 by Charles McGill
Here are a couple of his latest ones fully exploring his choice of the unusual materials.
Goat, Bull, Horse, Rooster, 2014 by Charles McGill
Corset, 2014 by Charles McGill
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.
4 Chamberlain, 2012 by Charles McGill
Black Again, 2013 by Charles McGill
Red Menace, 2011 by Charles McGill
Left: Raft of the Katrina, 2006 Right: The Patriots, 2011-2012 by Charles McGill
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.0