Monday, May 31, 2010

How opportunities for space have evolved my practice

Sara Schnadt

Performance/Installation Artist

I borrow from several disciplines for my work, preparation, and space needs. Perhaps as a result, I am highly adaptive and conceive of projects around the logistical parameters at my disposal. Early on in my practice when resources were slim, I would intuitively develop ideas for installations and props based on the quantity and weight of materials I could carry on a bus. I would also consider all of my free brain space, and any activity that stimulated my creative process, as my studio space and practice. Many of my ideas would crystallize while walking down the street, listening to another artist, or seeing work. Realization of an idea would happen on site during the performance, usually as a durational event in a specific site.

This model worked well for many years. In 2006, the ante was upped when curator Julie Laffin invited me to create a site-specific work at the Chicago Cultural Center for the Site Unseen festival. This annual interdisciplinary event has taken over the Cultural Center for one night each November for the past six years with works developed to respond directly to the building. As I gathered myself to develop this new work, I took stock of my practice.

Before this invitation, I had created performances responding somewhat thematically to site, but this was my first substantive opportunity to respond to the architecture and history of a space. It profoundly expanded my work's scale, conceptual depth, and sculptural inventiveness. Prior to my MFA in performance, I had formal training in sculpture and scene design, as well as modern dance and choreography. As I took stock, I realized that eight years after enjoying regular access to a movement studio in graduate school,  my natural idea development had drifted away from movement vocabularies almost entirely. I was  becoming aware of the value of space - that it is instrumental in defining my sense of possibilities.

Re-Trace for Site Unseen at the Cultural Center (Chicago's first public library), compared contemporary and historic relationships to information access and delivery. It also included  a custom-built 30' screen spanning the space, an immersive projection system, and a room-scale projected text array. The performance included task, found movement and abstract dance.

Since, I have created several more works around the theme of information access and technology innovation that are increasingly ambitious spatially. The most recent of these, Network, is currently installed at the Hyde Park Art Center as part of Spacial City. Network spans 2 stories, is primarily up in the air, and was built entirely on a cherry picker.

Each piece since Re-Trace has followed a similar production process. There has been a response to a dynamic site or situation, a phase of intense research and detailed idea development in drawings, material tests and sometimes rehearsal. Then there has been a rather unwieldy build process taking over every inch of my apartment/small spare bedroom studio like a spacial jigsaw puzzle. And finally, an intense install with helpers to get the installation components of the piece up in a few days.

Last spring, just as I was pronouncing this process with great zeal as my studio practice for a rather public blog, I hit a  wall with working this way.

I found myself booking 2 projects with large and labor-intensive install processes back to back, this time without securing any helpers. About 10 hours into the first I realized that I wasn't crazy, I was simply craving time alone in a large space where I could think about my work. Time to look at the visual elements of it, consider where my decision-making could be pushed further, and develop more intimacy with the work than is possible with a piece-meal build process in a small domestic space and a delegation-heavy install process on a tight timetable.

As a solution, I decided to use an Illinois Arts Council Artists' Fellowship grant I had just received for a trial period of dedicated studio space. This was a huge step for me as an artist trained during my graduate education in performance at the School of the Art Institute to think of creative practice exclusively outside of the box of a classical modernist practice. But I was seeing all too plainly from my compulsion for herculean solo install experiences that a practice just needs what it needs. And so I set up a studio.

The financial investment in a studio was also a huge conceptual leap for me, a leap I was only able to make because I had dedicated funding for it. Funding to think bigger around how I set up my life. The grant is no longer financing my studio, but I now see it's value and have adjusted my finances to make the studio a priority.

The space was a 1-bedroom apartment behind my own and included research space, drawing and collage space, material storage where I could see everything as if it were a giant palette, an installation test room, and room for movement work. It was fantastic. It also pushed me in new and humbling ways. It was several months in before I could work consistently for its own sake and for pure exploration. I have always been project-based, and so attempts at all-out play feel to me like working in a creative vacuum.

But even my first rather timid attempts have yielded ideas that are a more 'out on a limb' aesthetically than previous work. And having fleshed-out ideas ready-to-go has also meant I can  take advantage of opportunities at short notice. The most exciting of these so far has been the Loop Alliance's Pop-Up Art Loop program, where I was a pilot artist last winter.

