Andrew Russeth: Following 16 miles of string through the art world

The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.

 Andrew Russeth is a New York based art critic and co-executive editor of ARTnews. From 2011 to 2014, he edited The New York Observer's GalleristNY, a website he co-founded about the New York art world. His writing has appeared in W, New York, Bijutsu Techo,  Modern Painters, and other publications, as well as catalogues for shows at the Whitney Museum, the Studio Museum, and  other museums and galleries. In 2005 he started 16 Miles of String, a blog about contemporary art and art history in New York that was supported by the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program. In 2013, he was named Critic of the Year in the Rob Pruitt Awards.  

Andrew in front of Florine Stettheimer's Model (Nude Self-Portrait) (circa 1915) at the Portland Museum of Art. Photo credit: Lauretta Charlton.

Andrew in front of Florine Stettheimer's Model (Nude Self-Portrait) (circa 1915) at the Portland Museum of Art. Photo credit: Lauretta Charlton.

 Brett Wallace: What was your origin in art?

Andrew Russeth: Good question. My parents always took me to art museums. I grew up in Minneapolis and I remember going to the Walker early on and I was excited. And the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden across the street was fantastic. And Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s great “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” which I think is one of their best sculptures. I grew up with that and always loved that. So I have fond memories of going there, and then we moved to Jersey when I was pretty young. And so, as a kid, I was going to MoMA and there was a Bonnard show at MoMA in 1998 when I would have been 14 or so. I remember being, like, “Wow, this is pretty cool and heavy.”

And then, when I was a little bit older, I saw the Gerhard Richter show at MoMA in 2002. And he was, of course, the guy who did the covers for Sonic Youth albums, such as  ”Daydream Nation.” So he was extra cool in my book, and art seemed cool, and that’s how it started. 

Gerhard Richter, Kerze (Candle), 1983, 95 cm x 90 cm, Oil on Canvas for a Sonic Youth album cover.

Gerhard Richter, Kerze (Candle), 1983, 95 cm x 90 cm, Oil on Canvas for a Sonic Youth album cover.

BW: Were you into the punk-rock scene or skateboarding?

AR: I skateboarded when I was super young, like 5th, 6th, 7th grade, and was into alternative music. I wish I was cool enough to have been in the Jersey punk scene or something in the ‘90s, but yeah, I was into Noise and stuff like that.

BW: You went to Columbia for undergrad, then Pace for grad school. What did you focus on in school?

AR: I focused in art in undergrad — I did art and political science because I thought I would go to law school, but I wasn’t very good at the LSAT.   That was a good indication I should not go to law school. So I took art history at Columbia and had Rosalind Krauss as my first teacher, for a lecture class, who made art seem very exciting and sexy and a matter of great importance, and so yeah. That was really what made me want to be kind of an art professional; kind of seeing what she was able to do and the way she was able to talk about art through endless depths of knowledge and insane, and crazy and amazing theories.  And then, after, I did Teach for America. That’s when I got the MS in teaching in an early childhood education.

BW: Were there a series of odd jobs that you worked before ArtNews?

AR: After school, I did not know exactly what I was going to do. I messed up the LSAT twice, I think, because my problem was that I never really studied for it, because I hated it so much, and so I would go in, and then I would just be like, “This is not going well!” and I would cancel the score. So yeah, I did Teach for America because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but that felt like a meaningful, worthwhile thing to do. I ended up being near Colombia — I was in South Harlem, just for two years, and I taught second grade, and then fourth-fifth grades. I taught Special Ed.

 I was all set to do that for a third year, I loved it, and then got a job at BLOUIN ARTINFO as it’s now called. And yeah, that was a miracle and a stroke of luck. And I think about that all the time. I had been blogging a little bit, and that helped me — I was like, “Okay, like, I don’t have clips.”  hadn’t really written for the high school or for the college newspaper, but I blogged a lot. And so I was able to go to them and say, “Oh, I have opinions.” And so I’ve worked at ARTINFO for about a year and a half, and then worked at a gallery for a little bit, and then went to The Observer when they were starting an art blog, which we called “GalleristNY.” And was there for three years, and that was a ball. It was fun working for a weekly newspaper. And for the last year and a half, I was one of the weekly critics, and that was fun to do because you just had to go out and see a ton of shows and come up with an opinion, generate some thoughts and feelings about this. Then, ARTnews came under new ownership, and I went over to it with Sarah Douglas, who was the culture editor at the Observer.

 BW: I learned ARTnews has been around for over 100 years. And is one of the oldest, if not the oldest art publication.

 AR: We are supposedly the oldest in America. We were founded in 1902. And, weirdly, it started as a weekly, which is such a strange thing to think about, that in 1902 it was publishing once a week as, like, a broadsheet kind of tabloid thing covering shows, covering the market—“There’s going to be an auction of these works or there’ll be a retrospective there.” It’s really weird. So, when I moved to ARTnews they weren’t doing a ton online, and so the idea was to develop something like we had at “The Observer,” kind of like a regular chronicle of the art world.

BW: How would you describe your goals?

AR: The goal has been kind of to create a really kind of on-the-ground, daily chronicle of what it’s like to be in the art world, that’s how I always think of it. We want to be sophisticated enough that our friends that work at Chelsea galleries are reading the website. But we also wanted to be accessible enough that those people who go to a museum and maybe go to Chelsea once or twice a year can feel like they’re part of the action. And so all this week, for example, we’ve been covering the auctions and market reports that go out every night, around midnight; our market reporter, Nate Freeman, writes about what sold, but he also writes in a way that’s accessible and exciting, talking about who was there and the feeling in the room, and, of course, the art.

It has been fun moving from a weekly to a more established brand where you’re working at a few different paces. We want to break news, we want to do gossip and reviews, but we also want to do incisive interviews and profiles that are reported out over the course of a few weeks or months. And then we have the magazine, which is a quarterly, where we can kind of step back and take some deeper dives into issues and things that are going on. 

BW: What parts of the art world are you personally most interested in? 

AR: As cliché as it sounds, whatever feels new, whatever is not being mentioned about elsewhere, generally speaking. For me, the most exciting thing is when a new gallery opens up or I find out about a new artist, and to kind of have the first chance to take a crack at explaining it.

BW: Would an example be your recent article on Faith Ringgold? 

AR: Well, that’s an interesting example. On the one hand, I was thinking of, “There’s a 22-year-old artist and nobody knows about them.” That’s great, and you get to help launch them. But at the same time, it’s also about discovering great artists who have been in the game a long time and having the opportunity to share that with other people who may not know their work. And, Faith Ringgold was, of course, a legendary figure for ‘60s art and activism and her children’s books, but also someone whose early work was too little known by some.

BW: Did you visit her for the interview?

AR: Yeah, I visited her out in Jersey. That was fun because I knew about her work from growing up and my parents reading her books to me, like “Tar Beach”. When I was teaching, I would also use her books with the kids. She did one of Martin Luther King called, “My Dream of Martin Luther King,” which is pretty incredible. She does the illustrating and writes the texts sometimes in those books. When I was going around preparing, babbling to my friends about her, my people didn’t recognize her name or work.  

She was just such an incredibly pivotal, amazing figure, who was protesting the Whitney and MoMA about their lack of inclusion of people of color and women, and was part of so many struggles and made really amazing paintings that feel very aligned with what is happening now. And then, as if she was not marginalized enough already by the mainstream, white art world, she decided to quilt. A black woman doing paintings, in the ‘70s, decides to start quilting, and those are also amazing. But now, the tide has turned. I wrote that article just as the Crystal Bridges Museum had acquired a piece. And you are beginning to see her work in museum collections more, so it was fun to visit her as all that stuff was happening.

 BW: How do manage multiple brands from your personal site to ArtNews?

AR: They’re probably blurred. 16 Miles of String was the blog where I started writing about art, and I kept doing it for quite a while and got a Creative Capital Warhol Foundation grant to support that, which was kind of an amazing, life-saving thing. Those groups are incredible for what they do. I wish I had more time to keep doing that because 16 Miles is kind of the repository for things that are just, like, too weird or too personal for other venues.

 BW: I think the last post was about Richard Prince’s dilapidated house project, right? 

AR: Yes. Someone had given me the coordinates for his “Second House” installation in Upstate New York that had been struck by lightning. It was such a weird thing because the Guggenheim acquired that house in 2005. And around two years later year lightning struck and destroyed it. And with Richard Prince you kind of have to question everything that happens; he always is making stuff up in interviews. And so I was kind of like, “Is this for real?” I want to go look at it. It was all burnt to the ground. So yeah, that was the most recent thing I did on there.

BW: Could you talk about the reference to Duchamp in 16 Miles of String? 

AR: Yeah, André Breton organized a show in ’42 of Surrealism at a mansion in Midtown Manhattan, where he hung up a bunch of works. Duchamp’s contribution was taking boatloads of string and stringing it from the wall to the floor to the ceiling, all over, so you almost had to crawl around the gallery. But I called the blog “16 Miles of String” because you read the accounts of this show, and in various interviews people say it’s like a mile of string he purchased, in another it’s two, all sorts of numbers. For some reason, the story of the piece keeps growing and growing and become more tangled. And then  eventually it becomes in some accounts “He had 16 miles of string!” Which would be a psychotic amount of string. No scholars seem to think it was actually 16 miles of string. It could have been a mile. So the idea of the blog was to say, “Well, I'm going to try, on this blog, to go out and document these kinds of things—weird artist spaces, hole-in-the-wall things, performances, and try to take photos, talk to the people there, and try to get that on record, what happened, so there won’t be this confusion.

John D. Schiff, Installation view of First Papers of Surrealism exhibition, showing Marcel Duchamp’s His Twine 1942, Gelatin silver print. Gift of Jacqueline, Paul and Peter Matisse in memory of their mother Alexina Duchamp. Philadelphia Museum of Art

John D. Schiff, Installation view of First Papers of Surrealism exhibition, showing Marcel Duchamp’s His Twine 1942, Gelatin silver print. Gift of Jacqueline, Paul and Peter Matisse in memory of their mother Alexina Duchamp. Philadelphia Museum of Art

BW:  What is your working style like? For example, do you avoid openings? Christian Viveros-Fauné told me he’s a deadline writer.

AR: I like that line from Christian. Yeah, I'm definitely a deadline writer. I feel like I really need massive amounts of paranoid trauma. I need to be, honestly, like at the point of real, true disaster, oftentimes, before I can do good writing. I work best when my editor needs a piece in five hours. I’ll start when I have, like, five hours because I know it will take me exactly five hours. And then, of course, I can revise later. But I think it tends to be the best approach because otherwise work takes the time you set aside for it. I'm also a morning writer. I'm incapable of doing much work at night — actually, I was very proud of myself last night. I edited something at, like, 11 o’clock at night — because I can edit at night. But my own stuff, I can't look at it.

Normally, I wake up, have a coffee, maybe go for a run. Or sometimes, wake up, have a coffee, write, run, and then write more. But by, like, 11:00 a.m. or noon, I can't write. That’s when I edit other people. Writing has to be first thing because it’s just so laborious. 

BW:  What or who inspires you?

AR: A few writers, for sure. Peter SchjeldahI is one. I admire anyone who has just been able to stay in the game for a long time and continue cranking it out at a high quality. That’s astonishing to me and, I think, so rare and so hard to do. And I think he has obviously done it. Obviously, the “Times” critics, people like Roberta Smith and Holland Cotter. And then, you know, looking further back, I’ve loved David Bourdon for a long time. I love John Perreault, who was an amazing “Village Voice” critic, among other things. He was especially great because he was just very open in his criticism. And also, I like him because you have the feeling of a guy who’s really on the scene and talking to a lot of people. But Henry McBride, as well — do you know him?

 BW: I don’t.

AR: He’s amazing. He was an art critic for “The Sun,” and wrote for other weird things, like “The Dial.” His criticism is very open and generous. He’s trying to figure it out along with you, and it’s so fun to read because he admits he’s just taking a stab at it.

BW: At one point, you mentioned that one of the most exciting things right now is the Met Breuer. And, your post talks positively about how they’ve reimagined that building.

AR: I was amazed by how negative some people were about the “Unfinished” show. Everyone was nitpicking. But my thing was that building is just incredible — we all know that building is incredible, but the Met has just polished that thing to a shine, honing details. Then they brought crazy masterpieces from all over the world and installed them in these spaces for “Unfinished.” You know, those crazy old Turners and Titians, that amazing Leonardo drawing. That said, their approach to contemporary art is still deeply questionable, I think.

BW: Yeah. It’s early innings.

AR: Yeah, Sheena Wagstaff is obviously very smart, though not everything is working. I think the roof commissions have been hit or miss. But with “Unfinished,” my only complaint was that the contemporary section was so cornball. Its first floor really is really great, with unfinished masterpieces, with the [Turner] and so forth, but you get upstairs and it’s like, “Oh, it’s a half-blank Warhol — a color by number painting — so it’s unfinished.” The contemporary floor felt too academic in that way. Also they did that awful “Regarding Warhol” show a few years ago, which was too broad and obvious. Overall, though, loved the Met Breuer. And so excited for Kerry James Marshall coming up.

BW: Any other big highlights that you’re looking for, for this year?

AR: Yeah, that’s a good question. I'm excited for Kai Althoff at MoMA, and Louise Lawler there early next year, and the Carmen Herrera show at The Whitney — the amazing, now 101-year-old Cuban-American artist.

BW: How often do you get out to see shows?

AR: I probably should be more organized. I go to galleries three or four times a week, sometimes more, sometimes a little bit less. I don’t go to openings, unless I'm friends with one of the artists, like a very close friend, I’ll go. I try to go during the week, just because you’re less likely to run into people. You don’t want to be slowed down when you’re going to go see art. If there are 3 to 4 shows I really want to see in one neighborhood that’s where I head first, and then, if I have the energy, I go to another neighborhood.

BW: So I noticed an interview coming on Pierre Huyghe. Is that right?

AR:  Yeah.

BW: The show at LACMA was immersive and impressive. 

Pierre Huyghe, Untitled, LACMA, November 23, 2014-February 22, 2015.   

