Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Art Space Talk: Mark Staff Brandl

Mark Staff Brandl was born in 1955 near Chicago, where he lived for many years. He has lived primarily in Switzerland since 1988. He studied art, art history, literature and literary theory at the University of Illinois, Illinois State University, Columbia Pac. University, and is currently working on a Ph.D. at the University of Zurich. As a critic, he is a frequent contributor to London’s The Art Book and is a Corresponding Editor for New York’s Art in America. He is also the curator of The Collapsible Kunsthalle

As an artist, his works have been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Victoria and Albert Museum in London, The Whitney Museum in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the St. Gallen Art Museum, The Thurgau Museum of Fine Art, The E.T.H. Graphic Collection in Zurich, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the International Museum of Cartoon Art, the Art Museum Olten and others.

Panels, Covers and Viewers, Painting Installation (Panels wall view)

Brian Sherwin: Mark, you studied at the University of Illinois and Illinois State University. Can you discuss your years in Illinois? I understand that your career in fine art began in Chicago....

Mark Staff Brandl: ...And Col Pacific and I got a "Latinum" Latin Diploma from ISME and a Diploma in German at the Translators’ school and am now doing a PhD dissertation at the University of Zurich in Art History and Cognitive Metaphor Theory. I like to learn stuff!

I was born in Peoria, Illinois, raised mostly in and around Pekin near there, although I spent the longest time anywhere in the US in Chicago. I loved most of the places in their own way. I occasionally miss Chicago, although not its art scene — more its Mexican neighborhoods and African-American influence and good food and music and just plain tough, cool, amazing denizens.
Panels, Covers and Viewers, Painting Installation (Covers wall view)

BS: Mark, can you discuss your academic background? You have also studied at Columbia Pacific University and the University of Zurich. Have you had any influential instructors?

MSB: Besides the various universities and the like (there are more than I have named), I also learned a lot about sign-painting and display from my father Earl Brandl and I learned a lot from my mentor, the renowned comic artist (from the 40s till now), Gene Colan.

In the university my most incredible teacher was C. W. Briggs, who was a truly amazing man and teacher. He could see into your artistic soul and tell you "what you were trying to do" even when it was more radical than you expected and than he enjoyed. He was a great painter too and deserves a fabulous monograph (take note art historians out there).

I am always open to "the technique of friendship and dialogue" (as Ortega y Gasset called history) with other artists —frequently dead ones who are somehow more alive than many of my contemporaries. Goya, Tintoretto, Titian, R.B. Kitaj, Eldzier Cortor, Jackson Pollock, Marc Swayze, Gene as always, my Dad — those are some people I’m discussing with in my head currently.
Dripped Double Portrait (3 Chords and 4 Colors)

BS: Mark, I understand that you have lived in Switzerland since the late 80s. Why did you make that choice? How has that experience influenced you?

MSB: As I said, I was born near Chicago; I lived in this city the longest I have ever lived in one spot. My career as an artist began there. I worked at the Field Museum building dioramas, had my ups and downs, had many shows, many reviews, sold well enough, won some awards, was listed as best installation of the year (or something like that) in The New Art Examiner once for a Raw Space piece. And so on.

I left in the 80s, when it appeared that there was nothing more for me in Chicago's visual artworld. In one of my recurring, sporadic changes, I had abandoned my earlier Late Conceptual Art and began pursuing the painting-installation-popular art mongrelization that I still engage in. (Although all my "directions" have dealt with the same core content and subject matter.) As I decided to abandon the Windy City, a brand of art was beginning to be enforced — an exceedingly trendy, art magazine-derivative Neo-Conceptualism (then still linked to Neo-Geo).

That, together with all the other aspects of Chicago's recurring provincialism, and a dreadful, dissolving love relationship, made me think, "Why the hell, then, don't you just go directly to that worshiped Mecca — i.e. NYC?". I started on my way, however, then met my future wife, Cornelia Kunz (pronounced "Koo-ents" as English speakers may be wondering!). I met her in the kitchen of my Chicago studio, strangely enough, due to a Maxtavern connection (a well-known artists’ bar). She is Swiss, and after an unexpected further year in Chicago, and a later year in Tortola in the Caribbean, we headed off to Europe.

I have now lived in one place or another in Europe for 20 years. Whenever I live for extended periods in the US, I never seem to make it out of NYC. Recently I have, though, become re-involved with the Chicago artworld due to Wesley Kimler, called "The Shark." I have dual citizenship now and feel both the US and Switzerland are my "Heimat." I feel very American when I am at home in Europe, and feel very European when I am at home in the US. I enjoy somehow always being a part of something while somehow standing outside it as well. I spend a lot of time in other countries too and would like to live in many of them.
Portrait and a Character (The Shark)

BS: Mark, can you discuss your art? Perhaps you can describe the direction of your work? Tell us about the thoughts behind your work...

MSB: I currently work in two directions — well, a third has just popped up, in point of fact. These are the Panels, Covers, and now "Dripped" works.

Panels are wall installation pieces wherein large oil and acrylic paintings on canvas are surrounded by additional painting directly on the wall. The wall and its elements are created as a huge, readable, sequential "page" of a comic. Usually built in a corner and resembling an open book. My Panels installation in Kunstraum Kreuzlingen was about 35 ft long by 14 feet high.

The Covers works can be quite large, but are generally very small (often exactly comic magazine size). The works are paintings in gouache, ink, and acrylic, oil, paint on paper, canvas. The Covers works are recognizably based on the structure of comic book covers, with title, bold lettering, price, date, numbering, image and so on. Nevertheless, I do not simply appropriate an image, as did many Pop artists. Rather, I engage this form as an inherited yet incomplete grammar, coaxing it to proclaim celebrations and complaints, desires and critical thoughts.

The Panels works are involved with my compositional creation, Iconosequentiality. I created the term and seek to apply it to installation and painting. Iconosequentiality is my neologism for the unique combination of forms of phenomenological perception in comics — and my art. Viewers frequently perceive both the entire page as an iconic unit, similar to a traditional painting, and simultaneously follow the flow of narrative or images from panel to panel, left to right, up to down.

It is therefore ontologically as well as phenomenologically both iconic and sequential. Aesthetic attention flickers between forms of reading and viewing, most of which are under the control of the perceiver. The ultimate hyper-text/hyper-image united with the joys of an image's patient always-there, self-reliant presence.