After seeing the benefits of space on my practice, I am also reducing my work schedule to have more time there.

I have yet to take full advantage of the dedicated movement space in my studio. Two recent pieces, Re-Trace and Reading Gestures (also for Site Unseen), have very developed movement ideas. Other works are built primarily on task, with a strong emphasis on installation and a very light or process-based live presence. My 2007 piece Connectivity for the MCA's 12x12 series, for example, involved 'building the internet' as a durational performance over the course of a month.

Three of my most recent pieces don't even have a live element. I imagine this is a result of the intense spacial stimulus provided by recent opportunities and studio space. Pure installation may even be a resulting new direction that will run parallel to my performance-based practice.

I can't help but wonder how I can also push the movement elements of my work.  Last month I moved into a new and larger studio that includes much more space for movement. If I can manage it financially, I will also try adding occasional rehearsal time at a local dance studio to see where that can lead.

Now that I know space to present and especially to create work defines my sense of possibilities, my process and even my creative scope, going forward I will continue to seek out opportunities to 'up the ante'.

Sara Schnadt is a Chicago-based artists working in new media, installation and performance art.  She has shown her in work in Chicago with Pop-Up Art Loop temporary gallery series, 12x12: New Artists New Work at the MCA Chicago, Looptopia, the Site Unseen Performance Festival, Antena Gallery, and the Hyde Park Art Center. National and international shows include Exchange Rate public projection series in LA and New York, Upgrade! - Chain Reaction in Skopje, Macedonia, CINEA Paris, FreeManifesta in Frankfurt, and the Busan Biennale in Busan, South Korea.  Sara co-curates the IN>TIME Performance Series and is co-founder and technologist for the Chicago Artists Resource website at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.

1. Continuity, 2009, photo: John Sisson

2. BJ Krivanek's sound installation for Site Unseen, 2008, photo: John Sisson
3. Re-Trace, 2006, photo: Rachel Aherin
4. Network, 2010
5. Builting Network, 2009, photo: John Sisson
6.-9. Studio shots
10. Network, 2009, photo: John Sisson
11. Connectivity, 2007, photo: John Sisson
12. Connectivity (condensed), 2009, photo: John Sisson

Monday, May 24, 2010

Wayne Rooney’s Love of Abstraction

Adam Brooks and
Mathew Wilson
Industry of the Ordinary

In April, 2004 we found the idea of drawing a line down the sidewalk on State Street in Chicago an entertaining one. We called the gesture A Line in the Sand, (a reference to something a politician had said while referencing a war). The line was to be drawn along the length of a city block and recorded as it approached our camera. 

At the end of the block I was exhausted and surprised by the pain in my knees and in my back. I was, as usual, relieved it was over. I’m never happy about having to actually do the thing. I like having an idea but would be happier if someone else actually did it.

It was here, at the end of the line, that I was arrested. It appeared that a call had been made to the police by one of the store owners who felt that we might distract shoppers.

I was taken, handcuffed, to one of three squad cars that had pulled up next to the commotion. I was again taken aback by the fact that I hadn’t noticed them. I lit a cigarette.

‘Get that out of your mouth!’ It was the first thing that either of the cops said directly to me. One then turned to the photographer and asked if he was involved.

’I’m just taking pictures.’ He was allowed to leave.

At the station I was searched and a box of Crayola was offered as evidence to a tall, white officer with a flat-top. ‘So, we’ve finally arrested a white guy. What did you do?’

I answered.

‘You’re fucking kidding me.’ Flat-Top said to the suddenly servile arresting officer.


Who takes responsibility when we are out on the street? If both members of a collaboration are in the clink, who bails them out? How does public practice like this still need the studio? Is it anything more than a place to store the ephemera of public actions? Could we set up our studio in a storage locker facility? Does the embellishment of this story in its re-telling multiple times become an analogue for the re-skinning over of a pigment-encrusted surface? Can a collaborative practice exist only in the digital trail that reflects the back-and-forth of idea shaping? Years ago, a hack professor told me that if I had a paucity of ideas, I should go into the studio and clean my brushes; is sitting in a bar and throwing ideas into the air while downing Guinness any equivalent? Is that in itself a hackneyed hewing to the Cedar Tavern stereotype?


