Soft Power: An Interview Of Nathaniel Mary Quinn

 
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text and interview by Adam Lehrer
portrait by Kyle Dorosz

 

In the late artist Mike Kelley’s 1993 essay on visualizations of Freud’s “uncanny,” a term referring to the feeling of confronting something simultaneously alien and yet familiar, he connected manifestations of the sensation to memory. “This sensation is tied to the act of remembering,” wrote Kelley. But Kelley also made the claim that the uncanny sensation is typically one of dread or muted horror. And to be sure, many of the art works that Kelley wrote about in regards to the uncanny and showed in the exhibition he curated based on his text; Hans Bellmer’s anatomical dolls, Cindy Sherman’s photographs of fetish dolls (partially influenced by Bellmer’s constructions), Ron Mueck’s hyper-realist figurative sculpture of a teenage girl in a black swimsuit, etc; are connected by horror. But is it possible for an object, or an art object more specifically, to evoke the uncanny in a positive light? Can an uncanny artwork actually uplift the viewer or make him/her aware of his/her alterity and connection to the universe at the same time? Historically, I would have said no. But that was before I came to know and love the work of New York-based artist Nathaniel Mary Quinn.

Quinn’s work, renderings of bold and psychologically dense painted and drawn portraits, often look like collages upon one-dimensional viewing. Quinn depicts the human face with a network of symbols that often illustrate the humanities and complexities of his subjects infinitely more than a realistic rendering of facial attributes ever could. It is upon closer inspection that these fragmented faces are actually created with oil and pastel paint applied through a highly skillful technique of using certain oils to prevent the component parts of the portrait from bleeding into one another. The result is a very peculiarly uncanny image.

From one perspective, the fragmentations and symbolizations of human faces can feel strange and disorienting. But Quinn’s work is also deeply humanitarian. He himself has lived an incredibly painful life, having lost his mother and been abandoned by his father at a young age, and has emerged at the other end as one of the most important artists of his generation. It’s not that his work suggests anything close to the neoliberal dictum of “pick yourself up by your bootstraps,” on the contrary, it suggests that all humans are connected by our traumas, our sadness, and our pain. But this notion in Quinn’s work isn’t horrific in the sense that the uncanny is usually understood to be. Going back to Kelley’s essay, Quinn’s work does evoke troubling memories but it also addresses the fact that we all are haunted by uncomfortable memories and finds beauty in the universal nature of trauma. Quinn’s work is an uncanny that makes you feel more connected to the world than isolated from it. Perhaps this emotional resonance is what has pushed Quinn’s work beyond the confines of art world insularity and into the spotlight of mass recognition and, evidently, major collector interest. “Even when people look at something that might be alien to them, or even disgusting, abject, uncomfortable to look at,” says Quinn. “They know they are looking at something with a real emotional resonance to it.”

When I last spent time with Quinn in 2017, he was on the cusp of major art world success. And now, after having been signed to Gagosian Gallery in April and about to be the subject of his first Gagosian solo show in Beverly Hills, that success has undeniably arrived. Over the last two years, Quinn has been pushing his practice deeper into an inner psychological space. The work that will be on display at Gagosian plumbs the depths of his psyche. More and more, his work seeks to render his own insecurities and difficult remembrances. The kernels of self-doubt that are omnipresent but often left unspoken are filtered into Quinn’s pictorial space. The aesthetic of the works that will be shown at Gagosian hue closer to abstraction than works made by Quinn in the past, generating a space of empathy and consciousness raising for both artist and viewer alike. “What does it look like to make a work that renders an insecurity?” asks Quinn. “I would say this: empathy and vulnerability are tools in my practice as important as charcoal and pastels. This is what I’m pursuing.” 

Quinn’s first Gagosian solo show, Hollow and Cut, will feature thirty-six works ranging from 16x13 inches to 96x48 inches. Talking to Quinn by telephone, he is equally excited and restless. This is a monumental point in his career: his first solo show with the world’s most profitable gallery.  He understands what the weight of a show at Gagosian, a gallery subject to praise and criticism in equal measure, holds for his future. But he also is filled with an immense sense of pride, and he has earned it: Quinn has emerged as one of the most important contemporary painters in the world. “You want to make sure you come out strong,” he says of the impending opening. “But you can't think about the public when making your work. Your concern has to be your practice and creating.”

ADAM LEHRER: So, last time we were together you were on the cusp of success. Now you're on your first solo show with Gagosian.

NATHANIEL MARY QUINN: The good thing about Gagosian is you can create the bedrock of a career that you want. They have the resources to materialize that for you. Larry, c’mon man, he has relationships with all the museums, the directors, even if they have somewhat of a...

LEHRER: Weary relationship...

QUINN: Yeah, they have to deal with him. He's like the emperor. Gagosian generates up to a billion dollars every year in art sales. David Zwirner is number two and they earn 500 million dollars. I was in a different place the last time we met, I was growing. Now, here we are again, man, with Gagosian Gallery. I can't believe it.

NATHANIEL MARY QUINN
C'mo' And Walk With Me, 2019
Black charcoal, gouache, soft pastel, oil pastel on Coventry Vellum Paper
50 x 38 inches / 127 x 96.5 cm
© Nathaniel Mary Quinn
Photo: Rob McKeever
Courtesy Gagosian

LEHRER: What is the psychological impact of knowing that you are at the top of the art world food chain, so to speak? Is it pressure-inducing or is it freeing to know that so many more people are going to be seeing your work?

QUINN:It is freeing on one hand because of the gallery’s resources. As of five years ago, I had to pack all my own work. I remember [my wife] Donna and I used to ship it all out ourselves. We don't do that shit anymore. That's exciting.

In regards to the pressure, I think it would be fair to say that I feel some pressure. Any time you're making art in the public sphere it will present some pressure. If you're the kind of artist like myself, engaged in the exploration of the self, or finding ways to lay your wounds and memories bare and trying to make that visual, it presents pressure. But that is then coupled with the fact that it's Gagosian Gallery! Now, there are collectors interested in the work for any number of reasons. You start to think, “What would happen if someone finally places my work on public auction?" But you can't worry about it. Some collector is always going to be seduced by the alluring nature of generating a large profit off the work.

With that, I'll tell you, I'm very excited. For me, it's a big deal man. I think it's quite an achievement.

LEHRER: I'm psyched for you. Given these last few years, your work has obviously evolved a bit. What would you say distinguishes the works in this show compared to works of the past?

QUINN: This [show] is very personal. It’s called Hollow and Cut. When you remove whatever you've been taught to believe in, when you have cut and hollowed out all the exterior layers, what remains? This show is a courageous pursuit of excavating my internal self. I have deeply rooted insecurities. I don't talk about it much, but I don't feel worthy sometimes. These works are reflections of my fears and doubts. I did a piece called “How Come Not Me.” It's a small work on paper. When I was in high school, we had a thing called Parents’ Weekend. At that point my family was gone from my life. And I'd think "How Come Not me?” Until this day I struggle with that.

These ideas, these insecurities about my life or my looks, are tied into the actual creation of the work. I'm constantly pushing my practice. For this show I knew that I had to move to that next level in my work, so I used a more abstract approach. Even doing that was very challenging because you go through high school, college, grad school and you are making art the whole way through and then you find yourself making art a certain kind of way. That doesn't mean the work you are making is a real reflection or what you can do; it just means you've been trained or conditioned to make art in a certain way. But to make work that is closer to where you are emotionally in and of itself requires a lot of courage and doggedness. You have to go for it. l. 

LEHRER: Yes, this reminds me of that quote by the great pessimist philosopher Emil Cioran "Chaos is rejecting all you have learned. Chaos is being yourself." In a sense you are tapping into this inner turmoil, or chaos, to boldly visualize your psyche, and push yourself further into the art making process.

QUINN: Yes, that’s perfectly placed. For example, normally in my work I would draw an eye, or a nose would represent a nose, but if I'm trying to articulate these deeply embedded insecurities within me, my fears and my doubts and a sense of unworthiness, then what I am trying to articulate is not actually definitive. It's not a real figure. It's an affectation. How do you visualize that? I'm not saying I achieved that in the show, but I've made progress from work one to work thirty-five. By the time I got to the 35th work, it began to take on the kind of abstraction I had been aiming for. It feels much more palpable to me, much more honest, much more real. Much more free. Most people don't want to be free. They want to comply. And fall in line. Freedom requires real courage. You have to fight to be free.

LEHRER: Despite the often uncanny aesthetic in your work, you have broken out to a mass audience. What do you think it is that enables people who aren’t so versed in the avant-garde to connect with your work?

QUINN: Let’s go to Beyoncé. I love Beyoncé. She makes great songs. She’s a superstar. We all know this. Then you got Mary J. Blige and she can't sing anywhere near as well as Beyoncé. And, although she can't sing that well, she's good! She's not Beyoncé, or Aretha, but what she does is real. Potent. Visceral. You know what she's saying and how she's saying it is honest and pure. But when you present something real, people believe it. 

LEHRER: Is this bravery, this courage to find freedom, something you are constantly looking for in art across all media?

QUINN: I think it's important to understand that you can't grasp the scope of humanity within one tradition of art. You have to look at all of it: comedy, film, poetry, reading essays and books. Public speaking. Not just art but all forms of work and all traditions of creation must be dealt with and confronted or perused at the very least. So I'll look at a Dave Chapelle; this guy works very hard to be free. Because this guy's fighting for his right to speak his mind as a comedian, his first job is to be funny. And in addition to being funny, he's a cultural critic. He observes the culture, and criticizes it, and tries to portray it in a different light. 

I look at the works of artists like Yue Minjun, Adrian Gheni, or Neo Rauch because they have a certain freedom in their work. So many artists are afraid to confront who they are. They continue to feel empty in the face of their achievements. Why is that? [Art] isn’t just technique, skill and rendering, it is an activity in which empathy and vulnerability are necessities. I'm not just moving the needle in my work; I'm moving the needle in me. I'm not a walking Instagram page. I'm not putting up a highlight reel. This is real life. No one is happy all the time. It's impossible. I want to use the work to push back on this era’s values. An era where people are ashamed to be real. 

LEHRER: In your portraits you often shun direct representations in favor of symbolic representations. But these symbols seem to illustrate the depths of you and your subjects’ complexities infinitely more than a direct rendering of physical attributes ever could. Your ability to use symbols to pierce the symbolic order and address the... 

QUINN: Make no mistake, I like to think that every artwork I make has some representational element. But there's still evidence [in this show] of me taking that courageous step forward to push beyond traditional forms of representation. We should shoot for a higher ground. A higher level. The first comedians would walk down the street and slip on a banana peel, and that was funny. That's surface comedy. But deep human comedy is where the fragility of men and women are brought to the surface. That's deep comedy, the kind that Dave Chapelle engages in. That Pryor engaged in. I wanted to make art like that.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn “Hollow And Cut” will be on view until October 19, 2019 at Gagosian Beverly Hills. 456 North Camden Drive Beverly Hills, ca 90210

NATHANIEL MARY QUINN
Jekyll and Hyde, 2019
Oil paint, paint stick, gouache, soft pastel on linen canvas, diptych
14 x 22 inches
35.6 x 55.9 cm
© Nathaniel Mary Quinn
Photo: Rob McKeever
Courtesy Gagosian

Pacing Around My Desire: An Interview Of Carmen Winant

Honey Lee Cottrell Papers, #7822. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Honey Lee Cottrell Papers, #7822. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

interview by Abbey Meaker

In her new book titled Notes on Fundamental Joy; seeking the elimination of oppression through the social and political transformation of the patriarchy that otherwise threatens to bury us, Carmen Winant offers a poignant question: Does hope have an aesthetic? If it does, you may find it within the pages of this provocative book.

Designed by Jena Myung and published by Printed Matter Inc., the book is both an artist’s project and an historic collection of found images, photographs whose function was not only to document women-only communities formed in the 1980s across the Pacific Northwest, but also to subvert the pervasive dynamic in photography of man as subject, woman as object. Through these photographs of an almost unfathomable utopia of feminist & lesbian separatists, we can contemplate a world that exists outside of patriarchy. A safe, inclusive, fantastical space in which art is central to community making, connection, experimentation, and purpose. 

Meaker: Can you talk a little bit about the title and how you feel like it was relevant at the time the photos were made and how it’s relevant now? 

Winant: Part of the reason that I gravitated towards this material in the first place is because it held such promise and joy. I’ve known photography to occupy a space that can be more severe or competitive. The women photographers I idolized as a student, people like Francesca Woodman and Diane Arbus, all killed themselves. It wasn’t just that I felt that it was difficult to be a woman in the world. I also understood photography as entangled with that problem, that it was violent and incurred violence onto bodies, and onto the photographers themselves. And when I encountered these images, I felt inside them a whole new kind of promise—something that was bound up in the word joy, as well as world-building in this case of stepping outside of patriarchy altogether, and using photography as a new way to see the world. That felt really powerful. I was starting to do this research during the presidential campaign. It’s not a far reach to understand why I felt I needed to move towards not subverting the patriarchy from the inside, but instead looking at people who had just left it all behind. I understand that now that that impulse came from being confronted with the ugliest parts of our patriarchy. For me, the project is tethered to that moment in historical time.

Meaker: Looking at these images and thinking about these communities in the ‘70s and ‘80s, is it discouraging to know where we are now, and see that it failed in a way? Or did it?

Winant: Yes and no. When I first encountered the images, I had the same binary logic around it. But the longer that I researched, I started to feel that there was more nuance in this question of what it means to succeed and fail. There were so many thousands of women that cycled through these women’s lands, and even if the community ended up dissolving, that consciousness still permeated into those bodies, and that sort of changed the way they lived their lives, how they moved through space, how they related to other people, how they engaged with politics, community, relationships, child rearing, and so forth. This is what coalition building is. It’s messy, it’s difficult, people get pissed off and leave, and it’s not built to last. But that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t succeeded.

Meaker: Totally. When looking through the book, I felt that it was a fiction. It’s so hard for me to imagine existing in such a utopic place, free of the critical eye of white cis men. Man-as-subject, woman-as-object is such a pervasive dynamic in photography. Why do you think that photographs were central to these communities, and do you think it served as a medium of documentation as well as a kind of rebuttal?  

Winant: Definitely. And let me address the first thing you said too, which is the fantasy element of it. So much of my own relationship to this material is really romantic, and I brush off the things that don’t feed my fantasy, like the conflicts that happened, and the wars they lost with the landowners, and the bank, and the disabled women who left because there wasn’t space for them to survive in the country. Not to mention how few non-white women there were, and non-middle class women. It took me some time to come to this, but I realized that this is a part of the project, to follow the discordances. The way I teach feminism is as the prospect of world-building, and the imperative of a feminist is to imagine that a different world is possible. Without that imagination, we have nothing. We have no values, we have no politics, and we have no essential selves if we can’t imagine something outside of the world that we’re living in, or living under. And so, I think it’s really important to think about my own feminist politics as kind of revolving around that promise.

A lot of the different women’s lands built wet darkrooms, although the book in fact revolves around the ovulars, which are these photographic workshops that were offered on one particular women’s land, which was called Rootworks, in Oregon. An ovular is a take-off on seminar, which means the spreading of semen, etymologically. So, they instead called them ovulars, and the women who took them were called the ovulators. It was a new way to see themselves, and each other; to reframe desire, and kinship, and affinity and self, and sight, and insight, but also to stand as evidence. When so many of these women came out as gay, they were kicked out or they were left with nothing. Some of them had their children taken away from them. They had no evidence of their lives, in some sense. So it existed beyond the metaphoric idea of needing to reframe the way we see, and into something quite tangible, about how to make new evidence of our lives in this state of being reborn.

Honey Lee Cottrell, courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Honey Lee Cottrell, courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Meaker: Knowing that it was probably finite.  

Winant: It depends. When you read their accounts, some women feel as though it will last forever. And others that are far more skeptical are dipping in and out. So, I think there’s quite a big range. 

