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Interview with Danh Vo

Timothée Chaillou: For your show “Where the Lions Are” at the Kunsthalle Basel in 2009, you were inspired by “the idea of a kind of momentary or fleeting occupation of light”.

You installed one of the chandeliers that were hanging over the negotiation table in the Majestic Hotel in Paris (upon which the peace agreements for the Ivory Coast, Kosovo, and Vietnam were signed), under a skylight “where the sun, moving around it and shining through it, would rip it from history and time itself.” At the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, you are exhibiting the three chandeliers in a state of transit: one on a hanging rail, one in a wooden box, one in separated pieces on the floor. What were the reasons for these displays? Why did you choose to dismantle one of the chandeliers to fill a room plunged into darkness?

Danh Vo: I like to try different methods of installing a work each time it is shown, if it’s possible, and if it makes sense. I really liked the way the chandelier looked at the Musée d’Art Moderne, spread out on the floor and lit up. The other chandeliers were borrowed from individuals and institutions and came with the support systems used in the exhibition. There was less flexibility with those, but the concept behind the exhibition was to have them come together again in Paris, after they had travelled and been exhibited in different museums around the world; the idea was not necessarily to play with their components.

TC: For the Venice Biennale, you have imported the skeleton of an entire 200-year-old Catholic church from Thai Binh Province, Vietnam. Do you think of this piece as a “refugee”?

DV: I don’t really like the word “refugee” because it conjures up specific images we all have of someone in a crisis, and it doesn’t allow a person to have a complicated identity. It implies a subjugated position as we have come to understand the word through the media. Likewise, I wouldn’t put such a heavy label on the church. It was demolished and the wood was up for sale. Usually the wood is purchased to create houses; it was going to be repurposed anyway so why not repurpose it in its original form for an exhibition? In addition, the church was not “fleeing” Vietnam. In a way, you could see it travelling to Italy as a kind of “homecoming” for a Catholic structure. Yet, if you look at its style, it is clearly not Italian.

This project actually began with a trip I took where I retraced Caravaggio’s route from Napoli to Malta during the late period of his work. On this journey, in Syracuse, Sicily, I discovered the place where he painted The Burial of Santa Lucia in 1608; this was the most beautiful experience because painting as well as the actual burial, the grave, was gone. When Constantine moved the capital to Istanbul (Constantinople), he took Santa Lucia’s bones with him. Then, when the fourth crusade defeated Constantinople, they took all the relics back, and now Venice has the bones. Syracuse attempted to get the bones back when Italy was unified as a nation, but instead they were given all these Murano chandeliers. That was what triggered the installation in Venice, thinking about how things move, how history moves things…

TC: “Cultural Boys” (2007) are photographs taken by Joseph Carrier in Saigon in the 1960s. He photographed young men in the streets who are often holding hands or ambiguously engage with each other. Do you think of Joe’s photographs as fantasized self-portraits of you (like Jack Pierson’s “Self-portraits”)?

DV: I have definitely referred to them this way before, but in reality it’s more complicated and should be seen instead as a set of relationships, which might be crushed by this reading: the relationship between Joe and the men he photographed, between me and those men I never met yet feel a connection to—not simply as Vietnamese but through the “homosexual veil” that Joe cast onto them when he took the images, and my relationship with Joe and the authorship (and power) I have assumed in exhibiting the images. All these details are equally important and should be held in tension with one another.

TC: What led you to use vitrines as a conceptual and structural framing device? Were you interested by the idea of inaccessibility and virginity?

DV: These are devices that have existed for hundreds of years in both a consumerist and museological realm. Why should I create something new when these designs have “worked” to showcase precious things for so long? These frames should not be taken for granted, they aren’t simply accessories, they have a history and a function of their own. It’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about the vitrines in relation to “virginity” because the objects I put in them are not new, they are crumpled cardboard boxes or an old ring for example… I don’t think the vitrines make the works inaccessible because that is the device that makes them available to the public. Because there is this glass, you can look it up close. It suggests a preciousness to something that might otherwise not be seen that way.

TC: Everyone has their own little arrangement of objects, somewhere right up front or stacked in a niche. Why is it that we have to express ourselves through objects by creating a mise en scène?

DV: I’m not sure I can comment on why everyone does this. However, I do think that we collect things that we desire, because what we desire tells us something about who we are. I guess that’s why I like to shift and change my arrangements from one exhibition to another. These things should never be fixed or totally resolved. Desire is a complicated thing.

TC: At the MAMVP you are showing belongings of Robert S. McNamara: “Lot 100. Six Small Middle-Eastern Antiquities” (2013), a photograph from Ansel Adams (Lot 89. Adams, Ansel, 2013), “Lot 1. Annotated Carbon Copy of McNamara’s Letter of Condition of Accepting Position of the Secretary of Defense” (2013), “Lot 20. Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs” (2013), “Lot 39. A Group of 4 Presidential Signing Pens” (2013) and a lacquered box (Lot 11. Vietnam Photo Album, 1962, 2013). For what reasons was it important for you to show his belongings as traces that recall a political history? How did you manage not to drift into nostalgia?

DV: These sorts of items never end up in public auction; it was purely by chance that I was able to get my hands on these objects because they are normally donated directly to Presidential libraries. When Sotheby’s put them up for sale, they produced the most beautiful catalogue with well-researched entries about the items and beautiful illustrations. I wanted to preserve their work, in part, by keeping the lot numbers and descriptions as the titles of the works, and working from these groupings to make new works. I suppose I tried to avoid nostalgia by not being sentimental with the objects. If something needed to be ripped apart, like the cabinet room chairs, then I ripped them apart. I didn’t give the objects new names or identities; they were simply transported into an art context.

TC: Your father’s story of survival after the Vietnam War served as inspiration for a collaborative work with Tobias Rehberger titled “Go Mo Ni Ma Da” (2004) – which is also the title of your show at the Musée d’Art Moderne. After the fall of Saigon, over 20,000 Vietnamese citizens were evacuated to an island called Phu Qouc, where they lived under horrendous post war conditions. After four years, your family decided to risk their lives and escape by building a massive vessel that could carry over 100 refugees away from Vietnam and, ideally, to America. Your father had to find a way to cover production costs, find materials, create the design and bribe local officials so they would look the other way as the refugees escaped. Your father built his boat and the refugees were able to sail out to sea. Your journey was interrupted by a large tanker headed for Denmark which forced your boat to anchor. Your family has been living in Copenhagen ever since. Are you using this story as a mythology (like Beuys’ accident)? What are the connections between this piece and your show in Paris?

DV: I think that whether or not I used my biography in my work, my work would be read in relation to my personal history, so I anticipated this when I wove it into my work. Beuys created his story and then made work out of it, that is one difference between our practices.The project with Tobias Rehberger did not go as I had planned but I liked this title very much… it comes from a New York Times article I read in the travel section about a journalist who is greeted every morning in Vietnam with “Go Mo Ni Ma Da”—“Good morning, Madam”. So I wanted to have a second chance to use the title and think about what it means.

TC: Do you think of your appropriated objects as “talkative”?

DV: If they are talkative, I hope they aren’t saying anything too specific. I think we always bring a lot to a work when we look at art and what we bring to the work engages us in a conversation with the objects in front of us. In that way, I suppose they are talkative. But I try as hard as possible not to give them “lines.”

TC: When someone calls you a “conceptual artist” what does it mean to you?

