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.


Bad Woman: An Interview of Katya Grokhovsky

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text by Abbey Meaker

portrait by Katya Grokhovsky

 

Katya Grokhovsky is an interdisciplinary artist, a curator, and an educator whose process-centric art practice combines installation, performance, video, photo, and collage. Through different expressions of each media, Grokhovsky creates immersive environments and captivating characters that assertively bring to fore issues related to gender, labor, alienation, and displacement, often using her own body to create a relationship between the personal and the political. 

Recently, I came across Grokhovsky’s video work titled “Bad Woman” in which an eccentric character wearing an animal-like mask, fur coat, and high-heels struggles with a stuffed parrot affixed to her shoulder, to situate herself comfortably on a wooden chair placed in a rural environment. Watching this, I felt I were witnessing something new, something authentic- an uncanny character whose discomfort was amplified, satirized. Yet I was able to relate to and recognize in her a sense of resolve, a comfort in her own skin, a resilience. According to Grokhovsky, “Bad Woman” is exhausted; she is many of us; she is what we whisper under our breaths, daily. She gladly fails; she is not here to please anybody; she is eccentric, wild, unruly, unmade, remade, deconstructed.

On a snowy Vermont day I connected with Grokhovsky to discuss this work, her curatorial efforts, and her solo exhibition, System Failure at Martin Art Gallery at Muhlenberg College. 

ABBEY MEAKER: At what point in your life did you begin making things? Was there an inherent interest in art, or did life organically pull you in that direction? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: Ever since I can remember I was making something with my hands, drawing on all types of surfaces, designing costumes, writing and staging plays, deconstructing and reassembling objects. I have continuously made art in some way and have been interested in many creative disciplines ever since I was very young, including fashion, interior design, literature, theater, dance and all types of decorative and visual arts. My parents encouraged me and took me to drawing classes since I was 5 years old in the former USSR, in Ukraine, where I went on to art school for children from 10 to 14 years of age, and then onto art school in Australia, Europe and USA, and here I am, a fully-fledged adult artist. I guess I have never really stopped or truthfully grown up. Art making is the way I interpret and experience life and I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life.

ABBEY MEAKER: Of the mediums you employ – installation, performance, video, photography – would you say there is one that more holistically translates your ideas and/or an experience you aim to create for a viewer? How do they work together? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I would say installation is the medium that brings it all together for me and creates the desired effect of a totally immersive environment. Video is another vehicle, which can incorporate all of my interests into one format and contain it within itself. I would love to make feature-length films one day, with a cast and a crew. In my installation work, I am able to position, compose and collage many of my works simultaneously and play with the site, size and space. I frequently include performance and video, sound, sculpture and painting, through various experimental propositions of complex situations and worlds within worlds, allowing the viewer to explore and experience a new ground, new system of being, fresh and absurd territories.

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ABBEY MEAKER: Your work has been called feminist - do you identify with this label?

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I truly detest labels of any kind, however it is a label I do accept. In a perfect world, an artist would be an artist, not female artist or woman artist or a feminist artist, simply because she expresses strong opinions about her life experience on this planet. I am an artist, a woman and a feminist. I work with feminist themes and look at the world through this lens, so my work gets positioned as such. It is the way I live my life, the way I view the humankind and how I keep on. My views and the stances I take do affect my work and the leitmotifs I am interested in. That makes it feminist. Labels make it easier to digest, to create boundaries, to identify, to exclude and commercialize and segregate, I understand that. Being feminist lines me up historically with some of my favorite artists, writers and mentors, and that is an honor. I do wish we lived in a post-label world, where artists were simply expressing their views in different ways.

ABBEY MEAKER: What do you think 'feminist' actually means within the present context of contemporary art?  

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I think feminist in the context of contemporary art means inclusive, equal, politically charged, questioning, rebellious, critical and non-compliant. It means not taking it lying down, it is a way of life, so it should translate into art that way as well. I am interested in challenging all notions of societal prejudice, standards, systems, hierarchies, specifically patriarchy and capitalism. Being a feminist and an artist has literally saved my life and continues to help me navigate this man’s world as a woman and a maker, so I firmly believe in both as vehicles of analysis, refusal, rage, protest, as well as acts of radical joy, acceptance and pleasure.

ABBEY MEAKER: Can you talk a little bit about the characters in your performances? I am particularly interested in Bad Woman and Bunny Bad.

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: Bad Woman is a character I initially developed for my last solo exhibition in 2017, as a post-election entity, a persona, who truly cannot handle this world anymore, and is gradually unraveling and de-conditioning herself. She is a bad woman, an angry, enraged woman. She is tired, exhausted, she is many of us. Internally, she is what we whisper under our breath daily. She is simply trying too hard, gladly fails, she is not here to please anybody. She is eccentric, wild, unruly, unmade, remade, deconstructed. Through her character, I began a lifelong project of deconditioning, feminine de-stabling, and decentralizing. Bunny Bad followed up, as the next, less gendered character, through which I am able to become a kid again, to play without any results, to explore, to be funny, grotesque, comic, stupid, uncoordinated, ugly. These characters help my own psyche and bring out the hidden creatures that live in me, and all of us, the ones we push away, or oppress, or pretend do not exist.

