Sunday, November 30, 2008
From the blog Living the Romantic Comedy:
Friday, November 14, 2008
NEW YORK—Marilyn Minter has been a part of the New York art scene since the 1970s, though her career has been anything but a smooth ride. She made a series of now-celebrated photographic studies of her drug-addicted mother while still a student in Florida, and in the early ’80s she explored Pop-derived images that often had a sexual undercurrent. Then, at the end of that decade she painted herself straight into fevered and often bitter controversy when she began using imagery taken from porn magazines. Her infamy was exacerbated in 1990 when she produced her own TV ad, 100 Food Porn, which ran during late-night mainstream television shows. The 1990s and the early years of this decade saw her gradually refining her style and imagery so that, while still suggesting pornography, her photographs and paintings seem equally to breathe the atmosphere of high fashion (a world that she claims to know nothing about) and glamour. Her painting technique is equally startling, employing many layers of translucent enamel paint on metal to produce an incandescent, almost hallucinatory finish. Her work came to the attention of entirely new audiences last year, when Creative Time commissioned a series of giant billboards from her that were hung in Chelsea and, a few months later, she was included in the Whitney Biennial. Now, in the summer of 2007, she’s suddenly everywhere. She is guest designer for the current issue of Francis Ford Coppola’s magazine Zoetrope All-Story, and her work is featured on the cover and in the centerfold of the current issue of the art publication Parkett, for whom she produced an editioned photograph of Pamela Anderson that immediately sold out. She shot the campaign images for Tom Ford’s new fragrance, Tom Ford for Men, which will be launched in September, and Gregory R. Miller & Co. has just published a lavish $60 monograph of her work.
Last week, on her birthday, she shared coffee and cake with ARTINFO in her SoHo loft, where three assistants were hard at work on a group of new paintings. We began by talking about the new book.
Marilyn, congratulations on this new book. It really manages to convey the physical character of your work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book that used such heavy, glossy paper before.
Thank you. Isn’t it great? The designers are pretty brilliant. From day one they said, “We’ll use different papers. We’ll use pink, we’ll use silver. We’ve got this shiny paper, we’ve got paper that feels like it’s wet.” I can’t take any credit for anything of it. It was their idea.
But you must have given them some direction?
I’m a catalog collector. I showed them all the catalogs that I love, and I said to them, “Do what you always wanted to do and no one would let you,” and this is what they came up with.
I can’t imagine that’s how you work with your painting assistants here.
I’m so overwhelmed with everything that’s going on right now. In the last year I’ve been constantly pulled away from painting. I’m at the computer, figuring out what we’re going to do, figuring out images, and ordering prints. If it was just me in the studio I’d be making one painting a year!
I invented the technique, but at this point, I’m their [the assistants’] underpainter. But I am also the director. An assistant might do the painting, but I’m constantly changing what she does. Whether I’m painting on the painting or not, I have the vision of what it’s supposed to look like. I’m still the painter. I know that things are going to slow down, and I’ll be back to painting again.
Can you explain the difference between the photographs that you make and your paintings?
Every photo I take is to make a painting, but sometimes a photo is so good that I don’t need to make a painting out of it. It’s like when a conventional artist makes a drawing and then makes a painting from the drawing. Sometimes the drawing’s just a perfect moment, a finished artistic project, so the painter doesn’t touch the drawing. That’s how I sometimes feel about a photograph: It’s a perfect sketch.
Plus I’m a conventional photographer. I don’t Photoshop any of my photos. They’re not cropped or anything, whereas in the paintings I use different photos for different parts of the image. I’m using five photos to make this painting of Stephanie Seymour: one photo to make that jewelry at the bottom, a different photo to make the baby’s hair, a different photo to make the pearls inside the mouth.… I combine these different photos. In photography you can’t do that. In painting you can.
Also, I think that something really happens with this painting technique that I’ve invented, with layers and layers and layers of enamel paint. You can’t get that translucency with a photo. The painting’s so rich. So it might look like the same series, but the paintings are way different from the photos. People that don’t see the difference, I think their eyes have died or something. It shocks me that some critic would go to a gallery—as someone did—and say, “Well, you can tell the paintings from the photos, because the photos have glass in front of them!" No, there’s a little more difference than that.
I’ve never quite understood your attitude toward the glamorous images that you present in your work. Are you celebrating glamour, or criticizing it?
Both. Because I think it’s a complex emotion when you look at glamorous pictures. I can’t say that everybody gets pleasure out of it, but I do, and a lot of people I know get a lot of pleasure out of looking at the most glamorous pictures. But you’re constantly aware that you’re never going to look that good. So there are two feelings there, not just one, and I’m just trying to mirror that, to make a picture of what that feels like.
Does that mean you’re not taking a position at all?
As soon as you tell people what to think, it’s not interesting. It becomes an illustration. I constantly have to walk the tightrope of metaphor. The more layers of understanding I can add, the stronger my images will be. And it’s so easy to fall off that tightrope, so I have to be careful, because for me it’s the difference between something interesting and bullshit. If it looks to me like I’ve made any moral judgment at all, or I’m trying to tell you what to think, then I’m not interested. It’s like when you see a movie—if you don’t come out thinking, “What did the director mean? What did that mean?” then there’s something wrong. I want to do the same thing with my paintings. All you can do is ask the questions. There are no answers. People are constantly trying to give you answers, but there are exceptions to every rule.
Let me pursue this a little further. You’ve just done the promotional shots for Tom Ford’s new perfume. Ford has used a particular sort of glamorous soft porn in promoting his designs. What do you think of him?
Well, you know, I don’t really know what Tom Ford stands for. I don’t have that experience. I don’t know anything about fashion. I had to be told who Tom Ford was. I had to go and buy his book.
All right, then. What about Pamela Anderson? Do you admire her?
Of course I admire her. I like Pam because she’s not a victim. She doesn’t have some Svengali taking care of things. She owns the production of her own imagery. She’s not an actress or a comedian, she’s a personality who makes a fortune from the way she looks. She’s real savvy. She works with Richard Prince, and she works with Jeff Koons, and now she works with me.