DV: It makes sense if you have to give me a title to see my work and mode of production within the legacy of conceptual art because I am not someone who sits in a studio and produces new things. I take things that already exist in the world and alter them—not just objects but systems and ideas.

TC: Do you think of all your works as love letters?

DV: Inasmuch as the work consists of things I desire, they are love letters in a sense, yes, but they aren’t addressed to anyone in particular.

by Timothee Chaillou

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Judith Bernstein The Box Gallery / Los Angeles

Based in New York City for over forty years, Judith Bernstein is a trailblazing artist whose impact on postwar American art is only beginning to be fully understood. She emerged in the mid-1960s with a series entitled Fuck Vietnam (1966-1967), a body of raw and raunchy political canvases that plumbed the psychological depths of sex and war.

Executed on distressed unprimed linen, they were dominated by giant penis forms doubling variously as military tanks and despotic heads of state—as in Cockman #1 (1966) in which Bernstein lampooned Governor George Wallace of Alabama, depicting the face of the southern segregationist as a pink hairy testicle sack with a flaccid member for a nose. A caustic, violent and often hilarious use of language accompanied such imagery. Writ large in scrawling loose paint and charcoal, Bernstein’s wry engagement with text—Uncle Sam Balls Vietnam and Gets V.D. not V.C. (Venereal Disease not Viet Cong)—evoked the crude gonzo aesthetics of artists such as R. Crumb and Wally Hedrick, presaging the later linguistic permutations of raconteurs like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Raymond Pettibone. Wordplay of a different sort followed when in the 1970s Bernstein embarked on her massive charcoal screw drawings, the work for which she is best known today. Visually and linguistically conflating the idea of the hardware screw with the phallus (screw, screwed, being screwed) Bernstein’s screws were infamously censored from a 1974 exhibition at the Philadelphia Civic Center: “Women’s Work – American Art 1974.” A founding member of the women’s art collective A.I.R., Bernstein has been discussed primarily within the limiting discourse of feminist art history; yet her rich and layered creations speak to an engagement with traditions ranging from conceptualism to neo-dada. Laboring largely in obscurity throughout the 1980s and 1990s, since 2009 Bernstein has found renewed inspiration and been newly embraced by the art world; recent exhibitions include Hard (2012-2013), a solo show at the New Museum in New York and Keep Your Timber Limber (2013), a group exhibition at the ICA in London. Flash Art sat down with Bernstein on the occasionof Birth of the Universe, her current exhibition of eighteen new paintings at The Box gallery in Los Angeles.

I look around at your new canvases, at the florescent pulsating colors, at your giant electric vaginas and your aggressive and expressionistic paint handling and I find it completely exhilarating. The male sexual violence and power has given way to a fiery and explosive cosmos populated by massive riotous cunt faces, as you call them. Your cunts are surrounded by planets, radiating bands of paint in bright orange, royal blue, yellow, atom signs, numbers, text. I am interested by this shift away from the overtly political to what seems more universal and even mythological, as if you are tapping into some collective Jungian consciousness of archetypes and symbols. When did this all start?

Judith Bernstein: Birth of the Universe began in 2012, I have become fascinated with science. There is so much in science that is surreal. Black energy, black holes, twin galaxies, the idea that time is actually completely relative. So Birth of the Universe is a meditation on these ideas. I have never painted on this scale before or in such a bright color palette. Though I did a few early cunts, like A Soldiers Christmas in Vietnam (Baby The Fucking You Get Ain’t Worth the Fucking You Take), now the cunt talks and she shouts and she will not be silenced. By contrast the cocks in this new series of mine have become cute. They float around with eyelashes like galaxies and are slow and quiet in comparison to the big bang of the feminine, which is both a life giving force and symbol for rage. The cunts have teeth: the angry cunt, the rage of the woman—I was a guerilla girl—rage at the growing power of women, rage in general.

The canvases read “Cuntface,” “The Source,” “Infinity,” “Birth of the Universe.” Your use of text as an anchor is a tie that runs through your work. When did language come into play for you?

JB: The title of the new series is in part a riff on Courbet’s Origin of the Universe. I began my career at Yale where I was one of the few female graduate students enrolled. In fact the university only began admitting women as undergraduates in 1967. My friends at Yale were all men, mostly playwrights and actors like Ron Liebman and Ken Brown, who wrote The Brig. I had already been working with language and then one day I read an article in the paper about the fact that the title of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? was taken from bathroom graffiti. I ran to the men’s bathroom and that was the beginning of my fascination with scatological graffiti, which became an important touchstone. Many people think graffiti is one-dimensional, but when a man is on the toilet he is defecating on one end and releasing his subconscious on the other. There was a lot going on at the time, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam. Men were scared of being drafted. The work that I started making, the cock faces, the crude language, it was all very liberating. It was a commentary on male posturing, male imagery, of observing men, even trying to be one of the guys, politics. Something that always stayed with me were my father’s stories of attending the University of Alabama during the time of Jim Crow Laws. These were situations that I felt compelled to deal with and continue to concern me. I recently updated my Fuck by Number in Vietnam to Fuck by Number in Iraq and Afghanistan for the ICA.

What do you make of the politics of art history and the manner in which your work has been received almost exclusively through the lens of feminism?

JB: I was shown mostly in exhibitions on women, though I was never really completely accepted by women. And while I was glad to have a place to exhibit, my work should not be limited to these ideas. It should not be relegated to the back of the bus, so to say. No one made the connection that there was so much more going on.

I am so bored by the vapid and decorative abstraction that seems to have taken over contemporary painting. One of the aspects I find particularly compelling about your new work is how free and boisterous your paint handling is and how funny and personal the series is.

JB: In many ways I see Birth of the Universe as my re-birth as an artist. Sometimes in life you cannot make the work you have inside you until the time is right. I couldn’t have made these paintings twenty years ago, and at the same time they come out of that experience and they probably are more personal than my other work, from the significance of the numbers that float through the galaxies, some of which relate to my age, to my large signature, which I started doing with the screw drawings, by embedding my name into the charcoal cocks. I always wanted people to know that a woman made them and these paintings are a strange sort of celebration. I have always thought of humor as a form of sexual ejaculation. It relieves tension but is also very powerful.

by Yael Lipschutz

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Robert Indiana

The following is an excerpt from the catalog Robert Indiana: Monumental Woods, published on the occasion of the opening of the show “Robert Indiana: Monumental Woods,” on view at galerie gmurzynska in Zurich until July 30.

Richard Brown Baker: When did you start working on these columns of wood?

Robert Indiana: They came first. They came before the word paintings. The constructions came into being because many of the old warehouses were being razed in the neighborhood for the widening of Water Street and the wood was just lying around waiting to be picked up, and I brought it into my studio and, as you know, at that time assemblage was kind of in the air.

RB: What year was this?

RI: ’59, I suppose.

RB: You didn’t start those until ’59. I see. I’m going to look since… to find out – –

RI: The constructions, too, were first used without words, but the words appeared on them first, Richard.

RB: I was just checking on the date of our meeting there in December 1959 because my recollection is that at the time you came with Larry Calcagno to my apartment to see my painting collection that you were not an exhibiting artist and were rather holding yourself, presenting yourself as a person who had not yet, wasn’t ready, shall we say? To exhibit.

Is that correct?

RI: Quite correct.

RB: Then, this was really on the eve, anyway, of your developing these various achievements both in the sculptural form and in the painting form, isn’t it?

