The Decorator's Home: An Interview Of Marco Castillo On Cuba's Incomplete Aesthetic Revolution

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Interview by Oliver Kupper
Portrait by Summer Bowie
Install images courtesy of UTA Artist Space

Marco A. Castillo’s The Decorator’s Home – his first solo exhibition in the United States after 26 years in Los Carpinteros collective – is a microcosm of the dichotomies and failures of modernism’s utopian ideals. Amid a raging Cold War that extended far beyond the US and the USSR, modernism infused a tinge of fascism disguised as national pride in the name of aesthetics, whether it be the folksy arts and crafts dreams of Frank Loyd Wright, or the concrete and rosewood pavilions of Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia. Cuban Modernism offered the same sense of freedom and hope in an embargoed state of isolationism and Marxist fervor. Needless to say, the movement didn’t last long – it sputtered out in the tropical miasma of communism’s last island holdouts. In A Decorator’s Home, Castillo captures this fervor: the dreams of space travel, the dreams of high-minded aesthetics, razor sharp lines, rich wood, and rare materials. All of this is imbued with the paranoia of a global race to the cosmos, and the coded languages of spies trading secrets while their Cuba Libre’s sweat into hotel coasters. In the back of the exhibition, a solemn and heartbreaking film, called Generation, is a symbolic six-minute epitaph for Cuban Modernism’s ambitions, it’s lonely siren songs of paradise, and youth crashed on the shores of their aspirations. In the end, Cuban Modernism’s shipwreck wasn’t due to lack of demand or desire. It was the sense of control that the architect’s of The Revolution – namely Fidel Castro and Che Guevara – needed in order to legitimize their violence and delusions of grandeur. As the movement died, many of the buildings were converted to hospitals, schools, and public works facilities. We got a chance to speak to Castillo about his exhibition, curated by Neville Wakefield, and about his own take on Cuban Modernism’s successes and failures.

OLIVER KUPPER: Where did the name for the show, The Decorator’s Home, come from? 

MARCO CASTILLO: I had been doing research on Cuban Modernity, and there was this generation of designers at the beginning of the revolution that got involved in creating a new static for these people that were going to be the future of this country and the future of the world, because Cuba thought that they would convince the rest of the world to become communist. This needed to have an aesthetic. 

KUPPER: It’s funny how revolutions need an aesthetic.

CASTILLO: This generation designed most of the objects we were supposed to use, like furniture, and also interior design for the spaces, for the workers, for the buses, for the hotels, and for the farmers. But at a certain point, the government stopped being interested in that.

KUPPER: Was it too ambitious?

CASTILLO: I think it was the mood of Fidel Castro. He got radicalized, he got very into Soviet politics, and he militarized the country. And so the static artists became an enemy because they were the creative people. 

KUPPER: Yeah, a little utopian.

CASTILLO: Yes, too liberal. In the seventies, there was censorship for writers. The government destroyed the movement, the design, and the taste. 

KUPPER: How many years was that?

CASTILLO: Twenty years, I would say. In Cuba you have Art Deco, Art Nouveau, but I’m fonder of this utopic moment. People were importing resources from the human past. For the colonial time, they were based on identity and they mixed it with the high-quality design from the northern country.

KUPPER: The northern influence is in your pieces, too.

CASTILLO: Yes, what I’m doing here is basically because this movement was interrupted. This stirred a frustration in all of us; we couldn’t have a complete aesthetic revolution. I behaved like an interior designer at the time, creating my own objects. They are not furniture, and they are not art. They are something in between. 

KUPPER: Object-art.

CASTILLO: Yes, this creates a lot of influence in them. They look like decoration.  

KUPPER: At times it reminds me of Brasília. 

CASTILLO: Yes, except the Brazilians use rosewood, and we use mahogany. Cuba has the most beautiful mahogany. It’s darker than the rest. Also, we have a little bit of the Soviet influence over furniture—more practical. The Brazilians were more like peacocks, more exaggerated at times. 

(walking over to another piece)

KUPPER: What’s that?

CASTILLO: This is the type of wood people use to make cabinets. It smells so good. 

KUPPER: When did you start using caning?

CASTILLO: It was after the Cuban movement. I realized they were using this old material to do things that were very modern. Also, they were doing a lot of screens. There was a very tropical feeling in every piece of furniture—very delicate—you couldn’t really read it immediately. For example, they use a combination of mahogany and white surfaces. It would remind you of a coconut. I did the same here (walks towards screen). I designed the outside of it. I made it white, so it looks a little bit like pieces of coconut. A screen in a very important place called Salon de Protocolo El Laguito, the Protocol Room of El Laguito, inspired this. There is a huge screen that reminds me of this one, but it doesn’t have the alphabet. I added an alphabet because it was sort of an addiction of the Cold War.

KUPPER: Coding…

CASTILLO: Yeah, people really wanted to know these codes; there was lots of paranoia. (laughs) What are they saying? It became almost like art.

KUPPER: Would you consider there to be a Brutalist element to any of these pieces as well?

CASTILLO: You know when you’re dealing with this socialist element, Brutalism is always there. This (pointing to a caning piece with stars) reminds me of our monuments. This is pure Brutalism. 

KUPPER: This is very symbolic.  

CASTILLO: It represents a little bit of the revolution. I come from a country that had a lot of fun—a beautiful, turbulent country. Cuba was very rich in the beginning, but not after the revolution. I represent that as a circle. Simple, beautiful, perfect. It turns into a star, which is a very complex, geometric figure. At the same time, it reminds me of the back or the bottom of a chair. 

KUPPER: What about the rifles?

CASTILLO: The whole exhibition evolves from more abstract work to the more committed, symbolic, and engaged with the later alternative reality. It’s easy for me to imagine that an artist or a designer could have made a poster creating optical art with rifles as a monument, as a creative item. It never happened, and I never saw it, so I made it. 

KUPPER: Was it a military aesthetic?

CASTILLO: There was a moment of militarization. I had to start learning shooting when I was thirteen, and I got these preparations every year until I was eighteen. 

KUPPER: You weren’t going to join the army?

CASTILLO: No, it was not for me. (laughs) I don’t even like weapons. It just fascinated me—the shape of the rifle when you buy it creates a completely different object; it turns into something else. This is an American gun. I think it’s the Springfield. 

KUPPER: It’s a pretty common rifle.

CASTILLO: My grandfather had it. It’s the rifle I always saw when I was a child. He was a hunter. You know what we hunt in Cuba? Guinea chicken. 

KUPPER: What’s a Guinea chicken?

CASTILLO: It’s a beautiful animal.

KUPPER: Not like a Guinea pig?

CASTILLO: No (laughs), it’s a chicken, but it’s so beautiful. It’s a very strange animal. It looks like it’s from a patisserie.

KUPPER: Interesting.

KUPPER: (gesturing towards the sculptures across the room) These definitely remind me of the Cold War shapes—space-age shapes. 

CASTILLO: Totally, because all these amazing designs started in that era. 

KUPPER: It was the beginning of these explorations with satellites and this idea of our future in space.

CASTILLO: The future would be space, the future would be socialist, the future would be capitalist, which there was a big doubt about—there was a fight about it.

The Decorator’s Home is on view through July 13 at UTA Artist Space 403 Foothill Rd. Beverly Hills, CA 90210

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Allegiances And Convictions: A Conversation With June Edmonds And Luis De Jesus

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Interview By Luis De Jesus
Introduction By Summer Bowie
Photographs courtesy of Luis De Jesus Los Angeles


When tasked with defining America, the forefathers of this country attempted to create a union that, though forged in rebellion to an oppressive regime, was ultimately funded by slave labor. By declaring this land a union where all men are created equal, only to deny representation and basic civil liberties to all who are not white men, the framers of our constitution bequeathed to us a contradiction that we are still working to correct today. Almost 250 years later, with the divisive nature of our political system and a multitude of bifurcation points within each party, it seems that defining the American identity has become nearly impossible. While interviewing June Edmonds about her series of flag paintings that comprise Allegiances and Convictions, the current exhibition at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles, Owner/Director Luis De Jesus observed that the colors of the American flag were lifted directly from its British counterpart—it seems reasonable to suggest that our flag is due for an update. Vertically oriented, Edmonds’ flags vary from one to the next in color and pattern. They employ the primary hues of red, yellow, and blue, the three colors necessary to create a full spectrum of brown skin tones. During a recent public conversation between Edmonds and curator/writer Essence Harden hosted by De Jesus, an insightful teenage art student asked about the literal and conceptual roles that labor plays in the surrounding artworks. The student noted the meticulously painted smaller stripes that comprise each of the larger flag stripes, and the uniformity of each performed painted stroke. In person, these paintings certainly provoke questions about all aspects of American life, including the shrinking labor force that is so often leveraged by politicians on both sides of the aisle for personal gain. In an age when the average American seems illiterate or oblivious to abstraction and the power of art, it seems that the emblems to which we are asked to pledge our allegiances are in need of redefinition, and that definition necessitates an honest reflection of who we are: multi-hued, multi-faceted, of varying size, and in constant flux. The following conversation between Luis De Jesus and June Edmonds was conducted this past April at her studio at the Angels Gate Cultural Center in San Pedro, CA, in advance of her first solo exhibition at the gallery.

LUIS DE JESUS: You’ve said that the idea of the flags came to you in a dream in 2017, six months after you returned home from an artist residency in Paducah, Kentucky. What was it about that place, that landscape, that inspired your dream?

JUNE EDMONDS: Being out there, there is a different relationship to the flag. There is also that additional flag. Paducah is pretty much a progressive island within Kentucky, but outside of it is not. While driving to Memphis one day, I saw on top of a hill a Confederate flag as big as this wall. So, if you’ve got a Confederate flag that big in front of your house you really want the world to know something.

DE JESUS: So that planted this idea, this question in your mind about the flag.

EDMONDS: ...and about the power of flags, and what flags communicate, and how flags are appropriated.

DE JESUS: And the fact that you were on that land, you were in a place that played such a big role in the Civil War.

EDMONDS: Applying to Paducah I thought, “Okay, I’m going to No Man’s Land.” I’m going to a place no one’s been to before. But after Trump was elected and America started taking on this new tint, going to Paducah became a whole other idea and I was apprehensive. I was at a party and someone joked, “Well, at least you’re gonna be close to the Ohio River, because if it gets too deep you can swim across.” That sort of planted the seed in my mind. It’s really kind of meaningless right now, but that really meant something at one time. It became really interesting to me—the thought of being on that land 150 years ago. So, I started doing some research and I learned about Margaret Garner. I named the triptych “Ohio Story” after her. Her life is what inspired Toni Morrison to write Beloved. It’s about this woman who was a slave that was as close to the Ohio River as I was at the time.

Story of the Ohio For Margaret, 2017. Courtesy of artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

Story of the Ohio For Margaret, 2017. Courtesy of artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

DE JESUS: How long were you there for?

EDMONDS: One month.

DE JESUS: That visit had a big impact on you. When you came back it stayed with you for a long time, it permeated your daily reality and your dreams, obviously, because you had the dream about these flags some months later, which kind of kicked off this whole project. Tell me about your use of color in these flags because it’s very specific. It’s very different from an earlier body of work, the mandalas inspired by your meditation practice. Is this something that just came naturally? Did you say, “I’m going to paint these flags; I’m going to create a flag.” Did the colors happen naturally or was it something that you had to think about and it was a conscious decision—your decision—not to use bright colors?

EDMONDS: Oh, it was conscious all the way. There are two things that inspired the color. The flags that came to me in my dream were black, but I was already thinking about using skin tones—brown skin tones. “Unina,” a painting I started in Paducah, is evidence of that. When I came back to LA I looked at another painting I started the year before called “Primary Theories” (2016), which used primary colors in brown tones. The idea is that all skin tones come from these particular primary colors that I was using in those works. If life started in Africa, then all skin tones come from that African skin tone. And then I thought back on how African black skin tones are referred to colloquially. You’ve got yellow—you know, we use that term. We use the term red, meaning this sort of Indian black skin tone, and we talk about really dark skin being blue black—primary colors. Those are the three colors that we use to talk about skin tones, to describe somebody that lives down the street.

DE JESUS: This is not something most people know about—unless you’re Black. I’ve never heard of this before.

EDMONDS: I’m really surprised! You being from DC and all!

[Laughter from both]

DE JESUS: Yeah, but I think Black people talk with each other differently.

EDMONDS: Of course, absolutely. When I think of the flag, I’m not going to do red, white, and blue. I’m doing red, yellow, and blue. I’m using the primary colors but still these are primary colors to brown. Very, very loosely, more and more and more loosely, I do consider that. I do consider that orange to be a red, or I consider that purple to be a red violet, or I consider that green to be a blue green. So, it just gets looser and looser.

DE JESUS: We’ve been asked, does she ever create horizontal flags? What’s behind the decision to keep these flags vertical?

EDMONDS: Okay, so two things. First, I dreamt them that way. The second thing is I wasn’t inspired by Jasper Johns, but I am inspired by Jasper Johns–the idea came to me independent of his flags–but I welcome the juxtaposition of those flags. With that said, his are horizontal and I want to keep mine distinct.

DE JESUS: And, typically, that’s how most people identify Johns flags—horizontally.

EDMONDS: These flags are standing for something, so I’m gonna to keep them standing.

Installation view of JUNE EDMONDS:  Allegiances & Convictions , 2019. Courtesy of Luis De Jesus os Angeles. Photo by Michael Underwood.

Installation view of JUNE EDMONDS: Allegiances & Convictions, 2019. Courtesy of Luis De Jesus os Angeles. Photo by Michael Underwood.

DE JESUS: Also, a vertical has references to the standing figure. Seen together like this they sort of become these signposts. Each one has something to say that is unique to it.

EDMONDS: Cool. Do you feel that it abstracts them more?

DE JESUS: Well, that’s something I really love about them. I’ve had to point out to some people that they are flags. They don’t necessarily read them as flags, though some people do. Once I point it out they see it. I love that about it; it’s not obvious. You have to contemplate it a little more. But then the titles give it away.

EDMONDS: So that’s what I like: more abstracted, for it to come to you, and not be immediately legible.

DE JESUS: I have another question for you: have you ever felt that you were creating a new American flag?

EDMONDS: I’ve been thinking about this statement. It’s such a big idea that I shied away from it when you first asked me. But over the days I’ve been thinking, “Well, what are you painting for anyway? What are you doing this for anyway? Don’t you want to shift some ideas?” A new American flag says that we are shifting the idea of what something stands for. I accept that now.

DE JESUS: I love it! You’re embracing it now. I mean, it’s very powerful! To me, this whole idea of interpreting the flag in these colors, in these forms, is very provocative. As people in the art world we can appreciate it on a certain level. But a person who may not have that same connection or perspective may respond very differently. Their response may be similar to yours when you saw that Confederate flag outside of Paducah. They may look at your flag and say, “Oh man, that scares me!” It’s not just that you are making your own statement about the American flag, but you are proposing something quite radical here. It’s like you said, it’s an opportunity to really look at what this stands for, to think about its history, how it has impacted people—not just Black Americans—but all ethnicities who have come to this country, who embrace the flag, who embrace the country, and yet are always going up against things that keep them out, keep them from becoming fully realized Americans.

EDMONDS: I listen to a lot of audible books. One of the last ones I listened to is, The Rebellious Life of Ms. Rosa Parks. You hear about this person who came before Rosa Parks, who didn’t get up, but nobody knows her. Claudette Colvin was 17 years old and months before Parks did what she did somebody told her to get up from her seat. At the time she was studying government in school and she replied, “Don’t you know what the Constitution says?” I thought that was so powerful! So, one of these flags will be named for her.

DE JESUS: I consider what you are doing quite radical. All of your flags are becoming the new American flag. This constant change happening, the shift in colors from band to band and from flag to flag—this is not a static object, but something that represents evolution and change and progress.

EDMONDS: I like that. It’s sort of becoming.

DE JESUS: It’s always becoming, always working towards the goal, the ideal. What you said about the colors made me think of the stripes and the stars, how the design and meaning came from the tradition of European monarchies. The colors are from the British flag. We brought those ideals to this country and it became part of our own design. Yet, the ideals never became fully realized.

EDMONDS: Those colors were intended to stand for something. They probably said: “Okay, this is what it’s going to be. Red means valor. Blue means courage,” or something like that. But the flag is used to validate: this is what’s acceptable and this is what’s not acceptable in America, under this flag. If a person, behavior, or thing is not acceptable, it has no courage, it has no valor... and we all know that’s bullshit. This is important to me.

A Conversation With Adam Miller And Devon Oder, Co-Founders Of The Pit, About The Gallery’s History And Fifth Anniversary.

Interview By Agathe Pinard
Photographs courtesy of Adam Miller


While most newly created galleries couldn’t make it through the hard reality of the art market in Los Angeles and pass the fateful milestone of the first two years, The Pit is about to celebrate its five year anniversary this month. I met with the co-founders and artists, Adam Miller and Devon Oder, for a chat at the gallery’s location in Glendale. As they gave me a tour of the three gallery spaces that make up The Pit , Adam stopped to point out a literal pit on the ground. “Here is The Pit,” he told me. In the forty-five minute long conversation that followed, we retraced the history of The Pit, talked about the benefits of doing it yourself, and pictured LA’s forthcoming art scene.

AGATHE PINARD: Can you tell us a little bit about the artists you’re currently showing?

ADAM MILLER: In the main gallery is Hilary Pecis, she’s an LA-based painter, and this is her first solo exhibition in Los Angeles. In The Pit II is Dani Tull, he’s been working in Los Angeles for many years, and has exhibited internationally. He makes sculpture, installation, and paintings. Hilary’s work is more of a painter’s painter practice: depictions of still lives, snapshots from Los Angeles, moments of her daily life; whereas Dani’s work is more conceptual. A lot of his work deals with mysticism, new age philosophy, and religions. In the zine shop, we have ceramics by Jennifer King, also a Los Angeles-based artist. Finally, in the back gallery, otherwise known as “The Pit Presents,” we have a group exhibition that was organized by Left Field, a gallery from Los Osos, California.

AGATHE PINARD: I heard that before running a gallery you were a musician. Can you talk about that a little?

ADAM MILLER: I moved to Los Angeles in 2006 to get my MFA from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena; that’s where Devon and I met. Previously, I was living in Sacramento where I was involved in the music scene. I moved there when I was eighteen and was already playing in punk bands, and then I moved more into garage and ‘60s revival music. But there was a real DIY ethos in Sacramento. Everyone ran record labels, booked their own tours, organized shows in alternative venues like laundromats, old theaters, and backyards, people made their own t-shirts, etc.. So, when I was young, that’s how life was, and when I was in bands, oftentimes, I was the person who did all that.

DEVON ODER: Of course, he did. As you’ll find out, he gets a lot done. (laughs)

ADAM MILLER: I do a lot of things. That’s basically how I learned to silkscreen. We’d make our own t-shirts in the bathroom of our apartments. During the four or five years I was living there, I helped set up my band with a record deal in Germany, and we were able to tour Europe. When I was in that band, I played the bass and I got a deal with the company, so they were sending me free bass guitars to play while on the road and things like that. So, pretty early on, I realized the benefits of doing it yourself, being super active, and not waiting for people to discover you or do things for you.

AGATHE PINARD: Were you going to school at that time?

ADAM MILLER: During that period of time, I was studying at Sacramento State University majoring in graphic design with a minor in fine art. Which also comes into play because I did a lot of the graphic design for the bands. Now, I do it here for The Pit. After two years, I switched to major in fine art and started organizing art shows at warehouses and underground venues in Sacramento. My first art show was at Kevin Seconds’ coffee shop, from legendary punk band 7 Seconds. Since I didn’t write the music, I felt like there was a shelf life to playing in the bands. I just started feeling less fulfilled playing music because I wasn’t fully expressing myself, and I had less control over it. So, I dropped out of all my bands and decided to apply to grad school. Getting into grad school was my real initiation to the fine art world. In Northern California, there was a bigger sort of graphic, street art component that related to the music scene, so I had been more involved with that.

When Devon and I were in grad school, we really wanted to figure out the LA art scene. We weren’t dating yet, but we both started working for the artist Sterling Ruby. She was the first office employee and I was the second studio assistant. So, while she was doing a lot of logistical, behind-the-scenes stuff for his exhibitions, I was doing fabrication, shipping, and installation while finishing grad school.

We finished grad school in 2008, the economy collapsed, a lot of the galleries in Los Angeles went under. So, I just kind of fell back on the way I was doing things when I was in bands. I started finding alternative spaces around Los Angeles and I would curate a group show. At that time, I’d put my own work in the show, and people were critical of that choice because hardly any artists were doing it. And every time I organized a show, I would make a zine and we would silkscreen the covers.

DEVON ODER: And it was also about extending our community. When you’re in graduate school, you’re in a super tight bubble, and then when you get out, you’re in your studio and you’re kind of twiddling your thumbs. The shows were really this great way to do a ton of studio visits and expand our world.

ADAM MILLER: Devon worked for Sterling Ruby until we opened the gallery in 2014. I worked for him until 2011, and then I decided I wanted my day job to be completely out of the art world. So, the other side of me as a person is that I’m involved in animal rights activism, so I worked for PETA in their grassroots campaigns for five years.

DEVON ODER: And he kept being like, “Let’s open our own space, let’s open our own space!” And at the time, it freaked me out.

AGATHE PINARD: So how did the idea of creating the gallery finally come together?

ADAM MILLER: It was a mix of things. We had done a lot of these shows for like five years and there weren’t many artist-run spaces still in operation in Los Angeles at the time. In 2013, Laura Owens opened 356 Mission, and that was radically inspiring. I think that’s when I was like, “I want to open a space.” I was so inspired to see an artist of her stature taking control of her own career, doing things for the community, for other artists to do things beyond just their own studio, their own practice, their own career, but to think more expansively about what an artist can do for the greater LA art community. Seeing someone just do it, and really shake off the judgment that people had about an artist showing their own work—that you shouldn’t organize your own shows— … Just get rid of these old ideas of what artists should, and shouldn’t do, and just be like, “I’m just gonna do it, and fuck it.”  I thought it was so amazing and we started to look for a space about six months later.

DEVON ODER: So, we had this building as our studios, the part that you’re in right now, and we kept on thinking, “If we open our own space, how are we going to do that with day jobs, with our studio practice, and then another lease?” All of these things were adding up. Then, we were talking to our landlord about some ideas that we had and he was like, “Well, I’ve got these garages and I’ve just had my junk in them for over twenty years. You can have them if you clean them up.”

ADAM MILLER: It took us nine months to remodel and fix up the space; it was really crazy. The building had been a cabinet maker’s business at some point. So all the walls were covered in cabinetry and pockets of storage stuff that had just been gathering dust, and there was a dropped ceiling, broken windows, molded walls. It was a big undertaking.

DEVON ODER: We were wondering if this even could turn into a nice, pretty gallery?

AGATHE PINARD: You’d have to be pretty imaginative.

ADAM MILLER: It was 2013 when we started building the gallery. Most other galleries were still in Culver City, Hollywood, and Downtown was the new place where galleries were cropping up, but no one was located as far east as us. So that was another thing; we wondered if anyone would ever even come here.

DEVON ODER: When we opened it wasn’t a commercial gallery; it was a real artist project space. We did group shows curated by us, as well as by other artists. We did that for a couple of years.

ADAM MILLER: Yeah, we were several years in before we even had any public hours. I think we did two years of appointment-only.

 AGATHE PINARD: At the beginning, in 2014, The Pit was a project space for wide-ranging group shows. Five years later, The Pit now has three galleries and a zine shop. Can you talk about the evolution of the project?

ADAM MILLER: We’ve slowly been able to take over more and more of the building.

DEVON ODER: Adam’s whole motto is if there is any available space you need to do something with it.

ADAM MILLER: What happened with The Pit II is that someone living across the street had a fancy car and just stored it in there. Every day that we would be here working he would pull it out and wash it in front of the gallery. It was a really funny scenario. This older guy would take his shirt off and wash the car, wax it, and stuff.  Anyways, eventually he sold the car and didn’t need the space anymore.

DEVON ODER: And we always said right when we met him: “if you ever want to give up that garage, we’ll take it.”

ADAM MILLER: The first Pit II show opened in February 2015, so we were a year and a half in. That was the first time we ever did a solo show. We had only done group shows up to that point. That was a big moment for us because it  really shifted the direction of the gallery. We started finding that working with one artist for a longer period of time on a solo project was so rewarding. Doing group shows was such a different experience. Group shows are really, really fun, but when you work with a friend, or someone who becomes a friend, you help them realize this vision; this big thing for their career—which is a solo show. It just feels like such a monumental thing in an artist’s life and it just feels more collaborative. Then somewhere along the line we started doing art fairs and became more commercial, started selling things, and I was able to leave my day job at a certain point.

 AGATHE PINARD: The Pit Presents, one of the exhibition spaces, hosts galleries from other cities in a series of residencies and swaps. Can you talk about the initiative behind it?

ADAM MILLER: The back gallery (The Pit Presents) was three single car garages that we took over. A laundromat was using them for storage. The landlord asked if we’d want to take another chunk of the building and we snatched them up because, in my mind, if any space is available we should do something interesting with it.

DEVON ODER: We had no plans on expanding at that point.

ADAM MILLER: To be frank, at the time, we weren’t making enough sales in order to take on more overhead. So, we thought let’s just remodel it and we’ll rent it to another gallery. Then we’ll have a neighbor, and we can have shared openings and parties together. That was our initial idea. So we built it out, made it really nice, and started looking for someone to rent it. We got the space in 2017, and September 2018 was the first show. We were contacting people about renting out the gallery and we were speaking to a friend of ours who runs a gallery in Mexico City, who had an idea to run it as a collaborative. So he and four other gallerists from Latin America rented the space, and they called it Ruberta, which is the name of the street that we’re on. Each gallery got to do one show throughout the year. During that time The Getty was doing the Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, which had an emphasis on Los Angeles and Latin American connections in contemporary art. They rented the space, created Ruberta, and then their exhibitions and projects were promoted through the Getty and associated with Pacific Standard Time. So, it was a really amazing thing. That was only going to be one year. It ended last summer and we were trying to think of what to do with the gallery moving forward. I’m the primary salesperson, and we don’t really have the staff or manpower to fully program and sell a third space year round. We were trying to think about what was successful with Ruberta and how to start doing something similar, but in-house. So, basically we could insure it, staff it, and have a little more control. An issue with that was that they were all out of town, and had very limited hours. People were constantly asking us to open it up and we were uncomfortable doing that because it wasn’t our space, and we couldn’t speak intelligently about all the art, all the time.

That’s when we decided to do The Pit Presents, which is almost like a residency. We invite other galleries, whom we select, they put on a show, they program it, and they sell it, in most cases.

AGATHE PINARD: The art market being what it is right now, which aspects of founding a gallery have come most naturally, and which have been the most difficult? 

ADAM MILLER: Well, the financial aspect is probably the most difficult. The best part is working with the artists and having a platform to support them. It will always be my favorite thing about owning a gallery.

DEVON ODER: The hardest part is being a business person.