Meaker: Did the women teaching the workshops come in as photographers, or did that come from being a part of the community?  

Winant: So far as I know, there were six different organizer midwives that cycled in and out. They all went on to become pretty serious, and I think they were pretty serious already. They still remained on the margin, but they were dedicated photographers. The ovulars ranged from technical workshops to making lesbian erotica, or how to make photographs about love and sex.

Meaker: I love that art making was such a central activity. 

Winant: It really is difficult to live in the country, particularly when you are arriving with no skill about how to irrigate, how to you know plant food in the ground, or how to build structures. The fact that they carved out the space for this kind of production feels really critical.

Honey Lee Cottrell, courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Honey Lee Cottrell, courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Meaker: How did you happen upon this work, and when did you know you wanted to do something with it?  

Winant: Years ago, I read an article in the New Yorker by Ariel Levy, and it was about the Van Dykes, who were a separatist community. I just remember feeling so amazed by the prospect of this. My work has been about looking for another world, and trying to imagine a world outside of patriarchy, so to come across this felt revelatory. I started to get deeper into it and I discovered this vast photography archive, and I was amazed. They felt like such important historical documents, and were also incredibly striking photographs. The project is an homage to these communities, as well as a platform to make the photographs exist in a public space together.

Meaker: These women were unknown, and you were naming them and crediting them. So many women artists are subsumed by their male contemporaries, so this was exciting to me. In your last book, My Birth, many of the photos are anonymous.

Winant: Yeah, all of them, in fact. That was really different in this project. Normally, the way that I work is I gather the images that I want, I remove them from their sources, I re-contextualize them, and I call it fair use. That was never going to be an okay way to work here for a couple reasons. It wasn’t possible administratively, but it also wasn’t possible to do in good conscience. These are art objects. We got the copyright for every image, we paid the artist for the image if they were alive, and we got permission to reproduce. To be honest, I’ll probably never work this way again because it was so time-prohibitive. Sometimes I spent days just trying to get a single image.

Meaker: And did you always imagine it as a book?

Winant: No. At first I thought it could be an exhibition. But as I was thinking through possibilities, Printed Matter reached out to ask if I wanted to make a book. I thought that that could be an interesting way for those photographs to come together. I’m delighted it’s in the form that it’s in, in part because in the archive, many of the photographic objects exist in some sort of magazine or pamphlet. It doesn’t exist as a conventional photographic archive, and so a book really made sense.

Meaker: It feels so intimate too. It’s nice to hold it and touch as an object.

Winant: I’m so glad you say that. We spent a lot of time talking about that.

Meaker: What attracted you to such era-specific imagery from the ‘70s? 

Winant: I think there are a couple ways to answer the question, the first being that that era is where so much printed matter lives. There is an enormous glut of books that are published from the late ‘60s through the early ‘80s as a certain personal-is-political kind of feminism comes to bear. Those books are replete with photographs. That doesn’t exist in the same way anymore. But it’s more than that, of course. So much of my interest, conceptually and politically, as a person and an artist, is about working to understand the feminism that begot my feminism, the history that begot my history, and the space between us. I look at the feminism that belonged to my mother’s generation, and it feels, in some ways, so foreclosed. My work has always been about trying to reach backwards and understand what it means to inherit a memory, what it means to reckon with the idea of women’s liberation fifty years later.

Meaker: And how do you think it changed?

Winant: It changed in so many ways. Regarding the name “women’s liberation,” I don’t think that we, for the most part, believe in the idea of liberation anymore. We don’t belong to radical feminism anymore, and we can understand that by looking at these photographs and understanding that they look like a fantasy to us. There are so many different qualities that have shifted, that have made it more progressive, and more inclusive, and at the same time, I mourn the loss of those things that I mentioned.

Meaker: The photographs in the book are of naked women, and their bodies all look similar. The world that is depicted in the book feels inclusive and safe, but the images of the women aren’t. How did that sit with you when you were bringing together these photographs?

Winant: There’s another scholar who’s done some research into the ovulars. His name is Andy Campbell, and he’s a professor at USC. He's said in a talk that I noted, “To leave everything behind can be a privilege.” I think, in some cases, he’s right. There’s one African-American woman who appears over and over in the ovulars. Her name is Lynne Reynolds, she lived in Brooklyn at the time. I’m always so struck by her presence in that place; she stands out as the only nonwhite participant, as far as I can see. It reminds an onlooker that there is an issue of who has the ability to participate in the first place. The ovulars were absolutely incredible for their radical inventiveness, for the creatively, for their dedicated feminism. I admire them from deep down. And they also make me wonder: who has the ability to leave it all behind?

Carol Newhouse, courtesy of the artist

Carol Newhouse, courtesy of the artist

Meaker: To me, your broad practice has recurring themes relating to origins, materiality, the fecund body, and also, a drive to subvert the notion that the pregnant body is the ultimate representation of abstraction. In your book My Birth, the photographs are really aggressive and they demand to be seen. At the same time there is desensitization in the repetition of the images. What are your thoughts on that?

Winant: After I gave birth the first time, I was amazed, horrified, delighted, and terrified at what that experience had been. So much of how I relate to my experience is to try to make it intelligible through photographs, and it became very clear to me very quickly after giving birth that I couldn’t do that. It’s not that there were no photographs of birth, but there were vacuums. I didn’t recognize it anywhere in contemporary art, for instance, with very limited pockets of examples. I think some of the work was intended to fill up that space. But in a larger way, I understood that there was not going to be any photograph that would be able to account for that experience as fully as I wanted it to, for all of its sensate abjection. Part of the repetition was about working to insist on that image over and over, so it could be seen and knowable, and at the same time, doing so with the distinct understanding that it was a failed premise.  

Meaker: And where do you think the new work fits in with that?

Winant: It was an incredibly agitating experience to look at bodies opening up and pouring out. I needed to look at something that felt unabashedly joyful. It was important for me to find images to live with that occupied a different experience, a parallel experience.

Meaker: You pose a question in the book, which is, is there an aesthetic to hope? And I wonder if this project has offered an answer to you.

Winant: At the beginning of this project, I wrote a single note that I put above my studio desk: what does a free body look like? And I think there are a lot of different questions in that question. Do pictures look different when women make them? In that sense, do women have a different photographic aesthetic? Do lesbians? Do feminists? What does joy look like? How do we see it? How do we frame it? I’m really interested in the relationship between politics and aesthetics. These photographs feel so distinct, yet they have such deep echoes of one another that I have to ask, how has this experience actually changed the way that they see?

Meaker: Maybe it’s more a feeling than an aesthetic.

Winant: Definitely. That can be a really difficult thing to account for. As an artist, how do you come to learn and occupy a photographic feeling? 

Meaker: I think maybe it is an innate ability, because not all photographs have that.

Winant: I agree. It is innate to a person, but also to a place and a moment in shared historical time.

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

IMG-6990.jpeg

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.

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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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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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 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, 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’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

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.

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.


A Transcendental Storehouse For Culture: An Interview Of Lauren Halsey

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text by Taliah Mancini

photographs by Oliver Kupper


Lauren Halsey’s dream-world is cosmic, funky, carpeted, and technicolored; an atemporal, fantastical, and hyperreal vision of black liberation which she conjures via site-specific installations that celebrate her childhood home.

Iconography and aesthetics (not to mention philosophy, lived experiences, and informal economies) of the diaspora serve as Halsey’s blueprint. Manipulating found objects and cultural artifacts from South Central, she deftly plays the past and present off one another to build a black utopia outside of time. Incorporating, for example, smashed-CD’s, aquarium plants, artificial crystals and rocks, hair extension packs, incense oils, aerosol spray cans, pan-African flags, tchotchkes, figurines, and black-business signage, she shapes a community-based, architecturally-rooted, afro-futurist cosmology.

Perhaps most explicitly, Halsey’s work is embedded in a spatial analysis of racial capitalism. Recognizing the power of oppressive built environments, she works to dismantle hegemony’s spatial ordering—a subversive move against cultural erasure and panoptical city planning. In response to the calculated displacement targeting South Central, she invests in her own architecture, preserving black-owned shops and community spaces by archiving her long-time home. She not only presents a cutting critique of the modern consumer economy but also an active re-constructing of heterotopia.

Creatively and politically, Halsey has carved out a space for herself in an art world that is often complicit in the very systems she re-imagines. With installations that are reminiscent of few conventional object-oriented art works, she is creating a new visual genre, pushing those who enter her fantasy to re-envision the perspective-altering potentials of the visual, aural, sensorial, and spatial. And, firmly rooted in love for her neighborhood, her work is defined in equal measure by healing from trauma and honoring history. Halsey’s dream-world is a moving through abuse to create new realities; an optimistic, grounded, and empowered archiving of the future.  

TALIAH MANCINI: To start, what does your neighborhood mean to you?

LAUREN HALSEY: Neighborhood Pride, Gorgeous color palettes and aesthetics, Black history as it relates to The Great Migration, Family History, My future.

MANCINI: When did you begin creating art?

HALSEY: Intentionally in the 12th grade. Oddly enough one of our first art projects was a carving project that I’m revisiting for my upcoming public project, The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project. I was already intrigued and deeply obsessed with collecting and creating records in my notebooks. The 12th grade carving project gave me the form.

MANCINI: I’ve seen pictures of your early maximalist collages. Did your documenting of South Central emerge with these Photoshopped images?

HALSEY: No, documenting and archiving signs, posters, mix CDs, parties, menus, incense n oils, party flyers, hairstyles, bus routes, businesses, knick knacks, t-shirts, greeting cards, local landmarks, city blocks, voices, etc. was already happening. I used the archive I was engaging to create the maximalist blueprints of my neighborhood a few years later when I took my first Photoshop class at El Camino Community College.

MANCINI: Your work is, most notably, a community-based practice. Where does that process start, both conceptually and physically?

HALSEY: With all of the odds already stacked against working class black and brown folks in low income neighborhoods in LA (food, education, police, housing, etc), I can’t imagine not having a community-based practice. My interest is to not only affirm folks through my practice/the artwork but most importantly to do so with tangible results: paid jobs, transcendent programming, free resources and workshops. My upcoming public project, The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project will address this conceptually and physically. Here’s a blurb on it:

The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project (C.D.H.P.) is a hybrid public art installation and community market created in collaboration with the Crenshaw District that will build and reinforce local economies of South Central LA that can sustain the pressures of rapid gentrification. The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project will exist on an empty lot where over the course of a 3-6 month public installation, four autonomous 16 ft. hieroglyphic towers with open circulation will be constructed. Each tower will include a series of rooms covered in hieroglyphic-style engravings on the interiors and exteriors. Upon entering the structure, the public will be invited to make their own "hieroglyphs" by carving into a series of blank panels serving as a medium to express narratives, share news, honor community leaders, celebrate events, and leave obituaries or memorials. This visual archive of and for the neighborhood will allow community members the freedom to commemorate and monumentalize themselves and one another in a city (and nation) where the place-making strategies of black and brown subjects are increasingly deleted from the landscape.

Through programming that generates paid jobs and provides tangible resources through free workshops on entrepreneurship, The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project provides and examines how alternate modes of community building can take place, while providing community members productive inroads to be engaging with, participating in, and benefiting from the top-down pace of development encouraged by Los Angeles' economic imperatives. Importantly, the public project’s investment in community artmaking will document and inscribe into the four towers the plural experience of communities who rarely benefit from, for example, gentrifying landscapes that privilege the lives and experiences of upwardly mobile middle classes. The towers provide space for the city's most overlooked citizens to describe their iconographies, aesthetic styles, informal economies, leisure activities, celebrations, oppression, local histories, and potential futures in the form of a tangible community monument. It is my hope that the publics' engravings and the informal economies The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project creates will inspire productive dialogues about liberation for South Central LA from within, beginning with our dollars.

MANCINI: Your exploration of architecture is brilliant. When did you become interested in re-imagining the built environment?

HALSEY: I’ve always been deeply, deeply, deeply into PFunk. They empowered my imagination at a young age. Early on I was very intrigued by the space making that was happening with PFunk seamlessly on the scale of worlds (outerspace, place, blackness, queerness, me). They beamed me up and into their radical worlds without me ever having to leave my bedroom. They left me totally transformed, always. Who I was/am will always be enough to participate. That relationship to space making carries over to my work where I remix and propose new spaces with what we already have and who we already are, to conjure new reflections on self-determination, affirmation, community wealth building, love, Funk, etc.

My interest in architecture is also biographical as it relates to growing up and living in a LA with so much oppressive architecture and always having questions around who’s building our architecture for us.In architecture school, I became really into the dialog of 60’s/70’s fantasy architecture.

MANCINI: Can you talk about your play with architecture in reference to the resistance of gentrification in South Central?

HALSEY: I can’t omit architecture and our built environment outside of the convo of gentrification. There should be, and are many, responses. I’m interested in responding through interventions with “for us by us architecture.” An architecture that representationally and structurally comes from us to empower us. An architecture that doesn’t signify erasure to disempower us. A Funky architecture. An architecture that comes from our hands.

MANCINI: How do you describe the way funk (Parliament/Funkadelic, Gospel Funk, Jheri Curl Funk, etc.) informs your cosmic black utopia?

HALSEY: Density. Layers. Immersion. Maximalism. Control. Black Style. Black Aesthetics. Deep Time.



MANCINI: What about outer space?

HALSEY: Outer space is limitless. White supremacy, racism classism, sexism, nepotism, consumerism, etc. aren’t the order there. There’s great freedom in contextualizing my projections for the neighborhood in an infinity space without Earth’s baggage.

MANCINI: And nature?

HALSEY: Funkifying nature has a lot to do with my interest in fantasy nature. Seeing nature through Funk sounds. The effect of a Funk nature that’s an assemblage of multiple geographies while remixing and also, sampling place, texture, form via my own renditions of the landscape.

MANCINI: You grew up in South Central, spent time in New Haven for graduate school at Yale, and then moved back to your childhood home. What are your impressions of the LA art communities?

HALSEY: There are so many because of the enormous geographical spread in LA. I spend my downtime in Atlanta. I haven’t been consistently in LA long enough to truly belong to a community, but I think I’m forging one and beginning to join existing ones.

MANCINI: Where (and what) in Los Angeles inspires you?

HALSEY: Black LA, the beaches, the sunsets, bonfires, candy cars, ice cream trucks, the pan man, the elote man, the tamale man, signs, hair, sunsets, taco trucks, freeways at night, hot days, rooftop pools, walking, riding the bus, growing up in church, ceviche, paletas, soul food, my family, chasing lowriders, the roosters, the hills, everything.

MANCINI: How did “we still here, there” at MOCA come about?

HALSEY: I was researching Chinese grotto heavens and became interested in the Mogao Caves. I was intrigued by the cave as a super structure rock form but also, as its function as a transcendental storehouse for culture: research archives of lost cultures, specific histories, discourse and ideas. I proposed to MOCA that I would build a cave-grotto with a series of connected chambers and corridors marking the plurality of black daily cultural experiences in downtown South Central LA. Some chambers include local ephemera and iconographies (i.e. South Central superhero, Okeneus’s original collages, selections of incense n oils, black figurines, mix cds, local newspaper clippings, portraitures, etc.). Other moments will be more speculative, including imaginary of future South Central landscapes, memorials, miniature shrines and statues, poems, rock carvings and soundscapes. Conceptually, I wish to create an aesthetic-sociopolitical record and overview of contemporary South Central in order to mark the evolution and narrative shifts of neighborhoods as they are being increasingly deleted from the LA landscape. Community identities are being lost and some histories aren’t being preserved (i.e. displacement via market-rate condominiums, new stadiums, developments, etc). The long-term goal is to create a permanent public cave-grotto in my neighborhoods that centuries from now will be excavated and inhabited by the future.

MANCINI: It seems like an important component of the installation is you regularly changing the space. What is your role as “pharaoh, high-voltage Funkateer and master architect”?