She doesn’t have education. She comes from some little town in Canada, and now she’s a multimillionaire and successful and a happy person. She’s very self-deprecating, extremely funny, very sharp. If you make money because of the way you look, the world’s gonna help you do it. They’re gonna give you money to put those shoes on. Those guys are gonna put silicone in your boobs. It’s so easy not to admire her. It’s so easy to make fun of Pamela Anderson. Actors snub her and they’re mean to her, but anyone who writes her off is stupid. She’s not Anna Nicole Smith or Marilyn Monroe.
And is that why you wanted to photograph her?
The only reason I did Pam Anderson was because I wanted to put her in Parkett. I wanted to take all her makeup off and get to the animal activist. I wanted to photograph the person who’s so empathetic toward animals that she’s a PETA person. I’m not. I might admire what they do, but I don’t do anything. I still wear leather. Pam’s a longtime vegetarian. I don’t think she’s ever had a piece of meat. Isn’t that amazing? And she’s made all these millions of dollars being a pinup, but I see her as an animal activist, basically.
How did the whole project come together? Did you just phone her?
How it started was David LaChapelle wanted to commission me. Tony Shafrazi’s his dealer, and they knew about the Stephanie Seymour painting. Pam was marrying Kid Rock, and so David LaChapelle wanted to commission me to make a painting as a wedding present. And then the wedding fell apart, but in the meantime, I got asked by Parkett to be one of their artists, and I said, “Yes, but I want to make Pamela Anderson your centerfold.” Of course, she’s very savvy. She doesn’t do anything for nothing. It takes a million dollars to get her to take her clothes off. So I had to have somebody produce the whole thing, and I have to make three paintings. I’m going to make three really good ones though. And she gets a free painting!
You know, I think a lot of people just imagine that they’re a few more pictures of Pamela Anderson. Do you think that most people underestimate your work?
I think that whenever you make something that looks good, people want to underestimate it. They immediately want to dismiss it. If it looks really good, there’s an automatic rejection. But it doesn’t really matter, because I know that these paintings are going to look good in 20 or 30 or 50 years. So if people don’t get it now, they’re going to get it sooner or later.
I’m surprised you’re so relaxed about people’s responses. You’re an artist who’s been utterly demonized because of your work.
Good point. I was. Nobody ever asks me about that, so I’m glad you did. I was demonized. People hated me. I fell from grace. I was cast out of the art world. The generation of the late ’80s clung to politically correct ’70s feminism, and I was seen as a traitor. But it’s been a really healthy thing for my work. It was a lousy thing in terms of how it made me feel, but I think that you’re a better artist if terrible things happen to you. I hate to say that because it’s such a cliché, but it’s true. I’m a better artist because I went through that stuff in the ’80s and ’90s. I almost had to step outside of my body, that’s how painful it was. Especially when you’re getting called names over sexual imagery. What could be worse? Sex! Oh, you sick pervert! Waves of shame! So I went to therapy, and hung out with this group of people who helped me a lot.
It must have made you really question what you were doing.
I’ve never doubted myself, but I did have a few questions like “Maybe I’m just not supposed to be a painter.” But I swear that the reason I continued on, why I thought, “I’m just going to keep doing it anyway,” was because I’d had this loft since 1976 for $400. I had this really cheap loft and I didn’t have to kill myself to make rent payments, so I was obviously doing what I was supposed to be doing. I thought, “You’re so lucky with the space. You’re supposed to be a painter making work.” It was that clear-cut. I really believe in that serendipitous thing.
You seem very philosophical about it now.
I’m old enough to know that it doesn’t mean anything. It all comes down to making the work. Back then the times weren’t open to what I was trying to say, and I had a really hard time communicating. Whose fault is that? It’s nobody’s fault. But now I am communicating, and people are hearing me. I’m in a really unique position. I’m getting all this success, but I’m not going to go crazy, because I don’t really care. What does it really change? I feel really lucky. I lived through it. But I know the way the world works—I’ve got a couple of years and then I’ll get criticized again.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Monday, October 27, 2008
Recommended Exhibition at Contemporary Art Workshop
Opens Friday (Halloween)
Contemporary Art Workshop, 542 W. Grant Place, Chicago, IL 60614
ph. 773.472.4004 / e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Hours: Tues. - Fri. 12:30-5:30, Sat. By Appointment
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Paddy Johnson/Art Fag City on Peyton:
Ken Johnson/NYTimes on Heilmann:
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Marvin Heiferman I wanted to talk about abstraction, the idea that your works seem truly abstract and always have. I think that’s part of why everyone’s been so perplexed and confused about the work—for ten years—they didn’t know what they were looking at. They were pictures but didn’t look like pictures. They’re not factual, not quite fantasy. But they have, as you call it, a “look.” And if you give the “look” enough attention, it seems to approach the sublime.
Richard Prince Sublime or uncanny. You know, it’s very strange, I thought that the early pictures as objects, never mind the subjects, were very disorienting. I was always wondering, when does the disorientation become clear? It seemed to take a most unbelievably long time. I always thought the reason why it might have taken a long time for them to unwind was because it was hard for an audience to locate what was fiction and what was fact.
MH And clearly they weren’t about what they seemed to be about. I always loved those pictures of the guys in suits. You’d look at them and think “Who the fuck cares?” But they were advertising pictures, so you’d wonder who was buying those suits, who was looking at them.
RP It’s also about who was putting them out. It wasn’t just me that was putting them out. Someone had already made some kind of choices for them. These were actual photographs, literal rather than figurative. I simply attached the literal, the actual, to what was in fact a set-up, a version of a scene or something that was close to a movie still. I came along and made a real photograph out of what was essentially an image in a magazine. Let’s say People, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, Life, whatever.
MH What do you think the confusion was? What do you think viewers weren’t getting in your work?