I am hand-cuffed to a table and questioned. I am asked what I was doing. I answer that I was making performance art. Then I am asked to define it. I say what I always say. The cops ask me what I am going to work on next, and I ramble amiably on until Flat-Top breaks his silence.

“What do you drink?”

“I like Guinness”

“Where’s the best Guinness you’ve had in Chicago?”

I tell him and he offers to buy me a better one the next time I’m in his neighborhood.
Is one of the primary mechanisms of the studio its ability to act as a bridge to the rest of the world, rather than functioning as a mystical, reverent place for the production of precious objects? Is a holding cell at an urban police station a suitable re-positioning of that “creative space”? Does the imprint of a pair of handcuffs on the flesh of the wrist equal the evocative aroma of turpentine? Which is more heroic?

Industry of the Ordinary are Adam Brooks and Mathew Wilson. Through sculpture, text, photography, video and performance, Industry of the Ordinary are dedicated to an exploration and celebration of the customary, the everyday, and the usual. Their emphasis is on challenging pejorative notions of the ordinary and, in doing so, moving beyond the quotidian.

Image captions:
1: Industry of the Ordinary at work
2: A Line in the Sand   (Industry of the Ordinary purchase a flesh colored Crayola and draw a line along State Street in Chicago until the Crayola is sharpened out of existence), 2004, performance, duration 27 minutes
3: In the wake of the piece A Line in the Sand, a bicycle-mounted policeman follows the line that has been drawn along the block of State Street and arrives to arrest one member of Industry of the Ordinary 
4: Exterior of Chicago Police Department District One Headquarters

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Henry Darger Room Collection

Guest Blogger:

Thea Liberty Nichols,
Arts administrator, independent curator and writer

Intuit’s installation is intended to shed light on Darger’s artistic practice through the contents and context of his studio. This glimpse into his working process is not intended to explain away or demystify his work (or to fetishize his belongings), but rather to amplify the reality of its creation, the tangible link between his epic In the Realms of the Unreal, and real life.

— Jessica Moss and Lisa Stone,
co-curators of The Henry Darger Room Collection

The Henry Darger Room Collection, housed within Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, is an evocation of the home and studio of Henry Darger (1892–1973). Darger lived in this modest one room space, formerly located on the second floor of 851 W. Webster St. in Chicago, from 1932 to 1972. Upon his death in 1973, his landlord Nathan Lerner began clearing away the contents of the room when he discovered Darger’s writing and artwork buried under floor to ceiling stacks of his obsessive collections of eyeglasses, piles of shoes and balls of strings.

Intuit staff and volunteers, affectionately dubbed “Darger’s Army,” salvaged, packed and transported many of the remaining objects in 2000, cataloging and preserving them along the way and eventually re-installing them as The Henry Darger Room Collection, completed in 2008.

Objects in the room aren’t sanitized or hermetically sealed away under glass and out of reach. Instead, they slump on side chairs, crowd shelves and decorate walls, enlivening the space and imbuing it with a distinct presence informed by Darger as an individual, and an artist.

Setting foot inside The Henry Darger Room Collection is like entering a time machine. Despite it’s context within Intuit, once past the threshold, visitors are transported into a gripping artist’s environment. Underfoot are salvaged hardwood floorboards, and the room is wrapped by darkly colored walls painted to resemble Darger’s unevenly soot-stained wallpaper. These embellishments provide a backdrop to many original architectural artifacts, including Darger’s well-worn wooden furniture and the cast iron fireplace, with its winking glazed tile and pitted oak mantel.

As in many artists’ homes and studios, Darger collected art and other visual phenomena that inspired him, such as religious statuettes and icons. They were proudly displayed on the mantel, peppered with some of his own works, which were also hung, tacked and even glued to the walls in his original room.

Darger’s workhorse Remington typewriter enjoys a well-earned prominence in the room. It was on this typewriter that he single space typed nine years worth of daily weather journals, several diaries, the 5,000 paged autobiography History of My Life, the 10,000 paged manuscript Adventures in Chicago: Crazy House, and, a work that he later illustrated with 300 watercolor and collage paintings, and for which he is probably best known, the stunning 15,000 page The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.