HALSEY: I can’t give all of my recipes away but in a nutshell, Keep building, Keep visioning, Keep Funking so that the work isn’t a set or an eulogy of itself. It’s a living environment that will accumulate energy, poetics and an archive through the run of the exhibition.

MANCINI: In what ways is the installation connected to your on-going artistic project?

HALSEY: Preservation. Past/Future. Monument. Community. Archive.

MANCINI: What is next for you? Kindgom Splurge? Any new projects on the horizon?

HALSEY:The last iteration of Kingdom Splurge happened a couple years ago. It’s put to rest for now. The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project is next. I’m building a prototype architecture of it for the Hammer Museum’s Made in LA Show that opens in June.


we still here, there was curated by Lanka Tattersall. The exhibition is on view at MOCA Grand Avenue through September 3, 2018. Lauren Halsey will be in gallery every other week on alternating Fridays and Saturdays, beginning Saturday, March 10. For more details visit MOCA. Follow Lauren Halsey on Instagram @summeverythang. Follow AUTRE @autremagazine.


The Art Of Short Cinema: An Interview of Christian Coppola

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text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper

photographs Pierre Auroux

Christian Coppola is an LA-based filmmaker and photographer with a few short films already under his belt. Informed by an early fascination with The Wizard of Oz, Coppola’s personal style incorporates dreamy colors and the ever-present dichotomy between home and away. His short film debut, Heartbreak Hotel and his upcoming short, Daddy, explore the complicated nature of hotels, and the opportunities offered by the short film genre. Fixated on the process of creating his personal style, Coppola’s own viewing process is predicated on the question, “could anyone else have made this?” We had a chance to catch up with the burgeoning filmmaker and discuss his upcoming film, development as an artist, and his desire to create a universe through film.

OLIVER MAXWELL KUPPER: How are you?

CHRISTIAN COPPOLA: Good, I'm sitting in my backyard looking at some palm trees, and it's a really beautiful day.

KUPPER: I assume you're in LA.

COPPOLA: Yeah, I'm here. I'm actually—I just shot this new film in New York. And I shot it January 16th through the 19th. Pretty quick shoot.

KUPPER: So this was a pretty fresh, new project.

COPPOLA: In the grand scheme of things, we just shot it. But now I'm—you know I've been here for a month just meeting with editors and people who are going to be involved in the post production process. And also hanging out with my friends, because I really love LA and all the things it offers. And New York is really cold right now, kind of a wasteland.

KUPPER: I keep hearing that about New York, and everyone's moving to LA. And it's not just for weather, it's also like the creative energy.

COPPOLA: Well it's nice—I went out for Valentine's Day and I went to this party in Chinatown and before, we kind of congregated in this space downtown at my friend's apartment. And I walked in and it was so big. It always blows my mind. I just sort of realized that we can actually congregate in a space that isn't someone's shoebox bedroom where we're all piled onto a bed talking about how we're all going to fit into an uber to go to this stupid fashion event that nobody even really wants to go to in the first place. It's a bit insane how you meet people who are able to not only sustain a life here, but sustain their creative work.

KUPPER: You're still quite young, but what are some films that you grew up watching that inspired you to make movies?

COPPOLA: Well, whenever I'm asked that question I always go back to The Wizard of Oz. Just in terms of the scope, and the imagery alone. In the sense that, when I watched it, I would act it out as it was playing on the screen. I was so enamored with all of the elements that went into making this movie, whether it was the music, the costumes, the lighting, the set design, the props, the story. That was a movie I watched where I kind of just had this aha moment of, "Holy crap, I need to be a part of this world."

KUPPER: So you want to make movies to sort of capture that feeling.

COPPOLA: I definitely want to make, not just movies, but anything that I create, I really strive to get the core of why we react or why we feel what we feel when we're watching something. It's really kind of powerful to be able to make something like The Wizard of Oz that is the most unrelateable story. It's about a girl that gets swept up in a tornado and ends up in this weird world where she's trying to run away from witches. But there's something about that that really strikes people deep down. And a lot of that's about going back home and going back to a place where you came from. And I think also this element of escapism and fantasy is a really big thing that I aim for as well.

KUPPER: When you called, your number came up as Grand Prairie, Texas. Are you—

COPPOLA: [Laughs] Yes, I always explain this whenever I call people. So I grew up in Dallas, Texas, which is in Highland Park. I have a lot of family that is in LA, in the California area. But, my parents really didn't have an interest in raising a family here. And even though a lot of my dad's side is here, that was something that my parents never really wanted to do. So that explains my Texas area code.

KUPPER: It also explains why you're so enamored with The Wizard of Oz.

COPPOLA: Really?

KUPPER: I mean yeah, if you think about it, growing up in a rural community and wanting to be somewhere over the rainbow where you can make movies and images and everything's in color. That's sort of LA, right?

COPPOLA: Yeah I think that's a really interesting reading, but also it's funny that every time I mention that I grew up in Texas they have a very preconceived idea of what that means. But where I'm from, it's called Highland Park. I do describe it as the southern version of Beverly Hills. Except it's a little more heightened, if that's possible. Because everything's bigger in Texas I suppose.

KUPPER: But anytime you sort of feel like you're outside of LA or New York or these cultural capitals, you sort of feel like you're in the middle of nowhere.

COPPOLA: Totally, I understand, I think I was fortunate enough to travel a lot when I was younger. And my parents really stressed taking lots of trips and seeing different corners of the world. But it was always really interesting to do that and then come back to a place like Dallas. Where people are really content there, and don't necessarily want to leave. There's something really to be said about that. Just like there's something to be said about the fact that people have a really hard time leaving LA.

KUPPER: So the traveling thing, that sort of ties in with the whole idea of your love of hotels. Was that your first short that you shot at the Bowery?

COPPOLA: So that was actually, that wasn't my first short. I made that in film school at NYU Tisch. I made that my junior year, and that was our intermediate thesis. I just shot it sort of as a school project. It was my take on a fashion film, but I also kind of—in that time period, I was really drawn to this format of the fashion film. But I wanted to put my own take on it, so I wanted to add these ideas of nostalgia and real people, but also this idea of acting that wasn't necessarily acting and giving these characters—casting it in a way where these really beautiful people that I knew almost embodied the real people that they were playing. I cast my friend Dylan, he's from Malibu, grew up in Malibu and he kind of has this really distinct James Dean flair to him. The imagery was really beautiful, shooting in a hotel sort of offers this timeless essence. Yeah, of course, and I think that's what draws me to hotels. I love the idea in shooting in spaces that are so intimate and private, but also accessible in a way. Where every time you go into that space, or every time I go into a hotel room, I sort of imagine what happened there before me. Who was in there before I was. Just this idea of: if a hotel room could speak, what would it say? There's just something really magical, there's a really magical quality about having a story play out in a hotel room. Because it's not someone's home. There's a different set of rules that come with being in someone's home. But when you're in a hotel room where—you're not gonna be there forever. There's a time limit. It's almost like the Cinderella complex. Everything's gonna turn back into a pumpkin at some point.

KUPPER: What came first, photography or filmmaking? Because you're a great photographer, you've shot a lot of really great people, where did your interest in photography come from?

COPPOLA: I suppose what's always been at the forefront is filmmaking. Because I remember always making videos on my family's video camera. Just sort of obsessively running around with it, and never really editing the footage together. And it wasn't really until I got access to my own computer and the internet and iMovie that I really started to piece things together and realize that this idea of putting clips back to back and creating your own universe was kind of at your fingertips when you had this editing software. For me, the two were interchangeable. Filmmaking and photography are interchangeable to my creative process because whenever I go somewhere I always carry my point-and-shoot 35 mm with me. It's a personal way of documenting.

KUPPER: So your current project, which you just finished filming, can you talk about it?

COPPOLA: So the title of this film is Daddy. It stars Dylan Sprouse and Ron Rifkin. Obviously two really great actors. Essentially it takes place at the plaza hotel. It's about an 80 year old man, played by Ron Rifkin, whose wife has just passed away. And to celebrate their first anniversary apart, he hires a male escort to take her place for the evening. And they have this really beautiful, sad, interesting night together. Ultimately, I think it's going to be really special. And what's really really exciting is that I think a lot of people are going to be blown away by how these two actors—or what these two actors bring to the table.

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KUPPER: What is that process like, casting and choosing actors?

COPPOLA: We knew that we wanted Dylan, and we also knew that we wanted Ron. But Ron is such a seasoned actor. Not to say that either were an easy get, but Dylan had been aware of the script since the summer. It was really just about figuring out scheduling with him. He wanted to do it, he was on board. We were basically in the final stages of getting him on board, and as we were casting the older man, we knew that we wanted Ron. It was just a question of if he's available, and if he's even interested. Luckily we were able to reach out to him through our casting associate. And he read the script and he just had such a fantastic response in connection to the story and wanted to have a meeting. And I met with him and from there he was on board.

KUPPER: When did you initially start writing this story idea?

COPPOLA: I knew that I wanted to do it since around last year this time. And I had this other project that I was fielding, which is now kind of more of a feature that I am kind of still in the process of developing. But I knew that this was just the most sensible next step for me to take in terms of a project. A lot of people asked me, "Is it a feature?" For me I think, there's something really special about a short form piece. Because it's a little tiny silhouette that's just so—it's probably going to be around 15-20 minutes, but there's something to be said about a contained piece that is thoughtful and really just gets to the point and is succinct

KUPPER: So how fast do you generally want to get back to the drawing board after you make a film?

COPPOLA: My last film that I made, I made in film school. And that was my thesis project. And I screened it this past summer. That was Him. And that was a really great experience. I was doing a lot of traveling in the post-production process. And I sort of put it on the back burner and let the editing process go on for quite a while. This time I realized that it took me a couple of years to get to the point where I shot Daddy, and there was such a span of time spent where I didn't have a different narrative project. I definitely want to keep my momentum up. And I've spoken a lot with my producer about this and kind of everyone working around me. Ultimately my biggest drive at the end of the day is to just keep creating as much as I can and putting out thoughtful content. In a good span of time. It feels good to be in this place, because I know what direction I want to head.

KUPPER: Yeah, evolving and cementing yourself your vision as a filmmaker. It seems like each one of those films you're gonna start to see a style.

COPPOLA: And I think that's—creating a style is one of, if not the most important thing that you should be doing as a director. You have to create a universe that people not only are interested in, but that you're interested in. And that you feel passionate about. With Daddy, that was sort of the first project that I felt was incredibly specific to the world that I wanted to explore. Ultimately that's something that, whenever I'm watching a film or looking at a director's work, one of the main things that I look for and one of the main questions that I ask is: could anyone else have made this?

KUPPER: So when do you expect it to be ready, when do you expect it to come out?

COPPOLA: We're probably going to be starting the editing process within the next month. I'm thinking hopefully we'll have it done by the beginning of summer. That's our aim, our trajectory. But it's been funny because, when we were shooting this film, and leading up to shooting this film, I kept everything so secret.

KUPPER: So are you gonna premiere it in—do you think you'll premiere it in New York first and then LA?

COPPOLA: So, the goal is to take it to festivals and just travel around with it. It's interesting because we shot this film before—Dylan is moving to China, and he's doing a project there. But we kind of had to rush because we really wanted him. It's funny because we wanted Dylan and we really made it work to get it shot in time before he left. But that's our goal.

KUPPER: Well congratulations on that.

COPPOLA: Oh thank you very much. We're really excited about it and I think people are going to be very delighted and intrigued. Because there's a lot of nice little surprises that are lace throughout the project. Everyone is really fantastic in it, but I think specifically Dylan and Ron, just they created something incredibly special between the two of them. And I'm very eager to share it.


Coppola's upcoming film, Daddy, will be available in 2019. Text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper, photographs by Pierre Auroux. Follow AUTRE on Instagram:


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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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The Underside Of Glamour: An Interview Of Kia LaBeija

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text and photographs by Annabel Graham

In her vibrant, dreamlike self-portraits, Kia LaBeija offers us a keyhole through which to peer into some of her most tender and fragile moments—yet she peers right back, engaging with the viewer, watching us watching her. Her gaze is direct and unflinching, often laced with grief, or defiance, or whatever emotion might have been coursing through her body at the particular moment when the shutter clicked—at once reminding us of the ultimate artifice of posed portraiture and stating, simply, "Here I am."

Now twenty-seven years old, Kia LaBeija (née Kia Michelle Benbow) was born HIV-positive to an untested mother, who passed away from an AIDS-related illness when LaBeija was just fourteen. Much of her work explores her own firsthand experiences: reimagining and rejecting rigid cultural stigmas about those living with the virus, laying bare the beauty and pain of existing in—and learning to love—her own body, with all of its complexities. Born and raised in the heart of Manhattan’s theatre district, Hell’s Kitchen, LaBeija trained as a professional dancer and soon became involved in the underground subculture of voguing—which is, in her own words, “a style of cathartic movement or dance birthed by black and Latinx LGBTQ communities in New York City.” She worked her way up the ranks, walking and competing in balls, and now serves as the Mother of the House of LaBeija, which was founded in 1977 by ballroom icon Crystal LaBeija.

In all their thrilling, glittery, performative glory—their multilayered explorations of persona and artifice, identity and womanhood and trauma—LaBeija’s self-portraits faintly echo those of Cindy Sherman. Yet while Sherman plays a whole host of different characters in her images, LaBeija plays just one: herself. “Glamour dresses up the oldest wounds,” writes David Velasco, editor-in-chief of Artforum, in the letter that opens his astonishing inaugural issue (the issue is aptly titled "Uses of Power," and features Kia LaBeija alongside the likes of Nan Goldin, Adrian Piper, Johanna Fateman, Sable Elyse Smith and House of Ladosha). The trope of glamour throughout LaBeija’s work pays homage to her roots in voguing, yes; but it does more than that. It expresses, symbolically, just how beautiful an HIV-positive body can be. Above all, glamour represents one facet of who Kia LaBeija is: an actress, a chameleon, a performer, a ballroom queen, a daughter who loved to play dress-up with her mother. An artist. A woman.

I sat down with LaBeija, who is currently in the process of relocating to the west coast, in between her apartment viewings one morning in early January. It was a rare overcast day in Los Angeles, the sky a dull muted gray, and I was nervous about the flat lighting—I’d be shooting some portraits of her after our conversation. Curled up on a velvet couch in the home of her half-brother’s mother’s partner (say that ten times fast), a mug of hot tea warming her slender hands, LaBeija was thoughtful and circumspect as she answered my questions—barefoot and barefaced, her voice resonant and clear. She was kind, open, calm, forthright, remarkably deep—and considerably more down-to-earth than I’d anticipated, especially after watching her vogue fearlessly and persistently through the streets of Bogotà in a baby-blue dip-dyed spandex jumpsuit (in the electrifying music video for Pillar Point’s “Dove”).

ANNABEL GRAHAM: Could you talk a little bit about the dynamic between power and vulnerability in your work?

KIA LABEIJA: It’s just a part of who I am. I think that dynamic is something that happens naturally. It took a long time to share these pieces of me. When I did it, I took one photograph, which was the first photograph, which is in Artforum. I’m in my bedroom in my underwear. I took that one, and then I had these ideas to make a series based off of these moments of my life that felt very private and quiet, because I felt them starting to creep up on me in that way that’s like, “If you don’t start talking about this stuff you’re going to explode.” A lot of these images are my way of exploding a bit.

GRAHAM: How did you originally get into voguing?

LABEIJA: As a dancer, I knew about it—and also just being from New York, I knew a little bit about it. I had seen Paris Is Burning when I was sixteen. It’s an incredible documentary. There are a lot of queer people all over the world that don’t know that that exists. Then they see something like that and they feel like, “Oh wow, I can just be whoever I want to be.” I got into voguing because I met someone who was in the scene. We worked together at Webster Hall in New York. She brought me into a house, which was the first house I was in. Once that house closed, she joined the House of LaBeija. Basically I followed her. I call her my gay mother. She taught me everything I know.