Pierre Huyghe, Untitled, LACMA, November 23, 2014-February 22, 2015. 

 

AR: I did not see that show, which is painful to say, although I profiled him for ARTnews. We spoke after he had done the Paris and Cologne sections of that show. He’s such a deep thinker, always revising his thoughts. And he recently did an Istanbul project, which we talked about for a Q&A in the great Japanese magazine “Bijutsu Techo.” Have you heard about this, at all?

BW: No, I’ve not heard about it.

AR: It was supposed to be, in the Mediterranean, near the Bosporus; it was supposed to be this underwater work for the jellyfish. But it wasn’t finished in time, apparently. I didn’t go, but you could take a boat to the area in the water where it was going to be, though there was nothing to see. And so some people were saying, “I think Pierre Huyghe’s just making up this whole thing!” So it was funny because I mentioned that, and he was very emphatic, saying, “No, no, no, no, no. It’s not a lie, I am working on this, but it’s very difficult to drop gigantic cement blocks, artifacts that I’ve created, into the water, and there are environmental issues.” And there are the political issues there, of course. He said he hopes that in a few years you’ll be able to scuba dive down to the artwork. He’s working in all sorts of interesting ways. He also did work recently in Fukushima, in Japan, including a piece with a monkey that dresses as a waiter in a restaurant and clears tables.

BW: I did see that one. It was a video, “Human Mask.

AR: Yeah, it’s amazing. And he has worked with honeybees for the piece that was at MoMA and at Documenta. Now he’s talking about getting some sort of castle or other private space to experiment and make work away from public view.

BW: I think he’s a good example of an artist who really thinks about a broad narrative and works through an expanded framework.

AR: Exactly. One of the braver artists out there; he’s willing to kind of venture off and do things that clearly will have no discernible monetary value. He has ventured in so many different, weird directions. He got grouped with relational aesthetics early on, but he’s completely unclassifiable now, to his credit. He has a work I really like that is someone infected with the flu, and so you’re just supposed to have someone with the flu in the show—a piece about networks and communicability and so forth.

BW: Rauschenberg wanted to work in the gap between art and life. Huyghe is working directly with life; in that way he embraces the relational, but you’re right, his concerns go even broader.

AR: Things that are living, whether they’re human or not—living organisms literally in the work.

BW:   Last question: what’s one thing we wouldn’t know about you? 

AR: Oh, that’s tough. I'm a pretty big sports guy, I guess. Not so much, like, watching sports, though a little bit, but playing lacrosse and baseball growing up. And now I run a crazy amount.

BW:  I love to run. My run is usually Cobble Hill over the Brooklyn Bridge and back. Thanks, Andrew – great speaking with you.

 

Anneliis Beadnell: Walking with PPOW in the shadow of forward motion

The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world. 

Anneliis Beadnell has been a Director at P·P·O·W for the last five years. P·P·O·W was founded by Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pilkington; the gallery was contributed to the launching of the East-Village Art Scene in New York City in 1983. P·P·O·W now operates out of Chelsea and is known for a diverse roster of artists from all around the world and is known for commitment to the work of pioneering artists and the next generation of artists who create work exploring issues of gender, sexuality, race and social inequality in all media.

Portrait of Anneliis by Hunter Lydon

Portrait of Anneliis by Hunter Lydon

Brett Wallace: What was your origin in art?

Anneliis Beadnell: Being raised in northeast Ohio I had regional exposure to various traditions in craft. My mom dabbled with watercolors and embroidery.   She had an artistic eye especially in regards to color. And my father really loved antiques, and collected antique glass. So I spent a lot of my childhood wandering through antique stores, trying to not break anything and spending most of the time hanging by the marbles. But really, my interest in art began when my folks took me to the Cleveland Museum of Art when I was three. It was a Good Friday and my dad had off of work.

I was an only child and begging them for a dog so bad. We traveled around so my parents were very resistant to my idea of a perfect companion. And they said... we’ll get you a cat. It’s neither here nor there. But we ended up going to the Cleveland Museum of Art on Good Friday and I saw this beautiful marble statue of a little girl my height, nude, standing next to a dog. The little girl’s name actually was very close to mine "Elisa" a portrait of Napoleon’s niece by Lorenzo Bartolini c1810. And it just made this lasting impression on me. Here comes Good Friday again the next year and I go up to my father, now four years old, and I say "dad, can we go back to the museum to visit the little girl with the dog?" And at that minute, my dad was shocked. How can such a little kid remember this sculpture that she has seen once, from a year ago?

Needless to say we became members and then they enrolled me into art classes. I was up at the Cleveland Museum nearly every weekend finding my own identity through the artwork. And then my father actually really blossomed and enjoyed my instinctual reactions to Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso and especially Monet’s Water Lilies. I remember my first lesson on perception when Dad brought me really close to the Monet and he would ask what do you see? And I would - oh, it’s just paint blotches. They’re very thick and they’re very abstracted up close. And then he would bring me to a further distance from the painting and turn me back around again and then ask me what I would see and there was the pond and water lilies.

BW: Did you make art at that time?

AB: I did draw and paint. As I matured into my teenage years, I picked up my dad’s manual camera, his Pentax and developed my own eye. I became the photo editor of my yearbook and worked in the local film shop.

Shooting 35mm and printing photos became a passion so I went into my undergraduate thinking that I was going to become a photo illustrator. I went through the journalism department at Kent State University. A part of my liberal arts requirements was Art History 1 and 2. I ended up having a fantastic professor, Dr Gustav Medicus, who changed my life and reconnected my passion with the arts that for a time was dormant. He ignited it and that's what good Profs that love their job do. Then I was questioning, do I really want to do photo illustration? Most likely, my job would end up shooting stock photography or medical photography and I was not interested in that whatsoever. So I figured, why not just follow my heart. And I was so nerdy and driven that my professors ended up challenging me to do the coursework of the other grad students that were in the same classes. They gave me some opportunities to lecture and present papers focused on Renaissance, Mannerism, and Baroque in particular. Some of my professors and mentors thought that I was going to go on and be this great art historian, publishing books on the lost frescoes of Pontormo. But unfortunately, I hit a wall until I took a course on gender and sexuality in contemporary art. My first introduction to the works of Carolee Schneemann, Barbara Kruger, Paul McCarthy and all these other fantastic artists that were provocative and groundbreaking. I thought that their work was timely and it inspired me to want to interact with contemporary culture and the state of the world. I felt like I could be more of an active citizen within the dialogue of current culture through being able to collaborate with living artists. I didn’t want to go on and write my assumptions or "research" of what happened in the 17th Century about some dead white guy.

BW: What happened after school? 

AB: I knew I had to get my Master’s after my undergrad and I did not want to burn out.  So I ended up teaching English in Prague just to get out and switch up my vision. I got to see some fantastic exhibitions over there. And really just reenergize what my hopes and goals were. I think I had to remove myself in order to come back and really see. And then I started applying to various Master’s programs…ended up getting into a few places. Sotheby’s was doing their first program in New York City, which was kind of an extension of what they’d been doing in London for a period of years then certified by the University of Manchester. I got into their program for contemporary art theory and there were about 25 of us in that program the first year. It was very interesting. I know they changed the program quite a bit since. As soon as the economic crash happened, I graduated with my Master’s, which was a challenging time and I knew that I wanted to continue to stay in New York. I knew there weren’t very many opportunities for me in Ohio. I mean they’re fantastic institutions there. They certainly weren’t hiring. They were laying people off. And the same goes for a lot of places here in New York. I ended up interning at a small gallery called Jack the Pelican Presents, which used to be in Williamsburg off Driggs. And, I worked with the gallery owner there that was an eccentric to say the least.

BW: What was the most memorable lesson from working there?

AB: My most memorable lesson was not to tell the artist what you think the vision of their exhibition should be, but rather let them tell you.

  "It’s not about you. It's not about the Curator's ego. It's about their exhibition and their visual dialogue and how the works interact with one another organically to create an overall vision".

Strong enough work dictates where it should be within a space.  Don't jump the gun. It’s really about taking a deep breath and being okay with the quietness of a situation, not overbearing and finding balance. The platform is a clean slate and in P.P.O.W's case it comes with experience.

Portia MUNSON Fox Maze, 2013 pigmented ink on rag paper 60 X 96 in. (152.4 X 243.84 cm) Courtesy of the artist and P.P.O.W

Portia MUNSON

Fox Maze, 2013

pigmented ink on rag paper

60 X 96 in. (152.4 X 243.84 cm)

Courtesy of the artist and P.P.O.W

BW: At what point did like P.P.O.W make it on to your radar and what was it about the gallery’s programming and vision that resonated with you?

AB: P.P.O.W hit my radar when I was in Grad school. Their program was always bold and unique. Honestly, I didn’t even know if I could acclimate to a gallery job. When I was first searching for a career path the idea of working in a for profit gallery seemed intense and intimidating. For years galleries have been criticized in the media as the center of excess, wealth and luxury. There was more in the media about the market than about artists collaborating with galleries to inspire and push our culture to progress.

I was drawn to P·P·O·W through their program that was so courageous, and full of substance that was aligned with my interests and passions. I wasn’t interested in working for a gallery that had a tight and predictable niche. P·P·O·W’s programming was unapologetic and not pandering to the close minded.  The artists were presenting political and feminist works head on. They were showing work that was difficult to acquire and they felt more like an institution then a for-profit.

BW: How would you describe the vision?

AB: Absolutely courageous. One of the first shows that they ever did in the East Village, and this is now 1984, was Sue Coe; she’s no longer represented by a major gallery because that is too close to the consumerism that she’s making art against. Her works are in your face political and lifted the veil on animal cruelty and veganism (before vegan was even a thing listed on menus). Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pilkington foundedP·P·O·W in 1983 and they still are here, over thirty years later they are still standing behind artists that make challenging work because they know how important their role is in providing an ethically sound and invaluable platform. When I came on board in 2011, with a wide-eyed art historical perception I recognized what they’ve been able to accomplish and applauded them. And they weren’t, in my opinion, giving themselves enough credit at the time.

Ethics in the gallery are important to me and I cannot begin to summarize how much Wendy and Penny have taught me. In a way I think one aspects that really helps my dealing is that I’m not compensated solely on commission. So if I’m speaking to a collector, I’m giving you a lecture essentially on a piece as if I would present it to an academic, a curator, anyone. I’m giving everyone the same information as deep as they want to go. And, if they buy the work, that’s great because that means that they loved it and they intended on purchasing it anyway. I don’t have a gun to their head– it’s the number one rule in collecting. Buy what you love.

I love speaking about works, and giving insights and historic facts behind a work that you might not be able to see from just taking it in. So I really go there if the person wants to hear it. Sometimes collectors are just like no....This looks fabulous over my dining room table and that’s all I need to talk to you about. And that’s fine. I can swallow it and walk away. It's their prerogative. On the flip side, I’ve met people that are laying out their new homes around artwork, around the collections that they have because they want to create an environment that supports, illuminates or rotates around the work. And already when they’re buying it, they have plans for that piece how it will be preserved and whether it will go to an institution or their family.

BW: Do you collect at all and if so, what type of work?

AB: I do as much as I can afford to. I started collecting after living with works artists would give me as gifts, after collaborating on shows. I realize my existence was bettered by living with works. I became even more inspired. I did a show at Jack the Pelican with this amazing artist from L.A. who I’m still thankful to be friends with, Eric Yahnker. Eric is just absolutely brilliant, extremely talented and so full of humor; very courageously full of humor. He wasn’t shying away from work that could be a one-liner, a visual pun, or taboo which I thought was refreshing. I was seeing so much dry art strictly about process and it was great to be able to interact with work that felt honest, makes you laugh or makes you feel uncomfortable so a laugh becomes a knee jerk defense. Eric gave me a piece for helping him do the show. And it was this color pencil work on paper of an exact replica of a Sunkist tuna can on its end and it was called Tuna Reclined. Super cheeky with art historical reference.

When he gave me the work it was a really difficult time for me. And I was struggling financially to even stay in New York City. And seeing this piece reminded me that not everything is the way it seems. And that’s okay. It gave me courage to have my own perspective, have my own opinion, go against the grain and just keep on moving forward. When I realized that an artwork that you have in your life could do that for you every single day...well I was hooked.

Robin Williams, gave me a piece. And so artists then started giving me works through our relationship, and if I was really enthused about something that nobody else cared about, they felt like it was safe with me, which I also felt was really kind of a beautiful thought. I became a keeper. So in a way I am taking care of these objects because I do plan on donating them and passing them on.

Robin F.  Williams Bag Lady, 2016 acrylic and oil on canvas  Courtesy of the artist and P.P.OW

Robin F.  Williams

Bag Lady, 2016

acrylic and oil on canvas 

Courtesy of the artist and P.P.OW

BW: Let's shift gears and talk about David Wojnarowicz. I'm looking forward to his and upcoming Whitney Retrospective in 2018. Could you talk about his work?

AB: David was completely self-taught. His early work was really about experimentation and documenting experiences and influences. The scene of the 80s was this very odd punk kind of utopia; he worked at Danceteria where Keith Haring also worked and there he met Tommy Turner among other artists. He and Tommy would get off of work and go out and shoot photographs in abandoned warehouses because the city was still gritty and unrestricted. They had a derelict playground at their fingertips in regards to different compositions and architectural structures they could explore. David spear-headed, along with Mike Bidlo, art projects at the piers that were abandoned. It really became a place where David, Mike Bidlo, Kiki Smith, Luis Frangella, Kim Jones, Rhonda Zwillinger, Judy Glantzman, Betty Tompkins and all these fantastic artists could congregate and experiment. They all knew about one another and were collaborating with one another in various degrees. It was really an active dialogue that doesn’t exist today in the same way because, well it’s not really possible. We try to resurrect artist communities through residencies and through shared studios and these types of things but it’s not the same. It’s more formal.

Now I think more and more artists will continue to move out of the city unfortunately for more space, more financial freedom and better quality of life. One of our artists, Portia Munson, lives up in Catskill and every time I go up to visit her, it’s so beautiful. I can understand the influence on her work. Carolee Schneemann left her studio loft for New Paltz and never looked back.

