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Conversation between Japeth Mennes & Jeffrey Mathews

Japeth: We're talking about science fiction, science as it enters fiction or science as it enters art. I like that idea of fusing, of taking something and filtering it through your own hand, like an already known technology or a pre-existing material that you’re using in your own way. With the work I'm doing it's a photographic process, so I'm examining how photography works, the way you can sort of experiment and create formal qualities, or what it means to make a photograph.

Jeffrey: You're absorbing and filtering through these things that are greater than the self. One's gesture, one's hand creates an object that can also extend back out to the world. So something starts very large and closes down to a personal, intimate gesture and opens back up, sort of like an hourglass. It extends the science and painting and everything, and it's where I see a lot of art-making happen. Bismuth, for example, has obviously existed longer than we have. It’s been used for specific art making practices, which is kind of fascinating to learn about. In the Middle Ages they were using Bismuth instead of lead to create illuminated manuscripts, and I even found a technique or a process where they were using it to inlay the material in wood, or I think these Danish reliquaries or something. It’s just so strange that this material exists out in the world and you can have so many different interpretations.

Japeth: It's just a material? It's not concocted or anything? Not melted down?

Jeffrey: No, it's only mined, sort of refined, and poured into ingots. It's purified maybe a little bit for industrial use as an alloy for other heavier metals like bronze. Talking about material reminds me of my love/hate relationship with minimalism.

Japeth: Yeah, me too. Some of it just bores the shit out of me.

Jeffrey: Well initially the hate was mostly generated by like, wow, that must've been a great movement to be a part of, to just find some really beautiful material and just make a cube out of it and you're done. But then also I think I’m coming at it from the political perspective, thinking about the era their work was made in, during the Vietnam war.

Japeth: I'm definitely interested in the place of a painting in the world today, how it seems out of step or out of place as a form of communication. You have much better ways of going about it that would be much more effective, like music, movies, TV, magazines and the internet, but we're making these paintings that don't do a very good job.

Jeffrey: From a self-critical standpoint you can maybe claim that artistic production is a very self-indulgent exercise at best, but I think it's maybe a little more benevolent to consider that it creates a sort of diversion from the unrest that's going on in the world; that art can be generative.

Japeth: Art will always find a way to be seen, and for the most part it's free. And that's what's really cool. Images and ideas spread themselves throughout the world. Which is why I think it's important to think about the structure and support in the production of art, what your place is, how you fit into that model.

Jeffrey: It's a weird sort of relationship. I feel like in some ways making painting can be somewhat like a political gesture. But then on the other hand you are relying on this other system of people who make money who are able to buy your work. It's a funny paradox. But ultimately it goes back to the idea that it's free for anyone to look at and the ideas are free to use. That's what interests to me, having a dialogue within this community which is small, but that's fine. Everyone doesn't have to be Guns 'N Roses. You can be this little band that people love but not everyone is into, and that's totally fine. You have your audience and that's great and that's really beautiful and in some ways I feel like that's better than Guns 'N Roses. How about this for a science fiction reality: a world that's entirely populated by bands, just bands making music for other bands. I was reading-

Japeth: Bandville

Jeffrey: I think that's come up in conversations around the New York/Brooklyn art community, the prevalence of blogs and the sort of proliferation of certain people within these structures. We have friends that have come up through this system of altruistic endeavors. There are one-night shows put on with no financial backing with people that are making this work in their spare time, after their day job. It opens you up to this idea that there are so many artists in Brooklyn. And then you think exponentially- there are so many artists in New York, so many artists in Philadelphia, Chicago, L.A., Berlin, you know, across the globe. There was a poll recently: 20% of Berlin's population, when asked what they want to do when they get older, the youth in Berlin want to be artists. I mean that's a fifth of the city’s population that want to be artists! I just thought for a second what a crazy universe that would be- everyone's making art for each other. What a strange universe if we were just peacefully formalizing things for each other in perpetuity, just for the sake of our own entertainment, until we die. I suppose to some that would sound like a nightmare but maybe to others not so much.