GRAHAM: And now you’re the Mother of the House of LaBeija. How did you become the Mother? In Paris is Burning, they say that the Mother of a house is the person with the most power.

LABEIJA: I mean, for many years I had been kind of mothering the House of LaBeija in a way that was just kind of helping to guide it. I became the Mother this past year, in 2017. That’s when I kind of made it official.

GRAHAM: How, if at all, did growing up with HIV affect the way that you work as an artist and the kinds of images that you make? And conversely, how has your work as an artist, if at all, helped you navigate life as a queer woman of color with the virus?

LABEIJA: The first time I made art around HIV was after my mom died, when I was fourteen. I had this jean jacket, and I painted an AIDS ribbon on it and put her name on it, and I remember I showed it to my dad. It kind of hurt his heart a little bit, it was just kind of hard for him. He didn’t like it. I remember I went into my room and cut it up and threw it out. When you go through traumatic things like that, you don’t necessarily want to be reminded of them. So for him, his way of dealing with it was to not have that be a focal point in our lives. But for me, I needed to explore it, because this was something that I was growing up with, and will continue growing with. Being able to make these images and being able to say, “This is what’s going on with me,” because I don’t tell a lot of people what’s going on with me. That was one of my big things growing up with the virus—feeling really lonely. You don’t see representations of young people living with HIV, or children living with HIV. Women living with HIV. People of color living with HIV. People are so secretive about it, so quiet about it, that it’s hard to find your people. I found my people when I met my gay mother at Webster Hall. She invited me into a world where there were lots of other people around my age that were living with the virus. Being around other people that were living with this thing, but also being so alive, and being able to have this space to perform in any kind of way that I wanted to, just felt like the most amazing thing.

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GRAHAM: Do you also feel that making your work has helped you with the loss of your mother—understanding and moving through that?

LABEIJA: The thing about talking about people, and speaking them into existence, is that they don’t go away. It’s hard because, physically, you can’t experience them. But they live here, [points to her heart] and they live here, [points to the walls] and they live in my photographs, and they live in the hearts of other people that see the work too, because they see the story and they know the story and they feel it. Talking about her, putting her in my work, because she’s so much a part of me, and I am so much her. It’s crazy when you start to get older and you’re so much like your parents. I remember there was this one day that my mom was taking me to the school bus and we were walking, and she said something, and then laughed and went, “Oh my god, I just sounded so much like my mother!” And I laughed at her, and she said, “You just wait, one day you’re going to sound exactly like me. And you’re going to think of this moment, and you’re going to go, ‘Wow, my mom told me this was going to happen.’” And it happened. And it seems like it happens more every day. It’s this beautiful, sad thing, because part of it feels like, wow, I can remember so much, because I’m feeling all of her physicalities and the tone of her voice, or I’m laughing in that similar way, so it’s like this way of her being so close to me—but it’s also kind of sad, because sometimes I’ll do things and think, “Whoa, I’m so much like my mother,” and then I’ll remember, “Oh, she’s not here.” It’s this kind of dueling thing.

GRAHAM: I read in an interview of yours that you’ve learned over the years that you can’t hold on to physical objects. As an artist, and as someone who has experienced loss at a young age, what is your relationship to physical objects and spaces, especially the ones that you photograph?

LABEIJA: We take on all this stuff, we build up all these stories in our heads, and then it becomes all this junk and clutter, and we can’t move forward, or past, or move through anything else because we’re just stuck. So in my head I was just like, “I need to get unstuck. I need to be okay.” I took this drawer that had all of my mother’s things in it and threw all this shit on the ground and was like, “What is all of this stuff?” In the midst of being in that moment, I took a photograph of it. And after I took the photograph, I threw a lot of that stuff out. Because that clears space for new energy, for new things to exist, and prosper, and come into fruition. But space and objects are so important to my work. That stuff really interests me, because those things, those kinds of energies—they stick to walls. They stick to all this stuff that’s not living [knocks on wall] and make it alive.

GRAHAM: Can you talk a bit about your Artforum cover? In your own words, what did you intend with that image?

LABEIJA: I love this question. The piece that’s on the cover of Artforum is part of a series of images. That one is very different than all the others. I’ve never released any of the others, besides those two. There’s the one that’s on the cover, and there’s the one that’s inside, with David’s statement. The one with David’s statement is a little bit more like the rest of the images. It’s hard to talk about it because the image, unlike my other work, isn’t something that’s so specific that it’s like, “This is what it’s about.” It’s kind of an accumulation of a lot of things. The original idea for the image came in that moment where I was feeling unpretty, unloveable, tainted, all these kinds of things, and I wanted to create something where I looked like an X-Men character. It took me a really long time to finally create the picture. I made the image and funny enough, the one that’s on the cover was just a test shot.

GRAHAM: Oh my gosh, that’s crazy.

LABEIJA: It’s kind of about facing your darkness, and being able to be your darkness. It’s also about being powerful in that and being vulnerable and still being sexy in that. It’s really awesome, because my work has been so HIV-centered, and I’m moving past that now. Not to say that I’m not going to still be making work that thematically goes through that, because it’s a part of who I am and that’s a part of my story, but I don’t want that to pigeonhole me. It’s not all of who I am. The fact that this particular image could be on the cover, and it’s not an image that is so HIV-focused, felt so empowering to me.

GRAHAM: Where or what do you draw inspiration from?

LABEIJA: Yeah. Love. I get inspired by all different types of things. When I started really doing photography, I was going off my own thing, but I did have one big influence, Philip-Lorca diCorcia. I saw his “Hustlers” series a long time ago in school. What he did was he came out to LA and he photographed different sex workers and he paid them the amount of money that they would get paid from a client. He asked them how they ended up here, and he would take them to a set and photograph them. It was this balance between reality and something that's kind of manicured and posed, but also the beauty and the pain. I wanted to do something that felt similar to that.

The thing about Cindy Sherman is that she plays different people, different types of women, characters. Whereas with me, I play one character, which is myself. I had a period of time where I was like, “Should I stop taking pictures of myself?” It started feeling… not selfish, but narcissistic. That’s not what it is. It’s an exploration of this body, of this person, and saying, “Who am I? Where have I been?” One of my photographs [in the January 2018 issue of Artforum] is called The Greatest Aunts. It was in front of my great-aunt's house. I used to go visit them all the time when I was younger. My great-aunt had a diner where Langston Hughes used to come. That was the first time I started exploring identity in terms of race. My 24 series is more specifically about living with HIV and being a young woman of color, but this was like, “Wow, I’m photographing this space that was important to the women that came before me on my dad’s side. My dad’s black, and my mom is from the Philippines. You’ll probably see that coming up in a lot of my work. I identify as being a black artist, but I’m also a mixed artist too. I’m Filipino, and African-American, and Polynesian, all different types of things.

GRAHAM: What made you decide to move out here (LA) for the second time?

LABEIJA: I went back to New York, because I was like, “There are a lot of things that I haven’t done yet.” And in those five, six, seven years… I fuckin’ did all of the things that I needed to do, and then I was like, “Okay, I can go to LA now and just chill.” It’s a lot about quality of life, and New York is just really hard. It’s intense. I’ve lived there forever. New York is in an interesting space right now. My community, which is like the underground queer POC community in New York, everyone feels it. Everyone is like, “It’s dead out here.” Everyone is moving. People are going to Atlanta, a lot of people are moving to LA. People are going to Canada. There’s a lot of budding artistic energy that’s out here right now. It just feels like the place to be.


Purchase the current issue of Artforum to experience Kia LaBeija's art cover and photographic essay. Text and photographs by Annabel Graham. Follow AUTRE on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


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Rebuilding the Model: An Interview of Contemporary Choreographer Chris Bordenave

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text by Summer Bowie

 

How could anybody forget Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings of Loie Fuller at the Folies Bergère, or Picasso’s myriad costumes and set designs for the Ballets Russes? Even if they've become less household over the years, those images made an indelible mark on mainstream society. Then there's the almost completely forgotten gems, like the stage set that Jasper Johns created for Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time, a pastiche of images from Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped By Her Bachelor’s” in clear plastic pillows. The 20th century offered a spoil of fantastic collaborations between the visual and performing arts: Eadweard Muybridge’s iconic photos of Isadora Duncan, Léon Bakst’s costumes and set design for Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun, or Isamu Noguchi’s set for Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring  – just to name a few. Unfortunately, I find myself hard-pressed to find any similar contemporary examples, which is why I was so pleasantly surprised to discover Chris Bordenave.

A classically trained, multi-disciplinary choreographer, who is one of the 3 founding members of a dance company called No)one. Art House., Bordenave has recently been working with a number of musical artists, such as Anderson Paak, Mayer Hawthorne, and more recently Solange and Kelela. He has also been creating site-specific works for institutions such as the California African American Museum, Hauser + Wirth, and Solange’s SAINT HERON House. I caught up with the young choreographer at the Annenberg Beach House, one beautiful autumn day, where he was rehearsing. We discussed his early training, the current state of dance affairs, and dance’s ceremonious relationship to visual art. Whether this current century will bear witness to dance and art finally renewing their vows is still a mystery, but if it is the case, Bordenave is one choreographer making a clear gesture that he's ready to meet in the middle.

SUMMER BOWIE: I want to start by asking you about your performance this past weekend at the Hollywood Bowl with Solange, how did it go?

CHRIS BORDENAVE: It was good. She brought me on to help with coordinating the additional performers that she had. She had twelve or fourteen extra horn players and she had a full string arrangement. I was just helping out with getting their choreography and their entrances and exits together. Just kind of helping out with whatever else she needed.

BOWIE: Is that your first time choreographing musicians in their movements, or is that something you’ve been doing?

BORDENAVE: I’ve been doing it. I’ve worked with Mayer Hawthorne, Anderson Paak, Empress Of, and a few other artists, just choreographing them in music videos. It was my first time doing a live performance — actually no that’s not true, I did Anderson Paak on the Ellen Show.

BOWIE: What are you rehearsing for right now?

BORDENAVE: Right now we are doing a performance at the Bootleg Theater. It’s going to be me with a vocalist and she made some songs out of these old black poems about the Great Migration. So this performance is one man’s journey through these songs, dance, theater, and projection mapping. It’s about their experiences moving from the South to the North during that time, what they went through, and how layered the experience is.



BOWIE: Since founding No)One. Art House, you’ve been performing and collaborating with a wide range of musical artists and art institutions. Is that bridge between musically driven work and performance-art driven dance what you were originally aiming for with No)One.?

BORDENAVE: Yeah, we knew that we wanted to educate and also challenge audiences in LA, because LA is a bit new to concert dance. We figured bringing it physically closer to the audience would impact them a bit more. Doing it inside of a proscenium stage doesn’t really connect, especially with contemporary dance. So, we found that when we do it in galleries, or unconventional spaces where we can physically get closer to the audience. They feel more connected to the work.

BOWIE: On the music side, you’ve been working with everyone from Solange, to Kelela, to Mayer Hawthorne, to Anderson Paak. How do you approach those kinds of commissions from a choreographic perspective?

BORDENAVE: First it goes off of their original vision. Right now I’m working with Kelela, and it’s nice to be working with her at this point because it’s really the first time she’s headlining shows, and it’s going to be her first album. It’s kind of a new arrangement for her, it’s very fresh and very new. So, it’s nice because I’m able to bring my concert dance art sensibility to this kind of commercial, mainstream element.

BOWIE: On the art side, you’re going to be presenting work at Hauser & Wirth in LA, the California African American Museum, and the SAINT HERON house. Does your approach change dramatically in accordance with the different types of venues that commission you?

BORDENAVE: Totally, it’s all about the space. It doesn’t really benefit anyone if we keep doing the same thing in different spaces. We want people to feel connected. We want them to feel like they are the work, that their role is as vital as that of the performers.

BOWIE: So, let’s go back to the beginning, you started dancing when you were about nine. What was your training like at that age?

BORDENAVE: I started at the Lula Washington Dance Theatre here in LA, and we did a lot of modern, African, jazz, and hip hop. Kind of everything, she wanted us to have a lot of tools under our belts so that we could work and do whatever we were asked to do. Then I went to the Debbie Allen Dance Academy once she opened up her school. When I graduated from high school, I moved to New York and went to the Ailey school, then I graduated from the LINES Ballet BFA program in San Francisco.

BOWIE: So you went to Ailey then came over to Alonzo King and finished your education?

BORDENAVE: Right. I was part of the inaugural class for their joint program with Dominican University. That was mainly contemporary ballet and I danced with the LINES company for a little bit after I graduated. Afterwards, I danced with Morphosis in New York, and then Luna Negra in Chicago. I moved back here because the state of affairs with dance companies in this country is failing. A lot of the most prominent contemporary dance companies have closed because people don’t care anymore about dance and they don’t want to give money to it. I basically started this new company with some friends as a way of rebuilding the model, because the old model clearly isn’t working. We thought that LA would be ideal, not only because it’s our home, but because it doesn’t really exist here. There’s definitely a void, but concert dance in LA is quickly becoming more popular.

BOWIE: It seems like your dance practice itself has been moving stylistically as well as geographically. From the examples you just gave, you’ve gone from ballet, to latin-based contemporary, to contemporary, to gaga-based movement…and I’m sure you’ve done a whole wealth of work in between. Would you say there’s a single motivating factor behind your overall trajectory?

BORDENAVE: The direction. It was always really important for me to work for someone who I knew could change a dancer. Every time I would go and see LINES, I had no idea how the dancers were doing it. I wanted to learn from whoever was directing. Gustavo Ramirez Sansano (who took over Luna Negra before it closed), he really trained me how to dance and how to work with different choreographers; to not only be true to what they’re doing, but also to be true to myself.

BOWIE: When we look at dance history, at least from a Western perspective, dance and fine art really developed in tandem, especially over the 20th century from the avant-garde movement, to modern, and finally the postmodern movement. Then we get to contemporary, and it seems like contemporary art has gone in a very conceptual direction and contemporary dance has been very commercially driven. Do you have any theories as to why that phenomenon may be occurring?

BORDENAVE: I think contemporary jazz dance has gone commercial for sure. But true contemporary dance, I wouldn’t say that it’s gone commercial quite yet. I think people just get confused about the differences between the genres. A lot of people think what they’re doing on So You Think You Can Dance? is contemporary dance, and it’s not. It’s contemporary jazz dance, which is very different. A big aim for me, and the reason why I always try to perform in these fine art institutions, is because that’s the only way that people will understand it’s at the same level as fine art, as visual art. In this country, unless you’re doing ballet or commercial dance, there’s no funding. The level of what you’re seeing on stage is usually very basic because the funding isn’t there. But when you go to Europe or when contemporary companies tour here, you see the scale is so large, and so much more than what we’re doing here. It’s sad that we have to bring outside companies from around the world to show us what the next level of dance is.

BOWIE: Do you think that academically, our institutions are doing justice by American dancers?

BORDENAVE: No! I’ve found that the institutions that have dance programs usually keep the same faculty for decades. Decades upon decades upon decades. People who have not worked, people who have not been in the field for years. So, of course, if you have this outdated information that you keep perpetuating to your students, they’re not going to know what’s going on. I would say there are about four conservatory programs in this country that can compete with companies outside the U.S.

BOWIE: Which would you say those four are?

BORDENAVE: I would say they are USC, Juilliard, San Francisco Conservatory, and SUNY Purchase… and LINES. So, five.

BOWIE: Do you have any predictions for what the future of dance will look like, both academically and commercially?

BORDENAVE: I think people are starting to wake up to contemporary dance for sure. It’s becoming more prevalent with people like Ryan Heffington. They’re bringing it into fashion and music videos and to film. There’s definitely a slow progression, it’ just... slow.

BOWIE: What do you think is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as a performer?