Iconsequentiality has the inherent predisposition to be tropaically democratic. It is also a step beyond Pollock's revolutionary "overall" composition, while embracing that discovery, as well as its child, installation, and not retreating to relational balancing games or Duchampian knock-offs .Iconosequentiality offers an arena for individual development.

The "Dripped" works unite the two forms above with a third element. They have three "levels" of potential viewing: close-up they look like a dripped Pollock work (hence my slangy nickname for the series), middle distance you see all the sign-painterly outlining, shadowing, feathering, etc. that I got from my father. Farther away, you see that they are genuinely representational works in a sketchy, painterly-drawing fashion much like Gene Colan. So, depending where you stand, they either unite or contrarily collide my three influences.
Nu Pop Scape Covers Bunch

BS: So do you have a specific philosophy that you adhere to as far as your art is concerned?

MSB: Oh, I have a vast and intricate philosophy that would probably bore your socks off! I am highly interested in contemporary philosophy, especially aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and metaphor theory.

Furthermore, there is a definite socio-political aspect to my approach. Although I am highly, perhaps over-educated, according to a few gallerists, I am bringing the blue-collar technical achievements into the museum/Kunsthalle world. Like superhero comics, I feel attracted to technical ability and violence. I have sublimated this into my creations. But I always feel good when I get Colan and my Father's hard-won techniques, merged with philosophy, smuggled into the "upper" realms — near a video-on-the-floor, purposefully bad painting or junk installation gesture or the like.

Chiefly, my work is something of a "mongrel" or "creole" combination of installation, painting and comics. The word creolization is not employed exclusively to describe Creole culture. A broad anthropological term, it now describes any coming together of diverse cultural traits or elements to form new traits or elements –- thus a complex process of cultural borrowing and lending in an area with many different influences and bears directly on comics and fine art.

I am against purism in all forms. I find it morally and politically questionable. It is a trope of fascism and racism. Philosopher David Carrier sees comics as an inherently impure entity; I would amplify this, claiming that comics offer a positively anti-purist emancipation from narrow formalist reductivism. This is a trait to applaud and emulate in the fine arts. Objections to comics are usually objections to the form’s impurity. Like them, I am trying to make art that is radically technically non-exclusive, even expansive. The in-betweenness of my art has important social, psychological, even ethical implications — as well as historical-philosophical ones. The future of art might not be posthistorical, but rather polyhistorical. A Braided rope instead of a timeline. Let’s hope.
Nu Pop Scape: Confab and Kaboom, Painting Installation

BS: What about other influences? Are you influenced by any other specific artist or art movements? Where do you find inspiration?

MSB: I’ve named most of them, but there are more. Of course I probably couldn’t exist artistically without the precursor, Pop Art. Nonetheless, it is important to be aware that I developed from comics into fine art, not the reverse, as was true of most of the pioneers of Pop Art (esp. Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol).

Indeed, many fine artists today grew up with comics as their first art source, thus referring to them without cynicism. I am not slumming, no matter how much higher education I have had. This is my culture —, an inherited vocabulary, even if it is perhaps habitually insufficient as James Brown has said; an inheritance and "scene of instruction" from which I am attempting to forge something meaningful.

By the way, I went BACK TO painting — away from my earlier purely-conceptual work, by way of comics. I was a traitor, just as certain pundits came into Chicago and forced Neo-Conceptualism. Baaaaad career timing! I realized that such work was the new academy.
The Dream of Reason

BS: Mark, you are in a unique position in that you are an artist as well as a professional art critic-- having worked as a Contributing Editor for Art in America. You are also a frequent contributor for London's The Art Book. Has your work as an art critic given you insight into your personal art? Can you discuss some of your experiences working with these publications?

MSB: I suppose primarily, I am a coincidence of contraries – a damn intellectual who’s also a comic-loving biker, a philosophical artisan. I must be trying to reach out to people. As I just proved so longwindedly, I like the highs and lows of culture and hate the middle.

I wish artists did not have to do everything themselves, ourselves, … at least everything that is not "Consensus Correct" (CC — my phrase, please steal and use it!) I became a critic to prove visual artists are as capable, if not better, than most critics. The same with theory. Likely curation too — although I haven’t done much.

I enjoy writing about art because I enjoy drawing attention to art and artists who I think deserve it. I don’t feel that many critics do that nowadays. Certainly curators don’t. They only memorize who is in the Very Important Shows by Very Important Curators, usually of the jet-setting variety... and then show exactly the same artists they do whenever as often as possible, so that they get to hang out with all the Big Consensus Curators and Gallerists at closed VIP dinners and super private pre-openings and so on,… never "discovering" any artists as that will simply help the artists, not the curator.

They do all this to eventually win a prize as a curator from other Consensus Curators, thus getting them a better job in a better city, climbing the ladder one step at a time, maybe even a shot at Documenta, etc. ... Thus, catalogues have taken over from art mags, and art mags have become simple reportage. Real criticism will probably only return on the internet. Maybe.
While I love the readable, elegant style of Art in America, I find most (other) art magazines superfluous. For example, everybody looks at Artforum, but seldom does anyone in truth read it. It’s too boringly Consensus Correct for that. I most enjoy my work at, where Wesley and I and other "Sharkpack" members are strongly, sometimes viciously, critiquing the artworld. I also enjoy doing podcasts for Bad at Sports ( I will be editing and contributing to a series of theoretical essays by artists in the pages of the new art magazine Proximity, where we will be trying to address this dearth of genuine artistic thought and analysis, with essays by practicing artists! No kidding! Look for it.

I like Alter Ego and The Jack Kirby Collector, as well as art historical publications like the Art Bulletin. Oh yeah, and the Journal of Aesthetics. Try out some real philosophy, not memorized, pre-chewed obedience.
The Art Stand / der Kunst Kiosk, A Covers Painting Installation, Mogelsberg, Switzerland

BS: Mark, what is your opinion about art fairs? There has been some debate in certain circles about the validity of art fairs in regards to the negative impact they may have on the viewing public. Some feel that the fact that it can take days to view all of the art at some of the fairs may harm the appreciation that the general public has for art in general. There is also concern that galleries may have to eventually depend on art fairs-- and their acceptance by art fairs --in order to remain successful-- in other words, some feel that the popularity of the fairs has caused a shift in power that some curators are worried about. My experiences at the art fairs-- as a member of the press --has always been positive... and I normally hear more positive remarks than negative remarks concerning these issues. What are your thoughts on these issues?