I mentioned earlier the love/hate relationship with minimalism, but I'm actually starting to remove all the bullshit and let the material speak for itself. For a while I was doing these marker bleed things that was just like pigment that would soak into the canvas or the linen and bleed out by the acrylic polymer that was painted onto the surface, but there was something about that effect that would add this sort of burning that the material does when it attaches itself to the substrate to the linen.

Japeth: It's sort of like a contamination. I like this idea of contaminating minimal art. I feel like I enjoy post-minimal art more. Both of us have these different processes where we're painting but it's not pure painting, it's a contamination of painting or it's a contamination of photography, which can lead to more interesting places within genres. Just like Guns N Roses. Like a contamination of metal, a contamination of hair-metal, but also like Queen.

Jeffrey: I read this book, Steven Parrino’s The No Texts, that was all about contamination and necrophilia in painting. The author said when he came on the scene painting was dead so I just thought how great, I can have a necrophilic relationship with painting, just fuck painting's corpse. The continual cycle of culture dying and needing to be revived, that's how it perpetuates its existence. The great thing about the book is that it formalizes this idea of destruction and mayhem, just basically bad behavior, which is something I'm really interested in because I think I always find it annoying when people are just trying to hold a light up to something.

But also in a literal sense there's that idea of contamination you were referencing - there is something sickly or gangly about the way that paint is applied, or the way that it exists alongside this bismuth stuff so that it creates a sort of binary system. Is bismuth the corrosion or is it augmenting something? I like the idea of taking something really shiny and doing something sort of gnarly to it and then taking something really gnarly and doing something really shiny to it.

Japeth: What I like about painting is that it embraces the obsolete. I was talking to you about that earlier, like the vinyl record, there's a certain obsolete quality that people enjoy about the record. A lot of what our peers are doing right now is a material investigation, a more handmade and personal experience. I think that's the new paradigm going along with the recession and the renewed interest in materials.

Jeffrey: It's like something you can put in your backpack and take home and you pound a nail in the wall and put it up and you have your one-on-one experience.

Japeth: I remember a couple of years ago you were at a store and you bought some guy’s record and you saw something and it was just a tape wrapped in a rag or something like that.

Jeffrey: It was like a guy wiped his ass with a sock and wrapped his tape in that.

Japeth: Yeah and maybe we're fetishizing this but I kind of like that idea that this tape might be the greatest music in the world right now. This one tape might have the most integrity, the most heart, it might be the most interesting, complicated music in the world but it's just this guy wrapping his tape in a rag. I like how a painting can be that way too.

I guess it can be kind of dangerous if you fetishize it too much. There’s a resurgence of nostalgia, our peers are feeling like they're missing out on something or they're feeling like there's something in the past that we lost and we're trying to re-access. Like when painting was a big deal but now it's not.

Jeffrey: Maybe sci-fi is the opposite of nostalgia. The idea of a sci-fi reality brings me to another thing that I'm interested in: I realized that I wanted not to illustrate but actualize. I think it creates this condition where you can see these things existing in the future. I don't want to illustrate what the future is going to look like, I want to bring the future to the present. I was reading that Buckminster Fuller anthology, Critical Path. I saw his dymaxium home at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit. It looked like a trailer home but it's a cylinder with a funnel top. It was so considered it was ridiculous. The funnel top would channel tornados... it was like ergonomic aerodynamic design. He had a dense knowledge of where we come from and where we're going. There's a dangerous potential for one's own work to exist in a vacuum, to cut off from any connection to that which came before and that which can come after.

Japeth: I'm definitely interested in art that can conflate the past, the present and the future. It doesn't simply reflect the present or reminisce about the past, it can also try to envision the future, which is why I feel like objects should be made because they can say more than we intend.

Jeffrey: That’s important, objects speaking for themselves. I'm very much incapable of making interesting gestural marks. My marks have to be in control, and that's why I have to let something else happen. I do something and it gets fucked up on its own and I just go away.