RP I think I was having the most trouble looking at photographs. I felt really uncomfortable with how the balance of fact and fiction worked in traditional photographs. I thought those kinds of pictures were fiction, where most people saw them as facts. The trouble I was having was that I thought my photographs had more non-fiction in them. What appeared to be fictional was, in fact, non-fiction. People usually look at photographs and expect to see fact, but in the end, don’t. When you go to the movies, you can be taken in, have the willingness to say, “Okay, I’m going to believe this scenario, this set-up.”
MH I was thinking about that, what it was like to go to the movies, to walk into a dark room and say “I’m going to believe, for the time being, everything that I see in front of me…”
RP Because you have this desire to.
MH Right. It’s like a lot of photography you run into in the course of a day.
RP It’s editorial. People use photographs as visual language, to provide information, to supply a window, to supplement text. Most editorial photographs sit beside a whole page of text. They work together. But what happens when you just hang a photograph alone? People look at them and see them on an aesthetic level. The problem with my photographs, when they were hanging up, was that there weren’t those levels to look at. So all of a sudden the audience is standing in front of them saying, “Well, I know what I’m looking at, I’m looking at four men looking in the same direction. They look like what they look like.” But after that, what are you left with? I don’t think the author of those pictures, meaning me—knew or wanted to know what was going on. There was a crisis for me, in terms of what one believed, what one thought art was, and what one wanted to see art be about. I was fairly dissatisfied at the time, I wasn’t seeing the kind of art I wanted to see. So the logical thing to do was to make it. It’s what happens when you give up. I gave up what I was doing, I gave up making art that looked like art.
MH I don’t remember which interview it was, but you’ve talked about not aestheticizing your work…do you still believe that you don’t? When you started making these, you didn’t know what you were doing. At what point did you?
RP Well, the only thing I knew was that I didn’t want to aestheticize in the sense of silk screening or painting or drawing on or changing it—I suppose when I say the pictures weren’t aestheticized, they weren’t aestheticized in the same old way. Obviously they were in the sense that I changed an image from a magazine which was on paper to a photograph. If anything happened it was like adding onto the history of collage—instead of ripping the page out and pasting it up, the gesture was photographing the page, but in a way in which it looked like a photograph. And it was, in fact, a photograph. So with that small gesture, the depression of the shutter, the image was quite different from what most people were doing with found images or public imagery.
MH Were you thinking about Warhol when you made the first photographs?
RP Warhol and most of the pop artists aestheticized their found imagery. Warhol was struggling with abstract expressionism. You could see it in the early work, with Dick Tracy and Popeye. There were still some gestures left over. You can see the influence of Larry Rivers, Rauschenberg. Mostly Rivers. What happened to Warhol that was interesting, was that he was trying to get into art while most artists were trying to get outside of it. He was trying to get in because he had come from the commercial world. He realized that his commercial background was something you could bring to art rather than the other way around. From those early Dick Tracy and Popeye pieces from ‘61 to ‘62, you can really see his transformation, how by ‘63 he aestheticized the image radically. I wanted to use photography because it had another history. Painting, silk screen, drawing, they suggest something else. But photography suggested belief. It suggests fact. I thought that because I was choosing subject matter that was in fact, fiction, it might be better to use a factual medium to level that fiction, to occupy an area of “official fiction.” I could operate in that kind of gray area where the literal and the figurative become the same. That was the reason to add on or to make more than one image. Instead of one man looking in one direction, why not put three? That was like going to court, as I’ve said before; that was like evidence. Because if you don’t believe one, here’s two more.
MH The work was evidence of that midpoint. It was about that tension, the evidence of that tension.
RP I was thinking more about proving my case. I was having a crisis, a social, political, critical crisis about the belief system—confronting all the systems that we were told were one way and, you later found out, were totally another way. And I thought that those were…
MH Real life politics?
RP Yeah, and I think it wasn’t just me who was coming to terms with it, everybody was.
MH Is there a conscious choice to play to a more generous concept of an audience?
RP I think that those are conscious things that are in the work. For instance, in the first photographs, there were certain accessories that were re-photographed. Whether they were pens, watches, jewelry, I remember not having anything to do with the objects themselves other than having a relationship with the pictures of those objects.
MH Were you any closer to the pictures of girl friends?
RP No closer. The people in the motorcycle magazines, I’m about as close to them as! was to a picture of jewelry hanging in a tree. What I did establish was a relationship with those things as images.
MH I was thinking of your extreme choices of subject matter…the Seaman’s furniture, the bottom of the line clothing, and all of a sudden you switch to Dunhill lighters, pens, pocket books.
RP They’re the extreme; cartoon like, ideal.
MH But then it comes back the other way, like oceans are oceans, available to everybody, but bikers’ girlfriends aren’t…
RP Oceans without surfers, cowboys without Marlboros…Even though I’m aware of the classicism of the images. I seem to go after images that I don’t quite believe. And, I try to re-present them even more unbelievably. If there’s any one thing going on through these images, it’s that I as an audience don’t believe them.
MH Don’t buy them?
RP The things that I probably know about are the things that I avoid dealing with. It didn’t occur to me that the girl friends were, in fact, girl friends. It didn’t occur to me that people take pictures of their girl friends and send them into magazines and then go out and buy the magazine. It occurred to me later. It’s like the watches. I must have taken a hundred pictures of watches, but never wore one. The way they were presented in say, the magazines, looking like living things. That’s what 1 liked. They look like they had egos. They were presented almost with a comic effect, when, in fact, they were just watches, alone or on a wrist. The more you saw them, the more unfictional they became. They would pop up around the city, on bus stops, all of a sudden—like the cowboy in the Marlboro ads.
MH I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the history of advertising in America, the way ads are constructed, the way people think about them. An idea that comes up again and again is that advertising is not made to get new customers, but is directed at users, people who’ve already used the product. If you own a BMW, you look at BMW ads. I was really surprised. I had assumed that the idea was to be seduced into doing something that you weren’t ready to do. But thinking about the early, confused responses to your work, maybe that was part of the problem. You showed people images, but it didn’t have the “look” that they “bought” or could believe.