BORDENAVE: That it’s important to see dance, to see all forms of art, to let it inform you, to be influenced, and also to copy. I feel like I’ve only been able to be so versatile because I’ve been able to really observe and listen and then copy and then let it influence my work. People are always scared like, “Oh no, I can’t be like them.” But Michael Jackson stole the moonwalk. All these influential people steal. Beyoncé steals... she does. It is a form of flattery. I don’t see why people get so upset when Beyoncé steals their work. Their work would never have been seen by that many people unless someone like her was to do it. Of course, there’s artistic integrity and all of that, but I still think that there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s okay.

BOWIE: Finally, I feel like we see a lot of young people who’ve fallen in love with dancing but then they don’t know how to continue the practice as adults. Do you have any advice for young adults who struggle with feeding that passion?

BORDENAVE: That’s a great question. As soon as I moved back here, people came up to me like, “Oh are you still dancing?” You know, of course. It’s what I am. It just goes back to arts education. I know USC is definitely teaching them the business side of it, because that’s a reality. Especially now with social media, you have to be able to market yourself. You have to be able to know what you look like, what to post, you have to know the avenues you can go down. You can be an arts manager, you can be a publicist, you can be a gallerist, you can do so many things within the art world even if you’re not the one performing or creating the work. I taught myself how to curate, how to reach out to magazines, how to do all of these things just by seeing what other people are doing and trying. I think it’s important to know that you can’t just dance anymore. You have to be able to promote yourself, promote your work, promote every aspect of what you’re doing. Even if you’re not that good.



No)one. Art House will be performing at 8pm November 9 at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, as well as 7-9pm December 19 at the California African American Museum. Follow Chris Bordenave on Instagram @chrisemile, follow No)one. Arthouse @no_one.arthouse, follow AUTRE @autremagazine. Look out for this interview, as well as interviews with Yayoi Kusama, Agnes Varda, Harmony Korine, Judith Bernstein and many more in the Winter 2017 issue of AUTRE. Available for pre-order now! This is a limited-edition issue, get your copy while supplies last!


My Kind Of Heaven: An Interview Of Polly Borland On The Eve Of Her First Solo Show In Los Angeles

Polly Borland’s idea of heaven isn’t your average person’s idea of heaven. Her heaven is a dark heaven, where the angels are fully-matured adults in soiled diapers, sucking away at a binky through a stubble-lined, razor-burned mouth. The Australian-born Borland, who spent half her life in London and is now based in Los Angeles, has the uncanny ability to make the fetish of adult infantilism look strangely playful and romantic. She spent five years documenting the lives of adult babies – photographing their every nap and nappy change. Tomorrow, she will be showing The Baby series as part of her first solo show in Los Angeles at Mier Gallery – her long-time collaborator Nick Cave curated the first ever showing of The Baby series at The Meltdown Festival in London in 1999. Shortly after exhibiting the Baby series, she was commissioned by Buckingham Palace to shoot Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait to commemorate her Golden Jubilee.  Borland has commissioned UK prisoners to turn the images into intricate tapestries, which will also be on view. We got a chance to catch up with Borland at her Downtown Los Angeles studio to discuss her solo show and her life on the road with adult babies. 

OLIVER KUPPER: You are essentially new to Los Angeles, what prompted the move out here from London?

POLLY BORLAND: Well I came here kicking and screaming because my husband is a movie director. He’s not a gun-for-hire, he did The Proposition and Lawless. He kept saying, “We’ve got to move to LA,” after The Proposition and I kept saying, “We’re not moving to LA.” So, we showed up and then the culture shock…. I know every city is pretty tough. London is pretty tough. But everything here seems to be overshadowed by the movie industry and all of that is really smoke and mirrors, kind of secrets and lies. That’s what kind of hit me first. And it kind of freaked me out.

KUPPER: Have you guys come out of that culture shock?

BORLAND: Yes, and my main focus now is looking at human connection, and I didn’t know anyone here, so then I started creating figurative images out of stuffed stockings and things like that, which sort of connected to my previous work.

KUPPER: Is that the Smudge series?

BORLAND: And the Smudge series, but this was the Pupa series – and Wonk where I continued stuffing things. I think I’ve got a book, I’ll show it to you.

KUPPER: You are about to have your first solo show here, are you excited, nervous or is there an emotion that you didn’t expect having?

BORLAND: I’m nervous because Nino [Mier] suggested I show all ‘Baby’ work, which has never been shown in its entirety. It’s 80 photos, they’re very confronting and a lot of them are x-rated. They’re not easily digested and universally, people just think they’re creepy and disgusting. And even when I first took the photos to the publisher, Power House Books, and Susan Sontag, who did the essay, thought I was going to be a superstar, and when the book came out everyone was just freaked out by it.

KUPPER: People view things at face value.

BORLAND: Even Susan said, “I just didn’t expect it,” that’s how much she loved the work, so I’m very nervous. At the same time, I’ve realized that going through this trauma and coming out the other side and with Trump being voted in, I’ve kind of re-found my voice again. I was in kind of fear and terror for quite a long time. It culminated in Trump being elected, and me having a show, and then seeing other people and me having to find our voices. That’s really what art’s supposed to be anyways. So, I’m kind of excited for it.

KUPPER: What about the Queen series?

BORLAND: I feel like the Queen tapestries are equally subversive but not as in-your-face. I’ve had them stitched and show them on the wrong side because on the right side, they all look the same. The backside is just wild.  I was talking to this Italian dealer and he loved the tapestries and I said, “The problem is I don’t know how to do it.” If I were to learn, it would take me years to do one. I was researching, researching and I ended up contacting the craft association of England. Then I found this charity that’s been going since the 70s - it’s called Fine Cell Work. Prisoners get paid to make certain arts and crafts. They provide cushions to the Victoria and Albert Museum, they do cushions for the Catholic Church; it’s a really well-established charity. And apparently, they like doing my stuff because my work is so unusual. But, the prisons have started complaining about the content. The Queen’s okay with them, even though she’s the one that’s locking them up.

KUPPER: I want to jump back into talking about the Baby series, because I think it is some of your most important work, how did you get introduced to this world?

BORLAND: Yeah, that’s the bulk of the work. The Babies were introduced to me by a friend of mine who was at Saint Martin’s College of Art and one of her lecturers told her about this phenomenon, and this was in the early 90s. And I’m like, “No,” and we both kind of laughed and she double-checked if they exist because I was like, “where can I find these people?” She said why don’t you Google Kim West? It’s not rubber fetish, but fashion. She was wild and I rang her and I was like, “Do these people exist and where do I find them.” In those days, the Internet wasn’t a big thing, and she said that I had to go into a Newsagent, which is where you buy magazines and newspapers in England, and go to the top shelf and look at the English sex magazines for the classifieds. So I did that and looked in the back and saw this Hushaby Baby Club phone number. And I thought, “Oh my god, I lucked out!” I thought I’d have to write a letter.

KUPPER: So this is a fetish and they want people to be in their world.

BORLAND: Yeah, when I rang this woman called Hazel Jones, she said, “Sure, come and have a look.” And I was working for the Independent, which was a newspaper with color supplements and they were known for their photography. So I went to the senior editor and he laughed like they all did and went, “sure.” So me and a journalist went to go check it out, and she was one of their top journalists, and we spent an afternoon with Hazel and, you know, huge babies are crawling around because she was a mommy, but she also ran a bed and breakfast and she’d make huge cots and huge cribs. The whole thing was set up like a giant-sized baby land, but she also made big baby clothing for these people.

KUPPER: So, she was like a madam, but also their mummy. 

BORLAND: How it happened was she was making bondage-wear and she kept getting requests for baby-wear in mail order. She was doing that and then she realized there was a whole market for adult baby-wear that no one had tapped into, so that’s how her business developed. Then, she built the bed and breakfast baby land and then formed the Hushaby Baby Club. So, then we were invited back to do this weekend-long party, I mean it was really surreal. The journalist couldn’t deal with it because it was pretty full on. They were drinking alcohol, but then they’d regress. They’d be dressed up as babies, be adult for a few minutes, but the majority of the time they were babies. Some of them were purist so they wouldn’t drink alcohol, but some of them went to and fro between being a baby and an adult.

KUPPER: You became fascinated by these adult babies.

BORLAND:  I became totally fascinated because it had every element that I loved: the surreal, the pathos, the seedy-ness. Everything about it was my idea of heaven. I had to disguise their faces; they didn’t want to be seen in a national publication. I rang Hazel Jones and said I’m thinking about doing a book on this, which ones would I contact and do you think they’d reveal their identity?” because I couldn’t do a book without seeing their faces and she said, “Well, you can try.” So, I contacted them directly.

KUPPER: How long did you spend with them?

BORLAND: It became a five-year journey. We traveled to LA to go to Disneyland and we did a road trip down, whatever highway it is, to San Francisco to meet the adult babies in San Francisco, there was a club. Then I went to France and did the same thing. I showed up, had to meet the guy, I got picked up, him and a couple of other adult babies went to the Swiss border to stay in a chalet for the weekend. And this was full on, it was defecating - the smell in the car, I was full-on carsick. Full on. But you know again, in the interest of art…I don’t believe now that I would have the guts to do that…I don’t know if I would.

KUPPER: Did you ever feel in danger?

BORLAND: No, because that’s the thing, they were the sweetest, kindest, really passive sort of people…they’re babies.

KUPPER: Did you talk to them about their fetish?

BORLAND: This is the thing, I thought there was some big psychological secret to it, I was trying to figure it out and I had a lot of empathy because I lost my mother when I was young. So, I kind of understood what it was like to not really want a tight responsibility and not be 100% focused on, all of that. So, I kind of got it on that level and identified, and I think that’s why I got along so well with them. I think the intensity of the photographer’s gaze, it’s like the mother’s gaze. I’m really 100% focused when I’m looking through a camera. We all got along extremely well, but I did a lot of talking. The other interesting thing is that it was very individualized. Some of them were into terry towel nappies, and some of them were into disposable nappies, and some of them were into being girl babies, some of them were into being boy babies.

KUPPER: Susan Sontag’s introduction is quite amazing—how did she come to write that?

BORLAND: I was photographing her for The Guardian and she said, “What else do you do? I can tell you do something else.” I said, “What do you mean? Well, I’ve got this series of photos.” I didn’t say anything to her - she prompted the conversation. Later, I told her about the babies and she said, “Oh, I’m coming to England next week, I want to see the photos.” When she came to England, and I had a portrait show over the road from where she was staying, we had breakfast together with my husband.  She went through the photos and kept saying, “Who’s writing the essay?” She kept hinting at it, and I finally said, “Do you want to do it?” She said, “Of course I want to do it!” Incredible.

KUPPER: Nick Cave curated your first showing of this work, what was that process like and how did you meet Nick because you have collaborated quite a lot together.

BORLAND: We’ve known each other since we were 19 years old. The first time I met Nick was at a party but it wasn’t until later that we became friends, when he collaborated with my husband on writing Ghosts…of the Civil Dead. Incredible prison drama, Australian drama and Nick co-wrote it and did the music. He was amazing in it, he had a little cameo, and we became friends then. Then he moved to Germany and England then we moved to England. I sort of documented him for 40 years or something and we’ve been really, kind of like, best friends. Nick saw the baby pictures and loved them, still loves them. He didn’t show all of my work but he was the first one to publicly show it.

KUPPER: Where was that show?

BORLAND: He was curating at Meltdown Festival at the Southbank Centre in London. Nina Simone played – it was incredible.

KUPPER: Back to the history of photography, it seems like Australia has a less notable photographic history – there have not been that many fine art photographers to come out of Australia. Helmut Newton’s wife, June, she became a photographer under the Alice Springs name and I’m wondering why that is. 

BORLAND: There are a few amazing photographers.

KUPPER: But we don’t know much about them…

BORLAND: I’ve got a lot of Australian art and I think another part of the reason is Australia, in the old days before the Internet, was so isolated, but you’ve got to look up Rennie Ellis, he’s fucking amazing. We always used to make fun of him when we were students. We’d say, “Who’s that old guy,” you know sort of creepy, why is he here, he was at every music event, always there, in any night club. Then this huge book was produced of his work and he photographed ACDC, like documentary style and they’re incredible photos. There is this photo he took at a Saints concert, some people think that Saints were the first punk band in the world, and Nick Cave is a teenage boy in the audience looking focused, like analyzing this guy performing. There is another woman called Carol Jerrems that died young and she was really incredible. So Carol Jerrems, Rennie Ellis, well… Helmut Newton lived in Australia, that’s where he met his wife.

KUPPER: Helmut Newton was imprisoned for a while, right?

BORLAND: He fled Germany, and then him and his parents ended up in Singapore, and then he went to Melbourne where he became a portrait/wedding photographer. He took my parents’ wedding photos. I’ve got all of the wedding photos that he took and his name is embossed, because you know wedding photographers used to emboss their name?

KUPPER: Oh yeah, of course! I want to talk about your Queen portraits – what was your reaction when you got that call and how did that commission come about?

BORLAND: That came about because of the show at the National Portrait Gallery. Basically, it was coming up to be the Golden Jubilee so it was the end of the 90s and a mediator said to me, “The Golden Jubilee is about to happen and we’ve decided to give a lot of different people a go at photographing the queen. Would you be interested?” And I’m like, “Well, yeah.” And they said, “The only catch is you’ve got five minutes.” Eventually it all worked out and I was contacted by the palace. We were allowed as much time as we needed to set up, but before the shoot, they direct you around the palace and you pick the room that you wanted to photograph her in. I took two rolls and I had two different setups, one backdrop in front of another, one camera in front of the other. At one point I was about to manhandle her ankles because I was trying to get her to stand to the side and move to the left, but apparently, I don’t even remember, but Prince Philip was in there standing, saying inappropriate things as usual. I got two good shots.

KUPPER: There’s kind of a novelty about shooting the queen especially now that you get to sort of play with the images.

BORLAND: Exactly. And look, a lot of my favorite subjects were politicians because I knew that they never did what they said they were going to do. They never really followed through on what they believed. It just felt to me like the embodiment of hypocrisy. Everything’s about money, it’s not about helping people or social responsibility.

KUPPER: As A photographer, what is the greatest thing you’ve learned about the human condition?

BORLAND: I think it would be that most people are craving attention or recognition of some kind, but I really see parallels between… to me I could really see the link between the famous and various subcultures. I don’t know if that’s so true anymore because I think the disparity between rich and poor is so bright that I think you know that this is a real disconnect. So, there’s this kind of a weird thing going on that I’ve found… I think I’m going to have to think about that one. I mean “the human condition” what does that mean to you?

KUPPER: It’s different to a lot of different people, but the human condition in the sense of not the meaning of life, but sort of what our wildest pursuits are in a sense, our pursuits as humans.

BORLAND: You know, and I heard this, actually Kendrick [Lamar] said it recently – really it’s all about love. We just want to be loved and to be a part of something, and being part of a community is really important. I mean for me, I can’t understand differences because I don’t think there are any, all our blood is fucking red.


The Babies and Tapestries will be on view from July 22 to August 19, 2017 at Mier Gallery, 1107 Greenacre Ave Los Angeles, CA. Text and photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow AUTRE on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


Spirit Of The Beehive: An Interview Of Artist Terence Koh

Over the last couple of years, the artist formerly known as 'asianpunkboy' has shed his downtown Manhattan image to become more in tune with the complicated mechanics of the natural world. Today, Terence Koh is not so much the Naomi Campbell of the the art world as he once referred to himself, he is more like the Krishnamurti of the art world. In the quiet bucolic climes of Sonoma California, Koh is busy tending to his bee chapel and learning about sustainability. Gone are the shaved eye brows, and gone are the sycophantic hipsters who saw him as disciple for a night at Le Bain or a good caboose during a dance train on the beach at Art Basel Miami. In the last week, Koh has come down the mountain, to completely transform Moran Bondaroff Gallery into a microcosm of the sustainable universe he believes we should all be living - an experiment for sustainability. Koh will be living at the gallery during the course of the show. He has cut a hole in the roof where there was once none, planted a garden, and erected his chapel full of buzzing honey bees where guests are invited to meditate. There is also a bath and lots of vegetables growing. As we climbed the stairs, Koh was washing dishes while a fresh bee sting pulsated on his upper earlobe. During the course of the exhibition, Koh won't be using modern amenities, like a shower or even toilet. When we came to interview, Koh had to duck into the corner of the garden to pee - we opted for the gallery bathroom. The gallery has also been equipped with solar panels, but aside from the offices, the gallery is lit solely by candles. During the course of our conversation, it was nearly pitch black - his cat, Skeleton, was there too. In the back of the gallery, where there once was a storage room, is now a kitchen and cafe. A basket of donated food, and even a hallucinogenic cactus is waiting to be consumed. In the following interview, Koh - who is not reading the news - ruminates on the present predicaments of the world filtered through friends and visitors to the gallery, and chats about our own personal responsibilities to stand up for a planet constantly in flux and constantly in danger of losing its fragile balance. 