MSB: I have some difficulty with fairs, but not a lot, frankly. I know they have nothing to do with artists (who are usually unwanted at VIP affairs there, e.g.); they are about commercial sales between collectors and high powered galleries. Curators always complain about them, but what the heck, of course they do — fairs are the only part of the contemporary artworld that Consensus Curators do not control. Why can’t there be various parts of the artworld for various members. And remember, collectors and gallerists are putting THEIR money where THEIR mouth is, not tax or foundation money where someone else has told them is cool.

I would like it even more if ARTISTS actually had some corners of the art world, (we only make the stuff, right), but that has seldom if ever been true throughout history. Take fairs with a grain of salt, have some fun, then take a serious shower with disinfectant for your soul when you go home and forget them.

BS: Do you have any concerns about the artworld in general?

MSB: MANY concerns. Mostly they revolve around sycophancy. "I've seen most creative minds of my generation destroyed by obsequiousness." One and all seem to want to rewrite the beginning section of Alan Ginsberg's wonderful first line of his poem "Howl." The original: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, ...." Yet I could not resist, for in art, culture and politics, as well as elsewhere, I find my version to be true.
Recriminations run rampant in the artworld. What's wrong with curators? What's wrong with critics? What's wrong with galleries? I would like to add "What is wrong with us?" By that I mean primarily artists, but perhaps beyond that, all of us in all the mentioned categories.

Tessa Laird wrote of researching the artworld, that she "felt like [she] had stumbled into an anthill, where thousands of industrious (anty) intellectuals were going about their business of empire-building and ankle-biting." When exactly did we turn from manifesto screaming, naive-yet-hopeful creators-with-attitudes into fawning, trendy Sophists? The artworld is collapsing into academic mannerism owing to tiny, curatorial-fiefdoms. Too many fine artists are technically incompetent, faddish slaves of curatorial fashion trends.
Everybody Loves Hirschhorn

BS: Speaking as both an artist and critic... do you have any advice for artists who are just starting out? In your opinion, what are some of the pitfalls that young artists need to be aware of?

MSB: Read my rant above. Follow your own individual dreams and visions. God has given you something to do as an artist. Only you can listen to the voice and find out what it is. Learn about all the ins and outs of the "art business" but don’t take them to be engraved in stone. Just know your enemy. Be smart. Be smarter than those who would control us, work harder, and be of higher quality. Stop kissing ass, and stop viewing kissing-ass as simply "correct career management." Change whatever you can get your hands on. There are no rules. Rules are for mannerist academic sycophants and are used to control you, the artist.

Find ways to build scenes based upon artistic imperatives, support other artists. We are encouraged to compete with one another, yet most other "artworldians" stick together in their individual fields. Make high quality work. Get technically competent. If you don’t know something, or how to do something (like draw), go learn it instead of explaining it away in silly artist statements. Push yourself, intellectually, technically, creatively, morally. Yes, this is an ethical activity, but not in the ways it is usually preached. Attack racism, sexism, ageism (both directions), classism. If you have no enemies, you have never spoken clearly enough. Stop kissing ass.

BS: What about the Internet? Do you view the Internet as a tool that artists can utilize for exposure? It seems that the net is becoming very important for artists today-- even the galleries are catching up-- and I'm certain that will continue. Oddly enough, there are artists online who are more popular traffic-wise and with the general public than many of the artists that have been championed by mainstream galleries. As you know, art collectors are getting younger and are more tech savvy. Due to this... Do you think at some point online exposure will make an impact concerning how successful an artist is in the artworld? In other words, do you think that artists who can show high traffic-- and interest for their work online-- might gain the interest of galleries in the future? Could that become something that galleries will consider? What is your view?

MSB: The gallery is unfortunately probably fading away to be replaced by far more nefarious entities. The internet is not one of them. Collectors love the personal contact of physical presence — parties, gallerists, other collectors, aperos, but also really touching a painting, for example. For music, internet will be wonderful. It has begun to replace the radio, it will accomplish that, and then replace the record label. However, visual art (other than perhaps photos) don’t do well on it. It is not a conveyer of primary information for most artforms (especially paintings and installations).

Nevertheless, the internet will be a form where revolutionary things may happen for visual art at the secondary level. Probably through networking. It is already replacing the closed-shop of the art magazine. Sharkforum has more readers (not hits, actual readers, —hits are of course huge too) than almost all art magazines. Internet e-zines, group blogs, are the wave to follow, I think, as they indeed replace paper-based art magazines as the makers and guiders of taste, as the conveyers of discoveries, as genuinely critical venues. Yes, most blogs are masturbatory now, and their sheer number is numbing, but that is real democracy and we will slowly learn to sort out the best. Let’s hope they remain enablers for artists.

BS: Back to your art... your art is included in the collections at the Museum of Modern Art (NY), the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), The Whitney Museum of American Art and several other collections in the United States and throughout the world. Where can our readers view some of your most recent work in person? Will you be involved with any upcoming exhibits?

MSB: Whew. I seem to be all over the place right now, when I should be concentrating on my big dissertation (which will also exist and be created on-line and end as a book but also a painting-installation). I have been working with my buddy here, Daniel F. Ammann, a novelist and theorist, doing some more complex Covers works.

I am teaching Art History and Painting, at the Art Academy in the Principality of Liechtenstein. I just finished learning Latin, that took a lot of time. I’m podcasting with Lamis el Farra on Bad at, as I said. Writing for Art in America, where, also, a Cover drawing should be appearing soon on the Pen & Ink page as a sort of visual critique of the artworld. I am writing a lot especially on Sharkforum. Also, with my wife Cornelia and our dog and two cats, getting over the death a few weeks ago of our sweet old Golden retriever, Buddie and great old tomcat Toby.

The Proximity things should be quite exciting. If you are an artist out there with a hankering to write a Smithson-like, or any other style, theoretical essay on art — but as an artist, it need not be academically-styled — contact me through my website:

As for art, I will have a large Panels installation (titled Carried Away) in October, November and December in Krannert Art Museum, in Champaign, Illinois, in a show curated by Damian Duffy and John Jennings. I will have a show in the summer in Werk2 Galerie in Zurich. In one year, I’ll have a large show in Peoria, at the Contemporary Art Center of Peoria, organized by William Butler. I’ll be having a show in October in a gallery in Chicago. I have a piece in a show in the Art Museum of Thurgau, at the moment. A hot shot journal just published C Hill, Andrei Molotiu’s and my CAA Art Historian Conference speeches about Gallery Comics — you can get mine on my website for free.