ADAM MILLER: We’ve had to figure out how it worked. I think we have a different business model than most galleries. To be frank, that’s why we’re in Glendale: keep our overhead as low as we possibly can—and part of that is being outside of the normal gallery hubs. That’s why we now do so many shows at a time. We’re always trying to think outside the box. I would say that a normal gallery’s business model is to have a really nice space with fairly high overhead, and then do one show at a time of pretty expensive artworks, and depend on selling enough of that to cover everything. That’s the opposite of us.  We keep it as low as we can, and we have lots of different opportunities for sales at various price points. We also sell shirts, artist books, limited editions, and host a lot events to keep people coming back to the shows and spend time in the zine shop.

DEVON ODER: Which allows us to be able to keep doing experimental things that might be more difficult to sell.

ADAM MILLER: You have to offset those with other things and figure that out. Budgets and profit/loss reports… that’s the not fun part, but it’s an important part that you have to learn.

AGATHE PINARD: How does an artist-run gallery compete with, and cohabitate with, much larger, blue-chip galleries, and such? What’s your relationship to them?

ADAM MILLER: Our roster of represented artists focuses primarily on emerging artists, but we work with a fair amount of larger, mid-career artists. So, usually, when we work with a bigger artist, we’re trying to see how we can collaborate with their bigger galleries to make it successful for everyone. We do really well with getting press for artists; they’re able to do more experimental projects that they might not be able to do in a bigger space that has a different type of overhead.

When we work with a bigger artist that’s been showing in a bigger gallery, I almost feel like we become their PR machine. Ideally, we’ll get them a lot of press. We have done quite well with certain artists, where they’ve been showing at great galleries, but maybe things have slowed down a little bit, and then we’ve been able to do a show with them and get them press by really pushing things hard on social media and through our networks. And the year after that, we’ll see that they have two or three shows with different galleries and they’re being taken to different fairs. Not that we are exclusively responsible for that, but I think we can help re-kickstart things and get a different audience to look at the work.

DEVON ODER: And then, we get to work with some of our idols; people we admire. That’s been so exciting.

AGATHE PINARD: You just participated in the first ever Frieze Art Fair in Los Angeles earlier this year. What was the experience like?

ADAM MILLER: It was an amazing experience for us, really great. It felt like a real validating moment—being one of the artist-run spaces. We were by far one of the smallest galleries there. The reception was wonderful. We did incredibly well both in networking and sales. It was also super good exposure for the artists. From a sales point of view, this is the strongest year the gallery has ever had, and a lot of it goes back to starting the year off so strong with that fair.

DEVON ODER: For a young, small gallery like us, fairs are the trickiest thing ever because they’re so expensive to do and if they don’t work it’s hard to recover. But when it does work, it can be so beneficial. Frieze was invitational and we just felt very great being there. It had a good vibe, good energy.

ADAM MILLER: It really felt like the LA art scene was championing us a little bit, it was really nice. We felt like the underdogs who made it to the big leagues or something. As Devon was saying, for us one fair can be a quarter of the year’s overhead. So, if we take a big hit on a fair, it can completely screw us up financially for the year, so we have to be very careful.

DEVON ODER: The artists that we represent tend to be emerging, so we have to sell more pieces because the price points tend to be lower.

AGATHE PINARD: How do you envision Los Angeles’s artistic landscape in the future?

ADAM MILLER: I picture it continuing to spread out away from the hubs in Hollywood and Culver City and Downtown. Galleries will start being more independent, in terms of looking elsewhere for lower overhead, rather than clustering together. I feel like when galleries cluster together it ends up driving up the rents in those neighborhoods, and eventually they leave looking for new spaces, and in the process a number of the galleries will close because it’s expensive to get a new space and move your business. I hope that there will continue to be more artist-run spaces. There are a plethora of young artist-run spaces now, which is amazing, and I hope that more will continue to open. We need more new galleries too, not just artist-run spaces, in particular we need more smaller galleries.

DEVON ODER: What’s so exciting now is that I feel like there are so many artist-run spaces again. So many artists are doing interesting things; it feels very active. Los Angeles just feels so active and free. People are opening spaces wherever. There’s artist-run spaces opening in Alhambra, Pasadena, everywhere. That’s exciting, it creates more opportunities for artists and allows for more diverse practices to thrive.

AGATHE PINARD: I also feel like the DIY movement that Adam was talking about in Sacramento is going strong right now in LA. I have friends opening mini art galleries in their backyard shed; they just remodeled the whole thing and made a tiny gallery that can maybe fit five or ten people at the same time.

DEVON ODER: Yes, if you’ve got the space, just use it! I love apartment galleries… just utilizing the space, just getting the work seen, and having that accessibility is really great.

 AGATHE PINARD: What’s coming up next for The Pit?

DEVON ODER: Our five-year anniversary is next month, so we’re throwing a huge party. We’ll have a solo show by Benjamin Weissman in the main space, who is an artist that we’ve known and loved for years. He taught both of us at Art Center and we now represent him at The Pit. In the Pit II, Jaime Muñoz will be curating a  group show. Tyler Mako will be in The Pit Presents. In our zine shop, we will be doing a solo exhibition by Christina Tubbs which will also be a benefit for the Exceptional Children’s Foundation Art Centers. The ECF Art Centers are a series of four professional art studios located across Los Angeles County that create artistic opportunities for artists with developmental disabilities. We are very excited to be able to support this amazing non-profit and to showcase the work of one of their talented artists.

ADAM MILLER: At the party, we will have a performance by KISK, a KISS tribute band, which includes the artist Jon Pylypchuk. He is a good friend of ours and a supporter of the gallery from the beginning. 

DEVON ODER: He was in our third show here at the gallery. He’ll be performing, we’ll have food trucks, our friends will be DJing, so please come!

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A Voyage Into Sight, Sound and Surf: An Interview Of Filmmaker Chris Gentile

Interview by Agathe Pinard

Self Discovery for Social Survival is the surf/music feature film born from the collaboration of Chris Gentile from New York-based surf brand Pilgrim Surf + Supply and Keith Abrahmsson from the record label Mexican Summer. Together they started this ambitious project to connect surf, sound and sight and make a film that would satisfy most senses. World-renowned surfers including Stephanie Gilmore, Ryan Burch, Creed McTaggart and Ellis Ericson joined musicians Allah-Las, Peaking Lights, Connan Mockasin and MGMT ’s Andrew VanWyngarden on this surf journey starting from a secret spot in Mexico, to the southern atolls of the Maldive Islands, and ending in the cold waters of Iceland. The film is narrated by a man who is often referenced as the godfather of American avant-garde, the late Jonas Mekas. I had the chance to talk to the artist, photographer and film director Chris Gentile about the making of his first feature-length film, bringing together artists and surfers, and working with Jonas Mekas.

AGATHE PINARD: I wanted to start by asking about the meaning behind the title, Self Discovery for Social Survival, can you explain it?

CHRIS GENTILE: When we started to conceptualize the film, myself and Keith Abrahamsson from Mexican Summer, we were thinking a lot about music and its relationship to surfing. Surfing is this activity, this pursuit that people engage in and that kind of helps people detach from what they’re do day-to-day, give them some contemplative time to sort of go inward and we were trying to come up with this name, and along the way I came across an old book that was written for climbing, for people who would free climb and climb up mountains. It was basically a book that gave people a pathway to overcome fear. The book was titled Self Discovery for Social Survival. Keith and I both felt like that really resonated with the spirit of what this film was about. Surfers are constantly looking for that open and free space to have a moment in nature, where two forces are meeting each other and the surfers are in the space where the energy that’s coming from nature is dying and being born at the same time. We felt like this title had a lot of metaphoric possibilities and decided to go for it. It’s a mouthful, it’s a big title.

PINARD: This is an ambitious project that mixes surfing, music and animation done by the in house designer of Mexican Summer…

GENTILE: Yes, Bailey Elder but also Robert Beatty, who’s an independent artist and illustrator.

PINARD: How did the idea/project come together ?

It was evolving the whole time we were making the film, it was a very open-ended and experimental process. The one thing that I really wanted to maintain was an open-endedness with everybody involved. So there are multiple points of influence that went into the filmmaking. I didn’t give the surfers any directions while they surfed. We travelled together, we picked these particular places, and they were reacting to the waves that were there for a two-week period of time, and the cinematographers were reacting to the way the surfers were surfing, positioning themselves to get the shot that felt right. I really left a lot of that control up to them. The musicians who were involved were on these trips and they were in the water and surfing the same waves that the professional surfers we travelled with were surfing. They have a first experience and perspective on what was going on. The idea was to let them go back into the studio and have complete creative freedom over the music that they wrote in reaction.

PINARD: What about the animation?

GENTILE: When that came into play, we showed a rough cut to Bailey and Robert. Then Keith Abrahamsson picked a couple of songs that he felt were appropriate to transition from one location like Mexico to the Maldives. To put a song and an animation that would kind of be like a mental palette cleanser, Keith came up with these two fantastic songs. One was an archival song from the seventies, “Void Spirit,” and the other one was a song that was made by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma for the film. Jefre isn’t a surfer, he wasn’t on the trip but he made these beautiful compositions inspired by the idea of being under water, being under the ocean. So, those tracks were given to Bailey and Robert along with the access to this footage, and they reacted and created these animations. Everything was very independent to one another, every aspect of the film. I kind of kept everything on track and helped people when they need my help, but really it was exercise––relinquishing ego and control, and letting everybody’s influence come in and affect the overall project.

PINARD: That’s funny, last week I interviewed Connan Mockasin and we talked about the trip he made to Iceland for the movie, and how he was impressed at the beginning to be around these professional surfers like Stephanie Gilmore who’s a seven-time world champion.

GENTILE: One of the things that I had to do was to think deeply about the personalities that we were going to introduce to one another on these adventures because most of the people didn’t know each other. And taking a surf trip, you don’t know what you’re going to get. There’s no guarantee that the waves are going to be good, or that the weather is going to be good, or a tire may go flat. You may miss opportunities or you may get opportunities that you would never expect. When we went on these trips I had to think about how the group would feel and I was just going off my own instincts and my own guts. The trip to Iceland was really special because it was a group of really different people. They all had a sincere admiration and appreciation for one another. Everyone became fast friends. Iceland was interesting because we were traveling all over that country chasing these storms and these waves. Sometimes getting them and sometimes missing them, but we spent so much time in these vans just traveling across this incredible landscape. Everyone got a lot of time to know each other, more so than on the other trips because on the other trips it was a lot more surfing, people were getting tired, it was different. Iceland was the one where I think the actual chase for the waves was the beauty in that trip, more so than the wave riding.

PINARD: For the movie you took some surfers and went on a trip to Mexico, the Maldives and Iceland, which one was your favorite ?

GENTILE: That’s a great question. I mean, I’ve been to that spot in Mexico so many times and it’s one of my favorite places on the planet. I loved the opportunity to go down there with that group of people, but I have to say the Maldives was really unique and special, because we had this group of Australian surfers together that were kind of like a brotherhood. That trip, we were on a boat, the whole entire time, on an old, old boat. It travels really slowly, had a lot of character and a great captain and a great crew. It was not posh by any means, it was kind of a busted boat. But it was so fun because everybody was just excited to be around each other, find waves, fish. The kind of boredom that you experience on these boats, these guys were wild and doing the most hilarious stuff. Some of it we couldn’t put in the movie it was crazy, drunken backflips off of the boat completely nude at like 3 o’clock in the morning. It was incredible, very memorable.

PINARD: The film is narrated by the late, legendary Jonas Mekas, it might have been the last project he worked on...

GENTILE: I know that Jonas filmed his life every day, so I’m sure that that footage is truly his last work. On this project we were so fortunate to have him agree to come and narrate. The words are Jamie Brisick and Jonas read them. It was so special to get to meet him and experience his humility and his generosity, it was fantastic. If it weren’t for Jonas, I don’t think we could have made a film like this. He’s had so much influence on me as a young artist throughout my life. He gave us, me and the rest of the people at Mexican Summer, everyone, he truly gave us the license to make the film. So, to have him narrate it was an honor, it was so special.

PINARD: How did you get him to work on the project?

GENTILE: Keith Abrahamsson is really responsible for that. Keith presented him with this idea and had already been working with Jonas on a couple of other things, helping him with his archives. They had a working relationship together. Keith asked him if he would be up for narrating the film, and explained to him what it was, and I think it was so strange that he thought it was worth doing. It wasn’t very difficult. He got in a recording studio with him, drank a couple glasses of wine, and I think in one or two takes he nailed the narration. It was great.

PINARD: The movie will premiere in LA this Saturday, are you excited? How do you feel about it ?

GENTILE: I’m a little nervous, I’ve never directed a film before. I’ve made a lot of short films, experimental films, but nothing that’s feature-length, and at this scale, and this level of production. I’m so grateful to have the experience. I’ve learned a lot from it. I’m really excited to see it in front of an audience, see the reaction, see the bands perform live to it, it’s going to be so special.


Self Discovery For Social Survival will premiere in Los Angeles this Saturday June 15 at The Palace Theatre with a live score by Connan Mockasin, Andrew VanWyngarden of MGMT and Allah-Las

The film is out digitally on June 18 and available to pre-order now at https://geni.us/SDSS .






The Meme Is A Virus: An Interview Of @JERRYGOGOSIAN

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Misery loves company, and the art scene is full of miserable people. In our vast, virtual memetic culture, @JERRYGOGOSIAN is dissecting the great unregulated art market and its strange ecosystem of fear, lies and egomaniacism. Everyone knows she, or he, is on the inside, but the constant guessing only fuels the fire: Who is @JERRYGOGOSIAN?

 SUMMER BOWIE: You’re making memes about a very niche world that takes itself very seriously, but do you think it’s the very fact that you’re allowing serious people to laugh at themselves that makes it resonate so deeply?

@JERRYGOGOSIAN: At every level of the art world I’ve ever occupied, I like to remind myself that I’m not curing cancer, disarming landmines, or figuring out what to do with nuclear waste. When I was an intern, there was this other intern that would cry everytime we got bitched out by the director of the gallery. I would stand there holding my breath and pinching my leg so I wouldn’t burst out laughing. Like I’m spending my time working for you, for free, on menial tasks so you can go to Nobu for lunch and get a pedicure in before your event tonight at MoMA and then you talk to me like I’m an imbecile and expect me to obediently serve you? LMAO. I might just make a “few more mistakes. Oops!” I’ve always been irreverent to the art world structure, especially the hierarchy because it is genuinely absurdist.

BOWIE: Which of your posts has garnered the most engagement, and do you have any theories as to why? 

@JERRYGOGOSIAN: People love the character profiles that I write. They’re all amalgamations of real people I know in the NYC and LA art world. I don’t have to try to be witty or smart. As we all know, the more you observe it, reality trumps fiction any day. For every character profile I write people either comment “that’s me” or “I know her.” Despite these descriptions seeming pretty specific, there are some overarching caricatures in the art world that may or may not have been articulated until now. Some people have accused me of being harsh on my characters and I’m just like “no, no, that’s like the combination of four people I love.” I write about each one with so much affection. We’re all idiosyncratic and predictable at some point. I think it’s cute.  

BOWIE: Have you noticed any topics that trend more than others?

@JERRYGOGOSIAN: Like any good propagandist, I’m tapping into an unconscious, herd mentality system of fearful, false beliefs. In essence, this page wouldn’t function without insecurity. People are obsessed with the following: exclusivity, FOMO, class, financial competition/disparity, and the art world pecking order. Ironically,for me to make these memes, I’ve got to be pretty honest with my own internal dialog about the art world. I don’t exclude myself from insecurity, but I’m highly sensitive to what it looks and sounds like because ultimately I’d like to spiritually transcend this rung of middle school hell. The realer the post, the bigger the response I receive. Insecurity is trending on the semiotic level disguised as cultural cache, flippant coolness, excessive wealth, recklessness, art world privilege, and jet setting.

BOWIE: Like anyone who indicts with mockery on the Internet, you’ve received both praise and angered criticism for your posts. What are some of the assumptions people make about your identity or perspective?

@JERRYGOGOSIAN: I keep trying to remind people that Jerry’s page is not the court of public opinion. I’m one person putting images to text based on my lived experiences and observations. If it read any other way, it would be disingenuous. I’m not going to larp in the digital realm to please every demographic that comes across

To date, I’ve been called a misogynist, racist, sexist, a MAGA supporter, a white feminist, a classist rich bitch, an art bro, and the list goes on. Bare with me here, but there is some major “Yanni/Laurel” cognitive dissonance going on politically which spills over into the art world. I’ve had to nicely try to explain to people in my DM’s that if they can’t decipher the court jester pointing his finger at the king and calling him an asshole, then I really can’t help them develop a sense of humor.

BOWIE: Do you take any of those criticisms into account, or do they affect your perspective in any way?

@JERRYGOGOSIAN: Someone attacked me the other day for not investigating whiteness enough. I had no good response other than to challenge them to make a funny art meme page which they felt better “investigated whiteness.” What else could I say?

My skin is pretty thick from all the angry gallerists I’ve worked under. I can also play rhetorical gymnastics like the best of them. At the end of the day, none of these people know who I am IRL. They can project their feelings onto this fictitious character, but alas, it’s all micro-fiction coming from one subjective experience. My therapist tells me I’m not responsible for other people’s feelings. She's making more money than me, so I’ll respect her authority.

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BOWIE: The role of the art critic has changed dramatically now that we live in a world dominated by social media. I constantly hear the critics referencing art history, theory, and words of wisdom from venerable curators. However, this is a rare occurrence with artists or even gallerists. Do you feel like artists and gallerists are still reading criticism—apart from what’s written about them personally?

 @JERRYGOGOSIAN: I don’t think people honestly read art criticism anymore unless they’re in grad school or they’re an actual art critic. I think people use art journalism like Yelp reviews, skimming it over for a few names and key buzzwords before clicking over to PornHub. I mean with rare exceptions, isn’t most art journalism and fluffy “critique” pay to play at this point? Don’t get me started on Artsy, Artnet, Art Forum, Art in America, etc. In the “deep fake” state we live in with 24-hour news media cycles and all-consuming social media platforms, I’m not sure you can really trust anyone other than yourself to truly be critical.

BOWIE: Your Instagram handle is clearly an amalgam of @fuckjerry, Larry Gagosian, and Jerry Saltz. How do you feel about these titans of the Internet and art world, and what do you think the future holds for them?

@JERRYGOGOSIAN: I’m sure they’ll all be human centipeding in hell, but in this life they’re living like gods. Larry Gagosian is the scariest man on earth and I wish he was my father. I’d like to inherit his empire and then slowly, but surely, dethrone half of his artists and celebrate alternative versions of the art world narrative. His gallery has constructed what most people believe contemporary art to be through market manipulation and monopolization. I admire and resent him for that achievement.  @jerrysaltz I met a few times in NYC. One time he walked up to me and asked me if I was (me IRL) and I said “Yeah, why?” He said, and I quote, “You’re a real artist, ya know that? You know how to frame perversion and that’s a gift.” I’d have wet my panties if  John Waters or David Sedaris had said that to me, but I guess that was my Jerry Saltz review and I’ll take it. He’s got charisma and hates Trump, but he could tone down the pussy stuff on his Instagram.

BOWIE: I want to talk about the phenomenology of the 21st-century meme. Do you think it’s a sign of human advancement that we’ve whittled complex ideas down to a few words and an image, as opposed to a short fable like Adam & Eve, or is it a reflection of our devolution that the average reader no longer has the capacity to weigh the many complexities of our world?

 @JERRYGOGOSIAN: I love this question! First off, never underestimate the power of a cave man’s grunt, Cesar’s thumbs down, or a death stare as powerful and effective forms of communication. Simple is always best. Why should the efficacy of a meme be classed any different? If anything, it takes high forms of cultural literacy to put together the puzzle of each piece of micro-fiction that writes each joke.

I think there is an art to reading and writing memetic language that reminds me a lot of “reading people, style, or situations” a la Paris is Burning <3 If you can keep it real, do it fast, and crack the funniest joke it feels like a genuine discourse (on Adderall.) It’s semi primitive in its output, but highly effective for spreading information quickly and sharing sentiments.

BOWIE: Do you feel like you have any agenda when it comes to your participation with the art world?

@JERRYGOGOSIAN: I used to want to be Larry Gagosian’s arch nemesis, but I’m a little more zen about it these days. My only agenda is to make people laugh and give people a gentle reprieve before they’re demeaned for misprinting a price on a checklist while working for minimum wage or being asked to give a collector free psychotherapy on a sales lunch.

Some of the lesser liked, but very real memes tend to be about my spiritual connection to art and my inability to escape it. Despite all the shit I talk, paintings regularly make me cry, I read poetry out loud, real artists are angel/aliens I’m blessed to know, and I watch long, boring European cinema with great delight; allowing it to depress me for days. I am a sap who loves art more than anything else in the world. It has completely taken over my life.

So my agenda is basically to just talk about all my complicated feelings to an audience that needs a chuckle.

BOWIE: If there were one thing you could see change within the art market, what would it be?

@JERRYGOGOSIAN: Only one? (sigh, ok) I’d cancel fake art. Andy Warhol was a genius, but I think he was intentionally misread by a bunch of morons who basically turned the zeitgeist of contemporary art into a market-driven hoax manipulated by charlatans. People, in earnest, are always telling me they want to “start the career of a fake artist” and I’m like “why don’t you give a real artist a fucking chance?”

And don’t get me started on the CIA creating abstract expressionism as a ploy to play Cold War espionage games and then I’ve got people telling me there’s something wrong with me when I feel nothing at the Rothko Chapel. I’ve sat there and done the staring thing for long enough. I once licked a Rothko in Washington DC. It did nothing for me.

CANCEL FAKE ART. Buh-byyyye.

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Bad Sin Frutas: An Interview With Painter Morgan Mandalay

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text and photographs by Summer Bowie

Are you staring directly into the mouth of the beast, or are you indeed sitting inside said mouth, observing the surreal landscape below? This is just one of the many visual homonyms that are ever-present in the works of Morgan Mandalay. For his first solo exhibition at Klowden Mann in Los Angeles, the Chicago-based artist has painted worlds that are rife with reference to human figuration, though only vaguely, in the form of phantom hands clutching at tree branches, or humanoid eyeballs peeking through leaves. Traces of our existence are evident in the still life formations of pitted fruits, or in fish hung by twine, and most conspicuously in the presence of a large brick wall. Otherwise, these worlds seem to be inhabited by fruit and flora that rot and burn on the vine, trees that seem to bear both lemons and pears simultaneously; a world where omniscient angels are standing by for either the sake of protection and salvation, or eternal damnation. Bad Sin Frutas tells a story of exile using the memetic power of the Garden of Eden as a template for processing the Mandalay family’s exile from Cuba, and it does so in a time of global refugee crises. As far as its temporal grounding, Morgan sighs with a reticence to use the term “post Anthropic” when he points to what this world might be gesturing towards. The mild humiliation on his part seems to come from two places. The first might be a feeling of sounding trite, knowing that the post Anthropocene is a well-explored subject in contemporary art. The second might be that he and I have known each other since we were teenagers in San Diego, or perhaps, we only know each other as teenagers, and having only recently reconnected, he knows this is a term that our teenage selves would find grossly didactic. To me, it seems a perfect paradox for this parallel universe we seem to be inhabiting where the past is constantly colliding with the present, further perplexing our sense of the future. I got a chance to preview the show with Morgan and talk about his perpetual use of quizzical homonyms, his nomadic life as an artist, and the interdependent qualities of one’s creative and administrative efforts.

SUMMER BOWIE: Let’s just start with the title of the show, Bad Sin Frutas. Can you tell me a bit about it’s meaning? Is it Bad Sin [Spanish pronunciation] Frutas, or Bad Sin [English pronunciation] Frutas?

MANDALAY: (laughs) Yeah, I mean that’s it. Well, my titles are generally a play on language and scrambling language, or a play with the mutability of meaning, as an extension of understanding a fluid self. Language, in whatever form, be it written, spoken, painted or whatever, as a kind of marker of self. "Norman Amygdala" was an anagram of my name, "Scene of Shipwreck", "Thank you squash banana. I'm not an ape, you are"…they’re all plays on homonym or mistranslation. Originally I’d been thinking the show should be called “Sin Frutas,” but I was also toying with “Bad.” My partner (Kim-Anh Schreiber) is who suggested the merger and I think it was way more effective. Bad Sin Frutas

BOWIE: You have a multi-pupiled demon that started showing up in your work in 2017, in this series of works they appear but are hidden in lean layers, can you tell me a bit about where that came from?

MANDALAY: Right, the cherubim. They come from the book of Ezekiel and they appear to be demons, but they’re actually angels who guard the gates to the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword. They’re described as having multiple faces, and the multiple pupils convey the motion of their eyes, which are all-seeing, and constantly observing and judging and protecting.

BOWIE: So, they were basically like the Biblical Big Brother? (laughs) When you say cherubim, the image in my mind is that of a bored, chubby baby.

MANDALAY: Well, yeah we have a very diluted idea of angels nowadays, but in the order of angels there are cherubim, seraphim, the throne, archangels, and four others. The seraphim are usually depicted with six wings and the cherubim have four wings. They all have different purposes that they serve, and were we to have grown up in Europe during the Middle Ages, we would more likely be familiar with the types of angels represented in these Biblical paintings, and the roles that they play in the Bible. However, we grew up on Touched By An Angel, and City of Angels, and Michael, and Angels in the Outfield, so at this point most of us are imagining someone sexy with washboard abs or, yeah, the like…Rococo fat Cupid baby.

BOWIE: Can you talk about Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” and how that fits into your work?

MANDALAY: Sure thing. I think I alluded to my interest in homonym before­––a thing that looks like one thing and means another, or can hold two meanings at once. Lots of people seem very certain in their beliefs, and part of those beliefs is that the opposing beliefs are certainly wrong. And hell, some things are wrong, of course. I’m not some extreme moral relativist but…some things can look like one thing and mean something else. “The Raft of the Medusa,” previously titled “Scene of Shipwreck,” is a painting that could be two events. It could be sunset or it could be sunrise because there’s nothing in the painting to tell us which direction we are pointed. The ship on the horizon, silhouetted, could be coming closer or going away. The people of the raft are either being saved, or they’re being left to die. It all depends on how much you know about an obscure piece of 18th century French history that at the time seemed important enough to be commemorated on a giant canvas, in basically Géricault’s only well-known painting, and then travelled around England.

BOWIE: And what about the role of still life in these works?  

MANDALAY: Kind of the same answer. But also I like that still life painting was, and in many ways maybe still is, the “lesser-than” form of painting. When I started making still lifes I would do it with my leftover paints on my palette, or with the pigment sludge at the bottom of my turpentine jar. They’re….I don’t know, humble.

BOWIE: Sure. There’s definitely something to be said for Manny Farber’s “termite art” approach. After living, studying and working in San Diego, San Francisco, Portland, New York and Chicago, do you feel as though the dramatic change in settings/scenes has affected your work?

MANDALAY: Yes and no. I think not knowing what I am, or stability has definitely shaped my work. I think my work often doesn’t know what it is. My paintings, I hope, are always similarly trying to locate themselves, or asking the viewer to join in that attempt.