Japeth: We both have these things that we do which are about relinquishing control within the work, setting up a system and placing a lot of control in that system and making decisions that ultimately end up being in a process or situation in which the outcomes are unknown. The fluidity of the bismuth, the way it crystallizes, the way the water reacts to your marker drawings. What will happen after I leave that painting for a year in the sun? I like that idea of control and lack of control. I feel our work has that dialogue and hopefully people will see that in the show.

Edited by Daniel Gerwin

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Interview with Fabienne Lasserre and Molly Smith

By Daniel Gerwin

Installation View: Becoming Something Found

DG: I understand you developed this show over the course of a year. Can you talk about how the concept evolved, some of the twists and turns?

FL: "Becoming Something Found" evolved from “Come Through”, a show that Molly and I curated at Sikkema & Jenkins last fall. This is a different show, with four additional artists and almost all new pieces, but it flowed directly from “Come Through”, following the same lines and intentions. “Becoming Something Found” is curated strictly from the artists’ point of view. It stems from a very intimate knowledge of each other's studio practices and influences. Most of the artists in this show visit each other's studios often. We see each other’s work at different stages: tentative, failed, flawed, and also confident, assertive, celebratory.

MS: I visited Fabienne during her residency in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2009. We made some pieces together, combining materials we found in the markets with materials we were using in our own work: plaster in my case, and felted wool in Fabienne’s. Collaborating sparked a conversation about organizing a show of artists who make art while traveling. I immediately thought of a wonderful picture in one of my most treasured artists' monographs, Sheila Hicks' Weaving as Metaphor. The photo shows her weaving on a backstrap loom in Oaxaca in the 1950’s. Wherever she was staying, she would turn over a piece of furniture to create a loom between the four legs. Sheila's ability to adapt her artistic practice and absorb the influence of the surrounding culture made her a significant figure in forming our idea for the show.

DG: What surrounding influences find their way into your own practice, are they more local to your daily life in the U.S.?

MS: Absorbing my surroundings is huge for me. The imagery and many objects in my sculptures come from walks in my neighborhood. Most people carry a camera with them when they travel, but I have my camera with me always, and capture moments that inform my work. This local and daily observational practice translates when I'm traveling as well.

DG: What are some of the specific things you're looking at these days, and how are they being transformed in your work?

MS: I don't work directly from any of my photographs, but I try to absorb the gestures, arrangements, and movements of objects. In my sculptures some actual things I pick up are included, as with Around, which is in this show. It’s centered on a crushed hula-hoop that I passed one day when it was whole, in the road. A few days later I passed it again, and it had been run over and crushed. It was funny and pathetic. Its original use, as a round and rounded thing, was now impossible and that made me like it more.

DG: Can you say more about the impact of travel, the idea that instigated this show?

MS: Fabienne and I considered the concept of travel more broadly, and arrived at the condition that travel provides an artist: uncertainty. That seemed to be the essence of the processes and work of all the artists we were beginning to intuitively group together.

FL: We’ve talked many times about how a meandering and indirect course is integral to our work, about how we value irresolution and loose ends. Uncertainty is part of figuring out; doubt (which doesn't mean mistrust or insecurity!) is necessary to speculation. Pleasure, too, plays a crucial part.

Molly and I thought of artists whose approach allows them to get lost: processes that accommodate paradox, indeterminacy, and open-endedness. We came up with artists from different generations, for whom materials are crucial, and who make abstract works that still retain elements from everyday life, the decorative, and even the sentimental. Their works also share, if not exactly a sense of optimism, an acceptance of happiness. The show points to the seriousness and rigor of this way of working, which is to be distinguished from a kind of fabled, loopy spontaneity ("so creative, so free!") typically described in much talk and writing about art and artists.

DG: How do you hold onto indeterminacy when you’re pursuing your daily studio practice? Every artist arrives at his or her own material language, which necessarily limits uncertainty.

MS: I would say that while we all work with some direction, we also invite uncertainty to the game. We know our materials in intimate ways, but those materials impose their own tendencies that we cannot control, and may not always be able to, or want to, manipulate. Even if I know I am casting a certain shape in plaster, there are still many factors I don't know. How to make that shape from paper, how the plaster will distribute once it's poured in that paper shape, then how the many tints I used in the plaster might set up and emerge. I want to be surprised.

I was just in Jess [Dickinson’s] studio and she showed me drawings that make themselves by recording her movement as they cover the floor in front of a painting, or trace their own movement across the studio floor over months. I imagine the dye Rachel [Foullon] applies to her fabric is in some ways controlled by the water in which it is immersed as much as by her hand, and then she works with the natural drapery and twist of the material. Fabienne felts wool that shrinks and shapes itself in forms dictated by the properties of the fiber. Shiv [Liddell] makes a bridge for her son out of paper, which makes its way into the studio and is transformed into a relief. Sheila [Hicks] weaves on a diagonal then releases the weaving to allow its tension to transform the square into a diamond shape.

DG: In today's cultural context, how do you see this incorporation of chance and uncertainty into artistic process? Does this approach tend to move the resulting art into the kind of territory that was highlighted by the Unmonumental show at the New Museum in New York (2007)? In other words, it's hard to make something polemical (or monumental) if the work’s outcome is uncertain. Or is an uncertain process itself a type of polemic, a kind of politics?

MS: I think a lot about how ego is involved in art making. And the idea of making something monumental to me seems so futile. Speaking for myself, I think of working with chance and uncertainty as collaboration with forces greater than me, and in some ways, acknowledging and admiring these forces is the reason to make art. For me that’s so relevant to today’s context, this moment of massive change. As an artist, I think we are innately adaptable and flexible. We don't expect things to be fixed.

Installation View: Becoming Something Found

FL: In a way, the unknown - the idea or the form that has not yet arrived and must be found - is what all artists attend to. I think that with "Becoming Something Found", we are approaching something more specific, and more playful. The work of many of the artists in the show operates on and between the edges of various disciplines. It stretches these categories without being antagonistic, in a playful and lyrical manner connected to daily life, to the trivial. Alison Knowles' privileging of ordinary activities expressed in simple, concrete terms, offers an example. So does her use of neglected sensibilities such as smell, touch, and taste.

There is also a willful avoidance of declamatory and resolved statements or gestures. When Jo Smail says: "I want to be on the side of the not-clever, the vulnerable, inconsistencies, and mistakes. This is what beginnings are like," she is insisting on the potential of things kept open, on the importance of what is left undefined. This kind of approach, even if it not new, has resonance for many people now.

Unmonumental was okay, but a much more interesting, exciting and ground-breaking show was High Times, Hard Times, curated by Katie Siegel and David Reed (National Academy Museum, New York, 2007). That show, with all its idiosyncrasies and flaws, really blew me away. Come Through and Becoming Something Found are both indebted to the way in which High Times, Hard Times presented a sense of possibility -even political possibility - within abstract and formal modalities.

DG: Speaking of political possibility, your show traces a sort of matrilineal descent over three generations (Morton/Hicks to you and your peers, to your student Emily). What are your ideas about artistic inheritance and transmission, and also about these issues for women artists of the past 50-60 years?

FL: Molly and I never set out to put together an all-women show. Late in the process, we realized that the artists we selected were all women. Of course, it wasn't exactly a surprise. We had gradually acknowledged that some of the concerns of the show led, almost too easily, to questions of gender. But we were really thinking of a specific way of working.

Installation View: Becoming Something Found

I guess the kind of flexibility Molly and I had in mind had been embraced by women artists who were dealing with specific (political) restrictions and limitations. This fluid voice and meandering trajectory came out of necessity, practicality, and resistance. For example, Morton made a whole body of work derived from the summer she spent in Newfoundland with her children. She made amazing installations using things she found while taking walks with her kids in Philadelphia. The materials she used feel close to home, prosaic and familiar. Her tone is confessional, autobiographical, funny, at times even embarrassing. Her installations, sculptures and drawings toy with the decorative, the domestic, and fantasy (all too often considered easy, backwards, regressive).

In the late 60’s and 70’s, along with the lack of opportunity for women came a certain independence and freedom: women were creating and inventing radical new forms of art, outside of the pressures of history and power. By saying this, I really don’t mean to dismiss the exasperating injustices, or to sound positive about a situation that has really not changed enough yet. But there is truth in Elizabeth Murray’s words: “I think that the greatest part of being a woman in the world of painting is that I'm not really a part of it. I can do whatever the hell I want."

MS: Inheritance and transmission is just everything to an artist. Especially after so much art education that never really satisfied or fulfilled the feeling I've had standing in front of a Ree Morton, or Sheila Hicks, or Eva Hesse or Anne Truitt. I think there’s something particularly poignant in the idea of inheriting a lineage (at the risk of sounding presumptuous) from women like Hesse or Morton, whose careers were cut short. But the idea of transmission feels quite relevant to the way we all work, the idea of insight being passed on through absorption rather than words, or through proximity and subtle gestures rather than through formal education.

Interview by Daniel Gerwin

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James Hyde Interview with Daniel Gerwin

DANIEL GERWIN: Let’s start with the use of written language: letters and words. Is this the first time you’ve deployed language in this way, where you overtly use written language?

JAMES HYDE: Yes, it is. The closest I came before this was about 15 years ago, when I curated a show at Real Artways in Hartford CT, and AC Project Room in NYC. It was called the Fetish of Knowledge, and was organized around works that involved text and image. I curated that show because while I was interested in text in artworks, at that time I had no interest in having text in my own work.

After three or four years working with images of Stuart Davis’s paintings, where text does find its way into his imagery, it

had an impact on me. I’ve become very interested in how shape gets recognized as something- it becomes a signal, and how that changes the way you look at the shapes that compose text. In a way, when you recognize a letter it changes the way that shape looks.

AT, 2009, acrylic on archival digital print on stretched linen, 57 x 86 inches

DG: You can see the way shape-recognition is at play in the “at” painting, how it flips back and forth between two triangles and a rectangle, and the word “at”. The figure-ground relationship flips back and forth even as you look at it. But the idea of using language wasn’t in your mind at the beginning?

JH: No, at a certain point it became interesting as a way of responding to Davis’s variations on themes. Also, I’m putting shapes on top of Davis that have a quality of advertising, which was important to Davis.

DG: What about the choice of using these two-letter words or single letters?

JH: I didn’t want the language to have a lot of meaning or a lot of specific meaning. I want the words to be functional; they are all very basic, and a lot of them are prepositions. I wanted the language of the words to be something that leverages, rather than something that is something. You can look at my painting on the Davis details as words, or as a thin slab of applied paint. They move between recognition and experience. When you are really experiencing things you aren’t reading, but when you are reading, you are getting meaning, not experience.

DG: Let’s go back in time, in terms of your work, to those pieces that you did with mirrored surfaces, to which you affixed wooden handles. The reflection of the handle in the surface of the mirror would create relationships, and new things would happen. Is there a relationship between that activity and these Davis paintings?

HALO, 2003, chrome steel, wood,

49 x 22.5 x 7 in.

JH: Actually, it's a relevant connection. With most of those chrome panel pieces, what they look like is simply 2 x 4’s stuck on a reflective surface. Based on placement and orientation (and a bit of poetics), they become something else. They become a halo or a zero, or an X-- a kiss or an X-marks-the-spot. It’s the way material goes from being a raw mute thing to becoming a sign. It’s that moment of transformation that interests me both in these Davis pieces we’re showing, and in those chrome paintings.

DG: So how did you arrive at the decision to work on Stuart Davis?

JH: Davis was never a strong influence on me. Since I was a teenager, I have always worked in a material or minimalist mode of painting, but I’ve always so liked Davis whenever I’d see a piece of his in a museum. He’s kind of like an old friend, and with this group of work I wanted to spend some time working with one artist. I’d done paintings over details of Velasquez, Goya, Titian, some Matisse, and some oddball classic artists, like Alessandro Magnasco. But I wanted to work with a modernista 20th century artist.

With Davis, you really feel like he loved working. And the workman-like quality to Davis’s paintings made me feel that I could really stay with him for two or three years. That’s what I thought at the time, maybe even just one year! Now I’ve worked on this Stuart Davis Group for almost six years.