David Wojnarowicz “Untitled (Culture)” 1989 Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W

David Wojnarowicz

“Untitled (Culture)”

1989

Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W

For David Wojnarowicz, a big release was getting in a car and driving out to the New Jersey swamps to nature and when he could trips out west to the desert. In a lot of his journals early on in his teenager years as he was forming his own identity; there’s a great love for animals. Lizards, frogs, beetles, snakes - all of these small things that are overlooked. I think that through nature was a safe haven to escape from his tumultuous and abusive childhood. 

Towards the end of David’s life, he knew he had AIDS, he was angry with the government for letting people die and turning a blind eye. And that’s when he really heightened his political stance and he was moving towards an activist dialogue within his artwork. He made In the Shadow of Forward Motion a collaboration with Ben Neill; which he performed at the Kitchen in 1989 and then created a film under the same title with powerful unapologetic language calling out the government and societal structures on their inhuman ignorance towards the AIDS crisis.  I’m proud Wendy and Penny have been showing David (and Martin) for over 20 years – And they haven’t stopped. They have kept their work relevant and accessible to the next generation while staying true to the spirit and intentions of their work.

BW: What is your advice for emerging artists from the lens of a Chelsea gallery?

AB: If you’re emerging, gather ideas around which gallery you would be most suitable to collaborate with but create your own platform in the meantime. It’s about your work, your voice, your community and culture. Get that website up that shows a range of your work. Apply to residencies. Get on artist registries. Get yourself out there. Not in a way of emailing the director of the gallery that you want to be repped by because that’s not going to work. It’s just not. I can't look at anything that people submit thoroughly. It’s just that I have an insane amount of work on my plate. It’s hard to find the time. Right now I currently work for over 25 artists. So it’s really getting yourself embedded in community of artists or start your own critique group with other artists that you’re like-minded to or you’re friends with or that you have a good time having studio visits with. Artist-to-artist studio visits are brilliant and invaluable.

Along with Robin Williams, we started working with Elizabeth Glaessner and then I was able to bring on a brilliant artist named Jessica Stoller; three women around the same age concerned with the same issues of gender and feminism within their work. Organically they just started doing studio visits together and it has worked for their own work brilliantly in a way that it isn’t about what your dealer thinks. It isn’t about anything other than the dialogue you want to bring out through your work. Often solidifying your own voice and finding iconography that reflects that is half of the battle.  

I want to collaborate and work with an artist that if they were in the middle of nowhere and no one was to ever lay eyes on this work, they had to create it because it was this yearning. It was this calling. It was something that they had to get out almost animalistically. I’m looking for something that is that rooted and that pure of an intent in creationism. Their brave and unapologetic and don’t care about trends or the “art market”.

Artist’s role in society is to break boundaries. They’re able to go faster than the speed of light in regards to dialogues that are challenging our current climate of culture. Do it. Those are great artists. Real freedom to me is being able to completely just throw caution to the wind and say what really needs to be said because a lot of people aren’t artists. That’s definitely why I’m still working here.

BW: We were talking earlier about the tattoo on your finger. Could you share the context behind it?

AB: ITSOFOMO. It means In the Shadow of Forward Motion. And In the Shadow of Forward Motion he was talking about the speed of society and how it’s consistently making decisions for its citizens based on capitalism, money, industry and greed.

One day, I was walking my dog – it comes back around to my dog again, and I was thinking about the weight of this statement…In The Shadow of Forward Motion… And we were literally walking in our shadows moving forward because the sun was at our back. I got goose-bumps all over and the statement became physical. It’s such a beautiful poetic thought. I’m always in the shadow of forward motion. I’m an art historian. David was in his art, in the shadow of forward motion because he was looking at civilizations that had been broken down. He was referencing early civilizations, their structures and how they shared responsibilities and took care of each other. If society was really moving forward, why do we turn our backs on one another?

It really is extremely inspiring to be able to work with these artists and continue their voice and their language into a new demographic. There’s been very few people that I’ve met now that don’t know about David’s work or Martin’s work or Carolee’s work or Martha Wilson’s work or all these great artists that we work with. But, when I do meet them, I’m so excited because it is my chance to start a spark of interest…. I only get cover the tip of the iceberg of these prolific artists, but hopefully the knowledge I do share will touch them enough that they’ll want to, you know, dive in themselves because there’s enough for all of us to cherish.

Brenda Zlamany: “I’ve learned to see beauty differently.”

The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.

Image courtesy of Brenda Zlamany

Image courtesy of Brenda Zlamany

Brenda Zlamany is a NYC based artist focusing on a multiyear project exploring the effects of portraiture in communities, from aboriginal villages, to the UAE, all around the world.  In the digital era, Zlamany is taking account of the social connection between artist and subject in real life conversations raising the importance of social understanding about the communities we live in and how they are portrayed.
She has shown in the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East at institutions including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei; the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution; the National Museum, Gdansk; and Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent. Her work has been reviewed in Artforum, Art in America, Flash Art, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and elsewhere and is held in the collections of the Cincinnati Art Museum; Deutsche Bank; the Museum of Modern Art, Houston; the Neuberger Museum; the Virginia Museum of Fine Art; the World Bank and Yale University.              
 

This conversation was done while Brenda painted my portrait in her Williamsburg studio.

Brenda: So, let’s have a look at you. Let me see different sides. I’m thinking you’re frontal. Are you thinking you’re frontal?

Brett:  This is my better side.

Brenda: Why is that your better side?

Brett:  I don’t know – perhaps it has something to do with the way my hair grows.

Brenda: Some people feel they have a better side. Others say, “What are you talking about?”. You look like you would be good frontal, although I do agree that that is your better side. This is the deal. If you are very still while I draw you with the camera lucida, which will take under two minutes, then I’ll redraw you from observation and then you have total flexibility; you can move around, you could talk, you could get up, but if you’re not still and the drawing is not good, that means I’m going to be correcting and if I’m correcting in the painting, then you’re not going to have as much freedom to get out of the pose.

Now, I’m going to redraw you from observation. So, you can talk - I’ll tell you what I’m looking. Just stay in the pose, if you don’t mind.

Brett:  I’m very comfortable, so it’s perfect.

Two minutes of drawing pass.

Brenda: I actually think the drawing is pretty good, but the thing about the Camera Lucida is it really distorts. I was actually moving it around while I was drawing you to make up for the distortion because I know what the distortion is going to be, but I still have to correct even with the moving.

Brett:  Where did you get this tool?

Brenda: Well, actually, I got it when David Hockney got his. I was in his studio with his printer, Maurice Payne and Maurice gave me one.  This was in late 80’s, I think.

Brett:  What was your origin in art?

Brenda: I was one of those kids who was always an artist. Were you that kind, also?

Brett:  Just about. When I was around 13 year old, I saw Matisse paintings and I was hooked. 

Brenda: I think I was even earlier than that and I think it may have come from my own deficiencies. You can see I’ve got this mirror that I’m working with now. I was a mirror writer as a kid, and so reading and writing came very late to me and I was left-handed in a Catholic School where being left-handed was sinister, so there was a lot of discrimination, but the one thing I could do was I could draw. So I was the one who got to decorate the church. Drawing was the only thing I could do well. And, actually, the real truth is when I was in first grade, the nuns came around and they said, “What do you want to be?” and I said, “Oh, I want to be a nun,” and they said, “No way, you’re left-handed.” So then I was, “Okay, I’ll be an astronaut,” and they said, “No, you can’t do that, that’s only for boys.” So, being a painter was the next thing I said-  so this was actually my third choice of career, but it’s not a bad choice. I don’t think I would’ve been a great nun, to be honest with you.

Brett:  I’m also left-handed and I also went to Catholic School.

Brenda: But you’re probably younger than me, so they probably weren’t allowed to beat you if you were left-handed. I’m sure they tried to train you out of being left-handed, but they did it in more subtle ways in your day, right?

Brett:  They never had desks for left handed kids. I recall being asked me if I wanted to become a priest.

Brenda: A left-handed priest?

Brett:  I said, “I think I’m going down a different path,” and then I went to art school after that, basically.

Brenda: This is going to be cool. It’s going okay ( talking about the portrait in progress). To me, these portraits are about trying to come up with an image while the person’s sitting there that tells you what I think of them and what’s going on between us. So, it may not be a photographic likeness, but it might be more like them in another sense. I found that since I started this project - if I have to do a portrait from photos for an oil painting, it’s useful for me to have done a Camera Lucida watercolor portrait, so I could figure out what’s important because photography doesn’t really tell you what’s important. It tells you everything!

But it’s also true that the better you are at portraiture, the more you can look at a photo and figure out what’s important, because the photo gives you too much information and it’s not even how you see people because you can’t see all of that at once. I was in a self-portrait show (at Bravin Lee Projects) and I was talking to the gallerist recently about how in these watercolors I have to figure out what the 10 most important things are about a face because maybe that’s all I can address in 30 minutes.

Brett:  And when did you start the Lucida project?

Brenda: Well, I had a Fulbright - so, what happened was I got the Camera Lucida when David got his and he did his experimenting and he wrote his book which I’m sure you’ve seen and mine just got put away. Then I wanted to do a portrait project overseas. I’d been in Tibet with my daughter and I was taking all these photos of Nomads, but then I came home and I painted a bunch of paintings and I found it really deeply unsatisfying because, for me, when painting portraits there is a component where the subject confronts the image and it’s something that makes it more exciting. There has to be an audience that’s inside - it’s the subject or someone related to the subject that I’m sort of coming up against. And, I knew that I would never see these people again, so I was thinking, “How could I do this?”. But, some of the discoveries that I made on the trip to Tibet about the gaze of people who are not used to looking in mirrors because, I was painting Nomads who don’t really carry around mirrors. You could see this gaze in the photos and I explored it in the paintings. So I decided to write a Fulbright to Taiwan because there is an aboriginal population that lives outside of mainstream culture and I thought, “Well, why don’t I go there and use the Camera Lucida, and that way people will see me painting them and that way, even if they never see the oil paintings that I make later, I’ll have had a discourse which will make it more satisfying for me.” So that’s what I did.

My daughter is a fluent Mandarin speaker, so the other criteria for the Fulbright was that it took place in a Mandarin-speaking country because she would be the interpreter for the project.

 

Portrait #124 (Young Man from Sandiman [Paiwan]), 2012. Oil on panel, 21 x 14 in. Image courtesy of Brenda Zlamany.

Portrait #124 (Young Man from Sandiman [Paiwan]), 2012. Oil on panel, 21 x 14 in. Image courtesy of Brenda Zlamany.

Brett:  What are the  rules you’ve established on the project today?


Brenda: Well, I’m aiming for a year, so that’s 365 portraits. One a day. But I don’t have to do one a day, if I do two in a day, I get the next day off. I’m the one who makes the rules, so I made that rule because sometimes people show up as a couple or they’re from out of town and they’ve got a kid and it occurred to me that I can’t say, “Okay, I’ll do you now and you come back tomorrow.” So, as long as I’m posting one a day and I’m posting them in the order that they occur, it works. I can’t go and take an old portrait from the past, if I missed today. So as long as I’m staying up with the time and posting them in order, I’m within my rules. And then, among the other rules is that I can’t touch the painting after the subject leaves, so, basically, what I get is what I can see when I’m with you.

So, I think your head is drifting down a tiny tad, but it’s still great. Okay, good.

Brett:  How has the work changed while you travel?

Brenda: I’ve actually done some of my best work out of town. I mean, it travels really well because I set it up as a Fulbright project - I went to 33 villages and painted 888 people, that was a huge number. When I wrote the Fulbright proposal, I didn’t even know how use the camera lucida. I just practiced for one week before I left. And I thought, “Okay.” So I came back knowing how to do it, but of course I was mostly painting Asian people, and it was a whole new thing learning how to paint Caucasians because it’s a much bigger nose, usually.

Brett:  What number is this?

Brenda: I believe you’re 284 or 285. I’m coming to the end of the year. There’s a part of me that wants to go to 1000 because there’s just so many people - the thing is I’ve been in the art world for 30 years now and I just know so many people. And I know that as I get closer to finishing, I’m going to start feeling like, “Oh my God, what about so and so? Can I just include one more?” So, I mean, I keep saying I’m going to stop in a year and my daughter really hates the project because she hates having people in our house constantly, but and then there are times when I feel I can’t take it anymore and I’m just not in the mood to paint somebody, so I could see advantages for the project being over.

Brett:  And it’s more than painting. It’s performative.

Brenda: Yeah, it’s a performance.

Brett:  Seeing this is performative, are you more introverted or extroverted?

Brenda: I’m more of an introvert. For me, painting portraits is the kind of socializing that I really like to do. I’m not introverted when I’m painting. And I actually feel like the connections that I make with people when I’m painting them are much more rewarding than in real life. I would rather be painting you than having lunch with you. And after I paint you, I’m going to feel more connected to you.  I was at an opening recently and I had painted at least half, if not two thirds, of the people in the room. I felt I was really entrenched in people that I loved - my family - whereas before I painted these people, even though I’ve known them for 30 years and they’ve been in my world, I didn’t feel quite so close.

Brett:  Does it feel therapeutic? How so?

Brenda: For everybody. It’s actually been great - in so many ways, it’s been great for me, but the biggest way is that it helped me be more social, when as a single parent, I had not been going out that much.

Yeah, and I don’t have any support. Her dad wasn’t on board to help and we don’t have any family that is involved, so being a single parent was very, very isolating. But this project has been really social and great. I’m from New York and then I went away to college, and then I came back in ’81, after I graduated. And then, my daughter was born in 2000 and - I mean, the only thing that really changed was I had to become more businesslike. I’ve been supporting myself from my paintings since maybe ’85, so I didn’t paint less because that’s how I paid the bills, but I socialized less. I became kind of isolated in some ways. But now she’s getting older and the portrait project is getting me back into my social world. And it’s getting me back in a way that’s really interesting because people I haven’t seen much of, who haven’t been over, sit down, we talk, we have a studio visit, they tell me what they are doing and it makes really deep connections, deeper than just bumping into people at openings. So it’s been really, really nice. But that was not part of what was intended in the project. It’s just sort of what happened.
 