RP It’s possible it’s one of the reasons I got involved. I know that some of the ideas for using advertising images were that they weren’t associated with an author, and weren’t believable. They were ads. If you look at editorial pictures, or editorial language, you have a real problem, because what was possibly true could turn out to be not true. With advertising, the untruth was a fact. At least you could count on those one or two things. And I think at the time I needed those one or two things.
MH So, at what point did you start to know what you were doing?
RP I knew what I was doing in the sense of two things, I thought that there was a point for instance, let’s say the photograph that you included in that group show, in the spring of ‘79. That photograph, number one, to me, didn’t look like art. And number two, it didn’t look like it was made by any other art process that I had known about. At that point you think, well, those were the two things that I was looking for. What I did was not necessarily new, but the way the feelings were expressed was just different.
MH Your early works are such weird objects. It’s as if there’s no substance to them as objects. It’s not like looking at a painting—they didn’t even seem to look like a photograph. You confused people even on that count.
RP That’s when I knew that what I was doing was going to be okay. I mean, I might not have known what they were, but I sort of knew what they weren’t.
MH When do you think people caught on?
MH It took nearly ten years for you to get a decent amount of recognition. I always thought it was the Sunsets —
RP People tell me now that they liked the Sunsets. Well. I know that when I did them, it was a catastrophe. I had to go through another type of rejection.
MH A rejection’s like an educational process for the audience: at your expense?
RP The Sunset show was just a bomb. But a year later, people started picking up on it. I mean the critics or the reviewers or the journalists who put it down, the very same ones, put it up in about a year and a half.
When I put the Gangs up, people really started to get it. I think because the subject matter changed. Rather than being about a section of a magazine, the gangs were about an entire magazine. It was all in one place—the white of the photographic paper became a wall—the frame itself became an object.
MH The idea of the same within the difference became much more clear.
RP Even the term was funny; it was a non-fiction term—you “gang” together images for the sake of economy. The other thing about the Gangs that was great is that it’s difficult to work in a large photographic format because of the expense. Even though it’s not part of the criticism, artists know that you have certain kinds of economic things going on. The gang was a perfect way to get the most out of your negative. It sounds funny, but for an artist those things are really kind of what matters the most sometimes. It frees you up, to be able to work less expensively. All of a sudden, the limitations of the medium disappeared. Economically and spatially the gang satisfied everything. I could have one great picture in the middle, surrounded by eight supplemental images. It was so simple, I’d been using slides from day one and the arrangement of the gang are just slides taped together, the distance between the images is Just a slide mount.
MH In looking at your writing and pictures and then thinking of the relationship of text to images in magazines…there’s a funny, controlled seamlessness.
RP I suppose, to some extent, there seems to be this idea that there’s an artist character—almost like I’m looking at him while he’s looking at it. I know that writing was a way in which to pinpoint what was going on, sit down and say, “Okay, what is it that I’m looking at.” Trying to be as strict as possible. Then the writing took on a story-telling or fictional element that seemed to supplement what was going on in the images. It was just my own way of dealing with the lack of critical or uncritical attention.
MH You were answering things for yourself.
RP When you know that no one’s looking, that no one’s going to read it, that provides a great amount of freedom. Because you don’t have to be that guarded. It’s probably a fairly good situation for an artist to be in.
MH Do you believe that one hundred percent?
RP Do I believe that? Oh sure. You obviously want some people to look at it, you know you’re not doing it for a bunch of trees in the forest. In the beginning, your audience is people you know. It’s a very small audience. And for most artists that notion of the audience never leaves them. They really believe, I’ve said this all along, that there’s about 250 people out there. You spend so much time alone, you do art in private for the private. It’s only been a recent phenomenon that the artist is conscious of larger audiences. My feeling, politically, is that that is going to backfire, eventually. Because with larger audiences comes interference. The art world has always been a private world. The minute you have an audience, you start censoring yourself unconsciously or consciously.
MH As you get more successful do you do that? Do you stop yourself from doing…
RP Sure. If I was aware of an audience in 1977, I couldn’t possibly have done the kind of work that I did. It comes out of some sort of crisis, and not necessarily an aesthetic one. I feel comfortable with a certain kind of privacy because I feel I can protect the work in a way in which it won’t be interfered with by the public, because I think the public knows nothing about art. And has no desire to know anything about it and I find that completely okay. The less they know about it the less they’ll interfere with it. If the kind of art that one makes disorients the art world, imagine what it would produce in the world outside it.
MH It wouldn’t necessarily be a threat. They could just say “screwy artists.”
RP That’s the one thing the artist has going—I mean, you don’t walk in and say “screwy dentist.” We wouldn’t walk in and tell dentists what to do, how to behave, how to drill teeth. Or an open-heart surgeon. But people feel that they can do that with artists. Why, I have no idea, but they just feel that they can.
MH When you started doing jokes, was there as weird a reaction as there was to the photographs?
RP There hasn’t really been a reaction yet, because it’s been so private. I think the few reactions I’ve gotten remind me of the reactions I got from the early photographs because they’ve made people uncomfortable. They don’t really know where it is coming from; it being the actual object
I’ve used normal support systems and I tried to make it look pretty nice—I haven’t goofed it up any more than what we normally associate with jokes—I haven’t made it crazy. I’ve made it conservative. I’ve used consciously a conservative look to let the joke be more of a joke. If anything I think they’re tragic.
MH You could say that the early pictures are conservative.
RP I thought that they were. I mean they were just photographs with mats and ordinary frames in ordinary galleries. I’ve always used those structures as a way to let the image, in this case the joke, be what it was originally. With the jokes I can point to them and at least say they’re jokes, which they are. That’s what I think is going to make people uncomfortable. Because it’s like a Beckett endgame. If anything, I have an uneasy feeling people will like them. Now people can say, “Oh, he’s the artist who does the jokes.” They can finally latch onto something, which I think people like to do. And if that happens, how am I going to get out of that situation?