RI: I think I exhibited first in ’61. So there was a whole year there before I…

RB: ’61 is when you had your—

RI: “New Forms, New Media”.

RB: — show at Martha Jackson Gallery and the David Anderson thing. Well now, I wanted to figure out, to confirm my impression during this time, you did not seek galleries…

RI: No, I didn’t.

RB: You were not trying to; you were just trying to evolve…

RI: That’s right.

RB: … rather than to offer yourself, your work. You felt that you were a bit undeveloped, or you felt also that your tendency was somewhat contrary to what seemed to be the fashionable thing? Or both factors, or…?

RI: I think my main goal was just to develop or to acquire a body of work, Richard. I felt that it was very necessary to be able to work consistently in a given style for a given period of time. And that was my main preoccupation. It was very easy to zig and zag, to change from one piece to another, and I knew that I could not feel that I had found my own expression until I could cover a body of time with a given style and a given direction.

RB: Yes. Let’s get back to your wooden structures. You may have said, but I’m not sure when you first did those.

RI: Started in ’59.

RB: ’59. Now how long did you keep doing them? Are you still doing them?

RI: Still working on them. Still doing them occasionally.

RB: Still doing them occasionally. Well, you did some very beautiful ones certainly. Are these included in – any of these in the Walker Art Center show?

RI: One.

RB: Just one.

RI: Marine Works.

RB: Well, how many have you sent out into the world, as it were, in this form? How will we describe these: wooden columnar pieces with painted areas and lettering sometimes? Or always? Do they always have lettering?

RI: They do now. They didn’t to start with.

RB: Sometimes they have a little metal attachment, like a wheel.

RI: A wheel.

RB: Always have a wheel or just some…?

RI: No, not all of them have wheels. Most of them did. The wheels came about because of meeting Steve Durkee. He knew of a place where there were a number of old wheels that had been abandoned and provided me with a great number of uniform wood and iron wheels that had been probably for baby carriages or something. And he himself was working in this form at that time. And we often competed for the wood that was in these demolition sites.

RB: I see my opportunity to make history in art. I should buy up some commodity and give fifty or sixty pieces of it to a creative artist who will then manage to incorporate it into some stylistic development that may make history.

RI: This is what the Rewalds did with their Buick when they gave it to César.

RB: Oh, when they gave it to César to smash up. Well, I think they directed him to do that, though. I wouldn’t be able to conceive… But that is interesting, that just by having this group of wheels made accessible to you, you really worked them into a…

RI: However, it wasn’t an unnatural assimilation because I had become very interested in the circle and used, the circle consistently in my paintings. And after all, the wheel is merely a physical projection of the circle. So it was just a natural find and one, which I could put to use with complete ease and relevancy.

RB: Speaking of sculpture reminds me of one of the evenings that I interviewed you earlier. You were dashing off to a meeting of sculptors called by Louise Nevelson. What was the result of that?
RI: There’s due to be a group sculpture show at a gallery in New York, not my own, not Louise’s. I don’t know that very much is going to come of it, Richard; it would mean the inclusion of one of my constructions in this group show, that’s all — nothing — My new constructions, (and I guess I can’t call them constructions), my new pieces of wood are — I’ve had these columns for some time; they were originally the masts of old sailing ships, and you can still see the worn areas where the iron rings that held them together were once fitted onto. Then they became columns for these warehouses that were built after the fire of 1835. And then as the buildings were demolished I acquired several of these columns. I had to, unfortunately, had to cut them in half to get them into my loft; they were once nine feet tall. And I’m working now almost exclusively on them. They will not be assemblages in that there is nothing, there is no other material being added to them except words painted around the perimeter of the columns.

RB: Am I right in thinking, Bob, that you make use of the weatherworn surface of the wood? In most cases, you do not –unlike Louise Nevelson, for instance – most of her pieces are constructed of wood and then painted either black or white or gold or something. Yours have paint on them, as you say, like lettering or sort of bands, sometime of color perhaps, but a good portion of them remains weathered wood. Isn’t that correct?

RI: It is so, Richard, because the weathered wood was so beautiful that I was just reluctant . . .Now, here are a few which I did stain – I didn’t stain like Louise – but which I did paint black, because the wood was not in such good shape. It had been scarred and disfigured. But where the wood was in good shape I couldn’t resist leaving the natural surface, which of course therefore makes a separation between my painting and the constructions. To be consistent with my painting, my constructions probably should be made of brand new wood, which has no patina or age whatsoever. But that’s not how it got started. I found the wood. . .

RB: That’s an interesting point, isn’t it? I don’t see any reason you have to be consistent, but it is an interesting thing to reflect upon, that your paintings are completely freshly-painted sort of things; you don’t go in for the kind of surface which certain painters do which seems to repeat old walls or things like that, cracks and seams and discolorations. You reject that totally in our painting but you accept it in your wooden material in your sculptural work.

RI: Just as it was found. I think there’s validity in the “foundness” of the object.

RB: And yet there’s no question but what your, to my mind, maybe it’s because I’ve seen some of these wooden pieces from the very first time almost that I saw any of your own work, but they seemed to belong with your painting very much and, as you say, the circles and other things, the lettering –It’s all very consistent. Your style seems to have emerged almost; shall we say, fully matured?
RI: The work became harder and more geometric and then when I did start using words in 1960 and these were as I said, forced on the constructions, because the constructions just needed the words; they did not look complete without them. And they were only decorative until they had their words. This was the beginning of my present work.

RB: The words on the constructions were usually one word only.

RI: Yes. That’s right. And very brief, usually three letters or four letters.

RB: They could, though, have been simply abstract letters or something similar. . .

RI: They could have. . .

RB: Like Cy Twombly’s scratches or something. . .

RI: But they never were. They always meant – they always said something from the very beginning.

RB: Yes. I’m trying to recall — of course, it’s well known that Stuart Davis many years before you were painting incorporated words into his paintings. I suppose there were many other instances.

But it wasn’t quite as general. In the last few years more people have been using words, haven’t they?

RI: It seems that everybody was using them. I think that was probably the incentive, Richard. Again, just like assemblages were in the air, everybody was making assemblages; everybody was beginning to use words. Remember that Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who I knew, (Ellsworth introduced me to them the very first year on the Slip) and at that time they were still doing department store window. They were still doing their display work. I even worked for them once on one of their display jobs.

RB: I didn’t even know they had worked in that fashion.

RI: Yes. They had a terrible job whereby they did mass displays that were sent all over the country to chain stores. . .

RB: The two together in association?

RI: Yes, and they got stuck in a bind and they needed help and they called up and so some of us went and helped them on these displays. But you see they were only two blocks away. Now I never became personal friends of Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg but they were both, particularly Rauschenberg, they were very concerned with assemblages. And Steve Durkee was making assemblages and then, of course, it all culminated in Martha Jackson’s “New Media New Forms” and eventually in the assemblage show at the Modern.

RB: How did you become known to the Martha Jackson Gallery? How did that develop? Martha Jackson Gallery is one of several that could claim to be among the leading galleries. It’s not automatically a cinch for an unknown artist to get consideration by them, I shouldn’t think.

RI: Not at all. It came about solely just through good luck, Richard. One of my neighbors on the Slip who had once wanted to be a painter himself and has now long since given up that ambition…

RB: Who was this?