You can listen to an interview with me here:

If you’d like semi-regular email updates of about my activities (usually drawn in sequential comic style and featuring images of the latest paintings and so on), contact me through my site.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or anything else that is on your mind?

MSB: I’ve said enough, if not too much, already at this point! Thanks for the interest and questions, Brian! Good luck with your own work and stay in touch.

You can learn more about Mark Staff Brandl by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Art Space Talk: Scott Wolfson

Scott Wolfson, born 1978, was raised in Brooklyn, New York. In May 2000, he received a BA with Honors in Studio Art from Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. After graduation, Scott traveled for six months to the Middle East, East Africa, South and Southeast Asia. Since then he has lived in Rome and New York. For the summer of 2004, Scott returned to India, a trip that deeply influenced his work. He currently lives and works in Brooklyn while teaching art to children in New York City. Scott is currently an MFA candidate at Hunter College.

Chasm, 2008, acetate on coroplast, flourescent light; rocks: foam and spraypaint, 117" x 168" x 25"

Brian Sherwin: Scott, this is your second interview with Myartspace-- your first being a video interview with the founder of Myartspace, Catherine McCormack-Skiba. Much has changed since that first interview and you are close to finishing your MFA studies at Hunter College. Can you tell us about your experiences in that program? Perhaps you can tell our readers about some of the instructors and how they have influenced or motivated you?

Scott Wolfson: Hunter has been one of my best artistic experiences yet. I had been out of school for five years before returning for my MFA and had been making art on my own fairly consistently and thought I brought a high level of criticality to my studio. However, within the first month of starting at Hunter, I was completely reevaluating what I was making and what I was really interested in and exploring. Having gone to a liberal arts college, as opposed to "art school," I also felt I needed to do a little catch-up in regards to the way of looking and really thinking about how ideas are or are not manifested in one's work.
Bob Swain was my seminar professor that first semester and he set up a great methodology for looking at and talking about art. He really challenged us to get to the core of the work we were critiquing. He kept asking us to define a work's logic and go from there. Even now, six semesters later I (and others in that class) still question what he really meant by the logic, but it definitely helped me to become more critical.
Jeff Mongrain and Nari Ward are two other professors with whom I have really liked working. Nari has a great way of looking at work and also doesn't shy away from talking about the art world. This past year I have been fortunate enough to start getting some recognition, and with that have had lots of questions about the professional side of being an artist. Nari has been a great to talk and break down the system for me, telling me about his personal experiences and advice. I think MFA programs in general need to be more willing to address this professional side of making art and creating a life around it. But that might be getting into a whole other topic.

Untitled, 2007, paper collage on cardboard, 88" x 144" x 11"

BS: At Hunter you have served as a Teaching Assistant under Nari Ward and Jeffrey Mongrain. You have also been an artist-teacher at the Joan Mitchell Foundation... care to discuss those experiences? Do you plan to instruct art full-time on the college level at some point? Is that a goal that you have?

SW: I would love to teach on the college level after graduation, along with the other 10 million artists out there. Being a teaching assistant with Jeff and Nari was really helpful, both showing me what I would and would not do if I was teaching my own class.
Nari's class was Drawing 1, so it was more just an introduction into drawing and therefore more about teaching specific techniques and approaches. In that sense it made me think a lot about what to teach to those who have never drawn before.
The class I TAed with Jeff was an upper-level BFA class and was run much more like a graduate seminar, in that two or three students would present work each week and the class would discuss it. That class was really fun, but also made me realize how hard it is to lead a class like that since you need to be able to speak intelligently about everyone's work even when you may not have anything to really say. So from watching Jeff I started to figure out how to approach that...just keep asking questions.
Untitled, 2007, paper collage on cardboard, 72" x 144" x 15.5"

BS: Scott, you tend to enjoy travel. For example, you traveled for six months to the Middle East, East Africa, South and Southeast Asia... and have lived in Rome. You have mentioned that your trips to India deeply influenced your work. Can you go into further detail about how your travels have influenced you?

SW: I think the most relevant aspect of my travels to the work I make is that after returning from different trips I felt that I was unable to truly and fully translate my experiences to others back home, especially places that are so different from what most of us know. I took tons of photos while traveling and everyone would comment on how nice they were, but I didn't feel like a couple of nice photos and some commentary necessarily relayed my experiences--experiences that were so important to me.
My previous work has always sort of been about the generic ideas of time, place and memory, etc. and I started using this idea of translating an experience to others through photographs as my starting point. My work has evolved a lot since, but I think that has been the driving force behind a lot of my decisions.
Untitled, 2007, paper collage on cardboard, 96" x 144" x 14"

BS: Can you tell us about your influences? Aside from your travels, what else has influenced your art?

SW: I go see a lot of art and I think that definitely influences me. It is sometimes the work that seems to have nothing in common with my art that influences me the most or gives me the most ideas. It can be a material, a way of working with a material, a method of presentation, or a way of visualizing an idea.

BS: Many of the images I have viewed seem to have a apocalyptic feel to them... they seem to be reminders of past wars or warnings of wars that have yet to be fought. They remind me of scenes from war torn areas of the world that I have viewed... and of degradation of society that we face each day. Can you go into further detail about the themes that you explore with your art and the social implications of these works?

SW: I think the social implications in my work deal more with how we relate and engage with issues and events around the world rather than the specifics of the events. I am interested in the idea of presenting images of situations or ideas that are somehow bigger than us, that can be the enormity of the devastation from a tornado to the vastness of the sea to the particle accelerator that physicists are now experimenting with to recreate mini versions of the Big Bang.
I suppose on one level I'm interested in the sublime, and on another level I'm interested in how we relate to the photographic representations of the sublime, specifically in the media. I am also curious about the relationship between artificiality and reality and how that boundary can explored.
Open Casket, 2007, acetate on coroplast, 45" x 73" x 15

BS: Scott, can you tell our readers about your process? Perhaps you can briefly explain your studio practice or select one of your works to discuss as an example?

SW: Without giving away all of my secrets, I scan newspaper images and enlarge them onto a medium, recently corrugated plastic. Once I have that large image, I begin cutting apart the image and reconstructing it three-dimensionally. I have recently starting playing with incorporating lights into the work.

BS: What are you working on at this time? Can you give us some insight concerning the direction you will be taking with your art in the future? Do you think about long-term goals... or do you focus on the 'here and now', so to speak?