I also like the metaphor of musicality in formal abstract painting. I feel when there’s a musical quality, the abstractions really come alive-- become experiential. It’s kind of an old metaphor for abstract painting, but a metaphor I really like. And it’s a metaphor that Davis really liked. You could say he was the inventor of the jazz shape. And for me, with the Davis Group I was able to take up this metaphor-- a synesthesia of shape, color mutating to music and sound. I wanted to do this in a way that would be contemporary, by using photographic reproduction—use the Davis detail like a musical sample.

DG: Since this is a Philly show, and you and Davis are both from Philly, can you talk about what Philadelphia means to you, or what impact it might have had on you growing up?

JH: I’m in Brooklyn because I loved living in Philadelphia so much. Actually, recently I finally forgave my parents for moving the family to upstate NY when I was 10! I always liked the urban texture of Philly. I’ve lived in Brooklyn since moving to NY in the late 70s. Maybe that was my way of reconstituting living in Philadelphia?

DG: It’s funny you said that, because it’s a big reason I live in Philly: it reminds me of Brooklyn. Let’s talk about these sculptures. Can you talk about the timeline, or process of these sculptures – do they predate the paintings?

JH: No, they were actually simultaneous. I had planned to put these sculptures—or objects like them on the surface of the paintings.

Little B

DG: Like the handles on the mirrors?

JH: Yeah, but in a less denotative way—I thought they were going to be dimensional paintings, not word paintings. I tried to make this work for like a year and a half, and it was not happening. So I had all this stuff left over, both the flat enlarged details of the Davis paintings and the objects I had planned to put on them. So if you were to speak about it in Darwinian terms, that particular line bifurcated, and I ended up with a group of sculptures and a group of paintings, each developing in their own way.

DG: They certainly make a nice little ecosystem together.

JH: It was really fun to make sculpture. I don’t normally think about what it means to make sculpture, I’m always thinking about what it means to make a painting. So I thought, here’s a way of challenging myself and shifting perspective. With these sculptures, the question of the pedestal becomes important like the way the panel is important to me in painting. In a way, these are all classic sculptures, you can say each of them has a pedestal, or is itself a pedestal.

DG: Right, because your A is a pedestal.

JH: Yeah, the A will have plants on it.

DG: It’s really fascinating that you started with these sculptures on the paintings, but in the end you felt the paintings needed to be flat. Why didn’t the dimensional idea work for you?

JH: I think there’s an expectation that as artists we proceed through concept, and that there are rational reasons why things are good or not. That’s not the way I work; I have to have an intuition, and follow it as I evaluate whether it’s interesting, or if it makes me happy, or is doing something necessary or mysterious. In the end, it’s not about success or failure of the idea.

DG: It’s more a question of gut feeling?

JH: In this case the mix just wasn’t looking good. At that early stage, I wasn’t trying to put words on the photographic details, just objects on the surface. I wanted to alter the appearance of the Davis details with something more physical than paint.

DG: Were these objects not originally conceived as letters?

JH: No, with the first ones, I discovered they were letters after I made them!

DG: That’s great.

JH: What’s interesting about these paintings is how their materiality is weird. If you look at the painting I’ve done over the photo detail of the Davis painting (with a roller or with spray paint)—it’s a pretty thin layer. But on top of the photograph, the paint feels quite thick. I guess for me the realization was that actually putting something chunky on the Davis compromised the real magic that was possible. I discovered that you could take a really thin layer of paint and make it feel really-

DG: -like a mountain of texture?

JH: Well, like a material/physical experience. It’s almost like that thin layer of paint becomes sculptural against the super-slick flatness of the photograph, which is also funny because the enlarged photograph looks so hyper-textured.

DG: Not only do we go back and forth in recognizing words as opposed to geometric forms, but we also go back and forth between recognizing the photographic representation of texture versus the real texture of actual paint. There’s a lot of flipping.

JH: What I try to do with my work is to remind people and myself, that seeing is a really sophisticated structural act. And I try to make this experience of seeing pleasurable. To feel your vision.

Interview by Daniel Gerwin

Images Courtesy of the Artist

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