The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" – a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.
Christopher Stout is a New York multi-disciplinary artist, celebrated for his individual process of working with "industrial papier-mâché," comprised of cement, pigment and shredded writings on linen on board. Christopher lives in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan, and works from his studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
In addition, Christopher is the founder of Bushwick Art Crit Group, Brooklyn's nonprofit art think tank seeking to understand Contemporary Art through the lens of the art and artists in Bushwick.
Most recently, he also launched Christopher Stout Gallery, New York, known for its difficult and subversive programming, showing work by NYC artists. CSG/NY’s February gallery solo exhibition is titled, “Neither Coincidence Nor Destiny” with raw, sexual, and mythological video and sculptural pieces by artist Josh Kil.
Christopher's modus operandi is, "solidarity for arts, and solidarity with New York artists."
BW: How and when did you start making art?
CS: What a perfect place to begin this conversation.
I grew up in an environment where I went to private school, and the curriculum had no visual arts program to speak of, but had excellent music studies. I took voice lessons for three years. I sang tenor in choir for five years. I took classical piano for eleven years.
My musical acumen caused tremendous anxiety by my parents because in their minds, anything with respect to the performing arts was not an acceptable choice for a man to make. A man’s priority was to earn money and support a family; and any pursuit in the arts was fundamentally in direct conflict with this goal.
My parents and I had come to an agreement that providing I kept my grades up, I was permitted to take all the music lessons I wanted. At the end of high school, I was the salutatorian of my class, which was evidence enough that music was very important to me. Concurrently, when I was in high school I was very much on track to attend law school. Law was very interesting to me as well. Where that changed was when I was in my sophomore year of pre-law at the University of Maryland, and I was hanging out with a girl by the name of Elizabeth who said, "Hey, my mother is a professor at Corcoran School of the Arts and she's giving private art lessons and you should take one. You just seem like the type of person who would respond to this."
And it turns out she didn't know how right she was.
What I clearly know now is that the difference between my relationships with music and art is based in my sense of authorship. When I'm playing Chopin, the best outcome that I can accomplish with the music is to exhume Chopin: the music is at core his identity and intellectual property. When I started painting and I started taking lessons with my first instructor twice a week, I immediately began to tie my art studies with my self-identity. And the thing that was very exciting to me was the intellectual property. It was about taking ideas from my head into a physical manifestation through art making, and so whereas I always loved music and was consumed by it; at the end of the day it was solely a passion project. The difference to me between music and art ultimately became passion vs. career.
BW: What were your early works like? Were there key movements or artists who inspired you?
CS: Actually, the first BIG criticism I ever received was exactly about this question, and was from a Chief Librarian at the National Gallery of Art East in Washington, D.C., who I met happenstance in a gay bar. I bragged to him, “I'm going to be great” and he responded, "Well that’s an odd thing to hear from a Washingtonian; bring your slides to the museum and I'll review them with you."
This was 1997, and I had maintained my own artist studio for about 2 years at this time, and here I was walking in almost unmerited to a major Smithsonian institution, with my tear sheets of slides, and we looked at everything. He was kind, but he also paused carefully and called out some of my early influencers. There had been a major retrospective a few years earlier of Willem de Kooning’s work, which was the first work that I was like "OHHHH" and the art that I painted initially was very much centered in action painting… abstract figuration really dominated my paintings: violent, petulant strokes to achieve figuration; and the criticism that I received was that I overly dependent upon Modernism in my work.
The specific critique was, “if you bring this work to New York they will find it important to dismiss it, you’re not ready for the gallery system. Don’t take your work to New York until you’ve solved this.”
I decided to resolve this issue by relocating to San Francisco, California in the hopes of finding a currency within my voice.
In addition to a deep art culture, San Francisco was my first exposure to the New Economy and being an entrepreneur, and specifically the understanding that you could build something in your garage without a lot of start-up capital, and start a movement.
Sitting here today having founded nonprofit Bushwick Art Crit Group and now also this for-profit gallery: that mindset for me came directly from the “incubator culture” within San Francisco.