“888” documents Brenda Zlamany’s project “Creating a Portraiture of the Indigenous Inhabitants of Taiwan.” From July 1 to September 30, 2011, supported by a Fulbright grant, Brenda traveled in Taiwan, primarily to aboriginal villages. Image courtesy of Brenda Zlamany.  

“888” documents Brenda Zlamany’s project “Creating a Portraiture of the Indigenous Inhabitants of Taiwan.” From July 1 to September 30, 2011, supported by a Fulbright grant, Brenda traveled in Taiwan, primarily to aboriginal villages. Image courtesy of Brenda Zlamany.
 

Brett: How do you exhibit this work?

Brenda: After I did the project in Taiwan, I realized the drawings were not the end game - the end game is how it’s presented. There are photos, there are drawings and there is data about the experience and what happened. And so, I did a show at MoCA Taipei and it was - after I did the Fulbright and did the watercolors, I went back to Taiwan with another grant to do the show and we spent two months making a digital presentation that involved two movies, a digital sketch book that told stories about the subjects when you swiped the screen to turn the pages, an installation with photos and tribal music, a map charting the journey that showed each of the 888 portraits, a digital wall of 100 subjects signing their portraits and the watercolor portraits. Then I brought the show back to New York and it was shown in the Taipei Economic Culture Office, on 42nd Street, and I could barely get anyone from the art world interested in the show. Even though it was ten blocks from Chelsea, I got tons of Chinese Press but I could not get any American critics to really take it seriously and, I think, it was partially because Americans are really not interested in other people that much, certainly not Taiwan’s aboriginals. So, I just sort of went back to my normal everyday work and I just thought, “Oh, that’s too bad,” because I had actually come up with this whole concept of traveling around the world and doing this project, because it’s kind of a diplomatic project of building communities and I actually did it in Abu Dhabi, also. So, then, I just said, “Oh, that’s too bad,” and I went back to my regular work. I continued to do it, but I thought, “Okay, this is not something I’ll be showing, here. I’ll just show it in the countries where I do it.” And then I went to this thing - do you know Paul D’Agostino?

Brett:  Yes. Who doesn't know Paul?

Brenda: Well, I went over to Centotto to check out this thing that he does. And I brought along Camera Lucida drawings from Taiwan, Abu Dhabi and from the Supernormal Festival. By then I had done it at an experimental music and art festival in England, as a workshop, and everybody really, really dug them and it occurred to me that maybe I was selling myself short; that maybe these drawings are okay and I just didn’t pick the right population.

 Then I got a commission to paint Yale’s first seven women PHDs and I just said, “Oh, well, I’m going to spend six months painting these women from the late 19th century and it’s going to be really isolating, painting dead women.” So I just thought, “Well, why don’t I have a parallel project where every day I paint a live person alongside?” Since I am painting the watercolor portraits in my studio, I get to see how people are reacting to the project, because that project - the Yale Project, was really, really hard. It’s a public project and it was just really interesting to me to have people come in every day and tell me what they saw. It was useful for the Yale Project and it was also useful for keeping me balanced, from going too much into the world of the dead because these women had such a strong pull. And then, I started noticing that when I posted them on Facebook a little community of people was forming, who expected to see them each day and critiqued them. It sort of took its own momentum and that was really interesting and fun for me.

Brett:  It was interesting that the project is so intimate, but a lot of people interact with the project on a digital basis.

Brenda: When I run into people, they’ll say to me, “I look forward to it every day,” I painted this woman named Andrea Belag, the other day, and she said, “You know, when I see my friends, I don’t see how they look, I see how you painted them.” Not that I’m comparing myself to Picasso, but when I think of Gertrude Stein, I think - what do you think of when you think of Gertrude Stein?

Brett: The famous Picasso portrait.

Brenda: Yeah, even though we’ve seen photos of her - I’ve seen plenty of photos of her. So that’s not about me trying to be Picasso. But what it tells you is that something about the subjective image, the painted image has more in it than the photograph.

Brett:  Do you consider the work participatory and if so, how?

Brenda: Yeah. I actually have the subject sign them too. And, there are things going on that you don’t know about. Some of them I can tell you because I know what they are and some of them I can’t tell you because they’re unconscious. I’ll give you an example of one that is not about you. Let’s say someone was balding and concerned about losing his or her hair and I was getting around to the hair area. I would see an expression on their face, possibly, that would tell me that I’m in the danger zone, and I may give an extra stroke of hair and I could then notice that they look happy. And so, the subject informs me because they are looking at the painting as it happens.

And there are times when people will say, “It doesn’t look me,” and then I’ll photograph them with it and I’ll say, “It looks exactly like you,” and they’ll say, “Oh, wow, it really does.” sometimes, we don’t realize how good the likeness is until we actually see it against the photo.

I so much appreciate that you’re trusting me because I can do anything and it’s going to be on Facebook in two hours and that’s another one of the rules - there are no rejects. , even if it sucks and I know it sucks, it’s going on anyway.

Brett:  How do you find subjects? We met through a warm introduction (via Austin Thomas) so the trust is there.

Brenda: I would say maybe two thirds to three quarters are people I know. And, if I’m running a little low, all I have to do is go out to an opening and boom, I have more subjects to paint.

Brett:  Have you painted visitors? I’m thinking of Van Gogh’s “Postman.”

Brenda: Yeah, I’ve done the “Postman”, I’ve done the “UPS Guy”, but he made me not show his face in the Facebook photo because he’s at work. And, the uniform has a copyright and he is not allowed to - isn’t that interesting. I’ve done the guy AAA, who came to fix my car. I’ve done anybody - I’ve done roofers - anyone who comes in here who’s willing is fair game.

Brett:  Do you find that there’s a difference between the people who are in the art world that may be more familiar with art and techniques?

Brenda: Yes, I mean - many people in the art world are professional posers. People who are in the art world are better at controlling how they’re seen than people right off the street.

Brett:  So, would you say there’s a tinge of branding to us in the art world (we’re aware of visual presentation)?  After all, many of use spent years learning the foundations of drawing through countless self-portraits in art school.

Brenda: Yeah, and, I think, people think carefully when they come over, about how are they going to be seen. Absolutely. Sometimes people will contact me and they’ll say, “Okay, how should I be?” And I’ll say that there’s no right and no wrong, it’s how you want to be seen. Some people do wear costumes - somebody showed up with a hat and a hatbox and it was this extremely specific Sargent kind of hat. This woman came over, named Julie Torres.

Brett:  I know Julie, yeah.

Brenda: And she was wearing her Pussy Power T-shirt and it was really nice. So I said to her, “Well, this is really confusing for me because you have a great face and I want to come in and do a close-up with your face, but this is an awesome T-shirt. So if I do the T-shirt, I’m going to have to pull back and this is going to be about the T-shirt more than it is about your face. We decided that the T-shirt was great and could be an important part of the portrait. And people loved it and she was hugely, hugely popular and, I think, the person who made the T-shirt got some nice attention.

Brett:  Julie is so generous like that.

Brett:  How are you choosing subjects?

Brenda: I’m not picking them based on their fame. I’m picking them because these are the real people in my real world and there are a lot of them and they do the work every day and, I think, they deserve the attention, actually.

Brett:  What do you think of Chuck Close’s famous quote, “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just get to work"?

Brenda: Yeah, I get what he’s saying. I know where he’s coming from. What he’s saying is - and I’m definitely on board for with that - I mean, I’ve been painting for so long and painting every day for so long, since I was - because I went to art school starting when I was 13. So I haven’t - and I don’t think I’ve ever had,  - I mean, the longest I’ve had off was two months when I was on bed rest for the pregnancy, but then I learned how to knit, so that was somewhat creative. But, yeah, there are times when I step back and I reconsider the project and look for inspiration.

But, basically, one day leads to the next. There are times when I, after a show sometimes,  go on a residency or something like that because I want to shake it up or with the Fulbright, I wanted to see, “Is there another gaze other than the narcissistic sort of western gaze that we’re accustomed to? Is there a gaze of someone who’s looking more internally?” And so, I was looking to find that gaze.

Maybe I’m not trying to uncover something because I actually don’t believe you can ever know anybody. For instance, I think in reality, you don’t even know your wife; you just think you know your wife. When my grandfather died, this woman who we had never seen, came to the wake and kissed him on the forehead and then left and we all wondered, “So, who was Francesco?” We don’t know who he really was because who was this woman? But, I think, what you’re trying to get out of a portrait is you look at the sitter and a story occurs and this is what you’re going to go with, this is how you see them. And whether or not it’s accurate, I don’t know even know if there is an accurate seeing, is not important. I’ve had people, a particular artist that I painted in the late 90’s, who he took his portrait to his therapist because he felt that, whatever it was, I got it in the painting.  (ARE we ok to publish this part)? Yes, took out the name

He felt that that was what he was trying to get out in the therapy but he couldn’t get there. So he was like, “She got it. Let’s go from this portrait,” so I said, “Go ahead, take it with you.” So he took it but I don’t know if it was successful.

Brett:  There is the old tradition of courtroom sketching. Do you think about that at all?

Brenda: Yeah, they’re great, right? I mean, I’ve never really thought about them, but that’s really interesting. Yeah, what is the training to do that job? But wouldn’t it be fun to get to do that? I would love try that job. Somebody should do a show of those drawings.

Brett:  It’s a whole another interview. We’ll have to do an interview of a courtroom sketcher.

Brenda: It’s interesting that you brought it up because I’ve never heard anyone bring that up. Who are they and are there any of them that also have an art career?

Brett:  There’s that recent show on Netflix, “Making a Murderer”. There was a portrait drawn by a police sketch artist that looked like the accused person and it led to him being falsely accused and spending 17 years in prison before the actual killer was identified by DNA.

Brenda: I mean, I don’t know if this is related, but I think that things can be uncovered in drawings that cannot be seen otherwise. And I’m going to give you an example of a commissioned portrait I did for Jonathan O’Hara’s family - do you know the art dealer, Jonathan O’Hara? He was my dealer and I was doing a big commissioned portrait, a seven-foot portrait of the three kids, the two cats, the wife and him. And the wife was miserable during the whole thing and she kept telling me to repaint her face, “I look unhappy.” And no matter what, I could not get her to look happy and then, guess what happened when the painting was finished. They got divorced. The painting took about six months to paint and by the time it was done, the relationship was over. It was just unfolding. In the painting I was able to see something that they, themselves, couldn’t see yet, so that was really, really interesting.

In the shorter paintings, other things happen. People come with an agenda other than the agenda to be painted. I would say a certain percentage of people come and they’re just coming here to be painted and I just think that’s so great. But then there are people who are coming for other reasons and I can’t even say - it’s impossible for me to say what the reasons are because they are so complicated. But what I can say is a certain percentage of people cry during the process of getting painted because they tell me something so painful.

I actually even had someone who had killed in a war situation and we were talking about Heaven and Hell and whether or not he, with that level of blood on his hands, you know….

And I’ve painted a lot of people who are aging because my demographic is 45 to 70. And, I’ve learned a lot about beauty, you know, loss of beauty, different kinds of beauty - that’s been one of the things that’s really interesting for me. And I’ve learned to see beauty differently because we’re so programmed to see beauty in a certain way in the culture.

Brett:  Do you feel that this project has made you more compassionate?

Brenda: It has, yeah. It’s made me feel that I love people more; I feel more empathy for different kinds of artists and their struggles. I feel more generous with what kind of art interests me because I sat down with the makers of things and I understand their projects better, I understand their intent and their seriousness and the sacrifices that they’ve made. So many artists I painted are getting very little reward and they’re completely devoting their lives and it’s fascinating. There’s a huge population of people who are just, you know, are self-driven.

Brett:  Are their some unique qualities about the world today coming out in the portraits?

Brenda: Well, I mean, one of the things I'm noticing in my experience with the portraits is social media’s working differently and that’s making it a different art world and I think it’s great. We’re in a point now where – I mean, it used to be when I first came to New York, when I was 20, you needed to capture the eye of certain critics or you just simply would not get seen. And now you can build a whole, entire life on social media. And some of those critics actually are on social media. And if they didn’t see your show and there’s a lot of talk about it and buzz, they’re going to have to look.

Brenda: I'm just going to work a little bit more on your facial hair, but I'm pretty much done. I could stop at any time, but let me get a little bit more on the facial hair. I’ve got you pretty introspective. I mean, you definitely have a very interior gaze in this picture. So, what’s going on behind that?

Brett:  I'm introspective at times. What is your next play? (project)?

Brenda: I’ve just curated a show called ‘the Conference of the Birds’ which is scheduled to open on May 18. I’ve gotten so addicted to painting these portraits that I am worried I’ll crash when the project is completed and it’s a doubly dangerous situation because the Yale portrait will be unveiled at about the same time that the ‘Watercolor Portrait a Day’ project is finished. So there definitely is a big empty space on the horizon. But I’m safe because balancing the egos of 36 artists and installing such a diverse group off works should be pretty all encompassing. I’ll also need to paint a few birds for the show.
 

Brenda’s portrait of me completed during this interview. 2016. Image courtesy of Brenda Zlamany.

Ortega y Gasset Projects: “Our main goal is to foster a freedom that commercial galleries don’t have”.

The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.

Ortega y Gasset Projects (OyG) is an artist-run curatorial collective and exhibition space, founded in May 2013 and based in Gowanus, Brooklyn. OyG is known for its exploratory programming by mounting exhibitions and performances that provoke interpretation and dialogue. Working collaboratively over geographical distances allows OyG to extend beyond local communities and forge larger networks of cultural dialogue.

 

Ortega y Gasset Projects

Ortega y Gasset Projects

OyG consists of 11 members from around the country including, Lauren Adams (Baltimore, MD), Eleanna Anagnos (Brooklyn, NY), Joshua Bienko (Knoxville, TN), Catherine Haggarty (Jersey City, NJ), Eric Hibit (Queens, NY), Fritz Horstman (Bethany, CT), Will Hutnick (Wassaic, NY), Leeza Meksin (NY, NY), Sarah Rushford (Boston, MA), Zahar Vaks (Brooklyn, NY), Sheilah Wilson (Granville, OH & Nova Scotia).

Brett Wallace: How did OyG begin?

Eleanna Anagnos: It was Leeza’s brainchild. She was teaching at Denison where she met Sheilah Wilson and didn’t want their dialogue to end. She wanted to keep connecting with Sheilah and others she met along the way, like Lauren Adams whom she worked with on a big project in 2011. She knew the only way to continuing a dialogue was contingent on creating a project they could work on together. She asked herself, “How can I keep this dialog going with these other amazing artists who don’t live where I live?” She started a collective with different people from across the country. There were just a couple of folks that founded the group.They started it as an experiment. The experiment is still in progress.

(OyG was founded in May 2013 by Lauren Adams, Joshua Bienko, Clare Britt, Carrie Hott, Jessica Langley, Leeza Meksin, Sheilah Wilson and Karla Wozniak).

Joshua: That sort of community and dialog was the genesis of the space. Our vision includes provoking dialog without an overarching ideology. To keep the conversation going, you resist doctrines. Yet, at the beginning it really was a lot of trust in Leeza. It was a wild endeavor. We had no rules. We kind of figured it out as we went along.

 

Adam Ekberg, "Transferring a gallon of milk from one container to another", 2014, archival pigment print, 50 x 40 inches, Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York City. From the show “PASS / FAIL” curated by Will Hutnick at OyG.

Adam Ekberg, "Transferring a gallon of milk from one container to another", 2014, archival pigment print, 50 x 40 inches, Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York City. From the show “PASS / FAIL” curated by Will Hutnick at OyG.

Brett: What’s one thing we would not know about you (or you would not know about each other)?

Sarah: Four current OyG Members are parents, Joshua, Leeza, Sarah, and Sheilah. (Sarah and Leeza each had a baby in 2015!).Sheilah’s show Repeat Pressure which opened in May looked critically at the roles of artists as mothers, and vice versa.

Brett: I found this quote by Jose Ortega y Gasset, the philosopher - “To be surprised, to wonder is to begin to understand.” How has Ortega y Gasset’s philosophy worked its way into how you thought about the venue and your mission, if at all?

Joshua: Like Lacan, I think the letter always arrives at its address. I think maybe the naming of the space was ahead of us in the way that your best paintings are. They’re ahead of you and they reveal themselves to you. I think it’s the same deal.

Catherine: That couldn’t be truer. They (the original members) kind of named it before understanding how perfect it was for what we’re about. From what I can gather from my new start here, it does in fact reflect our vision and ethos.  

Fritz: I know that Leeza at least, and possibly others, were reading Ortega y Gasset at that very time. So that name was in the air. I joined the group in October 2014 so a couple years after the actual beginning. As I was introduced to it, in talking to Leeza I asked this very question. She said yes we’re a widely dispersed group and Ortega y Gasset’s most famous line is,

“Yo soy yo y mi circunstancias,” meaning, “I am I and my circumstances.” That seems to in some way sum up the dispersed and yet single-minded nature of the group; we’re all across the country, but our circumstances make us into a single unit”.

 

“USES” curated by Fritz Horstman. USES: Left to Right, Todd Freeman, Mark Dion, Naomi Safran-Hon, Zoe Sheehan Saldana, Richard Klein

“USES” curated by Fritz Horstman. USES: Left to Right, Todd Freeman, Mark Dion, Naomi Safran-Hon, Zoe Sheehan Saldana, Richard Klein

Brett: How do you define collective as in how you're organized?

Eleanna: We like that it’s decentralized. It makes it more difficult in some ways, but it’s a strength because we get to pull from culture across the country. That’s one of the things that sets us apart from other collectives in NYC. We generate ideas and encourage feedback. It’s an ongoing discourse where we pull our resources and volunteer ideas. That’s sort of how it becomes a collective.

Fritz: We love New York. But it can be parochial. This spreads our influence and spreads our net, where we’re drawing from.

Joshua: I also think the idea of a collective has a lot to do with deference and trust. There are times where something isn’t your strength. Maybe it’s an idea for a show and you don’t know anybody who does paintings about giraffes. Then you defer to somebody who’s working in that field. We run the space that way too. Some folks are good at numbers and details. Some folks are good at brainstorming or something. We really defer. It’s kind of amazing the trust we have. Actually, part of Catherine’s emergence in our space too seemed to be based on her understanding of the way teams work.

Brett: Catherine, what spurred the process of getting involved in OyG?

Catherine: I appreciate Josh saying that. I did think about the idea of teamwork in this adventure. And I’m honored to be a part of it. I was in a show at the space in November. Then just after close, Ortega had their benefit that the whole team really put together, and I could kind of sense from their outreach that perhaps they needed a little bit of help. So I just tried really hard to show up at the benefit. And not just be there and absorb the fact that there was paintings on the wall, but actually see if they needed any help. It was a great night, and I was thankful to be a part of it.

So now I’m here and I’m really thrilled. I think the idea of being part of a community is really important in a really isolated life as an artist. New York is exhausting and people overwork themselves. So the idea that we can actually depend on each other and ask each other questions about things that we don’t know like lighting for a gallery or marketing or just cultural differences. People being in Tennessee or Maryland, outside of New York and Will, where he is (in Wassaic), brings a different dialog. So I think that’s really a rich team to work from. I’m excited to take it on, to learn.

Fritz: I think that one of the themes within this that we don’t really talk about is that we’re educating each other. We’re providing this base where we each share our knowledge and expose one another to things that we wouldn’t otherwise be involved with. It’s not that we’re an educational entity, but I think all of us feel we’re in it to learn more and to make a better model of what this could be.

Eleanna: I think we do teach each other so much. Also, I think we all want to share our love of and support of artists with our community too and reach out to others that don’t necessarily know about art. Now that we’re now located in Gowanus and we’re in this new space, we want to build it out and show what the possibilities are. It’s sort of a young neighborhood for art in terms of galleries showing art.

Sarah: I’ve always felt that as a member of the art world (however broadly that is defined by all of our members) I have responsibilities; to make and show my own work, yes, but just as important is to know other artists' work, to talk about it, listen to them talk about it, study it, and make ways to show it and celebrate it. Real dialog and community come out of this. That sense of shared challenge and triumph starts feeding back in the best way, and becomes the fuel for making one’s own work; for making one’s own life. When the geography is spread out, it works even better. It’s a formula that runs on the respect that artists have for one another’s work. In my mind, that’s how a collective functions. That’s how OyG functions.

Brett: Jeff Weiner (CEO of LinkedIn) once said from a business point of view, “When you’re launching a rocket, if you’re off by inches at launch, you’re off by miles when you get to orbit” (referring to culture and values in a hyper-growth business setting). With an artistic frame on, is there a value system that you make decisions based on?

Eleanna: I think it’s one of service. I think we all are passionate about this endeavor and this experiment and this community. I really wanted to be part of the community. It grounds me. But I think the spirit is one of service for all of us. Generously giving our time to one another for the sake of our community.

Fritz: I’d say that there are two facets to this. Business-wise we are democratic, very transparent. Not that anything else is not transparent but we are very transparent. Everything is talked about and no one makes any action business-wise without everyone else weighing in. And if they possibly have wisdom on something or expertise, then that person comes forward. On the other hand, curatorially, we have pretty much complete freedom.

“When somebody has an idea, they get to do whatever they want. There’s no restriction aside from, you know. No one has pitched anything so crazy that anyone has ever said no”.

Joshua: It’s impossible to get off track. The rocket doesn’t go straight up, it’s flying all over. We’re never off or on.

Fritz: It’s more like an imaginary scenario where someone pitches something and we’re like you can’t actually keep the gallery. We’re not going to okay that one.

Joshua: Is it a rabbit? Because...

Brett: Speaking of flying, Beuys had a controversial story of being rescued after his plane crashed in the war.

Joshua: That’s right. I really ‘felt’ that in his work...But seriously, if someone brought up something wild, I know we’d be pretty committed to figuring out how to pull it off.

Fritz: I think there may be an analogy of a wild spider web. Whereas as a business, we operate very tightly in the center. But then ideas for curation pop out at the edges and as soon as there’s an idea out at the edge, the web finds a way, and I don’t mean Internet (I mean this fictional spider web I’m talking about), to branch to it in as many ways as possible. We look at whatever the new idea is and think how can we bring our own knowledge and wisdom to that new idea.

Joshua: Can I add something about this education kind of theme? I think it comes out of a Socratic questioning method. Or straight out of Paulo Freire's “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, which is a problem causing education not a problem solving education. So it’s like the questioning part and the dialog that goes on with the questioning... that is the juice! It’s not like we have the answer now. It’s a living community. That comes out of so many great artistic traditions.

Fritz: That’s my favorite part about being in this group is that exact aspect of it. I have an idea. And I think possibly I’ve got things sorted out. I realize through various conversations with various members that there’s all these questions I hadn’t thought about. And those questions end up being far more interesting than my original idea.

Brett: In a way the community you’ve built is a network to bounce ideas off and accelerate the development of new ideas.

Eleanna: Absolutely, yes.

Sarah: I feel like we stick to the plan because the plan is simply; do your best! It sounds kind of childish “do your best”,  but it’s kind of an understanding I think the group has. When I joined I was really struck by the level of engagement each member has with art, as well as an astonishing work ethic. I have more confidence in my ability to approach artists, write about art, install, transport, even think about art with OyG behind me than I would on my own. So my “best” is better. We support one another’s ideas, and aim high. That’s why we don’t go off track. It’s true though that so far no one has proposed anything really unacceptable, we’re also just lucky!

Brett: How has OyG impacted your own work?

Eleanna: I was just going to say that yes, it affects the work just having the dialog and discourse about these ideas and working together and accelerating the idea from where you started, which is really exciting. Also, in addition to all that, we also have group crits which is very helpful because this is a community I really trust. We trust one another and respect one another a lot. And we all come from different places in terms of our work so the feedback is rich and thoughtful.

Joshua: The collective has definitely impacted the way I think and work. But also the practice of curating. I’m not a curator. I don’t know what curating is, but I’m curating shows. The way to think about that is like painting is a mode of thinking, and music making is a mode of thinking, and drawing is a mode of thinking. I think curating is a very valuable and important mode of thinking. I think that one of the strongest points of the space is that we’re artists first and curating is a mode of being an artist. The way that you look at your work after starting to think about selecting work for a group show, or articulating a certain kind of question is deeply influenced by curating.

Brett:  How did you all meet?  

Joshua: You want to know a funny story? I had been talking with Leeza on the phone. Karla Wozniak and I were both teaching at the University of Tennessee at the time. I knew that Karla and Leeza went to Yale at the same time. I walked out of my studio after speaking with Leeza and I asked Karla, “What do you think about Leeza Meksin? Do you know anything about her?” Karla was like that’s so weird, I just got off the phone with her! She’s a good friend of mine. She’s really, great. I told Karla, “Well, she’s thinking about starting this space, this artist collective and she was wondering if I interested in participating.” Karla was like, “ME TOO!” Leeza didn’t even know that Karla and I were like three feet apart.

Eleanna: But Joshua, how did you know Leeza?

Joshua: I didn’t. I knew her work, but not her. Lauren Adams asked me to be a part of this thing that she had been talking to her friend Leeza about. Lauren put Leeza and I in contact.

Fritz: So the spider web analogy is not far off here.

Eleanna: And Leeza and I, we used the same studio space at Chashama. When I moved out and she chose to be in my space. I had left a small piece of silk fabric and a piece of foam carefully pinned to the wall. When she walked in, she loved the items. They resonated with her and kept them. We met years later.

Joshua: And talk about deference and trust. When somebody says I think this person would be a great part of the group, it takes a lot of trust for everybody to say, ‘hmm don't know em, but I trust you.’

Eleanna: When I was the one to suggest Fritz to the group. None of them knew Fritz, but they were on board.

Fritz: Which is shocking really that my enormous reputation hadn’t preceded me.

Brett:  What’s life like after you moved out of 1717 Troutman?

Eleanna: New territory in terms of our neighborhood and local audience. We love it.

Joshua: One of the additional modes of the gallery is to extend the space of the gallery beyond the gallery space itself. Having shows that are ‘Ortega y Gasset represents,’ but are in different cities or different spaces is part of our M.O. For a while we were doing the Ortega y Gasset gazette. Those are also really important to us. It’s cool to have a centralized space, but it’s also so much about extension of that space and the dialog that goes along with it. The gazette is being rebirthed as an interview, art writing website of sorts.

Brett:  What’s the craziest idea you’ve been pitched?

Sheilah: Didn’t we get an email from a prince who needed an advance to have a show at OyG that would ultimately net us a lot of money if only we were able to give the $50,000 into the bank account by tomorrow? In all seriousness, I think what is amazing that there is such a degree of support and honest brainstorming around each person’s idea. My ideas for curating shows absolutely change based on feedback and figuring out how better to articulate what I am thinking about based on the responses I get to the proposal.

Brett: What else are you excited about in 2016?

Fritz: We’re doing a performance series this summer, which is that’s a new direction. Almost the entire month of August we’re devoting to performances. A couple of our members are organizing, curating that time period. I can’t give you specifics right now, but any number of performances will be happening across the month of August. That, to me, is a really exciting new direction for this program to be going.

Eleanna: Some of the programming will involve Ugly Duckling Press, which is in the building. They publish poetry. They’re a great organization and we’re looking forward to working with them.

Sarah:  The first show I’ll organize opens September 10, 2016. I’m showing the work of Megan and Murray McMillan, they’re a multidisciplinary artist team whose work is a blend of installation, video, performance and photography. They’ll make a site-specific video installation at OyG that deals with found text.

I’ll also be organizing another private art critique group where we discuss one anothers’ work. Several members have organized these discussion groups along the way and it’s always an incredible exchange! It’s a private event, some members attend in Gowanus while others attend via video hangout.

Joshua:  There’s also some loose discussions but a lot of energy behind a large-scale artist-run collective exchange that we might be sort of trying to organize or playing a role in. It’s an idea we’ve talked about a couple of times over the years and everybody’s so excited about it.

Brett:  Is this something like the TSA Artist Run Project?

Joshua: Totally. There’s also serious momentum to have another OYG space in another city.

Brett: Sharon Louden likes to ask people, “How can she help”. She’s so thoughtful and generous. How could the broader community  help out with what you’re doing?

Catherine:  I don’t think people often enough think with that kind of logic of generosity. And something that’s really impressive to me about OYG so far that I know. What I have been observing in the past year is the potential for expansion of community and the kind of drive to take on larger projects to drive dialog, but not within just visual arts. The idea to shut down the gallery in August it’s like that is a really generous thing and it’s pushing the boundaries and building a better paradigm for an artist run gallery. As opposed to just like everyone is one part of New York and we’re going to throw shows with our friends in it.

Eleanna: The entire group is generous, encouraging and trusting in this way. I also wanted to say, Ortega wouldn’t be in Gowanus if it was not for the same sort of ideology of community and service that the Old American Can Factory has. We’re so lucky to be in that space because they made it possible for us to be there, which is huge. We spent six months without a home, but we found a community in that building.

 

“Love Child”, Curated by Eleanna Anagnos the show includes works by Eva and Adele, Anna Gaskell, and Douglas Gordon, Nyeema Morgan, and Mike Cloud, Rachel Dubuque and Justin Plakas, Maria Walker and Jonathan Allmaier, Carrie Moyer and Sheila Pepe, Jennifer Coates and David Humphrey

“Love Child”, Curated by Eleanna Anagnos the show includes works by Eva and AdeleAnna Gaskell, and Douglas Gordon, Nyeema Morgan, and Mike Cloud, Rachel Dubuque and Justin PlakasMaria Walker and Jonathan AllmaierCarrie Moyer and Sheila PepeJennifer Coates and David Humphrey

Joshua: I think if there’s one thing that should be talked about more, it’s the importance of artist-run spaces. They’re crucial and so valuable, especially with increasing dialog about the un-sustainability of some commercial galleries. Spaces that exist outside of that commercial culture are vital. I don’t want to belabor the point, but the vitality of artist-run spaces comes out of a necessity for talking about expanded parameters for what “success” as such means. What is “success” as a gallery space? Those parameters are very, very finite right now. I don’t think they need to be. An artist-run space that exists and continues to exist should be a parameter of success. An artist-run space that existed is also an incredible and beautiful mark of success.

Brett: How do you measure success within the frame of a collective?

Joshua: Survival. It just means you’re still playing. You’re still in the game.

Catherine: I would just echo off that by saying that I 100% agree with Joshua. Being a living and working member of the Art world is incredibly difficult It is important to show your work, it is just as important to simply continue creating it long term and forming community. For us, if I may speak for us, being a part of OYG is an opportunity to redefine the parameters of what it means to be a success in life as an artist. So I think more people need to know about artist run galleries and understand the importance of them.

Eleanna: Our main goal is to retain a freedom that all commercial galleries don’t have.

Catherine: We have the freedom. That’s the most important thing. It’s like your project (Conversation Project). Or like Sharon Butler’s project Two Coats of Paint. In 2010, she had a Ted talk about the idea of success as an artist. For decades now, artists have been trying to figure out a way to succeed. We’re in the Internet age and people are creating blogs, interview programs, and artist run galleries. These things are like really, really important in long-term survival.

Brett: Both Sharon Louden and Sharon Butler are artist-entrepreneurs in my mind - driven by passion and finding their own ways to create dialogue. I think OyG is also operating in this space of artistic passion to create dialogue in your own way.

Eleanna: Passion also comes up a lot with entrepreneurs. Maybe making money is the outcome in the end, but you really have to be visionary, comfortable with breaking the norm, committed and  passionate- just like an artist- about what it is you’re creating or inventing or pursuing, to really make it happen.

Fritz: I just want to clarify that you have indeed correctly identified us as a unicorn gallery.

 

 

 

 

 

Zachary Keeting: "Slurries of difference excite me, and keep the painting process difficult".

November (3), 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 30” x 30”, Image Courtesy: Zachary Keeting and FRED.GIAMPIETRO Gallery

November (3), 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 30” x 30”, Image Courtesy: Zachary Keeting and FRED.GIAMPIETRO Gallery

 

The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world. Zachary Keeting is an artist and co-founder of Gorky’s Granddaughter with Christopher Joy.

Gorky’s Granddaughter is an online documentary art project with 360+ artist video interviews.

Brett Wallace:  When did you start creating art?

Zach Keeting: I found modern art at the public library.  God knows what gravitational force lured me in. I’d started buying a lot of music in high school.  Painting seemed to compliment rock and roll, and bedroom daydreams.  One day it dawned on me that I should try and emulate what I was looking at.

Modernism felt strong, it felt risky. In it I saw courage, and I wanted to be courageous.  I attempted to become a Modernist in my tastefully carpeted suburban room.

BW: We both had a similar origin in discovering art.  I came across a book on Henri Matisse when I was about 14 and it changed everything for me.  Which artists inspired you early on?  

ZK: My sensibilities have changed a lot over time, but there were certainly artists I connected with then that I still deeply admire:  Braque, Miro, Gauguin come to mind.  My earliest paintings were all exceedingly tight, so the severity of Mondrian greatly appealed to me.  His controlled edges (at least what I could perceive from reproductions) seemed to justify a certain amount of fussiness in my own work.  As I've gotten older, movement and flux have become paramount.  This development has triggered new loves.

Untitled, 2000, Acrylic on canvas, 60” x 84”. Image Courtesy: Zachary Keeting and FRED.GIAMPIETRO Gallery

Untitled, 2000, Acrylic on canvas, 60” x 84”. Image Courtesy: Zachary Keeting and FRED.GIAMPIETRO Gallery

BW: Can you talk about the narrative in your work and how it's developed over time?

ZK: I was stylistically all over the map when I started out, which was probably healthy.  By 1997, mid-way through grad school, I’d settled into a razor sharp geometric aesthetic, but the paintings were odd.  Unlike a lot of geometric abstraction I was aware of, I felt compelled to load them with coded, symbolic content.  Looking back, I’d even describe a few of them as cryptically confessional; it’s all a bit embarrassing.  Most of the pieces contained depictions of recognizable, namable things.  There were houses, maps, magnets, telephone numbers, and simplified love letters.  Rubik’s Cube was a recurring character.  In terms of surface, everything was reductive, yet clatter reigned.

In all honesty, I was overwhelmed with the possibilities of painting (mostly the complexities of touch) so I simplified the process to focus on composition, content, and color.  But by 2005 a nagging feeling had become unavoidable: the paintings didn't tell enough of the story.  Despite their claustrophobic noise, they didn’t contain enough life.  I felt they lacked organic vibrancy.  And so in early 2005 I set out to change.

That year and early 2006 were incredibly difficult.  I destroyed just about everything I made.  2007, 2008 were incrementally better.  In 2009 I started working exclusively on paper, and tried to bring speed front-and-center.  Something clicked.  Thankfully, I wasn’t able to do as much masking (because of the paper’s delicacy) so certain boundary zones loosened up.  A new translucent luminosity also appeared.  

Everything mutated for the better.  That year and a half on paper has been the foundation of everything since.  The energetic momentum hasn’t subsided.

April (8), 2010, Acrylic on paper, 30” x 22”, Image courtesy: Zachary Keeting and FRED.GIAMPIETRO Gallery

April (8), 2010, Acrylic on paper, 30” x 22”, Image courtesy: Zachary Keeting and FRED.GIAMPIETRO Gallery

BW: The work has a strong improvisational feel to me: the layering, blurred boundaries, and generative forms.  How important is improvisation or “accidents” in your process?

ZK: Improvisation is huge, but there’s careful organization going on as well; these two polarities are sometimes at odds, sometimes complimentary.  The proportions of synthesis and discord vary from piece to piece.  Slurries of difference excite me, and keep the painting process difficult.  Toggling between the impulsive and the strategic is as much psychological as it is physical.

March (1), 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 46” x 36”, Image courtesy: Zachary Keeting and FRED.GIAMPIETRO Gallery

March (1), 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 46” x 36”, Image courtesy: Zachary Keeting and FRED.GIAMPIETRO Gallery

BW: On one hand, I feel speed in the work.  And on the other, I sense the rich build up of layers over time to create dimensionality.

ZK: Yeah, it's all of that.  They're built up with momentum, but over a long period of time.  I'll hit a painting every day for a month or so.  I generally have about a half dozen cooking at once.  Within each grouping, even if the basic motifs are consistent, I’ll attempt to make the compositions as unique as possible.  I’d hate for the work to feel formulaic, or overly programmatic, like I'm repeating the same thing day in day out. Ideally, each individual will have a distinct temperament that’s recognizable from afar.

I've been thinking of these recent abstractions, and their possible relationship to group portraiture.  Can they function as evocations of small group dynamics?  Energies collide constantly in this world, and the paintings should be suggestive of that tussle, realistic in a sense.

BW: How does this energy, or these multiple energies, mirror your own lived experience?

ZK: The genesis of a piece is sometimes a specific circumstance:  some sensual memory, an event I stumble upon in the paper, the death of a friend, a shameful experience … but is just as often amorphous.  Paintings arrive after reading many pages, after seeing many movies, after listening to countless songs, and I’ve let my mind wander, over many months.  I’ve mentioned the overt symbolism in my early work.  Even now, I’m inclined to attach specific ideas and attributes to certain pictorial elements.  These namable characteristics help me move, they guide my hand.  The significances I attach to particular curves and edges grease the strategy. 

I hope these “contents” (the exact reason why I’m mixing this particular cerulean) are capable of spiraling outward, even if the intentionality is grossly distorted in transit.  The confluence of these reverberations - what I send out, what you pick up, what you send back, what I receive - is a dynamic picture.  Just the kind of dynamic I’ve tried to depict within this language. 

BW: Are there certain hidden secrets or quirky actions that you've developed over time in your process that fit your metabolism?

ZK: Well yeah, the paintings are littered with Keeting maneuvers.  I'm doing specific (hopefully they read as personal) things all over the place. You'll notice the paintings are built out of shapes and gestures. The slow careful shape-decisions have always happened on an easel.  Years ago, these shapes all had tidy edges.  In the last couple years (since working on paper in 2009) the shapes are less rigid, but I still use a lot of loose masking.  I'll cordon off zones with ripped newspaper.  It’s into these flat fields of color that I can work wet-into-wet.  Acrylic is a problematic material, it's terrible in certain circumstances, but it suits my personality.  I can radically revise day in, day out.  

A lot of what is happening in the studio now is the result of having wrestled with this material for 20+ years; striving still to conjure things I haven't yet seen.  The particulars of this search frequently involve figuring out new ways to establish wet grounds, and devise ways for these surfaces to capture adequately, beautiful gestural movement.

One of the things I've been doing recently, which I'm pretty excited about, is partially inspired by Ed Moses.  He’s been incredibly innovative over the course of his career.  Among other things, he’s harnessed craquelure with striking results.  I've been spilling watery paint across large glossy forms.  These thin washes break under the wind of a strong fan.  My aim is to make certain temperamental zones severely “stressed”.  These zones of crackling duress are positioned amongst placid areas, sections relatively at ease.  This, if I can pull it off, should result in serious friction.

I’d hate for the paintings to look like an assortment of tricky technical maneuvers.  I hope to God these moves add up to more than that.

BW: Do you think about the fusion between eastern versus western thought in your work, or the conscious versus unconscious?

ZK: Yeah, definitely.  When I was 11 years old, my mom had the foresight to enroll me in karate lessons.  I was a frustrated little kid, so having a place to physically explode saved me.  I eventually stopped fighting in college.  I came to the realization that I’d rather focus my energies in the studio.  I basically got tired of punching and kicking people … and I certainly got tired of being punched and kicked!  I decided making art mattered more than physical dominance.  I would say that the focus of those years (learning how to center myself, how to apply strength and capitalize on flexibility) was huge.

Thoughts of harnessed aggression come into play, too, when I think of my father.  He was a fighter pilot, who unfortunately died while I was a baby.  I think often of his life and career:  one of gracefully controlled force.

I guess you were talking more about eastern philosophy?  That’s a part of it.  I’ve read a fair amount of Confucius and the Tao Te Ching was incredibly important for me at a certain point.  Buddhism is beautiful in many of its guises.

Bill Jensen and Zachary Keeting, February 2012  

Bill Jensen and Zachary Keeting, February 2012

 

BW: Shifting gears a bit, Gorky's Granddaughter has over 360 videos the last time I looked.  It has to be one of the world's largest documentary archives of artists in-conversation, in-studio.  I’m a fan of the site too.

ZK: Oh, thank you.

BW: What have you most learned through the project?

ZK: Gorky's Granddaughter has been incredibly important for me these past 5 years.  Because of the project, I’ve been given an exceedingly rare opportunity to meet a glorious hoard of beautifully inspired people.  The challenge of chiseling down raw conversation footage into concise, yet meaty documents, with as much musicality as possible, has also been a gift.  After a weekend of interviews, I’ll have dozens of contradictory opinions racing through my head.  Juggling the aesthetics of radically different artist, sorting through all that is said for the right poetic thread, feels great.

Overlapping energies become explicit if you’ve watched a couple segments back to back.  Before the interviews, I felt very isolated here off on the fringe in Connecticut.  I realize New Haven isn’t that far off the radar in the grand scheme of things, but I definitely felt like a lone traveler.  I’m now much less solipsistic; I’m more frequently out of my head.  The generosity of the project has had it’s own deeply satisfying spiritual aspect.

My sense is that Chris Joy (my collaborator and partner-in-crime) also cherishes these experiences.  Both Chris and I are maximalists, and you can see that in our paintings. We both prefer art rich in moving parts.  If you’ll allow me to generalize:  more decisions are better.  I approach Gorky’s with the same heart.  I want to take it all in.  I want my curiosity to guide me, and I’d like it to take me far.

I spend a fair amount of time online looking at art, compiling names.  If I can easily figure out where folks live, I’ll copy their names into organized desktop folders.  I dream of maybe, just maybe, making it to Stockholm one of these day and meeting the six people in that little folder.

I've often described the project as a document of my friendship with Chris.  It's a wonderful bonus that all these other artists are showing us tremendous stuff.   For Chris and I, the project exists mostly in the actual encounters.  I know for most people the project is videos online.  But on this end, it’s the two of us setting aside a couple days a month, paling around, and having a grand time talking seriously about what we love.

BW: You guys obviously love to ask tough questions and also keep things light at times.  It makes the interviews real, and enjoyable.

ZK: Yeah, laughter is good. These in-depth conversations are very often with complete strangers, which is surreal if I pause to think about it.  We never know what will happen.  I then bring the footage home and try to make it flow as beautifully as possible. They’ve always been roughly hewn … we have no budget.  I hope the rawness comes across as truthful.  It’s shaky because that's the way we hold our camera, that's our touch.  The sound is the sound of the room.

It’s all improvisation.  We walk in and turn on the camera.  There is usually a minute or two of friendly chitchat, but for the most part, you're watching us come to an understanding with artists in near real-time.  So much content is possible if you ask a couple relevant questions then get out of the way.

BW: Gorky’s is a project beyond the studio walls, and because of it, I'm sure you’ve learned a lot about artists in our communities and how we work.  What advice would you give to your 22-year-old self?

ZK: I would try to dissuade myself from romanticizing isolation.  A certain amount of self-sufficiency is of course needed.  But I romanticized aloneness.  I thought it was cool to be off on the fringe making work that nobody had ever seen.  Mine was a loner’s myth.  And now, at 43, it's become clear how important community, shared ideas, dialogue and camaraderie is.  I still spend the vast majority of my daily free time alone (painting requires it, as does my psychological make-up).  But I’m now able to schedule serious conversations into the calendar every month.

BW: How has getting to know others artists and their studios enriched your life?

ZK: It's been incredibly nourishing.  But there is conflict.  At this point I'm having a hard time defining success for myself.  Not painterly success, I’m thinking here about the career side of things.  I look around and it seems there are countless options.  Would earning more money undeniably be a good thing, all around?  Would quitting my teaching gig and living off sales be ideal?  Would moving to NYC be a savvy maneuver or suicide?  And to follow through on this line of thinking:  what is Gorky's Granddaughter accomplishing, big picture?  Is it confusing from the outside?  Will I forever be thought of as “that guy who makes the videos”?

BW: Clay Christianson wrote a book, “How Will You Measure Your Life”.  He talks about causal theories and how the pursuit of short-term achievement (tangible, immediate achievement – e.g. closing a sale, getting a promotion) can lead us down a dangerous path.  He compares short-term gains to long-term gains (which take time, sometimes 20 years to achieve), but bring us far greater happiness. How do you think about short vs. long-term goals?

ZK: I hope to continue painting.  This world is so incredibly difficult.  All across the globe millions of people suffer.  I’m so damn lucky to have spent all this time in the studio, trying everyday to radiate a little light; may that continue.

In terms of the actual art?  I suppose the goals are mostly short-term.  Occasionally, in my 20s, I would plan out compositions.  The painting process served to actualize predetermined dreams.  I remember giving myself month-long goals, and sticking to it.  But I tend not to enter the studio with that mindset anymore.  I will tackle a triptych from time to time (which requires a certain amount of commitment).  But painting, for me, at this point, is largely exploratory, more verb than noun.  It’s definitely day-to-day, move-to-move, moment-to-moment. 

There was one occasion, a couple years back, when I deliberately altered my palette.  I was trying to harmonize with Clare Grill (with whom I was about to have a two-person show).  Her art has always been incredibly subtle, devilishly tender.  My solution involved a lot of grey.  I’m glad I temporarily made the concession; the show was more emotional for me having made a chromatic sacrifice.  In some ways, finding resonant compatibility with Clare hurt.

That said, I see my short-term and long-term goals coinciding:  spontaneity in both.

BW: What’s your next play (e.g. what’s on the horizon?)?

ZK: My mom passed away a few weeks ago.  I’d like to honor her in the most loving way I can.  All of the upcoming work will be for her.

April (1), 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 46” x 36”, Image courtesy: Zachary Keeting and FRED.GIAMPIETRO Gallery

April (1), 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 46” x 36”, Image courtesy: Zachary Keeting and FRED.GIAMPIETRO Gallery

Tiger Strikes Asteroid: “We’re focused on giving a platform to artist-driven programming or projects”.

Tiger Strikes Asteroid (TSA) is an artist run platform with locations in Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles.  TSA focuses on building a platform for artist-driven programming or projects for emerging and mid-career artists.  The mission of TSA is to bring people together, expand connections and build community through artist-initiated exhibitions, projects, and curatorial opportunities.

TSA was recently mentioned in the New York Times article, “Galleries Scramble Amid Brooklyn’s Gentrification”. TSA projects have also been featured in numerous print and online publications such as Art F City, Hyperallergic, The Huffington Post, L Magazine, Whitehot Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Two Coats of Paint, Artinfo, Artnet News, Beautiful Decay, and the Artblog.

We sat down in TSA’s space in Bushwick to discuss their origin and vision. Included in the conversation are Vincent Como, Andrew Prayzner, Rachael Gorchov, William Crump, Alex Paik, Norm Paris and Naomi Reis. Jackie Hoving and Matt Phillips were not present, but are also members of TSA New York.

Pictured left to right: William Crump, Naomi Reis, Norm Paris, Andrew Prayzner, Rachael Gorchov, Vincent Como, Yin Ho, Alex Paik. Image courtesy: TSA.

Pictured left to right: William Crump, Naomi Reis, Norm Paris, Andrew Prayzner, Rachael Gorchov, Vincent Como, Yin Ho, Alex Paik. Image courtesy: TSA.

Brett:  What triggered the launch on TSA?

Alex:  I started TSA Philly in 2009 with a group of friends there. And there were a couple of motivations -- one, we were frustrated by lack of exhibition opportunities for ourselves and the work we liked. So we wanted to create a place for ourselves at the table, so to speak. The other impetus was trying to connect the Philly arts scene with New York and also other major cities, because we felt that there were Philly artists that should be championed but were somehow not getting that cross-pollination going.

And then New York happened because I moved to New York and I had already made all these connections through TSA Philadelphia. We thought, why don't we use these existing connections and keep that -- I hesitate to use the word "brand" but since we're talking about entrepreneurs -- entrepreneurial lens to keep that brand going. People already knew Tiger Strikes Asteroid, so we just tried to keep that same name. Then LA opened like a little over a year ago.

Brett:  What led you to think of TSA as a network of spaces? Was that a conscious decision to amplify the brand across those locations?

Alex:  I think it's definitely sort of an echo chamber type thing. It's that, but also if you look at the microcosm of New York, it's all ten of us curating on a rotating schedule, completely independently, but all working under the same moniker. You get a lot of different viewpoints, and you get a lot of really different work in each show, much more than if we all voted on the shows I think.

And then on a macro level, the sites function in the same way.  They all function completely independently in terms of programming. Andrew and Vincent run this one (New York) -- they're in charge of organizing the day-to-day stuff -- and there are different directors at each site. They're taking that small little world and then making it grow, just seeing how it grows into something else.

Brett:  Rachael, you curated the exhibition up right now entitled, “Conversation Space”. Do each of you have independent curatorial vision when you organize an exhibition?

Rachael:  Right. We each have complete carte blanche to do whatever we want with our show. In some cases, we organize group shows, some solo shows, some two-person shows. We have really had a broad scope in terms of the work that's been shown. 

Conversation Space, a two-person exhibition featuring recent work by Caroline Santa and Jen Schwarting, curated by Rachael Gorchov.  Image courtesy of TSA.

Conversation Space, a two-person exhibition featuring recent work by Caroline Santa and Jen Schwarting, curated by Rachael Gorchov.  Image courtesy of TSA.

Brett:  While you focus on divergent projects, how do you work together to make group decisions?

Vincent:  A lot of meetings and the nuts and bolts are really about collaborating behind the scenes, about deciding whether or not we're going to take advantage of a certain opportunity, deciding how we're going to move a certain project forward, that sort of thing. Aesthetically, as far as the individual shows, I think it just reflects our own aesthetic interests. And I think that for me, one of the things that was really attractive about the model was the fact that you do have free reign to do whatever you want. I think in the end, it usually reflects to some degree your own practice; it's intimately connected to your own studio practice. But it also brings in these elements from your past, from your other connections, from different exhibitions that you've been in and people that you’ve shown with, and it mixes it all up, to bring this other dialogue into play.

Alex:  For me, the idea is that there is no house style; the brand of Tiger Strikes Asteroid is that we're focused on being a platform for artists to produce projects on their own, whether it's your own show, or just being part of your own exhibition space or doing something crazy like Artist-Run.

We’re focused on giving a platform to artist-driven programming or projects. So that, to me, is what the core aesthetic is about. It’s not about trying to put one type of work above another. It’s trying to give artists a place to be empowered and do what they want to do.

Norm:  I'd also say say that, at our core, TSA is not about avoiding or embracing any particular aesthetic at all; it's about a divergent set of wide conceptual interests in art that embody all of our interests in different ways.

It was kind of a joke, but kind of true early on, Alex said, "I want to pick people that are stable people that know how to carry me through with the tasks that need to be done." Because without that, nothing happens. So I see us as a space where we create lots of opportunities and anything can happen.  We keep things as open as possible.

I feel that in meetings we have a healthy self-critical dialogue that allows us to express what’s in the best interest of the gallery and how we would like to see things develop in the future. There is a common feeling that we are all trying to push boundaries with our shows.

We’re always challenging ourselves to step outside the thing we might like, to step outside — meaning aesthetically — the artwork that we might be more prone to accepting of, or the artists that we already know.

Andrew:  I think the word I think of is "thoughtful". Alex had selected all of us to be part of it. The roster became the people in this room, each being very thoughtful in their approach, whether it's their own art practice, or who they think about in terms of assembling their exhibitions. In a way, I feel it's also a rebuttal against some of the things we see in the commercial galleries; more cool and ironic.

I don’t want to say that we're sincere and they're not, because I don’t believe in that, and it's kind of silly. But I will say that one thing that unifies a lot of our shows, just thoughtfulness in terms of thinking of and considering an aesthetic and a conceptual approach.

Brett:  The whole idea of the platform with multiple entry points is interesting. Are there core values or an internal culture you’ve developed that guide your day-to-day decisions?

Bill:  It's sometimes easier to know what to avoid than what to go after. I think when we come together, we really listen to each other and talk through our ideas and where we see things going. We have a back and forth discourse in our meetings, as to where we want TSA to go, or what we feel the shows should look like. We don’t critique each other; rather, we do try to ask the right questions put forward our best ideas.

Alex:  Which is a form of critique, in a good way.

Vincent:  Personally, I'm not the biggest fan of the art fair model. So I was incredibly skeptical about us taking on a project like Artist Run. Once it was no longer being referred to as an art fair, it just happened to be going on while all these other fairs are going on; once it became this idea that we're providing an opportunity to other spaces, other artists, other ideas similar to our own, then it was, we can't pass this up. We have to do this. We have to be able to help facilitate this. I think that that drives the dialogue a lot further.

Alex:  I think it's just that our values are such that we want to do anything that puts the artists at the forefront. I think that is what, at least for me, we're interested in. And the nice thing is that just because that's what I'm interested in, somebody else can be interested in something else. Generally, the way we work is that if you're really passionate about something, and you want to do something, we'll try to support it as best as we can. Which is a nice, unique thing about working in a collective atmosphere where you don’t necessarily have to vote on all the decisions; if you have a passion project, you're welcome to do it. Like Artist-Run; people thought we were fucking crazy to do it, and then it ended up being pretty all right.

Brett:  It was fresh and experimental – I trekked out in that monsoon Miami rain storm to see it.

Alex:  We can't control that yet.

Rachael:  While there may be a varying aesthetic, or varying approaches to projects, if you're passionate about something or if you're interested in something, do it. I think it comes back to thoughtfulness. There's a wide variety of work that we show, but we're not driven by the same motives as the commercial galleries. In our last meeting, we were talking about works that aren't commercially viable but that are interesting nonetheless. Artist Run is an example of something like that. Alex and Vincent were doing a workshop series (on how artists can develop their professional careers); that's an example of a project that they were interested in, and they went with it.     

Vincent:  That really came about and speaks to a passion. 

I felt that as this sort of group that facilitates exhibitions, what else can we do? What is lacking in the community, and how can we partially fill the void? I felt that professional development was a huge one.

Brett:  The sharing on knowledge and wisdom seems to tie very well into your mission of creating a platform and ecosystem for artists.

Vincent:  Yeah, and a lot of us have spent decades just trying to cobble together the information for ourselves, for our own practice. And it's like, "Okay, I have this information, how can I share this? How do I aggregate this so that it's useful to other people? What are the real hallmarks of benefit to somebody else to help them move forward, to keep pushing, and for them to be able to stay in the game, because it's such a marathon?"

Brett:  How do you think the curatorial work that you're doing has impacted your own studio work?

Norm:  The last show that I co-curated with Jackie Hoving (another member who couldn't be here), Night Flight, was last May. The concept for it was partially based on an old TV show from the 1980s that was aired in the middle of the night. It was not frontally a part of my subject matter at that time. It was just something that came about in discussions with Jackie. And then later, more recently, those ideas foretold something that I was interested in; it just had to come out a different way.

A lot of us teach within various art programs; sometimes when you're teaching, you emphasize something to your students that you didn't realize was important to you and then it comes up in your own work. And you're like, "Oh, wait. That's something I'm thinking about. This is really important." That happens, too, in curating, in my short experience with it.

Night Flight, a group exhibition curated by Jackie Hoving and Norm Paris that features the work of Benjamin Degen, Johannes DeYoung, Angela Dufresne, Charlotte Hallberg, Trenton Doyle Hancock, MaryKate Maher, Tom McGrath, Mark Shetabi, and Jude Tallichet.  Image courtesy of TSA.

Night Flight, a group exhibition curated by Jackie Hoving and Norm Paris that features the work of Benjamin Degen, Johannes DeYoung, Angela Dufresne, Charlotte Hallberg, Trenton Doyle Hancock, MaryKate Maher, Tom McGrath, Mark Shetabi, and Jude Tallichet.  Image courtesy of TSA.

Rachael:  Also, I think, too, what Alex was saying about part of the reason he wanted to start TSA was giving himself a place at the table, or creating a place at the table for a group of people. I think for myself at least, being a part of this group, and having this opportunity to make opportunities for other people, has given me additional confidence and faith in my work; not that I didn't have previously, but I think it's served to fortify some of these things.

Alex:  I think it's very easy for me to be very, very negative. And doing something like this is an active way to keep that in check, do you know what I mean? We're all artists, and we've all gotten rejection letters; we've all been the victim of random fate or whatever. Doing something like this really helps me to keep that in check. I suppose that's kind of a hokey thing to say.

But on a more tangible level, we can show our own work here. We have some rules about what you can or cannot do. But for me, the last show I did with Debra Ramsay, I felt weird about showing my own work  here. And then I said, "I will do something I have never done before. I'm going to try a big installation." And that just opened up a whole new world for me. I wouldn't be able to do that probably at the gallery that I work with in Philly, but having this place where I could be like, "I could try something; it might be horrible, but that's fine. I'm going to take the risk and do it." It really pushed my practice forward, I think. That's more of a tangible example.

Rachael:  A few of us have done that, and I think for all of us -- I don’t know if it makes sense necessarily to show our own work in the future, but I think that for those of us who have done that, I think it's catapulted our work into new directions that we wouldn't have had the opportunity to do otherwise. I think each of us have done that, taken on an ambitious project.

Naomi:  I have 1,000 things that this conversation is bringing to mind. I grew up in Japan as a “half,” the term for mixed-race people in Japan, a minority group along with others in Japan that are not publicly acknowledged much. (The idea of Japan being homogeneous is largely a self-propagated myth that continues because of the (Asian) taboo of calling attention to yourself.) I didn't start making artwork until my mid-20s when I realized contemporary art was a thing. I moved to New York after college and fell in with a group of artists; it was the first time in my life I felt like, "Oh, these people think like me." Up until that point, I was on this track of growing up in Japan where you're expected to follow the rules, go to college. You accept your fate, get a corporate job, keep your thoughts to yourself. I found myself at age 23 with a job in human resources at a Japanese corporation, and feeling absolutely fucking miserable - I felt like I had been performing a part my whole life and was increasingly unable to keep up the act.

After I became friends with artists, I realized that is the only way I know how to be in the world. I built a portfolio outside of any art training, got lucky and into grad school. The school I went to happened to prioritize Western painting, which was largely an unfamiliar aesthetic to me. Not knowing how to engage in a language I didn’t grow up with, I followed my curiosity and made weird architectural collage-drawings and and was mostly outside of the central discussion of Serious Art, the tradition of (white/male) Western art.

When Alex invited me to join TSA, it was the first time I felt encouraged to explore an alternative vision--something about having a physical space within which you can externalize your interior mindscape that until now had not been given air time--was incredibly empowering. The first show I curated there last summer included artists that didn't fit into a linear narrative of Western art history. Their aesthetic, or their practice, reflected a hybrid of the places they grew up outside of the West. Their work didn’t fit in neatly to the kinds of shows that I was seeing a lot of in Bushwick, for example; I was able to curate a show outside the trends of what else was going on in New York.

“Made in USA / Some Parts Imported,” curated by Naomi Reis with Heidi Lau and featuring the work of Nicole Awai, Jenny Cho, Ignacio González-Lang, Christopher K. Ho, Daisuke Kiyomiya, Heidi Lau, Esperanza Mayobre, Mónica Palma Narváez, Armita Raafat, and Arthur Simms.  Image courtest of TSA

“Made in USA / Some Parts Imported,” curated by Naomi Reis with Heidi Lau and featuring the work of Nicole Awai, Jenny Cho, Ignacio González-Lang, Christopher K. Ho, Daisuke Kiyomiya, Heidi Lau, Esperanza Mayobre, Mónica Palma Narváez, Armita Raafat, and Arthur Simms.  Image courtest of TSA

Brett:  The more I'm hearing you guys talk, it definitely rings true that there's a certain diversity from creating a platform that is a core advantage. The TSA model benefits from multiple streams of vision and thoughtfulness – there is a force multiplier effect.

Alex:  We have 30 different artists across the country as members of different TSAs. Even just looking at the three different sites, they all have very different things going on, and they all focus on different things. But the whole thing is just built around trust. For example, we all trust Naomi 100 percent, and she put together this knockout show. We all trust each other to put together great shows. You don't even need to tell us about it. We'll give you some advice, or give you some suggestions, but it's totally your thing.

That's why I think it's cool. We know that we're all thoughtful and really thinking about our own different things, and we also know that we all have our own blind spots that we can't see. So by being a collective that's built around individual voices, we're starting to chip away at some of those blind spots that we wouldn't be able to see if we're trying to build on everything.

Andrew:  It's almost like a competition, too. "I saw what Norm did. Well, I'm going to take that and raise you. I didn't do that in my last show, I'm going to do it in this show." With each successive turn here, we happily build upon what we did. And everyone in this room has done a really strong show. They pulled out something different and interesting, whether the artist or the medium they used, or the curatorial theme that they used. It's great because you can always be like, "Great. They did that; maybe I can do this."

Naomi:  I would say it's almost opposite competition. I sort of feel like it's in a way irrelevant, whether we believe that everyone else is going to put together a strong show. Here's a platform for you to do whatever you want with. I don't think anyone's put together an awful show, and it doesn't matter. Maybe if you put together this show that obviously you care enough to make it happen, and maybe I personally think it's awful, it's just …

Norm:  Just say it. It was my show, wasn't it?

Vincent:  It's funny because everyone has this opportunity. Everyone has their own aesthetic wheelhouse, with their own studio practice. But I think the unifying factor is that for me personally is I don’t have to walk into someone else's exhibition of black paintings to say that this is a good show. It can be a completely different thing. It can be a show of landscape paintings. I can respect that. I understand, after however many years of just working and being an artist, and working on your own craft, you understand what goes into it. You understand that there's a thinking process, that there's a learning curve. There are all these different inspirations and things that go into it, and you respect that about other artists. I think that's really the way that we are able to let go of our own aesthetic handicaps that we're so locked into within our own studio.

Once it becomes a space like this, we're able to let go a little bit and allow these other things to happen. I think it really takes off.

Bill:  I think that a lot of spaces, if they grow up, they tend to become more internalized almost; and a lot of times that turns into surface things, like aesthetics or the way that they’re set up.  But I think with TSA, it expands, rather than goes into itself.

Norm:  There's a healthy amount of not knowing exactly what we are. In a way, that is on purpose.

Another thing I'd like to say, first off, while we give each other the ultimate freedom to do what we're going to do -- at least my experience is that I've worked with every single person here on my show either informally or formally.

And there are structures that reinforce that. I think that, beginning with Alex, but moving through everybody here, including our current co-directors, there's a firm structure that allows, that necessitates dialogue and getting things out there. I worked with Rachael on a couple of my press releases - those conversations helped me fine-tune my ideas, facilitated by the fact that the text needs to be in a certain format with latitude. But there is a dialogue through the development of our exhibitions that is important.

Alex:  The other thing -- just back to the expansion/contraction thing -- is that we don't need you to come up with any particular, "Oh, we deal with strictly minimalism, or we deal with strictly painting," because that's more of a commercially-driven decision. We don't need to brand ourselves in that way.

Our brand is already who we are and how we structure ourselves, and then inside that container anything can happen. Because of that, we’re allowed to expand.

Brett:  It appears the thought process goes far back into the system. It’s ingrained into the culture that you guys have developed.

Alex:  I agree with that. I feel like all the results have been very good. But it's like that's not necessarily the most important thing. It was never a political stance, but as it grows, it's becoming political just by existing, and not in any real intentional way. That's kind of interesting to see and think about those things at this point.

Bill:  Especially in the current environment where you've got a lot of emerging and midlevel galleries disappearing, and now you have these mega-galleries. I think this particular thing that's going on right now is especially important.

Vincent:  That's something that was really intriguing to me about becoming a part of TSA because when I was first out of art school, I moved to Chicago. I went there for almost ten years. There were a handful of interesting or good commercial spaces, but the really interesting stuff were the artist-run spaces. They were in people's garages. They were in basements of people's apartments and things like that. They were ridiculous, but they were awesome. It really provided a platform for young artists, out of the gate, to experiment, to do something, to take something on, to be responsible for the work that they're presenting, and do it in this environment where everyone comes out and supports them.

One of the downfalls, though, of a lot of those spaces was they were also artist-run, but it was usually only a couple of artists. And if they actually hit a five-year benchmark, they pretty much imploded. They either went commercial, or tried to go commercial and it didn't last, or they just burnt themselves out, because it was just so much work turning up for shows and doing the whole thing.

Alex:  What year was this?

Vincent:  That was late 90s, early 2000s. And it was really interesting, talking to Alex initially about TSA's model because with like nine or ten members, the workload is spread out so much, it makes it so much easier to be really invested in it, to do a solid job, and to not just be completely fried when you're done.

Bill:  I was just going to comment on that. There's a thread of our history that goes back to these artist-run spaces in New York, and the responsibility of fostering new ideas. But I think the one thing that gives us the strength is that we're not trying to usurp the power from a gallery. We are simply a model for openness and new ideas, and expanding on those, not following the trends. I think we're basically trying to push ourselves a little bit each time that we have a show.

I think Alex's idea of being open, and not dictating what we do has given us all a unique platform to stand on and execute those visions. I think that's pretty much where we are as members. That's what works for us.

Rachael:  And to your question about how we collaborate -- I think it's key to this idea of not burning out. Everything is not falling on each of our shoulders. We're not flying by the seat of our pants trying to figure out the next show. We have a schedule in place. We have tasks in place. It all grew organically, and I wanted to come back to your initial question about the network and how we formed as network, and how we formed as a brand. I feel like it happened very organically, where there was a TSA in Philly; Alex had the idea that he wanted to do something similar here.

In the very beginning, we talked about whether we even wanted the name TSA, and we weren't sure we did. We were initially concerned about whether we would even have an audience. So we thought, let's use the name and see what happens. LA happened very organically. It was somebody who we knew from New York who relocated, Chris Ulivo. And then all of a sudden, he's had 30 artists renting these vastly different, but similar spaces, and that they follow the same model to provide this platform.

Artist Run exhibition housed in the abandoned Ocean Terrace Hotel, December 2015, Miami. Image courtesy: TSA.

Artist Run exhibition housed in the abandoned Ocean Terrace Hotel, December 2015, Miami. Image courtesy: TSA.

Brett:  Since Artist Run is your latest venture, could you share a few thoughts on its origin and vision?

Rachael:  Alex was the mastermind of that.

Alex:  So Mark Brosseau (who is co-director of the Philly space) and I were basically given the opportunity to have a derelict hotel.

TSA Philly had been kicking around the idea of doing an art fair of just artist-run spaces, and there had been a similar one in Baltimore. Mark and I did a lot of the admin stuff, but the Philly space, they really did a lot of the nuts and bolts stuff behind the scenes -- it was their passion project. In New York, frankly, we were all completely burnt out because we had done some fairs, and we had been curating two shows at the same time for a while. But that's the cool thing about having a dispersed group.

So the hotel was two floors. I think it was like 39 artist-run spaces, 38 separate installations. We invited different artist-run spaces from around the world to apply, and the theme was they had to change their hotel room into some sort of installation/environment.

It was really cool. It felt very authentically alternative in a way that I feel like you don’t see anymore. I don’t know if lightning can strike twice again. It just accidentally became this great thing.

Norm:  There was a sense of camaraderie, a sort of drama. Everybody knew the hotel was going to be derelict. It was definitely a capital D, not lowercase D.

Naomi:  That was a little traumatizing actually, personally. The cockroaches and the dead birds.

Alex:  The zombie birds.

Naomi:  And bird poop and all kinds of really gnarly things.

Vincent:  People talked about it being like a five-day residency, which goes back to this idea of the process being the seminal thing. For a lot of people, I think the experience and the process, all the back-end stuff which led to the show -- the show was also powerful in a lot of ways, but the process, I think, was really unique. I think everybody was either remotely supporting it or there. But it was certainly spearheaded by this guy (Alex) and Mark.

Brett:  I could feel great energy there.

Alex:  It was weird to think about. There really was an energy there, and you just wanted to keep working. It was just addictive.

Rachael:  I think it was a nice metaphor for what we've been talking about with TSA being a platform for artists, to showcase artists because like you said, there are a lot of pop-up spaces during that week. But it was a pop-up project in a way, and I think it felt like there was real conviction behind it, and that lent it a certain energy that allowed people to take it seriously in a way that maybe not all pop-up spaces are taken seriously.

It's like a system was in place to allow it to happen in that way, which I think is the way TSA operates. There's a system in place that allows these other things to happen.

Andrew:  It was actively transgressive, as opposed to when you go to an art fair and you see something that's supposed to be transgressive, but is really very commercial or a clean white space. But you go to this thing, and there were people in every room doing stuff. There was performing, and all kinds of different politics going on. This sounds really cheesy, but it was real. It was actually transgressive, as opposed to like a false production transgressive at an artists' art fair.

Rachael:  At the other end of the spectrum, like someone having an idea about doing something and throwing it together, that maybe feels very thrown together, and is intending to be transgressive and maybe falls a little flat.

Brett:  I liked the fact that it was in a derelict hotel. Are you in the Fontainebleau? No, you're in that place that no one else is probably going to be in.

Vincent:  And in another weekend, it will be just another …

Norm:  Cardboard box. Seriously. A cardboard board box. 

Alex:  Philadelphia did one in a parking garage.