Commonly referred to as simply In the Realms of the Unreal, Darger began work on this combined war story / quest epic in 1910, and it was in production for over 20 years. It featured the adventures of the seven titular Vivian sisters, a brave band of girls who rebelled against their cruel adult captors, the Glandelinians, in an arduous struggle to free their fellow child slaves. A faithful Catholic and devout churchgoer, Darger let the battle between good and evil hang in the balance throughout the saga, and even penned two endings, one in which the forces of good, embodied by the Vivian girls, triumph, and another in which the wicked Glandelinians defeat them.

While his creative, imaginary life spanned the vast Christian nation of Angelinia, the physical reality of Darger’s room was confined to a meager 17’6” x 13’9” x 9’8” space, and The Henry Darger Room Collection’s is even slightly smaller (10’6” x 11’3” x 8’). Despite it’s size, his art practice included the creation of mural sized, double-sided works extending out so many feet that viewing them in his original room was impossible! They were often bound together in handmade books that were so precious to him that he devoted his bed to storing them, sleeping instead in a chair by his desk.

The books contained in his personal library were equally treasured. Alongside bound scrapbooks he used to house serially collected source material, such as comic strips, he owned chiefly children’s books, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, several of L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery treatise, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Along with his exhaustive knowledge of the Civil War, they were seemingly influential to his narrative In the Realms of the Unreal.


Darger’s actual art making materials were also largely children’s media, such as the affectionately amassed and re-consolidated mound of water color paints, relabeled things like “Storm Cloud Purple” and “Seven not heaven dark green colors.”

Because of Darger’s working process, which combined collage, carbon tracing and negative enlargement, The Henry Darger Room Collection also provides a rare glimpse into the source materials his imagery was appropriated from. High to low print media, including National Geographic, The Saturday Evening Post, and Good House Keeping magazines and newspapers were employed alongside children’s coloring books and comic strips, which were immensely influential to his imagery. A cross section of the approximately 3,000 items from Darger’s personal archive of ephemera and source material are on display, and several pivotal items to Darger’s oeuvre are framed and mounted on the wall. They illustrate how his usage of existent imagery was just the matrix upon which his fertile imagination transformed innocent little girls into emboldened warriors or sacrificial martyrs, frequently stripped of their clothing and ornamented with penises, butterfly wings, clubbed tails or rams horns.

Henry Darger’s art practice and the artwork it produced have influenced generations of artists within Chicago and beyond. His influence was even the subject an exhibition held at
The American Folk Art Museum in New York City, curated by Brooke Davis Anderson and including such artists as Amy Cutler, Anthony Goicolea, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Robyn O'Neil, Grayson Perry— and to that we can add the genre of music, with the popular success of the band The Vivian Girls. Intuit’s Henry Darger Room Collection continues to elicit gasps, sighs and lively dialogue from visitors who come to absorb both the context of his home and the content of his studio alongside excellent examples of the fantastical artworks it contained.

For further information:

Please visit us at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art this Thursday, June 17 at 6pm for the
Henry Darger Lecture “More Little Ways: Henry Darger, Littleness and Fires ‘big or small’,” delivered by art historian Leisa Rundquist. This event is free and open to the public.

schedule an appointment to visit us at The Robert A. Roth Study Center, where you can explore Intuit’s extensive collection of books, periodicals, video media, photos, slides, and archival holdings relating to self taught, art brut, outsider, naïve, and non-traditional folk artworks, artists and art organizations. Microfilm copies of all volumes of In the Realms of the Unreal, The History of My Life, and The Vivian Girls in Chicago by Henry Darger are also available for viewing.

Anderson, Brooke Davis.
Dargerism: Contemporary Artists and Henry Darger. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2008.

Biesenbach, Klaus, with Brooke Davis Anderson and Michael Bonesteel. Henry Darger. New York: Prestel Publishing in cooperation with the American Folk Art Museum, 2009.

In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger
. Directed by Jessica Yu. Port Washington, NY: Fox Lober, 2005.