The fantastic thing about San Francisco was that people were hungry to collaborate. I just started knocking on doors more or less by going to all the Mission District gallery openings, meeting artists and suggesting “hey let’s collaborate; let’s experiment.”
I started rabidly trying new things to see how they felt… I did landscape and photomontage. I jumped into sociopolitical themed performance work. I did more abstract figurative work, and then I did color-based abstract minimal pieces. In 2006, I started working with cement and shredded writing, which has become the primary focus of my work.
Again, I’m very proud of my accomplishments in New York; however I would not be the person I am without the gifts of curiosity and entrepreneurialism I culled in San Francisco.
BW: What was the idea behind the shredding?
CS: The first time I ever worked with shredded writing, it was not my work. I had been serving at the Visual Program Director at the largest not-for profit gallery in San Francisco. When all the dotcoms shuttered, the economy in the city spiraled and I had to leave the gallery and find new work.
I ended up finding an entry-level job in a finance department in corporate America. Ten months later, I had saved myself financially, but I had done nothing artistically.
I was panicked at the prospect of losing myself in corporate America, and being Californian and living at the time in Berkeley, I had the sensibility of using the thing that I thought was the problem as the exact source of the solution.
I had in my workspace a bin of shredded corporate documents and so I moved them to my art studio to devise a way to convert them into art.
My approach to this was iterative:
1. At core I’m a painter, and so I knew that I needed to manifest these shredded documents on board, and that I also needed to stretch linen on the board first to achieve the concert of a painting
2. I came to realize that I needed to work horizontally with the work first. I devised something akin to the architectural process that was used during the Renaissance for cathedral making, to buttress a temporary wooden mold around the outside of the board. The shredded documents also needed a binding agent, and so I poured a linen layer of cement into the mold to serve as the foundation for the shredded documents
3. After the entire thing had set I used varnish, paint pigment, enamel, and resin to complete the work and again, formalize it as painting
The outcome of these first pieces was to be my first fundamental understanding of the architecture of my own work.
Within a year I started taking it further… I started writing phrases, which I termed conceptual poetry. I would type the phrases in InDesign until it filled the entire page, and then I would print that page double sided, trim the edges off so it was full-bleed, shred it and that became the shredded writing that I would use. This is still the method I utilize for the work I do today.
BW: So, after eight years in San Francisco, what prompted your move to New York?
CS: I was always moving to New York. I just had to understand my art first. I thought I would figure it out in 2 or 3 years, but it took me eight years.
BW: How long have you been in New York now?
CS: Since 2007, I moved here April 2nd; and I was too superstitious to move here April 1st. I took the red-eye and landed April 2nd at JFK.
BW: What most surprised you about moving to NYC as an arts professional?
CS: I’ve been in New York City for eight years, and still how the art system works makes absolutely no-sense to me and yet I love it and embrace it.
BW: Michelle Grabner mentioned in an earlier conversation that Bill Arning sagely told her as a young artist, to shoot to have her first major exhibition at 60 years old. Despite such sage advice, how have you navigated the pressure that exists of “making your mark” in the gallery system in your 20’s and early 30’s in the New York art world?
CS: I know Bill, and I admire both Michelle and Bill incredibly. I can’t speak directly to this advice, however I certainly know a thing or two about pushing through dark feelings and into the next professional chapter of things.
Probably one of the darkest times for me professionally was 2010. NYC’s economy was totally dead, and my career felt totally dead, and I was struggling to translate my experience as an artist in California into a new professional chapter in New York.
In something akin to a healing ceremony, I was listening to a lecture given by the Guerrilla Girls at Franklin Furnace, during which they were talking about the power of building your own networks of change, and I felt a light go on inside of me. It was if they were giving me permission to utilize the same entrepreneurial tactics that had been so successful during my experience in San Francisco within the landscape of formalist, structure-intensive New York City.
I started Bushwick Art Crit Group rather organically, which became my first agent of change. I had been to other artist lecture groups like artist Linda Grigg’s E32 in the Lower East Side, and realized that there wasn’t a similar artist lecture series in Bushwick.
I wanted to build a lecture group for Bushwick artists that served as a networking agent. BACG focuses our Marketing outreach to gallerists, curators, auction houses, museum curators, and collectors. We are not focused on critiquing art, but developing and fostering an audience for it.
BW: What triggered you to open a gallery while still running Bushwick Art Crit Group (BACG)?
CS: Sometimes after you’ve started a project, you learn things and make exciting discoveries that lead you to your next growth step. After six months of lectures at Bushwick Art Crit Group, it dawned on me that the works we’d talked about on-screen could evolve into a gallery setting. Our host, Brooklyn Fire Proof agreed and we began cyclical exhibitions. These were successful and then during our second year we evolved into the fair circuit and we ended up doing Echo Art Fair in upstate New York, and then Select in Miami during Basel Week, and Spring Break in New York during Armory week.
Even though the core of BACG is a lecture series, it was our art fair presentations that resulted in our designation as Bushwick Daily’s #1 “Who’s Who” art organization in Bushwick, and so it our visual program certainly enjoyed significant distinctions.
Our fair presentation during Miami Basel week was the catalyst project that became the construct for the gallery. BACG focused specifically on feminist and subversive art for our fair booth, and it was this process that made me realize that I wanted to keep BACG as a network organization for the neighborhood, and also launch a gallery separate from BACG that focused on the careers of NYC artists who made difficult or subversive art.
BW: Could you describe what is happening in Bushwick now?
CS: I think the condition that’s worth discussing in Bushwick is the same issue that was unsolvable in Williamsburg, SoHo, the Lower East Side and Chelsea, which is the infighting within our neighborhood at the event of gentrification.
GONE are the years of artists looking for cheap rent. Arts in Bushwick (Bushwick Open Studios) is ten years old and while the neighborhood has achieved many milestones, there is so much volatile disagreement about the future of this neighborhood.
So many different groups (gallerists, artists, creatives #nativeBushwick) have compelling points of view, but frankly the hotel and retail developers seem to be the only ones who are tactically united and organized.
BW: Whom do you get inspired by?
CS: My heroes are my art-entrepreneur peers… I’ve been taking inspiration and professional cues from other artists that have strong roles to play outside of, and in addition to their own art making … Artists who run dynamic galleries like Jesse Patrick Martin and Bryan Rogers at Honey Ramka, Deborah Brown at Storefront Ten Eyck, Ellen Hackl Fagan at Odetta Gallery, and Matthew Deleget at Minus Space. Artists who are media powerhouses like Noah Becker, Editor-in-Chief of WhiteHot Magazine of Contemporary Art or Paul D’Agostino at Brooklyn Magazine. (Paul has a February solo at Life On Mars Gallery.) Let’s not forget artists who are Art Fair Producers like Ambre Kelly and Andrew Gori of SPRING/BREAK Art Show.
In a recent ArtReview article, Predictions for 2016: A Tale of Two Art Worlds Joel Wachs, President of the Warhol Foundation celebrates the seismic impact of the $300 million in grants awarded since 1987 that are the result of Warhol’s initial vision.
I would suggest that these galleries, media brands, and art fair ventures have a similar role to play in fostering tangible and incremental opportunities for the future of Contemporary Arts.
BW: Where do you see yourself in the next three to five years?
CS: It’s tricky sometimes to make those predictions. Ironically, my 3-year plan in 2012 would not have included being a gallerist in Brooklyn in 2015, and that being said I am so honored, proud, and humbled at the privilege of doing what I do.
With that in mind, I hope to remain sitting at the helm of CSG/NY, rooted in the artists and the work that it shows, that continues to explore the zeitgeist and has successfully tapped deep into it’s specific collector market in New York.
I also trust that Bushwick Art Crit Group will have completed a thorough library of short films that interview the neighborhood artists in their studios, and by that successfully documenting and preserving an archive of this chapter of art making in Bushwick.
Most of all I trust that I will be in my studio being provoked and feeling growth in wrestling with my own art. I wouldn’t mind a couple of transformational museum projects of my own.
In many important ways, I expect that my life in five years will feel emotionally vertiginous just as my life does now, or at least I hope so!