MH Where are the jokes from?
RP Joke magazines, books, same thing as the other images.
MH I think about how jokes are told. It’s not unlike re-photographing. Every time you tell the joke it’s embellished or altered. People recast them in the way they want to.
RP Actually, I have a joke here—that I found three times, but told differently. The one about, “I went to the psychiatrist. He said, ‘Tell me everything.’ I did, and now he’s doing my act.”
MH So you just go to a book store? And look under the humor section?
RP They’ll have 4,000 of the world’s best jokes or you can pick up the Post every day and read Joey Adams’ column.
MH It’s hard, I’ve tried.
RP I have books by Morey Amsterdam and Myron Cohen. These jokes seem to be more generic. I think I’m working with about 15 jokes. There have been times when I just pick out what I think is the funniest joke I’ve seen in a long time.
MH Do you use jokes which you think aren’t funny?
RP No. I’ve used jokes which I don’t get, so I don’t know if they’re funny or not. I’ve used a joke which I don’t really understand.
MH Which one is that?
RP There was a joke about going down to.. . it’s very complicated. It’s about selling silk in Florida. It’s an ethnic joke. I particularly like Jewish humor. I think there’s a real kind of history of that type of humor in American middle class life. It’s funny how it’s been rediscovered. We grew up with it on the Ed Sullivan show.
MH I hated that stuff when I was a kid.
RP Well, see, I actually kind of liked it.
MH You’re not Jewish, that’s why.
RP Exactly. It’s funny how you’re attracted to what you aren’t. I didn’t get the psychiatrist joke for a long time, to tell you the truth. Also, with a joke, it’s funny where you locate yourself. In the psychiatrist joke, I realized that I identified with the psychiatrist. I identify with the person who says, “Tell me.” I don’t identify with the “I” or the pronoun. Now it’s as if I have 15 jokes, a routine, and every once in a while I incorporate another into the act.
MH I was walking down Times Square, and I looked at the Spectacolor sign, and you were on it. What is someone to think, in Times Square, when they read the psychiatrist joke after seeing some slash movie?
RP My feeling is that they don’t. One—they don’t see it. And two, if they do, they don’t think about it. Most people, if they saw a joke on the Spectacolor machine, would probably think that that’s what it is. Just a joke. They certainly wouldn’t connect it with the art world or an artist. If they saw my joke t-shirt they might buy it. The joke would then become something they’d wear and to get some reaction from family or friends. I would imagine they would be thinking about the reaction from their own audience.
To tell you the truth, I never saw the Spectacolor sign.
MH I want to get back to the idea of the sublime. Barnett Newman is one of my favorite painters and I stand in front of the big red painting at the Modern to get lost and to feel like a real person. My reaction towards it seems to put me in a place that is almost exactly between confusion and comfort. I was thinking about the level of abstraction I see in your work and was wondering if the confusion between fact and fiction is similar.
RP Newman’s stripes are—abstract and they’re not abstract.
MH They’re not arbitrary. That’s what I think is great about them. There’s something so perfect about some of those paintings-they go way past the object.
RP That’s what happens when it gets to be uncanny or sublime. If the work has that effect, whether or not it’s representational or abstract ceases to be an issue. It becomes something that starts to have its own kind of life. Maybe you just feel connected to it sympathetically.
MH What I’m interested in is being able to look at something and get into a state of free fall. When I look at a Barnett Newman painting, it’s like free fall.
RP Maybe the reason that you perceive a free fall state, is because for the artist, art is, basically, second nature. And this basicness is, in the end, unbelievable.
MH It’s like going to a movie—a movie is 90 minutes of it, if it works.
RP I feel the same way about certain pieces of art, ones that put me in a similar willingness to believe what is less true. Christian Metz called it a general lowering of wakefulness. That’s what he felt like at the movies, for instance. We’ve all been to the movies where, all of a sudden, the end comes up and you realize, “My God, I’ve been sitting here for two hours and I’m not even aware that I’m in the theatre.” You’re so “taken” by what you’re seeing projected from behind you. Whatever you saw that put you into that state of consciousness was perhaps unbelievable.
MH Maybe it’s about the perfect center line between extremes. That’s why I was thinking of your work. In terms of this fact/fiction schism; when I look at your work, I know what I’m looking at. I basically know where it’s coming from. Not the page of a magazine but…from instinct. If art’s about thinking, is the idea to get people into a thinking state?
RP There’s this old argument that it’s not about thinking. It’s about being innocent—that’s the way Hollywood tells it.
MH Is the idea to get people to ask certain questions?
RP I don’t know. I just think sometimes when you’re making a work of art or you’re looking at a work of art, it’s this thing about lives. People’s lives. My life, your life. My friend’s life. The lives of people I don’t know and the lives of dead people. That’s why when I was asking you when you were looking at the Newman if there was some sort of communication. You know you’re looking at something done by another human being, done with a certain kind of energy that is essentially positive.
RP I’m not saying it’s better, it’s just that…
MH I know what you mean, there’s more room. That’s part of the problem people have with photography. Photography is so constricting to some people.
RP Maybe you’ve got it right there. I hadn’t thought about that. Maybe there’s too much already there in photography to think about in any other way other than what it is supposed to look like.
MH That’s what I was curious about, whether the question “What it is supposed to look like?” is in your mind or in the work.
RP When I first saw The Slaves, by Michelangelo, or even the ??Tomb of the Medici Night?? and Day, I didn’t understand how he made the decision not to carve the man’s face. That was an unbelievable decision, or how those slaves are in fact, finished. That wasn’t really being done at the time, so I sometimes think about the idea that artists are the ones who give themselves permission to transfer their “thinking” to an object.
MH So sex…
MH We were talking about painting being sexy, as an action, but photography being sexy on a mental level. Is there sex in The Jokes?