More directly I can say, I’ve certainly picked up nuggets along the way or been affected differently by where I was. San Diego is my home and everything I guess stems from there. In San Francisco, I think I always go back to studying with Keith Boadwee specifically as formative. When I dropped out of SFAI and moved to Portland, that’s where I guess I really dove into paintings as my primary mode of making, and then spent the next 5 years learning more about that in San Diego. Somewhere between San Diego and Chicago probably taught me everything about being a part of a community of artists, and running a space as a way I enjoyed being a community member.

 BOWIE: That’s right. You went back to San Diego and opened your own gallery, SPF 15. Can you talk about the intention behind that gallery?

MANDALAY: I wanted to have a space that spoke to the locality. In terms of programming, I wanted to create a program that would bring people to San Diego, and show artists from San Diego alongside these other artists that are doing interesting things. Obviously, I benefit from that as well. I wanted to be able to be in San Diego, and be an artist, and not disappear. There was a talk that Tyson Reeder gave when I was living in Chicago. I often would harken back to on this—talking about all the projects that he and his brother Scott did in Milwaukee in the early 2000s. Really before the easy access of Instagram, it was a way of being visible, doing these projects and inviting people to this city that they potentially aren’t thinking of as an “art city,” but one that has abundant resources. To me, that was part of it too, he referred to it as a telephone line to the outside world. SPF15 was a telephone line to the outside world.

BOWIE: What does it stand for again? I remember you telling me once that the intention was to do exactly 15 exhibitions... 

MANDALAY: It was Sunday Project For 15 exhibitions. We’ve done 14, so there’s still one to go. We did a few fairs and things like that too, but those don’t count as proper, nomadic beach exhibitions. 

BOWIE: Do you think you’d ever like to go back to curating and running a gallery space?

MANDALAY: Yeah, I think about it a lot. To me it’s a part of being in a community. It’s really hard for me to separate that from my overall practice, or I don’t know, personhood.

BOWIE: Was it ever weird, switching hats from being the artist to the dealer?

MANDALAY: No, it should be weird, but as an artist, one of the things I get to do is make decisions about what I want to see in the world, and as a gallerist or curator, that’s part of what I’m doing too. Hopefully, creating thoughtful exhibitions, working with artists that I really believe in that add to the overall diversity of aesthetics, but also...that I want to see. Seeing is a big part of it. Both have these invisible administrative arms to them. Being an artist, there’s plenty of administrative work as well. I learned a lot about being an artist, in terms of the professional side of it, from being on the administrative side of running spaces. I don’t think of them as all that different. One hand washes the other.

BOWIE: What brought you back to Chicago?

MANDALAY: My partner is getting her PhD at Northwestern. It’s good…it’s cold. But our apartment is beautiful and my studio is next to our bedroom. And I’m working at a radical progressive studio here, Arts of Life, working with an amazing group of artists with developmental disabilities.

BOWIE: The color palette of this series of works feels very different from previous works, almost like Southern California after a massive fire. Can you talk about that?

MANDALAY: I live in Chicago now. I needed some color. No, for a while I’ve been making somewhat monochromatic paintings or just…darker. But I used to use a lot of color and I think I couldn’t tell if I was making good paintings or just pretty colored paintings so for a few years I thought I needed to strip them of candy sweet colors. But I feel really confident about these paintings. I’ve tried to deploy color meaningfully and more as a lure than as the fish.

BOWIE: I remember you being a drama kid in high school, how were you introduced to painting?

MANDALAY: It’s true! Oh my god, yeah. I don’t know if you remember this but I got to direct this one act that Neil and Serop, and I (to a lesser degree) wrote together called Schizophrenia. I think that had a really lasting impact on me. It really was like, the only art I did, and then I went to art school at SFAI. Which is its own long story.

It took me a long time to circle back to theater in my work. I think I was having a conversation with someone about the history of canvas, like, the material and realized that canvas had played this massive role, not just in art but in globalization (as sails), and theater as well, as traveling set pieces. Like, canvas is all about nomadism. I started imagining my paintings as stage flats and got to realize this in Italy with Kim-Anh Schreiber, my partner and amazing writer. We collaborated on a piece called “Meatloaf,” in which a ghost couple float from home to home for 500 years trying to decide what to make for dinner.

BOWIE: That’s hilarious. Do you see yourself branching out into other media at any point?

MANDALAY: Not really. I think the past few couple of shows, this one and the recent exhibition at BWSMX in Mexico City, are the first shows in a long while that were just rectangles hanging on walls. Pictures. And I quite liked those shows. Maybe I’m getting more boring, or maybe I’m getting a better idea of what I want, or I’m maybe just feeling more confident. Like, I love working with other people, but it’s been really nice to just trust that my paintings are doing enough heavy lifting all on their own, thank you very much. Ha.

BOWIE: What’s next?

MANDALAY: To quote a line from “Meatloaf,” “the future, the future, you’ll never be ready.”

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Growing Up In Wallace Berman's World: An Interview Of Tosh Berman

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interview by Jason Schwartzman

Wallace Berman carves a mysterious, counter-cultural figure in the cave wall of Los Angeles folklore. His legend is enhanced by a tragically early death on his fiftieth birthday as a result of an automobile crash with a drunk driver in Topanga Canyon, further cementing his myth as the beatnik of the Southern California chaparrals. There was only one public exhibition of his artwork, at the legendary Ferus Gallery. After the opening, the vice squad got a tip about explicit material in the show.  He was arrested and later convicted for showing lewd and obscene works. There is an outsider quality to his jazz and bebop inspired assemblage work and a Zelig-like quality to his persona, popping up in unlikely places, like a scene in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider or the cover of The Beatles Lonely Hearts Club Band. In a new memoir, entitled Tosh, Berman’s son opens the opaque curtain on the enigmatic artist through a bildungsroman of the Beat Generation and hippie counterculture, a childhood on the frontlines of 1960s Los Angeles and San Francisco freakdom. Tosh Berman and Jason Schwartzman got together for a public conversation at Skylight Books to discuss his memoir and growing up in Wallace Berman’s world.

 

JASON SCHWARTZMAN: I’m gonna just start with a very simple question, but I am curious, why now did you decide to write a memoir?
TOSH BERMAN: Well, first, it took me ten years to write this book, Tosh, and, I wrote it because a gentleman by the name of Terry Lauren, from Detroit, was editing a special art journal online at the time. Terry Lauren was part of the group, or art collective, called Destroy All Monsters with Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw. He was the other power trio person. He came up to me to ask if I would write something about my father. At the time, it was sort of totally unthinkable that I would even consider writing anything about my life or my family.

 SCHWARTZMAN: Why?
Tosh Berman: Because I was sort of taught by my father not to write about the family, really, in a certain aspect. And it wasn’t like a law type of thing but just something that was not encouraged to share with, um…with you. So, when you leave, don’t tell anybody.

 

SCHWARTZMAN: The memories and the stories in the book, were they all there (snaps fingers) in your head? You’d just been waiting to write them? Or was it a process?
BERMAN: I believe so. I mean, in a sense, my childhood is the most vivid part of my life, so far. It stands out more than anything else in my adulthood, for instance. Though, definitely, as an adult, I find great importance in enjoyment and etcetera, etcetera. But definitely, my childhood had such a vivid stamp on my memory—on who I am—that I still, to this day, feel like a child. I’m very fortunate to have been photographed by my father at a certain age, from a certain time, so when people see me, they think of me at that age. I think the identity of Tosh is very much me as a teenager or as a child.

SCHWARTZMAN: In the book, you're taken out and you're just a part of your parents’ lives in a way that I think is great. But did you feel like a child when you were a child?
BERMAN: Yes. For instance, I would be taken to an event and I would sit on my mom’s lap. I have very little memory of going to childhood events, or children’s parties. All my thoughts are exclusively about going to gallery openings, or going to, you know, Marcel Duchamp’s opening at the Pasadena Museum.

SCHWARTZMAN: I am just so curious about what you were aware of at the time. You know, like you met Marcel Duchamp.
BERMAN: This is my relationship to Marcel Duchamp. I went to his opening and everybody was dressed really nicely. It was kind of a formal affair. When Duchamp, or Marcel, was in a room, his presence was so strong that all the people in that room had their focus on the presence of Marcel Duchamp. At the time, he was still like an underground, cultish figure. But, Marcel Duchamp was such an incredible presence for other artists at the time, not for the general audience, you know.

SCHWARTZMAN: Yeah.
BERMAN: But, to me, I knew he was French. And that made a big impression on me because he was a foreigner. I also knew he was an artist, and he made a sculpture with a bicycle wheel. As a child, the bicycle wheel was so common for any child. I mean, I didn’t ride a bike at all, but I knew people had bicycles, and I’d seen bicycles in comic strips and books, you know. So, seeing the bicycle wheel on the stool meant a lot to me because I totally understood the piece. It’s a bicycle wheel! I didn’t think about it as, “Is this art? Not art?” or an ironic piece of work, or a ready-made. I just knew that it was a bicycle wheel, and I loved that it was a bicycle wheel.

SCHWARTZMAN: Have you ever been star-struck?
BERMAN: That’s a good question. Yes. I’ve been star-struck in a sense. One of my oldest friends is Billy Gray, who was in a show called Father Knows Best. It was a huge show in the ‘50s and early ‘60s and he played Bud. So, when I watched TV, I realized that’s Billy, our friend, and I could not really distinguish between Bud and Billy, at all.

SCHWARTZMAN: What you do in the book, though, you have an admiration, almost, for things that have an artifice...
BERMAN: Yeah, what’s the artifice and what’s true? The one time I was star-struck as a child was with the Rolling Stones. And then eventually, I met Mick Jagger at the T.A.M.I. Show.

SCHWARTZMAN: At the run-through of the T.A.M.I. Show?
BERMAN: Yes.

SCHWARTZMAN: What’s more amazing is that it wasn’t the actual T.A.M.I. Show.
BERMAN: It was a dress rehearsal.

SCHWARTZMAN: You were, like, one of the four people.
BERMAN: My father went to the dress rehearsal. We were invited to stay at the T.A.M.I. Show, but my dad didn’t want to stay for the show, which was fine.

SCHWARTZMAN: Why not?
BERMAN: For some reason, he was not interested in seeing the whole show, I don't know why. Oddly enough, and this is going to go into my dad’s work, he always had an 8mm camera with him, and he was shooting whatever he found interesting. He had the camera at the rehearsals, and this was before copyright, you know, he just shot anything he wanted. And it wasn’t until the T.A.M.I. movie — the T.A.M.I. Show was a rock & roll variety show in the early ‘60s. It was taped at the Santa Monica Pacific, and it was, like, the Supremes, the Stones, James Brown did a famous, incredible performance.

SCHWARTZMAN: Beach Boys?
BERMAN: Beach Boys.

SCHWARTZMAN: All in one day.
BERMAN: All in one day. One time. When the movie came out in the movie theater, we saw it and my dad filmed it from the movie screen. So, it’s interesting that back then, he could’ve filmed it there, in person, but he actually preferred the distance of that world, like a filter.

SCHWARTZMAN: But this relationship to fakeness and Los Angeles, because to me, the book really is—I’m from LA, and you’re from LA—
BERMAN: I’m from Los Angeles.

SCHWARTZMAN: But there’s Los Angeles, San Francisco, London—
BERMAN: Larkspur.

SCHWARTZMAN: I love when we walk around and you say, “That used to be that, that used to be that,” but when I was reading the book, I realized that you were a kid in Los Angeles, but you were in Topanga Canyon and it was forty minutes to get to—
BERMAN: Thirty to forty minutes to get out of the Canyon. It was basically two lanes going in and out of the Canyon, so you’re between Malibu, Santa Monica, and then you have the San Fernando Valley on the other side. Canyon areas are very interesting to me because it’s a very restricted area, you know. You’re, sort of trapped between two worlds. I never felt like Topanga, or any canyon, is the world, it’s a bridge between two cultures or two societies. And, as a teenager, I did not like Topanga.

SCHWARTZMAN: Really?
BERMAN: It was dusty. To tell you the truth, it’s a secluded culture. The whole hippie thing was exploding, and I think the whole hippie culture-world was at its strongest and its greatest for a few months. And then, afterwards, it became a fad people with deep problems are attached to that culture, and Topanga to me conveyed the sour side of the ‘60s. You know, there’s people like Charles Manson in Topanga and stuff like that as well.

 SCHWARTZMAN: You were put off in a way by the hippies. What I love in the beginning of the book is when you talk about your father and music being so important to him. Then, towards the end of the book, it’s all about you becoming a teenager and how much music meant to you. You escaped musically.
BERMAN: Music has always been my escape or my portal to another world, not a better life, but a more interesting life.

SCHWARTZMAN: Growing up, art was a major nutrient. As you, then, became a teenager, were you extra snobby? I don’t know how to say this. You are the most excited and adventurous person that I know. You’re always looking for more new music and new books. You’re always onto something.
BERMAN: I’m really hungry.

SCHWARTZMAN: I often wonder, as a person who was treated like a kid but with all the adults and who was welcome in a lot of exclusive spaces, how you still remain interested in things, and you’re still open to things. A lot of people would be like, “I don’t know. Uh, I saw that in real life, ‘the wheel.’”
BERMAN: Yeah. For example, I had certain taste as a child and as a teenager, but my father had really great taste. He had a great antenna. For instance, he brought in the first Velvet Underground album to the household, and to me that was like weird stuff. There was a song called “Heroin.”

SCHWARTZMAN: You talk in the book, too, about someone, injecting heroin in front of you?
BERMAN: Well, that’s different.

SCHWARTZMAN: But did you ever feel scared?
BERMAN: I felt very secure, very safe. My family is very structured; there was a mom, there was a father, had grandparents, when a lot of people in Topanga were, you know...some of the moms had a biker boyfriend or drug dealer. So, there was a sort of, wilderness. Among all these ruffians, I felt like I was Oscar Wilde.

SCHWARTZMAN: And then, when you got your car, had the music, you would drive people around. Were you always a sharer? Were you always into curating a moment in a way?
BERMAN: Yeah, ‘til this very moment, I am still a sharer. One thing I liked about school—the only thing I liked about school—was “show and tell,” where I think in the first grade or in kindergarten you take something from home and you show it to the public or to your fellow students. I loved that. I loved bringing a record, book, picture, whatever it was at that time, and to this day, you know, I started this press called TamTam Books and really, it’s nothing more than show and tell.

SCHWARTZMAN: There’s a story in the book that I don't fully understand. The Limited Edition story. Can you just talk about that for one sec?
BERMAN: As a child, I had a comic book collection, not as serious as other people’s collections but it nevertheless was my collection. It was Marvel comics that I was into. It was probably when I was like twelve or thirteen, fourteen, something like that. So, I became, sort of, obsessed, like, if I’m gonna get one, of course I have to have issue number two, and of course number three, and even though number four, sort of sucked, I had to complete it. So, I had a good inventory of comics, but not crazy, insane, amount, but a good, honorable collection.

SCHWARTZMAN: Right.
BERMAN: And I had piles. So, I looked at the top of the pile and I noticed on the cover was a stamp, “Collector’s Item,” not from the magazine itself. It was actually stamped.

SCHWARTZMAN: Collector’s Item.
BERMAN: The one below that: Collector’s Item. And, then below that: Collector’s Item. And then, I went to the very bottom, like number one—stamped: Collector’s Item. And then I looked in the drawer—I had a secret stash, unclassified comics that I hadn’t even put in inventory yet—Collector’s Item. So, I’m getting kind of creeped out. I realized every comic book was stamped “Collector’s Item.”

SCHWARTZMAN: You were scared.
BERMAN: So, my dad was home—my dad was always home—looking at the newspaper or whatever, and I said, “Dad, I have to talk to you about something really serious right now.” So, I tapped his shoulder to get his attention, and he looked over and said, “What?” and on his forehead was “Collector’s Item.”

SCHWARTZMAN: And then what was the moment after that?
BERMAN: I didn’t have a magazine collection anymore. I sold it or—I traded all my comic books.

SCHWARTZMAN: Why?
BERMAN: Because, I felt at the time, like it didn’t really ruin my collection. It just brought out how ridiculous it is to have a collection of something. Possession—it’s terrible. To possess something, like, collecting comic books is meaningless and stupid.

SCHWARTZMAN: Was that what it was? Do you feel like it was a lesson?
BERMAN: To me, that comic book collection was very important. But, I totally took the opinion that this is all pointless, you know? Though, it struck me as funny, because he did these really strong, crazy, practical jokes.

SCHWARTZMAN: You never sat down and talked about much. Ever?
BERMAN: Well, not in that sense, no.

SCHWARTZMAN: Right.
BERMAN: We never discussed why he did that. Like, was it funny? Was he trying to teach me something? And that duality is something I sort of lived with, and sort of, had to understand to not understand. I didn’t have a comic book collection afterwards. When you read the whole book, you’ll find pathways and roads. As a teenager, my dad had a collection of View Magazine. View Magazine was the official Surrealist publication in English from Surrealists who moved to New York during the war years. My dad had a complete View Magazine collection and his mother threw it out. I know he was totally upset about it. I think my comic book collection was a similar situation to him, but not like, “I lost my View magazines, therefore, I’m gonna destroy my son’s comic book collection.”

SCHWARTZMAN: You told me a story once, I had left something in a wrapper for a long period of time, and I said, “I’m afraid to ruin it, but then once it gets ruined, I kind of love it.” But then, you said something that really affected my life, where you talked about the mudslide in your home, and things being taken away.
BERMAN: Yes. We had a mudslide in our home, when I was like, ten—two days after Christmas. So, we had a mudslide that destroyed everything. I had nothing. The only thing I had was what I was wearing, and what was in my pocket at the time. So, I did suffer a great deal of physical loss, yes.

SCHWARTZMAN: Can I ask one really silly question? I hope it’s not too personal, while we’re talking about your memoir.
BERMAN: Yeah.

SCHWARTZMAN: Nowadays, when I’m with my wife and children, if we have a disagreement or something, there’s an effort to, you know, “let’s not talk about this now.” In a house, in that situation, how much were you aware of your parents’ relationship?
BERMAN: That’s a good question. Tell you the truth, in our small house I didn’t really notice anything, like, tension. They worked perfectly well together. I mean, to me it seemed like it. There may have been arguments and stuff. When you’re arguing it’s always upsetting for a child, but usually the next day, you won’t remember.

SCHWARTZMAN: Was he [Wallace] regimented? Just because his workspace was at your home, it gets blurry, the lines between when you’re working and not working.
BERMAN: He seemed to be always working.

SCHWARTZMAN: Always?
BERMAN: Yeah. I mean, it’s not like a 10-to-5 type of situation, but he always did work. He was always working.

SCHWARTZMAN: But you always could talk?
BERMAN: Yeah, but sometimes I’d talk and I would just sit there and watch him do his work, and sometimes I’d help him hold the frame. I’d put the records on. One thing he would do is play music over and over again. Like, he played forty-five singles, but I think he liked that format because it’s the perfect song, you know, ‘A Side,’ it had to be perfect. So, what I would do is play something like “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” not once, or twice, but we’re talking like thirty times in a row. I would play Nat King Cole’s “Who’s Next in Line?” over and over and over again.

SCHWARTZMAN: Can you look at the art and separate it from the music or no?
BERMAN: Well, for him, I think it’s a way for him to focus on the artwork. He loved working with music. He also played Paul Bowles’ recordings of Moroccan musicians, which are very chanty, very hypnotic. So, I think a Phil Spector record used in the same format, you know, it was very hypnotic.

SCHWARTZMAN: When you would talk about art or music, could you guys disagree with each other?
BERMAN: No, because we never had discussions like that.

 SCHWARTZMAN: I have one last question for you. What are you reading now, or listening to now, that you’d like to share with everyone now as a recommendation?
BERMAN: Vic Damone’s Greatest Hits. I find it the missing link between Scott Walker and Jack Jones. And, Stravinsky’s very minor work that nobody knows—he did a disco record. (grins)

SCHWARTZMAN: How is it?
BERMAN: Well, it’s for the Ballets Russes, so it’s a very early disco record that he and Picasso put together. I’m the only one who has a copy of this. It’s very expensive.

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FETISH KING: A Conversation Between Rick Castro and Rick Owens

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The unedited version of this interview can be found in Autre’s Spring 2019 Print Issue. Preorder here.

Rick Castro is a legend in the queer underground scene of 1980s and 1990s Los Angeles. It was a time when Santa Monica Boulevard was rich with male hustlers, shirtless in the California sun, and the nightclubs were liminal landscapes of desire and liberation. To those who know him, he is "The Fetish King." Alongside artists like Ron Athey, Catherine Opie, Sheree Rose and Bob Flanagan, Vaginal Davis, Kembra Pfahler, and Bruce LaBruce, Castro utilizes queer identity and the physicality of the body to express themes of marginalization and oppression. A one-time fashion stylist for the likes of Bette Midler, David Bowie, Herb Ritts, and Joel-Peter Witkin—the latter of which helped him buy his first camera—Castro’s fantasies, fetishes, and fascination with the demi-monde manifested into imagery involving extreme leather bondage and rope play. From his factory in Italy, fashion and furniture designer, Rick Owens chats with Rick Castro over the phone. They discuss fetish as an idée fixe, their former love life, the subcultures of Los Angeles and Castro’s upcoming retrospective, Fetish King: Seminal Photographs 1986–2019, curated by Rubén Esparza, opening at Tom House in April.

CASTRO: Hi, Rick! I haven’t talked to you on the phone since the ‘80s.

OWENS: (laughs) Yeah, but I’ve seen you in person since then, don’t make it sound so tragic. So, let’s talk about when we first met. We met because you had seen the nipple ring I lent to you for a shoot?

CASTRO: I didn’t know who made it at the time, so I asked the storeowner if she had any more, and she gave me your number. So, I gave you a call the following day. I used those on the saxophone player for Tina Turner.

OWENS: I remember! It was an amazing picture. That might have been my very first credit!

CASTRO: It was your first credit! Those were the days, Rick Owens. I remember like it was yesterday…

OWENS: How do you do your contemporary B&D imagery? I feel silly saying B&D, is that what I call it?

Castro: Just call it fetish. I always like that term, fetish.

Owens: Fetish.

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Castro: You know Rick Owens: our connection has always been fetish, whether we understood it or not.

Owens: I agree with you, we both have a love of fetish. But I always thought the leather bar aesthetic was about ritual, and about men who were oppressed and brutalized for being gay, taking control and going up against their oppressor. They were creating that cycle under their own terms. The new generation is more liberated. It doesn’t have that darkness anymore. Because men don't have as much oppression as they used to. This is just my interpretation, which could be all wrong. There was real triumph in becoming the master after being submissive for so long. In that small arena, in those dark rooms, you became the master… Are there more questions you want me to ask?

Castro: I’m more comfortable asking questions than answering questions...

Owens: Oh, god, you always have to be a top.

Castro: (laughs)

Owens: Although, you were kind of a bottom...

Castro: (laughs) I don’t see it in those terms...

Owens: Oh, okay. (laughs)

Castro: (laughs) To me, your aesthetic is very much like the dark side of Los Angeles.

Owens: Yeah, I agree.

Castro: Well, we romanticized it, for sure, and the idea of it being so esoteric. There was that whole cult side of Los Angeles. There were more cults in Los Angeles during the silent era, even to this day. But in Los Angeles, you can do anything. I've always thought in my mind that I can do whatever the fuck I want, even when I was a young kid. I used to just rebel for any reason.

Owens: I think we both were interested in the whole mythology of the movies, and the whole corruption behind it.

Castro: Well, we would definitely take the way we were seeing it. I remember when you had your studio on Las Palmas, and when I came to visit you, you had Veronika Voss on, and that had been on for a week, right? You just watched it over, and over, and over, like a backdrop.

Owens: Yeah.

Castro: And then, you would switch to Death in Venice and you would have that on for another few weeks. That's fetish my dear, that's fetish. (laughs)

Owens: (laughs) Well, I’m glad everything is coming full circle. Congratulations on everything.

Rick Castro’s retrospective, Fetish King, opens on April 6, with a reception that runs from 6pm to 8pm, and runs until April 27 by appointment. Click here to learn more. Preorder Autre’s Spring 2019 issue to read the unedited version of this interview.

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The Grandeur of His Epic: An Interview With Choreographer Jay Carlon

interview by Summer Bowie

photos by Oliver Kupper

Defining a culture that comprises 7100 islands, centuries of colonization, and an overwhelming desire to assimilate is profound and Sisyphean. Unlike a migration that takes place over land, the ocean seems to wash away all evidence of the traveled path. The historical narrative that has framed Filipino-American immigration is fraught with this eternal question of identity and belonging. Being part Filipino myself, I learned very little about my grandmother’s life story while she was alive. It wasn’t until after she passed away and my grandfather published her memoirs that I learned just how harrowing her journey had been.

After attending the world premiere of FLEX, a dance theater piece that explores primarily the story of choreographer, Jay Carlon’s father and his immigration from the Philippines to the States, I realized that the erasure of these stories is rather commonplace. Jay’s father was not only a senior citizen by the time Jay was born, but it seems that he liked to let others tell his story for him. It wasn’t until his father passed away that Jay started to make heads and tails of the man versus the myth, and the role that he and other Filipino-Americans played in the United States throughout the 20th century, from World War II, to the Labor Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and beyond. The work explores the story of Honorio Carlon and his immigration to the States, as well as that of several other Filipino-Americans and their children. This pastiche of memories serves as a paean to those whose stories have been lost in the shuffle of sublimation. In the following conversation, we discuss everything from the Filipino sartorial sensibility, to the homoerotic Renaissance paintings of “Jacob Wrestling the Angel” in the book of Genesis, to the implications that result when one must prioritize survival over preservation.

SUMMER BOWIE: First, I want to talk about your upbringing as the youngest of 12 children, and what that’s like to have such wide age gaps between both your siblings and your parents. Were you all very close?

JAY CARLON: I suppose this question is difficult to answer succinctly. My dad had 3 wives and my mom was the last. Let me provide some context: My dad, Honorio Carlon, immigrated to America in 1932 during the Great Depression, while the Philippines was under US occupation. Filipino immigrants were almost exclusively men due to gender expectations in the workplace. These immigrant men started bachelor societies for solidarity. Due to anti-miscegenation laws (anti-interracial marriage laws) these men found it difficult to start families in America. Despite this, my father married twice and had 6 children. It wasn’t until the 1970s when my dad was able to make it back to the Philippines to eventually meet my mother and bring her back to the US. Now back to the question, my siblings: 6 of them are my half siblings and the other 5 are my full siblings. Naturally, because of age and generations, I am closest to my full siblings. The strange thing is some of my half siblings are older than my mom, which is a weird dynamic having half-brothers older than your mom. My relationship with my father, however, was somewhat distant. Ever since I was born, his death was imminent. He was 74 when I was born. He kept to himself; perhaps my expectation of him as a father was to simply maintain this “Big Fish” legacy and the grandeur of his Epic, being among the first wave of Filipino immigrants in America. He lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Labor Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, etc. He never talked to me about his experiences, also I was a child, so I couldn’t really understand why any of this was important/interesting. However, doing all the research I’ve done for FLEX, I’ve been able to fill in some of these gaps in his memory, his narrative.