AUTRE: So you haven’t seen much of LA since you’ve been here because you’ve been mainly in the gallery. Have you been able to enjoy the community?

TERENCE KOH: I’m trying to think if I’ve been to other parts of LA this trip. No, not really. I’ve pretty much just been here.

AUTRE: For a show like this, what is the preparation like? Besides the materials, what’s the process of mentally preparing for a show like this?

KOH: There’s not much. I’ve done performances before, so it’s actually -- ever since I did the nothingtoodoo show and I was going around the salt. I would go like eight hours a day for seven days. Everything is relative. That was one probably the most painful, mentally and physically thing I’ve ever done. In the gallery now, the fact that I can move around and talk to people. I didn’t feel that I needed to mentally prepare in that way. It’s a lot more peaceful. I’ve created a setting - my cat's here, the piano - and everything just takes place organically and naturally. Like Alan Watts’ philosophy, you just muddle through it. Just as it goes.

AUTRE: He had that philosophy that if you’re truly present, when you wash the dishes, you’re only washing one dish.

KOH: Exactly. You just be present in the moment. It’s something I’ve just learned recently.

AUTRE: How did the opening go? Did you feel like it went well?

KOH: I think so. I was overwhelmed and someone gave me an edible to calm me down. When I’m in Sonoma, it’s very remote in the grapevines and when I was in the Catskills I was on a mountain top by myself. So I've actually purposefully avoided openings and all these things. I didn’t prepare mentally for all these people. Usually when I have openings, there’s an office or something I can escape to and just walk away for a moment, but I had nowhere to go. And then the edible kicked in [laughter]. It was interesting.

AUTRE: I saw an Instagram picture of you in the boat. Was that when you hid in the boat?

KOH: I haven’t even seen it. I haven’t seen anything in days, which is great actually. It was really nice to all these people getting together and enjoying the bee chapel and sitting around here and playing the piano. All of these impromptu. Having conversations which was the whole point of the show. Making a setting where people feel comfortable together as a community in the times that we live in as well. Like a beehive with good intentions.

AUTRE: I want to talk about Joseph Beuys who had that famous performance where he was sort of whisked into the gallery. I like America and America likes me. Do you think taking these extreme lengths is important to make political or spiritual statements?

KOH: Yes I do. I think it’s through many ways. Through gentle ways. Because of what the current government is trying to do, trying to destroy the environment. I’ve been reading about environmental activism and the author, Derrick Jensen, who lives in Northern California. He’s advocating blowing up dams, not that he does it himself, but that the other side is so focused and vicious and powerful. As we’re sitting here, they’re thinking about the Keystone Pipeline. His big question is, are we even interested in winning this? Because it is a war. He’s advocating for extreme action. He talks about protests and how we all come together and it’s nice and after we feel good, we cook a dinner. But what have we actually achieved? We made ourselves feel good, but what have we done to fight the forces?

AUTRE: When did you first start to discover and learn about bees and beehives and taking care of them?

KOH: I think probably moving to the Catskills. Again in New York City, there are bees too, but when we live on a remote mountain top, you realize there are honey bees flying everywhere. I was coming from New York City, I didn’t think about these things. Only from living in nature do you open your awareness that it’s all really there. You read about honeybees in the news, because of all the things that we’re doing and it’s really a lot of things that we do like chemicals in farming. There was this voice that came up. “Build a bee chapel” and I didn’t know what a bee chapel was. It took actually a whole year to figure out. I thought I was going to build a pyramid and cover it in honey. I was talking to different people. There had to be more structure to it. Over time, it just organically happened. Talking to beekeepers.

AUTRE: I read or heard from someone that you built the chapel partly to protect them from bears, was it?

KOH: We built the first chapel in the Catskills twelve feet up in the air, because there are all these bears. Otherwise, they’d smell the honey. We built a catapult system.

AUTRE: That’s wild.

KOH: It wasn’t just my idea. There were so many people that made this show happen. The carpenters, the beekeeper, the gardeners, and the whole gallery helping out. Just all these different people and things coming together.



AUTRE: Have you seen the movie, “The Spirit of the Beehive?" It’s a Spanish film.

KOH: Oh yes, part of it. I don’t remember much, but I remember it’s very dark.

AUTRE: It’s dark. The director uses bees as symbolism to talk about people and control. You seem to have attributed more positive symbolism to bees.

KOH: The Spirit of the Beehive moves into like Shamanistic territory and I’m studying Zen Buddhism right now, which is like things that are directly as they are. There is no mysticism to it. I feel like I’m always between Mysticism and Zen Buddhism. Both forces that are completely opposite and I don’t know what side it is, because I do believe there is magic, somehow. When candles burn and there are ashes. There’s a mystery that is magic. But in Buddhism, it is what it is. There is no more to a candle than a candle. In the bee chapel, it’s nature and it just happens, but also why do the bees do what they do? How do they swarm. There are so many mysteries to bees.

AUTRE: Interesting. When you first started making work, especially in New York City, there was a big difference in the work you were making as compared to the work you’re making now. What do you think it was about nature that inspired you to try something new?

KOH: Maybe it was learning to accept nature. When you live in it and you learn to be a part of it. If you don’t get yourself firewood and you live in the Catskills, you’re going to freeze.

AUTRE: I want to talk a little bit about the writing that you did for this show. It’s really beautiful. Where does the language and poetry fit into your artistic practice? Because you use very unique language to describe your practice. Have you always used that language to describe each of your shows?

KOH: No. I think everyone is sort of born with their own language, I believe. Because you go to school and grade school, they switch you into being part of society. Without school, I wonder what type of grammar and syntax we would use. It could be very interesting. Maybe we would all speak in poetry or like the bees, we wouldn’t need to talk. The beekeeper was talking to me about language like how do they know their distance from the beehive? They all cling together. That’s a different system of thinking. We could have developed different natures that aren’t language based.

AUTRE: There’s a lot of unconscious communication that we do. A lot of people speak without saying anything, even if they don’t realize it.

KOH: We’re gonna discover just like radio waves that maybe we’re telepathic. It’s all within ourselves. I think it’s because from what I read, we move too quickly as a civilization. The spiritual has moved faster than the physical. If we moved in tandem, that’s when maybe things would get interesting.

AUTRE: Last summer, you were at Andrew Edlin Gallery. You did that show and it was just the Beehive, right?

KOH: There were a few different things.

AUTRE: You cited the names of the Orlando victims, which is really interesting and you said you wanted to sort of let the bees hear those names. Can you talk a little bit about that?

KOH: Most beekeepers talk to the bees. You tell them the news of things that are happening around the world so that you treat them with respect. The idea is that I think the bees do listen and hear. The idea was that in that show, there were microphones connected back into satellites, into outer space so I thought if I channeled it and talked to the bees about things that were happening, they would again channel it. The whole system would all be channeled into outer space. Me, the bees, everything. It’s one way to keep them alive as well. It affected me, being gay as well, to see that happen at a gay nightclub. You feel empathy because you feel it’s closer to you. I’ve been to spaces like that. It’s all about perspective. I want to be connected, but also disconnected. Maybe by disconnecting, I can focus my energy. There’s so much going on, it’s like what can I do? But with this show, we can be connected and responsible.

AUTRE: You should get everyone to chow down on that cactus.

KOH: Right? Exactly. Like a little bit each and we can find different ways to do things. Sitting here disconnected from the world, is it doing any good? For myself, maybe, but I don’t know.

AUTRE: It seems like an important gesture. A really important gesture and maybe a lesson for people to sort of take a step back and disconnect a little bit.

KOH: Just living and being, maybe that’s one way. They can take away clean water, they can’t take away spirit itself. We have our spirit. They cannot take it away. When Krishnamurti wrote the greatest art is the art of living, he wrote it in one of his books and even greater than the greatest works of paintings or poetry or architecture is the art of living itself. It took me awhile to understand. It’s almost like from touching the cat, to talking to you, to cooking food. This is how we do it in our way.

AUTRE: Nurture our intellect.

KOH: Yeah.

AUTRE: When you imagine the future, which emotion do you feel most dominantly?

KOH: [pause] The future is now.

AUTRE: The future feels present.

KOH: The future is the present. It’s unexplainable. There’s nothing you can do about the future or the past. But to feel the future is not possible. The only thing we have is the now. 


Terence Koh "Sleeping In A Beam of Sunlight" will be on view until March 11, 2017 at Moran Bondaroff gallery in Los Angeles. text, interview and photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


Brothers Grim: An Interview Of Dinos Chapman On The Power Of Humor And Violence

 

text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper

 

There couldn’t be a better time for Jake and Dinos Chapman’s new exhibition, To Live And Think Like Pigs, on view now at the UTA Artist Space in Los Angeles. That it opened on the same day as Donald Trump’s wildly xenophobic and damaging executive order banning Muslims from “terror prone” countries is compelling, but perhaps not coincidental. When the wickedness of the world reveals its evident truths, Jake and Dinos remind us that the horror, panic and depravity isn’t just a brand of reality they have invented to shock us – it is actually reality. We are eating in it, fucking in it and living in it.  Swastikas, Ku Klux Klan iconography, rainbows, happy faces and the golden arches of the McDonald’s logo all exist on the same killing field. If their work appears apocalyptic, it is because the end seems so close that you can feel the tingling warmth of the glowing, earthly sun of nuclear annihilation. With the undeniable surge of violence and anxiety, the seething distrust of “the other” – the Chapman brothers create works that are artifacts of this existential catastrophe of our own making. But what people most misunderstand about the Chapman brothers is that their work is hilarious – a laugh riot, an obscene and brilliant joke. If you don’t laugh, you are missing the point all together. What's funnier than a couple of realistic surprised looking mannequins wearing full KKK garb, rainbow socks and Birkenstocks?  We got a chance to sit down with one half of the Chapman brothers – Dinos Chapman – to discuss everything from the failure of the human species to their time working as assistants for fellow controversial British artists Gilbert And George.  

AUTRE: So the title of the show is borrowed from the book, To Live And Think Like Pigs [by French philosopher Gilles Châtelet], which really predicted our current political and sociological turmoil. The show carries the same themes, right?

DINO CHAPMAN: Ish. I think the major theme of the show is failure.

AUTRE: Political? Spiritual?

CHAPMAN: Every aspect of failure, grand gestural failure.

AUTRE: Do you think we’re failing as a species?

CHAPMAN: Oh, we failed. Long time ago. I think we’re just in the death throes of failure

AUTRE: So what’s left after that?

CHAPMAN: Uhh we all die and we kill everything on the planet and it just continues to spin round and round and round the sun until it burns out.

AUTRE: Today, especially now it seems like a really apt time for the show and the political climate in the UK. Is this affecting your work in bigger ways than it has in the past?

CHAPMAN: No, no. I think we’ve always been intentionally pessimistic about humanity, culture. Yeah. It’s a failed project.

AUTRE: Do you think that when people are too positive it puts us in a space of false paradise?

CHAPMAN: Yeah, I mean I think you have to be incredibly short-sighted or an idiot to be positive. Certainly in today’s climate. Every single second, things get slightly worse because of other people’s positivist views. They think they’re doing good.

AUTRE: And complacent.

CHAPMAN: And complacent.

AUTRE: So going back to some of the work that you’ve done with Hitler’s paintings and some of the iconography you work with –  it seems sort of like the idea of people wanting to go back in time to kill Hitler and other dictators to change the course of history. Do you feel like you’re doing that using the present, instead of actually going back in time?

CHAPMAN: Short of inventing a time machine and going back and actually doing something, I think we kind of did [change the course of history] when we bought the Hitler drawings and paintings and defaced them and turned them into hippie nonsense, it was kind of an attempt to give him a --- because those works are often considered evidence of when he was still sort of a human being. As though he would have been redeemable if he went to art school and everything would have been fine. He would have been another artist, but he didn’t get into art school so he decided to go out and kill as many Jews as he possibly could. And you know, the sort of popular idea is that if he was allowed to be an artist, he would not have done that. So we kind of got in there before he became a genocider and kind of fucked it up. Just to remove that bit of humanity from him.

AUTRE: Instead of KKK insignia and swastikas, you use smiley faces as part of that dialogue.

CHAPMAN: Happy faces and KKK insignia and rainbows and swastikas are all the same scale.

AUTRE: Exiting politics for a second, I want to talk about your process: where your studio is, what your typical process is, what a day is like

CHAPMAN: I’ve been in LA for three years actually doing fuck all. No, I’ve been at home working.

AUTRE: Do you work separately from your brother now?

CHAPMAN: No no no, we work together. We’re stretching the umbilical cord to a sort of monofilament at the moment. We’ve always tested the parameters of what it means to be working. It’s preferable to work on your own, because two people implies legion. Multi personalities, so yeah. I kind of moved out here for the weather and the politics.

AUTRE: What about the politics?

CHAPMAN: What about the politics, psshh. I don’t know. I mean I can’t complain, we have BREXIT in England. Europe is about to fall to bits. It’s a great big shit show.

AUTRE: How do you feel about CALEXIT? 

CHAPMAN: I think it should divert a fence around California and keep everyone else out. It seems...why not? I’m quite pleased that California is rebellious and not seemingly republican. I’ve only just learned the difference between democrats and republicans. The only reason I know republicans are bad is because of France. I hate France. [laughter]



AUTRE: Oftentimes, there's not much of a difference between the two.

CHAPMAN: One of the nice things about being in a foreign country, although it’s not really strictly defensible, is that you don’t feel responsible for anything. I know that’s burying your head in the sand, but for me it seems preferable to being in Britain and sort of railing against something I may have been able to do something about.

AUTRE: Do you feel like the critics are harsher at home?

CHAPMAN: I just think I can look at Trump and not laugh, but not feel related to him in any way.

AUTRE: As brothers and collaborators have you always wanted to make work together?

CHAPMAN: There’s a five year difference between us. Five years is kind of the absolute point at which you’re at different schools at different times so in England I would have been leaving school as Jake would be joining us. We never really spent much time together apart from the evenings and then we finally kind of caught up with each other in college and did a lot of talking and then decided after we left college that we should work together. I mean, we tried to work on our own for a bit but it just seemed kind of pointless when the conversations we had were much more fruitful and much more interesting than the conversations we were having in our own heads which are invariably kind of solipsistic. You can’t argue yourself out of a color.

AUTRE: What is your typical response to people's misunderstanding your work? I mean, is there a typical response?

CHAPMAN: We don’t feel any responsibility for what people think of the art. If you make a child mannequin with a penis on its nose you have to invite a plethora of readings of that. There is no correct reading because once the work is finished and it’s in a gallery environment, it’s done. We’re no longer in control of what it means because every single work is entirely subjective.

AUTRE: Yup, it’s in the hands of the viewer.

CHAPMAN: Yeah. It’s not but that’s where it starts to do its biggest journey.

AUTRE: That’s where the job begins, the intellectual job. And you’re not just making depraved work to make depraved work. Reality is actually depraved.

