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Long Slow Accelerations

In 2013, a mostly full audience at the Hammer Museum watched ITSOFOMO (In the Shadow of Forward Motion), David Wojnarowicz’s 1989 collaboration with the composer Ben Neill.

The projector screen was broken up into four rectangles, staccato video clips filling each one. They were exemplary Wojnarowicz images: animals fighting, swooping close-ups of books, ants running wild over objects. The oppositions and matches made between the four different channels are slippery and forceful, the film nearly ungraspable but deeply resonant. I liked it, but I was stuck on the soundtrack. Wojnarowicz’s voice, a dry-throated whisper, opened the piece, a straight line cutting through an uneasy, ambient soundscape. I remember almost straining to keep within comprehension of his words, when a thunderous drum hit cut through, startling the whole room. The music stretched and careened through defiance, tenderness, and rage. Before long, the latter of these moods took over, an onslaught of sound, Wojnarowicz’s full-throated voice hammering through the text. It was a powerful, familiar kind of music, but hard to locate in the late 1980s it emerged from, feeling closer to the skinless, patient humanity of post-Y2K omnivores like Xiu Xiu or Blood Orange. I thought about the music for a few days before attempting a furtive internet search for a bootleg of the video, thinking I could scrape off the music the same way I recorded Sub Society and Operation Ivy songs off skate videos as a kid.

So, I was surprised to discover a CD of ITSOFOMO, released by an Italian label in 1992. I spent too much on a secondhand copy via eBay and listened to it for a full year before reaching out to Ben Neill to see if he’d be interested in working on a reissue of the CD. I thought an LP would be a nice nod to the era it was made in, and hoped that breaking up the five movements across two records would give the listener some breathing room. After four years of discussion, tape transfers, lost masters, and occasional dismay at the continued relevance of Wojnarowicz’s indictments, ITSOFOMO came out on October 22, 2018. Ben and I spoke about the original piece and his perspective on it now.

Ethan Swan: We just made an LP record of ITSOFOMO. The piece was first presented at the Kitchen, a live performance with dancers and video and props. There was a CD in 1992, and there’s a version that’s shown as a screening, which is how I first saw/heard the work. Is there one that feels like the definitive version to you? 

Ben Neill: I feel like the definitive version was the one performed by David, percussionist Don Yallech, and me along with David’s four videotapes. The original Kitchen performance was cut back for both aesthetic and practical reasons: David was not happy with the dance and theatrical elements, and it was impractical to tour with the sculptures/props. The trio was more like a rock band with the four videos; it was more visceral and direct and seemed more suited to the content. I also performed the piece with David a few times without the live percussion, but the trio with the live music and video was definitely the most complete realization. The CD was a multitrack recording of a live performance, which captures the audio very well, but I think the four-video version with the recorded music that I created in conjunction with the Hammer Museum a few years ago is the fullest representation.

Rehearsal for ITSOFOMO performance at The Kitchen, New York
Rehearsal for ITSOFOMO performance at The Kitchen, New York, 1989. Photo: © Andreas Sterzing

ES: Sylvère Lotringer did that great interview with you that untangles the history of the piece, how you and David had worked together on the cover of your debut LP, and, when you subsequently had an invitation to perform at The Kitchen in New York, you asked David if he wanted to be part of it. Did you know David had been in 3 Teens Kill 4? What led you to making that invitation? Were you surprised by his performance?

BN: David mentioned that he had performed with a band in the past, but I never saw any of their shows. The performance idea was a natural outgrowth of our conversations once we realized that we had a lot of common ideas. I didn’t know what his performance would be like, but as we started developing the piece, I could see that he had an extremely strong presence as a performer. His voice was incredibly rich and he utilized it fully, literally going from whispers to screams during the performances.

ES: What about your own background, and how it led to this piece? Before you moved to New York you were involved in punk and new wave scenes in Ohio, and after you arrived you connected with Jon Hassell and La Monte Young. I think about the harshness of ITSOFOMO and its tension and its force. I can imagine you felt at home in all of that, but I can also see it all as very challenging. Did you feel ready to make this piece? Did this collaboration push you into new places? 

BN: My background as a musician was as a trumpet player. I had a classical training, but I was also very passionate about popular music and also had a strong interest in the visual arts. Writing my own music was kind of a reaction against my classical training. I was interested in doing something musically that was more connected to the cultural milieu of my own era, and classical music seemed too limiting. The punk/new wave scene of Northeast Ohio was the first context where I created my own music and started working on what became mutantrumpet [a hybrid electro-acoustic instrument invented by Neill]. When I moved to New York in 1983 I decided to focus on developing a solo composer/performer project centered on the new instrument that would bring these two disparate sensibilities together. Robert Moog was assisting me with the electronics — he was a great supporter — and Jon Hassell’s work had been a big inspiration to me for years. I contacted Jon through his record label and we started getting together. He introduced me to La Monte Young and Rhys Chatham, who were both important in my development. I started studying with La Monte and performing his music, and also played in Rhys’s guitar ensemble. Rhys was very focused on the idea of merging classical avant-garde ideas with the energy and volume of punk, which reinforced my creative instincts. As I worked more with La Monte I got a better understanding of just intonation and frequency ratios, and I started incorporating those numerical structures into my pieces based on a concept I called rhytharmonics. Basically the idea was to apply the ratios of just intonation to all aspects of a composition rather than just pitch: rhythm, duration, tempo, and large-scale form. All of my work in the ’80s was blending these numerical, conceptual structures with rock and later dance music using the mutantrumpet as the performance vehicle. ITSOFOMO is probably the most complex piece I’ve ever created in terms of its numerical structure, and also perhaps the most visceral, so I would say it really drew together the two sensibilities that I had been working with for about a decade. I had huge respect for David’s vision and ideas, and I think the tremendous depth and scope of his work pushed me to be more ambitious and expansive in our collaboration.


ES: You sent me a 1993 review of the CD published in Variant magazine which describes the piece as “exhausting yet exhilarating,” and another time you mentioned a review that describes the record as having “a real sense of physicality.” Don’s percussion plays a role in this, but I think the whole piece is built to keep the listener very present. Does that grow out of the initial discussions you and David had about “forward motion” and how to enact it in the piece? I also wonder if this plays into bigger themes you’ve explored throughout your life, like the support you’ve given to Hyperdub and this kind of electronic music that uses volume and bass to create a physical connection to the body.

BN: I think the physicality stems from several places, the most obvious being the powerful content of the texts and the way David delivers them, particularly in the last section. The overarching concept of ITSOFOMO was the idea of acceleration. We wanted to implement that structure on many different micro and macro levels with the hope of generating a strongly physical experience for the audience through the combination of text, music, and video. One of my main reasons for working with just intonation and frequency ratios was their power to create stronger physical sensations and psychological states. The resonances of whole-number ratios are powerful, and I was implementing them across all of the aspects of composition with the goal of generating more visceral experiences. The instrumentation reinforced the sonic physicality; the large percussion battery with timpani was powerful by itself, and the electronics were all live, run from an Atari 1040 ST computer. The timpani were set up to trigger electronics, and David, Don, and I all had individual control of processing our sounds with upward glissando effects, which were another manifestation of acceleration through increasing frequency. There are a lot of long, slow accelerations throughout the piece that are pushing forward almost subliminally, as well as other points where the increasing speed becomes more frenzied. These phenomena are demonstrated in the music as well as the video, and I think this creates a sense of engagement, of being pulled forward by the piece. My subsequent involvement with various popular electronic music genres such as illbient, drum and bass, breaks, and dubstep certainly connects to the kind of experience that we were exploring in ITSOFOMO. I have become even more focused on the visceral side of things in recent years, not as focused on complex numerical systems as before; although there is always something of that structure, it’s not as rigorously implemented.

ES: In Cynthia Carr’s biography of Wojnarowicz, she mentions a last-minute addendum to the program for ITSOFOMO at the Kitchen, which added facts and statistics about AIDS. What was it like making art in that context? Did it feel constructive? Cathartic? Part of a bigger program?

BN: The time leading up to the premiere was a whirlwind. I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, but David had been diagnosed with AIDS, the Artists Space catalogue episode was in full swing, and generally the AIDS crisis had reached a fever pitch. ITSOFOMO felt like a very cathartic experience that was channeling all of that energy — it was kind of dizzying. Going back to my experiences in punk rock, I had always been interested in creating art that had strong social relevance for its time, and ITSOFOMO definitely had that more strongly than anything else I’ve ever done.

Ethan Swan is the founder of Jabs Records.

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Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions Getty Research Institute / Los Angeles

It was only a matter of time until we got our Harald Szeemann show. In 2011 the Getty Research Institute announced the acquisition of the archives of the auratic Swiss curator — tens of thousands of books and photographs, boxes of papers, correspondence, and ephemera — the single largest collection to enter the institution’s vast holdings.

The material had filled a former factory in the Alpine valley village of Maggia, out of which Szeemann had worked from the mid-1980s, coming and going on an endless international itinerary, curatorial journeys that marked, among other things, the emergence of the vaunted globalization of art. Freewheeling and wild-haired, Szeemann cuts an iconoclastic figure — a man possessed of distinctive, sometimes eccentric, tastes, the prototype of the independent curator, a term that in his case seems to carry an ideological sense. But his boxes, now arrived in the hills of Brentwood, would be subjected to the kind of rigorous cataloguing and historicizing for which J. Paul Getty’s well-endowed center is known.

In this, the curators of “Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions” have not disappointed. The viewer gets a thorough survey of Szeemann’s life and career, structured around noteworthy exhibitions and illustrated with documentation, artifacts, letters, and notes. The first section, “Avant-Gardes,” covers his intimate engagement and extensive promotion of the advanced art of the 1960s and ’70s: post-Minimalism, performance, Arte Povera, and conceptualism, inter alia. This takes us from his tenure at Kunsthalle Bern in the 1960s, and the epochal 1969 exhibition “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form” — a platform for process-oriented art and an exercise in the museum as studio — through his resignation following the controversy that greeted the show and his early freelancing under the ironic aegis of the Agentur für Geistige Gastarbeit (Agency for Intellectual Guest Labor), including “Happening & Fluxus” (1970, Kölnischer Kunstverein) and documenta 5 (1972), with its sections devoted to socialist realism, art of the mentally ill, and science fiction in addition to time-based works and performances. “Utopias and Visionaries” covers Szeemann’s turn toward minor histories of modernism, coinciding with his move to Maggia in the mid-1970s, mounting shows like “The Bachelor Machines” (1975), “Monte Verità: The Breasts of Truth” (1978), and “Gesamtkunstwerk: European Utopias since 1800” (1983), which looked at outsider figures, fantasies, and communitarian communities. The final section, “Geographies,” charts Szeemann’s global circuit in the 1990s and early 2000s, helming biennials in Europe and Asia and regionally and nationally oriented surveys of Switzerland, Austria, the Balkans, and Belgium.

Staging an exhibition about someone staging exhibitions can’t but emphasize distances and contrasts. Wandering the “Museum of Obsessions,” we see just how thoroughly assimilated, how common, Szeemann’s obsessions have become: the now canonical movements of the 1960s and ’70s, revisions of modernism and minor histories, the figure of the globetrotting curator-as-artist or as-celebrity. Rich in detail and informative wall texts, the Getty’s presentation best evokes Szeemann himself in certain key artifacts: a display of a set of stamps with the name and mottoes of the Agentur für Geistige Gastarbeit and a massive collection of airline bag tags, stuck together and suspended from above, give a sense of the combination of humor and self-mythologizing he brought to the task of exhibition-making.

Across town, in the so-called Arts District, the ICA LA presented a satellite show, a restaging of “Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us,” for which Szeemann exhibited some 1,200 objects that had belonged to his grandfather, a barber, in the curator’s Bern apartment in 1974. What you make of this restaging depends a lot on how compelling you find Szeemann’s mythmaking. While the broadening of the purview of museum display was a vital project, undertaken by numerous curators in the 1960s and ’70s, “Grandfather” rests equally on personal fascination. And it’s exactly the kind of show that, if done today, I would find grating. This might, in fact, be the upshot of the question of Szeemann’s legacy and the banalization of the most radical aspects of his career: he gave birth to the New Curator but left her little opportunity for the kind of iconoclasm he practiced. She can still amass those bag tags though.

by Eli Diner

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Oliver Laric Metro Pictures / New York

It’s nice to think that Oliver Laric wasn’t behind any of the art in his solo exhibition “Year of the Dog.” That, in fact, he had nothing to do with it all, and, rather, an incipient AI had actually produced the artwork on view. Installed in the main gallery is Betweenness (all works 2018), a video montage that sorts the natural world, including a few humans, into simple, line-drawn motion graphics. There’s a frolicsome quality to the animations: when the animals move, grow, shift, and, quite literally, evolve, the scenes appear to follow a playful intuition, rather than exhibiting any scientific fact.

The imagery combines both awe and innocent misunderstanding, suggesting some idiot-king algorithm behind it all. Little distinction is drawn between affect and biology in a scene with two monkey faces: the figures rapidly display the gamut of human emotion and evolutionary morphology. And machine learning must have been behind a scene involving a deer: the line work becomes more refined with each frame, revealing the full complexity of the animal’s graceful leap. The video’s vision of nature and animal locomotion owes much to the innovative stop-motion photography of Eadweard Muybridge and his study of human and animal locomotion, but ultimately the capabilities of image processing today are exponentially more powerful. This astronomical potential lends menace to a small colony of ants hauling any and every thing they can find. But it’s also what makes the video quite silly at times, like when a svelte praying mantis looks directly into the camera: the money shot took my breath away.

The back room is where I’m a little less charmed by Laric’s exploration of machine consciousness, in spite of the fact that the statues on view depict dogs. Titled Hundemensch, or “dog person,” they depict a dog-human hybrid figure ambiguously huddled over an actual dog. The slick production and resin material don’t quite communicate the tenderness of the caress. In comparison, the exacting configurations in the video convey every arresting nuance of an expression. I would rather see these beasts subjected to the video’s taxonomy. There, the dogs would laugh.

by Sam Korman

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Miranda July on Somebody new App

Carolina Cavalli: Is the gap between the emotion of the sender and the action of the deliverer of particular value?

Miranda July: Having just delivered my first message between strangers I can say there must be something valuable about it because I felt completely ecstatic afterwards.

Finding this woman named Fiona, driving around being unsure if this would work out, having to tap the “can’t find” button, getting an update from her that said “Garage Pizza,” looking for someone in the pizza place who matched her picture, leaving the pizza place feeling a little hopeless… Then up walks a familiar face, glowing (she has my picture too). “Fiona?” I said. Part of the message was to give her a smiley face heart, which I had dutifully made beforehand (I think it was from her best friend). I don’t quite know why it feels so great. But given how utterly inefficient the whole process was, it’s worth wondering what we are losing when we don’t have to engage with anyone to get the things we need. And yes, of course she didn’t “need” a smiley heart — but maybe humans get sad and dumb without the unexpected. Of course it would be awesome if we could all just have the discipline to resist the Amazonification of the world and hear our subtler needs. But perhaps it’s the artist’s job to point to that. And from there the public can do what they want with their new hunger — their brain will be reminded to seek out more of the unknown, to allow time for it.

CC: Who is the deliverer of your dreams? What message he would deliver to you?

MJ: I’d love to get a warm, intimate message from the kind of person I have a strained or formal relationship with in real life. Like those dreams you have where your boss is actually your best friend, or your enemy has actually liked you all along. The fiction writer in me hopes for a delivery with a bit of narrative arc built in.

CC: What is the first image from daily life that comes to mind when you think about intimacy shared between strangers?

MJ: Recently I somehow left the gas stove burner on in my studio — no flame, just gas pouring out while I did errands for three hours. When I got back and opened the door the air was unbreathable — I ran through the house, turned off the burner, then stood across the street to call the gas company. But guess what? My phone battery was dead. A neighbor came out — it was the mother of the gang-y sons that generate a tremendous amount of police activity on the block. Speaking Spanish, I explained the whole thing to her, and she not only loaned me her phone but set up a little chair under a tree, by a table, and brought out a glass of water (even though I said I was fine just standing on the street). Sitting on the chair, drinking that water, with my phone dead, waiting for help to come — it was really sublime. When the gas company guy came he said the house would have burst into flames if I’d gotten home about fifteen minutes later (my pilot light was on). He too was very nice. We discussed the possibility of a ghost turning on the burner, since I was certain I hadn’t done it. He said nine times out of ten it isn’t a ghost.

CC: “Texting is tacky. Calling is awkward. E-mail is old.” Somebody is…?

MJ: Somebody is also awkward, but in a more inspiring way.

by Carolina Cavalli

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Judith Bernstein on Art, Politics, and the Birth of the Universe

Emi Fontana: When did you know that you wanted to be an artist? What or who inspired you then? Who or what inspires you now?

Judith Bernstein: I wanted to be an artist from as far back as I could remember. Even before I understood what that meant. I loved to draw, paint and explore my imagination, and many things influenced me.

For instance, I became fascinated with scatological graffiti after reading an article in The New York Times in 1963 about Edward Albee taking the title Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf from bathroom graffiti. At the time, I was a graduate student at Yale School of Art, when Yale had an all-male undergraduate program and the Vietnam War and draft were happening. The graffiti I found was very raw and poignant. I realized that graffiti has psychological depth because when someone’s alone and releasing on the toilet, they’re also releasing from the subconscious. I began to use text like “this may not be heaven but Peter hangs out here” in my drawings and paired it with crude images. Looking back over the span of my career, there have been a number of factors that have led me to where I am today. I’ve always been attuned to what’s happening in the world and especially interested in exploring human behavior. My curiosity is always evolving. Currently, I’m inspired by the advances in science, astronomy, in the expanding knowledge of the universe and how it relates to ever-changing dynamics between women and men. This is the source for my new “Birth of the Universe” series, in which I use the active cunt to explore issues of women’s rage with both severity and humor. This work represents a major break from the type of work that I made earlier on in my career, including the large phallic screws that confront male dominance, warfare and sexuality. I’m now working with a vibrant, fluorescent color palette and centering my focus on human relationships.

EF: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? leads us right into the heart of our conversation. The story of that title is brilliant: originally the play was supposed to be titled Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? from Walt Disney’s Three Little Pigs, but then, as you said, Albee saw this graffiti in a bathroom and used Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? instead, saving himself the hassle and money required to ask Disney for the rights. The subject of the play is obviously sexuality and role-playing among heterosexual couples at the dawn of the sexual revolution. We could say about the two main characters of Martha and George, played in the movie by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, that she is a cunt and he is a dick. Can you talk about this in relation to your work?

JB: Virginia Woolf’s vagina! Now that’s an interesting topic! When I was inspired by the story of Albee taking the title from bathroom graffiti, I didn’t consciously think about the plot of Who’s Afraid of Virgin Woolf and relating it to my work — but it certainly does relate. The play is about anger and relationships. The characters act out their deep psychological wounds, and I directly confront these types of relationships in my work. Throughout my career, I’ve focused on dominance and aggression through a humorous lens. Aggression, sexuality and humor are strongly connected. My new “Birth of the Universe” series addresses these themes. I put the angry cunt (or “cuntface”) at the center of the painting. She is the source of the universe, representing the birth. Orbiting phalluses, which are sometimes passive and sometimes active, surround the cunt figure. She’s a self-validating vagina and doesn’t need the cocks’ validation! My work playfully addresses the dynamic between men and women, women and women, and men and men. The paintings are absurdist and chaotic, expressionistic strokes of radiant color, which is how I view relationships. My roots are in antiwar and feminist activism, but I’ve continued to broaden my subject matter to focus on the underlying psychology of human behavior. It’s fun but it’s dead serious. In Who’s Afraid of Virgin Woolf, George and Martha invite over a young couple. The couple witnesses their tumultuous — often violent — interactions. The young couple is the voyeur. I use the theme of the voyeur in my series. The voyeur represents human curiosity and the role of the spectator. In a sense, when someone enters my exhibitions, they become a voyeur entering my universe and my mind. There’s an innate curiosity that I like to play on. It’s a marvelous curiosity about science and the universe, about the subconscious and of course sexuality. Societal norms of the 1950s centered on the concept of the nuclear family. Women were expected to become wives and mothers. Albee’s play is a rejection of that ideology by shedding light on the ugly side of the American dream and inequality within these constructs. My work is very much about confronting this ideology as well. During that time, women and minorities were marginalized and did not have access to the system. My work threatened the ideology and I experienced censorship as a result. In many ways, the 1960s represented the start of a revolution in America. And, it’s a struggle that continues and I’m confronting it in a new context.

EF: Did you start to paint phalluses in the 1960s? How were your first paintings received? It was quite transgressive for a woman to do that. Did you encounter criticism from the feminist side, too?

JB: I first used the phallus in my scatological graffiti drawings as a graduate student at Yale, which was in the mid-1960s. Most of the work from that timeframe was never shown, so in that sense it wasn’t received at all! The image of the phallus represented the subtext for warfare and male dominance. Lester Johnson (then chair of the art department at Yale) pulled my first dick painting from a public exhibition in New Haven. Johnson called me to say that the exhibition was not an appropriate venue to protest the war. I found his reasoning to be preposterous! Ironically, his response to my painting represented the type of posturing that I was commenting on. Robert Doty, a curator at the Whitney, was the judge of the exhibition. Around the same time, I sent slides of my work to be duplicated at Kodak and was told that the company would not reproduce “that kind” of image. I started to see a theme. I began to realize that the content was viewed as defiant (and still is!), but I never saw myself as a “bad girl” and I naively imagined there would always be a platform to exhibit. When I experienced censorship and criticism, I realized that my work threatened a lot of people. At Yale, I was hanging out with some of the ABC Theater Fellows, including playwrights John Guare, Ken Brown, actor Ron Leibman and graduate playwright Ron Whyte. They loved telling me crude vernacular words and limericks, all the synonyms for cock and cunt that you could imagine! I was starting to tap into my hilarious side. I continued to use the image of the phallus throughout my career. In the early 1970s, I began making screws that morphed into humongous charcoal phallic presences. The screws stood as silent witnesses to the atrocities of the Vietnam War. In 1973, I had my first solo exhibition at AIR, the first women’s gallery. The feminist gave me a venue to exhibit. Otherwise, my work would never have been seen. Even as a feminist, I was always an outsider. For many feminists, my work was not considered feminist art because it was not self-referential. I was not portraying women. Instead, I was observing the guys in a critical way. Just to clarify, I was never against men but I wanted what they had. I wanted equal opportunity.

EF: And then in more recent years you switched to vaginas — we mentioned this a little bit at the beginning of the conversation: for me as viewer, in the latest paintings you represent so well the feminine force of creativity, the Shakti, the vortex of energy from which everything began. Can you talk more about this transition? Did this change in your art correspond to a change in your view of the world?

JB: My shift of focus definitely paralleled some major changes in my life. My art is autobiographical. After decades of using the phallus and observing men, I decided to start looking at women. It’s been a psychological experience, and I’m now confronting rage that I’ve seen with women. I’m reflecting on my involvement in feminist groups and, on a more personal level, reflecting on my own childhood. My mother had great deal of anger. And in that sense, women’s rage is an integral part of my background and I wanted to address it, as well as my own anger. There’s also a lot of humor and play there. I’ve channeled that energy into my work and the results are astounding. There’s a vibrancy and resilience that’s connected to survival — and sex and birth on the most primal level. The last few years have been an extremely productive period for me. When I began the “Birth of the Universe” series a couple years ago, I had no idea how much my own universe was going to expand. In that time, I received a lot of exposure and had the opportunity to exhibit my work internationally in a number of venues. I’ve always had the momentum, but with the new platform I have the chance to create even more. And I love to go for big scale! The “Birth” paintings engulf a room and the viewer feels like they’ve entered a bombastic universe. So, yes, the feminine force is undeniable.

EF: Can you talk about the use of black light paint in your recent works? Among other artists who used that I can recall Andy Warhol, especially with his series on the “Last Supper,” and more recently Jacqueline Humphries. I like the idea of looking at paintings in the dark — it connects us with history: all the masterpieces of the past were looked at in candlelight. It seems particularly appropriate for religious and mythological subjects that transport the viewer to a space of contemplation…

JB: The black light experience is very unique. My paintings are transformed under black light. Some elements fall into the darkness and intimate nuances become forceful brushstrokes — brought to the forefront. It is a hyper-energized experience. At the same time, there’s serenity in viewing “Birth of the Universe” under black light and in the dark. It’s almost like the paintings transform into stained glass windows, appearing lit from within and glowing like embers. Nighttime has always been my most productive time. The outside world quiets and I connect with my inner self and my creativity. The darkness quiets everything in that way, and in the “Birth of the Universe” the borders disappear and the paintings morph into each other. It becomes an environment that surrounds the viewer in the space and invokes a sense of mystery. The gallery walls and borders vanish and the images of cunts, cocks, nooses, eyeballs, teeth, black holes and celestial bodies protrude into the space. As we venture into the new, unprecedented Information Age, and as our knowledge of technology and outer space broadens exponentially, we’re thrown further into darkness. I use the massive black hole to symbolize mystery. A black hole is a region of space that theoretically violates everything that we know and understand. Both interconnectivity and feelings of isolation define the digital world in which we live. Human relationships have become ever more complex. With knowledge also comes the unknown — the primordial scream. I’m referencing Munch’s Scream and Courbet’s Origin of the World in a whole new context. My art is extraordinarily challenging. It’s more important now than ever to confront these issues head-on, as the state of the world changes rampantly.

by Emi Fontana

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Interview with Francesca di Mattio

Francesca Di Mattio has been showing new ceramic works beside her paintings in a display titled ‘Vertical Arrangements’ in London within ‘Painting from Zabludowicz Collection’, a group show with Albert Oehlen and Matthew Chambers. A resident of New York and represented by Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London and Salon 94 in New York, Francesca is a graduate of Cooper Union and Columbia University. Flash Art spoke with Francesca as she was preparing the work for the public.

Joshua White: Why have you placed flowers in the ceramic sculpture, Totem?

Francesca Di Mattio: It’s really a sculpture inspired by vase structure, form and histories. To house the flowers makes a lot of sense but without flowers totally works too. All of these ceramic pieces in the show have the ability to be candlesticks and candelabra too in different configurations. ‘Totem’ is really heavy and takes five guys to lift. It’s made of three pieces, which are lifted onto each other for the exhibition. Clay is weird. These are hand-built slabs an inch and a half thick. It involved lots of different techniques being used to produce these effects.

JW: I heard that you had to teach yourself and learn from scratch?

FD: Yes, I had to learn how to make work in clay. I had a great teacher. I taught myself to some extent, but Kurt Weiser, my father-in-law and a ceramicist taught me. He’s really famous in his field in the craft world. He also taught for years, so I had to go out there to study with him in Arizona. I would ask him how do you do that? I learned a lifetime’s ceramics in a month, which was a unique experience. We stayed up until 3 in the morning and sometimes we accidentally broke things.

JW: Your paintings have a dizzying quality of stacked elements incorporating architecture and domestic objects. What are the formal or thematic effects are you trying to achieve?

FD: I am looking for something that is not static so everything is interrupted or interfered with, which creates sense of movement. In finishing one object you’re interrupted and it turns into something else. I don’t want something to stay still. These paintings are really stacked. I think of them as sculptures within in a space to some extent.

JW: What’s your starting point?

FD: To begin, I produce a schematic idea of a space and start building something. Initially I have insane amounts of images that I sift through before starting a work and at that point it’s quite freeing. I’m looking at things formally and I search for difference. You’re starting with three points pulling in different directions and then from there I react to it, but it’s not a mapped out thing initially. It’s Important to get right in there. Each painting learns from the one before.

JW: I read in a previous interview with Amy Sillman that you don’t want to make a picture static. How do you create the right balance and tension within a picture?

FD: I don’t want it to be completely dizzying. Parts happen simultaneously not fifty things at once. Paint used to describe a face is also pulled to describe a house. You get stuck in fused moments so that in new paintings a couple of descriptions are happening at the same time. It’s a tension between being overwhelming and being able to have a slippage, which is something uncomfortable. Flowers may wilt but are not dead.

JW: What are the developments in your new work like the painting ‘Damask’ (2012) on show in the exhibition?

FD: There’s a strong linear quality articulated in the rope described in ‘Damask’. I was thinking about stitching things together like the undulation that happens in sewing, weaving, crocheting and crafts. Through the interlocking drawings of different things, abstractions are made in between so the space is where the lines intersect.

JW: You appear to have a consistent interest in ‘craft’. What draws you to that?

FD: As I get older, the more I have the desire to bridge gaps. I make things and find ways of bring them together. I want to make a candelabra next. I make a lot of things and I do a lot of sewing. It’s not a big leap. There’s a direct relationship between ceramics and paintings. I find it frustrating that there are a thread of adjectives that follow these crafts like ‘small’, ‘girlish’, ‘hippyish’ things. I take the same modes of making but over scale them with a tougher hand.

JW: Why do you quote art and design history such as making references to Delft pottery and ‘chinoisserie’?

FD: It’s about the history of the material whether it’s painting or ceramics. Ceramics are quite hybrid and specific. I’m most interested in different languages and histories but also the various ways of handling materials.

JW: So it’s hybridity of style and material that interests you and the breakdown of those boundaries and histories?

FD: I want them to be non-hierarchical in a kind of dissolve through juxtaposition and proximity of this difference. In some pieces, I used china paint a historically revered gilding technique but also what grandmas do on plates. I’m interested in really expensive antiques and a grandma’s taste in plates, a huge range from tacky to nice. There’s a shift through proximity from something beautiful to something disgusting.

JW: So one of the ceramic works can tip quickly from the respectable to the vulgar?

FD: Yes, there’s a tablecloth in the painting ‘Damask’ that has does a similar thing because it’s looks like both a baroque floral pattern and a cheap tablecloth at the same time.

JW: So there’s an enquiry in your work about traditional notions of fine art and class iconography while at the same time there’s a dialogue around what’s undervalued and disregarded?

FD: Through that instability I’m making it less fixed, so notions of high class or vulgarity are questioned.

JW: That has that been a challenge for other ceramicists working in clay. In the craft tradition there’s been a distinction made between craft and fine art, those who make pots and those who paint. You seem to be interested in that cultural gap.

FD: I suppose it depends on the pot. So I can’t defend all of them. In terms of the whole craft argument, the gap is more about taste than craft. You can make anything if it’s good out of anything, but I was in part drawn to ceramics for that cloud above it. I was drawn to it for that ambiguity, that it’s separated out more than any medium. Working with ceramics demanded this craft approach and that’s fascinating to me.

JW: You can see that confusion in the way museums distinguish between ‘fine art’ and ‘craft’.

FD: For ‘Totem’ it’s all porcelain and it doesn’t naturally want to behave in this way on such a scale. You wouldn’t choose this kind of clay to make big slabs from. There also all these fingerprint marks in it and it shows crude handling, behaving more like stoneware with grit in it. I was thinking about the Expressionist potter, Voulkos, when I made it and giving it lots of surface decoration and making it out of porcelain with an almost grotesque pattern and feminine overlay. The figurine would be the kitsch element, but based on an 18th century piece while also looking as if you could find it in a gift shop.

JW: How does your work sit in this curated show? What do you learn from participating in this exhibition alongside other artists with a curator in a public exhibition? Does it put your work in a new light?

FD: It’s probably too early to ask. I only put in the flowers yesterday. But there’s an interesting connection to the other artists in terms of language such as the shifts in Matthew Chambers’ paintings from piece to piece and how they are installed. Albert Oehlen leaves mushy fingerprints over a taped-off ‘fade’ in a painting and the space between those gestures and the digital printing too with the expressionist hand over the top. I become more involved in the hanging and arrangement of my work, which is probably related to growing confidence and age.

JW: What you do want to do next? You mentioned making a candelabra out of clay.

FD: I want to make a large, hanging, low chandelier that would comprise clay and metal. It would cover a lot of different references in terms of candlesticks. I want to do my own thing now having digested different style histories. It would possess crude protruding extruding clay and produce lot of different handling techniques.

JW: There’s a balance in your work between collapse and something evolving, asserting form and volume. There’s so much dialogue and quotation, such as the patterned surfaces. Your interest seems to lie with pushing the possibilities of technique and materials.

FD: Some of this is just piling on the glaze in the ceramic sculptures, as if in the process of learning. It’s harder rendering effects this way. Technically being out of control is actually hard to achieve. The quantities are shocking. The sculptures appear haphazard as if a student had made them but it takes a lot of piling on and I mixed all the crackling glaze myself. You still have to have know the direction you’re taking.

JW: For all it’s mashed together and jagged appearance, there’s a completion in ‘Totem’ that feels whole.

FD: You could intervene and break Totem after firing but ‘brokenness’ is different from my rugged handling of the material. The finished work is not meant to look ‘archaeological’. It’s really important to me that through all this fracturing that it comes back together to being whole again. Like the paintings, I don’t want to create a dizzying, empty space. I want to build a ‘wholeness’ at the end of the process. Formal connections in the work are what interests me, for example, how the grid in ‘Diptych’ (2008) resembling a ship’s mast relates to the grid of a chair, the inside of an umbrella or holes within a ladder, so that everything has a structural similarity. ‘Diptych’ moves from panel to panel and some of it gets lost. I look at everything as a source. I started with the fade from dark grey to light in house paint that was really a reductive landscape, moving from a Richter-like palette knife effect to oil. I rip up lots of books and have piles of images in my studio. The ‘schlocky’ figures in that painting are from an art history book.

JW: Were you ever conscious of failing when you were making ‘Totem’?

FD: This piece was meant to fail. My father-in-law said there was too much happening to complete it, but I said I was fine making it by myself. I was working in a school environment and not my studio so the works felt vulnerable. It was weird and I didn’t have full control so some work was destroyed and I couldn’t accept it. ‘Totem’ was designed to make up for it. I worked for two weeks on my own when the school was closed over Christmas and it was really depressing. The process is slow and the clay is fragile before firing. Instinctively, I had a better sense of weight and space than I had expected having only painted before.

JW: It’s an example of how you learn by falling back on your own resources and pushing through. I see you are giving a talk to accompany the exhibition. Is it important to find a ‘language’ to discuss your work?

FD: No, I really don’t think it is necessary but I’m happy to do it. It can be interesting, but the work stands on its own.

JW: Where is your practice moving now? You’ve developed a particular language in your paintings and sculptural ceramics. There’s a nice articulation now across media of shared interests and themes. Can you see what you’ll be doing in future?

FD: I will be working for a show at the Blaffer Museum in Houston opening next winter so I want to make paintings and sculpture using new materials like acqua resin, so I will aim to produce greater height in the ceramic sculptures without the weight and fragility because clay can make them super-heavy. There’s no way to fire them in New York and they are very expensive to make. That’s one of the reasons I went out to Arizona to use a special kiln. I need to work in sections. From working with ceramic glazing, the surfaces of my paintings are becoming more articulated. There’s a lot more variety. Having used cake decorating extruder tips for the ceramics, I’m now using them to make paintings.

by Joshua White

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