SW: I am definitely a planner. That pertains to current projects and the future. There is always some play and dialogue between me and my work throughout the process, but I am usually a couple of steps ahead of what is in front of me. With that said, I am planning to make "viewing situations." So rather than just presenting the viewer with an image, I want to create to begin directing different ways for the viewer to engage with the work and the images I present by making more immersive environments that become full sensorial experiences.

BS: As you know, I observed your art at the New Insight exhibit at Art Chicago this year. New Insight is comprised of artwork from 24 graduate students at 12 of the country's most influential Master of Fine Arts programs. The exhibit was curated by Suzanne Ghez. Can you tell our readers what that experience was like for you?

SW: It was great. I have made some really good connections from that show. It gave my work a lot of exposure and gave it some added credibility in as much as I haven't had any major shows or press. It also made me deal with logistical issues of crating, shipping, exhibiting, etc which goes back to what I was saying earlier about the professional side of art that MFA programs often avoid discussing.
Untitled, 2007, acetate on coroplast, 93" x 144" x 14"

BS: Will you be involved with any other exhibits in 2008? I believe I read that you have an upcoming show in France, is that correct?

SW: Yes. I currently have a piece in an inaugural group show at Galerie Nordine Zidoun in Paris. Also, the Peter Miller Gallery in Chicago took one of my pieces for a group show at their space after the New Insight show. And I'm currently in dialogue with a couple of other galleries. One group show this summer in New York, and another in the Canary Islands in November.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or about the message you strive to convey to viewers?

SW: Check out my website at to see images of my work and get upcoming news. Thanks for the interview, Brian.
You can learn more about Scott Wolfson by visiting his website-- Scott is a member of the community-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Art Space Talk: Michael Betancourt

Michael Betancourt, an avant-garde film maker, is one of a handful of artists leading the experiment film movement in South Florida -- and across the United States. Michael has been making movies for over 15 years and has exhibited in places such as Tampa's Ybor Film Festival; Plugged-In: New & Electronic Media at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood; Cinematheque's Views from the Underground in Miami Beach; The Athens Video Art Festival; Short Cuts Cologne 8; and been shown in contemporary art museums such as The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and The Painted Bride. Wildside Press published his book, Structuring Time: Notes on Making Movies, in 2004. His writings have appeared in Ctheory, Semiotica, and Leonardo, among others.

Spook: The Ghost of Slavery Past was part of the Art Basel Miami Beach 2003 exhibit Sites-Miami. Lummus Park, the location of Sites-Miami, includes a long building that was a slave quarters. This overshadows all the later uses of the building as a tea house and its use haunts the site because until recently, the building was misidentified as "Fort Dallas."

Brian Sherwin: Michael, you studied under film historian William Rothman. What can you tell our readers about that experience? What can you tell us about your academic background in general?

Michael Betancourt: William Rothman made the experience useful--nothing could be taken for granted. The underling assumptions about how to approach video art, (or experimental film), that would normally define this kind of academic study were in question, forcing me to arrive at a stronger foundation for my thinking than I would have developed studying this subject with someone who accepted the field's assumptions and self-definitions. I doubt I would approach the question of motion images the way I do. Rothman forced all his students essentially to re-invent the field. The parameters I arrived at did not match the ones he had, so it prompted a continuous discussion while I was there.

As an undergraduate I studied film and video at Temple University, reading everything that was even remotely connected to either subject, whether technical, historical or aesthetic. Then I went to graduate school for an MA in Film Studies at the University of Miami in Florida, staying on to earn an interdisciplinary Ph.D. that mainly focused on art history and history, but included some psychology, philosophy of art and physics. The initial project and the one I finally finished with were two very different things.
Happy People is a site-specific media installation designed to be placed inside a hotel room. The piece consists of three parts, and is designed to be a low-impact intervention in the space of the room. With so much emphasis on being happy these days, sooner or later we meet the Happy People. They're happy because they're taking prescription drugs that make them happy. It hides their depression about their lives. The space these Happy People inhabit isn't really theirs, it's just borrowed. But don't worry, be happy! They are.

BS: Michael, in your statement you state, "I work from the position of artist-as-theorist / researcher." You go on to say that your work has three interlocking aspects-- the theoretical, the experimental, and the historical. Can you go into further detail about the thoughts behind your work and what you are striving to achieve?

MB: I'm just trying to be accurate. I think it's important to start with the fact that I am an empiricist: my interests begin with those things that are physically observable and can be actually identified and described as physical phenomena. There's a lot of theory-type work out there that really doesn't / can't meet those criteria, and as a result the "discoveries" produced by these theories actually are partially just rhetorical positions that don't actually lead to the kinds of things that my work is addressing.

Consider the simple question of motion which we see. Obviously there are at least two types: eminent and apparent. With imminent motion, you see a ball hurtling through space towards your head, it is going to hit you unless you do something to prevent it, but with apparent motion, the ball can't hit you because the ball isn't really there. But we see the motion just the same in a movie as we do when it's an actual ball. If we choose to consider this from the seventeenth century perspective of "persistence of vision" the motion happens in the eye--the eye is what does the thinking about the movement! And we know this isn't true. The human eye doesn't work like that; it's a cognitive function of the brain. It sounds obvious, but this isn't the way this basic question is typically answered. Instead, we get the seventeenth century answer.

So if we start with the cognitive approach to the issue of motion, then some very odd things happen to how we look at movies--we suddenly need to consider that under certain circumstances paintings need to be thought about in the same way, and exhibiting some of the same features, as motion pictures. I had that idea in 1997, following my own experiments with PhotoShop and animation, but it took me a long time to be able to explain this recognition coherently. Some French neuro-psychologists devised an experiment* testing my ideas about motion in paintings in 2005, and their experiment suggests my ideas are valid enough to warrant further investigation.

The empirical basis makes this type of testing possible, even though my own experiments that lead-in and elaborate upon my own theories tend to be more aesthetic in nature; under no circumstances do I think I'm doing science with my work (I would be delusional to think so). I take the parts of my research that are generally applicable and I use them as a guide for writing essays that I then try to get published like any other academic in peer-reviewed journals. Most of this writing sees print.

It's in the art-aspects that the historical dimensions become most evident. Art, however you want to define it, depends on its history for its own existence, and I think I'm like a lot of people in that I look at history as a matrix or field of potentials, forms and meanings that enable the creation of work that has the potential to be meaningful for someone else, and isn't just an exercise in solipsism.