RP Well, I don’t know. That’s one way of talking about it. The other way is just the way they look and feel like sex. I’ve heard that my work is really cool and I’ve always wanted to feel it’s just the opposite. It’s only recently, since the Gangs, that people talked about sex.
MH Do you think the coolness that some people talk about is the sexiness that others recognize?
RP Maybe because of the images themselves—bikers’ girlfriends. For instance, there were two reactions to the first girl friend piece; people thought it was ugly or they thought it was sexy. You can talk all you want about the art—but those girls took me with sex. They were very sexual looking. And the thing is, I’ve never been attracted to the Playboy thing. I’m attracted to people who aren’t necessarily desirable. In terms of the way most people look, I’m just the opposite. The more imperfect they are, the better I like them. Those first girl friends were portraits of a specific type of person. They were tough. In the end, they’re almost Arbus-like. In the end, that piece was about me as an artist coming across in terms of what I thought was sex. For instance, I had tried to do a boy friend picture for three years and I finally did one.
MH What did the picture say?
RP Of all things, it came out as a cartoon. That has to tell you something that’s pretty weird. It’s a cartoon of a man. I couldn’t deal with a real image. This is like the cartoon of a man who’s got a cowboy hat on and cowboy boots, you know the one. It’s a new Gang put out last fall.
MH I don’t know it.
RP I swear, it took me so long. I got lost in it. I wanted men’s torsos and crotches; these Gangsfour are clearly sexual. Male sexual. What’s interesting is that this work has been returned times, and I always ask who sent it back.
MH Who sent it back? The galleries?
RP No, people who’ve bought it.
MH People have bought it and sent it back? Great.
RP I always ask, what member of the household sent it back? And it’s invariably the male. There you go. I don’t know if it’s because of his rather large member. What’s interesting to me, and the reason I’m satisfied with it is because it’s a cartoon. It’s not even a real image. That’s why I’m wondering why it’s being sent back. I see this as one of my favorite pieces so far because of the amount of times it’s been rejected. Now, have I had any problem with the girl friends? No. They’re popular. But these four male Gangs — this is really the point about sex. And it’s funny. When you asked before when did people start getting it? It’s when I started the Gangs. I started putting more sex into the work. Maybe that’s what people got out of it. I was surprised that people liked them, of all things! I remember when I first showed the girl friend gang, a lot of people didn’t. I understand, if it was a political thing- but people even asked, “Are these your girl friends?” Some women critics thought it was a sexist piece. When it was up at the Whitney Biennial, a reviewer for the Village Voice, the one who should be reviewing pottery, called it “sexist,” and I read sexy. I was so disturbed that she didn’t say sexy—she said sexist—I couldn’t believe it.
MH Do you think the Joke paintings are sexy? Is there sexiness in them?
RP Look at them. I’m not sure. Sometimes I sit here and don’t even know what’s going on yet. Sometimes I look up and say, “What is this stuff? Is this where you’ve come to—jokes? How did this happen? What does this have to do with anything, in terms of art?” Someone’s going to describe me as the person who does jokes? Sometimes I feel that’s pretty strange. How did it get to this point? It’s like Valley of the Dolls.
MH Probably a good place to be.
RP Maybe. There’s a lot of self doubt about this work. But what happens is there’s so much self doubt that it becomes abstract. It’s all or nothing. Either this is going to be completely wrong or it’s going to be right.
Laura Owens was born in the mid-west (Euclid, Ohio) and studied first in Rhode Island and Maine, before moving in 1994 to the California Institute of the Arts, at Valencia. She has been based in California for more than a decade and it must be said that the environs of Los Angeles seem like a natural habitat for the styles and concerns of her work. It is precisely because California is an artificial landscape, an oasis constructed out of a desert, importing trees and plants from all over the world to create an eclectic terra-formed background to its iconic suburbs, that it accommodates so readily the scope of Owens's work. Many of her paintings use landscape elements as a major part of their subject matter, but in a breezily oneiric manner. They reflect certain aspects of the familiar world, but at the same time offer blueprints for an entirely imaginary one. This is not a distortion but an accentuation of a southern Californian reality in which every view out of the window is a reminder of invented geographies and of uncontrolled climate experiments. Characteristic works such as 'Untitled, 2002', which collates freely examples of the 'wrong' fauna and flora (bears, monkeys, owls, rabbits, squirrels, tortoises, bare trees and blossoming flowers), amount to a denial of the western tradition of landscape painting, which is closely allied to the projects of taxonomy, mapping, measurement: all forms of laying claim to territory through the medium of precise knowledge. The essential subject matter of this tradition is natura naturata, nature recast by man's desires: a California of the mind. Owens's paintings abandon this schedule and these desires altogether, clearly preferring the possibilities inherent in the concept of natura naturans, the concept of a nature still unfinished and developing creatively, in a way that is unpredictable and beyond man's control. This Edenic alternative, while seeming to reflect a West Coast hybridity, actually subverts the conditions of landscape design in a celebration of non-human forms of coexistence. Owens's transformation of the idea of the Fall, of a natural history guided by human history, is suggested in a very recent painting , 'Untitled, 2006', in which an Edenic couple do not reconfigure the world around them through sexual knowledge, but are absorbed into it as much as they are absorbed in each other. The iconography of this lavish tableau is tellingly borrowed from Hindu traditions of representation, from a culture that thinks in terms of a common purpose for humanity and nature. Owens's quirky pastorals have a characteristic legerity and a seemingly inadvertent disrespect for evolutionary logic, but their diverting quaintness is actually fuelled by a very serious interest in principles of deregulation and of insubordination.
If the city of Los Angeles is remarkable for having pioneered the destruction of public space in the process of serving the security interests of corporations and middle class residents, this is precisely the kind of encroachment on the possibilities of interaction, and on the opportunities for free play, that Owens's work might have been designed to flout and undermine. According to Mike Davis, in his classic analysis, City of Quartz (1990), post-war development in Los Angeles has been geared progressively towards eliminating the possibilities of mixing classes and ethnicities, through the creation of gated communities, fortified institutions and panoptical shopping malls. This privatization of public space has been matched by the safeguarding of electronic space in ever more sophisticated provision of passwords, firewalls, virus detectors, etc. Revealingly, it is the totalizing system of the internet that Owens would like to break apart and cannibalize in her characterization of American social politics. In a remarkably explicit essay, 'A Painter's Vote', published in Art US in 2004, she makes clear the degree of her political activism, emphasizing her vehement opposition to the imperial politics of Rumsfeld and Cheney, and nailing her colours to the mast of what she describes as Howard Dean's 'bottom-up organizational structure [that] found its partner in the inherently DIY, rhizomatic, social structure that is the internet.' The connection with her painting that is inherent in this overt commitment to micropolitics lies in the essential porousness of her imagery and stylistic repertoire. Laying aside the usual array of cultural markers by means of which artistic identity is determined by geographical and historical means, Owens provides a calculated disarray of motifs and techniques, quite deliberately mixing a variety of the 'wrong' art traditions: non-western, non-urban, ethnically diverse. This systematic browsing among mutually estranged traditions should not be confused with a postmodernist form of bricolage, where the experience of difference is replaced by the commodifying of cultures whose distinctiveness is subsumed in their equal availability for consumption. Owens's allusion to Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the rhizome indicates her approval of non-proprietorial, non-hierarchizing forms of attention, of an attitude towards multiplicity that sees it as the fundamentally animating principle of an art that could offer resistance to contemporary forms of social control.
The mixing of styles and motifs is not limited to ethnic and geographical assortment, but is equally insistent on transgressing boundaries between 'high' and 'low' culture; much of the vitality of Owens's work comes from its fascination with the colloquial registers of folk art, handicrafts, sign-painting, etc. Of course, it is often very difficult to weigh the meanings of these different elements; but that is an important part of the reason for including them. Individual motifs that might be emblematic in one context, are given another context, or even several, by means of constant juxtaposition with competing claims for the attention. The difficulty, and even the impossibility, of knowing what to focus on, is a carefully cultivated aspect of Owens's aesthetic that is reflected at the level of technique in paintings such as 'Untitled, 1999', where the problem of discrimination (of identifying the cultural source of any given element) is pre-empted by the use of abstract forms. But if the heterogeneousness of canvases like this one seems merely formal, the task of subordinating certain elements to others is still obstructed by the inconsistency of technique, whereby paint is sprayed, washed, spread, brushed, squeezed and inscribed onto the surface of the picture, playing havoc with one's received ideas about how to relate to one another the many different layers of mark-making. The separate incidents in the painting are like objects swimming on the retina; the moment one tries to fix them in view, they change their place in the whole ensemble. The 'molecular' painting 'Untitled, 1998' and the 'numerical' painting 'Untitled, 1999' dramatize a parallel effect, in a more schematic, though elegant, form. Owens destabilizes the figurative elements in her paintings by constantly dislocating the relations between them, instigating a devolutionary campaign against the history of western aesthetics. And she destabilizes the abstract elements in her work through a structural hesitation, leaving us permanently uncertain which parts of the composition are more load-bearing than others.
In her most recent exhibitions, Owens has shown an enthusiasm for using paint to interpret the conventions of other media, such as tapestry, embroidery and printing. Many of these recastings have a surprising anecdotal power. Although she is not a narrative artist--and even when she borrows from narrative art, this is always with a view to producing an extract, or abstract, that contradicts the basis of narrative form--her choice of images often evokes historically specific uses of visual culture for story-telling purposes in what was basically an oral culture. The most obvious example of this would be the 2006 painting of one section from the Bayeux Tapestry. Although there is an element of nostalgia in this recapturing of the scope and appeal of the language of visual representation, accentuated by Owens's magnifying of the dimensions of the work, its chief impact is to restore a sense of the desirability of a community of interpretation that is not exclusive or privileged. Story-telling art assumes or proposes a stock of knowledge and techniques that will both elicit and confirm the communal nature of the world it constructs. Owens's resort to clear and decisive uses of forms of vernacular art suggests a desire to reverse Walter Benjamin's diagnosis of the shift from the position of the story-teller to that of the novelist; the shift from orality to literacy means an expansion in the size of the audience, but equally an atomization of the audience into a host of solitary readers, while the scenario of the story-teller in direct communication with those who listen to the unfolding of the tale, reflects a very similar sense of scale to that of the grass-roots local politics that Owens hopes to see coming alive in the heartland of corporate America. The Bayeux tableau has a strikingly modern freshness and audacity, but is still very distant in cultural historical terms. Much closer in time, and more familiar, are those residual forms of a popular culture dependent on a close and active relationship between artist and audience; many of the recent paintings siphon off images from the visual repertoire of the circus, vaudeville, fairground attractions and theatrical set-painting. These are the scenes of improvisation and intervention, of a carnivalesque potential to cross the boundaries of genre, of decorum, of the imagination's apartheid. Owens's festive comedies of cultural identity have the same iconoclastic scope as the kind of vulgar performance celebrated by Mikhail Bakhtin in his seminal text, The Dialogic Imagination: 'at the same time when poetry was accomplishing the task of cultural, national and political centralization of the verbal-ideological levels, on the lower levels, on the stages of local fairs and at buffoon spectacles, the heteroglossia of the clown sounded forth.'