ABBEY MEAKER: Your installations feature prominently found objects- is the process by which you find these pieces an important part of the work? What are they meant to symbolize? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I am naturally both a collector and a destroyer of objects. These traits come from a childhood in the Soviet Union, where materialism did not yet fully exist - as well as immigration, during which belongings were forever discarded and left behind. I am interested in consumerism, in greed and capitalism, where a surplus of objects of desire is not only the sign of our time, but is killing the planet, as well as personal attachment, longing and memory. Most of the objects that appear in my work come from the street; flea markets, thrift stores and online shopping. I employ both intuition and attraction and pull to a particular object as well as rigorous research, especially on the Internet. Each work requires a different approach and is catered specifically to every site and place, depending on the theme and subject matter, be it a brand-new, extremely large beach ball from Amazon Prime, symbolizing an exceptionally futile, wasteful, yet desirable and alluring object of fun, which is meant to last less than an hour, to giant, 8-foot plush teddy bears, to a discarded, old and broken musical instrument found on the streets of NYC, indicating loneliness, nostalgia and reminiscence.

ABBEY MEAKER: Do you consider your curatorial efforts a part of your art practice?

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: Yes, I consider my curatorial work to be an extension and expansion of my own art making studio practice, through which I am able to step out of my own pursuits and explore the community and art being made around me. I really enjoy going out to other artists’ studios, feeling the pulse of my city, envisioning an idea, putting works together, and designing projects. It is all a part of my existing in the world, my attempt at reaching out, at connecting the dots, facilitating for those, whose voices have often been unheard. 

ABBEY MEAKER: What are you hoping to achieve as an organizer supporting other artists?  

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I hope to create a space for the less recognized and commercially viable works, for artists, who have traditionally been excluded and discarded by the art canon. I curate difficult to exhibit works, made by voices that are marginalized in some way. As an immigrant and a woman, I have often been excluded from the discourse myself and I simply try to correct the imbalance, one DIY project at a time. I am not very interested in the accepted, mainstream narrative, which has been fed to me all my life, that of the heterosexual white male artist. There are plenty of platforms for that, globally. I try to create an alternative that must not be alternative. 

ABBEY MEAKER: Are there certain ideas you can engage with as a curator more easily or more successfully than through your art practice?

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: Yes, I respond best to works which deal with process and are materially experimental and explore the body, as well as history, place and site. I often have a visceral response to art, including my own, so I need to be engaged not only intellectually, but bodily, somehow. I let my body speak before my head, when I am curating, but also when I make my own work. I trust my gut completely and rely heavily on my art intuition, which has never failed me yet. I am also interested in artists dealing and expressing their life experience autobiographically or through observation and research, as I do in my work. I don't respond well to extremely minimalist, or highly conceptual work without an engaging process involved in the making of it.

ABBEY MEAKER: You have a solo show titled System Failure at Martin Art Gallery at Muhlenberg College that just opened on February 14 (congrats!) What are you showing? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I have been working on-site at the Martin Art Gallery as a visiting artist in residence at the college for the past four weeks and have created a new site-specific installation, comprised of found, collected and bought objects and sculpted assemblages, as well as several recent video performance works. The exhibition deals with the failure of the patriarchal system and society, through exploration of extreme overconsumption, desire and imposed stereotypes. I am interested in investigating gendered standards and structures, as well as particularly capitalist ideas of childhood, through color assignment (pink, blue), teddy bears, beach balls, inflatable unicorns and donuts, as well as plastic shop mannequins manipulated and sculpted with plaster and house paint. It is a complicated exhibition, which has evolved over a year and over the past month on site, through rigorous experimentation with materials, as well as my relationship to the place. I will perform live twice as part of the exhibition, in collaboration with students at Muhlenberg College, cast through the college-wide open all. I am interested in what the atmosphere of an academic institution brings to my work and vice versa, and am grateful to have been very generously supported by the college and the gallery with space, time and materials. 

ABBEY MEAKER: Any curatorial projects coming up you'd like to discuss? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I have been appointed as lead curator of the Art in Odd Places festival and exhibition in 2018, taking place in October, the theme of which will be BODY and will be open for the first time to women, female identifying and non binary artists only. The festival is 14 years old this year and traditionally takes place along 14th street in Manhattan over four days, with performances, installations, sculptures and sound works in the public domain. This year I have also included a group exhibition at Westbeth gallery in the West Village as an extension of the festival and dialogue. I am very excited about this, as I was an artist who participated in the festival three times prior and not only do I know it well, but it is the first time an artist will curate this festival. The theme BODY stems from my own practice and curatorial pursuits and I am especially interested in the body of “other” taking up much needed space in the pubic imagination.


Katya Grokhovsky's SYSTEM FAILURE is on view through April 10th at Martin Art Gallery, Muhlenberg College 2400 Chew Street Allentown, PA 18104. The artist will be performing live in the gallery on March 14th at 5pm and at the closing ceremony on April 10th. She will also be conducting a lecture in the space on March 21st. Follow Katya on Instagram @KATYAGROKHOVSKY. Follow Autre on Instagram @AUTREMAGAZINE.


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