All images by John Faier and courtesy of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

Thea Liberty Nichols is an arts administrator, independent curator, and writer who lives and works in Chicago. Along with managing Intuit’s Study Center, she also works at the
Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at The Art Institute of Chicago and 65GRAND.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

It's not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam

Guest Blogger:
Sze Lin Pang
Sze Lin Pang is an artist who lives and works.

Notice floor needs sweeping
Read online news, check personal email, delete junk
Watch Daily show, feel nervous 5 minutes in
Launch software
Put one image chronologically behind another
Do it again again again again again again…

Playback, put on headphones, then playback

Playback again, playback again curse
Familiarity ruins it.

Reduce sequence to medium headshots

Put one image chronologically behind another
Do it again again again again again again…
Playback again, playback again curse
It bores visually.

Start another sequence

Interject medium headshots with images of one event
Put one image chronologically behind another
Do it again again again again again again…

Playback again, playback again curse

Collect more images from Internet to use as placeholders
Expand number of events
Expand number of personalities
Listen to sound track without image
Listen to soundtrack with image
Consider exhibiting only soundtrack, no image
Cannot go there yet, attached to original conception still.
Must shake attachment, attachment is prelude to living death of piece

Consider alternating moving image and still image at regular rhythm

Feel the shape of intent massing in the shadows of the work,
It’s at the tip of my fingers
Walk around garden
Fret about deadlines
Fret about upcoming studio visit
Go back inside
Lost feeling for shape
Check email personal and school, send replies
Think about bills to be paid

Put one image chronologically behind another
Do it again again again again again again…
Playback again, playback again curse
Where is the pivot?

Remind self to see Hurtlocker movie. Supposedly it punches the viewer in the gut, like the idea of that, Nauman talks about that too, the baseball bat. Want to see how Bigelow does it with her cinema. Want to see any piece of visceral moving image. Want something to blow mind.
Consider moving back to New York
Think about the first 30 minutes of Apocalypse Now. Think about the production conditions of Apocalypse Now. Imagine Conrad’s real life up river.

Consider smoking pot and watching Apocalypse Now

Decide against it
Read 20 pages of Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K
Fall in love
Think of how to resolve Heidegger’s self; the ultimate human enigma.
Consider going to an opening
Decide against it
Check bank account, humbled, sobered.
Pay student loans. Curse. Worry about affording necessary home repairs.
Check email.
Walk around garden deadhead flowers, weed obsessively.

Must gain power over images, must be able to dictate to them, must not be at their mercy.

Put one image chronologically behind another
Do it again again again again again again…
Playback again, playback again
Massage the shape.

Images:  above: Martin Heidegger; below: Still from the film Apocolypse Now

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Kerry James Marshall Interviewed by John Neff Part ll

Guest Blogger:
John Neff,
Chicago-based Artist and Writer

This is the final post from this week's guest blogger, John Neff - Part ll to John Neff's interview with Kerry James Marshall.

Kerry James Marshall:      Let me go back to the collage, the paper.

John Neff:     Great –I’m still interested in how we get to the grid. For me, the grid of pages is an important thing in your paintings of the 1990s.

KJM:            I was just getting ready to talk about that. When I first started collaging the paper onto to the unstretched canvas to make the grid, I was also interested in creating irregularities in the grid itself. So that the paper would sift up, shift down. Sometimes it would be at a slight angle so there’d be a gap between sheets. There was still a lot of irregularity, even in the grid, because I was still trying to preserve a certain – there’s still a little bit of that rebelliousness, an unwillingness to completely conform.

JN:            And maybe a hangover from abstraction?

KJM:            That’s another thing that goes to what we were talking about earlier, the layering. How when you look at the work, you can read it from the back to the front.

JN:            Both perceptually and materially in most cases.

KJM:               It’s one of those cases of the modernist sensibility oriented towards preserving a relative flatness in the plane that you’re working on – even if you have an illusion of a certain kind of pictorial space.

In the paintings we’re discussing what you always end up with – as long as that grid of paper is there – is an inability to completely invest in the illusion of space. The grid keeps returning you to the surface of the thing. It’s almost like there’s another painting underneath the painting.

JN:            Well, that was another thing that I was thinking about in terms of accident and intention. Was the use of the paper a way of easily fixing mistakes – you could pry out one of the sheets and replace it?

KJM:            But I can’t pry out –

JN:            You can’t?

KJM:            – any of those. No. It would be one thing if I were assembling the painting from already painted pieces of paper. But I’m literally establishing a painting as a pattern underneath the painting that’s going to go on top. I’m composing the relationship between those squares of paper when I put them down. I decide when I want to have a half sheet as opposed to a whole sheet.  I decide –

JN:            Does this occur in relationship to the depicted image?  Or does it occur as a separate process?

KJM:            It’s completely separate. It’s a completely separate process. I do that first.  And then I look, and I say, “Am I satisfied with the ground?” It’s like, “Okay, I got this thing going on.”

JN:            With the idea of what’s going to go on that ground?

KJM:            Not specifically. Because often, when I make up the canvas, the only thing I have is a rough sketch that gives me the shape it’s going to be, the format. I’ll only have, basically, a thumbnail sketch. And then I set up, I make the canvas the size that the shape tells me it’s going to be.

JN:            And then you apply the paper?

KJM:            Right. Then I do the paper.

JN:            Which is done with rabbit-hide glue, or PVA, or . . ?

KJM:            No, with acrylic medium. I use matte medium to set that up.  And while I’m doing that, I’m making a picture with that paper, too.  I’m trying to create an interesting pattern of squares, with gaps that are also interesting . . . And then while that’s drying I go back and I work on the drawings that I’m going to transfer to the surface. 

JN:            When you put those pieces of paper on the canvas with the acrylic medium, it effectively plasticizes them?

KJM:            Yeah. 

JN:            Now you’ve moved to rigid supports made with the PVC – or fiberglass in some cases.

KJM:            Or plexi, clear acrylic.

JN:            Do you conceptualize the plastic, its artificiality, the synthetic quality of that support?  Or is it just a resistant surface that functions like a panel, but has advantages that wood wouldn’t have?

KJM:            It’s largely that. It doesn’t have the weight that wood has and it doesn’t shrink or expand in the same way. It’s lighter and they don’t make a wood panel that’s five feet wide.

JN:            Is the idea of the grid still as important to you as it was in the ‘90s?

KJM:            Well, it was then. It’s not now.

JN:            It’s not. Well, now a different kind of layering is taking place. One that’s got more to do with transparency and opacity, right? As the nature of the surface changes, becoming flatter and smoother, the pictorial devices that are overlapping also come from sources that are flatter and smoother and less about material overlay. A lot of the representational overlays now refer to photography, like the pin-up with the blurred hand or the lens flare and car blur in the big street scene.

My first encounter with your work was your show at the Renaissance Society, and I think because of that those paintings from the mid 1990s are the most significant for me.  That grid has always been an aspect of those paintings that’s reached out to me. But I almost never see it addressed. 

Another large-scale figurative artist who’s been important to me is Jeff Wall. Like you, he adopts certain standards that are taken from the tradition of the grand machine, and almost always has near or at life-size figures. And he also deploys a curious support in relationship to the history of his medium. And in his work, there is always this seam down the middle of the pictures.

KJM:            Right. 

JN:            But when those pictures are reproduced, either they’re done from the original digital file or everything is smoothed by a photographic reproduction.

Something similar happens to your paintings: the facture is obvious in photographs, but some subtleties of the support are effaced.

And one of those subtleties is that grid. I wonder if the tendency of a lot of critics and historians to write from reproductions is something that’s caused people to overlook that device of fabrication.

KJM:            It may be. I think what ends up happening with the way the work gets written about is that the writing never takes into account the picture as a thing. I don’t think they ever think of the picture as an object. And I’m always aware that the picture is an object.

JN:            Isn’t that axiomatic in contemporary art? The picture is a thing. “We don’t need to think about the thing, we just know it’s a thing.”

KJM:            We should always be reminded by some aspect of the picture that it is a thing. I always hope that people will use that as an integral part of the way they talk about the subject matter in the picture, the thing as well.

JN:            One could relate the process that you described of laying the pages on the canvases to literal cultivation, gardening. In the projects paintings and other related pictures, many of the scenes depict – not just gardening, but here I’m thinking of the souvenir picture with the angel carrying the vase of flowers - Is it a stretch to say that there’s a connection between the activities of the figures in the space of the picture and the processes that you’re engaged in when you’re making them? In terms of arrangement and ornamentation and beautification?

KJM:            That’s the thing: this layering thing is really important. It’s a conceptual layering and a material layering and a stylistic layering.

Way back in the ‘70s, Arnold Rubin did a catalogue for an exhibition of African art. [Possibly African Accumulative Sculpture; Power and Display. New York: The Pace Gallery, 1974. Rubin also published the article "Accumulation: Power and Display in African Sculpture," in the May 1975 issue of Artforum] The catalogue was divided into three areas: accumulation, power and display. According to that catalogue, those three factors were the basic aesthetic, conceptual, and material principles of a lot of African art. I started working with that . . .

To a lot of people who subscribe to a notion of the black aesthetic, the practice of and the centrality of ornamentation provides a conceptual logic for a black aesthetic. Take those Nkisi figures, what they call male fetish figures, in the Congo. The notion of accumulation, the notion of ornamentation and display.  Where often, the ornamentation is completely at odds with the underlying narrative structure of the thing.

JN:            Was your embrace of  “accumulation, power and display” gradually folded into an investment in Western, classical styles of composition?  Was that happening as you were developing your notion of the black artist’s relationship to the art world and art history?

KJM:            The idea of a black aesthetic is an important thing for me to explore. When you constantly have to find your own identity within an already existing and over-determining structure, everything ends up being an overlay. Everything is fraught with incredible ambivalence. And so there’s attraction, desire and rejection in almost everything. I think that’s why you see in my work an attraction towards the classical style, but a rejection of the totality of that project.

There’s always what you would call a synchronistic way of adding to classical styles things that are inconsistent with what we expect from those styles. These are the things that animate my activity.  And even if the project ultimately turns out to be a failure, there’s something about being able –

JN:            The project meaning your individual paintings, or the project meaning your life? Which are you talking about? [Laughs] Or is there no difference?

KJM:           Well, in a way, there’s little difference.

JN:            It seems like youlocate your subjectivity entirely within the processes that you’re engaged in and their interaction with specific places. Your relationship to, for example, the art of the past wasn’t one of romantic identification with the lives of the artists. It was what they did, and what position they occupied.

KJM:            To me, that’s the whole thing . . . Everything I do has some sort of strategic implication. What I see as preparing the field for –

JN:            To return of the metaphor of cultivation.

KJM:            But also you could take it to the field of battle. There is an ongoing struggle that on some level previous generations of African American artists never fully engaged.

JN:            What is that struggle? It’s interesting that you use that word given the apparent placidity of a lot of your figures and subjects.

KJM:            Some of that has to do with resisting the conventional narratives in which you encounter the presence of a black figure as subject . . . But the struggle is not – it’s not a struggle for a dignified representation. The struggle is for proprietorship, ownership of the terms of engagement and/or the definitions of a particular proposition. That’s, to me, where the real struggle is.

The way I read it, for most of the artists who preceded us – and for African American artists in general – the struggle, defined by the Civil Rights movement, was a struggle for inclusion and acceptance. Which, as far as I can see, keeps the practitioner perpetually in a secondary state.

If you accept the field as it has been articulated over the last several hundred years - the period in which the Europeans became dominant in the world - the narrative of that dominance, which includes the mastery in the production of artworks, begins to be reified. Once it becomes concrete, in that sense, it becomes unassailable – a fortress of European dominance and mastery in every domain, over people and over ideas and over forms. And around the periphery of that, you have everybody else.

In the beginning, every other culture had produced magnificent artifacts. They existed in either the ancient or the primitive world. Then, after the moment of European dominance, you have no evolutionary links to the development of any sort of philosophical or aesthetic ideas to which those at the periphery can lay claim that have a competitive capacity to challenge the dominance of the European model. That’s the overarching structure. You have generations of people who are now trying to find a place for themselves in the narrative, but their place can only be arrived at and secured if it’s been authorized by the existing structure.

JN:            From inside the castle?

KJM:            From inside the castle. The people inside the castle. We are the barbarians at the gates. And the people inside the castle can look out the turrets, select people from the crowd, and invite them in. So you could become oriented towards waiting out in the crowd and hoping that somebody from inside starts to invite you in. Or you can step out of the crowd and walk around the castle and see if there are places where the chinking is not quite so tight. Figure out where the weaknesses are in the castle so that you can breach the wall and maybe everybody will flood in, as opposed to being let in one at a time.

JN:            Then your conservatism has nothing to do with preservation, preservation of the status quo?

KJM:            I’m not interested in the preservation of the status quo at all. Now, I don’t dismiss the value in the achievements of the existing structure and order.

JN:            But what you’re describing isn’t the model of  “changing the establishment from within.”

KJM:            I’m oriented not only towards trying to understand how things are the way they are, but how you – Mine is a much more competitive model, that believes the current power dynamic is not entitled to remain the current power dynamic. And if more people had the capacity to generate new and/or more meaningful transformation, then you’d have shifting balances of power . . . But you can’t get to that by ignoring the establishment of the previous order.

JN:            So do you have a utopian vision of a society where there’s a sort of generalized mastery?

KJM:            It has more to do with whether or not you will always be a part of a losing team or whether your team actually has the capacity to win the pennant. There is an idealistic element to it, but it’s not particularly utopian because I don’t know that I believe in a broadly distributed happiness, equality. I’m aware that there’s a dynamic tension between people who have capacities and people who don’t. But what I’m not satisfied with is feeling like I’m part of a community that is perpetually outside the capacity to make things happen.

If you buy into a passive relationship to the mechanisms of history – the notion that the processes of history aren’t driven by will as much as they are by contingent circumstances – then you’re in a position where you’re sort of waiting around to see what happens. If interesting things happen, then you say, “Oh, yeah.”

There’s a way in which I’m internalizing the ways that representation has worked, but only so that I can gather up all of that information and perhaps arrive at a synthesis that produces something that nobody expected.

That’s the whole thing.  These are all parts of an experimental process that is designed to gather information and experience and the ability to see things in action as opposed to passively.

JN:            Is the theory you’ve just described, the conceptual relationship to history and production that you’ve just described, something you developed as a rhetoric alongside the development of the picture-making style that we’ve been discussing? Did you think, “I need to figure out a way to verbalize this approach to art that’s compelling and succinct and repeatable”?

KJM:            I have the conviction to communicate it.

JN:            And the performance skills.

KJM:            Maybe it just seems necessary because what I’m really trying to do – I mean, the reason I talk the way I talk – is because maybe somebody else will hear me and say, “Yeah, let’s do this.”

JN:            To return to the missionary idea.

KJM:            Somebody once said to me that I was like an art evangelist.

JN:            Oh, absolutely. 

KJM:            I say these things to everybody . . . I mean to see bands, small bands of black artists committed to trying to assume a dominant position in the arena of visual production or aesthetic philosophy … All of those things that the whole Post-Modernist ethos would claim have reached exhaustion.

We’re past the end game. But the community of black people in general is not even a part of the endgame discourse of Post-Modernism. If you’re not even a part of that – or not a part of that yet – then just before the whole system unwinds or collapses you’ve got to figure out a way to at least get in the game. Otherwise, you’re perpetually on the outside. For anybody who has a measure of self-respect, that’s not a satisfying place to be. To the degree that I’m invested in anything that’s related to the art world, it’s because of that.

John Neff produces works of art, organizes exhibitions and practices art writing. His 2006 installation Pornographic Pantograph with Allusion to Juan Sanchez Cotan (In Progress, Patent Pending) is included in the MCA Chicago's current show Production Site. Neff has curated exhibitions of work by, among others, John Boskovich, Peter Downsbrough, Jeanne Silverthorne and Holt Quentel. His writing has appeared in a number of contexts, including the Chicago-based journal BAT and the exhibition catalogues Vincent Como: In Praise of Darkness... and Doug Ishar: Marginal Waters. Neff received an MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2001. He lives and works in Chicago.

Image Captions and Credits from top to bottom:
Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Pin-Up) 2, 2008
Kerry James Marshall, 7am Sunday Morning, 2003. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Joseph and Jory Shapiro Fund by exchange.