I'm not certain that I am looking to achieve anything in particular. A lot of the questions I'm focused on are very esoteric. Each movie is directly tied to specific, immediate interests and I'm not trying to do more with it than answer whatever it is I'm concerned with right then. Often its nothing more than devising a specific series of frameworks and seeing how they work--if they can carry all the ideas I try to make them carry. Something this makes an OK movie, sometimes it doesn't.

(*Space and motion perception evoked by the painting "Study of a dog" of Francis Bacon, Zoï Kapoula and Louis-José Lestocart, intellectica 2006/2, n° 44: Systèmes d’aide: Enjeux pour les technologies cognitives, pp. 215-226.)
Radio-Activity takes its title from the sounds used on the soundtrack: the noises were created from telemetry sent back to Earth by deep-space probes, primarily Cassini while on it’s way to Saturn (all these sounds are courtesy of Dr. Donald Gurnett, The University of Iowa). These sounds from space provided the impetus for the imagery. Radio-Activity is literally based around the activity of radios, radio-telescopes and broader spectrum beyond human sight.

BS: So do you take the artist-as-theorist and researcher stance with every piece that you create-- be it an installation or movie?

MB: Yes. It's the only way I've been able to establish for myself that would allow me to continue working. Ideas are cheap. I'm certain that at any given moment the same idea is being developed and elaborated upon by different artists who don't otherwise know each other and may not even be using the same medium. The key issue from my perspective isn't the idea so much as its elaboration. That requires the establishment of a working framework. If I don't know what the result will necessarily be in advance, I'm free to experiment with multiple, contradictory approaches and decide to use the ones I like best. Still very subjective, but grounded in logic and open to happenstance.

BS: Michael, you have exhibited your movies, site-specific installations, and non-traditional art forms in unseen, unusual, or public spaces since 1992. You began producing guerilla interventions in public spaces in 1996 with The TrueLife Ad Campaign, a project that assumed the form of a newspaper ad. Since then, you have produced a series of interventions in public spaces designed to provoke an active engagement with the viewer. Can you discuss your work in general and how it has developed since those early years?

MB: I've found it useful to think of my work as being derived from underlying frameworks, and in these a priori system that make the works. If anything, what has happened is these frameworks have become progressively more explicit and consciously constructed.
My earliest works were photographs I made in the darkroom using only the developing chemicals and light, and these pictures were so abstract that it was difficult for a lot of the people I showed them to to accept that they were photographs. I didn't make very many, no more than 30 or 40, because they were too easy once I figured out the technique.
Like Duchamp with his ready-mades, I decided to impose a limit from the start. When I reached it, I stopped making them. I think they established the parameters for the first public works by taking the expectations of what we're seeing and then questioning that expectation itself.

The TrueLife Ad Campaign was an actual ad campaign for an imaginary company whose sales-pitch modeled used car ads, but sold lifestyles. It was funny, which I liked, since the comedy helped disguise the critique. It registered on several levels simultaneously, and invisibly merged with the papers I ran it in. Unsigned as an artwork, it was simply an incongruous insertion into the normal ad space of the newspapers. Like the Aesthetic Hazard tape or my other guerilla projects, it subverts an established form's authority to suggest other types of engagement are possible.

The recognition that part of what interests my work is the interrogation of our expectations was a major transition for me, a qualitative shift from works being done as a student that followed established guidelines to ones that specifically recognized the guidelines and then used them to construct some other, ulterior experience, was probably the first realization that my work is empirically engaged with we the viewers. Being able to simultaneously meet and violate specific expectations was the point of works like TrueLife.

My more recent work has shifted its lines of inquiry almost from one work to the next. My 20-minute movie Year plays with the ambiguities of specific dates, personal biographies, and major historical events and how they will overlap. The decision to make it in 3D, using the chromadepth technology, is a further doubling of this ambiguity since the spatial arrangement of the 2D and 3D versions aren't entirely identical (or even compatible).
Telemetry grew from the soundtrack source materials--sounds created from actual NASA telemetry sent back by Cassini (among other missions)--but at the same time, the organization of alpha to omega recalls Christian theology as much as scientific description. Eigen employs a vocabulary of shapes defined in both visual music and the scientific studies of hallucinogens by the German Heinrich Kluver in the 1930s, offering a set of contradictory approaches to the same visionary experience. These are the same types of ambiguities and complexities incipient in TrueLife, but elaborated in very different ways.
Telemetry is a hybrid work of documentary and visual music, using actual telemetry from NASA’s Cassini mission that Dr. Donald Gurnett, University of Iowa, has converted into sound. These "noises" from space are documents of electromagnetic radiation encountered en route to Saturn. Telemetry takes these sounds as the source for its score.

BS: Using psychological studies of motion perception, you have argued that the motion seen in motion pictures is identical to the motion seen in paintings. You term this second type painterly motion and argue that both kinds are invented by the subjective viewer. Can you go into further detail about this?

MB: Any motion we see is something that our brains are creating from their engagement with the stimulus of the outside world. Because everything we experience is also at some basic level a matter of pure thought, from a cognitive viewpoint all motion is essentially the same: a matter of interpretation.

Painterly motion appears in nearly all historical paintings by artists fully trained by the academies in Europe. There are only a few artists in the Modern era who did anything genuinely new with this academic technique; Francis Bacon is probably the strongest example. Painterly motion is simply this--it is a conscious technique where the artist has composed the figure so that it includes visual dislocations of the body that a viewer interprets as motion when the eyes move around the canvas. The different positions of the body are understood as movements by the depicted subject rather than as deformities.
Even in Bacon's work, the distortions can easily be seen as extreme contortions (in fact, they often are described in exactly this violent manner) and signs of painful, twisting movement. To interpret these transformations in this way, we must have some internalized framework that is making these pictures cohere into recognizable form--the apparent motion is the result of this forced coherence. It is purely interpretive and likely uses the same parts of our brains as physically immanent motion does.

BS: Michael, it is my understanding that you are a curator at the Sioux City Art Center. The center has a history dating back to the 1930s. Would you like to tell us about the Center and how your position has inspired you?

MB: I try to keep my work as a movie maker discrete and separate from my work as a curator at the art center. The demands made by one are antithetical to the other. In a way, it's good that I am something other than an artist. When it comes to making my own work, being a curator employed in a museum is distinctly in opposition to being an artist. The curatorial demands in such a setting are more tightly constrained than they are for either an artist who occasionally curates or for an independent curator who is also an artist.

BS: Michael, based on what I've read it would seem that you have a great knowledge about the history of visual music technologies. You have edited five books about the subject. At what point did you gain interest in the history of visual music technologies? What captivated you about the subject?