CHAPMAN: We’re making stuff that hopefully clarifies or makes the fault lines in western culture's moralistic thinking apparent. Again, you put a mannequin with a penis on its face in a gallery and it trips people up, it makes people think lots of different things. I’m not that interested in answers. I’m more interested in questions.

AUTRE: In the beginning, you were both assistants to Gilbert and George, right?

CHAPMAN: I was an assistant for a long time. Jake joined up and got us both sacked.

AUTRE: How’d that happen? Is it a long story?

CHAPMAN: [laughs] No, it’s a really short story actually. I think we were bigger and more unrelenting than them. The two of us together was a bit too much.

AUTRE: A bit too much for them. I mean, they’re pretty politically charged but it seems like you want to take things in a new direction.

CHAPMAN: I just think they decided it was unfair.

[laughs]

AUTRE: Jake made a comment recently about the Ai Weiwei photograph of the drowned refugee boy. That it sort of aestheticized other people’s misery. Can you talk a little bit about that?

CHAPMAN: It’s a terrible, terrible, terrible thing that artists think that painting other people’s poverty or hardship helps. It doesn’t help their hardship or poverty it just—

AUTRE: Glorifies it.

CHAPMAN: It does that and it also doesn’t do anything apart from make the artist feel like they’ve done something, which is a terrible thing.

AUTRE: It’s selfish.

CHAPMAN: Yeah.

AUTRE: Everybody congratulates themselves for feeling sympathy.

CHAPMAN: Absolutely. I was watching Louis C.K. the other night and he said that, on airplanes, he always feels like he should give his first class seat to service men because they always sit in coach. He never does but he feels really good about thinking that he should do it. That’s an artist's’ mentality.

AUTRE: It’s the thought that counts mentality.

CHAPMAN: He didn’t actually do anything about it.

AUTRE: Yeah, so you think people should actually do something about it?

CHAPMAN: It would help [laughs].

AUTRE: So for this particular show, is there something you would want people to know that they might not see?

CHAPMAN: It’s all for sale [laughs]. At drastically reduced prices.

AUTRE: And my last question, because I know you probably want to get back inside for the opening.

CHAPMAN: Ah yes, being uncomfortable walking around my own work.

AUTRE: Is it uncomfortable being around your own work in that kind of setting?

CHAPMAN: It’s a very strange thing to do. It’s a bit like being a child.

AUTRE: When your mom puts it on the refrigerator?

CHAPMAN: Yeah. You want people to come up and pat you on the back for doing well, but you don’t. Still, that’s sometimes what it feels like.

AUTRE: Is art the most powerful medium for subversion? Especially now.

CHAPMAN: No, guns and hand grenades are. They’re powerful. And humor. Humor allied with guns and hand grenades.

AUTRE: Which one first though?

CHAPMAN: Guns.


Jake And Dinos Chapman "To Live And Think Like Pigs" will be on view at UTA Artist Space until March 11, 2017. text and photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


A Welcome Act Of Rebellion: An Interview Of Zach Fernandez, The Artist Behind Hollyweed

If you woke up in Los Angeles, or anywhere else in the world, on New Year’s Day this year, you may have noticed a curious sight: the iconic Hollywood sign transformed into “Hollyweed.” It was a welcome act of rebellion after one of the most fucked up years in history. From some social media posts, it looked like a Photoshop job – a meme to celebrate the new California law legalizing the recreational consumption of marijuana. As news of the stunt spread, it was obvious that someone had actually altered the Hollywood sign. How it was altered, and the extent of the damage, wasn’t apparent upon first examination, but as the helicopters buzzing overhead started zooming in, it was clear that there was no damage at all – just white and black sheets to change the double O’s into double E’s. It was brilliant. But it wasn’t the first time someone had pulled the same stunt. In 1976, Daniel Finegood, an art student at Cal State Northridge changed the Hollywood sign to read the same thing on the same day that possession of an ounce of weed was downgraded to a misdemeanor, and then again during the Persian Gulf War to read 'Oil War.' This time around, the prankster turned out to be Los Angeles based artist Zach Fernandez, otherwise known as Jesus Hands. After the stunt, he skipped town, but after the LAPD turned up the heat, he surrendered. We got a chance to catch up with Fernandez at his Downtown studio to smoke a joint and discuss his intentions behind peacefully altering one of the most iconic city landmarks.   

AUTRE: Are you from Los Angeles?

ZACH FERNANDEZ: Not from Los Angeles per se. I grew up in Southern California. I lived in the Inland Empire till I was eight or nine and then I lived by the beach, Pismo Beach for the remainder. I went back and forth between here and SoCal and then I’ve lived in Pomona most recently. I’ve kind of just been all over, a bit nomadic I guess.

AUTRE: So, a lot of people are probably trying to talk to you about this project right now.

FERNANDEZ: Yeah, these last two weeks. The first week was the equivalent of a year or two’s life span. I had no idea what the deal was, it was so crazy.

AUTRE: People didn’t know it was you until…?

FERNANDEZ: Until a couple days later. And even still people are coming up like “that was you?” and I’m like “yeah, were you living under a rock?”

AUTRE: I read something about Tommy Chong calling you about it.

FERNANDEZ: Yeah it was really special. We had a good moment and he gave some solid advice. I didn’t know what to expect, you know, it’s Tommy Chong. You can expect a million different things and be way off. I was on the train, just trying to get out of town, and he direct messaged me on Instagram and said “let’s talk.” It wasn’t his PR guy or something, it was him. I was just like, “holy crap what is happening.”

AUTRE: So what did he want to talk to you about?

FERNANDEZ: Honestly, it was very simple, it was just “hey that put a huge smile on my face, thank you for that.” And then I asked for some advice. He said, “look, you chose to become famous and now there’s no going back. Really think about that.”

AUTRE: So he knew that after this project, that was it.

FERNANDEZ: He knew. The synchronicity that I live by, it’s my motto.

AUTRE: Is all the attention you’re getting intimidating or is it slightly exciting?

FERNANDEZ: It’s both, it’s definitely both. It’s just figuring out what to do from here. This is just the beginning, for the world, working out this type of stuff.

AUTRE: Have you done anything on this scale?

FERNANDEZ: Not this scale. But there’s something bigger to come. Art for me is almost an adrenaline rush, it’s the weirdest thing. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at it like that but I find that it makes me so excited, that I obsess over it, and lose sleep over it—there’s this burning and driving. Every artist knows that feeling, everyone can relate. And then there’s the times when it’s gone and that’s the scary part. It’s like, fuck what is this? But then it comes back. It’s the flow. Once you realize there’s this ebb and flow to life, things come and go, everything else works out.

AUTRE: When did you put the plan into motion?

FERNANDEZ: It originally was just a seed. I’ve kind of regurgitated this a little bit in the media but I basically just put out this shout out on Facebook: “hey I’m looking to do an art install in the LA area everybody should message me.” I got like three messages. It was funny to see. I was like, “this is my idea, I’m committed.” I had some people who were like “Oh yeah” and then would disappear and I didn’t want to go out and track them down.

AUTRE: Did they know initially? Or did you tell them as things unfolded?

FERNANDEZ: Some people knew and then other people had to say yes and then I would tell them about the plan.

AUTRE: The materials you used were tarp, right?

FERNANDEZ: People say tarps but they were actually sheets. It was a very resourceful project considering our circumstances. We did it for like $35 in total: limited paint from Home Depot was like seven bucks.

AUTRE: Wait so the blacked out part was paint?

FERNANDEZ: A black sheet.

AUTRE: What did you use the paint for?

FERNANDEZ: I painted on the sheet, on the black part. It was hard to see. It flipped one way and kind of hung around the side. It was very hard to make out so I hesitated to do it but decided even if people couldn’t see it I was going to do it anyways. It’s a tribute. My buddy posted a photo of the original “Hollyweed” and I was like, “what, somebody has done this before?”



AUTRE: So you had the idea and then you saw that somebody had done the same thing?

FERNANDEZ: Yeah. I was like “whoa, okay hold on a minute let’s see what this guy did.” So I figured out some of the details and his background and played on that. I didn’t just want to be this person regurgitating ideas but sometimes history has to repeat itself to learn something new. That’s what life's all about. We learn, we fail, we learn, we fail. And the climate was perfect. So I was like, this guy is channeling his energy through me; I didn’t even know he’d died of cancer. I saw an interview of his wife about my project being like “oh, my heart.”

AUTRE: Oh amazing, did she reach out to you directly?

FERNANDEZ: Her family has and said some really deep stuff and I’m like “holy crap, this is so sacred to me.” I haven’t been able to meet them physically.

AUTRE: That’s heavy. Funny, you did it for thirty-five bucks? I think he did it for fifty. Accounting for inflation you still dropped the price…

FERNANDEZ: I know, I guess it costs more in the risk is what it came down to. But I had no fear about the whole project. I mean I had doubts, but zero fear. I had my intentions. I said that’s gonna be done and I’m gonna walk away.

AUTRE: And it really didn’t seem to be about vandalism. People immediately thought that maybe you vandalized the sign or you knocked out part of the white or something like that.

FERNANDEZ: Totally. They thought I messed up the letters.

AUTRE: Immediately upon looking at it, they were like “Oh, shit! Someone fucked up the Hollywood sign” which would have been a massive act of vandalism, but looking at it closer, you realize it’s not that. Your work is not about desecration at all.

FERNANDEZ: No, it’s all about finding a way to, I don’t want to say manipulate the system, but a way to peacefully, respectfully maybe not work against, but work with the system. You get your messages out without this unnecessary punishment.

AUTRE: There’s nothing hostile about it.

FERNANDEZ: Exactly.

AUTRE: So you knew that maybe you would get in trouble for it, because of the trespassing?

FERNANDEZ: I did the research on the trespassing and the vandalism. Looked at the law for what vandalism really is.

AUTRE: They couldn’t get you on vandalism, but they’re trying to get you for the trespassing. So the day afterwards, you head out of town and when did you decide to turn yourself in?

FERNANDEZ: I got out of town, talked to my attorneys, came back down here and then I started feeling a little bit paranoid. Because the detectives started laying on the heat a little bit. A lotta bit. It’s a long story. I’m not at will to say right now, but after all this blows over, let me tell you how the LAPD works. It’s very, very scary.

AUTRE: They got tough?

FERNANDEZ: Very tough. Real fast. And it’s fine. Like I said, I had good intentions all the way. I had no idea about how the world would respond to this. I had no fucking clue. So I got done and I just stood there calmly for like two minutes and took it in and was just like, “Whoa. I did it.”

AUTRE: I mean from far away, you could really see it. It looked seamless. Completely seamless.

FERNANDEZ: We studied it and honestly there were no schematics except for the height. We got the height and then I looked at a ladder on the side. The ladder rungs have like a foot space in between each one and then I just got the letter and measured it off of that picture. I was able to get it pretty precise.

AUTRE: You had helicopters up there. You had people from all over the place. You know you’ve done something big when someone’s up there with a helicopter.

[laughs]

FERNANDEZ: I saw that the next morning. You know Sarah woke me up and she was like, “It’s everywhere.” And I was like “What? I don’t even understand what you’re talking about.  Last night’s a dream to me. I have no idea what just happened.” Her eyes got so big.

AUTRE: And now it’s a meme.

[laughs]

FERNANDEZ: It is a meme. People were like saying they lived so close to the Hollywood sign and they were like, “Ugh I was in Vegas. I could have gotten my drone up there.” It’s so good. The letters do look like they went all the way around. It’s weird.

AUTRE: You can barely tell. The only time people can tell that it was a sheet is when they really zoomed in with those creepy paparazzi zooms.

FERNANDEZ: The best part was seeing the little firemen after. Seeing how little they were compared to the letters. It took them like thirteen hours to get it all down. It took me three hours to get it up but like ten guys to get it down. I don’t understand.

AUTRE: It seemed like there were not a lot of people around. You were able to pretty much do whatever you wanted.

FERNANDEZ: The day I went and hiked up there it was like two weeks prior just to survey it and see how it was. I got up there around 7:30 in the morning and there was a guy putting an American flag on top of the hill and zip tying it to the post. It’s still fucking there. So I saw it, took a picture. I leave. I saw that there was trash everywhere. If anybody gave a shit about this sign, there wouldn’t be trash everywhere. So that was my ticket and I was just like okay go: do it. Anyway, long story short, that guy ended up direct messaging me with a picture at the fucking sign like, “I’ve been down there, too!” I mean there have probably been hundreds of people who have jumped that gate, taken pictures at the sign, and that’s it.

AUTRE: That original artist, he actually did a few things with the Hollywood sign. I think he did Ollywood during the Oliver North hearings and then he did something during the Gulf War

FERNANDEZ: Exactly, yep. He did “Oil War” and it ended up getting taken down so fast.

AUTRE: So, you don’t have plans to do more with the Hollywood sign? You’re done?

FERNANDEZ: With the Hollywood sign, I’m done. But, definitely worldly. I’ve got some huge things coming up. So I’m super excited. I’m not sure how soon, but soon.

Brutal Beauty: An Interview of Artist and Muse Michele Lamy On Organizing Rick Owens' First Furniture Exhibition

On a cold, rainy night, the day before the private opening, we huddled in the cab of a moving truck to chat about furniture, music and fashion. It may have been a symbolic coincidence that Michele Lamy was in the driver's seat, clutching on to the huge steering wheel, but maybe it wasn't. It's true – although the furniture line is a true collaboration, Lamy does most of the general contracting and she is organizing the exhibition all on her own. But it’s obvious that she is used to it and loves the process, and Rick is happy to take a back seat. 

Despite her diminutive frame, Lamy’s primal and mystical energy seems enough to muster ample kinetic energy to move hundreds of tons of concrete, alabaster and marble. The way she talks (with a thick, rough French accent), gesticulates, moves her eyes - the way her jewelry and stacked rings move with an orchestral clattering - is hypnotic. It is no wonder that the creative class has flocked to her – like an oasis in an indefinable desert of sameness – for the last couple of decades. It's no wonder why she and Rick have become a centrifugal force in the world of fashion and art.

Lamy is anything but ordinary. In some circles, you may know Lamy because of her relationship to fashion and furniture designer Rick Owens. Indeed, there are many clichés to describe her relationship to her partner: muse, alter ego, better half, right hand woman and so on. But more than anything, Lamy is a vital counterpart - a long lost spiritual and creative twin. That Owens and Lamy found each other in this modern artistic wilderness is kismet in the form of nuclear fusion, but it is not terribly surprising. Before the two were globally recognized, Michele owned a famous restaurant in Los Angeles called Les Deux Café and Owens was honing his craft in a studio across the street. While both Michele and Owens are mercilessly creative - Lamy really took the reigns with the furniture side of their output. Lamy almost exclusively heads all production, which takes her on material buying trips around the world looking for rare skins and fur, wood, bone and marble.

Open now at MOCA's Pacific Design Center outpost, you can experience an immersive exhibition of new furniture pieces designed by Owens, but spearheaded and organized by Lamy. A large alabaster wall, marble benches, camel skin ottomans and an ox bone settee - you can move your fingers across and through all the pieces. The furniture is a perfect, brutalist, and antiestablishment vision for a bombed out future where we must carve out our palaces from the ruins of factories and government headquarters. Complimenting the furniture are works by the late sculptural painter Steven Parrino, whose works capture the same anarchy and vision as the furniture. 

In the following interview, we chat with Michele Lamy about the exhibition, her past as the iconic ringleader at Les Deux Café and what she misses most about the Los Angeles she left behind before leaving for Paris with Rick Owens.

BJ PANDA BEAR: How have you been? I’ve been seeing you pop around and I know you’re working on this upcoming exhibition. How is everything coming along with it?