RI: This was Rolf Nelson. He was on the Slip, oh, for a good two or three years just as a struggling artist like myself. . .

RB: I didn’t realize Rolf had intended to be a painter.

RI: Yes.

RB: If I’m not mistaken, he’s now got a gallery in California.

RI: Yes. He has his own gallery in Los Angeles. But in order to make ends meet he took a job as gallery assistant to Martha Jackson, and when their idea came up for an assemblage show, he, of course, knew of the things that I had been making and invited me to participate. In other words, he was responsible for bringing Martha down to the Slip, and she saw the pieces and said okay, and I was in the assemblage show. Then it was thrown again; there was a second version and I had. . .

RB: I think that show came in 1960.

RI: Yes. Both of them did. One was in the spring and one was in the fall.

RB: I saw the one in the spring. I missed the one in the autumn. And Steve Joy also — I saw Steve Joy today in his new gallery, Alan Auslander’s. But I remember they were going around visiting many artist’s studios, weren’t they? Trying to find new media. . .

RI: Of course, he didn’t have to search me out because he had known me for several years. And that was the beginning and, of course ,from there he be came the director of the David Anderson Gallery, which was Martha’s son’s gallery.

RB: Who became the. . .?

RI: Rolf.

RB: Rolf Nelson?

RI: Yes. So that then the next stop was a two-man show at the David Anderson Gallery with Peter Forakis and that was the real. . .

RB: Was it a show which contained just two or three of your paintings?

RI: No. Six.

RB: Six paintings. And. . .

RI: And many constructions.

RB: Many constructions.

RI: Because the garden was. . .

RB: The garden! Well, I sort of remember the garden. I thought possibly there hadn’t been room, since it was a joint show, for more than two or three of these paintings. And from this show Alfred Barr bought the painting that. . .?

RI: Nothing happened during the course of the show. Not a single thing of Peter’s or a single thing of mine was sold, and it was very disappointing because Rolf kept the whole operation secret. He didn’t want me to be disappointed. When the American Dream was called to the Modern to be looked at, he did not let me know because it was very possible that a work could come back rejected. They look at many, many more things than they ever accept, so he didn’t tell me until he knew that it had been accepted. And that was the real, that was the beginning of —

RB: Well, was it sent to the Museum because the Museum asked to have it sent, or was it just sent?

RI: No, no, of course not. The Museum asked for it to be sent. These details, though, I have never been completely filled in on. I’ve never even asked, it didn’t — I’m not very much concerned…

RB: But it was boost to your career, as any purchase by the Modern Museum is apt to be for any artist’s career in this country.

RB: How did Eleanor Ward (Stable Gallery) happen to come? I mean, was that easy to arrange, or…?

RI: I had nothing to do with it, Richard. It so happened that one of my pieces was being shown in the penthouse at the Museum of Modern Art. The curator of the penthouse, Campbell Wylly, knew my work and had selected this piece, and one day Eleanor Ward, I think, was just visiting the penthouse and she remarked that she liked my work very much, but was sorry that I was tied up. And Campbell merely let her know that I was not so committed as people thought. And that it might be very possible that I could be invited to show with her. And as it turned out, that was all arranged in one weekend. It just happened like that.

RB: Very good. Now I ask that partly because I have the impression that it’s not easy often to get a dealer of any standing to come to see an artist’s work.

RI: It helps if someone acts as an intermediary.

RB: Of course, it helps if they see an example on their own and like it, as this instance shows.

RI: Sure.

RB: But I mean if you try and drag somebody down, they are rather psychologically resistant, I think. But that is a good gallery, I think, to have got a connection with and your show was then only a year ago? When was that?

RI: It’s a year now, yes.

RB: A year now.

RI: It was last October.

RB: And that was really your first show anywhere other than —

RI: My first one-man show, yes.

RB: — other than that half show that David Anderson…?

RI: Well, I did have a three-man show, which I didn’t mention. I think on a previous tape I said something about my first loft being that of a former friend and classmate from Chicago, Paul Sanisardo, and in – oh, by ‘59 or ‘58 he had his own dance studio where he taught. And he had a foyer and he thought it would be very nice if he presented some small showcase exhibits in this foyer for the benefit of his dance students. And so he invited me to form a three-man show and I asked Steve Durkee and Dick Smith, and English painter who had taken a loft just a few blocks away from Coenties Slip on the waterfront, on Whitehall. They joined in with me, and we had a three-man show, which was roughly simultaneous to the two-man show at the David Anderson GalleryRB: I think maybe — Did I see this? I remember going to some show in which Dick Smith had some little construction-like things.

RI: That was it.

RB: Yes. Well then, I did see that.

RI: And I had just constructions. I didn’t show any paintings in that show. In fact, that was the point. It was a construction show. Steve Durkee exhibited some of his constructions, Dick exhibited his very small constructions, and mine, some of the ones. . .

RB: I think I met you through Richard – through Dick Smith, not through James Harvey.

RI: That’s very possible. I’ve really lost that. . .

RB: Well, it’s just that I now associate the two of you together and I can’t quite remember — maybe I met him through you. I don’t know. No, there was a man, Loren Libau who I met through Steve Joy, whom I think. . .

RI: Yes. Well, he lived just a block away on Broad Street.

RB: Well, he’s the one actually that brought Larry Calcagno, so it must have been through him…

RI: Loren, yes.

RB: He was busily trying to get into a gallery.

RI: I still see Loren once in a while. I don’t know whether he’s still painting now or not. It was he who interested Castelli in coming down. Castelli came to see his work and he was gracious enough to ask me to hang one of my paintings in his studio so that Castelli might see it at that time. And that’s the first painting of mine that Castelli saw. And Castelli later came to visit my studio at the very time when people were becoming interested in — shall we say, a number of people were becoming interested. But it was Eleanor Ward’s invitation which came through

first and became final.

RB: Well, you really haven’t mentioned the one at the Museum of Modern Art, the American ‘63.

RI: Yes. Well, of course there was nothing acquired from that show, Richard. That’s the. . .

RB: No, but as far as participating in an important manifestation among the museum patronage that was an important thing.

RI: Well, that was the next most important thing that occurred was that inclusion, and that came

very quickly, very quickly after my becoming affiliated with the Stable Gallery. Dorothy Miller came and saw my work…

RB: Came to the studio or…?

RI: Yes. And I was one of the first artists that she selected for the American Show.

RB: How many paintings did you have in that? I forget…

RI: Oh, it was, I think, six or seven, Richard. And one had to be omitted from the Modern Show because of lack of space. But it was reentered in the show in its traveling aspect.

RB: I didn’t realize that that show was traveling.

Where is it…?

RI: It’s going to about seven or eight museums all across the country.

RB: Really! Is this the first time that her American Show…

RI: I think so. I think so.

RB: . . .because Dorothy Miller on many occasions has selected shows called “Twelve Americans,” “Fifteen Americans” and various things, and I don’t recall their traveling around.

RI: Well, apparently they’ve gained in some sort of prestige and it’s going to Florida; it’s going to California; it’s going to Washington; it’s going to Canada; it’s going to Washington, D.C. It’s really going to make quite a circuit of the country.

RB: Well, when we stop to – I suppose just in the last year then there must be all these shows – Pop art. Now, how do you link yourself with Pop art? You’re included in Pop art. Pop art I think as a phrase is a sort of catch-all that’s caught on so much that I and everyone else sort of use it automatically, and it’s a kind of tie-in with certain other new artists. And it’s useful promotionally as far as your career is concerned. But your work to my mind is quite different from most of the called Pop artists, like is quite James Rosenquist and Lichtenstein. But the fact that that probably led to your inclusion in more shows than might have been the case otherwise, because there are all these sudden exhibits that include—

RI: It’s really happened more, Richard, and of course my own attitude about where I stand is pretty well explained in the current Art News.

RB: Yes.

RI: Swenson’s article. But all this happened really because of the time thing. For instance, Rosenquist and I were old friends and we knew each other’s work intimately. I mean, I saw his development and he saw my development.

RB: But they’re certainly not too closely allied.

RI: No, not at all. But, as I’ve said about other things, like assemblage and the use of word, these things, they sort of, they’re in the air; people’s ideas are intermingling and – not that I ever – you know there is no program — the Pop people did not sit down together and. . .

RB: I know that.

RI: . . .decide now overnight we’ll do this, as maybe the Dadaists did in Zurich or something. There was never anything like that. This happened rather independently, but I did know Claes Oldenburg, he’s an old classmate of mine from Chicago; I knew Rosenquist. I did not know Wesselman. But I soon did. I mean from seeing their first shows.

RB: Yes. Now you’re all lumped together as if you were members of the same football team.

RI: But there is an element in my work which, you know, no one would ever have coined the term “Pop” for me…

RB: No.

RI: . . .no one would have thought, “Ah! here is the artist of the popular image.” But there is an aspect to it, and this is mainly reflected in my paintings, my “Eat” paintings. I mean this is taken from a roadside sign. There are literally thousands of these signs all over the country. That painting came directly from that sign, and painted in the manner of the sign just as much as Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola bottle is painted in the manner of a Coca-Cola sign. Now that only happened by coincidence with that, shall we say, that one painting. But just by the very nature of that, and maybe a few subsequent paintings that I’ve done, I do have a tangential interest or contact with Pop.

RB: Oh, I think you do! What I meant was that so many museums now seem to be wanting to put on some sort of a show including Pop art, which means including you in a number of different ways they approach it, but it probably has accelerated the dispersion among museum galleries of your paintings just as the others individually too, by the fact that there is a group to which you can be affiliated, so it’s not just you alone bucking the trend, but a group of you.

RI: Well, there’s an aspect there, Richard, and that is as far as I’m concerned there really are only four Pop artists working in New York who are really Pop and nothing else but Pop.

RB: They are. . .?

RI: And for me that’s: First of all, Liechtenstein and Warhol, Rosenquist and Wesselman. Now these four are, to me, only Pop. I couldn’t think of them as being — you know, they’re not in any way related to abstract expressionism or surrealism or realism.

RB: Well, I think Rosenquist has certain surrealistic aspects.

RI: If he does, he fights this. He doesn’t want to be a surrealist. Yes, there are certain art overtones but that’s all. Whereas the other people who are sometimes exhibited with – and this includes my self – who are exhibited with the Pop people – Rauschenberg, Dine, Jasper Johns, and people like this, they all are something else. They too have Pop inclinations or Pop overtones but essentially they are something else, as essentially I am a hard-edge formalist.

RB: Yes.

RI: In the Washington, D.C. formalist show I fit in; I don’t say I fit in perfectly, because I was one

of the few painters who did use words and, for instance, there was the Beware! Danger! American Dream Number Four. I used the imagery of the danger stripes that are on the backs of trucks and on the street signs and so forth. Well, this has a Pop aspect to it, which is not just formalism, but — and I think perhaps my painting was a little, perhaps just a little out of character with that show. . .

RB: I didn’t see that show; but would you have been twice shown then at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art – once as a Pop. . .?

RI: No, no, I was not included in the Pop, and I was included in the Formalist, so there is this real split in that some people feel very strongly that I’m only this; other people feel yes, but I’m also that.

RB: Yes.

RI: And this of course, as you suggest, is working to my advantage, it’s very true; it gives me an exposure and an audience which I would never have without it, and I’m not going to discourage this, mainly because I like Pop and there’s going to be a certain phase of my work which will probably be closer to Pop and I would like to, shall we say? I’d like to be an artist more like Picasso than like Rothko. I don’t feel that I have to go down one straight, narrow road at all. I would like to do several different things.

Richard Brown Baker (1912-2002) was a major force of vanguard collecting in post-war American art. Referred to as the ‘collector’s collector’ Baker was a devout advocate of contemporary art who sought out young, un-established artists and formed an over 1600 work collection of every major movement of the second half of the twentieth century. He was an early collector and supporter of Robert Indiana and donated his entire collection to museums, with the majority going to the Yale University Museum of Art.

Robert Indiana (born September 13, 1928) is an American artist living and working in Vinalhaven (United States).For more info: http://www.gmurzynska.com/

by Richard Brown Baker

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Cricoteka and the Uncanny Return of the Avant-Garde Corpse

As the famous line from Citizen Kane goes, “Memory is one of the greatest curses inflicted on the human race.” And it goes without saying (or without watching the movie, for that matter) that it is the memory that makes us fully aware that the past cannot return nor can it be buried.

This very curse is the order of the day for a museum. What a museum makes all the more evident is that, for better or for worse, we can only remember in our own ways, and that there can be no archive without distortion.

As for the subject matter, Cracovian Cricoteka — the Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor — has an interesting story to tell. Set up in 1980 by Kantor himself, the institution was meant to be a multifunctional space: part museum, part center for research. Kantor, whose creative activity was preoccupied with a ghostly presence of the past, conceived of Cricoteka, perhaps in a somewhat utopian way, as the “living archives” that would be able to preserve his work as a “living material, not as a petrified fetish object.” After the death of its creator ten years later, the institution, increasingly resembling a place of undisputed worship, focused mainly on a pious conservation of the master’s legacy. As a result, it became a well-functioning archive, but not a particularly “living” one. Not until very recently.

In a few months Cricoteka is moving to a new location, and several new initiatives for the institution suggest that it is at a transition point. The yet-to-be-opened building, designed in the shape of a table with a missing leg, seems to form an architectural equivalent of Kantor’s idea of the “impossible monument” or “poor object” — a wrecked everyday object, deprived of its use value and by this very deprivation pointing towards the past and at what was irretrievably lost. The building itself — notable not only for its ambitious design but also for the vast exhibition space, library, archive, theater and music stage — carries the promise of a truly new beginning. Still more promising is the way in which Cricoteka has recently begun digging beneath its own foundation — redefining its goals and rethinking the basic premises of its functioning.

And such is the fortunate case withits most recent project called Radical Language — an intensive two-day program held in December 2012. Indeed, the project appears as the first step towards “connecting the institution to contemporary art practice” and, at the same time, as a decisive attempt to reread Kantor’s legacy. What is at stake, for both Cricoteka and Kantor’s heritage, is the possibility of actually living on, which necessarily means living on in new, different ways. The event, curated by Joanna Zielińska and Maaike Gouwenberg, consisted of a series of lectures, video screenings and various performative actions (in addition to the works mentioned below, the most noteworthy are two videos by Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys along with a performance by Michael Portnoy), and was accompanied by an exhibition in Kantor’s studio and a book publication. The latter, besides being an instructive guide through the entire project, contains “event scores” by Yoko Ono and one of Kantor’s manifestos.

Seemingly, the opening lecture by Yann Chateigné Tytelman sets the theoretical frame for the event. Tytelman pursues the links between Kantor’s creative output and what is going on in contemporary art today (including, but not exclusively, the works of the artists taking part in the event), placing his emphasis on some recurrent motifs, guiding ideas and formal practices. As the brochure reads, the project as a whole “seeks to find the points Kantor’s art has in common with the activities of contemporary artists.” To be sure, Tytelman makes a number of compelling points on the subject. Still, the same brochure makes clear that Radical Languages wants to be read as a manifesto of a sort, and like most good texts, it is not about what it claims to be. Rather than just a way to set Kantor’s work against the background of contemporary art, Radical Languages appears to be something much more ambitious, subtler and necessarily less conclusive. The narrative that emerged during the event touched upon issues that are vital — and not only for an the institution that is currently somewhere between no longer and not yet: How can we reread the past in a way that would enable us to address the future? How shall a museum share the claims of the past without allowing it to become merely a burden?

Thus the second “staged lecture” offers the most incisive description of the whole event: “a ventriloquist séance as an attempt to breathe a ghost into the dusty, avant-garde corpse — a new reading of esoteric trash in the spirit of an academic freak show.” In Sebastian Cichocki’s performance the dusty, avant-garde corpse is Robert Smithson, incarnated ina life-like replica — a dummy (made by Tomasz Kowalski). As he is interviewed by a soprano singer, his voice keeps coming from elsewhere (just like Kantor’s voice throughout the whole event) via a ventriloquist, which makes his presence somewhat more-than-human (and “less-than-human” at the same time). For the most part, this “Smithson” doesn’t really seem to be bothered by the questions and, in quite a nonchalant, arty-farty manner, he just goes on talking about physics, linguistics, geology, the universe and anything that takes his fancy. Significantly, he makes several statements on museums, some of which are worthy of quotation:

“Museums always carry a promise of something exciting and invigorating. This promise is there for the asking, suspended in the air. But the only things we actually find in them are traces of somebody else’s memories.” “Visiting a museum is a matter of going from void to void. Blind and senseless, one continuous wandering around the remains of Europe, only to end in that massive deception ‘the art history of the recent past.’” “I’m attracted by the idea of clearing out museums. It would be a positive commitment to their function as mausoleums.”

As Smithson suggests, it is a museum that makes clear that, after all, it is not so much the past as it is the ruins of the past that memory retains. Still, these ruins turn out to be enough to make us feel overwhelmed with the majesty of tradition (even if it is never fully read), and what we get, instead of excitement and invigoration, is a sense of weariness with the past and its demands. The question remains: Can we get rid of all these traces of someone else’s memories? Can we just clear them out? The protagonist’s compulsive interest in the institution of museum brings to mind some sort of a Freudian negation and suggests that the solution to the “museum problem” may not be that simple. What’s intriguing in this context is that Sebastian Cichocki used some of Smithson’s writings as the basis of the monologues, but at the same time made the speeches much more ambiguous and exciting than Smithson’s texts actually are.

As for the ventriloquist, Ian Saville, he also had his own performance during Radical Languages. Saville is the inventor of “red magic” (to use the term coined by the magician himself) and so far the only representative of the genre. He took up red magic to combine the largely abandoned social project called Marxism with conjuring tricks in order to “make international capitalism and exploitation disappear.”“In a true socialist manner, I’ll not only show you the trick but also how it’s done,” declares Saville at the beginning of his Cabaret Act. But his demonstration leaves open the question of what a truly socialist manner actually is.More importantly (especially for Cricoteka), he found an utterly original way of bringing the masters from the past back to life. During his Brecht on Magic show he not only, almost literally, carried on a conversation with Bertolt Brecht and Karl Marx (to be more specific, with a ventriloquist’s dummy of Brecht and a “talking” portrait of Marx), but he also played out their theories. In fact — and in all seriousness — the entire show can be seen as a complex demonstration of the Brechtian concept of the distancing effect.

Surprisingly (or not), the weakest part of Radical Languages is the one that most directly refers to Kantor — Calling Kantor for a Pattern by Voin de Voin and Ancelle Beauchamp. During the performance there were some drawing games, a bit of playing with puzzles and even an attempt to make everyone dance, but the whole thing hardly came together. “The act of interpretation is done by the collective spirit and supported by Kantor’s ghost, which we are going to call in a séance,” announced the artists, but you’d never know it from the performance itself. Somehow everything got just too fancy to work out.

This cannot be said of Elmgreen and Dragset’s video (originally a theater play) Drama Queens. Itlooks likea camp version of Toy Story, but in the video it’s not the toys that turn out to lead secret lives, but the “seven 20th-century superstar sculptures.” The superstars — from Jean Arp’s Cloud Shepherd to Jeff Koons’s Rabbit — are trapped on a theater stage and do not really know what to do with themselves (“Fellas, now that we’ve got an audience, I propose we each make a series of numbered statements about art,” suggests Sol LeWitt’s Four Cubes, while Rabbit is trying to get a party started). Since they are all well accustomed to museal practice, for a moment they are trying to make some sense of the very fact of being gathered in one place (“Is there a pattern of some kind?” “Are we distant relatives?”). But most of the time, feeling somewhat degraded by each other’s presence, the iconic sculptures — much like the various aesthetics they stand for — keep on looking down on each other and cannot really find any common language. Still, they are as one when it comes to museums, even though they all feel out of place there (Giacometti’s Walking Man complains: “It’s not a normal life. Not a normal life at all.”), and there is nothing they fear more than being put into oblivion, namely, into storage (“Yes. Even the word sends a shiver,” says Walking Man). At the end, Rabbit delivers a speech that provides a straightforward, dark insight into the cruel nature of time and/or the audience: “They tell you you’re great. That you’re truly, truly now, the moment. The fucking Zeitgeist. Studio 54 or whatever. But in the end it goes. They just wanna see something that they never saw before.”

Enclosed in the book that accompanies Radical Languages is Kantor’s Zero Theater Manifesto, which sheds unexpected light on the entire event. Consider how Kantor imagined the way in which an actor should deal with a text s/he is given: “On the one hand, there is the reality of the text, on the other hand, the actor and his behavior. The actor’s behavior should paralyze the reality of the text. [The actors] treat the text as an alien entity, try to fathom its meaning (…), but finally when they realize the futility of their action, they discard it and suddenly forget it. This process means dismembering of logical plot structures, building up scenes not by textual reference but by reference to associations triggered by them, juggling with chance.”

While dealing with Kantor’s legacy (that is to say, with Kantor’s “text”), Radical Languages turns out to have followed his instructions, though in quite a subversive manner. Yet, through this very manner, Kantor seems to have made his uncanny return to Cricoteka. As Harold Bloom used to say, “The dead may or may not return, but their voice comes alive, paradoxically never by mere imitation, but in the agonistic misreading performed upon powerful forerunners by only the most gifted of their successors.” And Radical Languages proves that, hopefully, Cricoteka is becoming one of the most gifted of Kantor’s successors.

by Justyna Wąsik

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Interview with Brian Butler

Patrick Steffen: I’d like to start our conversation from your recent performance, Union of Opposites, presented at Art LA Contemporary in conjunction with the gallery Annie Wharton Los Angeles. There is a video projection, sound, light and a live performance. There is a very poetic and sensual dimension in the first part and then there is an aggressive and somehow disturbing dimension. So, I thought that it could be a good example of the range of your work. What was your main intention with this work?

Brian Butler: I wanted to create an overall experience, a tactile and physical experience, as well as visual, mental or even spiritual, a sort of consciousness altering experience, through all of these elements. I wanted to create a collective out-of-body experience. My work it’s more about a feeling or an atmosphere…

PS: What was the main feeling that you wanted to suggest through Union of Opposites?

BB: It has to do with what we could call a solar consciousness. It’s a metaphysical concept; heliocentric consciousness as opposed to earthly or geocentric consciousness. Metaphorically, it relates to the change of seasons, for instance the transition of day into night is observed from a geocentric perspective but if we expand our consciousness to a solar or heliocentric point of view, the sun is still there, whether it’s morning or night, and it’s just our perspective that changes. I try to shift our perspective, transcending dualities.

PS: And that is from where the title of the performance comes?

BB: Yes, that’s right.

PS: Were you satisfied with the result of it?

BB: I was happy with result, yes.

PS: Is satisfaction important for you or is it that you don’t care about the final impression and your goal is the exploration of your own material?

BB: Being satisfied is a very subjective experience. My motivation is to present this ritual in an authentic way: authentic to how I feel in my sensibilities, hoping that it would communicate with the audience, without altering it or compromising in a way that I think would please them. And it was an experiment.

PS: Do you usually review the tapes that you might have recorded during the performance?

BB: That is important, but I feel like I have a good awareness of it, having a strong background in film and how a performance has an impact on camera or to an audience. I don’t have to review the tapes; I have a good idea, coming from the rehearsals too.

PS: Considering you control what you want to achieve, it seems you have a clear perception of your impact on the audience. You work more through perception than through analysis…

BB: Right, I have a clear feeling and a vision that corresponds with that feeling. The challenge is to technically realize that feeling and that vision.

PS: Is it because your main background is experimental cinema?

BB Yes, I come from the experimental film scene through my work with Kenneth Anger. I mainly studied with Kenneth, and before I produced documentary films through a company in New York, so I learned mainly through a process of creating.

PS: How long have you worked with Kenneth Anger?

BB: Over ten years. Well, I have known his work a lot longer and before I discovered his work, I had interest in mysticism, the occult, music and a lot of the elements he was dealing with in his art. When I discovered his work, it was first time that I saw an artist combining all these elements…

PS: Does he give you a feedback on the quality of your work? When you work together, do you exchange opinions?

BB He’s not really the type to analyze things; he doesn’t really operate in that way. When you’re in the process, you know if you are getting what you want.

PS: One thing that was really striking in Union of Opposites, was the stage presence of Annakim Violette…

BB: We made a film before, it was last year in October. She is like me, she is very intuitive and this work is not based on a verbal communication… It transcends what can be communicated verbally which is why I chose Annakim. Her presence expressed elements of the ritual in a very visual way.

PS: You were like animals on stage…

BB: We were able to tune into the same energy and it came just naturally, since we have a similar overall vision. I felt that Annakim was very much in tune with that.

PS: I had the feeling that she knew exactly what to do, but at the same time everything was spontaneous and improvised, in the proper sense of the term. Was your performance very structured? For example, the relationship between the two of you, was it something you had structured before or was there a lot of space to improvise?

BB: There was a lot of space to improvise, but again, I had prepared certain fixed geometrical patterns and figures, which incorporated the idea of inversion, like counter clockwise motion and reversed pentagrams. That was the motivation behind our movements, and she was expressing visually and physically the energies that we were working with.

PS: Sound was also very important in the performance…

BB: Yes, I utilized very low frequencies played through 1000 watt subwoofers which were positioned in a way that the audience would experience a physical sensation from the frequencies, more than they would hear them.

PS: And where do your gestures come?

BB: The origins are from what you would call Western magick or Western mysticism, which has its roots in the Kabala, which has a lot to do with mathematics and geometry. Aleister Crowley made a lot of futuristic advancements on those concepts, he was the one that started to introduce the ideas about inversion, turning things upside down and shifting the point of view.

PS: Do we need to have an understanding of the occult and ritual magic to appreciate your work?

BB: I don’t think so, I think it’s more a feeling of it, since those things tend to be so complex…

PS: Let’s go back to another work you made in the recent past, “Night of Pan”, which features Vincent Gallo, Kenneth Anger, and has screened all over the world including the Cannes Film Festival…

BB: This work is a depiction of a personal experience I had as a result of my spiritual practices. I cast my friends to portray certain archetypes and built the sets mostly from objects in my home. It’s a metaphor for the transcendence of reason which initially can be perceived as a form of insanity – when you reach a point where logic no longer serves you.

PS: For the whole video, you used the Adagio in G Minor by Tommaso Albinoni as soundtrack…

BB: Yes, I did a shorter version of 42 seconds, for a program called “OneDreamRush” which was commissioned by the Beijing Film Studio and 42 Below Vodka; 42 directors were invited to each make 42 second films. It was quite a challenge, but that’s how I got it funded and for that film I created the music; it was very fast paced, very condensed.

PS: But let’s talk about the seven minute version…

BB: I did experiment with making a score, but I felt that it distracted from the pictures, since the music was changing too much or was too dominating, or even too dynamic. The visuals were very rich so that the Adagio by Albinoni fit into the structure, as well into the pace of the film.

PS: I asked you about that since this is not the kind of music I would associate immediately to your work, but it fits perfectly, and it suggests an interesting contrast… How did you work with Vincent Gallo?

BB: I didn’t really need to give him too much direction, I just explain the situation and then he comes up with a great idea. It was improvised, it was a live performance on his part, it wasn’t like we were shooting takes over and over. He had an idea of the character and went into that state, and that’s what we captured.

PS: Your work is based on live performances, music, sound. But you also display artwork in galleries

BB: I create installations which combine video, sound and sculpture. For me, sculptures or objects are another way of altering space, using geometry, color, and symbols.

PS: Rituals…

BB: That’s very ritualistic.

PS: Why are you so fascinated by rituals?

BB: Everything is more or less a ritual and it’s a way of accessing other states of consciousness, other worlds, it’s a way of interacting with things that are intangible, for me.

PS:Let’s talk about the future, and the evolution of your oeuvre. I can envision you working in opera and theater. I think that your universe coupled with Richard Wagner, or The Tales of Hoffman by Jacques Offenbach, for instance, would be interesting…

BB: Yes, I feel I could express myself in those realms of theater, film and more elaborate sculptures and performances. I am very much into Richard Wagner. I’ve studied The Ring of the Nibelung and I think it’s one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century. The story is just very universal and strong, and I have seen the production a few times. The whole work is so strong, on so many levels. It has also a very clear spiritual dimension, but it’s also very dramatic…

PS: And Wagner’s oeuvre it’s very ritualistic!

BB: Yes, in Parsifal for instance, the knights of the grail and all these elements are very, very ritualistic. So that could be a source of inspiration for me in the future.

by Patrick Steffen

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Natalie Frank Studio Visit / Brooklyn, New York

I recently visited artist Natalie Frank in her Bushwick, Brooklyn based studio and we decided to sit down for an interview. I met Natalie in 2007 when she was a visiting artist for the Studio Art Program at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education and have followed her career ever since.

She is a contemporary painter, focusing on the figure, narrative and the space between abstraction and figuration. Natalie will have a solo exhibition at Fredericks Freiser in October 2012 and I decided to focus on this and her visual expansion of deconstructing the figure within her paintings and practice.