MB: I'm not certain I would agree that I have a great knowledge. There are a few artists I have studied and written on, but this is a large field and there are plenty of other people who know a great deal more than I do. I've been interested in visual music and color organs since I first encountered them as an undergraduate in 1990. What interested me about it was that I'd been seeing these ideas my whole life all around me, but didn't have enough history to see the relationships between Light shows at nightclubs and music videos and abstract paintings. (The contemporary practice of VJing is the most recent incarnation of an underlying idea that is very old.)
One of the things I realized in doing graduate work was that there's a great lack of readily available, primary sources for these early technological artists whose work is directly analogous to that of contemporary artists. So I decided to make what information I had located available in the hope it would enable others to do stuff. Too often what gives a specialist "power" in a field is a monopoly on information.
My publishing breaks down into: anthologies of technology designs (patents); reprints of published materials by Thomas Wilfred and A. Wallace Rimington; and my own original research which includes a brief historical survey of a visual music group called "Lumonics" that was active in San Diego and South Florida, and an attempt to understand the "abstract films" created by Mary Hallock-Greenewalt. I have also written a few other papers given as talks at conferences or as a guest speaker that are directed at a broader, interested audience. Since I'm not at a university begging for tenure, I have more freedom with what to research and write.

Understanding these artists works requires a familiarity with the technologies they created to present their aesthetics. Since the devices, when they still exist, aren't readily accessible, understanding what the art actually was like can be a little like trying to figure out what a computer does by looking at a power cord. Technology makes the aesthetic into a physically manifest form. There is a very real connection between what a Clavilux can do and the aesthetic Wilfred believed in; the same is true of Hallock-Greenewalt.
In their writings these two artists can seem very much alike at times, especially when considering the relationship between projections and architecture, but this would be a terrible mistake. Their machineries make the differences very explicit and show how much their aesthetics are utterly incompatible. But these devices are first and foremost gadgets, and gadgets are almost by definition interesting.
All of these technologies were created with a wide range of purposes in mind, ranging from the demonstration of a deeply incorrect idea about the nature of light and the universe to the desire to make money by adding something visual to radio (at about the same time chronologically television was being developed capable of being broadcast to a large audience in their homes). The great burst of these technologies in the early decades of the twentieth century is in itself a curious event.
Eigenkunst, part two of Eigen: the theory of self-generation

BS: As mentioned, in the course of your research, you discovered the oldest surviving hand-painted abstract films, done in 1916 by inventor and artist Mary Hallock-Greenewalt. You also are interested in the work of Thomas Wilfred and Oskar Fischinger. Would you say that you have gained insight into your own work by viewing these images from the past?

MB: No. That's the short answer. The longer one is a very specialized and qualified "yes." My historical research into visual music technologies has been more influential on my process of working than on the works I make. Again, this is the empirical factor. It takes a leap of imagination to reanimate devices that are only reconstructed from diagrams, and must be focused through other artists' writings.
What happened in my own work was I started making notes about the motion image medium itself--its physical parameters, the structural supports that recurred independent of who was making the work, what might be called centers of attraction. These coalesced for me when I combined them with the broader history of experimental film practice and realized there was a direct and explicit relationship between Tony Conrad pickling, frying and otherwise "processing" films in unorthodox ways and the work being done by the Russians that resulted in montage.
Each was focusing on a different aspect of the physically system: Conrad was attacking the physical Base of the image, while the Russians were focusing on the idea of Editing. In each case, these artists were elevating one physical parameter above all others as the site for their investigations. This recognition provided an empirical foundation, and I was able to identify other centers of attraction and came up with a listing: Camera, Base, Image, Editing, Projector, Screen and Sound. This gave me a meta-framework that offered an organizational principle for my own thinking. This is the source of the conceptual framework that is at the center of all my work.

BS: Do you have any concerns about how these works are protected for future generations?

MB: I don't think this is really something any artist (or historian) can reasonably worry about. You do what you can to protect things, but time and entropy will force some accommodations that over time accumulate and obscure what you're trying to protect. Leonardo's Last Supper is an excellent object lesson in this fact. All preservation attempts are necessarily limited and provisional. In the end, the only things that will survive are those that others feel are worth keeping--and these decisions can be completely irrational, random, and flawed.
Important works get lost, minor or insignificant works survive and become significant masterworks. It is tempting as a historian to say we should save everything, but this is simply silly because it is so impractical. The resulting archive would be identical to the world it describes, and the solution--save everything--would create a situation many times worse than the one we have lived with for centuries.
Much of what makes history interesting is not what survives, but the reasons for its survival; the ways the present is so completely a product of not just the immediate past but decisions made and then ratified as "truth" even though that truth might not be true at all. The persistence of vision idea is a great example of this continuity between the present and the past.

BS: Speaking of future generations.... perhaps you can give our readers some insight into the direction your work will take you next? Are you working on anything at this time? Do you have any plans that you can reveal at this time?

MB: A while back a band in Chicago called "The Poison Arrows" performed a live score for one of my films. I've been working on a collaborative project with them which I'm finishing up right now. I'm also in the process of expanding and revising my book from 2004, Structuring Time. Right now is much more a moment of assessment and organization before starting any really large, new projects.

I have some ideas about things to work on, but nothing has solidified as of yet since I'm still wrapping things up on some older work that I've been revising on VJ and live performance. The relationship between physical direct film animation and computers has also got me thinking. . . .

You can learn more about Michael Betancourt by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Art Space Talk: Jessica Danby

Jessica Danby is a mixed media encaustic artist, her work focuses on the struggle between human industry and development with the survival of our natural environment. Both her paintings and sculptures contain areas of negative space that are not really empty. Finding places in nature devoid of human activity is becoming increasingly more difficult. Therefore, the negative spaces in the pieces are cluttered with billboards and grocery carts faintly drawn in, but ever present. Jessica holds a BA from Southeastern Louisiana University and an MFA from Memphis College of Art. She is a full-time instructor in the Talented Arts Program at Fontainebleau High School.

Untitled, each circle 2" x 9", 7,437 yards of yarn

Brian Sherwin: Jessica, you studied at Southeastern Louisiana University and the Memphis College of Art. Can you tell us about your academic background. What did you enjoy about those programs? Also, did you have any influential instructors?