In some ways this description of Owens's working practices makes her sound like one of Nicolas Bourriaud's 'semionauts', whose artistic endeavours consist of clearing original pathways through a forest of existing signs. Bourriaud's conception of 'postproduction', whereby contemporary art is characterised by the production of new artworks on the basis of work created already by others, has currency at the moment, not least because of its amenability to comparison with ways of using the worldwide web. The contemporary artist operates like a DJ engrossed in sampling and pasting together a range of different recorded sounds, or like the websurfer who devises a series of links through the plethora of data supplied by different search engines. And yet, despite Owens's own attraction towards the idea of blogging her way into the history of art and bookmarking her way out of its conventional sequences and filiations, her handling of paint and collaging of different materials gives her work a texture, a grain, that places it simultaneously in relation to much older traditions of fabrication, and of artisanal craft. In fact, the more her work seems correlative to contemporary theoretical developments, the more she seems to take pleasure in the handling of different materials and in an increasing versatility of technique. There is more than one sense in which her prodigious output makes this artist look like her own workshop. Laura Owens converts the idea of the individual artist into an entire team of her own assistants. The principle of collaboration extends beyond the scanning and revising of pre-existing visual conventions to include active participation in the visual predicates of work already hanging in the spaces where she has exhibited. During her residency in 2000 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, she exploited the Art Nouveau decorative backgrounds to the salon paintings of the same period, while a commission in the same year for The Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh involved triangulating her own work with that of the botanical teaching diagrams of John Hutton Balfour, and the designs of the gardens themselves. This is not so much 'postproduction' as creative interference; even a kind of interpellation that contributes to something already in process while also disturbing it. Owens has the reputation of a rather light-fingered entertainer, but this appreciation of the seductive qualities of her work does not always register its agitpop dimensions, or its subtle but steady tendentiousness.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
The following essay was written for my friend Ann Craven. I tend to write how I talk. I do this because I am afraid that if I write any other way it would be fake. I hope that my sense of humor comes across in this little statement. I really do care about Ann.
—Josh Smith, January 2008
Ann Craven’s paintings are all different. When you get to look at one you feel lucky. If you put one of her paintings on the wall it just looks good. Whether you want something tough or something sweet, one of Ann’s paintings fills the void. When you see Ann Craven's art somewhere, it really works to separate itself from everything around it. It exists in its own time. The paintings themselves are beautiful objects. Each one looks as if it has always existed . . . like caring hands have moved it from wall to wall over a period of time. This gives the work a warm weight. It is hard for me to say whether I like this type of work, but I then start to realize that Ann’s work is never “this type of work.” It is always its own thing. Ann’s art opens my eyes to other things in the world, which I might otherwise not have thought anything of. Her art is straightforward. She is always trying to portray it as having some sort of conceptual meaning, and it does . . . but not in the way she thinks. The conceptual aspect of Ann’s painting lies in the straightforward and driving process and style in which she works. She’s a very hard-working person. Often she sets out to do impossible things. But no matter what she does, its absolute quality prevails.
Ann’s work is capable of entering our consciousness at many different points. It can, at the same time, be both a cold symbol of modern times and the straightforward presentation of its subject. In one context, Ann’s work can be seen as colorful decoration; in another, the same painting becomes a biting comment on the state of things. Critics of Ann Craven’s work say it lacks the “cool factor.” All that means is that Ann gets to continue producing her work unfettered. She has managed to push hard through the challenges of being a great artist.
The birds look good. They serve as a perfect vehicle for color and expression. They are sometimes perceived as silly. A big painting of a bird is silly, but once you get over that initial stage of perception, things begin to change within the paintings. The scale and the alloverness of them stand out for me; also, the straightforward and casual assuredness with which the paintings are executed. A lot of the birds are somewhat sinister and dark. The moons are dark, but they are not so sinister. Ann painted these numerous times, in numbers ranging from one into the hundreds. I sometimes think she overdid it a little with the moons. But to really appreciate them one needs to see just one or two on a wall . . . or four or five. These paintings are just black squares—I think 12 or 14 inches square. Near the middle of each painting there is a white circle or a dash with some haze. It is a quick impression of the moon. To make these paintings, Ann actually goes out and paints the moon at night. This may sound romantic or glamorous, but it’s actually not. She always seems really nervous and agitated when she paints the moon. She is afraid the moon is going to go away before she can get it. Of course it’s going away; but it comes back. She also paints them large now—I think 4 feet square. The large moons come off differently—they are less immediate, but softer as well. Some of this softness appears to come from the larger brushstrokes. Ann’s way of scaling up her moon paintings is just to use a bigger brush on a bigger canvas.
Ann produces great paintings, one after another. She can make a painting from nothing. She does not take breaks to reflect on things. Ann manages to walk a line between writing a tell-all book and remaining completely detached. One common thread, which runs through Ann’s subjects, is a lack of specificity. Her subjects are all rather generic. Leaden metaphorical meanings and definitive portraits tend to be avoided. Ann Craven mostly limits herself to animals, moons, trees, stripes, and so forth. Currently, moons and birds are probably the most prevalent.
The problem with most representational art is that it is so sure of itself. What gives a subject so much importance that it warrants an artistic rendering? Often representational painters completely misunderstand the whole idea of art. They think art is about doing things competently with just a touch of panache. That is indeed one kind of art, but not a very interesting kind. Great representational art looks right through its subject. The subject serves as a vehicle for an expression or idea, not a crutch or publicity gimmick. Ann Craven’s work does not go around to openings with a limp and a cigarette between its lips. Playing games is not an option in her paintings. These paintings just come in and get the job done.
Because Ann Craven sets the bar very high for herself, she usually waits until close to the last minute to start working on something. She is always thinking of the context of her work. Perhaps she need not think so much about this, because often context is hard to control.
Ann seems in a way, unsatisfied with everything she does. That’s why she keeps working away constantly. The birds and the moons are both simple ideas. Is not the challenge to make something as simple and successful as possible? When it comes to painting, it is best to sneak all of the meaning in through the back door. Ann does not burden the viewer with issues or problems. The issues and problems are there, only they are disguised as the moon, a deer, a bird.
Ann takes tried and true ideas and portrays them honestly, as if she herself invented them. When she paints a bird, she does so as if she were the first person to ever paint a bird. She dashes forward with a firm innocence. Her skill as an artist is greatly enhanced by that innocence. She takes everything so seriously—that bothers me, and sometimes I hate her.
Josh Smith is an artist, who currently exhibits at Luhring Augustine Gallery. He lives and works in New York City.
This essay appears in the publication:
Published by: Knoedler & Company
March 13 – April 26, 2008