Katy Diamond Hamer: Hi Natalie, thanks for the taking the time to chat! I know you’ve been quite busy and have recently traveled for an exhibition in St. Barth’s, in the Caribbean at Space SBH Gallery. Why don’t we start there, tell me about the exhibition and how you got involved.

Natalie Frank: I met Natalie Clifford through some wonderful painter friends and she put me in a group show she curated at the Eden Rock Gallery in St. Barth’s where she was curator. When she left to start her own gallery, she offered me a solo show in her own, brand new space in Gustavia, the fancy part of town on the island, near Gagosian’s gallery, who she sometimes collaborates with. It is a beautiful space; she is a lovely woman; and I thought it could be an interesting audience for the work. I also got to go for a week and a half for the opening!

KDH: I know you were trained in a very traditional, figurative manner. Where did your interest in the figure arrive and did you realize you had a specific skill level for portraiture before delving into this type of painting which carries a significant historical weight?

NF: I started doing figure drawing from life when I was 13 years old. The narrative – the stories that people tell and use to construct their lives, whether it be religious, humanistic, mythical, social, was and is my entry point into painting and the figure. I am fascinated by the relationships and the ways in which people communicate and build their worlds. I was always particularly drawn to painters who used the portrait – often in service to a larger narrative – to focus, foremost, on the individual. I began by looking at the German and Austrian Expressionists: the ways in which color, as well as expression, could relay a “real” feeling of what it meant to be human and alive. In my studies at the Slade, University College London, I began down the path of locating the figure in a more constructed, or literary narrative. I was looking at Rego, but also Stanley Spencer, Freud, Kitaj and Blake. I would say I have followed the portrait first as a young student in terms of its literal meaning: an expression of the person where the face is predominant; into a more literary understanding of how to represent a person through story, and now, I am focused on combining both of these aspects with a heightened awareness and appreciation of what the paint can also do, its expressive capacity. I am very interested in locating the figure between representation and abstraction which seems to be a very contemporary preccupation.

KDH: As your practice expands, it seems that you are finding more ways to deconstruct while also staying true to your own hand and style of mark-making. Are there any artists who you are currently looking at or do you find yourself trying to detach from a certain pool of art knowledge when making work?

NF: I am always thinking of the artists who came before me. Certainly not an anxiety of influence, but these painters are like old friends, always nearby. I am looking at a mix of old and new, painters and artists working in other media. The last few months I have been thinking about Kitaj, Beckmann, Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, Robert Overby, Kohei Yoshiyuki, Currin, Condo, Daniel Richter, Sugimoto, Sherman, Neo Rauch, Tiepolo, Oehlen, Pettibon, Kentridge (especially The Nose), Degas and always Velazquez. Also, de Kooning. His retrospective left me exuberant and agitated. As my work has changed over the past two years (I am so looking forward to showing this new and much changed work in October at Fredericks Freiser!) the mix of artists I am looking at has expanded and morphed more towards abstraction in narrative and form.

KDH: Painting as a medium presents so much historical resonance. I always think of the Italian Renaissance, which is one of my favorite periods of representation and narrative, and you mention looking at Tiepolo. I know you’ve also spent time in Florence, Italy. Can you talk a little bit about your experience in Italy and how it inspired your work?

NF: It was a magical time to have what added to 4 months in Florence and Umbria, on grants from my undergrad, studying at the traditional academy and learning their processes. Italy was an important place for me to start, in many ways. As a young woman, it gave me the space and time to explore, myself, my practice and a part of the world and art historical tradition in an environment that was both idyllic and historically vital. I went to all of the chapels with Giotto and Masaccio and Piero. Seeing the Brancacci Chapel, the beginning of humanism and the Renaissance, left me awestruck and solidified my belief that art can tell stories, get at what it means to be human, and transmit the unknowable. The study abroad I have done also left me with a strong commitment to the rigors of art and art making, the discipline that comes with the practice. It gave me formal tools that I have digested and adapted to my own purposes and current practice.

KDH: Traveling in Europe is so important for artists, I agree! Knowing you are originally from Texas, and currently based in Bushwick, Brooklyn, can you talk about the New York art scene and how you feel you fit in, if at all, within a large body of young artists, painters sculptors etc. Do you ever feel that New York is over-saturated with art or do you think that the quantity of artists and galleries is symbiotic to the process of making work.

NF: I love being here and feel extremely lucky to be able to do what I love for a living. I love being part of a community that is provocative and constantly changing. It is exciting to be in New York, surrounded by friends from grad school, undergrad, friends of friends, everyone making work, curating it, writing about it, contributing their unique vision to what feels as if it is a very enmeshed community. I try to get out and around to see what’s being made as often as possible. Also, I love going to artists studios and trading visits, everyone’s practice is so unique. I am really inspired by friends – some amazing painters I know, that when I leave their studio, or we have conversations about art, is invigorating. The intensity of the dialogue here, from all angles surrounding art is intense and incredibly engaging.

KDH: Would you be able to make this particular work in any other city? Do you ever feel that it is somehow specific to New York.

NF: There is a specific community here and I know I am influenced by fellow painters and artist friends. Right now, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. I think my new work is very much of my time and place, how could it not be, I am here!

KDH: I have followed Fredericks Freiser for quite some time. Congratulations on joining the gallery! As you have an upcoming exhibition slated for October 2012, do you have anything in particular regarding content that you are focusing on for this solo show?

NF: I am thinking about the idea of Transfigurations. I just had Lawrence Weschler, a writer I have admired for years, by the studio, and we had such a good visit speaking about narrative, the feeling of “humanness”. I just read his wonderful new book “Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative” and it is one of those convergences that he writes about that when he was here, I was describing the idea behind my upcoming show: getting at the inside of people and their narratives, to try to figure out what is at their core, and he pulled out the newest New Yorker that had a story called Transfiguration about a man who had one of the first successful face transplants. His photograph looked exactly like these portraits I am making – a melange of features and lines and an exterior that draws attention to what we understand to be human – humanesque. Weschler writes about the uncanny valley as an area where people accept and understand portraits and figures to be human – but they can be blue or slightly distorted, or in the case of my work, conglomerations that are part rendered, part illustrated, part abstracted paint. When they become radically close, but still not completely, identifiable as human, then the human viewer does not accept the figure she is looking at as like herself. So, in this show, I am painting autopsies, inspections, an exorcism, an image of two people hovering together in a lover’s stare, all attempting to find, tease out, understand, take apart the human figure and its mystery.

KDH: In mentioning autopsies, inspections and exorcisms, you are dealing subjectively with the abject. Your work has always been aesthetically pleasing and while it still is, now you offer a challenge for the viewer to decipher content that isn’t always pleasant. Tell me about this process, where your inspiration comes from and if you’ve ever been embarrassed to show some of these paintings to someone like…your mother.

NF: My mother is actually my biggest supporter. And as a former trauma nurse who worked in a sex change clinic, the influence might stem the other way! I don’t think about the subject matter as abject, just human. The raw feeling of what it means to have and lose power, feel violated and violate, to expose and hide, all of those dualities that make us more then characters in a short story. I do love paint, and have been told I am a painter’s painter – I also love color. I am aware that these qualities soften the harshness and directness of the subject matter. But, I figure that nothing can be heard while screaming.

by Katy Diamond Hamer

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