BOWIE: I grew up in a suburb of San Diego with a large Filipino population, and my being only a quarter Filipino meant that I had a lot of Filipino friends, but I was never Filipino enough to call the parents of my friends Auntie and Uncle the way they did with each other. Did you grow up with that idea of the extended cultural family?

CARLON: I grew up in a large Filipino community and both my parents are from the same very small island in Philippines. My dad immigrated here with a group of about 8 men, some his cousins and some his friends. Those 8 men stuck together and worked as migrant workers throughout the Southwest. Every Labor Day Weekend, they would all come together and have a fiesta. This tradition has been going on since the ‘50s and still happens today. From those 8 pioneers, there are now over 500 descendants, and we all still gather in Santa Maria, California. All those 500+ extended family members are my uncles and aunties, whether I’m related to them or not! 

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BOWIE: It seems like you did an extraordinary level of research into your father’s life while in the process of creating this work. Do you feel like you see your father in a different light now that the work has been fully actualized?

CARLON: Like I stated earlier, a lot of my knowledge surrounding my father’s history was from oral stories told by uncles, and aunties, and cousins. Some of these stories seemed to be conflated or exaggerated, as most memories are. 

Last year, I was interviewed by an Asian periodical and was asked how my work was influenced by my identity as a Filipino American. The question really caught me off guard and I felt uneasy and confronted with this responsibility to be more or less Filipino. I am a contemporary dance choreographer. Some of my work is abstract, some of it is conceptual, and some of it is expressionistic. The general topic of my work was often surrounding migrant issues and labor rights, but as far as a direct Filipino relation to my work, I was stumped. I thought of an article that I came across by Miguel Gutierrez in BOMB Magazine called “Does Abstraction Belong to White People.” The article resonated with me and elicited introspection: as a Filipino-American abstract choreographer, what am I doing here, and why, and how did I get here? Soon after being asked the question about my identity and coming across this article, L.A. Dance Project asked me to be their first recipient of the MAKING:LA Residency, a new work by a Los Angeles-based artist. I knew I wanted to make an unapologetic work about the diverse tapestry of Southern California. My father’s, mother’s, and my story seemed to be the perfect backdrop for that opportunity to create and share a hella Filipino [untold] history.

To return to the question: the process of researching my father’s history and filling in the gaps of his narrative allowed me to create a more human understanding of who he was. My dad was this historical figure to me once I was born. I wouldn’t say we were emotionally close. I have few memories of him, some of which include dropping me off to kindergarten with whiskey on the dashboard. (Laughs), it was a different time I suppose. But I never had conversations in length with my dad. Doing all the research I’ve been doing has made him become a more human and tangible person in my life. This research has also served my relationship with my mother, who is still alive and thriving. I seem to understand her better; why she is the way she is. My mother and I never had conversations beyond the weather or my financial situation, but now we talk about memories, family back in the Philippines, and emotions (which, for a Filipino family is huge).

BOWIE: You grew up training as a competitive wrestler. How did you find dance, and how do you think your wrestling background has influenced your approach to choreography?

CARLON: My first introduction to physicality was wrestling at the Boys and Girls Club. I followed my older brothers, who joined the wrestling team to stay out of the streets. I was 5 years old when I started wrestling and competed throughout my teens. I learned partnering and momentum, strength and velocity, and nuance between force and flow. I loved these concepts, but hated competing. Wrestling is brutal. I watch videos on YouTube now and think, “Goddamn! I grew up doing that?” I found the arts in high school, first with architecture, then voice (choir), and eventually the body (dance). I knew that I could channel these learned skills into a different medium.

I am also inspired by the image of “Jacob Wrestling the Angel” (Genesis 32:22–32). The story has been depicted by many Renaissance artists in painting and sculpture form. The artworks inspired by this scripture tend to look very homoerotic. I wanted to use this image as inspiration for FLEX to represent the Filipino peoples’ resistance to colonization, and perhaps the obedience as a result of colonization. The image also reminded me of Filipino male affection, and I wanted to use this image as a way to display the way different cultures showcase affection.

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BOWIE: FLEX tells the stories of several Filipino-American immigrants and their children. There’s a very militant scene, it feels like boot camp and the dancers are counting in Tagalog, I believe. Can you talk a bit about that scene and the story behind it?

CARLON: I love that scene. I wanted to integrate Filipino languages in the work. I don’t speak Visayan (my family’s dialect), but counting seemed to be a natural and relatively easy way to integrate Tagalog (the national dialect of the Philippines) into the work. We made 16 gestures/movements and gave them each a number. I noticed the sequence of movements with the counting in Tagalog sounded very militant. This section made me think of the Philippine American War (1989-1902), where the Philippines fought for their freedom and independence from America.  I wanted to create a scene where the wrestling drills, something I grew up doing in America, paralleled the guerilla warfare in the Philippines.

BOWIE: The dancers you cast for this piece are all incredibly athletic, they’re poetic with their movement, and they’re multi-talented. At times they lend voice, either in narrative or song, and your choreography demands a certain versatility as well. How did you go about casting the work?

CARLON: I only cast people I trust. Trust is a very important component of my work, for the performers, the audience, all the natural and simulated elements, etc. I have worked with all my collaborators in the past on projects at REDCAT or The Annenberg Community Beach House. In my process, I like to [safely and consensually] push physical and emotional boundaries. I also like to work as a multidisciplinary director and see how I can integrate each and every individual's skill[s] into the work.  The cast of FLEX is incredibly dynamic and I had a wonderful time learning about their multiple talents and how I could incorporate them into the work.

BOWIE: Your dancers seem to go through a marathon from the beginning to the end of the piece. Some of their faces were dripping within the first 3 minutes, and you see the way that the movement becomes increasingly more demanding, pushing them into a deeper synchronicity with one another. What is the warm-up and rehearsal process like for a project like this?

CARLON: I often like to focus on sensory improvisational tasks to begin a process. I like to work with eyes closed to privilege the other senses, especially touch. We start with an improvisation with eyes closed while being guided through the space. The participant with the eyes closed will recall a memory and tell that memory to the person guiding them around the room safely. This mode of embodiment and memory primes the dancers for the process of creating FLEX.

BOWIE: There are two very deep Americana references that you included in this piece, the first being the opening monologue from Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, the second being Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz.” The Tennessee connection seems coincidental, but can you talk a little bit about those choices, and the Filipino rendition of the song that you included? Where did it come from?

CARLON: I wanted to create a 1950s Filipino American ballroom, a place in which my father and his comrades found solidarity--the only place they could escape and have fun without judgment. My dad loved the Cha Cha and music from the ‘50s. The Tennessee Waltz was incorporated into the work because the lyrics reminded me of the loss of their home. 

We also changed “Tennessee” to “Philippine” in the live version of the song. I did this because I wanted it to be clear that these Americana attributes were coming from a sense of otherness, or perhaps reappropriation.

I was dancing with my darling to the Tennessee Waltz
When an old friend I happened to see
I introduced her to my loved one
And while they were dancing
My friend stole my sweetheart from me

I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz
Now I know just how much I have lost
Yes, I lost my little darling the night they were playing
The beautiful Tennessee Waltz

BOWIE: The musical score was really beautiful. I think Alex Wand did a phenomenal job. How did that collaboration come about, and what was it like?

CARLON: I began working with Alex Wand on a previous project that took place in a parking lot with my car about mental health and stability. We used audio recording from the iconic moon landing as well as solar system sonifications (using the orbital speeds of the planets and creating a sound score). After that project, we became obsessed with sonifications and played with amplifying sounds of a cardboard stage, we made synth sounds activated by waves by putting Wii controllers in a buoy at the beach, and made a resonant frequency plate that used sand to predict the vibrational sound, etc. Prior to FLEX, Alex went on an epic bike tour across the Mexico-American border, biking from LA to Michoacan (the Monarch Butterfly migration path). We used field recordings from his bike ride for the ambient and environmental sounds in FLEX. I love finding parallels with Alex’s interest in ecological sustainability, like with the Monarch Butterfly migration and my interests in immigrant stories, and visible vs. invisible borders.

BOWIE: The costumes were really lovely. I understand that many pieces were from your father’s wardrobe. There’s one story you tell, called The Filipino and the Drunkard by William Saroyan. Can you talk about your father’s sartorial sense and the role that the costuming plays in this piece?

CARLON: My dad, though being a strawberry picker for over 50 years, never left the house without a suit. He never wanted people to know we were poor. He wore pressed suits and tailored clothes daily.  He taught me how to shine my shoes and slick my hair back. I always felt that Filipinos had this sense of showing off, and I never understood why. When I heard The Filipino and the Drunkard, it brought to light the complexity of Filipinos not wanting to look poor, to assimilate. This is one factor why I decided to call this work FLEX--slang, to show off.

Over 70% of the costumes were sourced from my father’s wardrobe. However, the garments were quite large and boxy. Ching Ching Wong, soloist for FLEX, also served as a costume production assistant and tailored the costumes to fit the performers. 

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BOWIE: Throughout the show, there are times when characters can be seen in the back folding, unfolding, and refolding jackets. You also have a previous work literally called, Fold, Unfold, Refold. Can you explain this theme a bit?

CARLON: The integration of the folding in the background came out of this notion of hidden labor.  I integrate labor a lot into my work. The work Fold, Unfold, Refold was a work about monotony, and repetitive gestures, and the performance of labor. I’m obsessed with the performance of labor. The folding in the background of FLEX was inspired by my mom’s immigration story. My mom lived in the shadow of my father’s epic and I wanted to pay homage to her. I thought about the invisibility of domesticity within our Western culture. I tried to incorporate as much folding in the background as possible to remind the audience of a sense of forgotten work.

BOWIE: The history of Filipino-American culture and its contribution to American development has been widely overlooked. However, Filipinos are the second-largest population of Asian-Americans, second only to Chinese-Americans. Why do you think this history is so easily overlooked?

CARLON: The Philippines is such a uniquely eclectic culture that is constantly evolving and trying to understand itself. From the 7,100 islands within the archipelago to the large amount of immigrants all over the world, Filipinos are great at adapting to cultures while still maintaining their own culture. There are so many influences, mainly because of colonization, but it’s hard to pinpoint what a Filipino is. I think assimilation, the desire to fit in, is a result of our culture being forgotten. I also think erasure is just a part of the Filipino diaspora; through centuries of resistance, the Filipino mentality is primarily survival, not preservation. That’s why I think it’s important for more Filipino stories to make their way into pop culture, and media, and academia. I think we’re getting there.

BOWIE: Where else would you like to take the work from here? It’s so emotionally compelling and educationally-rich that I could see it playing at a number of different venues.

CARLON: My dream is to share this story with other Filipino-Americans. I want to focus on touring this work throughout California, to start. From San Diego to the Bay, California is home to the highest number of Filipinos outside of the Philippines. I would also like to take the work to New York and other Filipino populated cities. It would, of course, be a dream to even take this to the Philippines.

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Follow @carlondance on Instagram to learn more about FLEX.


The Tao of Maceo: An Interview Of Multi-Disciplinary Artist & Behavioral Economist Maceo Paisley

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interview by Summer Bowie

photographs by Dan Johnson

What does it mean to be a twenty-first century renaissance man? For Maceo Paisley, a wide range of disciplines comes together in a positive feedback loop that supports his indefatigable exploration of human behavior. Using embodied inquiry, he investigates his own identity and presents his findings in performance and film. A prolific writer of prose, he just released his first book Tao of Maceo, which takes inventory of his personal beliefs and aims to define his perspective more acutely. Stepping off the stage, he cultivates community through his Chinatown gallery, Nous Tous and a multi-pronged community practice/social innovation agency called Citizens of Culture. When he’s not writing, choreographing, curating, advising, and organizing, you might find him modeling or dancing for the likes of AirBnb or Justin Timberlake, respectively. Or you might find him enjoying a day to himself with a great book in hand. In the following interview, we learned about Maceo’s ever-expanding artistic practice, his time in the Army, and his unique approach to community organizing.

SUMMER BOWIE: Your short film, Dynamite investigates gender and identity, specifically the black, male experience through embodied inquiry. Can you talk a bit about the concept of embodied inquiry and any discoveries you made about your identity through this process?

MACEO PAISLEY: Yes, embodied inquiry, as I see it is a practice that deepens the thinking process by approaching ideas through the body. From the neurological perspective, we tap into kinetic intelligence, and somatics. From the more spiritual or philosophical perspective we tap into the bodies natural, sensual wisdom, as a reference point for our conceptual understanding.  

The most interesting discoveries have been around relationships, in partner dancing, where trust, communication, vulnerability, and boundaries aren’t just metaphorically applied, but fully actualized in the bodies of two dancers.

BOWIE: Speaking of masculine expression, I understand that before your career as an entrepreneurial creative, you earned a Bronze Star for your service with the Army in Iraq. Can you describe your tour in Iraq and do you feel this is a testament to your masculinity, or something else completely?

PAISLEY: I think that my time in the Army, was challenging, but it gave me access to a kind of masculinity that, when untempered appears as violent aggression, but when honed, can actually be useful as clarity and assertion.  It took me going to the extreme to know what limits I was comfortable with, but through that expression and exploration I was able to find a balance point and operate from there.

Iraq was a mixed bag, everyday was different, some days were almost boring, and other days there were mortar rounds blasting over our heads.

BOWIE: Aside from being a multi-disciplinary artist, you’re also a model, behavioral economist, an entrepreneur, a writer/magazine publisher, the president and director of Nous Tous Gallery in Chinatown and you oversee strategy and vision for a nonprofit called Citizens of Culture. That’s a lot to unpack and we’ll come back to these projects in detail, but have you always been such a polymathic person, and how do you manage to wear so many hats?

PAISLEY: It seems to me that my work is actually quite dynamic in practice but almost singular in focus. At core, I am deeply interested in the humanities as a field, so that might be the qualitative measurement of human behavior, or it could be the observational study of a couple arguing in a coffee shop, or the of publishing of works across whichever medium is most suitable for the audience.  

Art & science are often posed as opposites, but I believe that they are like twins separated at birth, who are both often misunderstood, yet each necessary to gain as robust a picture of humanity and it’s surroundings as possible.

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BOWIE: You just had your first book published, Tao of Maceo, a personal inventory of your beliefs in writing. You say that by putting your views on paper, you gain a better understanding of your fallacies and limiting beliefs. What’s the most important thing you learned about yourself through the writing process?

PAISLEY: The most important thing I learned about myself has to be that for as much as I am open and perceived as vulnerable in my work, I am a very private person, who isn’t nearly as open in my relationships as I am in the controlled context of sharing art.

BOWIE: You’re an avid reader and you publish a biannual print magazine called Correspondence. Who are some of the authors and magazines that inspire your writing and publishing, respectively? 

PAISLEY: Well, in 2016 I read about 115 books, both fiction and non-fiction. I really have to say that Oliver Sacks is one of my favorite non-fiction writers because of his range of experience dealing with the human mind. In the fiction realm, Octavia Butler is really a titan, that I keep wanting to go back to. As far as periodicals, I really love the Copenhagen Institute for Cultural Studies magazine SCENARIO, it has the most fabulous images, and deep insights about culture and identity from the individual and macro perspective.

BOWIE: You seem to be on a highly proactive odyssey toward excellence. Are you seeking an arrival point, or are you simply trying to see how much you can accomplish within your lifespan?

PAISLEY: The latter, I don’t know that “excellence” is the goal, it certainly was at one point. Now, I am more focused on finding peace and living in an urban environment, and contemporary society makes that a worthy challenge. My biggest goal at the moment is to understand what “enough” means to me, and how that idea changes accordingly with changes in my environment, and at various stages of life.

BOWIE: I want to talk about Nous Tous (French for all of us). What made you decide to open a gallery/community space and what does the decision process look like when curating artists and hosting events?

PAISLEY: Well, to be frank, we’ve never really said “No.” to anyone who wanted to show at Nous Tous. It would be contradictory to the name if we were to be exclusionary. Instead, I see my role as gallerist to be more of an editor, highlighting the best elements of whatever work is brought my way, and to coach the artist to trust in a shared vision, or in some cases, simply submit to the artist’s vision, and work to support it as best we can within our parameters and resources.

We have a manifesto that we reference, and works that fit naturally within it are usually what we attract, and other times we offer rental agreements to allow works to be shown with more autonomy. We then use that financial support to uplift other programs.

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BOWIE: Can you talk a bit about Citizens of Culture? How it came about and what you guys do.

PAISLEY: Citizens Of Culture is really about creating a place to have all the conversations we find difficulty having otherwise. Whether it be race, sex, politics, death, money, or morality, we support individuals and businesses as they approach cultural challenges in the hopes of providing the kind of clarity that can inform values-based actions. Practically, we are consultants for innovation, diversity and belonging, in companies, and that work supports, free or low-cost programs that are art-based, therapeutic, or support economic empowerment.

We have weekly meetings on Wednesdays, 7pm at Nous Tous in Chinatown if anyone wants to pop in and check it out.

BOWIE: Through Citizens of Culture you conducted a dating social experiment called, No Pressure, No Shame. What do you think are some of the current challenges that single people face in our current dating culture, and do you have any wisdom to impart for those who are currently trying to navigate the dating scene?

PAISLEY: The biggest challenge is that we have only been trying to marry for love for a short while in human history, and we don’t really have stale or universal definitions for what “love” is. So there is this mythology around it that we are trying to live up to, all while the ground shifts beneath us as to how we are supposed to go about achieving a loving relationship.

We first try to encourage people to clarify their intentions in the dating world, and that might mean having a flexible, working definition of what love looks like, and how a romantic partner might fit in to an ideal life. The next thing would be to set up some goals and boundaries that feel appropriate for our stage in life, and realizing that the work is never really done, so having compassion for ourselves and others along the way.

BOWIE: Is this an ongoing project or was it more of a one-time thing?

PAISLEY: No Pressure No Shame, started in 2015 with a 150-person queer, sex-positive, consent-based dating event, and we have been activating different iterations of the program as talks, art events, and parties ever since then. We activate something larger each October.

BOWIE: I’m really interested in a video series you feature on Citizens of Culture called Talking in Circles. Can you talk a bit about the concept of this series and any future topics you plan to cover?

PAISLEY: We believe that every great movement in humanity starts with people coming together to make collective decisions. Every one of our programs has some element of this, in the past we have covered technology, religion, police brutality, gentrification, and other issues, and moving forward I think we should be speaking more to addiction, sex-work, ideas of normalcy, economy, and mental health. As we move forward, we would like to be a go-to place for all of the most important conversations of our time.

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Maceo Paisley will be officially releasing Tao of Maceo and signing books Thursday March 14 from 7:30-9:30pm @ NAVEL 1611 South Hope Street. Please join us for a screening and performance of DYNAMITE, as well as a short Q&A with Maceo Paisley & Summer Bowie.


The Power & Vitality Of The Image: An Interview Of Controversial Artist Darja Bajagic

We are both among the first rain drops which indicate that there is a massive purifying storm approaching (2018)

We are both among the first rain drops which indicate that there is a massive purifying storm approaching (2018)

interview by Adam Lehrer

photographs courtesy of Darja Bajagić

Where the political left was once the clear bastion of free speech and expression in the U.S., it could be argued that the new left silences thought and speech perceived as antithetical or offensive to its values almost as much as the right wing does, or did. This is a problem for culture, and evidently, for art. “Political correctness,” says Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek, “is a desperate attempt by the public norms to tell you what is decent, what is not.” What Žižek suggests here is that political correctness can be harmful in its ability to obscure the truth and dilute public discourse; by sanitizing rhetoric we sanitize cultural meaning. This climate of over-the-top, politically correct theatrics has infiltrated the art world; art’s job is ultimately to push back on societal taboos and interrogate prevailing norms. Good art is almost always offensive to someone.

I first came across Montenegro-born, Chicago-based artist Darja Bajagić at the Independent Art Fair in 2017. Bajagić uses (mostly) monochromatic acrylic painted backgrounds to transform images found within the dark corners of the internet and other non-web sources. Screen-printed atop her canvases are symbols of evil or complex/dual meanings, pornographic images, and pretty girls and boys. Subsequent research reveals these girls and boys to be victims and/or perpetrators of abductions or murders. Bajagić also refuses to over-explain her work, nor does she seek to moralize it (responding to a reporter about her use of a Greek meander motif in recent works was met with Bajagić’s claim that her work is about “the banality of evil”). Her stance has led to her work being misread and mischaracterized. While Bajagić was attending Yale’s Painting and Printmaking program, the Dean suggested she seek professional help. Years later she found herself being censored when her piece Bucharest Molly was removed from an exhibition at Galeria Nicodim.

The cancelation of a duo show between Bajagić and industrial music pioneer, writer, and artist Boyd Rice at Greenspon Gallery reveals the toxicity of political correctness in the art world. Stemming from revelations of numerous events in Rice’s background, such as his usage of fascist imagery in “Non” (an industrial music project), these “revelations” caused an artist-resource listserv entitled “Invisible Dole” to ultimately threaten the gallery’s owner, Amy Greenspon (though it remained installed and was shown privately to those that wanted to see it.) The animus towards Rice was eventually transferred to Darja as well. What they don’t understand about Bajagić is her belief in art’s ability to create conflict, to provoke thought, and to deal with the complexities of the world with nuance and clarity.

If the art world keeps presenting this utopian, groupthink version of the world, art itself is going to collapse. Artists like Darja Bajagić make us look at what we might find ugly, distasteful, and upsetting. I want to be upset. Please offend me. When you offend me, you are forcing me to think for myself. Being offended is healthy. Darja and I corresponded over the Internet to discuss this fiasco as well as her work at large.

“German Madeleine McCann” (2019)

“German Madeleine McCann” (2019)

ADAM LEHRER: I assume you knew that showing alongside Boyd Rice at Greenspon might ruffle some feathers, but did you anticipate at all that the show would be so offensive to others that it might actually get cancelled?

DARJA BAJAGIĆ: I did not expect any feathers to be ruffled. Only two years ago, in fact, Boyd took part in a group show at Mitchell Algus Gallery. So, I definitely did not foresee the show’s cancellation. The show itself did not cause offense; what generated offense was a series of falsities spread on a “private” listserv by a number of terribly misinformed “art world” persons. As a result of subsequent harassment directed at the gallerist by a select number of those aforementioned persons, including threats to the gallerist’s well-being as well as the gallery’s, the show’s opening was cancelled. Nevertheless, it was installed, and viewable by appointment.

LEHRER: How did you come into contact with Boyd Rice? Had you been a fan of his music and writing? What was it about showing work alongside of him that you thought would be interesting?


BAJAGIĆ: Chris Viaggio, the curator of our two-person, approached me with the idea in January of 2018. It goes without my saying it that Boyd is a pioneering artist.  I’ve always appreciated the ambiguousness of his output. Rather than providing any answer(s) to what he re-presents, he functions as a big question mark—forcing the [concerned] individual to answer their own question(s). They must answer it. This modus operandi is now, more than ever, relevant and necessary in the face of the rising, violent insistence to identify and [over-]define to the point of infantilism.

LEHRER: Your work has often been misread and mischaracterized. Are you finding that it’s getting increasingly difficult to show work that is challenging and at the same time not in line with the typical “art friendly” topics of the day, such as identity or inclusivity?

BAJAGIĆ: Yes. First, They Came for the Art. What’s remarkable is that, this time, it’s coming from within [the “art world”]. Artists are fighting to censor other artists. It’s truly absurd. They are executing what they claim to be fighting against, and using Gestapo tactics. Their democracy is, in reality, totalitarianism. They are cowards, essentially. They fear the unknown (we have come back to the violent insistence to identify and [over-]define). What they fail to understand, time after time, is that the subject of art is not the artist. On top of this, it must be acknowledged that, today, the motive of profit outweighs the pursuit of art, in its truest sense. Opportunism is a widespread disease. Complexity is unfashionable, especially if it risks affecting [your] financial stability; an added incentive to degrade [the status of art]—as have we, so has art become reduced. Vapid ornament.

LEHRER: No longer can people seem to grapple with the fact that a depiction is not an endorsement. Obviously, when Pasolini made Salo he wasn’t saying “I like fascism and child abuse,” but he was using the extreme violence as a way to show how power destroys both the victim and victimizer. You, like Pasolini, don’t take a moral stance on the work, which further complicates readings of it. Do you ever fear that if the art world keeps moving in this direction there just won’t be any room for work like yours anymore?

BAJAGIĆ: It is evident that there is a pathetic tendency towards greedy mediocrity. There is an inability or unwillingness to deal in any depth with complexity. Now, when it is needed most, complex systems of aesthetics, or even provocations, are suppressed. That certain things are uncertain or unknown is simply an impossibility and certainly not permissible; you see, Google has all of the answers—as one listserv member wrote, “With one quick google [sic] of Darja and a look at her instagram [sic] I found some pretty questionable stuff.” This included my following the account of Neue Slowenische Kunst  on Instagram—clearly they are pitifully unenlightened. They go on to say, “To be clear: I have never met her, have nothing against her and know little about her work. That said, fuck Nazis, White Supremacists and Nationalists. Why is she using this imagery with seemingly no indication that it is not in support of it?”. And there you have it. They admit to knowing “little” about my practice but are nevertheless put-out due to my lack of [an indication of] support towards my artwork’s content, which they are only capable of superficially labeling as “Nazi, White Supremacist(s) and Nationalist(s)” imagery. Symptoms of a myopic perspective. This mania for a sterile, essentially dead, art is detestable. Art should not exist within a zone of safety—this would effectively eliminate its true efficacy and potentiality. Censorship occurs when this true efficacy and potentiality threatens the ruling ideology. What the censors fail to see, however, is that, paradoxically, censorship is like pruning: it gives new strength to what it cuts down.

LEHRER: Your work deals directly with “the banality of evil” as you describe it. What is it about the art world, do you think, that makes it so adverse to this subject matter? Certainly depictions of evil, violence, power, and destruction still exist in cinema (Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, David Lynch, Catherine Breillat), literature (Brian Evenson, Ryu Murukami, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy), and music (noise music, black metal, even hip hop). And the art world, to outsiders anyways, seems like the most radical of all these industries, but perhaps ironically is the most sterilized in its thematic content. Where is this irony coming from?

BAJAGIĆ: Sterilizing art is a way to defuse its power. Fear and the fear of generating offense is one excuse in the defense of sterilization. Offensiveness is subjective and relative. What a person chooses to be offended by is a matter of personal opinion. Hypersensitivity is a[nother] widespread disease. So widespread has it become that it is now a tyrannical force. Everyone is catching it. And, as the Greenspon cancellation attests to, “even” the “art world” is forfeiting whatever semblance of [its support of] liberty it feigned—bigots and hypocrites, welcome. In regards to depictions of violence, violent images matter. We must force ourselves to see. We are not bloodless. Violent images are not dangerous, but what is is the overwhelming effort to sanitize, delete our access to an unvarnished reality.

LEHRER: You keep a fairly low public profile when compared against the endless self promotion of many artists in the digital age. This has me thinking of “cancel culture,” which I find to be inherently childish and a bit faux, which happens on both sides of the political isle (the left canceling Kanye, the right canceling Nike). By you taking a back seat from self promotion and controlling distribution of your image, are you hoping to at least somewhat emphasize the importance of divorcing your work from your persona?

BAJAGIĆ: For sheeple, innuendo trumps truth. Provincialism is rampant. Even opinions that diverge from those held by [these] mentally incapacitated persons spur onset extinguishing—this is a dangerous intolerance; it, in fact, calls for extinguishing as it eradicates the possibility or potentiality of anything other than itself to exist. Furthermore, yes, it is troubling, the death of the “marketplace of ideas”. Everyone deserves the right to express, discuss, their views. However, we have, instead, in place an obsessive preoccupation with victimhood, and it triggers a furious and compulsive cleansing—a moral panic. And, always, the threat takes on a symbolic form, as in the examples you list. It is an irrational one, as is the subsequent response [of the public]. Society’s hissy fit. As to my emphasizing my art over myself—I find the tendency to focus upon the artist reductive. The subject of art is not the artist. Art is impersonal and external, not in the sense of detachment [between artist and artwork], rather in that it is the process of a truth which is external to the artist but to which the artist is committed. It is addressed to everyone. All interpretations are correct.

LEHRER: You have said that those who get offended by your work are victims of hypersensitivity, but also that you are sympathetic to that hypersensitivity. But also, the work probably wouldn’t be as powerful if it didn’t offend at least some, correct?

BAJAGIĆ: I do not regard my art as offensive. What you are referring to was an answer to a question regarding “negative reactions to the subject matter of [my artworks].” And I followed by saying that What is in fact obscene, offensive, and oppressive is this hypersensitivity, imposing morality. With that said, I am definitely out to make trouble for people who like things to be simple. Because they are not. Things are incredibly complex, subtle, and nuanced.

LEHRER: One thing I am drawn to in your work is that it necessitates engagement beyond one dimensional looking. For instance, if there is an image of a young, pretty girl, the aesthetics of the work might trigger a subtle uneasy feeling but it is only through the extra step of research will the viewer find out that this young girl was the victim of an abduction and only then the art work’s full meaning is attained. Is this a conscious goal of yours, or am I reading too much into it?

BAJAGIĆ: Yes.  There is no single definition or “essential nature” of images, and different meanings and use can overlap. The meaning of a word is its use in the language. This is a fact, and it inexhaustibly excites me. Instances of this in my most recent artworks are Beate—helpful, kind, nice, obliging, primitive, subliminally aggressive and vulgar and “German Madeleine McCann,” two paintings that were a part of the Greenspon show. They feature the Greek meander—one of the most important symbols in ancient Greece, and, still today, one of the most common decorative elements. It’s on everything, from architecture to Versace thongs and bikinis designed by Instagram “celebrities,” as well on the flag of the Golden Dawn, a political party in Greece that is ultranationalist and far-right. It is thought to symbolize infinity and unity; to the Golden Dawn, they see it as representing bravery and eternal struggle. So, does this make Versace a supporter of ultranationalist and far-right policies? Of course not. The meaning of a word is its use in the language. However, judging by, say, the logic of the attitudes of the persons who forced the shut-down of the Greenspon show, Versace is unequivocally a supporter of ultranationalist and far-right policies due to their continuous use of the Greek meander in their designs, a symbol now notoriously tied to ultranationalist and far-right policies.

Another instance, in this same body, is Beate Zschäpe in Lonsdale, shrouded in intrigue. In it, Zschäpe is pictured in a Lonsdale top. Lonsdale is a long-running (ca 1960), hugely-popular UK-based brand of sporting clothes. In the late 1990s and through the early 2000s, neo-Nazis co-opted the brand as a means to bypass laws outlawing the public display of Nazi symbols, as by cunningly concealing the first and last two letters with a jacket, only the letters NSDA were left visible, one letter short of NSDAP, the acronym for Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ Party). Lonsdale reacted to this trend by marketing initiatives promoting multiculturalism and sponsoring anti-racist campaigns (“Lonsdale Loves All Colours” and “Lonsdale London Against Racism & Hate”). Notwithstanding, the trend (coined Lonsdale youth) was too widespread and took on a life of its own. It was subsequently selectively banned in schools across Germany and the Netherlands. Still, does this make every Lonsdale wearer a neo-Nazi or a member of the NSDAP? Of course not. The meaning of a word is its use in the language. We have to engage with things as they are and not as they appear to us.

LEHRER: One thing I find interesting, if a bit overemphasized, in your work is the critical focus on your use of pornographic images. The porn in the work is usually softcore, especially in comparison with what people see all the time on pornhub and its affiliate sites. But, by divorcing the porn from its source material and placing it into a fine art context, you are able to amplify its meaning to subversive effect. It’s like you are giving an image its power back after that power has been weakened by the sheer amount of images that surround it on the internet. Is this idea something of interest to you?

BAJAGIĆ: Sure. Art prompts the viewer to see and then re-see, and, in this, the power and vitality of the image [in an artwork] is less likely to go unnoticed. It applies to a pornographic image or another—it could be an image of a potato. Reanimating it, in the context of art, often impels suspicious engagement as it recalls its illusionary status. It reminds us that images are not to be taken at face value. They are symbolic constructions, between us and reality. Therein is their power.


NOTE: Neue Slowenische Kunst, or NSK, is a political art collective formed in Slovenia in 1984 that appropriates some fascist symbols into their output, sometimes juxtaposing symbols from totally opposing ideologies, and their musical wing is the successful industrial/avant-garde band Laibach


Screenshot at 13:49/15:02 of the NSU’s “Pink Panther” confession video (2018)

Screenshot at 13:49/15:02 of the NSU’s “Pink Panther” confession video (2018)




The Anarchy and the Ecstasy: An Interview of Dean Valentine & Mills Moràn Preceding the Inaugural Felix Art Fair

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interview by Summer Bowie

photographs by Oliver Kupper

For anyone who’s seen Velvet Buzzsaw, there were a number of glaring inaccuracies about the look and feel of an art fair, most notably is probably the fact that they’re usually filled with hundreds of slack-jawed visitors under harsh halogen lights who look like they just stepped off a Southwest flight…or a parade float, depending on which day you go. This scene is depicted far more accurately in Mark Flood’s Art Fair Fever, a biting, feature-length parody about the dark misgivings of the art world’s collectors and dealers. So, how does one go about reformatting the art fair formula? How do you pull it out of the white cubicles that we’ve all grown to abhor? For Dean Valentine, Mills and Al Moràn, the answer was to start with the location. Building out a fair in a convention center, throwing up some drywall dividers and pumping the AC may be the path to least resistance when it comes to such an ambitious endeavor. However, the humble team of three decided to use the historic Hollywood Roosevelt with its one-of-a-kind hotel rooms, cabanas and banquet halls to create a mis-en-scène that transcends the typical art fair experience. I had the chance to sit down for coffee with Mills and Dean to talk about their inspiration in starting an art fair, the obsession that art necessitates, and the future of the Los Angeles art scene.

SUMMER BOWIE: I want to talk about the inspirations for the Felix Art Fair, because the main inspiration seems to be the Gramercy Art Fair.  

DEAN VALENTINE: During the time of the Gramercy Art Fair in New York, the art world was completely devastated by the [stock market] crash. I mean ‘89, ‘90 there was just nothing. And so, there were a group of dealers, Pat Hearn and Colin de Land who started the Gramercy International Art Fair. It was downtown, sort of low cost, and eventually that migrated over to Los Angeles. When it came to Los Angeles it became the Chateau Marmont Fair because it was the same idea kind of a hipster-y, old hotel, and that’s where I was at the time. I had just begun collecting and the whole LA art world was actually tiny. It all fit into the hotel, pretty much at one time. Marian Goodman had Tom Schütte sculptures. Jay Jopling had early Damien Hurst dot paintings and Tracy Emin quilts. Just, amazing work. So, people would just wander around, and wander to a booth, and look at art and talk to the dealer and talk to each other. 

BOWIE: Casual. 

VALENTINE: A casual, fun way to engage. 

MORAN: Really communal.  

VALENTINE: I just feel like art fairs over the past few years have become so profoundly over-commercialized. Much closer to a shopping experience rather than an art experience. You know when they first started it was a bit different. You’d go to an art fair and it was become you could see art from all over the world in one place and that was pretty cool, but now there’s like 150 art fairs. 

MORAN: They also used to find things. You know, now, there’s so much pressure on the galleries, coming from the galleries’ side; you have to get your PDF ready two weeks in advance. Most people will buy what they want early on and that’s a wrap. So, by the time you get to the fair, you don't really want to be there.   

BOWIE: Yeah, the element of discovery is gone.  

MORAN: The element of discovery is totally gone. So, as much as the Gramercy and the Chateau were reacting to a different time, to a market that had been decimated a couple years earlier. We’re responding, I think, in a different way; not so much because the market’s been hurt, but also because I think people are looking for something different: to engage with the art, and engage with the community. 

BOWIE: Yeah. I also want to talk about the inspirations for the name of the fair. So, I’ve read that it’s Felix the Cat, the Latin word for happy, and then also Félix Fénéon, the dandy anarchist and critical genius, and I was curious if the curation of the galleries was in any way driven by these disparate, sort of, influences. 

VALENTINE: We were all trying to come up with a good name for it. We kept coming up with these names that just sounded so…art fair-y.  

MORAN: Quirky.  

VALENTINE: Yeah, quirky.   

MORAN: There was no fun to it.  

VALENTINE: We first thought, Alta. One name after another, we kept saying, “Oh, yeah, that’s okay, we should do that,” and then none of us were really— 

MORAN: Nothing hit.  

VALENTINE: I guess it was all three of those things simultaneously, I believe.   

MORAN: It’s not too corporate-y, and it’s not totally whimsical at the same time.  

BOWIE: Yeah. It’s not too pretentious and yet that Fénéon influence grounds it a little bit.  

VALENTINE: I mean, I thought Fénéon and his anarchism touched on the fact that we take art very seriously, but the lightheartedness of Felix the Cat, and the felicitousness of the word seemed to touch all of the bases in the right way.  

BOWIE: Any anarchist sentiments between any of you guys?  

MORAN: Not currently, no. 

VALENTINE: Not yet.  

BOWIE: What aspects were you guys looking for in the curation, in terms of representation?  

VALENTINE: You mean, in terms of the galleries? 

BOWIE: Well, I assume that the galleries are applying based on the artists they plan to represent. 

MORAN: So, it was invitation-only. There was no application process.   

BOWIE: I see.   

MORAN: We looked at a range. We just wanted to get a good range of people, internationally, domestically. I don't think there was ever any one thing we were looking for.  

VALENTINE: Part of the fair was born at a dinner with Anton Kern and Tanya Leighton. It was at that dinner that we decided to go ahead and try to do this. These are people, I think, if you look at all the gallerists, what they all have in common is the fact that there’s an actual person, or people, that are running them. People that are profoundly engaged with artists and what artists make and care about.   

MORAN: Right, it could’ve been top heavy, could’ve been project space heavy. Part of the attractiveness for the galleries is the price point. It’s something that’s just very affordable for everybody. It shouldn’t be tough for people to turn a profit or at least get themselves out there and show their artists. We didn’t want to just have twenty big galleries. We wanted to get that range of some small spaces that we really respect, but then also have the anchor with certain gallerists like Anton or Tanya, that have really robust programs as well.  

BOWIE: Are the gallerists also staying in the hotel? 

MORAN: That’s up to every gallerist, but some people are staying in their own rooms, some people are getting an extra room, that depends on the staff they have. There are a number of people staying in their rooms, which I think is the spirit of the fair.  

BOWIE: That sounds like a lot of fun.  

MORAN: Yeah.  

BOWIE: What made the three of you decide to team up and start a fair?  

MORAN: That’s a good question. I mean, we’ve been good friends for ten years or so, and after that dinner, we walked into the gallery and just started firing off ideas. My brother and I are pretty entrepreneurial, and Dean has a great history. We’ve always respected working with him. Al is really close friends with one of the owners of the hotel, so we brought up the idea of doing it at the Roosevelt, and there was never any other option.  

BOWIE: This hotel has such a rich history. I mean, it was the first location of the Academy Awards— 

MORAN: Yeah, we knew that, and in terms of grounding Hollywood in the last hundred years, this was a special place. We thought, if we could bring that type of energy back to this place, it would be really special.  

VALENTINE: Yeah, the hotel itself has become more of a character in our sort of fair drama since it began. It’s such an interesting place. It has so many nooks and crannies. It has its own life, you know? We were really very fond of the place and its history and its design. I just can’t imagine doing it anywhere else. 

MORAN: We’ve seen every nook and cranny, and every special room, every ballroom, every banquet hall. You’d be shocked at how many things are possible in this hotel.   

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BOWIE: Which aspects of organizing the fair have come most naturally and which have been the most difficult?  

MORAN: I mean, really, getting the galleries was the most natural part. He’s been talking to a lot of these galleries for years, a lot of them are friends of mine. The hardest part was limiting it to the number of galleries we have. We had a lot more people who wanted to be in this fair, but that to me, was a good sign. 

VALENTINE: The hardest part has been the logistics. 

MORAN: The devil’s always in the details.  

VALENTINE: Yeah, it’s the details. All of a sudden, it turns out that in certain rooms there’s a headboard that occupies an entire wall and it’s screwed into the walls. So, that’s a wall that a gallerist would otherwise have to show art, and so it was like, “What do we do about that?”  

MORAN: And that’s a big difference from the ‘90s fairs. You cannot touch the Gramercy Hotel. You couldn’t take a thing out of it, you couldn’t hang onto the wall; you couldn’t do a thing. We’ve been blessed with good partners at the hotel— 

VALENTINE: —They’ve been amazing.  

MORAN: They’re allowing us to drill into the walls, we’re building walls in the cabanas because they need an art wall, we’re moving beds. It’s all kind of wide open.  

BOWIE: Really? 

MORAN: (laughs) But it all makes things a lot more complicated. 

BOWIE: I’m sure it’s a logistical nightmare.  

VALENTINE: Yeah, each of the forty-two galleries has their own room. Because it’s an old hotel—it’s not like the Sheraton, where every room is the same—each room is different.  Every floor is different. The cabanas are pretty much the same. But each person has their own demands for what they want in their room.   

BOWIE: It’s well known that Dean, you come from a background in television. You were a media executive, turned prominent art collector, and you’ve also served on the boards of the Hammer and MOCA. And then, Mills, you and Al have said that have no formal art education or training, so what would you say led the three of you guys to being such notable purveyors of art?  

MORAN: From my standpoint—it’s always been the relationship with artists that has driven my career, and early on, before we formed the gallery, we befriended artists. We knew artists and that drove everything. So, as a gallery, we’re very artist-centric. Very rarely will I go into a studio and edit somebody’s show, and that relationship, to me, has been able to transcend and build the gallery and the career we’ve grown into. This business is the most relationship-business I can think of. You have to be there for the openings, you have to be there for the dinners, you have to be there for your artists at all times, and I think that’s always driven us. So, once you have those relationships in place, everything else sort of cascades down. But, you gotta have the passion for it. To me, the passion is with the art and the artists and the relationships, and that’s how I’ve grown my career.  

BOWIE: It’s an experience-based practice.  

VALENTINE: Yeah, I mean, I think for me, I was a journalist for twelve years before I was a television executive and I’ve always been around writers and artists, and that’s been the core of my professional life. Even as a TV executive, there were writers, there were designers, there were directors. So, I’ve always been around creative people. I mean, art, specifically, was a revelation to me. At some point I came on the idea that it was a different way of understanding the world through these material metaphors. That it wasn’t just this thing that hung on a wall; it was a language and a way of looking at things, and I became obsessed by it. Once I got obsessed, I guess I had the means to acquire it, but, for me, it wasn’t just about the object, it was always about being part of the art world. Engaging with artists and gallerists. I don’t have an art education, obviously, but my graduate school was working with art dealers. Stuart Regen at Regen Projects, Tom Soloman, Andrea Rose, and Lisa Spellman, those are the people that taught me about contemporary art. So, I value that.  

BOWIE: It’s an ongoing discourse.  

MORAN: Yeah, and I think, obsession is the right word. It’s almost impossible to be successful in this industry without that obsession. You can’t do it halfway. People smell it from a mile away, if you’re not passionate about it. I think that’s the one thing that ties the two of us together, and Al as well.  

BOWIE: Yeah, if you think that it’s going to be a fun way to make money...  

MORAN: (laughs) It’s certainly not. (laughs)  

BOWIE: What would you say are the hallmarks of an emerging artist with enduring potential? 

MORAN: Well, I mean, the way that everything’s been moving in the last ten, fifteen, twenty years, is you have to go to a good school. It’s hard to just appear on the scene without having an education. Whether that’s good or bad, I have no idea, but it’s certainly good for the art schools and some of the art programs. You know, people used to say, “You need to be identifiable, people need to recognize your work,” I don't know if that’s true anymore. I think you need to have a voice, and you need to be unique. You need to bring your own genuine language into the conversation.  

VALENTINE: As with anything else, you want somebody that has talent, that has a point of view. 

MORAN: Most artists will have downs. All of them. It’s how you manage through it. It’s the things you do during that down time that speaks a lot more than when you’re having success. I tell all my artists, “I want to be able to sell your work now and fifty years from now as easily as we can now.” That’s a goal that someone should try and achieve; to have that kind of longevity in their career.   

BOWIE: Yeah, I think that back in the midcentury there was this accepted notion that being an artist wasn’t a career choice, it was an identity.  

MORAN: There’s so much more awareness now about artists, especially with people that would’ve normally never paid attention to what an artist was doing. So, that could be dangerous, and to fall into trends, or to fall into market forces, or to fall into what people expect you to make or expect you to say. That, to me, is a pitfall that any artist needs to try and avoid.   

BOWIE:  We’re seeing the arrival of Felix, and of course, Frieze LA, Spring Break, etc. Do you guys think that February in Los Angeles is going to turn into December in Miami? 

VALENTINE: Well, we hope so. I mean Miami’s actually a pretty small town, and it doesn’t take a lot to get its boosters together to keep interest going in this kind of thing. LA’s not a small town. It’s a very big town. It has a lot of other stuff going on and people do all sorts of other stuff. I mean, you’re competing with the Lakers, the beach, the mountains, and all that stuff. It’s hard to focus people’s attention, you know? It’s always been hard to focus people’s attention on anything. There’s just so much happening. So, whether the market’s reached a critical mass is still an open question.  

MORAN: I also think the key is, in some way, baby steps. Like, we could have had eighty galleries in our fair.  

VALENTINE: Right.  

MORAN: Frieze could have done two hundred galleries in their fair.  

VALENTINE: But they’re both small. 

MORAN: They’re both manageable. 

VALENTINE: And, also, it’s probably right that it’s relative to the size of the art market here. I mean, New York is vast, but there’s also a vast market there - journalists and galleries and collectors. LA is vast in terms of the number of artists. In terms of the infrastructure, it’s still relatively small and developing. So, I think Frieze is doing seventy galleries; that’s perfect. We’ll do forty-two galleries.  

MORAN: The key is to provide an experience for everyone. I think that will really help the notion of this process.  


The first edition of Felix LA will take place from February 14-17, 2019 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Click here to learn more. Follow @felixartfair on Instagram.


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Unearthing Embedded Knowledge: An Interview Of Rosha Yaghmai On The Occasion Of Her Exhibition At The Wattis Institute

interview by Summer Bowie
photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper

Walking into Rosha Yaghmai’s studio is a little bit like walking into the laboratory of a junkyard hoarder/mad scientist. There’s a distinctly pleasant organization to the vast collection of Los Angeles detritus that extends from the studio to the backlot outside. The walls are plastered with images from torn magazine pages, postcards, posters, watercolors and collage works. It’s as though you could hold a microscope to any detail in the room and discover a tiny world within. This is especially the case when viewing the centerpiece of her upcoming exhibition Miraclegrow at the Wattis Institute in San Francisco. In the center of the room sits a giant sculpture of a human hair. Pubic? Maybe. This mysterious hair sits on a floor which acts as a pedestal of giant, reflective bathroom tiles. Encapsulating this familiar scene, the walls are covered in large black tiles, effectively wall works that appear to drip with the glistening traces of warm condensation. The hair itself is a sedimentary composite of industrial materials, cleaning products, bathroom products, nail polish, and so much more. Layers and layers of genetic material soaked in personal history. I had the chance to sit down with Yaghmai just a few days before the works made their way up to San Francisco to talk about her upbringing as a tinkering, junk-collecting Angeleno, her work and its relationship to personal heritage, and how she so compellingly defines the cosmic in the microcosmic.

SUMMER BOWIE: I want to start by just talking about your beginning. I understand that you started as a photographer and then transitioned into sculpture. What kind of photography were you making, and why did you lose interest in it?

ROSHA YAGHMAI: I started off making photographs really young. In the sixth and seventh grade. I was really interested in taking photographs. Really quickly, when I went to photo school, I spent most of my time trying to use the chemicals to do things you aren’t supposed to do. So, I never was making straight photographs...I was always.... altering the image, adding weird color.... I was trying to make the photographs more like paintings, but I think I was just trying to make sculpture. I would combine Xerox’s so there was this approximation of the real that I was really interested in, which seems like a natural link between photography and sculpture. I eventually started making fake diorama-like environments with the photographs, so again, pushing into sculpture. I was at SVA in New York at the time and I ended up transferring to CalArts. As soon as I got into the desert landscape, photography was gone.... and I started making sculpture. I haven’t made photographs for a long time.

BOWIE: That is interesting because you often hear of artists coming to LA, discovering its unique light and then naturally pushing into photography.

YAGHMAI: I am also from here, so it was less about that, I just wanted to create environments when I moved here.

BOWIE: The work you presented at Made in L.A., Slide Samples (Lures, Myths) includes projected slides from photographs your father took when he first emigrated to California from Iran. Have you always wanted to work with these images, or did the urge come to you recently?

YAGHMAI: They’ve always been around our house. We had this one print, and I thought it was just an eighties photo, and I didn’t think much about it. My father was interested in photography and that’s how I got into photography. I had all his cameras. etc. and I saw those slides and started making slides, but nothing like that. They [the slides] have always been lingering for years. I finally just asked him about them. I knew he had made them in Berkeley. I knew he used abstract color, they were trying to be psychedelic because of the timing, 1969-72. When I asked him about it, just the process of his thinking, it was very similar to how I was making resin that I was calling slides. He was taking hunks of glass from the Coca Cola Company in Oakland and using different sources of light and filters (light from the television, etc.) to make reflective surfaces. I thought it was an interesting, strange way to connect with a new culture but also realizing there were some similar physical properties with my work: the resin, using lenses and different filters. I think up until the Hammer most of the work that I have made was some sort of screen or a way to alter a site and I linked it with that work once I knew he had made it.

BOWIE: You were born right around the time that the Shah of Iran was overthrown.

RY: He [my father] emigrated here in the mid-60’s and my parents got married and they moved to Iran... and I was actually conceived in Iran and we lived there...then the revolution broke out and we came back to the United States...and I was born.

BOWIE: Growing up in Los Angeles, what was it like being in the wake of these events as a first-generation Iranian-American?

YAGHMAI: I think my dad was so involved with being an American person that we never really talked about that stuff... I didn’t really understand until later but I feel like...I am realizing... how in much of my work there is a subconscious draw to that... or a feeling of wanting to traverse long distances, or different perspectives comes into the work. I am so disconnected from that part of my lineage or history and I could ask my family, read more about it, and I do; but, I feel like I am in the process of unearthing some embedded knowledge and I think the misunderstanding and not knowing is really generative for me.

BOWIE: That makes sense. Maybe your dad was seeing America through a lens that is slowly revealing itself to you.

YAGHMAI: He only went back to Iran maybe five or six years ago, maybe because it was so awful and painful. It never really came up.

BOWIE: You said once that you take pleasure in the sort-of trashiness of LA. What aspects of that trashiness appeal to you most?

YAGHMAI: I don’t know if it just being that I am a beach-desert person, and there are moments in that??? (7:53). and there’s moments in that hair that are in this zone. You know, like a piece of glittering trash like in a desert landscape. Just these little moments of collage really interest me. But in terms of trashiness, I really thrive and enjoy a casual environment. I don’t know if trashiness is the right word, but I feel like (it’s not this way anymore) the feeling of complete freedom here. But now it is not quite like that. I grew up between Alta Dena and by the beach, we would just ride our bikes out, and go to the junkyard and find weird stuff, and my grandfather was a bit of a hoarder and a handyman type. We would just be tinkering. I think that is it. Thrift store shopping and finding some weird historical gem… I also have a real interest in outsider architecture.

BOWIE: I can see the psychedelic influence of your father’s work with those weird remnants of Americana that seem to litter the streets and the junkyards that used to exist. Santa Monica and Venice were very different places back then.

YAGHMAI: It was so wild there when I was growing up and trashy. It was great! The beach towns were abandoned--it was a bunch of old people and skaters. Weird remnants. It was magical, I feel lucky I grew up here during that time.


“I am realizing how much, basically, “dusk” is my color palette. That is where the light and space of California comes into my work. It is “dusk” but it is city dusk; that moment when the sky has that color and there is the neon turning on. That in-between time...”


BOWIE: You use a lot of found materials, industrial metals, liquids, resins, do you have any favorites or least favorites?

YAGHMAI: They are all a pain (sighs). I definitely do like working with materials that are liquid to solid. In terms of favorite, detrimental to my market, I just move through and use what I want. I don’t really have the usual approach. So, this show has a completely different approach than the one at the Hammer. I do like working with transparency, like this super clear, very toxic resin. My work relates to light and space because of my history and the physical properties of the work (color and all that), but I feel like for me it is much more about collaging. So, if you have one thing that’s transparent, you're altering what you see behind it, and for me that altering and blending of sight is really important. I also really like using silicone, the type of silicone you make prosthetics out of. Platinum silicon. And that has a translucent quality too but I like using that material as an approximation or stand in for the body, clear resin and that are the two things I go back to.

BOWIE: Your work has a quality about it that invites viewers to temporarily enter a foreign world and quietly meditate there for a moment. Is this an experience you look for when viewing the work of other artists?

YAGHMAI: I think you always fantasize that you make different art. I like going into a full on crazy installation...just something that looks like a playground. So, I am not always drawn to a contemplative space... I think that in my work that kind of emerges because up until very recently I was very stubborn about (sternly, “I make objects, I want to make objects”). Yet, it is teetering on installation because these objects when in relation to one another create this sort of psychological environment and their relation to each other creates an oddity you want to linger with. I feel like this show is the first time in a while that I am making an environment. I mean each object in the show... like the floor is the pedestal for the hair and the panels are paintings and they can be separated so they are still existing as objects kind of coming together for this moment but they are not props and still are works of art, or sculptures. I really think a lot about putting things together that are a bit perplexing or strange that makes one want to linger a bit and figure it out. I think that may be the color palette. I am realizing how much, basically, “dusk” is my color palette. That is where the light and space of California comes into my work. It is “dusk” but it is city dusk; that moment when the sky has that color and there is the neon turning on. That in-between time... which I think is a very contemplative time, when you are driving around that time.

BOWIE:  Always in LA... I think you said that your color choices are kind of the most intuitive part of the process...

YAGHMAI: I made this whole series of silicones for this show in Germany and I realized they are all colors from my childhood--wetsuits that were around. It just emerges, “oh, of course, that’s why I’m doing that...”

BOWIE: In this show, you said you wanted to create an environment that takes on a spider's perspective on the floor of a bathroom. What inspired this particular perspective?

YAGHMAI: I was really torn about what to do for this show. I feel like the Hammer project was sort of the end to a couple years of thinking. So I felt a bit stuck, to be honest, and I was trying to figure out what the next step was. I knew I wanted to make an environment. I was super frustrated, came home to the studio, threw down my jumpsuit, and I noticed (I hate spiders. Sorry, I’m trying to change my perspective on that) a spider trying to crawl into it, so I snatched it away. And the spider kind of stopped, and I was just watching, and thought, “what the hell does that thing think just happened?” So, I had this moment where I thought, if I am trying to make work that alters perspective in a very physical, literal embodied way, why wouldn’t the next step be to try to empathize and project myself into something of which I could never understand what their perspective would be. In terms of psychedelic properties, I think that’s the most honest way to go about it. I just wanted to physically remake it, but in a skewed way.

BOWIE: Has it changed your feelings towards spiders at all?

YAGHMAI: My husband got me this Louise Bourgeois book, and so obviously, she has those big spider sculptures, and she talks about them as a symbol of renewal. So, I’m trying to get into a Louise Bourgeois way of thinking about it, rather than just thinking about them crawling on me at night. So, I think I can empathize with them a little bit more. How scary must it be? I just wanted to make a direct approach to the show.

BOWIE:  There are so many materials that went into that hair sculpture. It has this sort of sedimentary value to it...can you just talk for a moment about the different materials that you used in creating it?

YAGHMAI: I mean... it is the hardest sculpture I ever made, not in a physical way, but just that you’re really fighting the form. Not to be too literal, but your hair is a shedding of some kind of skin, and I knew I wanted to cast my body and incorporate it into the work. Almost like it is carved out of some kind of stone, or I wanted to make it seem like something that happened or something that is really forced. You don’t work on growing your hair, it just happens, but if you think about all the energies that go into making it... I used a lot of materials that I’ve used before, like limestone, graphite, household plastics like shampoo bottles, laundry soap, and shopping bags. I melted those down and put them in. It’s almost like coral where it absorbs anything that is in the environment...I was thinking about that with all the chemicals in the body and how they can all be traced in a single hair. And also, thinking back to my father and my parents, and just thinking about what you absorb in your DNA, what is trapped in there, trapped knowledge that I don’t know about. I wanted to have this sort of spacey, geological tone and I was looking at images of the sand dunes on Mars, which is basically the whole brochure for the show, which is a reach, but it’s cosmic level shit. You know, like you’re sitting here and now our molecules will be tangled forever. Things that are blowing my mind. For me it is kind of fake because it is cast and modified material, but I was trying to be really genuine and putting together a lot of stuff that I’m around on the regular.

BOWIE: There seems a deep desire to capture moments or feelings in your work; to encapsulate and oppose the forces of entropy. Would you agree with that interpretation?

YAGHMAI: I think so... there is so much in my work that is the familiar becoming foreign, and so there's this flip all the time of something so familiar (that maybe you take for granted) turning on you. I feel just that awkwardness-- making you aware of your existence, of your body interacting with the object.

BOWIE: You have referred to the desire to freeze time, but is that something you feel like you want to do permanently or temporarily, and if so, for how long, what is that desire to hold things in space?

YAGHMAI: I mean that’s sculpture (laughs). If I had one power, it would be to stop time.  You know when you play that game. Just slowing down the process and pointing to that one thing and using force to stop that moment or those moments and to have it on display. Not that my work is usually that figurative, but to slow it down. Having a one-on-one relationship between the object and the viewer.


Rosha Yaghmai's exhibition
Miraclegrow opens on January 15th and runs until March 30th at The Wattis Institute. 360 Kansas St, San Francisco, CA 94103

Rough Cuts: An Interview Of Chuck Arnoldi On The Occasion Of His Show At Desert Center Los Angeles

Some interesting facts about leopards: they are solitary animals that hunt in open terrains, they are difficult to track in the wild, they are extremely adaptable to new environments, and they often leave claw marks on trees to mark their territory. In Chuck Arnoldi’s expansive Venice Beach studio, a dusty, taxidermied leopard is perched, mid-roar, above the kitchen alcove. There is something strangely symbolic about this once ferocious, now inert genus of panthera.  Arnoldi is not a hunter, but he is quick to note that this leopard is one of the best examples of taxidermy in the world. Among the Cool School cohort of artists, like Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, and Larry Bell, Arnoldi may be the lesser known, but he may also be the most prolific. His chainsaw sculptures – which can be quickly described as chunks of painted wood with blade marks slashed into them – are his most well known, his Girl From Ipanema. They are dangerous and allude to his misfit youth. These hyper-mystical geometries can also be seen in his Machu Picchu paintings, which mimic the mysterious architecture of the ancient Incan citadel. Arnoldi’s latest show at Desert Center, entitled Rough Cuts, includes a number of recent chainsaw paintings made in and around the Yukon. A day after the Woolsey Fire broke out and threatened the artist’s home in Malibu, we sat down at his studio for a chat.

OLIVER KUPPER: First off, I want to talk about the fire because it came very close to your property in Malibu, what did you do to fight off the fires? 

CHUCK ARNOLDI:  We weren’t going to leave because I have so much art in the house--I have a little Warhol I got for nothing...that is worth two million dollars, you know. We felt comfortable, because the house is quite high up there. We knew if the fire came, we could always go to the beach. If you go up to our roof, you could see the stuff coming. They looked like atom bombs, flames a hundred feet tall. I didn’t think my house was going to burn. I took the Calder and the Warhol...I got a lot of stuff, about a hundred-fifty pieces of art at least in the house. I took it all outside and put it in different places. It took me 25,000 steps to take it out and 25,000 steps back to take it back.

KUPPER: The fires tune in to your work in a way, because some of your most well known works deal with using discarded materials or recycled materials, like your stick paintings, which came from a burned down orchard, can you talk a little bit about that?

ARNOLDI: I had an artist friend from Malibu and he told me one day, there is an orchard...and it had oranges and avocados and he told me to go steal some fruit. It was his special little thing…he’s an odd guy. So we were out there stealing oranges and avocados. The perimeter had all these leaves that had burned off, and they looked like charcoal lines. I thought those are beautiful, so I took my sticks back to the studio. The first piece I made, I took four sticks and tied them together at the end and I put two nails and hung it on the wall. It’s really about something being the sum of its parts, gravity.

KUPPER: Is it true that some of your stick paintings have come from your childhood home in Ohio?

ARNOLDI: No, but you see those thorns up on the wall? When I was a little kid growing up, those were from a tree in Ohio. So I made those paintings from thorns. I’ve been avoiding Ohio like the plague. I have a very dysfunctional, bad family. 

KUPPER: What was it like growing up there?

ARNOLDI: Most of my buddies are dead, a lot of them went to prison. I was just in a bad place. I had no art history at all in my childhood. I have an uncle who was a portrait painter, he wore a beret and had a little painting studio. I used to go there and I really liked the smell of oil painting. He was my only exposure to art and at one point I got a modeling job at an art institute. I was broke and they would pay me to pose. One of the directors convinced me to take my clothes off and then he wanted me to get a hard on. This fucking guy, I’d like to meet him today. No fucking way.  

When I was a kid, I made tree houses and forts and if I saw a Tarzan movie, I would make bows and arrows and spears. As I got older I got involved with cars. When I graduated, a teacher told me, “You are the most talented with the least amount of vision of anyone I have ever met,” and it made me feel terrible.... See, when I was growing up, I got attention for doing stuff, I was really good with my hands.

KUPPER: Seems like the whole Venice School came from places like Dayton, the mythical American city, what was it about LA that was such a beacon for you guys? 

ARNOLDI: I was a senior in high school and I had gotten in a little bit of trouble, they were gonna put me in a foster home. My father was living in Southern California with this woman he ran away with and he flew me out to California. I had never seen a freeway. It blew my mind. When I got back to Dayton I wanted to move to California. After I graduated high school, my mother had about six dollars and twenty-eight cents, so she gave me that and I left with four buddies of mine. I had a ‘55 Chevy with a ‘53 engine. We were terrible thieves.

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KUPPER: When did you get serious about art?

ARNOLD: While in Los Angeles, it was time for me to go to school. I drove out to Ventura and I chickened out, I just couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t even go to an art history course. It was way over my head. I would just go to the art classes, ceramics for instance. The guy who ran the art department, Mr. Deets, saw my work and he came to see me and said, “You know son, since Picasso, everything is bullshit. You need to be an illustrator. I can make you one if you do what I tell you.” I could draw perfectly. I had the skills.

KUPPER: How did your later experiences at Art Center influence your perspective?

ARNOLDI: I’d be doing a painting and the guy would come and go, “That’s done.” To me, it wasn’t finished, but to them I was ruining it. They would take your work away from you. In painting class the first thing they taught you is that you have to wear a tie and how to wear it so you don’t paint on it. This was all bullshit to me. I’m sitting there thinking this is fucked and I quit.

KUPPER: You seem like a bit of a daredevil – can you talk about your chainsaw sculptures, because those sort of put you on the map in a way?

ARNOLDI: I just liked the way it looked. But one little slip and it’s really bad. I’ve been doing the Machu Picchu thing...these multi-paneled paintings. But the chainsaw sculptures were just one of those things that was on my mind. I don’t like to make sculptures because they are bulky. But these sort of made sense.

KUPPER: Some of the work at your current show was made in the Yukon?

ARNOLDI:  I went up there not expecting to make work, but I was sort of coaxed into it. The guy who owned the property has a gold mine. He asked if we wanted to get to work, so we go down to a river to find some wood. There were these two rough kids – one of them had recently slit a wolf’s neck that tried to attack him. So we are up there and they start to cut down some trees for me to make a sculpture. One kid said, “What do you want me to do?” I tell him to cut five slabs off and to get me some kind of platform. I said, “Kid, you’re good with the chainsaw. I’ll draw the line. You want you to give me this much of an angle.” (makes the vroom, vroom, vroom sound of a chainsaw) I look over and the other kid wants to do it too (vroom...vroom...vroom). We worked for two hours and made a few pieces. By the end, we made nine... and the new chainsaw pieces were painted in red, black and yellow. When I used to make the old chainsaw paintings, there would be splinters all over, so I would torch them away. I went and bought a serious blowtorch and all the kids were so excited.  The kids cut trees down like crazy, and never thought of doing anything beyond that. I bet that within a year these kids would be making furniture and shit out of logs.

OK: Your upcoming show at Desert Center is called Rough Cuts – there is a connection to your work and some of the other Venice artists to music, the improvisational nature could be compared to jazz?

CA:  Somebody once told me something and I felt rather flattered:  “Your chainsaw paintings are the closest thing I can think of to Pollock.” The reason is....Pollock in a sense did a dance, it was spontaneous, you know--he was physically involved. Man, then you start cutting in references and you are making hundreds of decisions a second, but it's a physical thing, you’re actively engaged in it.


Chuck Arnoldi: Rough Cuts is on view now at Desert Center Los Angeles, 7466 Beverly Blvd. Email for appointments: desertcenterlosangeles@gmail.com. Text and photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper


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The Thrill Without The Tropes: An Interview Of Screenwriter Isa Mazzei & Actor Madeline Brewer On The Occasion Of Cam's Premiere On Netflix

text by Summer Bowie

portraits by Remy Holwick

film stills courtesy of Divide/Conquer


For anyone who has painstakingly worked to build and curate their Instagram page, only to have it disabled unexpectedly, you know just how devastating the loss can be. For those whose accounts have been hacked, the consequences can be much worse. Thus is the case for Alice (played by Madeline Brewer), a young and ambitious camgirl on the rise, who is relentlessly creating new shows and characters to improve her ranking on freegirls.live, a fictional camming site, designed and created specifically for the film. When Alice’s account is hacked and hijacked by someone with an uncanny resemblance, she is forced to outwit her doppelgänger while watching her own identity, both online and irl, degrade rapidly. Aside from the psychic thrill that the narrative provides, this film offers a refreshing subversion to the standard tropes that come from the sexy, horror genre. From the ways that sex work is represented in the film, to the ways that the screenwriter, Isa Mazzei and director, Daniel Goldhaber challenge the standard director-authorship, this film provides a wealth of new templates to consider that are seemingly radical, yet unsurprisingly, quite logical. In Mazzei and Goldhaber’s Cam, the hyper-indulgent and semi-private world of camming is given life in a way that is instantly translatable by the genre. A surreal, thrill ride that seeps into your unconscious mind and humanizes the very real people that hitherto have been unjustly stigmatized by the film and media industry at large.

SUMMER BOWIE: Isa, you wrote a film that is in many ways inspired by your own experience as a camgirl, but you chose to write a fictional, horror narrative. What drew you to the genre for this project?

ISA MAZZEI: First, I love genre, so that makes sense (laughs). But also, I felt like it was really important for me to bring audiences inside Alice’s experiences...and I think that genre is a really great tool for sharing subversive ideas in a way that’s really commercial and digestible. So to have an audience empathize with a sex worker and have them rooting for her to return to sex work… while there’s also so much adrenaline, and so much color, and so much action, and you’re on the edge of your seat –– I feel like that was the most effective way that I knew how to really bring audiences into that.

BOWIE: It seems the more horrific the daily news cycle becomes, the more obsessed we as a society become with horror films. What do we find so cathartic about it, and do we ever really exorcise the demons?

MAZZEI: I feel like horror can be really cathartic – absolutely – and I also think horror can be a way to communicate important ideas while still feeling like escapism, and that’s what I think is so cool about it. I don’t think anyone watches Cam and walks out going “Wow, I just watched something really political, and I just watched something really subversive.” I think those things happen on a subconscious level. I think that in a literal sense, Cam is a really fun, exciting movie that brings you into this really colorful, thrilling world for ninety minutes...and the work that it does that I think is really important is kind of on a more subconscious level than that. I think all horror can be used that way, and I think a lot of genre films do that work, and I think that’s why I love them so much. Because again, they’re kind of this way where you feel like you’re escaping from the real world, you feel like you’re in the fantasy space that is very cathartic, full of adrenaline...but actually they can communicate some really important ideas.

 
 

BOWIE: And there’s something really nice about this film and it’s approach to the genre, because I feel like horror in particular has a very rich, misogynist history, and to approach it from this perspective where you’re telling the story of a woman that is not a damsel in distress being chased by a monster is a really nice way to approach the genre.

MAZZEI: Thank you.

MADELINE BREWER: I think that’s what I found so refreshing about watching and doing the film. I’m a big slasher fan, but every situation in a slasher movie is like a young woman...with her boobs hanging out unnecessarily being chased by a much larger man, and that whole visual is just so tired to me now that I have a movie like Cam in my life. There are other ways to tell stories about women in a horror genre without that thing where the ‘slut’ always dies first. This movie still gives you the thrill without any of the tropes.

BOWIE: Madeline, how did you get a hold of the script, and did you initially see yourself playing the role, because I know a lot of reps won’t even show actors a script like this?

BREWER: Yeah, I talked to Danny and Isa about how there were some difficulties with them getting the script out, because not only actors, but actors reps have to be on board with the whole idea. My manager had said something to me like, “Hey, I have this script..I don’t know..it’s about a camgirl. Just have a look, see what you feel.” I read it and I immediately was frightened of it, because I was just like...I don’t know if I can do justice to a story like this, playing three characters. But I was stoked to play a camgirl.

BOWIE: The role demands a certain vulnerability and I understand that the on-set crew was predominantly female. How would you say that affected the vibe on set?

BREWER: Oh my god, we could not have done this I don’t think––I know personally, and I know plenty of actors that would back me up––that in this kind of situation, where you are physically and emotionally vulnerable, where you are literally and figuratively naked, you have to be in a safe environment, in which you are free to explore and express, and take yourself to another level. I’ve been on sets where women have felt uncomfortable because some random...I don’t know...crew member ogled them in a way that maybe would make them feel uncomfortable. I think that whole situation was just a non-factor for me because there were so many women, and I feel comfortable around women. But also the fact that there was a crew that….they knew what they were getting themselves into, they knew the story that they were telling, so if they weren’t supportive of that, then they would not have been there. It was already like a litmus test that everyone had passed. They were there and willing to be supportive of whatever had to go down to make this film, and a lot of that was me not being clothed.

BOWIE: Isa, you undoubtedly directed yourself in the past as a camgirl. What made you feel confident that Daniel Goldhaber was the right director to bring your script to life?

MAZZEI: I mean, a lot of things. The main thing is that he listens to me. And I think, you know, it’s easy to look back and say we’ve been collaborating for ten years, I trust him and his shot. You know, in the past I had hired him to shoot porn for me, and direct some videos that I had made, but at the end of the day the most important thing about him is that he listens to me. When I said, you know, “this is how she would hold her body in this scene,” it was kind of this three-way collaboration. She already knew those things, and I knew those things, and to have a director that would just kind of say, “Okay, I trust you and I’m not going to force anything onto the scene or onto the character that you’re telling me is not real or valid.” From day one of collaborating on the script, Danny always deferred to my judgement calls, especially on representation of the female body and performative femininity, and performative sexuality; all of those.

BOWIE: And the two of you share equal credit for the film. Was this a decision that the two of you made from the beginning, or did it happen somewhere along the way?

MAZZEI: That happened along the way. Initially, I was just writing it and he was going to direct it. But it became pretty clear in the beginning of the collaboration that we were building the story together, we were building the world together. We were discussing things like how we were going to shoot scenes while I was still writing them, and while we were still workshopping them. I had a lot of opinions and insight on the actors that I wanted, and the crew that we wanted, and what kind of DP I wanted, and how we wanted to include as many women as possible on set, and all of these decisions. So, it became pretty clear that it was something we were making together. We always like to say it’s like 100% his movie and 100% my movie, and there’s no way to tease apart the ownership more than that. It’s a shared vision, it’s been a shared vision, and that’s what we decided.

BOWIE: The platform used in the film, freegirls.live, so closely resembles that of any social media platform with live capabilities that the basic act of camming is actual pretty familiar to most people. Madeline, did you have any personal experience with going live and juggling your attention between the performance and a live stream of comments and requests?

BREWER: The act of being live online and responding to a livestream of comments was totally new to me, I had never experienced anything like that before. I mean also what we were doing was synced up and I knew what they were going to say, and then the responses and everything. But it’s quick paced, very live and interactive and I watched a lot of cams in preparation in our pre-production time, and even during shoots to get kind of a refresher. I had a few camgirls that I liked in particular for their little quirks and nuances, so I watched them and how they interact. The things they say and what kind of inside jokes they have with their room, and their guys and all of that. It was something that I was totally unfamiliar with in that aspect, but what I was familiar with was that kind of performative identity that we all have online, and that feeling of always showing your best self, and the most ‘attractive,’ for lack of a better word, part of you to your internet following. The more time I spend on the internet, the more I learn about it. For example, someone I know who knows Kim Kardashian; all of her candid shots are completely staged. Everything she does is a business, and it’s all so perfectly cultivated and curated. This film in general has made me look a lot more at how I present myself online, and even whatever level of transparency I think I do have. I’ll never be totally transparent because the only people I reserve that for are my mother and my closest friends.

BOWIE: I read that Pink Narcissus was a major inspiration for the set of Alice’s room. That film has such a great tension between intimate vulnerability and performative indulgence. It’s more peep show than porn. Why have we seen so many films about strippers, porn stars and prostitutes, but never anything about peep shows or camming? Is it just too gray an area?

MAZZEI: One of the draws of camming in general is that there is this gray area between: Are they a performer? Or are you actually getting to know the real person? There’s definitely this line that a lot of performers walk, where a lot of them don’t say, “This is my cam room,” they’ll say “This is my bedroom.” And maybe it will be their real bedroom. I worked out of my real bedroom for a long time before I built my own “pink” room that I had. There’s an appeal to that, because unlike a stripper, where you know you’re getting a performance, you know that you’re at their place of work...when you’re watching a camgirl, there is this blurring of a fantasy where you feel exactly that – you feel like maybe you’re seeing into their real life a little bit. I would often work six to eight hour shifts. I would put dinner on, I would drink coffee, I would be getting up to go to the bathroom...my roommate’s dog would wander through on my camera feed. There’s a level of reality to it that I think is really appealing, and that builds this level of personal intimacy. This is often found in any type of sex work but is especially highlighted in camming. So, for the Pink Room, we drew a lot of inspiration from that, and for me it was just important to build a space where we could not only show that Alice has a curated space that she works from – this kind of fever dream fantasy space – but also to kind of contrast this space to her real life. Because what I found when I was working, and what sex workers are often not credited with enough, is how much they dedicate their craft...how calculated and dedicated they can be. So Alice has this space that is intensely curated, very much thought out and decorated with all of her props and all the things she might possibly need. Then she has her house – and her house is not even unpacked, it’s still in boxes, it’s messy, there’s takeout food. She is giving everything to this space and, as I had mentioned, this craft. And that’s a side of sex work that I wanted to show, and I wanted to be really clear in this visual juxtaposition of this really curated space and then this kind of sloppy, still expensive, but not quite so deliberate space that she exists in outside of her work.

BOWIE: Madeline, as you were following several camgirls, what were the characters that you were drawn to? What was it about a specific camgirl? Can you give an example of one that you felt was really honing the craft?

BREWER: There were aspects of some camgirls that I would watch that would take on the persona of a little more girly...or there was a sweetness, or an innocence to them that I felt when I watched, which was totally part of an act…I believe...I don’t know, but there was a lot of quirkiness to them that I really enjoyed. It felt very human, and I guess that is what is attractive about cam – you feel like you’re watching a real person. I feel like as a performer myself - and for these camgirls as performers - we’re constantly highlighting things about our personalities that we want to make a little bit louder or exaggerating them, and then not including too much of the things we don’t want other people to see. It’s all there, it’s all underneath, whereas someone like the camgirls that I related to when I was playing Lola II, who were purely so enigmatic, and so unobtainable seemingly, that I wanted to model Lola II after, but without losing the fact that it’s based on Alice. I watched a lot of cam. I watched these girls day and night and just...the best word is “stole” from them what performative things they were putting in their shows that I felt fit Lola I or II, I just kind of stole them.

BOWIE: And I’m sure that’s a process for other camgirls. Isa, maybe you can speak to that. Do other cam girls watch each other and get ideas? Is it a very interactive evolution?

MAZZEI: Oh absolutely! There’s varying degrees of that: There are girls who draw a lot of inspiration for each other, there are girls who accuse each other of stealing their show ideas. I know when I was working there was one girl who claimed that she had copyrighted a certain type of show and that if you performed it, you would get in trouble. There was also sharing ideas, or saying “I have this really cool idea for a show that you should do because you’re also really good at this type of thing,” and even collaboration between girls is really cool because there’s a lot of creativity there. Where I would work with a model, maybe a non-nude model, and I was definitely a very nude, very sexual model, and so us coming together creatively to figure out what type of show combines my style with her style, and how we highlight each other in the best way possible, while we maintain our own boundaries and the types of shows that we like to do. It’s a really interesting thing that happens and there’s so much sharing and inspiration there….there’s so many camgirls doing so many types of things, it’s quite mind blowing.

BOWIE: In addition to playing a wide range of characters, camgirls encounter an equally wide array of fans and benefactors. It seems that navigating this landscape safely and with dignity is almost an olympian feat. In your experience, Isa, do most camgirls have to learn how to do this alone, without any guidance?

MAZZEI: I think some girls are really integrated into cam girl communities and some girls aren’t. I think an important thing to remember is that every girl that’s camming is camming from a laptop or a computer somewhere in the world, so it’s not this thing when you’re in a sort of club with all your fellow dancers around you. It can be really isolating, it can be really hard. The only camgirls that I knew were the ones that I met through Twitter and I would fly to see them. I was recognized once in a coffee shop by another girl that cammed, who approached me and said, “Hey I cam too!” but that’s the only encounter in real life where I’ve actually met someone who lived in my hometown who did it. For the most part you’re pretty on your own, and I think that girls can choose to be really into these communities; they can choose to live together, they can choose to share and get advice from each other, and they can also choose to work in isolation and do their own thing. I think there’s a wide variety of that. When it comes to men, another misconception I think is that all the tippers on the site are middle-aged divorced men. I think if you look at just my fans, most of them were men...I had a couple women viewers, and a couple non-binary viewers. For the most part they were men but I also had a wide spectrum: I had married men, I had single men in their twenties, I had, like, fuckin’ hot men, I had men that worked in porn, men that were in their sixties or seventies who really didn’t know how to use the internet. You know, different levels of income, different levels of employment, interest, and I think that’s what’s cool about camming. A cam site is a place where all these different types of viewers in general can really find a person that they genuinely connect with.

BOWIE: I want to talk about the casting a bit. For any Paul Thomas Anderson fan, Melora Walters is a god among actors, and in this film, the two of you have a very tenuous relationship that is delicate and subtle. What was it like to play her daughter?

BREWER: To be on set with her was such a gift in itself, and hanging out a little bit. She’s such a pro, but she’s also so open to conversation and to how we both interpreted our relationship. I know that on Isa and Danny’s side, she had a lot of feelings and input about the script and her lines.

MAZZEI: Yeah, I mean, Melora was awesome. She came in right away...I was very much writing a mother from the perspective of a daughter. What I was so grateful to Melora for was that she literally would come in every day and be like “I wrote this line. I rewrote this line. I rewrote this part. I want to see this happen.” And she really engaged with those discussions as a mother, saying things like, “I really sat down and thought about what it would be like if my daughter were doing cam and I found out this way.” I really was blown away by the perspective that she brought in and how well she did that, and how it was very natural for her to just embody this character. So, I found working with her a really cool process.

BOWIE: Madeline, you’ve now played several major roles in shows like Orange is the New Black, Black Mirror, and The Handmaid’s Tale. In the midst of the Brett Kavanaugh circus, we can see clearly why the dystopian present and women in bondage is currently such a recurring theme. What do you think of the protesters who have appeared in Washington in Handmaid costumes?

BREWER: The fact that the design that we wear every day when we go to work on this show–– we’re just actors and we work in Hollywood, and the fact that those designs that Ann Crabtree made from her heart and from her inspiration from Margaret Atwood’s book–– they’re being taken and used as a symbol of resistance, and there is truly no better life for them. It’s great that they’re on the show but the life of this symbol of women’s resistance and women’s refusal to sit down, and shut up, and let old white men make decisions for them; it’s the best possible life that your art can take on. A whole new life as a symbol.

BOWIE: Finally, Isa aside from the release of your first film on Netflix, your first book, CAMGIRL, is slated for release in November 2019. What can we expect from the book that wasn’t expressed in the film?

MAZZEI: I think that the book serves to work along with the film to kind of normalize and bring to light this subculture that not a lot of people are talking about. The book is really fun, it’s funny, it’s not at all like the movie. But I feel like often people come out of that film saying “Whoa, is that what it was really like, and where did the inspiration come from, what were your shows actually like?” So I think the book can serve to answer those questions, and also serve as another tool to reach more people, and raise people inside this world, and say that it’s just normal people doing this. It’s just another job that people have and it can be something that is not only a career but also really empowering to women. There’s this misconception that is predominantly held by men, but also can be held by women: that selling your body is somehow disempowering. Not to pretend that there aren’t victims. In the sex work industry there is often exploitation, but there is also a huge huge portion of the industry that is women reclaiming power over their bodies. I’ve been catcalled, I’ve been insulted, I’ve been abused, I’ve been sexually harassed for my entire life, and now I’m setting these boundaries, and I’m saying “Oh, you want to look at my body? You’re gonna pay me. You want to touch my body, you’re gonna pay me.” And that reclamation of power is an incredible tool for some women to heal and again, to build empires around themselves. So, I hope that the book can speak to that and just be another piece of the puzzle of trying to have people empathize with sex workers, look at sex workers a little differently, and I definitely think when they’re going in to vote, either to put someone in office or vote on legislation that does affect sex workers, they can look at it a little differently than they did before.

Cam is available now on Netflix.

Oh, La Gaule: An Interview of French 'Gaule Wave' Band Faire

text by Agathe Pinard

photographs by Kealan Shilling

FAIRE are very serious about not taking themselves seriously. Their shows are infused with a raw improvisation that makes every performance a completely unique experience. They just play with the vibe given by the audience and then do their best to push the limits of that relationship. The images from their shows speak for themselves, filled with overflowing energy and rage. Romain, Raphael, and Simon make up the French trio Faire, a band emerging from the Parisian underground music scene. Self-labelled as “Gaule Wave,” the band mixes opposing sounds, from ‘80s synthesizers, to punk power chords, to the lyrical stylings of pop chanson.

We had a chance to chat with Faire just before their highly anticipated second show in Los Angeles. They play tonight at Madame Siam in Hollywood, catch them live at 10:00pm for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

AGATHE PINARD: First of all, how did you all meet?

FAIRE: We met at school, we were about 12 years old. There we were, the only guys listening to rock, wearing leather and boots. So we easily found a subject of discussion. 

PINARD: What’s your first experience with making music?

FAIRE: A basement in the center of Paris where we experimented with lots of anger, love, a few cries and lots of laughs. We took it very seriously, being musicians. We were rehearsing between class at least twice a week and started playing live shows pretty early on. 

PINARD: Have any of you ever had any ambitions outside of music?

FAIRE: Not really, except the fact that we love to customize/make clothes, and making videos, drawing, painting and writing. 

PINARD: What’s the meaning behind the name Faire? Did you have any other names you were also considering?

FAIRE: First we thought about “la GAULE” which is the old name for France and it also means to have a boner. It ended up becoming the name of our music: “Gaule Wave.” But we wanted to explore a maximum of different musical horizons. We thought that with FAIRE (meaning “to make” or “to do”), we could mix all kinds of music that we like, surfing between rock, yéyé, Eastern music, trap, techno and more. Also it’s a simple way for us to make music without thinking too much, and just go with the flow of our spontaneous ideas, like a manifestation of sorts. 

PINARD: Do you have any major musical influences?

FAIRE: Yes! We started playing music together while listening to Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf… and the Motown Records really inspired us when we were younger. Later we let go of the stigma that we had of drum machines and were really inspired by ‘80’s cold wave, and especially Martin Rev of Suicide. French Pop culture influences us too, think Michel Polnareff, or all the old ‘50s songs with those incredible lyrics. Swinging by the US, people like R. Stevie Moore just transcend us. But for real, the list is really long, we’re not even talking about all the African, Indian or South American influences!

PINARD: Are there any non-musicians who inspire your work?

FAIRE: We met the incredible Charlie Le Mindu, the French hair designer who also does exhibitions of clothes made with an infinity of hair. His work is absolutely amazing. 

PINARD: What’s your personal process of creating an album like?

FAIRE: We like to be really isolated in a countryside or on a rooftop in Mexico, as we did with “Le Tamale.” Notice that we never really put out any albums, it was only EPs that we self recorded in our computer. Now we are preparing the recording of our first album, which we want to record live with someone capable to catch our live energy, because that’s where our potency lies.

PINARD: You seem to like using old women’s names as titles, Mireille, Sisi, Christiane, Marie-Louise, is there any particular reason?

FAIRE: We just love our grandmother’s stories and the era that they lived. 

PINARD: You released a very psychedelic video clip of Noizette a month ago, what’s the story behind it?

FAIRE: Some student from l’ECAL, an art school in Switzerland, asked for a song to do a video clip, then pitched the idea and we liked it! For the first time we just let them do what they wanted and received 6 different versions. We had the luxury of choosing the one we thought was the best. This battle between our faces and the Prince was exactly the kind of trip we liked.

PINARD: Is there a show you gave that you will remember forever?

FAIRE: Wow, when we released our EP « Le Tamale » in a Parisian bar people were so excited, and it was so overcrowded that the public was making waves falling down every two minutes on the little three-by-three-meter stage that they kept us from playing long. All our machines got disconnected and fucked up at the same time (it was also because of some spilled beer.) And we had 20 kilos of confetti flying around everywhere. It was two years ago, but we still have some in our synthesizers. It was definitely the best show/non-show. 

PINARD: You’re all super wild and insanely energetic on stage, how do your rehearsals differ from your live performances? 

FAIRE: (Laugh) that’s a good question. We take it really easy and chill, the exact opposite of our live shows.

PINARD: How do your audiences affect the performances?

FAIRE: We started being crazy on stage after some shows in Mexico where people were getting totally crazy, and thanks to them we took that energy, and it morphed us into these uncontrollable beasts. Now even if the crowd is really chill we get into them with all our passion and love, and push them to dance by jumping into the pit.

PINARD: What was it like to play in LA for the first time?

FAIRE: Really great, people were really into the fact that we got the mosh pits going. They weren’t accustomed to it or prepared for it at all. So we were kind of exotic with our craziness. 

PINARD: How was your experience with the city of LA, the American culture?

FAIRE: Pretty interesting, lots of cool vibes and a beautiful mix of various world cultures over there. People were lovely with us, and we met great artists there. Also Simon’s dad is from LA so we had a good introduction to the city. 

PINARD: It’s been more than a year since the release of your last EP, C’est L’été, what are you working on at the moment? You said there is a new album in the making?

FAIRE: Absolutely, we are now preparing new songs to record our first album. It will be released next year, but the date is still a secret. 

PINARD: What are you listening to right now? What was your summer ’18 soundtrack?

FAIRE: Escape-isms, HMLTD, Lil Pump and les Charlots.


Go see Faire play tonight at 10pm @ Madame Siam in Hollywood. You won’t regret it!


The Nonconformist: An Interview of Painter Duncan Hannah

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photograph and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper

A painter of imaginative worlds of youthful frolic and abandon by trade, Duncan Hannah is a natural-born gentleman of letters and raconteur. He has a lot of stories to tell, like the time he introduced Nico to the band Television at CBGB. Or the time he wound up in a limo with David Bowie, Brian Ferry, and Andy Warhol. Or the time Patti Smith wrote a poem about him. Or the time that Lou Reed asked him to shit on his face at Max’s Kansas City. But Hannah wasn’t always at the right place at the right time, he was also at the wrong place at the wrong time. Growing up in Minneapolis, smoking weed, and taking acid, Hannah yearned for the bright lights and big city. Obsessed with literature, obsessed with the libidinal forces that consumed him, and obsessed with French and Italian New Wave films, Hannah’s figurative oil paintings have that new car smell circa 1935. They are electric, new but vintage, eternal but corporeal, vague but crystal clear, flesh-toned and coated with a fresh wax of nostalgia. Imagine Edward Hopper’s loneliness caught in a tornado with the masturbatory fantasies of a teenager – Michel Poiccard's bush and tush pinups taped to the mirror of a celluloid sex dream. I caught up with Hannah before the opening of his exhibition and West Coast book release at Parker Gallery in Los Angeles.

Oliver MAXWELL Kupper: Let’s start off with Cinemabilia in New York.  Was that 1970? 

DUNCAN HANNAH: That was probably the spring of '74, because I went to Parsons, and Parsons was right above Cinemabilia. So I just swung in. I was nuts about foreign cinema. So I'd say, "Let me see your Alain Delon file. Terry Ork, who owned the place, would go, "Richie! Alain Delon." Richie was Richard Hell – he worked there. I'd get a big pile of stills and then I'd say, "Could I get these?" And Terry would say, "Just take 'em." 

And you used those for reference?

Yeah. I wanted to make paintings like French movies that felt kind of pregnant with danger and romance. But unlike film noir I didn't want them to be too heavy. Because the French are – it's kind of lighter. And it happens in broad daylight. Breathless is a great example. 

I love the way Belmondo touches his lips in that movie. Alain Delon was another great actor. There's a
photograph of you, I think it's in your studio maybe, and you look sort of like Alain Delon! 

A little friendlier than Alain Delon. He's got those icy blue eyes.

He has very steely blue eyes. And a very steely look.

Yeah and he is...He killed his bodyguard. And got away with it.

That's wild. I didn't know that at all. 

I don't know if you can print this, but he had an orgy club and Pompidou was part of the club. Pompidou's wife was kind of a swinger, nympho, and Pompidou apparently had a huge penis. But anyhow, Alain Delon secretly filmed all of his orgy things behind a two-way mirror. So he shot his bodyguard with his gun, a Luger, wrapped him up in a tarpaulin that said, "Alain Delon," on it.

Smart.

[Laughs] He drove to the outskirts of Paris and just threw him in the dump. And so the dump guys found his corpse with a bullet. So there could only be one suspect: him. His bodyguard had been blackmailing him, because he got jealous of how rich Delon was. And I think Delon was kind of a dick too, so he was just like, "Fuck you, I'm so sick of working for you. Gimme something." But Delon was completely unruffled, and nobody could figure out why. Why is he being so cool? I mean it's completely in character. So Pompidou stepped in and said, "Case dismissed. There is no case." And the country, especially all the lefties, just said, "What? Different rules for rich and powerful people, that ain't right. Fuck you pigs." 

I wanted to talk a little bit about your upbringing. It seems like being a rebel started suiting you a lot more than conforming. Especially against a lot of these strict, postwar,
Midwestern values. Where do you think that rebellion came from?

I was fine with everything until, I don't know, maybe I started smoking pot at fourteen or fifteen. That was a great eye-opener. My grades immediately plummeted. And then pot led to everything else eventually. I also always wanted to be an artist, which is nonconformist. Anyhow, my dad was a lawyer, and he thought, "Well, he'll be an architect. He'll be something.

Was there ever an ounce of thought of becoming a lawyer or anything
like that?

Not at all. Not a nano second. 



But it seemed like your artwork was your own way of finding your identity. The realism in your art – was it a way to ground you in a way?

Yeah I would say that.  If you'd asked me when I was twenty, "Will you paint like that?" I doubt it. I just kind of grew into it. But it took a while, because I was just absorbing, you know Fillmore posters, and Zap Comix, and Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol. There was just so much coming in that it could've gone in many different directions. 

You were mainly studying abstract expressionists, right?

I went to Bard, and my teachers were Color Field painters. But I took art history, which was great, because you see this continuum and how it all fits together. Which was new to me. When I was a kid, I'd go to the MoMA and you look at all this different stuff and you think, "How does it fit together? I should know this. I'm gonna be an artist, but I don't get it." But then when you take art history, you kind of get it. One thing leads into another and you go, "Ohh." The reason I was confused by that is because, you know some particular painting, it's just that I don't like it. It's just my subjective take and it's okay not to like it. But now I know how it fits in. But anyhow, when it got to the late '40s and you get to de Kooning, I just went, "Wow."

You had these other tastes and interests that were completely opposite and modern in a way. 

Yeah, I was really attracted to being narrative. And I could just see I was gonna be a third-rate abstract painter. I mean it was fun, but I just thought, "It's not me." So I thought my voice was elsewhere. And figurative painting, you don't need an outside challenge, because it's challenging in and of itself. Because I wasn't trained to paint the way I am. So, I was just looking at dead painters and trying to figure out what they did. 

Like Hopper?

Yeah, like Hopper. And wondering: Why is there so much psychology? His paintings were so pregnant with something. 

There's an anxiousness about them. And a loneliness.

Yeah, and a kind of mistrust. Whose side are you on, and who can you trust? And how can you put that in a painting? I realized that film and books travel through time. If you want to make a movie about Los Angeles in 1939, no problem. But if a contemporary painter paints Los Angeles in 1939, it's called, “nostalgic," or "retro," or something, which just doesn't seem fair. So as long as you do it well, you can transcend it. I love period stuff. And I thought, "Why can't painters do that too?"

I think your paintings are interesting because there's a distinct contemporary feel to them, even though they're retrospective. They look more like fantasies in a way...

Yeah it's not quite real. I remember when I was like ten, I went to Europe for the first time and it felt really foreign. I loved that feeling. And it gave me some sense of what the world would be like when I actually became an adult at twenty-one. It'll be like this. Anyhow, then I grew up. Things change and it's not really the way you thought it would be. But I thought, that feeling I had when I was ten, and also the future being kind of friendly, it was gonna be great. [Laughs]

It feels like you were yearning to get out of the Midwest and go to the big city.

Yeah, as fast as I could. Clearly, Minneapolis was, for me, nowhere to stay. I went to New York when I was seven, with my parents. We were staying at the Waldorf, and I remember standing under the Marquee on Park Avenue, looking at the yellow cabs going back and forth, and just thinking with absolute certainty, "Oh, I get it. So this is where you come to live." And I never wavered.

You have endless incredible stories. And you're an obsessive collector of personal ephemera, too. Your diaries were full of everything.

And physical memorabilia too. I mean I am, I've always been a collector of all kinds of stuff. 

And the writing seems that way. It seems like a collection of streams of consciousness...

I suppose that's it. You collect records and drawings, and you collect conversations, and you collect memories and you collect dirty jokes. You collect all kinds of things. I guess I hate to let things slip through my fingers. 

Keeping all these moments recorded, did you feel like you were living through a sort of historical time? 

I'd have to say no. Except, I wanted to be in swinging London, with the Yardbirds and the Who. I don't know, that was really appealing. I was born too late. When this started happening I thought, "Well, this is pretty good too." But, I never thought it would cross over. But then, you know, Blondie and Talking Heads got signed and then they'd be gone for a year. Then you'd see them on TV, and you'd read about them in Melody Maker or some French pop magazine, and you'd go, "Wow. These are not our bands anymore. These bands belong to the world." It's working. 

Even Patti Smith too. It seemed like Patti was so niche.

Yeah she’s a poet. 


Inspired by Rimbaud. 

I think I saw one of her first gigs, when she had Lenny, and she was very embarrassed about it. Like she was pretending to be a rockstar. "I'm just gonna pretend to be a rockstar, just for this one song. So I'm bringing out Lenny Kaye!" And of course we all loved Nuggets. Yay, Lenny Kaye! And it was so primitive. She'd do a Marvelettes song. And you'd just go, "Oh, that's charming." Who would've thought? It was like a magic trick. Also, because she was in love with rock
stars, then to become a rock star gradually, right in front of your eyes.

It's really fascinating. And people think about that era of being just purely punk and people in tatters.

Real punk is something I've barely listened to. And even when I did, it's fun, but it's not really my kind of music. Except something like the Stooges, it transcends punk. As Danny Fields said, it's like our "Wagner" or something. And I thought, "Yeah, it kind of is." 

triumph in brussels 2.jpg

Danny Fields was sort of a big part of your evolution. He seemed to introduce you to a lot of different people in New York. 

Yeah. My editor said, "Y'know, I kind of get tired of your antics with your decadent friends, until you move to New York and meet Danny Fields. He's the straw that stirs the drink." And I don't exactly know what that means, but it sounds good. 

It totally makes sense. It seems that way. You read it, and it's amazing, it's riveting, and then...

Well then I think it just kicks in. All those people I've been reading about and listening to, fantasizing about, there they are. And he had the magic key. And they all loved him. He was so respected. 

Do you still paint upside down? I read somewhere that you paint upside down. 

Oh, well I don't get upside down, but yeah I do turn the painting upside down. And it's very helpful. And then the other trick is you hold a mirror against it so you can see it backwards. And you can see a flaw immediately. Because you've gotten so used to it. But that was the one thing — not the one thing — that I really learned from my abstract teachers: is just keep turning it.
Because the painting should be as strong formally as it is narratively. It's to prevent you from painting a picture. I mean pictures are fine, but you're painting a painting. And painting
has its own rules. And if you forget that, it's weaker.

It doesn't hold up the narrative as well if it sucks formally.

Yeah and it's even good to bring the narrative down. Like if details get lost or something. That's fine and hopefully it becomes archetypal in some kind of way.

The viewer can better create the picture in their own head. 

Well that's exactly it. It's more generous that way. If you don't nail everything down for the viewer, they know that. I mean I always think it's funny painting reflections in water, or reflections on anything, because it looks so difficult, but actually doing it is really simple. You just mimic what's nearby. And the viewer fills it in. They know exactly what that is. So you don't even have to flesh it out much. You have to suggest it and the viewer does the rest. 

I think that's why the Renaissance painters were so brilliant. 

Yeah and then the viewer's more engaged too. Because they've actually contributed to it. Whereas like a photorealist, they leave you absolutely nothing to do. It just leaves me cold. Because yeah, that looks impossible to do, but who cares?

Going back to the book, what made you decide to publish the diaries? Did they come to you?

I had an offer from an archive dealer to sell my archives to some big library. And I was sixty-three at the time maybe. I thought, "Ooh, I'm not done with them." I'd never read them, and I'd been meaning to do something for about ten years. And I thought, this is the time. So I started editing.
Salvaging what was salvageable. And then there was a New York Times article about me, because I had a show in Chinatown. And they were asking me how I liked the Patti Smith book and I said, "Yeah, I liked it. It wasn't quite my experience, but maybe I'll write my own." And it was completely off the cuff. So it's funny that he threw that in, but then an editor at Random House saw, who owned one of my paintings, and I knew very slightly, and he said, "Hey, if you actually do that, let me have first peek." I thought he was being polite. After a few months, I thought, "I should get him out of the way." So I sent him forty pages, waited for him to say, "Oh, I'm so busy, I don't know when I'll get to this but thanks a lot." But he wrote right back and said, "This is great. Send me more." So I sent him another one-hundred pages. And then he just said, "Alright, meet me for breakfast tomorrow." And this guy's a famous editor. He did David Foster Wallace. Like real writers. [Laughs] And I thought, "What?" 

Well this is real writing, I think that you have – you could have been a novelist, you could have been a short story writer. 

That's really nice to hear, but it's impossible for me to see it like that. Anyhow, he just said, "I'm
gonna sell it to Knopf. This is great. And, there is no primary document of the '70s that's like this. This is so different from a memoir. It has an immediacy to it that those other books don't have." And I said, "Okay." And he said, "So just finish up..." And he warned me, he said, "This is very — are you ready for this? Because you're, like, naked."

I like that he warned you afterwards.

Well, it was kind of in the process, but he said, "You know you're laying yourself open." And there's a lawyer to protect other people in it. So we concealed identities. I said, "I don't know. I don't think I'm that bad in it. So why not?" Also, I love this kind of book. I love when an author tells the truth. And I always feel so grateful. And they don't all do it. I mean if you don't tell the truth, who cares? It's just not that interesting. So I thought, well it's my ace in the hole, that it's just tawdry as it is.

But it also has a lot of...the tawdriness of it adds to the depth in a way. And I think that you had a sort of very keen way of observing what was around you. It really did seem grounding. 

Yeah, I think that's right, it was a way of equilibrium. And if I could write it down, it didn't mean that it was that bad or I was still in possession of my wits or something. I think that's probably right. 

I mean there's a lot of blackouts. There's a lot of lapses in memory and small lapses in judgment. But you always sort of bounce back to things. And you're still alive. You're still around. 

Well I'm surprised that the tone is kind of consistent from the beginning to the end. And I didn't expect that. I thought it would be kind of all over the place. Because I remember — if I'd written a memoir, I would've thought, "Oh, that's the time when I was trying on identities and we were all very pretentious and phonies a lot of the time." But I didn't find it like that. It doesn't seem like that. 

It seemed authentic. You seemed like a journalist in your own life. You seem like you were on an assignment.

And that myself is my experiment in a way. 

And you sort of become a fixture in the history of a lot of people's lives. I think that's what's so
interesting about painters. You can enter different worlds.

Yeah. Not something I necessarily thought about. But it does provide you, as long as you're in the mix somehow, you don't have to be David Hockney. But if you're in there, it just keeps ever-changing. It's fascinating. So, that's really good. And that is one thing I really wanted: access to that world that seemed out of reach when I was twelve. And then eventually it wasn't. 

What was the process of curating this show? Because it seemed like it goes back a little bit to your earlier work.

When Sam Parker opened his gallery, he said, "Let's have a show." Actually, I've had a bunch of shows lately. I've shown in Amsterdam, Paris, two in New York, and then this, all in a year. And it was all based on the inventory that I had. So that was good. I mean I paint a lot. I paint every day of the week if I can. So it just builds up. And not all painters I know do that. And they'll call and say, "What're you doing?" "Painting." "Got a show?" "No, just painting." And they go, "Oh, good for you." Regardless of shows. And also I paint better if I don't have a deadline or a destination. So if it has no purpose other than to turn me on that week – that’s usually the best.

Well, I like the world you are creating with your paintings – your imagination is rich.

I mean, sometimes I'll be painting in a heatwave in the summer and I'll paint a car in the snow. It's clearly escapism for me. It's a blizzard in January and I'm painting the Riviera. As long as you've got desires and whims and eccentricities, I just think, exploit them. And then the other thing is, which I think most artists agree with, is that you don't have to start with a good idea, all you've got to do is get engaged. And you don't start with this flourish of virtuosity. I don't anyhow. You can start with a mistake and then you make another mistake. And then you have to correct those. And after you've corrected enough mistakes, suddenly it starts happening. And you're connected to this thing. That has its own rules. And your deal is to try to figure out what those rules are and follow them. Or not follow them. That to me
is creativity.

This interview was published in Autre Issue 5 (Summer 2018). Purchase here.

Pointless Prophet: An Interview With Joe McKee On The Occasion Of His New Video Premiere

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text by Summer Bowie

 

Joe McKee might have been everyone’s best friend in a past life. He’s full of charming witticisms, unexpected humor, moments of sober pontification, and there’s always a little light in his eyes that let’s you know he’s really listening. To hear him play music is a little bit like a secular religious experience. There’s no call to worship, but something about his sound is invariably transcendent. All of that thoughtful articulation in his discourse gets shrouded in a layered veil of sonic silk. It’s much like listening to a song in a language you don’t speak. You might be able to make out a word here and there, but you can never tell if your interpretation of the song is correct, or if you’ve just projected your own story onto it. McKee’s second solo album, An Australian Alien tells the true story of the artist’s journey through the loss of a best friend, the birth of a daughter, and the experience of processing a major life transition while being processed as an immigrant. Now five years an Angeleno, McKee is feeling much more at home geographically, but he’ll always be an alien of sorts: daringly vulnerable, abnormally modest (and not just for an Angeleno), and uniquely eloquent. I had the chance to ask Joe a few questions about the album and the pleasure of premiering his latest video  - and maybe, just maybe, I’ll find myself in someone’s living room some day, enjoying a private performance by the alien himself.  

SUMMER BOWIE: I want to start by talking about the title of your new album, An Australian Alien. You’ve been in LA for about 5 years now - do you still feel like an alien here in the States? Having been born in England, did you feel like an English alien in Australia? 

JOE MCKEE: I've always felt a little bit alien and I probably always will. I suppose that comes from being transplanted, as a ripe young chap, from the grey kingdom of Londonium to the outback of Australia. Everything was familiar but strangely different, like a bizarro world where Burger King is called Hungry Jacks and so on. I spoke the same language, but I was still the "other." I was probably quite self conscious of this growing up, but I learned to celebrate those subtle differences as I got older, I suppose. 

So, that 'alien' word was bandied about all over the application forms for my permanent residency to remain in the United States. An Australian Alien had a nice ring to it. It's musical, and it's playful. Prior to living in the US I was vagabonding around Europe, sleeping on peoples couches, outstaying my welcome wherever I was performing. Always a tourist, even at home. I feel like I've finally found a place to reside and plant some roots in Los Angeles. This is mainly due to becoming a surprise father here.  

BOWIE: So you’ve always felt a bit extraterrestrial? Do you still feel extra-Angeleno? 

MCKEE: Living here in LA? Somewhat, but I feel more at home here than I have for a long time. The album was written primarily during that transition period, when I was still in this state of flux. Living in-between. I'd alienated myself from my previous life by moving here, which was difficult and freeing at the same time. I could reinvent myself in a new place and shed all that old scabby skin that was weighing me down. So I think I just feel more at home in my fresh flesh-suit.

BOWIE: This album was recorded in a number of different locations, including a cargo ship sailing the Pacific, friends’ homes, and a marijuana plantation in Northern California. Have you always been very nomadic while recording, or was this choice made specifically for this album? 

MCKEE: I definitely come from nomadic stock. My family has moved countries every generation for as far back as we can trace. We're all running from something! Or seeking something perhaps. One of the lovely things about making music is that it's weightless. You can do it all inside your noggin' while you're galavanting around the globe. You can hum a melody into your phone, or you can write a lyric on a napkin. I don't have to lug a roll of canvas and my paintbrushes around to create something. 

Having said that, recording this album was a particularly scattered process. I really didn't have a community in LA when I first arrived, nor did I have a cent to my name, so I had snatch moments to write this record amongst all of the madness of becoming a father, moving to a new country, going through my Saturn's Return yada yada yada. I relied on the generosity and kindness of strangers really. People like Derek Brambles, Ethan DeLorenzo, Paz Lenchantin, Chris Nelson. Good humans, those.

BOWIE: If I’ve ever to known anyone to experience Saturn’s Return it would be you.  Do you subscribe to this theory, or have you gained any deeper perspective on the chaos of your late twenties? 

MCKEE: I think the Saturn's Return concept is a poetic way to understand any turmoil or life-shift. I think there’s probably some truth to it. I know what I went through was a mind-bending and ego-crushing experience. I was ruled by my ego in my twenties and I was increasingly dissatisfied with what was happening in my life to be honest. Things had fragmented and life seemed like a labyrinth. So the universe came along and obliterated my concept of reality. It dealt me a cataclysmic hand. My best friend passed away and I was becoming a father with a virtual stranger on the other side of the world. The only thing you can do when the universe, or God, or whomever or whatever deals you that kind of hand is to relinquish control. To let go. This was a drawn-out process, like untangling a chunky dread-lock, but eventually I freed myself from my warped concept of myself that I'd created. Like I'd birthed a brand new slippery, shiny version of myself. Being a father helps you reconnect with a clean slate, a tabula rasa! It helps you get back to this place that you were before all the conditioning and confusion. Before the ego takes hold! Then you can start anew, but with the knowledge that you've accrued along the winding way. Y'know? 

BOWIE: You delivered your best friend’s eulogy on the same day that you met your daughter, Juniper. Did you start composing the album very long after? 

MCKEE: I began writing the album prior to this actually. I wrote a song on the album that is sung from the perspective of an unborn child in his mother's womb, before knowing I was becoming a father. Some weird prophecy. I keep having these prophetic dreams that are absolutely useless to me. Pointless prophecies. I'm a pointless prophet. 

Anyway, Juniper's birth and Matt's death were interconnected. He was also becoming a father at the time of his death and he actually introduced me to the mother of my child. My psychic friend called me recently and told me that I was Matt's mother in a past life. I don't know what that means but I think I understand. 

So to answer your question, the album was written, before, during and after those events. So it tells the whole story in some warped and mangled way.

BOWIE: This is the second solo album you’ve released since parting ways with your former band, SNOWMAN. Would you say that your personal growth has been an analogue to your growth as a musician, or do you feel like music has acted as a sort of constant in life that helps you navigate the rest? 

MCKEE: That’s a good question. I suppose you might be onto something there. I suppose my music has become more like me in some sense. I’ve been following a thread for long enough that I'm in a place creatively that I don't know if anyone else is at. It's just a little nook somewhere that feels like home. Don't get me wrong, we're all just regurgitating our various influences, but at some point you get to a place where you've forgotten what they were and what you are making feels like it belongs to you and only you. I'm a less frightened and significantly happier person than I was in my SNOWMAN daze. I don't think it's a coincidence that my music has become less frightening and more colorful as time has passed.

BOWIE: Do you find the composition process to be very fluid and organic, or does it tend to be very labor-intensive?  

MCKEE: It's both really. There is fluidity in the conception of an idea, but the execution is laborious. The most enjoyable part of making music is when an initial spark becomes a flame, and hey presto! a song is born. The rest is quite a painful process and it doesn't come naturally to me at all. It's work. The song "I'll Be Your Host" is about the birth of a creative idea, and the eventual letting-go of that creation. It no longer belongs to me after the initial burst. I'm not terribly interested in touring these songs live and playing them ad nauseum to vaguely interested drunk people because that seems so far removed from that "first spark" moment that I'm talking about. Perhaps I'll just play private one-on-one performances for a person in my garden. Then it still feels sacred or something. Perhaps I'm rambling.

BOWIE: Your lyrics and song titles have a certain cryptic vulnerability to them. Is this intentional?  

MCKEE: hmmm... It's inherent, I'm not sure it's intentional. It sounds utterly trite but music really is a form of catharsis for me.... but I'm not particularly fond of that confessional style of song writing, so there's always a veil of some sort. I have to wrap metaphor in pataphor in metaphor to feel as though I'm saying anything in a way that feels unique or unburdensome. Is that a word? I don't want to burden people with my crap. I want to sort through it, turn it into something magical and share that, y'know. It's digestion! Songwriting (or creation in any form) is like a digestive process. The final release is the turd that I've presented to you! All the garbage that I need to release! Flushing it into the world. Magical crap. Perhaps childbirth is a nicer analogy. 

BOWIE: “A Yolk He’d Never Seen” is about people getting their comeuppance and feeling the karmic consequence of behaving like a jerk. Can you elaborate on that? 

MCKEE: Yeah that was the first song I wrote for this record. I was living a life of sin! I was genuinely trying to do things purely for myself even if they hurt other people. I made a conscious decision to do this. Madness! Of course the universe dealt me the hand that it did, and I learned my lesson. So that song is about cosmic/karmic repercussions. I won't go into too much detail, but I hurt someone, and in turn, I was hurt. Egg all over my face. 

BOWIE: Can you talk a bit about the first track you released, “I Want to Be Your Wife,” and its significance to the album? 

MCKEE: I sung it from the perspective of a woman in an unhappy marriage. I was a stay-at-home dad in a peculiar marital situation, but really it's based on every relationship I've been in and that crippling fear of losing oneself to another person. Terrifying stuff. It's a funny song, you should listen to the lyrics. You devote so much to these beings (songs/children) and at some point they have to leave the nest and you're all alone again! Then you die. 

BOWIE: Let’s talk about your use of reverb. How long have you been experimenting with the effect and do you remember what inspired you to develop this signature? 

MCKEE: Oh yeah, it's another veil, like the cryptic lyrics, it's a way for me to hide behind something. It's just like clothing for me; it feels natural to wear a suit made of reverb. I'd like to thread a sound suit together and wear it, but sound is still invisible, so it'd only ever be a representation of a sound. But imagine that! Joe McKee and his Technicolor Reverb Tracksuit. It'd be like the Emperor's new clothes. I'd be wandering around in my disgusting naked body. People would say "put some goddamn clothes on you pallid creep!" and I'd simply reply "oh you can't see the reverb? whats wrong with you? 

BOWIE: Can we expect any more music videos for the album? 

MCKEE: Yeah one more!

BOWIE: Performances? 

MCKEE: In some capacity. Not in bars though. It just doesn't really make sense for these songs to compete with the alcohol industry. I don't want to be at battle. Being on stage just feeds into this ego-worship thing that I don't think is very healthy for me. So If I play, I'll play on the floor, eye-to-eye and you can have a cup of tea. And you'll bloody well enjoy it.


Meryl Meisler's Disco Versailles: An Interview

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Text by Adam Lehrer

Photographs by Meryl Meisler courtesy of Steven Kasher Gallery

What lifts the medium of photography into the realm of fine art is contrast. During the 1970s, Meryl Meisler was a teacher by day and a disco dancing queen by night. She photographed everyday life in Bushwick, and she documented the wild scenes of the discos. In her work you find sobering scenes from an impoverished and crime-ridden city, and yet its inhabitants can be found each night celebrating their fundamental rights. The right to don a more perfect look each night, the right to be a free sexual agent, and the right to dance. Her recent book, A Tale of Two Cities, depicts the stark contrast between the aching realities of life in Bushwick and the opulence of a nightclubbing scene that the artist describes as her Versailles. In these photographs, she channels humanity’s ability to rise above the chaos and revel in the miracle of life. I spoke with Meisler on a balmy day in New York to talk about the state of the city in the 1970s and the sanctuary that was the disco scene. 

ADAM LEHRER: I know your grandfather and your father were both photographers. Was that your initial exposure to the form?

MERYL MEISLER: They were a tremendous influence: their styles and purposes and just that they did it. My dad did mostly family portraits. I have his negatives and large prints. You can see pictures of his brothers, pictures of when he was in the Coast Guard, self-portraits of him writing letters, photos of when he was dating my mother. They were just really beautiful black and white portraits.

Were you already looking at photography as fine art while you were in art school?

I did not, but I saw purpose in it. My last year of undergraduate school I came home and went to see the Diane Arbus show at MoMA. That was the first time I ever saw photography as art. All the Arbus classics staring at me. I was moved. I took a class with one professor in college and he introduced us to documentary photographers and Henri Lartigue. My mindset became “this is art.”

I can see some of the influences in your work because it had some of the poetry of Arbus, but also Lartigue’s glamour. Did you think of the disco as your Paris or your ‘place of action?’

I thought, “This is my Versailles.” I knew disco was a scene that was wild and interesting. But those places were full of photographers so I never showed these photographs. When I did, I was pleased that people found a uniqueness within them. I always felt I had a special eye. I saw things differently. Even as a kid, I would look up at trees and say to friends, “aren’t they the funniest trees?” I capture a certain energy.

Absolutely.

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When I was in graduate school, I went to go see a psychic who could read spiritual things in photographs. Looking at a photo of my grandfather, she said something terrible happened with this person. My grandfather took his own life. I think that photographs have a spirituality.

What I really love about your photographs is how well the Bushwick and Disco photos juxtapose each other. New York at that point was in ruins, crack was at its worst, and Bushwick was crime-ridden, but you found joyous moments. Was that intentional? To paraphrase Keith Richards discussing ‘Exile on Main Street,’ were people partying in the face of tragedy?

I realize now I was taking pictures of things I found uplifting because I couldn’t afford to quit teaching. Bushwick was tough. But I also found it to be friendly and warm. Whereas the disco stuff, I wanted to go deeper. There were darker things on the disco scene. As dark as Meryl gets.

What did you prefer about disco, as opposed to punk rock?

I liked the big club, I liked the lights, I liked the fashion, the bathrooms certainly were a lot cleaner, you could dance. I went to CBGBs, but disco was my scene.

How did this reappraisal of your work at the Bushwick bar, Bizarre, come into fruition? 

During Bushwick Open Studios one year I went to get lunch and Bizarre bar owner Jean-Stephane Sauvaire says, “Hello, this is my place!” and he showed me what he was doing there. They didn’t even have a food license yet. And then he showed me the basement that he painted dark and he said, “I’d like to show photographers like you here.” I told him, “I’ve shown in museums and now I’m gonna show in the basement of a bar where they’re stealing stuff off the walls!” and he says, “don’t be such a snob.” 

That’s how you introduce it to a new viewership.

He said, “I want to publish a book.” I’m thinking this guy is out of his mind. I’m thinking okay,  “I want it to be about Bushwick and my disco work, these worlds connect.” He asked to see them  and I just started scanning them. My spouse Patricia Jean O’Brien designed the book and we put it together. Bizarre became my publisher, which is the most bizarre thing. 

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An Interview of Nobuyoshi Araki

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Interview by Dan Abbe

Portraits by Tom Fraud

 

NOBUYOSHI ARAKI: What kind of questions will you be asking? There’s nothing really to ask, is there? Because my photos are pretty chatty. I'm not joking! They're just the same as talking to me. If I was going to put it in a cool-sounding way, it’s like they translate my subjects as they really are. So, there's really nothing to talk about! 

DAN ABBE: [Do you] look at the internet much? 

ARAKI: No, I don’t have it. I don’t even own a mobile phone. Nothing like that. I don’t like being shot with a digital camera, especially a really good one. It's too good, you know? I feel like digital cameras miss what’s most important, emotion and wetness. These things get lost in digital photography. And before you know it, you get used to that. I’m not talking about shades or shadows being lost, or anything like that. But I almost feel as if digital photography takes away the shadow of the person taking the photo. That’s why I don’t use digital cameras. 

I’d like to ask you about your recent exhibit at the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, "Ojo Shashu: Photography for the Afterlife." How do you think it went, either in terms of the content, or the reaction from the audience? 

The museum tried to make it seem like I was dead. For me, putting something together always means pulling it apart. For this exhibit, it worked, though. I mean, the museum is designed well, as a place to show photographs. When I first started, I thought that photographs should be shown in books, not in museums. At that time, I thought that museums were like graveyards, at least for photography, you know. This exhibit was good. Presenting my works in an exhibit like that instead of through a photo book, I feel like I was able to express myself even better. It’s like climbing Mount Fuji—it’s usually better to see the sunrise from the 8th station, but for this exhibit we went straight to the top. 

Did you try out anything in particular with the presentation of your work? 

I try to switch things up to make it look as rough around the edges as possible. You know those people who pay really careful attention to the way their works are exhibited? Like, some photographers focus on the layout too much. That’s wrong. It should just be slapped together. I didn’t even put the photos up myself. I entrusted all that to people who understand me well—I just said, "do it however you want." It was a success. I’ve always acted on the principle of pulling everything apart and always presenting something new. 

The next exhibition I’m doing is called Ai No Tabi [Love Journey] in Niigata Prefecture. (pointing out a photo in the catalog) This one is of my balcony when I was living in Gotokuji. This is the western sky. Heaven, in other words. Around March 11, 2011, my apartment building was demolished, so I moved to Umegaoka, a neighborhood close by. I did up the rooftop and began shooting the eastern sky from there. That’s where the sun rises, you know, reborn. In this sense, I take photographs in the same way that I live my life. 

It’s not just a simple shot of the eastern sky; it’s loaded with my feeling that everything starts from there. Let me tell you something: as you can see, the sky in the east gets darker and darker. Now look closer, and it becomes a mirror, or a window of myself. Before March 11, 2011, I had to face my father’s death, my mother's death and my wife’s death. Then around March 11, my cat Chiro died. So recently, the Grim Reaper has been hovering around here. And over there is a goddess (gestures at the woman sitting next to him) so these days it's the three of us! (laughs) I got prostate cancer and did radiotherapy, which messed this up (points towards his pelvis) and made me piss blood. Then I lost sight in one of my eyes. The blood in my urine is from the radiotherapy. But I also had a circulatory problem, a blocked artery, so now I’m taking a blood-thinning agent, but it's thinning too much and making me piss blood. So here I am going through all this, and now you want to ask me these questions! (all laugh) 

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Your exhibit "Sagan No Koi [Love on the Left Eye]" was showing at Taka Ishii Gallery recently... 

Yeah, I took the title from van der Elsken's "Seine Sagan No Koi [Love on the Left Bank]." It could have been Love on the Sumida River for all I care. My wife loved "Love on the Left Bank" too. I was a fan of his work when I was around 20. I guess I’m paying homage, or really just playing around. What did you think of it? 

I thought it could be appreciated as painting, too. The show that's up there now [an exhibit by Kunié Sugiura] also combines photography and painting, so there’s a connection. Anyway, I was interested in the gaps where the light breaks through the paint a little bit. 

That’s what’s great about those works. That you can kind of see them, but you also can’t. After this, I thought about painting over the left half as well, and calling it "Light and Darkness Lost." Light and Darkness is Natsume Soseki’s posthumous novel. It seems like a waste, but I painted over photographs of nudes and so on in black. Still, if I went too far, it would seem like I was trying to do some sort of trendy art, so I’m holding back. It's tough though, my genius makes me do these things! (laughs)

I want to talk about your recent work. Every time you produce something new, you do it under the name Araki, which means that the bar is always set high. Yet I think you’ve been clearing it each time, and I wonder whether people don’t think: "well, it's Araki, so of course it’s going to be good." Do you think you’re taken for granted?

I mean, I’ve decided that I must do something different every time. If I don't keep transforming, I’ll just become a master. It's no good being a maestro. (laughs) I always want to work as if I’m a novice. I never want to reproduce or reshoot anything I've already done. I do always say that photography is about reproducing, for instance the reproduction of a person, or the reproduction of an era, reproduction this, reproduction that, but actually I think it's bad to keep reproducing your own work. 

I actually wanted to ask you about this word reproduction, or replication. The same subjects often appear in your work, and I wonder whether you would also consider that to be a kind of replication, too. Based on what you just said, though, I’m guessing no. 

That's right. So his style is a little different, but it’s like looking head-on at a Picasso painting. (looks at the woman next to him) From a different angle, she looks Chinese, different. From the front, the back, at an angle.... What you see and what you feel is up to you. My subjects are multifaceted, and that’s what I find appealing, that they’re appealing in different ways. When I photograph a woman, I see many different sides to her.

Is the sky similar as a subject in that it's different every time?

Yes. To me, that's why it's "heavenly." There are no two skies that look the same. Later, I will exhibit “Eastern Sky” at Shiseido Gallery. I’ve been shooting the sky every morning for nearly three years, since I moved to my new apartment after March 11. 

But you know, when it comes to showing these photos.... It’s not like I think the audience won’t understand, or that I would be making fun of them, but shooting photos and showing them are two different things. When you exhibit, you should have at least some entertainment. 

For example, I do this thing that I call "kurumado" [this is a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “car,” kuruma, and “window,” mado] where I shoot from the inside of a taxi. Everything looks great from the window now. I used to photograph all the time, but looking makes me more tired now, because I can only see with one eye. So now, I only shoot when my taxi stops at a red light. When I stop at a red light, the shot is framed perfectly by the side window, because the photography gods are on my side.

But anyway, when I show these photos of basically nothing to an audience, I feel like I should make it more entertaining by throwing in some nudes here and there, even though I call my work "Shi-shashin" [I-photography]. 

The content of these three shows in Aichi, Niigata and Tokyo are all very different. 

Yeah, it’s not a “traveling exhibition,” I don't do that.

Because that would be a repetition?

Yes, yes. Otherwise it’s like, “Oh, I saw the same thing in that city too.” 

Are you making three different catalogs too? 

No, just one. There are going to be some photos in the Niigata section of the book that didn’t even make it into the actual exhibit. Also, I’m only using one photo from the Eastern Sky exhibit I’ll be doing at Shiseido. I took it on New Year's Day, this year.

I bet something's going to happen within this year. Like a nuclear power plant or Mount Fuji is going to blow, something like that. It won't be a reborn eastern sky anymore. I feel like the entire sky—north, south, east, west—is beginning to resemble the western sky, in other words heaven. Still, I want to live to be over eighty. That’s how my photos make me feel. They encourage me. The sky that I’m looking at right now has become a mirror. 

What’s the difference between the eastern and western skies? 

Ah. It's very chatty, you know, the western sky. A real loudmouth. In the olden days, it was considered to be the Pure Land. It’s where the sun sets, and when it does, it’s quite dramatic. I think life’s the same way too. 

The sun rises in the east, so I thought that the eastern sky was flat, because of all this backlight. But these days, it's getting more complicated. Perhaps because of El Niño, what the hell do I know!

Here's the interesting thing, though. Because I’m shooting against the light, the bumpy tops of those buildings look like graves, or gravestones. You could almost say it’s like a graveyard sky. You look at the sky, you look at the heavens, you look at the world. And see, that’s where the road is. When I see roads, I feel like they’re life itself. At every moment. 

Mornings from 7 to 8 am, there’s always a girl running in high heels, click clack click. If only she’d leave the house a little earlier, then she wouldn’t have to rush, and the station is so close, too! Someone's walking their dog, and there are families and married couples. I’ve been shooting the same scenery for three years, so now there’s room to think thoughts like “I wish I saw new couples instead of the usual ones.” Or “I wish he’d get a different girlfriend.” That’s what I think about when I’m shooting. (laughs) You can see the essence of this whole year in these photos. (points to a section of the catalog)

So these are all photos you took from your rooftop?

That’s right. I’m making a photo book entirely of this series. It’ll be out in a month or so. But without anything else, I think it will be kind of boring for the poor saps looking at it! (laughs)

But you’re not bored of them yourself, are you.  

Oh, nowadays this is all I need! It’s a bad example, but they're better than Balthus’ road. ["Le Passage du Commerce-Saint-André"]

In Japan, words like “path” [michi] or “sky” can easily take on deeper meanings. That’s why I’m using the word “road” [doro]. If you say “path,” people might take this to be spiritual or symbolic, they might think of paths with no one in sight, or a painting by Kaii Higashiyama, and this is not what I’m going for. I want to say that everyday things can tell us a lot about everything. It’s the everyday that’s alive. That's why I shoot every single day.

So every day without fail, you shoot the sky and the road from your rooftop. Is there anything else that you do every day? 

People often decide this kind of thing, right? Like, "I'm going to shoot such and such a thing." If I had that kind of time, I’d rather just take photos of myself. That's why I take “I-photographs.” You have to keep on breathing, keep your heart pumping, and in my case clicking the shutter is the same thing. That's why I'm not going to go photograph a war, or something like that. 

It's weird to say I’m moved, but I guess I'm most affected by things like pissing blood. When things like that happen, the first thing I think is to grab my camera. That’s what I’ve been doing for about fifty years. (laughs)

I wanted to ask you about something I read in the remembrance you wrote for Shomei Tomatsu, in which you said that he'd influenced you in terms of your thoughts about history, or politics. 

Oh, I wouldn't write that. "politics" and such. I think it depends on when you were born. He was born 10 years before me, so he was hung up about the fact that we were occupied, that's why he went to Yokosuka and Okinawa. I’m personally more hung up about things like the atomic bomb. I shoot a lot in August: the 6th, the 9th, Nagasaki, and the 15th, the day the war ended. When I was working on Pseudo Diary, I messed with the camera's dating feature, so in some sense I have an obsession about this, or about the Showa Emperor. Again, this all depends on when you were born. On August 15, I would, without fail, go to the Imperial Palace and shoot. I was really into that. I have a thing for the date August 15. I would change the date of the camera to August 15, take regular photos of daily life, and some other meaning would appear. March 11 overlaps with the atomic bomb in my mind.

Right, I mean you've said that your photographs are all about yourself, but I think that March 11 has become a surprisingly big theme for you. 

It's influenced me, yes—but it's more like I’ve had no choice but to be influenced. It’s probably the influence closest to me personally, strange as that may sound. But it was its own expression. Photographers, you know, aren't people who express things. It's the world that does the expressing. Time, too.

One role of photographers is to respond to such expressions through shooting. I'm not like that, though. Even now I sometimes think maybe I should have gone, but I'm the kind of photographer that squeals out, "nice!" when I shoot. As a photographer, it would've been a fantastic landscape—a boat sitting on top of a love hotel—but I wouldn't have been able to keep my mouth shut. I get like that when I hold a camera. So that's why I couldn’t go, didn't go.

So many photographers have gone to Tohoku and taken photographs, but personally I'm not sure it's adding up to much. 

Well, I basically don’t look at other people’s photos. It’s not that I’m cynical, but I’m interested in other things, like the silly people trying to save this lone pine tree that miraculously survived. That’s the kind of thing that I’m interested in. It's kind of a goofy or foolish thing, but it's really interesting to me. 

Okay, let's talk about the sky again. You're now facing towards the east, but as far as I know Tokyo Skytree has never appeared in your work. Is that intentional? 

I’m loyal to Tokyo Tower, I grew up with it. I went up Skytree for a job, but it was cloudy that day so it didn't even matter!

I’m worried that Skytree will ruin the shitamachi [Tokyo's older district] by turning it into a regular place. Of course Tokyo is always changing, but I wonder how you feel about this.

Cities are always changing, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Even if it does become all digitized, I don’t mind the idea of a digital shitamachi. 

I don’t like photos that don’t have a feeling of nostalgia. Nostalgia lasts forever. Even if you can’t see it, nostalgia remains. People look down on nostalgia and sentimentality, right? Like they're not virile. Tears are good. 

Everyone is losing touch with this kind of thing. Not just in photography, you know, but in the way they're relating to each other. I mean, what is this—Twitter and so on. Pick up a damn brush and write out the characters! (laughs) That’s why people get frustrated and stab one another, because their words aren’t getting through to others. That's something good about the shitamachi though. You can see siblings going to calligraphy classes together after school. Ah, I just love that, I can't contain myself. It’s so great. 

(Araki looks through the catalog)

A little while ago I said "Light and Darkness Lost," making a joke out of Soseki's Light and Darkness, but I’m not necessarily inspired by literature. It’s the photos I take subconsciously that teach me the most. I took a photo of a cat’s shadow, you see? (picks out an image in the catalog) That’s because I felt that there might be more truth in its shadow. Regardless of whether that’s the right thing or not. There are some men who prefer shadows to bodies, you know. (laughs) 

Something I like about your work is that it's extremely pure, but it’s not naïve. I mean, this is sort of a strange thing to say, but I have this idea that your mind is more Greek than Japanese. Before you mentioned how tears are good, right? A few years ago, when I saw your exhibit about Chiro, Sentimental Journey, Spring Journey at Rat Hole Gallery, I was so overcome with emotion that I nearly burst out into tears right there. It feels to me like you relate to things, whether animal or human, in an almost cosmic way.

With Chiro, if you look at those photographs you can see that her feelings towards me were much stronger than my feelings towards her. I did not respond enough to her love. Her love was deeper than mine. The photographs make this clear. Look at her final portrait, when she gazed at me. I just feel that my love was weak. That's why the photographs of Chiro are good. My photos have always been about my relationship with the partner in front of me. 

How about the people looking at your work—what sort of "partner" are they? 

I’m not so concerned about them. For me, it’s all about the subject in the photo and nothing else. That’s why, when I present my works, I feel like I need to add an element of entertainment for the audience, even if it's a lie. 

(showing images of Chiro) This is when she’s so thin that they can’t even find a place to put a drip in her arm. I asked her to stand one last time for a photo, and she did. But you know what? This face, with her eyes closed, when she was dead—that was the most beautiful shot. 

Here, she’s already got rigor mortis. It sets in immediately after death, you know. That’s why she’s the same shape. (shows Chiro after cremation) I told them [i.e. the crematorium staff] to keep her in this position. 

Here I’ve painted onto the sky. (points at an image) I made these works for the exhibition one year after Yoko's death. It's a pity to exhibit black and white photographs on white walls, so I created a sky dedicated to her. A sunrise or sunset, a sky for her. I can’t help it, I’m naturally gifted. These are great, aren't they? (laughs)

I’m curious to ask about Setsuko Hara, who has appeared in your work a few times— 

Yes indeed! That big-boned, Russian-looking woman. There's the word sonzaikan ["presence"], but I have a particular term that I use when I’m referring to a woman, nyozaikan [a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “woman,” nyo, and “presence”], and she had it. She isn’t cute or sexy at all, but I like women who are full of resentment, who have some poison in them, and I was attracted to those qualities in her. 

In that sense, what do you think about the girls of AKB48? 

They’re all the same... That’s what I'd call “digital.” It's okay for what it is. They’re all cute, and that's not bad, no? But there are girls from the same generation who exist in a different realm from AKB48, and I think they're amazing. The AKB girls are manufactured. I guess some people will find them interesting, though. 

But they're not your liking? 

Oh, some of them I like. (laughs) But they all look the same to me. I’ve shot some of them, too. In thinking about what I would want to shoot, my own mettle came out. So, you had Atsuko Maeda and Yuko Oshima. In the election, Oshima had won— 

You're surprisingly familiar with this!

So I thought I’d get some sort of reaction if I made them stand side by side, and in fact there's one shot where they're almost wrapped up together. You could just feel their rivalry. That's interesting to me, to shoot two people in that kind of situation.

Let’s talk a little bit about foreign countries. What has the response to your work been abroad? 

People overseas responded to my work immediately. When I showed Akt-Tokyo in Europe, the photos spoke for me, especially since I didn’t speak the language. It convinced me that photos are better than words. 

Do you think that Japanese photography culture has anything to teach overseas? 

Probably not, right? (laughs) Anyway, it’s not about teaching or being taught—as long as you’re ready to learn from your subjects, you’ll definitely be fine. And by the way, everything around you is fantastic.

Overseas, they try to force all this emotion into the frame, right? But it’s better to think of the frame as something from which emotions and such can escape easily. 

How would you look back on your experience as a judge for the Canon New Cosmos competition? In some sense, you helped shape an era. 

I've been bashing digital today, but these days, digital shots that people take of friends of friends seem to be valued pretty highly. Maybe that’s because I used to select those kinds of photos all the time at the competition, though I selected other things too. 

We had guest judges sometimes, like the director of a photography museum in Paris. He told me that he understood my photos, but that he didn’t understand the photos I'd selected as a judge. You know, people like HIROMIX. 

I mean, the stuff that guy selected was amazing! A reflection of the moon in a pond, that kind of thing. Come on! (all laugh) So I guess it's not surprising that, coming in as a guest judge, he couldn't understand photographs taken by young Japanese girls. Maybe that work could tell him something like, "Hey, dad, this is how photography is really done!" 

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