MICHELE LAMY: So, we are almost done. Just finishing up. I like the process so there is a thing that we’ve built and it’s just outside of Paris. We have this big atelier and then we did a warehouse in Los Angeles. For example, we do a lot of pieces in concrete, which is difficult to move, paying for the weight of the concrete for sending on a plane because we are always late. And then we found this great warehouse that’s on Highland and Romaine. Now we move in to MOCA and there is a little bit of adjustment because it’s still an institution, but it’s cool. We can break stuff, we can repair stuff up there, but for example you cannot drink a cup of tea. I don’t know why - it’s just the rules. When you’ve finished building something, you cannot have tea. I’m sure you can come in with a gun, but you cannot have tea.

BJ PANDA BEAR: That's insane! Where did the origin of the furniture come from? 

LAMY: When we move somewhere, we always do the furniture. We moved so many times. A gallery said it looked like a collection so I took it from there to produce it. It turned into two collections. It turned into gallery showings, we have dealers. We just keep doing it.

BJ PANDA BEAR: You’re always so hands on when we see all the documentation of your work. Have you always been so hands on with every single detail and the luxury.

LAMY: Which luxury?

BJ PANDA BEAR: Like all the images of you picking out slabs of marble and everything.

LAMY: Yeah you know I completely fell in love with doing this. The material, and there is something about the story behind making the pieces. We have a collection where everything is coming from Pakistan. In another collection, we are finding camel fur in the Empty Quarters desert in Abu Dhabi. But everything is produced just outside of Paris. That’s just where we find the right people.

BJ PANDA BEAR: What type of music is inspiring for you? What have you been listening to lately?

LAMY: I’m very into techno, house. I love radio stations, but now they are so lacking. There were so many and they’ve disappeared. I listen here on the internet from France like continuous house music, but I like LSD from A$AP [Rocky], I like his music.

BJ PANDA BEAR: You and A$AP are close, right?

LAMY: Yep. We just did a performance together at Art Basel Miami. It was fantastic. I was so happy. It was in the Design District on a roof. Silencio, a club from Paris, opened it. It was this space and it was a performance with Caecilia Tripp. Where you never see her, but she is there. We were there. It was a nice courtyard in the design district, so the location was good. It was not a hotel, it was more its own space.

BJ PANDA BEAR: When you were laying out and organizing the exhibition, was there a central focus or drive for this particular project?

LAMY: Yeah, There was a special focus. The one thing is the prong. It is represented everywhere even if you don’t see it, because it’s the way that we attach a bench of six meters – by two prongs, there is flow. It is floating. It looks like you need to hammer something, but it is about floating. The paintings are hung on the side. The space was sort of difficult, because it is very high and there’s not so much space on the first floor. Then we made this huge wall in alabaster that is a weeping wall. That piece - you know, I did feel good because coming to LA, I was sort of seeking a home, found the right warehouse, and then we were able to make this space our space. And changing the dynamic of the space, that’s usually what I’ve seen is always a challenge.

BJ PANDA BEAR: You’re used to transforming spaces, right? Your place in Paris doesn’t have a specific living room, or even a specific kitchen.

LAMY: Right right.



BJ PANDA BEAR: It is often said that you are the muse behind the show, but also that you’re kind of spearheading all of it. What are your personal muses and inspirations for design? Do you have a muse yourself?

LAMY: I don’t know what a muse is in that way. When you are with someone and you are doing things together and people say that because it is too difficult to say what exactly it is. I’m sure there is something I am inspired by. I’m old enough that all of these pieces of inspiration are melting into something more personal for me. People I admire is more because they have the guts to do what they’re meant to do and especially now with what just happened in the election, I think people have to be strong and do something they believe in.

BJ PANDA BEAR: Since this is like a comeback to LA for you, have there been any restaurants or places new here that you really love?

LAMY: I came a couple of times to do this exhibition. So I’ve had time to visit many places here. This time around, I live at the Chateau. When I was with Rick, we lived for two years at the Chateau, because we got attacked at the house we lived in. I have some friends and I gave them a tour of Traction Avenue and where there used to be factories are now galleries. I am really, really happy to see that little part of downtown – it is still the same, sort of, like SCI-Arc is still there. It was always good, except Al’s Bar is closed, but American Hotel is still there. They always say there was no one there before. They were there. We weren't so underground, but the prices were different. I always liked Little Tokyo and Koreatown – and Korean baths! My favorite thing, I think they are better here than in Korea. Of course the beach, it is beautiful. I was at the beach for Thanksgiving. There were not many people there – just people skateboarding on Venice Beach.

BJ PANDA BEAR: Can we chat a little about Les Deux Cafe or is that something you’d rather not? Cause I’ve heard so many stories.

LAMY: You know it was fantastic. It has been like twelve years of doing this. It was great, it was a time. Me and Rick were living across the street. Now it’s set to be demolished in a few months. Everything there is going to be demolished because it is going to be a mall. Another mall.

BJ PANDA BEAR: That’s so nuts…

LAMY: You know there has been a story in Another Magazine written by Chris Wallace who was a maître d' at Les Deux Cafe. Then we had this great artist, Konstantin Kakanias, who did these drawings, because at the time people did not have cell phones so it was preferential to taking a picture. And because it was a private place, the drawing was so much better to help tell the stories.

BJ PANDA BEAR: I love hearing the stories.

LAMY: It made it even better. There was no Instagram. Can you believe? It was so long ago. It worked though, we had so many great stories.

BJ PANDA BEAR: They’re so epic. I don’t even know if some of them are real.

LAMY: That was a very great time.

BJ PANDA BEAR: Are you going to be spending more time in Los Angeles? What took you guys so long to come back? Does Rick ever come here?

LAMY: You know before this MOCA story, we never came back. Rick you know, he is not coming for the exhibition. We don’t want to be analyzing all of this, but at the same time it’s a lot of things that are happening so he decided not to come here and let me do all the work alone. I know that next year, we are going to be in Europe a lot. Lots of time in Venice for the Biennale, so it seems like these things are happening and then Rick is going to our show in Milano. But I feel very at home in New York.

BJ PANDA BEAR: In New York, really? I’ve heard stories about Rick not liking New York. Does he ever go there?

LAMY: Yeah he doesn’t come there.

BJ PANDA BEAR: I was going to ask about the crystal and foam you’re planning on working with. How did you guys get involved with that kind of material?

LAMY: One thing to the next. Right now in this show, there is foam. The main thing in this show that changed the old perspective is a big wall of carved alabaster - the weeping wall. That is so heavy. There’s a lot of totems. It’s difficult to explain without seeing it.

BJ PANDA BEAR: Can you talk a little bit about Steven Parrino’s work in the show?

LAMY: It started because we are doing a show at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. It was a Carol Rama show and they asked us to be guests with our furniture. It was this combination because there is something on the wall, and then something on the floor. So then when Phillipe Vergne asked us to do a show, we thought it would be nice to work with somebody, and who is better than Steven Parrino? I know that we always liked him and his work is very related to our work. Lot’s of canvases that you think are collapsed, but are actually very controlled.

BJ PANDA BEAR: Did you get to meet him when he was around?

LAMY: Not at all, because all the years he was in Europe, I was here. I did know about him. I could have met him in Paris, but I didn’t. He was more known in Europe than in the States and he had a lot of collectors in Geneva. Did you like his work?

BJ PANDA BEAR: I like his work and his minimalist sort of nihilistic work. It reminds me a bit of Alan Vega’s work from Suicide and I like that deconstructed sort of connection between music and fashion.

LAMY: Steven Parrino’s work is very connected to those worlds. It speaks very well to this show at MOCA.


Rick Owens: Furniture will be on view until April 2, 2017 at MOCA Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles. Interview by BJ Panda Bear. Intro text and photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


Riding The Conceptual Wave: An Interview Of Alex Knost And Daniella Murphy On Founding The Costa Mesa Conceptual Art Center

Costa Mesa, California isn’t necessarily a place where you would find a conceptual art center. Typically, you’d find miles and miles of industrial centers of commerce, nondescript retail hubs, shopping malls and franchises. Under the Southern California sun, Costa Mesa is more a setting for a novel about a society on the verge of a postmodern existential crisis. But within this crisis, you’ll find a bit of catharsis with the brand new Costa Mesa Conceptual Art Center. Founded by surfer, surf historian, artist and musician Alex Knost, who recently came out with a collaborative album with Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, and curator Daniella Murphy, the CMCAC is a small haven for creativity in a wide strangulating vortex of urban commercialism. Located on a boulevard that looks like a hundred other boulevards – about an hour from Downtown Los Angeles – the CMCAC is conceptual in and of itself. It is not a large fancy art complex with multimillion-dollar donations and starchitect design – it is a simple storage facility acting as a gallery and a launching pad for local artists and musicians. The first artist to show at the space is Justin Adams – his exhibition, Dancing Baby, is on view now. Autre got a chance to catch up with Murphy and Knost to discuss their art center and what it means to the art world as a whole. 

Douglas Neill: What was the impetus for opening the Costa Mesa Conceptual Art Center with the work of Justin Adams?

Daniella Murphy: Justin lives in Alex Knost’s garage, informally. He made a spate of paintings in a really short amount of time. Alex came back from tour and Justin had made a ton of paintings, the bulk of which you see here. I think that’s how it came together. We saw what he had made and we prompted him to let us show it.

Neill: Is Justin’s process part of what interested you in showcasing his work?

Alex Knost: Justin’s process is more or less constantly participating in deconstruction. As far as being an artist who showcases his work, that’s not really him. Most of these paintings were produced in steps. All over the place…on the bed, on the ground. He’d just always be in there, tinkering about. It wasn’t really something that he presented to us at all.  It was more us prying and taking away the blankets and tee shirts that were covering all the work he had been making over the six months or so and actually looking at each other and being informally persuaded on our own recognition. I think we’re still talking him into it. He’s generally quite uncomfortable.

Murphy: We had to draw it out of him. The prime artistic act, that’s what he is.

Neill: It looks like he really digs in...using his hands.

Murphy: He uses paintbrushes and his hands and whatever he has. A lot of these canvases were found. One of the works is actually part of his car.

Neill: Lots of emotion.

Murphy: It’s definitely an outlet for him, an emotional outlet.

Neill: How did you guys come together to start the Costa Mesa Conceptual Art Center?

Murphy: We kind of talked about it and yeah I went to school and studied art and I used to manage a space in San Francisco that was similar in that I facilitate people’s shows coming together. Whether it be someone asking to show at a particular space, never really soliciting artists, just kind of helping people.

Neill: Connecting people.

Murphy: Yeah, at Adobe Books in San Francisco. It’s nice working with people who aren’t established and Alex was kind of keenly interested in my background, thought it was interesting and a different perspective.

Neill: Did you two meet there?

Murphy: No, we met down here actually, in LA.

Knost: My artistic background is in creating my own body of work, which at times is a tug of war because it’s hard to promote something that you create on your own. With Daniella’s knowledge of art and being selfless towards it...I thought it was charming that Daniella’s resume was in art appreciation. It created a platform. She works in LA.

Murphy: I work at a space that’s a residency and exhibition space. It’s a non profit called Fahrenheit and it’s sponsored by the FLAX Foundation which is a French foundation that facilitates French artists coming to LA and having a cultural exchange and introducing French artists in the LA context. But moving away from that, being here now more so than in LA, there’s this palpable feel here. There aren’t that many art spaces like in Orange County or this direct environment.

Neill: For better or worse there’s a lot of art aimed at tourists and the real housewives in Orange County.

Murphy: We like to see these works insinuating themselves in those homes though.

Knost: In any creative sense, I feel artists or musicians or people that are striving to create art, there’s a heart and a vibe, there’s the original area where they started and then where they’ve gravitated towards. It’s getting harder and harder for artists who solely want to create and not have to work at a café or bank off their inheritance or whatever they got, to live in places like Los Angeles and New York or San Francisco. It’s so expensive.

Murphy: As it always has been. It’s nice to have this space here, as opposed to LA.



Neill: What makes Costa Mesa the place?

Knost: From my perspective, my way of romanticizing it is we came here because this is where I grew up. I always thought of it as this bleak flat mesa in which a lot of people, since the 70s and even more so in my generation, have been great artists, musicians, who have solely been able to abide by their own facilities because there’s a lot of industrial buildings. There’s a large Latino community and they’re not as uptight and then there’s this sharp contrast with Newport Beach where it’s very consumer. You’ve had a lot of these artists and musicians residing here out of affordability and it’s always kind of seemed more of a comfortable habitat rather than a stepping stone or pedestal or something in order to grasp for vantage to be in Hollywood or something like that. It’s much more feasible.

Neill: A different headspace.

Murphy: It’s also as if socializing is a curator and artist’s metabolism. You have to go out and make those connections. So we’re trying to facilitate those connections down here. This space will hopefully be generative of it. Not just with this show, this space will be for other kinds of projects as well. 

Neill: Will CMCAC be primarily visual art or will there be music or performance?

Murphy: There’ll be performance and installations. When I walk into a space I just always want something experiential. You know something affecting, not necessarily nice art on the wall.

Knost: I believe that in calling it the Costa Mesa Conceptual Art Center is that, although you can look at this body of work and regard it as a decorative or abstract expressionism or anything like that, this environment becomes valuable. Justin’s work, for example, it’s very much an excruciating manifest. It’s not as if he’s a type of fellow that would go here or schmooze there to gain his repertoire. I think that in having him present his body of work as the first show is a flag in recognizing that something conceptual is obviously the thought process taking the precedent or the state of being and I think it’s very well exemplified in his work.

Neill: Is there an ultimate goal for the space? Do you want to expand it or take it as it goes?

Knost: I think the content of what passes through here obviously will amount to much more and spread its tentacles, but as far as expansion, it’s a humble environment. It isn’t as much of a progressive capitalist type thing. That’s why we called it a center, as to kind of make it communal and never ending expansion. Not ‘here’s our ceiling, here’s our goal, here’s this acute area in which to achieve.’ 

Neill: Would you ever display your own work?

Knost: Of course. The refreshing thing about doing something like this is that you’re watching all the pieces fall and being at ease with that.

Neill: Do you have roles when you’re working together?

Murphy: It’s definitely collaborative. It’s not the most formal of spaces, but it’s true to Alex’s ethos and he’s generously allowed me to partake. It’s fluid. As far as decisions with the show here, we’ll both have a say, we’ll both contribute.

Knost: We’re very open, very lax, very non-appointed. I think maybe in the first year of developing galleries and exhibition spaces, it’s always a push and pull thing. It’s usually quite aggressive, as if there are chiefs that appoint Indians that can take credit and vice versa. You know, a lot of hunter-gatherers doing so strictly to have a resume. Where as here, between Daniella and me, with the artists or musicians, poets or writers, the people that want to showcase their work, there’s more of a general consensus. 

Murphy: It’s based on aesthetic considerations, of course. We have a lot of friends who make work who we won’t show here.

Knost: We’re not scratching people’s backs. That’s not our goal. There has to be something present in it that we find circumstantial.

Neill: Has surfing influenced how you perceive art and how the creative process?

Knost: Of course, it’s an existential struggle. In surfing, there’s a balance of greed between this macho hunting for waves, outsmarting the other population, but then there’s also the embarrassment. I feel that great artists are willing to obtain greatness from despair and the complications that arise from that. In that sense, you realize that sometimes a stride can be an embarrassing one…at most a very human one. I believe that art that I find intriguing has its faults.

Neill: How did you and Kim Gordon meet/come to create together?

Knost: We had mutual friends...one gal who sells and shows her art, her husband is a filmmaker who I know. One of the groups that I’m in, performed for his after party for one of his films in New York maybe two years ago. I met her at the event, we played pool. She was working on her body of work, but needed fiberglass. I work with fiberglass, so I eventually assisted her on some works for a show she had coming up. Along the line, her being a musician, we had some free time and we ended up recording and making that record [Glitterbust] and she went on to have her show and it was great to be a part of that. The record was something that I believe we’re both quite proud of.


Justin Adams' exhibition Dancing Baby will be on view until December 17, 2016 at The Costa Mesa Conceptual Art Center, 930 Placentia Blvd unit B3 Costa Mesa, CA. text and photographs by Douglas Neill. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE