Jessica Lynne: “We focus on what voices don’t make it to the center when we’re in these moments of political upheaval.”

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

Jessica Lynne is a Brooklyn-based writer and arts administrator. She is also co-editor of ARTS.BLACK, a platform for art criticism from black perspectives. Jessica contributes to publications such as Art in America, The Art Newspaper, The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, and Pelican Bomb.  She was founding editor of the now defunct Zora Magazine. Currently, Jessica serves as the Manager of Development and Communication at Recess. You can follow her on Twitter and  Instagram at @lynne_bias.

We sat down over coffee in midtown to discuss a wide range of topics from Jessica’s first jobs in the art world to how she defines innovation through launching the ARTS.BLACK platform and the Black Art Incubator at Recess.  

Brett Wallace:  What was your origin in art?

Jessica Lynne: That’s a great question. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my dad taking me and my brother to a local children’s museum where they had a few Norman Rockwell paintings on view. And, as an adult it doesn’t strike me as odd, but as a child, I actually had no context for really understanding who Rockwell was or why my father was particularly inclined to enjoy his work. Now, I get it. Rockwell has a particularly uncanny way about of visualizing Americana that remains important.

In high school, I was an athlete, though I think I was always cognizant of culture and theater and dance, just not actively plugged in. It wasn’t until I came to New York for school that I started to think critically about cultural production. I went to NYU, stopped playing sports, and found myself kind of in this new generation of burgeoning hip-hop writers. That forced me to think differently about what was happening in music, especially in New York City.

BW: Were there a few people that were meaningful to you back then in terms of influences?

 JL: I found great influences in people like Marcella Runell Hall, now at Mount Holyoke, who was working at the Center for Multi-Education and Programs at NYU at the time. Marcella is a hip-hop pedagogy scholar. There was also a professor, Daniel Banks, who was doing some cool work around hip-hop and theater. I got deep into that before swinging over, finally, to fine art and visual culture. In 2010 that I started writing for Zora Magazine. Eventually, I was brought on to the editorial team by my good friend Ope, and I sort of led the culture vertical.

While there, I was commissioning a lot of interviews, doing a lot of reviews on, still at the time, hip-hop related things, but slowly merging over into other disciplines and forms. I got to a point where I realized that there were smarter people writing about hip-hop; it’s a beautiful genre of journalism and cultural criticism, but it was okay if I wasn’t doing it. It was also in school that I was first introduced to bell hooks and her book Art on my Mind and in that book she’s writing about a particular type of art criticism that I actually didn’t see in the field. I was like, oh I can do that.

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In 2010 digital publications were starting to blossom and a lot of traditional art magazines were also migrating to digital. This was the landscape as I started to write more publicly. Also, after school, I took a job at this important organization, 651 ARTS, a performing arts organization in Brooklyn dedicated to performing arts of the African Diaspora.

There I was — trying my hand at art criticism, learning the beautiful history of this organization, and  encountering a new host of artists and the dots started to connect for me. I think I told you in our earlier conversation, I was also working part-time at Bonhams.

BW:  Yes, Bonhams, the auction house. That was your first professional art gig, right?

JL: I started at Bonhams first and then moved over to 651.

BW: They are very different in scope. Nonprofit versus for profit. A utility versus an ideology.

JL: I really like that language, utility versus ideology, actually. I was caught in that. The position at Bonhams was important to me because I am not someone who studied art history. I was able to acquire the knowledge that I should have arguably had as someone who wanted to write about art. At 651, I spent time thinking about how these two very different canons either were or were not as robust as they should’ve been. I was doing a lot, probably more than I should have been doing at 22.

BW: It sounds like you were learning about what you ultimately wanted to do by testing new ventures.

JL: Yes. We were on the other side of the recession, and I think a lot of people my age were trying to figure out how to make their way in the world. I told myself, “okay I'm going to try nonprofit work, I'm going to try my hand at writing, and then I'm also going to be in the auction house orbit for a bit and see what sticks.” It just so happened that something stuck.

BW: That sums up work life today; test a lot of things, find what you love to do, and can be great at and go for it. It takes some dead ends to find. I always loved what Steve Jobs said about work, “If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it.” How do you describe the multiple roles you live in today?

JL: Most often I usually just say I'm a writer and an art administrator, which is rather boring. But I do feel like fundamentally as we have come to understand those terms, they fit well for me. You know like some people have thought of ARTS.BLACK as a type of innovation effort and so, by extension, people refer to me and Taylor, my co-editor, as innovators. Admittedly, I don't always see myself that way but those are my own hang ups.

BW: Innovation has a long steep history of what product life cycles and disruption and it comes from a corporate lens.

JL: And maybe that’s it, maybe that’s the subtext. How do I acknowledge that I’m offering something new to the world without feeling like I'm kind of using language from a world that doesn’t exactly match my own, as a nonprofit worker, as a critic? Those are my own hang-ups. But I do like using the term “art administrator” understanding that language as someone who helps to place frames around work that’s already being done by artists, helping to think critically about how to make those processes as efficient as possible, as rigorous as possible. I don’t know what the other terminology I would use at the moment.

BW: Yeah, you’re comfortable with it .

JL: Super comfortable, but I’m aware that language often fails us.


ARTS.BLACK is a journal of art criticism from Black perspectives predicated on the belief that art criticism should be an accessible dialogue - a tool through which we question, celebrate, and talk back to the global world of contemporary art. The journal is edited by Taylor Renee Aldridge and Jessica Lynne.

ARTS.BLACK is a journal of art criticism from Black perspectives predicated on the belief that art criticism should be an accessible dialogue - a tool through which we question, celebrate, and talk back to the global world of contemporary art. The journal is edited by Taylor Renee Aldridge and Jessica Lynne.

BW: I suppose this is a two-part question. How did you get started with ARTS.BLACK, as an online journal? I think you frame it as a journal. And what is the vision that you have, at least now being a couple years into it?

JL: I love telling this story. Taylor and I had a host of mutual friends, who had been saying for years, that we needed to meet. When we finally met, I knew that something good would come from the friendship. We kept in touch and a few months later, Taylor posts a Facebook status asking people to identify young, black, art critics are. It becomes this thread of hundreds of comments and while that’s happening, me and her are also texting. She sends me a message saying that she’s  purchased this URL, She’s like “I have this idea, I know you’re a writer, I'm interested in cultural production, I'm a writer, let’s do this thing.” It’s almost hard to say no to that. Taylor’s energy is very laser focused.

We started off on Tumblr which was great in the beginning because we needed a platform that would allow us to disseminate the idea very quickly. A lot of the other young, black, art critics that we were reading were also publishing work on Tumblr. The decision to start on that platform served a dual purpose, and the mission was quite simple: to find young, black, art critics, people who weren’t necessarily being published in the mainstream journals, and to publish them in ours. Early on, we realized that we wanted ARTS.BLACK to be both a site for new writing and also a feeder, providing writers opportunities with other publications. That was and is really important. As an editor, I recognize that there are places who should absolutely pay attention to the writers I publish.

BW: Oh, that’s a super interesting way to think about a business model.  

JL: We’ve had some great people write for us who are also writing for other publications. I don’t ever want ARTS.BLACK to be the only place where you can find black critics. But, if you do need a starting point, you can come to us.

BW: I like how you’re trying to use it as a platform that not only publishes, but closes the gap to publishing. How does the model work? What have you most learned about the model that stuck with you?

JL: I have to be so honest, as someone who also works in the nonprofit world, I was very adamant about not becoming a 501(c)(3). Taylor and I had many conversations about the pros and cons, and I was adamant about not moving in that direction.  I didn’t want to fight for grants. I didn’t want to labor over proposals. It’s exhausting. We decided to become an LLC. However, most funding opportunities are still relegated to formal philanthropy so we also have a fiscal sponsor.

But, I still think that the LLC is an important statement to make, in that, we are beholden to only ourselves. A fiscal sponsor offers flexibility, and it allows us to acquire funds through grants should we decide to apply every now and again, but I didn’t want that to represent the entirety of the fiscal model. We don’t quite yet have a subscription model in place, so that’s one of the reasons that we took the break, to really look at a business structure. And, as many entrepreneurs have to do, sometimes you just figure it out as you’re in it. I'm really excited for 2017, because I think this is the year where we’ll learn what exactly it means to run, not just a journal, but a business. How do we ensure that subscribers feel compelled to give over five dollars a month to enjoy these essays that we’re publishing? What is our responsibility to them, then once they give?

BW: Yes, in terms of distribution of content, breathe of content etc.

JL: Exactly. ARTS.BLACK is not unlike any other publication. It requires us to ask tough questions and to dig our heels in and learn some things that we probably would not have imagined and considered.

BW: I imagine whether or not to take on advertising is a big decision.

JL: It’s a huge question that isn’t going away. We’re definitely trying to figure out the best model. Do we go advertising with a mix of a subscription? Do we do no advertising and go maybe the route of the Big Round Table or Mother Jones?We’re definitely learning a lot and I think that at two years in, this is part of the maturation process.

BW:  How is thinking about the product and pool of writers you’re working with?

JL: I definitely want to grow the source, grow the pool.

BW: So you’re open to emerging writers or critics reaching out to you?

JL: Absolutely, but we’re also going to scale down. On the other side of our break, we’re coming back with a monthly issue form, publishing two pieces a month. While this means we can only publish two writers a month, I think it will force us to be as thoughtful as possible as editors. We’ve also divided up the labor in new ways. Taylor will solely work on the publishing side of things and head the business efforts, and I will lead the editorial efforts.

BW: As you said, less is more.  If you limit it or create self imposed rules, it could allow you to focus and be experimental. What does it mean for you to be a critic in the art world today given the state of the state?

JL: I am someone who’s always understood and believed that writing is a political gesture. And, I also acknowledge the ways that artists and other cultural producers really use their work to respond to a moment. I think that’s my responsibility as a critic — to  document and preserve what’s happening in real time so that there’s an archive that is created. It becomes a tool from which people in the future can learn, but also a way of acknowledging that artists are problem solvers. Artists ask questions of the world, and those questions and inquiries and investigations deserve to be taken seriously. They also deserve to be acknowledged in a public manner that invites other folks to respond to them.

I think critics are able to do that and the best critics want that to happen, so that’s what I'm really trying to do. Who aren’t we hearing? Like you said, what voices don’t make it to the center when we’re in these moments of political upheaval?

BW:  I like the idea of what you’re saying, shining a light on these parts of the world that are so critical or unseen right now.

JL: As an administrator and a critic, I'm going to wear both hats now, I think that there are multiple centers. There are multiple places where fantastic work is being created and fantastic deep high level conversations are happening. It’s my responsibility to see it and to always acknowledge it and celebrate it when I can.  I live in New York, so that means that I can’t be in Kansas City all the time, but if I know something’s happening, and if I know people are doing great work there, I want to be able to proclaim it, and I want to be able to ask questions of it, and create space for it.

BW:   Who or what inspires you?

JL: I have been spending a lot of time re-reading two critics, Barbara Smith and Lucy Lippard. Barbara Smith identifies as a black feminist critic, and was part of a group of women who founded the Combahee River Collective. They put forth a few texts, the most seminal being This Bridge Called My Back.  Smith wrote this pretty brilliant essay “Towards a Black Feminist Criticism” and in this essay, she identifies what her responsibility is to other black women artists as someone who identifies as a critic. She wrote this in the ‘70’s, and I think I maybe read it once in college, but it’s very different now reading it given the new political reality.

I’ve been returning to her essay because I'm also trying to negotiate my responsibility, as we’ve been talking about, as a critic, but also as someone who identifies as a black feminist. On the other side of that, Lucy Lippard is someone who made it a point to think about multiple centers. Both women were around the same time,  at the height of the feminist revolution, the height of the black power movement, the black arts movement. I think they present  to me some really important lenses through which I may examine what’s happening now.

I’ve been inspired by them recently, and I'm trying not to end up in a rabbit hole of reading everything by them. Then, more broadly speaking, I’ve been really inspired by the collective energy of so many people in the country right now. It’s hard not to think about what’s happening under this current administration. But folks are coming out and showing up in big ways, and it’s hard to ignore them; that feels so potent right now, the urgency in that. I think people are realizing how high the stakes are. I’ve been galvanized by watching so many of my peers and friends and colleagues join the ranks and commit to, not just a one-time movement but a mobilization effort.

BW: Yeah, it’s inspiring. As they say, planes take off against the wind. Do you have an unrealized project?

JL: Oh, man. This is a great one because this is going to hold me accountable. So I’ve come back to essay writing that’s not related to art or visual culture. We’ll see how successful I am in that, because maybe at this point everything for me is rotating around visual and performance culture. But I really want to write a series of essays about my father and his biological father. The thesis of the project is in my connection to them and the invisible things that you inherit from people. At the same time,  I really would like to use this project to think about the landscape of black Americana from about 1968 into the present moment. I believe in that project, intellectually so, but it’s increasingly becoming harder to find the time to get it off the ground. I had a really fantastic residency last summer in Maine, where I did the early outlining and drafting of a couple essays.

It was in the Space Gallery in Portland, Maine. They were piloting a program that brought artists of many disciplines to the space, to just work. There are no excuses. I don’t want to make excuses for myself. That project is what I need to be focusing right now.

Webspace from Jessica Lynne artist talk, June 22, 2016.

Webspace from Jessica Lynne artist talk, June 22, 2016.

BW:  This sound like you’re reaffirming your intent.

JL: This is my way of reaffirming, I'm going to finish the essay collection.

BW: Could we talk about Recess and the Black Art incubator you launched?

JL: Absolutely. I currently am the manager of development and communications at Recess. I think Recess is probably one of the most dynamic art institutions in the city. It's a place that believes in artists and believes in artists as high level thinkers with a specific focus on process. We emphasize the relationships that artists form with publics and the rendering visible the artist’s labor. We don’t often have the chance to sit with an artist as they’re also sitting with a project so Recess is unique in that way.

I came on-board after co-organizing the Session project, Black Art Incubator, alongside Taylor, Kimberly Drew, and Jessica Bell Brown. We hosted 30 workshops in 35 days, which now seems like a phenomenal feat and essentially we were honing in on a few central points. What does it mean to bring together the seemingly disparate connections in the art world? How do we provide support to artists and those who may not necessarily identify as artists in ways that look different from other more conventional structures, like an MFA program, for example? And, then also, how do we have the tough questions about race, gender and class that permeate a lot of what we do in the arts, but are rarely addressed? Recess became a work space with plants, a computer station where folks would come in and kind of like send emails, get things done, and a reading area. The project had four pillars: office hours, open crits, archival practice, and art + money talks.

Our art +money talks were focused on everything from how to successfully write a grant, to how to market yourself as an artist without gallery representation. Our office hours invited professionals in the field to meet with other folks in the field who had questions about career paths, career transitions, or just wanted to talk to somebody who was working as a curator at a major New York City museum. Our open crits brought artists in conversation with curators and fellow writers. Whereas our office hours were more intimate encounters, the open crits usually involved two to three artists at a time. If someone from the public came in off the street, they could choose to sit and join in on that conversation. It was, in some ways, an exercise of trust and care because critiques, as you know, can be so loaded and so anxiety ridden.

Art + Money talk with artist Dread Scott at Black Art Incubator. Photo courtesy of Recess.

Art + Money talk with artist Dread Scott at Black Art Incubator. Photo courtesy of Recess.

BW:   Yes and so inaccessible for so many people. They take place in demarcated spaces within institutions far too often. I love what you’re doing to create pathways and make things accessible. New York City is hard to get a foothold period and I see your work creating these pathways and platforms for others...almost like springboards.  And, not just in NY, but in other centers.

JL: And that was important for us. We often referred to BAI as a living Google document which means the process of revision, editing, and then rebuilding has to always be taken into consideration. The local context was certainly important to the project. At the same time, we had so many conversations during that project with visitors who were just in town for the weekend and in that way those conversations were equally as generative because every single person who came through the doors made an imprint that accumulated over time. It was a profound thing to witness.

We also held a meditation yoga session. We were very particular  in thinking about processes of care for one another and for ourselves. How do you slow down without losing the rigor of the work?

Our last official public event was a potluck where we just invited everyone to reflect with us. What does it mean to incubate? How should we be thinking about work in this time period? What didn’t you see that you wanted to see in the incubator. What would it mean to mount the project again?

And so, as I mentioned, afterwards I was brought on full-time, and I’m excited about watching other projects, though very different in structure, commit to the exposition of process. That’s what we were doing with BAI. Gallerists make decisions. Grant makers make decisions. Critics make decisions. Artists make decisions; we wanted to be transparent about those processes and invite visitors to agree, disagree, build, construct, tear-down, together in a safe environment.

Black Art Incubator at Recess. Photo courtesy of Recess.

Black Art Incubator at Recess. Photo courtesy of Recess.

BW:  Provide a safe place to take intelligent risks or any risks.

JL: Exactly. Or, remove that veil.

BW: What’s next for you in 2017?

JL: I don’t think I’ve said this on the record yet, but I have a very, very targeted goal at the end of 2017 to write two pieces, whether they be like short reviews or short interviews, in another language. I speak Spanish, and I recently started studying German, again. I want to start writing in these other two languages as my own challenge, but also again, as a way of throwing out ropes and connecting with new people and new ideas.

Black Art Incubator workshop event. Photo courtesy of Recess

Black Art Incubator workshop event. Photo courtesy of Recess






Catherine Haggarty: "Lately, making no sense matters the most."

Catherine Haggarty is a New York based artist, curator, writer and teacher. She’s known for her work that explores the sublime and the absurd through painting. She has an upcoming Solo Show: 'What if, you slept?', which opens February 18th, 2017 at Proto Gallery. She will also be curating a two person painting show, ‘About Looking” featuring the work of Matt Phillips and Travis Fairclough which opens January 27th at Ortega y Gasset Projects through February 19th, 2017.


Brett Wallace: What is your origin in art?

Catherine Haggarty:   The first thing I did creatively was to build trash and recyclable sculptures in my garage when I was a little kid. I’m the last of seven kids and I was always really like into sports but I also had this urge to make objects. I think maybe similarly to my Dad who used to build a lot of things. And, so the first art thing I did I think was building trash sculptures in my garage when I was about seven or eight.

I don’t think I understood what it would mean to be an artist as a kid, but I knew I wanted to tell stories, to make things, to do what others couldn’t.

BW: What did you study in school?

CH: I actually focused on Psychology at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. I studied Behavioral Psychology but I also majored in art. And when I was in my junior year of college I decided to quit basketball and to pick up an art major and study abroad at the Tyler School of Art in Rome.

I spent a few years after college taking classes at SVA in painting - trying to make up ground for technique work I felt I didn’t get in undergrad because my Psychology major really took up most of my time.  Then, around 2009, I began my MFA at Rutgers. That experience was tough but so so helpful - the people I met and had the chance to work with. It challenged and changed me in many really great ways. 

BW: What experience(s) or mentors have influenced you?

CH:   Traveling to Rome in 2005 and completing my MFA in 2011 - both of those events solidified my passion and inner desire to dedicate my life to making art. Mentors of great significance were Hanneline Rogeberg, Marc Handleman, Wendy White, and Tom Nozkowski at Rutgers. In 2010 John Yau took a small group of us to studio visits in Brooklyn, we spent time at Kathy Bradford’s studio and that was the start of a friendship and mentorship that continues to be helpful for me. 

I remember after a studio visit with Wendy White in graduate school thinking to myself that I could really do this, It just hit me and I never looked back. Seeing working artists with families, lives and success is important for young artists - they need to see that it is possible, and that you can have a rich and full life with art being the center of your drive.

BW: Who inspires you?

CH:  So I think there’s like an absurdity in Carroll Dunham’s paintings as well as Nicole Eisenman’s paintings that inspired me to take chances with compositions and figures. Dana Shutz, Nikki Maloof, both paint in this land of figurative abstraction that is really liberating. Brian Scott Campbell’s new work particularly is inspiring to me as well - formally he is coming from drawing but his recent work  and implication of figures again really has me looking forward to seeing more of his work. These artists, and many other give me a sort of  permission to do what i want. I think that is a huge part of being an artist - allowing yourself the permission to let go and dive in. 

I think that there’s a sort of quietude too in artists like Albert York, John Dilg, or Eleanor Ray that I really love formally - I don’t paint like them but they inspire me. The attention to tonal shifts, to simple subject matter lending itself to the everyday and memory. 

In terms of painting - there are so many, I look at my friends paintings all the time - we are constantly sending each other photos and of course exchanging studio visits. 

I am also really inspired by those that make art from a very different place. I work with kids and young adults when I teach - the way they process information and make art is really curious to me. Impulsivity and simplification of form in children’s art is really terrific if you pay attention to it. Also those students sometimes have cognitive impairments or autism - they inspire me. Truly, some of the best work I see daily is from them. You can’t get more human and more raw than their work. I’m in awe of them for many reasons and it’s a pleasure to be able to experience the way their brain’s work on a daily basis.

BW: What are some of the concepts you're most interested in painting?

CH:  In the past year and a half I’ve really focused on two major sort of subjects, land and people. Psychology has rooted in me a desire to observe and understand behavior - so in this, people have always been a subject. And landscape in the last year has become a subject, which sort of took me by surprise. I always had a bit of anxiety putting my figures or people in places that didn’t make sense. I finally gave myself the permission to put them wherever the hell I felt...and that has been this sort of utopian and dream like landscape. Mountains, water, sky - all of it has seeped into the paintings and really brought me to life in a really hard year.

It has been really liberating and really helpful for me to sort of just have the bravery to put the subjects in an environment, even if it makes no sense at all. 

I have been thinking about the sort of suspension of belief - the will it takes to put yourself in a vulnerable place. In running this means committing to complete 26.2 miles in the marathon - in basketball this means driving the lane when you are the smallest one on the court. I’ve been curious how I can do that with painting - how can I be vulnerable, how can I suspend my belief and for a moment - make no sense at all in the painting’s resolution, leave it somewhere I’ve never left it.

‘Everything Everything’ 2010-2016, Acrylic and Ink on Panel, 24x24 inches

‘Everything Everything’ 2010-2016, Acrylic and Ink on Panel, 24x24 inches


BW: Yeah, that makes sense. Now it sounds like you're balancing that focus on people and how they fit in an environment. 

CH:    Yeah. I mean I have a little note on my desk that says you don’t have to make sense of these. It’s amazing how much you have to remind yourself as an artist - the very simple constructs of making art that is alive and really fresh. You know, that you don’t have to make sense of the image and that that’s not your job.

But for me what I’ve been craving lately is to create something I don’t have. You know, like someplace I don’t have and try to attempt to represent a sort of wavering dream like state. And that takes a little more confidence to create those pictures but that has been really liberating for me. But strangely enough, it kind of came from a sort of place of exhaustion in the past year of just being really busy and a lot of personal stress.



‘The Good World’ 2016, Gouache on panel, 12x12 inches

‘The Good World’ 2016, Gouache on panel, 12x12 inches


I remember after the election all I could do was get up and paint small tiny landscape paintings. I just sat there for several weeks and painted land...places I’ve never been, places I will never be. It came from desperation - thinking about the sort of political climate and also some personal stress. 

Things have been good - I am so lucky but I also feel the weight of a lot of things, and personally the last year has been so hard. Having lost family members, lost relationships, and seeing my Dad fade from a neurodegenerative disease with no’s led me to feel like...nothing makes any fucking sense!  It is just moments you get - that’s it. 

So...back to land. In a way, painting has let me escape and I’ve let go a bit of narrative, and just let paint flow and lead me somewhere more colorful than I feel I have been this year. 

So strangely, this is the most colorful, bright and seemingly positive paintings I’ve ever made but it’s come from a place of exhaustion and from loss. They make no sense, which is sort of how I feel about things lately. 

‘Land & People’, 2016, Acrylic on wood, 16x18 inches

‘Land & People’, 2016, Acrylic on wood, 16x18 inches


BW: Is that an intentional dialogue around the political that you're fostering?

CH:    Well, I think it is less charged in terms of specific political content - like I’m not making paintings about the President Elect of anything. The culture, the climate of things politically and personally has affected the work in a way though, there is no denying that. 

I’ve just let go of whatever I thought was going to make sense or whatever I thought was going to happen. It just seems like none of that has worked. And so I think painting has  really just very selfishly become a way to create a world that doesn’t actually exist for me. So yeah, it’s a reaction to the personal and political climate but certainly not an activism reaction if that makes sense. 

BW: One of the things that stuck out was the suspension of reality in your upcoming show in February at Proto Gallery. This seems an extension of that idea. Can you talk about that more

CH:    Oh, thanks. I’m really looking forward to it. So above my desk in my studio I have two things pinned up as a reminder. One is a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (What if, you slept?) and the other is a photo of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile barrier. I keep those up as a personal reminder about the idea of breaking barriers or the idea of the suspension of reality - which both of those images give me. 

The poem is really important to me because it sort of paints the picture of a being in a dreamlike state and fully believing that you can be somewhere in your dreams and bring it to your reality when you wake up. So simple, but how beautiful? The sheer will to conjure your dreams into reality. It’s so improbable...but it gives me hope. 

So there’s this sort of suspension of belief I think about, when you can convince yourself to believe in the impossible. And I think also this goes back to a personal thing - with athletics -  that the commitment to sort of lining up and running 26 miles is insane or to practice dribbling for hours on end until your hands feel like they’re going to fall off. It’s sort of this like belief in your ability to do anything and how important that is even as an artist. To believe in yourself enough to break barriers of logic, what people think you are capable of and most importantly what-ever your perceived barriers are.  

The photo of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile is a reminder to me of that sort of commitment and the belief it takes to pursue anything with that much intensity.

It’s like when you’re running ten miles and your body just hits a numb point and you just believe that you could just be an Olympian. Like if you just shut your eyes and are in the Olympics, you force yourself to believe that you are that good. 

And then so in painting it’s like this idea of like how do you  approach a painting and believe that you actually are going to make something worthy of looking. And it’s the same suspension of reality, whether or not it’s a dream or whether or not it’s like an hour into your run where your body’s numb and you just start to believe that you’re actually in the Olympics. And you’re just, you’re still so average, you know, but it’s this sort of reminder to push yourself toward the thing. And even if they don’t make sense, you know, but to make yourself continue to try to do that.  It’s really humbling and also is a really good way to let go of control?

Studio picture courtesy of the artist

Studio picture courtesy of the artist


BW: How does this idea of the suspension of reality influence how you work, the way your studio is set up, the tools that you use etc?

CH:    So I draw all the time, on the train, in the morning with coffee and such that note taking is really important to my observational process. So everything really starts from that and paying really close attention to the world that I live in. Years ago I took a class at SVA with Nancy Chunn, and the most important thing I took from her class was to simply ‘notice what you notice’. And I tell my students this and I remind myself every day to do this. If you closely pay attention to the constant thread of observations you make therein lies some really rich content about what’s important - what stands out to you. 

There is a set of characters that sort of reoccur over the past ten years for me and they are mainstays and sometimes I add a new one. So the paintings start from movement and from drawing from those recurring characters. Really boiling down what I’m noticing and why I’m noticing it and what kind of picture I want to make with those characters and how much control I want to have. 

‘For the Victors’ 2017, Acrylic on Panel, 12x12 inches

‘For the Victors’ 2017, Acrylic on Panel, 12x12 inches


BW: Do you find that you have to embody or put yourself in a suspended state of mind to actualize this type work?

CH:  Yeah. Well there’s always a state of flow with anything, right, and we all know that. We can get to that state of flow by just being really locked into it, having no distractions. But, you know, I listen to music and I listen to podcasts a lot and I think that the best working time for me is when I’m not distracted by a cell phone or by people. And I just get a few hours in of kind of like circling the studio and making adjustments to several things at once and really connecting the synapses. And that’s when the work actually really starts to break more barriers than if I’m just focusing on one painting and thinking about the idea of resolution.

But if I let myself go and kind of circle the studio organically, you know, more connections happen. 

BW: That makes sense. So, this idea of not getting to full resolution ties back to the suspension of reality, the absurdity of things. What are some of the recent pivots you've made in your practice?

CH:  There was a pivot from moving from oils to now I only use water based paint. I’m starting to use metallic paint, a lot of neon paint and I’ve actually really craved color, like more than I’ve ever craved it. And I’m using that I think more freely. I feel like there’s no rules and using water based paint and inks and acrylics has actually freed me up a lot to just do, to let go of things. Because my prep is so much shorter and I can just work faster and that suits my nature I think better.

Color has been another escape for me, like much like land was an escape in terms of trying to create a space that I didn’t know physically. Color has been an escape for me psychologically to just sort of let go. And I just needed bright colors this year.

BW: Could you talk about the show opening this week you've curated?

CH: Yeah, I’m curating a show at Ortega y Gasset. It’s my first curatorial project with the gallery so I’m really excited for it. It opens January 27th and runs through February 19th.  It features the work of Matt Phillips and Travis Fairclough - both friends and painters I greatly admire.  The title of the show is, “About Looking” in honor of the recent passing of the great John Berger. When thinking of a title for this show, I felt that it was an appropriate and timely one that not only gives a nod to a literary legend but also reflects a specific pace and presence in Fairclough and Phillip’s paintings.

BW: How do you think painting changing vis-a-vis the constant proliferation of digital images we seen every day? Is that a part of how you're thinking about show, "About Looking"?

CH:  Well there are two answers to that question but first in regards to the show and the decision to choose these artists together.

I had a studio visit weeks ago with Travis Fairclough and I have been watching his work develop for two years. I knew I wanted to show his work and in the middle of the visit, when we were talking about the presence and forms in his painting - it just hit me. That pace was important to him - pace in making and pace in viewing. This has to be somewhat a reaction to the world we live in digitally but also this echoes a painting philosophy reflecting a sort of spirituality within abstraction. 

I left the studio visit thinking about his desire to turn our attention back to the painting - and not ourselves. With Travis, there is this commitment so intense to the kind of attention he gives his color choice, his compositions, his drawings - it’s beautiful. I left knowing I wanted to reach out to Matt Phillips. 

I have seen Matt’s work for years at Steve Harvey Projects and various shows around the city - so I was familiar for certain. When I left Travis’s studio that day I couldn’t immediately think of anyone making paintings just like him, but my focus became about pace and presence within abstraction and who would be an interesting pair to show together. I immediately emailed Matt for a studio visit.


‘Dial’ 2017, pigment and silica on linen 30x 24 inches

‘Dial’ 2017, pigment and silica on linen 30x 24 inches


Seeing Matt Phillip’s work up close is a lesson in rhythm, care, color and most certainly pace. His brush work slows you down and doesn’t let you assume the closure or resolution of the image. In a way, the method Phillip’s uses to apply paint mirrors the way Fairclough forms his compositions. A sort of restructuring of our ability to work through an image. They are doing things in a shared pool of thinking but with different solutions, processes and even material. Phillips uses pigment and silica on linen and Fairclough uses only oil on linen.

I think that, you know, it’s fair to say if you look at Matt Phillips work enough that his images sort of bounce and they ungulate on the canvas because of the rhythmic method in which he applies paint. Even in my studio visit with him, I sort of said to him joking that these paintings kind of look like it could have been a ‘90s screensaver. We both laughed,...There seems to be a need for this human connection in his work and process. He has mentioned to me that his application of paint stems from an interest in imbuing a painting with the hand, touch and gesture. 

Travis’s work might be a complete philosophical slowdown to the pace of image making today and his use of color and brush work is completely different than Matt’s color and brushwork. I believe he is making his paintings with similar things in mind as Phillips but it is shown differently - which is why I think they are a great combination.

I just finished installing the work and I stood back and have to say, I am so proud to share their work together. I can’t believe these two, although familiar with each other, have never met. They live a few miles apart in Brooklyn and you just won’t believe the kind of connection there is. It’s breathtaking - the line in their work flows around Ortega y Gasset’s space effortlessly. The presence of forms recurring and shifting in our perceived space is truly stunning. The kind of work curating takes is the reward of time spent developing a Gallery and of the rich art community we are in. Since Matt is a member of Tiger Strikes Astroid, I am sure he shares this sentiment with me.


Travis Fairclough, 2016, ‘Dualist Affect’, Oil on Linen 22x18 inches

Travis Fairclough, 2016, ‘Dualist Affect’, Oil on Linen 22x18 inches

In terms of my idea of the painting in the digital era, I think it’s so nuanced but it’s not a topic that is going to change. The internet is art. Our perceptions and ability to read images is a reflection of living in the internet age, whether we like it or not. The internet and the influx of digital images might be the greatest influence in the postmodern era in painting I can think of.

I am not sure we can even keep up with it, maybe that’s why everyone seems overwhelmed and why paintings matter more and more. I think we are lucky though, we get to see a lot - we can’t avoid it. We are constantly confronted with information - unless we slow it down ourselves. 

I think painters are either offering us a break from the pace of technology or they’re offering us a commentary on that technology. And I think those are two rich avenues and either one is worthy of someone’s time.

BW: Artists have very different ways of addressing the contemporary media landscape - that's very evident in the spectrum of working being made from painting to art and everything in between.

CH:    Yeah, it’s totally different. And I think that’s actually the beauty of it. I think, you know, I’m glad the internet’s there. I think it’s part of our art now. I don’t think we can escape it anymore, ‘nor should we try to. 

BW: How do you balance everything

CH:    Oh gosh. I don’t know, Brett... a lot of coffee. I think there’s a lot of people that are ultra-busy and ultra-involved. And so I think the art world is full of probably the hardest workers I am privileged to even know. So many people like yourself have full-time jobs and families and careers. And I just think I’m in awe of the people that I get to be surrounded by. 

In terms of my life, it’s just the way it is. I have to teach but I also love to teach and I’m privileged to do so. But, you know, every once in awhile I get kind of exhausted...particularly this year. It is what it is though, and I think everything influences my work at this point. And so I can take two avenues in attitude about how much I do…

One is to say ‘I am exhausted and it’s a burden to teach and make art full time’. Or I can take the perspective that I am incredibly privileged and I’m lucky to be in the position I am. I choose to take the latter because I just think there’s no other way. And I’m not going to spend eight hours of my day teaching children art and think that it’s a waste of my time. It’s my obligation to sort of synthesize the experiences I have as rich content. And so that inspires me and it also influences my work. In terms of curating, that’s a total privilege and a joy to be able to bring some attention to artists I think is needed or would serve as a great show. So that’s the fun part - that is the reward. 

I do think though, it is good to simplify at times. I have months that are full force - like now. I’m swamped but then...things will slow down and I will have more time alone to paint and be a little bit more of a human. I have built my life the way it is, and I’m getting better at simplifying things even if it seems like a lot. I really enjoy my quiet nights of painting more than ever.

BW: What do you reflect on outside of the studio? How do you stay informed?

CH:    In a way I don’t know that I have a ton of time to read like I want to. But I did just start a book called Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. I’m really excited to read that. I’m also reading a book called Just Kids - the story of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith. I love Cabinet Magazine as well.

Art Magazines, podcasts, NPR, and music keep me going. Because of how busy I am I do rely more on podcasts because my interest lies so much in human behavior, education and philosophy that I think those are actually huge influences to me more than even just looking at art in a museum. I’m really interested in how to connect my language of image making to things that are more complex and relate to the world at large.

BW: Who are some of the artists on your radar this year?

CH:    I was recently a visiting critic at The Wassaic Project and got to have studio visit with some great artists. Ellen Jing Xu, a recent MFA Graduate from University of Washington is making some really exciting work. I also met with Tiffany Marie Tate, based in Philadelphia and thought her work is really exciting. I look forward to following both of them - everyone should! 

Lauren Whearty is a friend and painter based in Philadelphia who I watch and talk to often, her paintings are taking off so I am looking forward to seeing her show more often. Liv Aanrud, a close friend and terrific artist is based in L.A and is truly next level - her textile and rag rugs come from a place of compulsion and energy that is raw and beautiful. She leaves us with paintings in thread form, woven and fought for.

Andrew Phillip Cortez, also based in L.A is someone to watch as well. He is making work a bit off the radar which is why it is so exciting. I spent time with him in L.A. this summer and collaborating and that experience out West and his friendship has really influenced my color palette and thought process. There are so could go on and on, and I’m thankful for that.

Ultimately, I want to surround myself with terrific artists because it makes me better. I want others to succeed as much as I want to - I want to learn from others as much as I want to teach them. Across the board - remaining open is so important.

‘Aqua’, 2016, Ink & Gouache on Panel, 12 x12 inches

‘Aqua’, 2016, Ink & Gouache on Panel, 12 x12 inches

Jennifer Samet: “I think that “the voice of the artist” is becoming lost in art history”.

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

Jennifer Samet is a New York-based art historian, curator, and writer. She teaches at the New York Studio School and The New School. She has lectured at universities across the country on the subject of “The Role of Empathy in Art” and “Slow Art.” She curated major historical exhibitions on Jane Street Group and the history of the New York Studio School; and thematic exhibitions such as “Rough Cut,” “Repetitive Motion,” and “Physical Painting.” She is the author of the column  “Beer with a Painter,” in Hyperallergic Weekend Edition.

Jennifer Samet, in Truro, Massachusetts, for "Beer with a Painter" interview with Sharon Horvath.

Jennifer Samet, in Truro, Massachusetts, for "Beer with a Painter" interview with Sharon Horvath.

Brett Wallace: What was your origin in art?

Jennifer Samet: I grew up in the New Jersey suburbs. I remember being conscious, even as a child, that there wasn’t a lot of culture around me. Culture was definitely part of my parents’ life. But outside of that, it wasn’t there. So I vividly remember the pleasure of going to New York, to the Metropolitan Museum with my mother, and looking at Pollock paintings.

There were art books in my house, and I remember a book about Karel Appel, and a box set of thin books. There was one about Cézanne in there. It was very digestible for a kid, because it only had about ten reproductions. My mother went to art school and she painted. She didn’t really paint professionally after I was born. But she had studied painting in Boston.

My parents took us to a lot of classical music – Carnegie Hall and special matinees at the Philharmonic that were family-friendly. We went to Tanglewood every summer and would listen to concerts and picnic on the lawn. So it was just this high culture. My parents only let me watch PBS and I was totally sheltered from popular culture. It was extreme!

BW: How would you describe your roles today?

JS: I always say that I work with art in a few different capacities. So I teach Art History and I write about art, and I’m also Co-Director of the gallery Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects

BW: Could we talk about your Ph.D. dissertation (which seems very relevant to your focus  on painting today)?

JS: It was called “Painterly Representation in New York: 1945 to 1975.” I wrote about a generation of painters, many of whom studied with abstract painters, in particular, Hans Hofmann. So they started out making abstract paintings, at the height of Abstract Expressionism, but they ended up becoming figurative or representational.

That was the generation I wrote about. It’s not really a group, per se. But a lot of them knew each other and were in conversation. It includes people like Mercedes Matter, who was, along with a group of her students, the founder of the New York Studio School; Robert de Niro, Sr.; and Louisa Matthiasdottir.

Photo: Nicolas Carone, In Orbit, 2007, Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 60 in., part of "The Space Between," curated by Jennifer Samet for the New York Studio School, February - March 2015

Photo: Nicolas Carone, In Orbit, 2007, Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 60 in., part of "The Space Between," curated by Jennifer Samet for the New York Studio School, February - March 2015

BW: And, did you find it interesting that abstraction originally came out of figuration (as in the case of Picasso deconstructing the image or De Kooning moving from the figure to abstraction)?

JS: Yes, abstraction was the zeitgeist, and considered the highest form of progress in art. It was the way to go. And there was an intellectual underpinning to all of it. Some of those artists, like Nell Blaine, for example, started out being very dogmatic about abstraction. So it’s an interesting shift, to then give up all of the polemical reasoning behind it and start painting flowers again. Sometimes, when things become too extreme, that is one reaction. Anything can become an academy.

This group came out of nonobjective art and Mondrian, and people from the Abstraction-Création group in France, like Jean Hélion. So, in part, they were coming out of the 1930s and 1940s abstraction movements. They also studied with Hofmann, of course, who was called the Father of Abstract Expressionism.

BW: Let’s talk about your own conversation series, Beer with a Painter. What’s your vision for this ongoing project?

JS: There’s always been a really specific vision to “Beer with a Painter.” Even though it has that playful title, it comes out of something serious. It’s that I believe that what I call “the voice of the artist” is becoming lost in art history. I think it’s an untold art history right now. This relates to my idea that when things become too extreme, they are problematic.

Art History right now, and this has been going on for at least fifty years, is focused on socio-political methodology, which is indeed important and valid. But when things become too extreme, you lose other things. I would say that you are losing sight of the fact that the artist is not just a product of his or her sociological and political context, but also an individual. And you’re not really looking at the work of art itself from any kind of formal, material perspective.

Art historians are looking at it more from a literary perspective. Art historians traditionally had a background in making art themselves, but increasingly they don’t.  So they are often great at writing and understanding the context of the art. But, increasingly, what was known as “connoisseurship” – a big part of 19th Century art history – is no longer valued. I noticed this when I was working on my Ph.D.

After I finished it, I wanted to get back into that place where I was really listening to the “voice of the artist.” To me, this is two-fold. It’s the literal voice of the artist, and also listening to the work of art, as a visual object.

BW: Nicely said.

JS: So, that’s what “Beer with a Painter” came out of. It was also just about having fun with art again. Because I had lost that initial thing we were talking about from childhood. The pleasure aspect had slipped away, and it had become something else. Also, since I had always done interviews, a friend, the painter Ryan Cobourn, advised me, “You should make them more rambling, more informal.  You should do them over beer.”

Then, the weird thing was that a year or two later, another friend, Kyle Staver, suggested I do interviews over beer, and call it “Beer with a Painter.” Once it was suggested by multiple people, I started it. The first one was with Matt Phillips; shortly after, was Sharon Horvath. Then it was picked up by Hyperallergic.  I’m lucky that Hyperallergic, and my Weekend Edition editors, John Yau and Thomas Micchelli, have been so supportive, and given me a platform and a lot of creative control.  It’s a gift.

Photo: Jennifer Samet with Mary Heilmann in her Bridgehampton studio for an interview, January 2013

Photo: Jennifer Samet with Mary Heilmann in her Bridgehampton studio for an interview, January 2013

BW: What are the dimensions by you define painter or painting by?

JS: I would say it is artists who are dedicated to the material and medium of painting. Maybe you are doing unconventional things with it (I curated a show about this, called “Physical Painting”), but there still is that focus on paint. We are still in a culture of “post-studio” work, so the studio work, and painting itself, is my focus in these interviews.

The reason that I have made it “Beer with a Painter,” as opposed to other artists is that I thought that contemporary painting wasn’t being given the attention, institutionally - within the museum world, and art historically. Painting is also the thing that I personally get the most excited about; I feel the most attached to; and I know more about painting than I do other media. So I have the most to offer other people when I’m writing about painting. Contemporary painting was the thing that I thought needed more attention from an art historical lens.

Photo: Installation of "Physical Painting," curated by Jennifer Samet in conversation with Scott Wolniak, for the Maass Gallery, Purchase College, February - March 2016

Photo: Installation of "Physical Painting," curated by Jennifer Samet in conversation with Scott Wolniak, for the Maass Gallery, Purchase College, February - March 2016

BW: How do you think new technologies have changed the audience for painting? I’m thinking about Paul Virilio’s controversial argument in The Accident of Art. Virilio and Hobsbawn raised the notion in that essay that Disney has surpassed Monet in the ability to reach the masses and create change in the world (Lotringer, Sylvelre, and Paul Virilion. The accident of Art. New York, NY: Semiotext(e), 2005. Print.)

JS: I’m aware that what I’m doing has a very specific and small audience within the context of our entire cultural production. This is a small world, the amount of people who really care about painting, the way that I do, and the way that all of the people I talk to do! I want my writing to be accessible, but at the same time, you still have to be a pretty interested reader, to read a 3,000-word interview with a painter - even if it’s with someone really well-known.  So in that sense, I don’t think that painting can compete with pop music, in terms of the audience that it reaches. But I still think it’s really important, and I still have a lot of faith in it and belief in it.

I don’t care that Disney has more of an audience or that Kanye West has more of an audience. I don’t care. It doesn’t really matter, in terms of what I’m saying.  Painting is still important.  Even if there is a really small audience for an artist, it still may be important.

I think it touches a significant number of people. I think that artists have a lot of power, to influence culture, politics, the world, and the fabric of New York City, for example. I don’t go so far as to say that art alone can effect change, but I think artists make propositions, and I think painting can offer a new way of seeing.  These are actually ideas that Angela Dufresne  and Terry Winters discussed in our conversations.

It is distressing how many artists have been pushed out of our city - out of Manhattan and into the boroughs, and out of the boroughs, into other places. I think artists have a huge impact on the lives of all kinds of people, whether they realize it or not.

BW: Yeah. And, it is happening to galleries too. I was reading an article in Artnet today by Christian Viveros-Faune about the squeeze of mid-market galleries.

JS: It’s become really hard, and there are a lot of galleries closing right now. I wish the city were making more of an effort to subsidize and help artists and small galleries.

Andrea Belag, After Krushenick After Hokusai, 2016, oil on linen, 56 x 48 in., part of "Outside In," at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, December 2016

Andrea Belag, After Krushenick After Hokusai, 2016, oil on linen, 56 x 48 in., part of "Outside In," at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, December 2016

BW: What role can empathy can play in art?

JS: The talk that I gave about empathy in art came out of an idea of Hans Hofmann. I wrote a lot about Hofmann and his teaching, and specifically this book that he wrote and rewrote over a period of 40 years, and which still hasn’t been published, called “The Painter’s Primer.” There is a whole section in it about empathy. It is a philosophical idea that factored into the work of German art historians, such as Wilhelm Worringer.

That’s what I was speaking about, but I do think it has that broader implications for me, and how I write about art. Going back to my mother, she died when I was 13 years old. So in some way, I think all of the work that I’ve done has been devotional or dedicated to her. As I said, she stopped making painting when she had children. Not to be too grandiose, but I’ve always wanted part of my contribution to be about helping artists continue to make art, rather than stop.

So, in some sense, the interviews come out of that spirit. I don’t think of myself as an investigative reporter. I’m not trying to dig up dirt, although I do want them to be something the artist hasn’t said before. I want them to provide insight the audience has not already had into the work.  But I want the artists to consider the interviews a statement they are happy to put into the world. The interviews are more about identification between two people, and having a conversation that’s real. I want them to read as an experience between two people, which they are.

I want them to be personal. When you have an open dialogue and bring that kind of openness, or as my friend, the archivist Jean-Noël Herlin calls it — “a generous eye” —to looking at art, it usually adds a lot of dimension to the work.

I don’t think you have to know all about an artist to love their work, or you have to love the person to love their work. But I think it adds a dimension. To go back to my “untold art history” idea — the artist is an individual, as well as a product of their time.

BW: How do you see established models of painting, such as the artist-as-hero, shifting to new models?

JS: Well, I think it’s complicated. The artist-as-hero archetype comes out of a very specific moment in time. In fact, some of my favorite moments in interviews I’ve done are when artists have talked about their work as not being about him or herself, but, rather, about something larger. Glenn Goldberg spoke about this, in our interview, and also Susan Walp, and others that I’m forgetting right now.

The artist Peter Acheson is such a smart person who I’ve gotten a lot of ideas from. He’s talked about the artist–as-hero archetype changing over time, so that now the predominant archetype is the artist-as-trickster. My interpretation is that in the days where existentialism was the reigning philosophy of art-making, every mark and move by the artist was considered important, and carried so much weight.  But the artist can also be someone who actually disrupts society through more playful means. He is referring to the role of the trickster in a society. He or she does things to create disruption, effect change, and influence how people see. Acheson talked about how that archetype manifests aesthetically in the work.

For example, you were talking about smaller galleries.  Nowadays, artists are doing a lot of very interesting projects in alternative spaces, exhibitions outdoors, projects in spaces where art “shouldn’t” be - lots of pop-up shows. And of course there is street art.  I think of it as the artist-as-trickster, and I’m a big fan! I’m all for artists making things happen out of their own vision and energy, especially as a way to react to the increasing 1% nature of the art world: mega-galleries and museums focused on drawing bigger and bigger crowds. There is so much art buried in the basements of museums and in storage spaces, which never gets shown. Chris Martin talked about this in the interview we did.

Photo: Installation of "Rough Cut," curated by Jennifer Samet and Elizabeth Hazan for Morgan Lehman Gallery, January 2015

Photo: Installation of "Rough Cut," curated by Jennifer Samet and Elizabeth Hazan for Morgan Lehman Gallery, January 2015

BW: What impact do you see social media having on artistic practice?

JS: I think our social media culture has a big impact on people’s art, whether they’re using actual visual images sourced from the Internet, or their aesthetics are affected by the Internet and social media.  It manifests aesthetically as a fracturing of forms, or work that has overlays, a multiplicity of images and elements crowded together.  It reflects our culture where we are subject to image overload, a constant, overwhelming stream of visual information. I think almost any artist that I could name is somehow drawing on that, or using social media as an important mode of communication.

BW: There’s also some artists who look at their work as a resting place away from the digital saturation.

JS: Definitely, yes. Well, another lecture that I’ve given is titled “Slow Art: Looking at Painting in a Culture of Distraction.” It’s about how we are used to looking at things really quickly. We have to move really quickly, and we are always multi-tasking, visually and otherwise. Even when we watch a movie, we tend to be doing two other visual things at the same time. I feel like I rarely have the kind of experience I used to, where I would go to a movie theater, or screen a movie at home, and only watch that. It is much more common that we’re watching television on our laptop, and looking at our phones and checking social media and email simultaneously.

You were asking about the audience. There’s a reason that painting is hard to look at, and it’s because it takes time and concentration. You have to give it a different kind of attention. I think that’s why there is a relatively small audience for it. Who really has the patience?! Even for us, the people who work in the art world, make objects, or write about them, it still can be hard.

I still tell myself to put away my phone, while I’m in a museum, because otherwise, I won’t really look in the way I want to. It’s hard for very seasoned people who love painting.


Photo: Installation of "Repetitive Motion," curated by Jennifer Samet for SHFAP at Projector Gallery, March - April 2014

Photo: Installation of "Repetitive Motion," curated by Jennifer Samet for SHFAP at Projector Gallery, March - April 2014

BW: Could we talk about the importance of this upcoming show you co-curated with Michael David at David & Schweitzer Contemporary?

JS: Yes. I know that sometimes, when there is a dramatic political moment, like we are experiencing right now, there can be a feeling that art-making doesn’t matter as much as actions like calling on your Congress people, which obviously is really important right now. But I think that art is important, too.

So, for myself, right after the Election, I was looking at social media and still going out to look at art. I found it comforting to look at images and work by women artists who were dealing with the body. Because, for me, and for a lot of people, a very big disappointment was that our country elected someone who bragged about sexual assault.  People basically said that was okay, they would vote for him anyway.

It was like making women’s issues, and women’s bodies, invisible and unimportant. So, right after the election, in just the week that followed, I knew, even subconsciously, that looking at body-based imagery by women was giving me comfort. It felt important to be looking at it, and I was really grateful that it was out there for me.

I had also gone to this protest in October that was called “Pussy Power at Trump Tower.” And it was a really wonderful moment, in the whole election process, where I felt like good, old-fashioned feminist rage and power was back in the world.

It was the same night as the third debate, and Hillary answered a question about Roe v. Wade. She gave a powerful statement about choice and the mother, and the health decisions of the woman being of ultimate importance. It felt like a big moment. She was strong and unapologetic.  She wasn’t pulling any punches. I loved listening to her that night. So the idea for the show came out of those things.

Also, Michael David and I had already been talking about collaborating on a project, which was related to women artists and the body, somehow. So, I wrote to him and said, “What do you think about doing a show called ‘#PUSSYPOWER’?”  And he immediately responded, “Yes.”  There was no hesitation. He was on board. We started putting it together immediately.

It’s a really big show – with over 40 artists. It includes pioneer feminist artists, such as Carolee Schneemann and Hannah Wilke, next to younger artists, such as Giordanne Salley. We are trying to show a range of artists who are dealing with the body and feminism right now. I tried to include some of the artist-activists who were important to me pre-Election Day.

Photo: Jane Dickson, East Village Eye Centerfold 3, 1982, Monoprint with ink on rice paper, 9 x 13 in., part of "#PUSSYPOWER" exhibition at DAVID&SCHWEITZER Contemporary, December 2016-January 2017

Photo: Jane Dickson, East Village Eye Centerfold 3, 1982, Monoprint with ink on rice paper, 9 x 13 in., part of "#PUSSYPOWER" exhibition at DAVID&SCHWEITZER Contemporary, December 2016-January 2017

BW: Yes, people having a voice and thinking and acting beyond the studio walls.

JS: Yes. Wendy White, for example, is someone who had a really interesting project. She was cataloguing and posting on Facebook all the examples of misogynist statements and rhetoric that were happening during the campaign. I thought that was really important, a great project.

BW: And, this past weekend, there was the “Dear Ivanka” march.

JS: Yes, it’s been the critics and the curators, too. The “Dear Ivanka” protest was organized by curator Alison Gingeras. Walter Robinson is an example of an artist-critic who was posting all throughout the campaign and primaries in support of Hillary. Jerry Saltz has been an important voice. After the election, he was telling artists to use the anger and energy in their studio, and telling people to continue to go out and look at art. His words also became a motivator for the show. Saltz, in fact, I think, utilizes the critic-as-trickster model; he uses provocative methods to get attention for his writing. People say it’s narcissistic or just to get attention for himself. But I don’t think so. I think he is quite aware that it is bigger than himself.

BW: Jen, what’s in store for you in 2017? What are you most hopeful about?

JS: Well, honestly, it’s a tough time to be super hopeful. I’m hoping we all survive the Trump era. But I have exciting exhibitions I’ve started to work on for Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, like a show of the Texas-based painter Sedrick Huckaby.  And I’m grateful that I spend a good portion of my life looking at and thinking about painting. It is endlessly engaging to me.    

Topless - “We wanted to tangibly give back to the community by renovating dormant spaces, leaving them in a more accommodating state afterward – better suited for small business”.

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

Topless is a unique artist-run space situated in the Rockaways. Founded and direct by Brent Birnbaum and Jenni Crain in 2014, Topless is known for it's forward-thinking programming, giving a platform to emerging artists, and a flexible model of renovating beach front spaces to open new summer seasons.

Jenni Crain and Brent Birnbaum

Jenni Crain and Brent Birnbaum

Brett Wallace:     What is your origin in art?

Jenni Crain: I’ve always been really interested in art or artistic forms to varying degrees. I suppose I’ve been lucky in that sense; I always knew what my interests were and I slowly specified those interests. Thinking about it now – I could say that I continue to do so. Or maybe at this point I’m expanding them again! On and on…

As a kid, I wanted to be a writer. As a pre-teen/early teen, I wanted to go into fashion design, and so I started taking pre-college college courses at FIT. I would go to the institute every weekend and take various courses in fashion – design, history, patternmaking, silk screening. After a year or two, I began taking photo classes in their darkroom, which I loved, and digital, which felt practical - I was probably 13 or 14. I stuck with that until I applied to art school at Pratt Institute where I enrolled in 2009 as a drawing major. My big pivot at Pratt was from drawing to sculpture – realizing that my interests were in spatial considerations & conversations. Simultaneous to my studies – sculpture and art history – I began interning and assisting in galleries. I graduated with a degree in sculpture and a minor in art history in 2013.

I still work in a gallery; I still make sculptures and photographs; I still write.

Photo: Installation view from Babble On at Topless, Summer 2016. Work by Nadia Belerique, Lili Huston-Herterich, Laurie Kang. Photo by Adam Kremer. Courtesy of the artist and Topless.

Photo: Installation view from Babble On at Topless, Summer 2016. Work by Nadia Belerique, Lili Huston-Herterich, Laurie Kang. Photo by Adam Kremer. Courtesy of the artist and Topless.

Brent Birnbaum:  Since I was a tiny tiny child, I've made "work." The language of visual art has always made more since to me than words and usually it’s easier. I've never stopped making things. My interests and projects have just gotten bigger as I've gotten older. I've done all the art schooling, working at galleries, running a gallery, all the jazz a lot of artists do.

It's influenced me of course, but my interests have not swayed that much from when I was in junior high. I'm fascinated with space, objects, and architecture and how they can be manipulated to say something new.

JC: For me, sculpture, especially at Pratt, is one of the programs that have critical thinking at its core - more so than technical coordination, which is, admittedly, crucial too though. So you do have that in addition. I was learning how to formulate/formalize my ideas and how to utilize material cues – how to speak about those thoughts rather than solely becoming a technically sound fabricator. I will give it to drawing too though – Pratt has a really advanced drawing program that is more spatially based than strictly tied to two dimensions. I like the way that Roni Horn speaks abut drawing. My boyfriend and I discuss it often.

BW: How would you describe your roles today?

JC: Whenever someone asks me, I just say that I work in the art world. I use the “art world” as a blanket term because I doubt that anyone bargains for the full explanation when they extend that simple question.  In terms of actually breaking it down, yes, I'm an “artist”, I'm a “curator”, I’m a “gallerist”, and I think that those things definitely really influence each other. I run my own space, along with Brent, and I also work for a gallery in Chelsea. I make work. I’m also an avid art viewer, and I think that is just as much an active role as any of the others.

BB: I push myself as an artist and as a gallerist. If I wasn't, I should get a different job.

Photo: Installation view from Eric Wiley at Topless Projects, Summer 2016. Works by Eric Wiley. Photo by Adam Kremer. Courtesy of the artist and Topless.

Photo: Installation view from Eric Wiley at Topless Projects, Summer 2016. Works by Eric Wiley. Photo by Adam Kremer. Courtesy of the artist and Topless.

BW: How do you manage the multiplicity of activities within each of those buckets?

BB: I manage them by having a full life not related to art. I surf and snowboard a lot to balance out a busy, active schedule. Physical activities engaged in nature keeps me sane for the long isolated studio days and sweating blood producing gallery installs.

JC: Oh, well, I think it’s just that I really, really love it all. I mean, for me, I never have to clock in and clock out because there’s no separation between work time and down time. It’s typically what I am naturally thinking of all the time or at least most the time, and it’s what I'm doing/working towards a majority of my time.

If I had to pinpoint a difficult joint, I suppose it would be dividing time from producing my own artwork. Even in that aspect though, I guess I'm in an ideal place – or a place that really works for me, personally - where my work is, for the most part, fabricated. I don’t feel the pressure of putting in a certain amount of hours in a physical studio space since my studio production is more along the lines of mentally developing my ideas, writing texts and moving on to sketch-up files – usually a friend helps me with the sketch-up files since I have definite room for improvement. Perhaps studio time this fall could be sitting with a selection of YouTube videos.

I really only have the ability, financially, to produce new works when I have an opportunity to exhibit new works. My practice is slow but I am interested in that pace in comparison to the way that many of my other projects develop and move forward. This sometimes does lead to a self-perpetuated flaw - that I sometimes put these other projects before my own artworks because they feel more pressing – due to this more rapid speed at which they develop but also because there are often outside parties involved and I want to put my best foot forward not just for myself but also for those also involved.

BW: Jenni, so it seems like you identify and define your work within a broader framework.

JC: Definitely. I think that somebody who had an inspiring idea of a broader framework was Alexander Dorner. The king of broader framework, Hans Ulrich Obrist, introduced me to him in Sharp Tongues, Loose Lips, Open Eyes, Ears to the Ground – an incredible book with an incredibly forgettable title – I always forget it but can picture the cover…. Dorner was the head of the Hanover Museum in the ‘20s. He spoke about the institution as a place of flux, a place that should ask and raise questions, rather than be a place of stagnant viewing, merely providing answers. I like to think that, in terms of working in these “multiple fields”, I am exploring beyond the bounds of a more traditional formula where curator, gallerist, and artist are separate entities. I do believe that they each naturally evolve, and as long as you’re open to it, influence each other.

BW:  I call those swim lanes, by the way, and I think the more one can cross a swim lane, the better (avoiding bumping into people of course).

JC:  I used to swim as a kid and I remember paddling over those plastic, rolling lanes from one lane into the other - the spinning gizmos pushing you forward. I guess it’s still kinda like that.

BW:  For me, crossing lanes inspires ideas that can inform the other areas of a practice. And, it helps me to think about adjacencies Jan Verwoert discusses in his Open Museum lecture.

JC: Yeah. I do wonder sometimes if it’s a certain mode of operation that enables one to understand things that way and to undertake various projects to that degree. I do wonder if it’s in part due to my education – an education based in ideas and theory in contrast to one based more so in fact or equations – that enables me to recognize and chase such connections. I’ve had conversations, with people I very much respect and work with, where they seemingly take my desire to do each of these things as a sign that I’m, like, figuring out which one I am actually interested in. One person, who is very dear to me and works in a gallery, said to me, “You know being an artist is a full time job, right?” And I agree – but I think that my curatorial practice, etc. al, contributes to that or is part of that. And there are plenty of people who do operate in ways similar to that which I do – many, many - but I guess lots of the time people just expect you to stay in one damn lane!

Photo: Installation view from Horse in the Road at Topless, Summer 2015. Pictured: works by Anna Glantz. Photo by Adam Kremer. Courtesy of the artist and Topless.

Photo: Installation view from Horse in the Road at Topless, Summer 2015. Pictured: works by Anna Glantz. Photo by Adam Kremer. Courtesy of the artist and Topless.

BW: Reid Hoffman, an entrepreneur who is also the co-founder of LinkedIn, uses the term “permanent beta,” to describe that everyone is a work in progress. And, I find that is a good mentality for thriving in a fast changing world.

JC: Of course. And one thing leads to another so why wouldn’t you want to evolve as everything around you does too?

BW: Who or what inspires you?

BB:  Buildings. Weird people. Other artist's ideas - most recently: Calder Zwicky and Dawn Kim.

JC: Well, as I mentioned earlier, Alexander Dorner is a good example, and I would love to learn more about him. Hans Ulrich also. I think Julie Ault is incredible. One of my favorite artists is Alejandro Cesarco. A part of me is hesitant to run down a list of folks – firstly, because there are so, so many, but also because a part of me fears being placed in or compared to their swim lane and not my own - but I should have less trepidations about giving credit where credit is due, huh?

I guess I am also aware of admiring a person or a program and consciously and subconsciously comparing your own abilities to that which you look up to. But I have to remain aware of the fact that I am only able to work within my means – which are very, very modest at the moment.

With Topless, for example, it’s such a specific project – and one that I am really proud of – you could say that it’s a less conventional model – Roberta Smith called us the “outlier of all outliers” - but that’s because that’s a way that we’re able to do it. It’s a really special and unique project and it’s one that heretofore has existed within my means each given summer. That first summer having graduated just the spring before. I can't afford a full-time space - in Rockaway or elsewhere - and so we have created a program that works for us as individuals and also gives back to a community where an offering like Topless was for the most part lacking.

BW:  Where did the idea of Rockaway germinate from?

JC: Brent lived in Rockaway before we started the project and he still does. He moved to Rockaway following Sandy and wanted to participate and give back to the community in the wake of such a difficult time. I believe he was thinking about it one summer, and when that summer went by and the next one was rolling around he actively pursued the idea. Our mutual friend, Adam Parker Smith, put us in touch. When Brent brought up the idea to him - what he was thinking about and the kind of person he wanted to do it with – Adam proposed me. I was managing a gallery on the Lower East Side at the time and I was just putting in my notice. Adam put us in touch and Brent and I began to brainstorm -  building “something” from “nothing” in what I think was pretty impressive time. We met mid-April 2014 and opened up mid-June.

We just wrapped up our third season.

BB: I moved to the Rockaways 4 years ago after years of visiting.  After hurricane sandy, businesses were not returning to their storefronts. That's where the idea started. I wanted to help my hood get back on its feet, and I'd been around long enough to know good artists and how to run a space.

Photo: Installation view from A Sphinx Has Lain Down Next To Me at Topless, Summer 2014. Pictured: twilight by Paul Demuro. Courtesy of the artist and Topless.

Photo: Installation view from A Sphinx Has Lain Down Next To Me at Topless, Summer 2014. Pictured: twilight by Paul Demuro. Courtesy of the artist and Topless.

BW:   What was your vision for the space?

BB: To show artists I believed in who didn’t have a huge following already and to fix up storefronts to help rebuild the neighborhood.

JC: It’s evolved so much since we’ve known each other. Especially since we didn’t know what the program would or could become at the beginning, but we definitely embraced that opportunity for continuous evolution and that’s what excited us. There were all these storefronts that were available – damaged by Sandy or abandoned prior - that were still just sitting there. PS1 had only done their book dome pop-up the summer before. There was the Rockaway Artists Alliance, which is really great and is located in Fort Tilden and shows the work of Rockaway local artists. But it was kind of void in terms of the work that pushes the boundaries of what is conventionally perceived as art. So we thought about a space that would present such work, and it lead us to a way that we could tangibly give back to the community in terms of renovating these spaces and leaving them in a more manageable state so that they could be rented afterwards. From that first summer, we developed a formula by renovating this one space, opening mid-June and doing four shows, each three weekends long, which brought us right to the last weekend of August. And so that’s what we’ve done for the past three summers, now.

BW:  So three different spaces, basically?

JC: Three different spaces, yep.

BW: You’re making it work – going back to the idea of "permanent beta" without a long-term space.

JC: Yeah! But I think that it is equally important to note that there have been so many people and amazing programs/projects prior that have done it before, followed a similar model. You know, we run a less traditional program than many a program out there, but we’re still learning and exploring how it is that we differ from and react to more typical structures. It’s interesting that you mentioned this particular moment for you [where this interview project started 2 ½ years ago], where you’ve done this for almost three years, and you find yourself at this point of maybe circling back and reinvestigating. Brent’s away for a month, and before he left we had what feels like a really important conversation - where we decided that our attention this off-season should not just be focused on the four exhibitions that typically comprise our program but more so on a critical approach to our program itself - what Topless has become, what we’ve learned, what we’ve loved about it / and not, and what we would ideally wish that it could do or introduce. We feel an importance in being more critical about what we’ve created and how we can further evolve in an alternative way. Up ‘til now, we have still adhered to exhibitions within a space, but due to the flexibility of operating without being tethered to a lease, maybe there is a point where we can push things even further. We’re brainstorming how – and why that feels important to us.

BW: One of the things I’ve loved about artists run spaces like TSA and OyG is that they’re operating more of a platform than actually being constricted to one type of work or another.

JC: Absolutely.

BW: Where do you see things going for Topless?

JC: I think it’s important that we take it season by season, so that we react and respond to our experience of the summer before. For the first time in these past three seasons, I think that we are really feeling a desire to shake things up – for ourselves and for our audience. We’re talking about ways of further shifting our mold and our mode where we can do things that we personally haven’t done before and learn something new on account of it - maybe things that haven't been so continuously accessible in Rockaway. There are other exhibition spaces in Rockaway now and so maybe we can offer something else.

We’re really at the beginning stages of this potential re-navigation here. The uncertainty feels challenging and exciting. We want to stay true to the personality that Topless has taken on – it feels like its own little being by this point. It’s not only a reflection of what Brent and I are interested in but also of the responses received by the community – Rockaway and the one that Topless has brought together – over the past few years.

One of the reasons that we settled on the title Topless is very tied to this conversation. Brent initially proposed the name and we agreed it felt right in its more immediate catch, but it wasn’t until I went to this talk at Artist Space led by David Joselit, discussing alternative programs and their role in the changing commercial art world, that I had my a-ha moment. He spoke about how, spaces like ours, are more dependent not upon an upward or downward / profit-driven margin, but by lateral, community-based expansion. Topless felt right in this regard. Then, also the fact that we renovate our spaces. And we’re by the beach….

BW: What do you think about the concept of “moving sideways”?

JC:  I feel like that’s just as important as moving forward. I feel like moving sideways a lot of the time is moving forward.

BW:  Topless in some cases is physically moving sideways as it does so conceptually.

JC:  Yes, we are. A prevalent question in terms of Topless is what is growth? And what does it mean for us? What would we like for it to mean and how would we like for that growth to actualize itself through the program?

BW: Did you have a show that resonated with you personally?

JC:  I don’t think I can choose a favorite, but the project in the back space, Topless Projects, with No School, the No School Residency, that was really exciting for me.

BW: Could you describe No School?

JC: No School is run by my friend, artist, Frank Traynor. He started the camp two summers ago in 2015 in participation with the Rockaway-based camp called Arts in Parts, which has existed in Rockaway for several yeas now and is really incredible. No School is a five-day-a-week, four-week program involving artist-led workshops with Rockaway campers.

Frank and I became acquainted our second season when Topless was located next to Arts in Parts, and Frank operated his seltzer shack and mud bath in what I guess I could call Topless’ front yard. Following that season, No School did a retrospective of the campers’ works in our former gallery space when we had moved out for the summer. It was really bittersweet for me because I had my first show going on, on top of work, and so I didn’t have time to personally participate to the degree that I would have liked. When Frank invited me to conduct my own artist-led workshop as a part of No School this past summer, I thought it a ripe moment to get Topless involved. Believing that it would be valuable for the campers to experience their works curated into a series of exhibitions within their own community within the vein of contemporary art.

BW: How did the kids respond?

JC: Frank and Diwa of Arts in Parts would come each weekend with a few campers. It was such a pleasure to engage with them about their responses to the courses and the camp as a whole. We also had Bedwyr Williams’ video, ‘The Starry Messenger’, playing in the main Topless space throughout the span of No School Residency, and so I think that was a really curious work for the kids – they’re 7 – 14 – to take in. Some of the campers were more seriously interested in art than others – typically the older campers, and so it felt like we could offer this lens of what it could be like to pursue art in the less conventional sense. Pursuing art certainly requires a great degree of passion, especially since you can’t just follow a recipe towards “success”.

BW: There is no recipe or if there is one, it's dangerous to follow.

JC: As “scrappy” as Topless may be it did feel important to share our project and our space with these youthful creatives because maybe it made them think a thing or two differently about the prospect of pursuing the arts.

BW: How do you think that your own curatorial work has evolved via Topless? What new projects do you have coming up?

JC: The work that we exhibit at Topless is often very different than the work that I make myself, and I feel like Topless has provided a platform and opportunities for me to explore these other points of view and interests. When presented with an invitation and opportunity I often choose to utilize curation as a tool, as an extension of that which I am exploring in my own work. It often feels like a part of my own practice whether it is immediately apparent or not. And I say that because I have curated a number of shows that maybe more obviously align with my own work and many others where perhaps the link reveals itself more slowly.

My dear friend, Lydia Glenn-Murray – who runs a space called Chin’s Push in LA – and I will be embarking on our second curatorial project together that will be held at a space called Roberta Pelan this January in Toronto. We curated our first exhibition together this past summer at Shanaynay in Paris and it was such a wildly wonderful experience. We really hit it off when bouncing back ideas and continuously challenge each other and expose each other to artists that we may not have been aware of prior and so I feel confident that Lydia and I will have an extended on-going relationship together from here forward.

I’ll also have a small show in Copenhagen this winter.

BW: What new ideas interest you?

BB: If you are referring to my own ideas, these are on my to do list:

1.   Skaty cats - a rollerskating rink with 9 rooms, a glass ceiling with cats upstairs and ramps and hiding places for them everywhere.

2.    A custom bowling alley - I'm not revealing any details yet

3.    The hairy trinity of the big d - a cabinet of curiosities with scientific graphs I'm working on now for Dennis Rodman, Brian Bosworth, and Vanilla Ice.

4.    Sofa sculpture - I'm working on this now too. I'm collecting 100 sofas. I just bought a van to make this vision a reality. It will be a painting with rooms combined with what it would look like if 100 sofas fell from the sky.

JC: I’ve been working with this idea of the frame – which I know is not an entirely “new idea” – but the system of the frame is something that I feel like really speaks to the facets of being human - it’s a support structure, providing this space of security, whether it’s the human frame, a photo frame, or an architectural frame… The frame of thought or mind…. I’m pretty influenced by architecture – the emotional affect and perception of a space and how even the most subtle of forms in space can redirect those reactions. I hope this doesn’t all sound vague…

BW: As you’re thinking about the frame, it sounds like, not only in terms of a space, but also in terms of a method of storage about pedagogy, the museum, institution, multiple levels of what we would consider a frame.

JC: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that conversation can be seen in my first exhibition, Upon Reflection, at Y Gallery last summer – these forms that cannot de divorced from the art historical cannon. But this investigation is probably more immediately accessible through my more curatorial pursuits.

BW: What are some of the skills that you feel you’ve acquired throughout that process of managing multiple ventures and being a critical thinker?

JC: I think that slowing down is a skill, really thinking things through – what and why - slowing down in terms of consideration rather than just jumping in to the next thing. Maybe saying no to a project or deciding not to make a piece that you may feel excited about - rather than just taking on another thing - if you don’t really have the time to understand why you’re doing it and what’s important about taking that step.

BW: Saying no is hard too.

JC: It is. It really is.

BW: Doing fewer things better is really important.

JC: Still good to say yes though, right? For me, I feel like yes is my more immediate response. Because I like to take on new projects, new challenges, but like you said I think its beneficial to critically consider why you are doing so.

BW: I think it’s really important to be open to possibilities in the process…saying yes (and specifically yes and to think generatively) is really important.  But, saying no when the plate becomes full is also important.

JC: I know and sometimes it feels almost counterintuitive because activity breeds activity. But pausing – stillness - is just as important as motion.

BW: This is why creative energy is weird because I often find, my own best work doesn’t come from the original idea, and maybe not even the second idea, but it’s the third thing after, sometimes the accident.

JC:  Maybe that’s a skill we’ve learned to… Accepting “failure” as a part of the process as it leads to the next alternative, which may be the thing we were seeking in the first place.

BW: Yeah, being comfortable with a high failure rate is important.

JC: Maybe adapting would be a skill that I’ve acquired… I like to plan but there is only so much you can prepare for. So, thinking, slowing down, and adapting.

BW:  How do you shift and adapt?

JC:  I think of adapting in terms of expectations - you’re not really going to learn much if you’re steadfast to one idea as the end all. I think that you should expect that that idea will evolve, perhaps due to something really boring – like logistical or financial reasons – but maybe working towards change itself is when the end result feels most exciting.

I feel like things never really can or will be exactly what you conceive of in your head. That’s why working with a collaborator is so fun – two heads are better than one, right?! I know… I’m so corny… But really though, there is inevitably a higher likelihood of unexpected results when working with someone else. Things are going to continuously evolve. Rolling with the punches is a big one.

BW: Mike Tyson once said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”.

JC: Yeah, that’s pretty good. Thanks, Mike. It’s natural.

That was something that felt important to extend with the No School project in the backspace. It was not always about selecting the work that was maybe the most successful in terms of what the workshop was attempting to accomplish. For example, we weren’t just selecting the most radical, rainbow piece of marbled paper from the marbling workshop. We were picking these pieces that arrived at a sort of place of accidental beauty – what may have been deemed by a camper as an unsuccessful example. That important lesson learned again, things don’t always turn out the way that you anticipate but you really have to be open to and embrace that.

In terms of curating, that’s huge, because when you invite an artist you don’t always know what specific piece you’ll get – you’re decision to work with that artist is in response to their practice, interests and ideas as a whole, and how that relates to the idea that you may be working with. It’s this really awesome mutual and on-going support system.

Below you will find images of work by Jenni Crain and Brent Birnbaum exhibited outside of Topless.

Photo: Jenni Crain, installation view of 'Upon Reflection' at Y Gallery, New York, NY, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo: Jenni Crain, installation view of 'Upon Reflection' at Y Gallery, New York, NY, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo: 'A Sieve Itself May Sieve' at Shanaynay, Paris, FR, 2016. Works by Kelly Akashi, Talia Chetrit, William King & Tori Wrånes. Curated by Jenni Crain and Lydia Glenn-Murray. Photo courtesy of Crain and Glenn-Murray.

Photo: 'A Sieve Itself May Sieve' at Shanaynay, Paris, FR, 2016. Works by Kelly Akashi, Talia Chetrit, William King & Tori Wrånes. Curated by Jenni Crain and Lydia Glenn-Murray. Photo courtesy of Crain and Glenn-Murray.

Photo: Jenni Crain, installation view of 'Bent To Its Own Image' at The Java Project, Brooklyn, NY, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo: Jenni Crain, installation view of 'Bent To Its Own Image' at The Java Project, Brooklyn, NY, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo: Brent Birnbaum, Untitled, 2015, Treadmills, paint, ropes, extension cords, clamps. Installed at SPRING/BREAK Art Show. Photo courtesy of Brent Birnbaum/Denny Gallery, NYC.

Photo: Brent Birnbaum, Untitled, 2015, Treadmills, paint, ropes, extension cords, clamps. Installed at SPRING/BREAK Art Show. Photo courtesy of Brent Birnbaum/Denny Gallery, NYC.

Photo: Brent Birnbaum, Untitled, 2015, Treadmills, paint, ropes, extension cords, clamps. Installed at SPRING/BREAK Art Show. Photo courtesy of Brent Birnbaum/Denny Gallery, NYC.

Photo: Brent Birnbaum, Untitled, 2015, Treadmills, paint, ropes, extension cords, clamps. Installed at SPRING/BREAK Art Show. Photo courtesy of Brent Birnbaum/Denny Gallery, NYC.

Photo: Brent Birnbaum, Untitled (Red I), 2016, 5 Mini-Fridges, Mixed Media 122.5 x 18.5 x 19.5 in/ 311 x 47 x 50 cm. Photo courtesy of Brent Birnbaum/Denny Gallery, NYC.

Photo: Brent Birnbaum, Untitled (Red I), 2016, 5 Mini-Fridges, Mixed Media
122.5 x 18.5 x 19.5 in/ 311 x 47 x 50 cm. Photo courtesy of Brent Birnbaum/Denny Gallery, NYC.

Photo: Brent Birnbaum, Untitled (Red I), 2016, 5 Mini-Fridges, Mixed Media 122.5 x 18.5 x 19.5 in/ 311 x 47 x 50 cm. Photo courtesy of Brent Birnbaum/Denny Gallery, NYC.

Photo: Brent Birnbaum, Untitled (Red I), 2016, 5 Mini-Fridges, Mixed Media
122.5 x 18.5 x 19.5 in/ 311 x 47 x 50 cm. Photo courtesy of Brent Birnbaum/Denny Gallery, NYC.

“Expanding the Pie with This Friday or Next Friday; NYC’s tiniest, most inconsequential space”

Note: This interview will take about the time it takes to smoke a cigar to read. If you smoke it pretty fast.

This Friday or Next Friday is an artist run space in DUMBO known as NYC’s tiniest, most inconsequential space. It is the brainchild of NYC based artist Nathan Sinai Rayman. Zach Seeger, NYC based artist, shares the space for his studio and also represents the gallery as a spokesperson.

We discussed pizza, social practice and the art world apparatus over cigars on their back deck.


Nathan Sinai Rayman and Zach Seeger. Image courtesy of This Friday or Next Friday

Nathan Sinai Rayman and Zach Seeger. Image courtesy of This Friday or Next Friday

Brett: How did you land on art? I guess that's more of an individual question. We can start with whichever one of you guys wants to.

Zach: I didn't land on art. Art landed.

Brett: Art landed on you?

Zach: Yes. Go ahead. You first.

Brett:  What was your origin in art, Nate?

Nate: Yeah. It seemed like a really practical application of my life.


Nate: Holding a job.

Brett: You run a program that is at times relational. Have you ever considered being an actor?

Nate: Never.

Zach: I saw a commercial for Travelers Insurance during, I think, the Masters or the U.S. Open Golf Tournament. I was watching it with my dad, and there was a Pollock-type character and throwing, no - it was on the wall, and he was throwing paint onto it. And it made my dad so upset, and he's like, "That's not art," and that's exactly what I wanted to do with my life.

Brett: Yes. Travelers is a very big sponsor still of golf tournaments, to this day.

Zach: And of This Friday and Next Friday.

Brett: Was there a founding moment for the gallery?

Nate: When the sign was found.

Brett: Where?

Nate: At Build It Green in Queens.

Brett:  What kinds of space did you want to become?

Nate: Well, I had used the space for my own - for having mini-shows or whatever, and there was confusion about when I was going to have people over, so the name came from the fact that it was "this Friday or next Friday." And then I found the sign, looking for something else at Build It Green, so that meant that I was - I was, like, oh, okay, so I'll run a gallery.

Brett: You were now formally in the gallery business with the sign.

Nate: Right. Because I had a sign. Yeah. A 10-foot gallery sign. And then Zach was the first artist to show.

Brett:  And then it blossomed from there?

Nate: Right. There was no stopping us.

Brett: So this mission that you have - "tiniest, most inconsequential space" – could you talk about that mission?

Zach: It's a definitive statement of non-commitment.

Nate: I think it lowers expectations to the point where we can impress almost all the time.

Brett: So the threshold is - there is no threshold.

Nate: We're setting the bar really low.

Zach: It could have been "big ideas, tiny space." But that sounds like a tech company that we might start.

Brett: Right, because it is an incubator. I mean, it is an incubator type of space.               

Zach: A pressure cooker.

Nate: A rice cooker.

"Ballet" by Patricia Brace. Image courtesy of This Friday or Next Friday.

"Ballet" by Patricia Brace. Image courtesy of This Friday or Next Friday.

Brett: How do you think about the space as a part of your practice?

Nate: I don't - well, Zach doesn't - it's not part of Zach's practice.

Brett:  Is it part of your practice?

Nate: Yeah. I consider it a work in and of itself, and it's always been that way, partly because it was created inside my studio space, so it was ever-present.

Brett: As a sub-division?

Nate: Well, the sign helps to divide the space.

Zach: If I may...or not, if I may not.  

Nate: No, it's helpful to have a representative speaking.

Brett:  A proxy.

Zach: Part of the importance of the sign and also the delineation, or whatever you want to call it, of the space, is here is the gallery, here is the studio. This is where the line is drawn. The floor is painted a certain way. That is not that dissimilar to Nate's practice, where it's kind of this giant run-on sentence of play and experiment, and there's no end. So at some point, there had to be an added - or some putting on the tie or the suit to go to work.        

Brett:   There is a tie?

Zach: And you asked Nate if he wanted to be an actor, or wanted to be an actor, and I would say no.

Brett: No sense of acting.

Zach: There's no symbolism or front man, or - even though I'm speaking on his behalf. Maybe it's easier when someone else speaks about someone else's work. But having the gallery inside the studio space is like putting on the tie. It's the ritual of polishing the presentation. It's the framing of the art piece. So it is now this Friday. Here is the exhibition. We had the deadline. We've made an announcement. Here it is. It has to happen. Just like if someone has a show and there's a deadline or something to paint, where they have to meet a particular quota or whatever. Present it in a particular way. This is just that version of that. And the gallery works as a framing mechanism.

"Tight and White" by Lisi Raskin. Image courtesy of This Friday or Next Friday

"Tight and White" by Lisi Raskin. Image courtesy of This Friday or Next Friday

Brett: Zach, how do you think about it in the context of your own practice, working next to the space?

Zach: Well, I ran a space for about 10 years upstate, and I ran a small gallery before that, and that small gallery was inside my studio space also. So the way I work is kind of - it's sloppy, and I move from one thing to the next, and I'm primarily a painter. And then it's like getting the toys out, and your mom and dad say, "Put them away. It's night time." It's like, "Oh, okay."

So I'm kind of used to that sort of thing, but also knowing that there is an artist, a particular artist, and the type of work, and knowing what the show is going to be, presents - it's not a challenge, but then it's something to kind of feed off of in my own work, and I get ideas or distance myself from whatever it is in my own practice. It's also generative, because it's also, again, not dissimilar to Nate's practice, but it's like, I go and go and go and go, and this gives me a deadline where I'm able to complete pieces, or get them to a particular stage, because people are going to see them.

Brett: It's a constant deadline.

Zach: Because of the proximity of my own studio next door.

Nate: That was also one of the impetuses for starting the gallery, because it was bringing people over.        

Brett: Do you set goals around the space?  And I ask that question because one of the benefits of an artist-run gallery is that you can design the program without setting specific outcomes. You're not necessarily wed to a certain commercial goals. 

Zach:  I mean, I can just speak of how I see it, which is, I think just having a conversation with a painter today, one tends to label artists as romantics or whatever the negative connotation of that term is, but we're all here in the city, and there's something real to that. That's part one of this. So part two is the other non-commercial scene, which is, everybody's making work. Everyone likes going to shows and socializing, and the end goal is to generate some sort of interest and to keep it going.   

Brett:    To keep the ball in the air?

Zach: To keep the ball in the air, because what is the point of culture or these things otherwise, if things are not really seen and shared? Whether people have a lot of shit going on all the time, and however the gallery functions on the community level, I mean, that's not what's important to me. There are other parts of it, too, which are maybe the question of sustainability financially.

Brett:    The gift shop?

Zach:  The gift shop. Nate can speak to those things because that's part of his practice and how he takes part in the art world.

Nate:  The gallery, part of having artists running a gallery, is knowing what it's like to show in a gallery as an artist. So there are certain rules that I believe will never change, based on that understanding, to make it, not, maybe artist-centric, in a way. Like, it's an exhibition space. The artist, should be doing as much as possible within that space, and it's the smallest space that I could find to do whatever someone wants to do. And then part of it is not necessarily going against a system that already exists. There is a gallery system. This is a gallery. So it's within that particular system, but it might deviate a little bit here and there.

Brett:  Yeah. So it's on the apparatus. It's somewhere in the apparatus of the art world.

Zach: It looks like a gallery. It walks like a gallery.

Nate: It smells like a gallery.

Brett: But when you go inside, it has a very different feel.

Nate:  Well, I compare it to pizza. So there's pizza in Italy, which is where pizza is supposed to have come from, and that pizza is a particular kind of pizza. Napolitano pizza is made a very specific way and has to follow those criteria in order to be Napolitano pizza. When you come to New York, there is very good pizza, but it is not the same pizza. We call it the same thing, and we're fine with acknowledging that it has the same word, but it is a different format of food.  So I'm interested in that idea of walks like a gallery, talks like a gallery.

Brett: And there's very nice pizza here, by the way. Are you picking up on the nice pizza in this neighborhood?

Nate:  There is some interesting pizza here. Yes, and it's a warring neighborhood. Who makes the better: Grimaldi's or Juliana’s?

Zach: Maybe we should make pizza. I was going to ask a question. I know that's not my role here.

Brett: This is a multiplayer game.

Zach: So my question was to Nate. Not a question, maybe a directive or something. Can you talk about pizza and the gallery, and maybe this is not the best word for it, but maybe the generic or the trope?

Nate:  Can I talk about pizza?

Zach: Yeah. I don't care. I mean, for example, one could say "tropes in art," and I think you're interested in the trope of art.

Nate: Right.       

Zach: Go ahead. Talk about pizza.

Nate:   My point is, it may not even be a critique, because it's the post critique.

Zach: Right. The pizza by the slice is not critiquing Napolitano pizza. In fact, many of it is made by the same people who would have made Napolitano pizza, but they are changing and adapting to a different situation, a different environment, a particular set of rules. I mean, pizza by the slice goes with the cost. I mean it’s the same price as riding the subway. It's supposed to go with that.

Brett: $2.50ish?

Zach:   Right. It's always kind of the same price.

Brett:  Yes. When they reflect on raises in MTA fares, they always relate it to the slice of a pizza.

Zach: It's actually historically been, what's the word? Pegged. The price of pizza is pegged to the price of an MTA fare, roughly, and it moves along that line.  And it's become pervasive within New York as being famous for its particular pizza, which is not the same pizza. It's a different pizza.

Brett:  And therefore you liken the gallery to create your own slice or sauce - as another sort of way to mutate or transform or make a part of something out of the broader art world pizza apparatus.

Zach: Right. And so I think that the irony or something to do with the gallery is that it's not a tastemaker or a product-deliverer or a brander, necessarily, but it is an experience, despite, the gallery tries to function remotely in some way, as a web presence, or as a digital entity or online.

Nate:  Online store.

Zach: Right. So it has that sort of thing, and its appearance is that it has a certain level of activity, or not. I don't know how it's perceived, but the main point of the gallery, I don't want to go all church on you, but it's the experience of going there.

Nate: Right.

Zach: Because it's one, you walk through a couple of studios. The loft space in general feels like old New York; you kind of move through it. Then you enter inside the gallery space and it opens up into this other world.

Brett:  And, there's a paint maker (Robert Doak) downstairs which is another twist.

Zach: It's lived. So one goes to Chelsea, and that's wonderful and beautiful, or LES or whatever, and it's white wall, blah blah blah. It's the container. And the gallery is developing a brand through its quote-unquote stable of artist or whatever aesthetic decisions they're making. This is about the artists accommodating, or accommodating to the space. The space is declaring what it is. That’s what makes everything, if one wants to go there, site-specific, or that's what makes this space unique. And it can't. You were going to say something?

Brett: Well, I was thinking about, going back to the concept of pizza for a moment and the concept of artist-run spaces, one of the controversies that comes up is gentrification, and one of the examples I can think of is, you know, Roberta’s is a very famous location, a place of lived experience, as you would call it and has been taken over by private equity. So in a way, what it sounds like, and there's been a lot of controversy around that, but do you lose the experience in growth, when you try to make multiple Roberta's or multiple locations? Growth is great if you can hold onto your startup roots.

Nate:  Another analogy would also be coffee. Like pizza, coffee takes different forms in different cultural environments, but we call it the same thing. You can go to Starbucks and get a macchiato, and that is not what a macchiato would be. And there, going off the Roberta's example, there is Stumptown, for example, which started as a homegrown business in Portland, expanded, grew larger. Finally, it was bought by a hedge fund that also had bought Vitamin Water and other beverages, and that was then, sold again. But their coffee has not changed, and if anything, their coffee now benefits in a strange way from the fact that this particular company that owns Stumptown also owns Intelligentsia and owns Peet's Coffee and owns several other coffee brands. And that company itself might be owned also by GE or something like that. So now they have ability to source coffee globally.

Brett: They have scale.

Nate: In a way that they couldn't before, and in a different way than a company like Starbucks would, in terms of how they are building relationships with farmers. It's just an interesting, I mean, that was something I was thinking about in terms of how you mentioned Roberta's.

Brett: This alludes to the fact that there are multiple art worlds within the art world. There are adjacencies.

Nate: Right. And that's what I'm interested in, is the finite spaces between those adjacencies, because everyone is creating his or her own notion of boundary, so there is an element of overlap, but we don't necessarily know that or are aware of where things are overlapping, in terms of boundaries between all sorts of boundaries we create. And I'm interested in playing with how those can be pushed and where those areas can achieve a possible sense of definition, even if they remain undefined.

Zach: Is that governance? Is that civic?

Nate: That might be one of those gray areas.

Brett:  We talked about the idea of keeping the cultural dialogue or the ball in play.           

Nate:    Right.

Brett:  You're showing people that are living today.

Zach:  I hope so.

Nate:   At least at the time of the opening, most of them.

Zach:  This is morbid.

Brett: Who would you say you're playing ball with that is no longer among us?

Nate: I would reference, recently, Marcel Broodthaers, in terms of his Musée d'Art Modern and the notion of that museum in his practice as an artwork, but as a museum director who had a museum, this kind of spiral. And an argument can be made that he was talking in a way about the role of the museum as being, that a museum cannot exist for anyone's work of a person who's living.

Let me rephrase that, a museum is for dead artists' art. That a museum of modern art or contemporary art doesn't make any sense. And so his museum of modern art didn't open a modern art wing until several years into the entire piece. It was opening other centuries. And he may have been trying to create the ideal museum that he wanted to see made, that doesn't exist anymore, which I think also is interesting in relationship to museums now, galleries now, etc., these kinds of apparati that are working now, in terms of the fact that many museums, many galleries now, excuse me, are run in a way like museums. There's a revolving door between people who've worked in museums and galleries, etc., and there are gallery shows where no work is for sale because it's all on loan to put on a museum level show, sometimes better than museums and they're free.

"Everything Must Go", Nathan Sinai Rayman. Image courtesy of This Friday or Next Friday.

"Everything Must Go", Nathan Sinai Rayman. Image courtesy of This Friday or Next Friday.

Brett:   So it's kind of a dialogue or a comment on the expanding relationship between the gallery and the museum. Galleries (in some cases) are now funding the museum show.

Nate: Right. I think it's a changing role, in terms of who is the cultural moderator.

Brett:   And do you see that as a challenge, where an expanding role, where the gallery is actually in some type of financial relationship with the museum, which is an interesting thing, meaning the museum is picking an artist who they know they can get funding for and therefore host a great show that will attract visitors, and it becomes a monetization objective.

Zach:  I think it’s a reality. I think this is a very interesting conversation. I think it's changing, but there are many artists, or the artists that are showing work where hedging their work to fit into this system that doesn't exist. And whether that's a romantic myth or whatever, it's like the artists are the content. They are everything, and I think everyone has forgotten that. It's like, if every artist stopped, these institutions would collapse, and artists are holding all the cards, and they don't know they're holding the cards.

Nate:     Yeah. There's a parallel - yeah.    

Zach:  For me, with this gallery space, it's about people who are doing interesting things, who are cool enough to step out of their own whatever box that they put themselves in or whatever and do something interesting. And, just show artwork. Is this, like, café culture or something?

Nate: And who knows who's going to come to our openings? I mean, that's a pretty big gamble.

Zach:  At our openings, we have people from the Whitney and the Guggenheim come to the openings. Like, these things happen.

Brett: Or, well-known art writers or critics or bloggers or whatever. I've seen them here.

Zach: Right. So that's all interesting, but this is generative. This is what art does, because for us, it has become kind of, and the name of the gallery is appropriate because there isn't that type of foot traffic in Dumbo. So it is centered around the event. So we do by appointment, but people come to the openings, where it's an event.

Brett: They know it's a cadence, in a way.

Zach:   Right.

Nate:  It also changes the artwork that's shown and the way that it's shown, because it is more of an event, like going to a concert and seeing a musician playing something live versus listening to the album. It's going to be kind of a different experience.

So work changes in the space, and the way the artist approaches his or her work changes.      

Brett:   Is there a memorable show that sticks out for each of you?

Nate:  Zach's show was pretty good.

Brett:  Zach, what did you do for your show?

Nate:   He blocked off the gallery space with a Plexiglas waist-high wall and put his artifact in the center. That was made of recycled paintings of his that were collaged together into a sculpture that came from a future museum but was work from the past. There were no lights unless you used the coin-operated light switch to turn on the light.

Brett: A brief moment?

Nate:  12 seconds, the average time that people look at artwork. So it cost a quarter to see for 12 seconds.

Brett: Just like those rides that you see outside a kids' toy store or the movie theater.

Nate: Yeah, or the carousel.

Brett: The gallery, movie theater or the carousel, or so on and so forth, and the game plays on. How about you, Zach? Was there a memorable one?

Zach: You know, I was thinking about this, and I was going to give a lame answer, but I guess I'll make it a little less lame, because I think that I get excited helping each artist put together the show, like the physical putting together of things. And I like seeing projects being executed, and I could say, well, this was more or less successful, etc.  Doug Burns, who is a Chicago-based artist, came in, and he's been working on this sitcom where he is a character, Doug, who has this kind of expressionless mask, and he goes through life in a very sad manner. It's funny and pathetic and terrifying at times. But in the first episode, he is having trouble at work, and he goes to a bar, and he tries to mingle with colleagues, and that doesn't work out, but then he finds the ball pit he can jump into, and it's just pure joy, and it's a stress release for him.

So in coordinating this show, Doug rebuilt the gallery in a studio in Chicago and then broke it down and brought it here to New York and installed it in the space. So he had this very tacky vinyl tile in the space.

"Ball Pit", Douglas Burns. Image courtesy of This Friday or Next Friday.

"Ball Pit", Douglas Burns. Image courtesy of This Friday or Next Friday.

Nate:  Faux marble.

Zach: Faux marble.

Nate: As you do.

Zach: There were blue balls that filled the space.

Nate:   Which you could buy individually for a dollar.

Zach:   He built a set of stairs, which I think was maybe four steps high, that people would walk into and then jump into the ball pit. And, why I think it was successful is because the cleverness of it is there, and you realize that it's a small space. It's like, "Oh, that's perfect. A ball pit in the space." But everyone jumped in and loved it, and it was just pure joy.

Brett:    Yeah. It's a stress relief.

Zach:  Yeah. And everyone jumped in it and had a good time, and it was a great opening, and that's that.

Brett: It reminds me of the dunk tank -

Zach:  Yes.

Nate: We did get some people who were like, "I can make blue balls for free, so I don't need to buy any."

Brett:  Who or what hat inspires you?

Zach:  Charlotte Corday. My favorite product is Robert Doak's goop. It's made downstairs. I just found it. He swindled me into buying it.

Brett:  It's a thickening paste of some kind, or what?

Zach: So it's a medium, and there are two. There's painting goop and then just goop that has maybe some acronym attached to the end of it, of the name.

Brett:    G-O-O-P.

Zach:    Yeah, goop. That's not the acronym. It might be it or something. But one is, it's non-toxic, and it's a paint extender. And then the thicker, like, traditional goop is for doing impasto and beefing up the paint. So that's what I'm into.

Brett:    I wonder if that would work on skateboard shoes. You know, like they used to have a goop you could put on. If you did too many ollies, you'd have to goop up the front of your shoe, to basically repair your shoe. Over to you.

Nate: Commuting by bike.

Brett:  You love bikes.

Nate:  Mm-hmm.

Brett: And you ride a Bianchi, right?

Nate:    Yes. Do you want artistic inspirations? Francois Boucher.

Brett:   You threw out Marcel.

Nate:   Marcel has definitely been one. Maybe Tatiana Trouvé. Yeah. Tatiana Trouvé and Amanda Ross-Ho.

Brett: What would you say to young Zach or younger Nate?

Zach: Artistically or life choices?

Brett:  Either. Open-ended.

Zach: The young me, since I'm an old fossil, is, I wish I had moved to New York then. The work I was making at the time, I think, fits that post-apocalyptic vibe of the early aughts. And maybe that's the only thing I would change.

Nate:  To make sure you have friends that are lawyers. But otherwise, I don't think anything else.

"Decepticon", Ben Garthus curated by Sam Keller. Image courtesy of This Friday or Next Friday.

"Decepticon", Ben Garthus curated by Sam Keller. Image courtesy of This Friday or Next Friday.

Brett: What is the best advice that you've ever received, artistically or other, again?

Nate: The thing that comes to the top of my mind is, listen to the person that you want to listen to. Don't necessarily listen to people that you don't want to listen to.

Brett:   Selective listening?

Zach:  What's that? I wasn't paying attention.

Zach: I just made a joke.

Nate: I don't get it.

Brett:  Richard Yarde told me something like you just need to love the process, and you'll be working a very, very long time. It's not really about an end goal. Always have a second thing going on, just so that you don't have to find an end game to your first goal. Something like that, which really kind of stuck with me, probably as I was nearing undergraduate graduation, and that stuck with me.

Zach:   I can respond to that, which is kind of maybe inspirational something-or-other. But I did biochemistry as an undergrad, and I switched to art. A lot of it had to do with various teachers. My dad's a teacher, and I've had wonderful, amazing teachers who have given me great advice, or not, because I'm making art. But anyway.

Brett: Like Norm Paris.

Zach: Like Norm Paris. But what was influential or inspired me to leave biochemistry behind was "Giacometti: A Portrait" by James Lord. And I realized that, and this is maybe responding to a couple of your questions with one anecdote or something, but I realized that there's no end to art, and you will never achieve anything. There's nothing to achieve. And that to me was the most comforting thing in the world.

Brett: I like that.

Zach:I'm sure there are religious people who are inspired by things because it’s outside of the system, or something, it's a higher calling. This was important to me because I would never arrive at any place ever, so I can keep pushing myself, and people aren't necessarily going to respond positively or negatively to that. There's no end. In everything else I did - mathematics, science stuff, or even sports, there was a terminus, and a decision. And this goes on forever, and that was appealing.

Brett:   I think that kind of ties the earlier conversation together that we were talking out. There is no end game. In fact, it's a show after a show after a show. It's this Friday or next Friday or this Friday.

Zach:  Right. I think we're both philosophically annoying, where we want, it is about a conversation, and we enjoy having those conversations, and that's where, we're not necessarily, that's the kind of sincerity of the space and both of us, and also when I was talking about Nate's work before. It may be subversive, but the intent is not to take anything down. It's to continue a conversation.

Brett:  It's another way to…       

Nate: To raise these questions.

Brett: Slice the pizza. It's another way to slice the pie, or expand the pie, shall we say? Expand the pie, in a way. You're taking the pizza and making more, making bigger pizza or more pizza or other pizza.

Zach: Mm-hmm.

Nate: And I think jumping off of what Zach said is, in terms of, I don't know if it's good advice, but acknowledging that, when failure is recognized, you might be doing the right thing.

If somebody takes the time to acknowledge the failure, somebody else or yourself, then that means that there's something else that can be done to move in another direction. Not necessarily forward, it could be sideways, it could be whatever, but failure is productive.

Brett: In the artistic sense.

Zach:  Yeah.

Nate:  In a lot of senses.

Brett: Actually, I was going to say in the startup sense.

Zach: Right.

Nate:   Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Brett: Where the common language, I mean, it’s like a moniker. It's almost embedded into the culture, like fail early and often to find your next biggest idea. Like Instagram.

Nate: It's the best form of education.

"The Sixth Woman", Catherine Haggerty. Image courtesy of This Friday or Next Friday.

"The Sixth Woman", Catherine Haggerty. Image courtesy of This Friday or Next Friday.

Brett:  You know, I think of the Instagram story, which, Instagram started out as actually a app named "Burbn" where people could like go to a bar or a place and "check in". It was a location app. When people started uploading photos that went viral is when they pivoted. Although, I know we're not talking about billion-dollar unicorns. That's not the end goal here as it is for many companies.

Zach: Now, it's difficult, this is tying in a bunch of things, though, doing this sort of thing here, which is, you know, this is the Dutch colony. This is the feudal city, and that's why people hedge. And there's the history of painting and art that extends from Europe to the mainland, etc. And I think that the algorithm of success is the past for New York, and because of the embeddedness of money and culture here, one could talk about the city as a museum, and if that's trying to just maintain that. And I think that our spirit city may be L.A. or something. I don't know what that is. But it is about just doing stuff, having shows, sharing, failing.

Brett: A very, very vibrant scene where that's happening, and it's still very much alive and well, although it keeps getting pushed further out. So it's interesting that we're here in Dumbo, which is almost having a re-birth as an arts neighborhood.

Zach: This building. In this building, that have been here for years and years and years. Well, it's funny, the institutions are, I mean, it's like, ArtFCity is here, Sharpe-Walentas is here. I mean, Minus Space is here.  Smack Mellon.

Zach:  So it's like 1998 2.0

Brett:  Should we wrap up?

Nate: I mean; I'm about done with my cigar.

Zach:  My dad's history professor in college would go to the podium to do his lecture, and he would just pack his pipes and set them up on the podium, and he'd do, like, three pipes, and that's how he measured every lecture. And then when he was done, he would stop and walk out the door.

"sland Scenari", Zach Seeger. Image courtesy of This Friday or Next Friday.

"sland Scenari", Zach Seeger. Image courtesy of This Friday or Next Friday.


Daniel John Gadd: “I'm trying to make paintings that feel human, that feel how I feel”.

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

Daniel John Gadd was born in New Jersey in 1986. He graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 2009 and maintains a studio in Ridgewood, NY. Daniel John Gadd’s work references and extends generations of great abstraction from de Kooning to Diebenkorn, to Stella, Tuttle and Ryman by combining the handling of ABEX, shaped formats, and the use of collage and embedding those formal elements with a deeply personal narrative and content. His work is fragile, violent, aggressive, and sensitive all at once, reflecting (literally, with his use of mirrors in much of his work), and sharing our complexity with an acceptance of all of what we are, and in the end, what makes us human (biography courtesy of David and Schweitzer Contemporary).

Brett Wallace: How did you first get involved in painting?

Daniel John Gadd:   I grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey, and I don’t think I had any more interest in art than anybody else. My grandma used to take me and we'd look at the skyline of New York City and I would just draw the buildings, and after a while I memorized how to do it. And so I kind of played around with that. But I got really into sports, played baseball on three or four different teams at once, and it was just so intense that that was my life.

So I went to high school to play baseball and the first year I got there, I was like, I don’t want to be any part of this. I don't know if I burned out, if it was just too competitive or it wasn't the person I wanted to be, or just my natural rebellion was hanging out with the punks who listened to music and made art. So I kind of found it by rebelling against something else. 

There were the jocks and there were the kids that did not play sports. It was an all boy’s Catholic high school so there were two pretty distinct groups.

BW: I can relate. I started skating in 6th grade in the parking lot of my Catholic school. 

DJG:   Yeah. So that was that.  There was an art teacher there that was pretty supportive in terms of hanging out in the art classroom. I guess I became interested from trying to escape something else and found that this was more interesting.

BW: Were there a certain movement or group of artists you were thinking about or inspired by?

DJG: At that time, my only knowledge of art was what the school was pumping, which is Catholic school, so Da Vinci was my art teacher's favorite, you know. Anything from the Renaissance, and anything that had to do with the religious art. I don't know if the curriculum was given to her, or if she picked it out that way to pleasure someone or if that was her main interest, I couldn't tell you.

BW: Painting's history has relied heavily on religious motifs; so Catholic schools really focus on that part of painting's history.

DJG: It then kind of stopped when we had this mural project, where we got an eight by eight-foot piece of the wall, so six of us got together and we had to come up with this design. And she brought in these art books and they're pretty standard, you know, modern and contemporary art books that she probably borrowed from the library, I don’t remember what they were.

So that was my first kind of introduction to anything other than, some sort of agony or religious painting. So then I don't remember how it started when I got super interested in de Kooning and Basquiat in high school. I guess it's a natural progression, because when I see what people were painting, when they were 18, it seems like that's what they were interested in.

There's this big divide where I wanted to go to art school. My parents were like there's no way, "we want like you to get a well rounded education at some liberal arts school" and I said "I'm not going to college then, fine". So I ended up going to the University of Rhode Island for four or five weeks. And I didn’t even know I applied. My mom secretly did it. So I got thrust up there and it was hell. I don’t know if I was homesick or completely truly hated it, but I called every day until finally she was like fine. So I applied to SVA and got in. And then got a traditional art education.

BW:     How did your work develop throughout school?

DJG:   The curriculum was strict at first, figure drawing and foundation painting I and II.  I ended up having Farrell Brickhouse as a teacher and he really changed how I viewed painting.  He became a really great friend to me. He also introduced me to a lot of things, because I was just kind of slapping in paint and he has this huge archive on his computer, which he would project and say, “Well, you're doing this, so why don't you look at this.”

BW:     I want to see that archive. I will need to give Farrell a shout.

DJG:   He taught a class on Saturday’s, I’d come in still drunk from the night before, barely alive. He'd come around and he'd mess around a little bit and then be like, “Well, why don't you look at this?”  He would bring some clarity; he was an amazing teacher. A better friend. An amazing painter, but became a great friend too.

BW: I appreciate his work and how accessible he is to share advice from someone who has been up the river more than a few times. Would it be fair to say he was one of your earliest mentors?

DJG:   It would be completely fair.  I had to leave school and get help, and Farrell convinced me to come back to school.  I was thinking about coming back to school and I saw him at open studios.  He gave me a hug, and at that moment I thought, “I can do this.”  When I went back, it was like all or nothing.  It was the only thing that was keeping me alive at that point.

At that point I was making these figure paintings, portraits in agony, and a series of paintings based on Courbet’s Wounded Man.  I got interested in artists like Jenny Saville. And I made figure paintings up until basically I my studio out here in 2014 into 2015.

Daniel John Gadd, “Wounded Man (After Courbet)”, 24” x 18”, Oil on paper, 2008. Photo courtesy of Daniel John Gadd.

Daniel John Gadd, “Wounded Man (After Courbet)”, 24” x 18”, Oil on paper, 2008. Photo courtesy of Daniel John Gadd.