Jessica Danby: SLU was a good experience mainly because of the small size of the Art Dept. Professors were deeply involved in your work ( when they took a fancy to your style/personality...) and it was great to feel like you belonged there. My painting professors, Gail Hood and Rancy Boyd Snee were very supportive- in much different ways. Ms. Hood would call me at home to get me out of bed and to my 8 a.m. class ( far too early for a late night painter) and Rancy was just incredibly tough!

Graduate school was a completely different experience. The chance to submerge myself in ART and history and my studio was exhausting and amazing. Unfortunately, many of the professors there were not kind and did not believe in constructive criticism. It was a "tear them down and watch them cry" mentality with a lot of them. I feel fortunate to have survived the Art Boot Camp and I am still digesting things I learned there. Being at MCA certainly showed me I was working in my studio because I believed in myself and demonstrated what not to do as a teacher.
They didn't get a goldfish or crackers, 3" x 3", Watercolor, Embroidery, Encaustic, Found.

BS: Jessica, your work focuses on the struggle between human industry and development with the survival of our natural environment. Can you tell us more about the thoughts behind your work? For example, what are your specific concerns about industry meshing with our natural environment?

JD: It seems that everyday there is a new plot of land being stripped of its foliage and new construction going up. I have seen so many places that were woods turn into neighborhoods and strip malls- it just strikes me as excessive and ridiculous. I start to imagine where I would move to if I was a wild animal and my "home" kept disappearing. Probably the pillow aisle at Pier One... I just worry about things like that- we can't just keep eating away at our resources without it catching up to us. I have to talk about my thoughts somewhere and my art is just the perfect outlet.

Bird's Eye, 26" x 26" x 38", Encaustic (mixed)

BS: So do you recycle the majority of the materials that you use?

JD: Many of the materials I make my work out of are recycled or organic. My encaustic pieces are painted on found wood (old doors or scrap plywood others are throwing out). The knitted sculptures are made from bamboo and cotton yarn, although I have made a piece from all of my old X-Files VHS tapes.
I enjoyed recycling the material, but the tape is physically unpleasant to touch. Cassette tapes are a little better, however the color is not really me. What is nice about knitting works is that they are all capable of being undone and reused- if I was ever that desperate for yarn!

BS: Can you tell us more about your process and technique? For example, your use of negative space...

JD: Negative space really resembles "quiet time" to me. I don't have much down time in my life and feel overwhelmed with images and sounds daily. My paintings have small bits of negative space which, when viewed up close- is "littered" with subtle imagery. It just reflects how I feel about the world around me- full of stuff, noise, information and trash... there is no real sense of peace just the illusion of it.

Untitled, 48" x 60", knitted yarn

BS: I'm interested in your soft sculpture works. Can you tell us more about those specific pieces? What are your thoughts behind them?

JD: I really wonder if I didn't just want an excuse to knit more when I started the pieces. The actual process of knitting is so great- once I am through with sketches and watercolors of what the sculpture will look like, I get at least 100 hours of "mindless" work with my hands. After my first sculpture I started to see an influence of Andy Goldsworthy in my work. I am glad studying him helped me figure out a way to be a little more zen with my sculptures.
The idea behind all of my soft sculptures has been to try and simplify my work. I have so many layers, physically and conceptually, of meaning behind the encaustic pieces, I just gave myself the task of thinking only of a few basic elements. Concentrating on form, color and texture resulted in the wall sculptures. The simplicity made me nervous at first, but I am pleased with the product.

BS: Your husband is the sculptor Eric Danby... have the two of you collaborated on any projects? Is there an exchange of ideas? Critiques?

JD: Eric and I went to SLU together and we attempted to do a couple collaborative paintings. The end result was always the same- we always painted over everything the other one had done. It was really funny. Eric is amazing when it comes to critiques though. He always seems to see my vision and sometimes even sees it more clearly than I do. I rarely hang a piece without his nod of approval! At the moment- we are working on our first collaborative sculpture- a baby due in January!
Weekly Shopping, 3" x 6", Encaustic, Found Grocery List
BS: What are you working on at this time? Will you be involved with any exhibits in the near future?

JD: I am working on a ceiling hung sculpture made from a mixture of knitting and encaustic for the Art Melt coming up in July. The Art Melt is an annual juried art show in Baton Rouge which does a great job showcasing artists from Louisiana.
I have also promised the Make it Right Foundation in New Orleans an encaustic painting for each new house they build. The foundation is rebuilding in the 9th Ward- which still looks like it did the day after Katrina. I really should go back to work right now...

BS: Finally, you are a full-time teacher in the Talented Arts Program at Fontainebleau High School... would you like to close this interview by saying a few words about your students and the program?

JD: Thanks so much for asking about my students! The Talented Arts Program is wonderful for the students and it is amazing to me that there is such an interest in the Arts in Louisiana. Each of my students have such great potential - I am excited to see them progress and it is so much fun to try and challenge them! Their excitement about their projects make me love my job. There are a few of them that are going to be spectacular artists later in life and it is great just to be able to talk to them about art.
Jessica Danby is a member of the community. You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

Monday, June 16, 2008

Art Space Talk: Todd Kelly

Todd Kelly has stated that painting is largely about imagination, momentary inspiration, present consciousness and serendipity. He firmly believes that painting can make the world a better place. Todd lived in London for a few years. While there he was involved with several exhibits in London, including exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery and Seven Seven Contemporary. He has recently moved back to New York. Todd studied at Anderson University and the School of Visual Arts.

Sous-bois #2, 2007, oil, acrylic, spray paint & collage, 24' x 18'

Brian Sherwin: Todd, I read that you studied at Anderson University and the School of Visual Arts in NYC. What can you tell us about your academic background? Did you have any influential instructors? Do you have any advice for students who are considering these choices?

Todd Kelly: Anderson University is a church related school I chose because of my upbringing in an extremely fundamental Christian church. The school, considered rather liberal by the church I left behind, was perfect for me as a way to begin stepping out of a boxed-in existence and eventually make my way to New York. Anderson U. had a surprisingly good art program at the time and there were two key instructors, Jason Knapp and Kathleen Dugan, who were instrumental in my development. Knapp was like a demanding, belligerent art dad always demanding more and never doubting that it was possible and Dugan played the art mom spending loads of time helping me develop personally and artistically and nagging me to apply for everything everywhere until I got accepted.
For my graduate work I went to the School of Visual Arts specifically because I was madly in love with the work of Jessica Stockholder at the time and she was teaching there. On the first day of class I excitedly told her why I was there. She laughed and told me a story about meeting an artist whose work she loved but he proved to be rather uninspiring so she told me was better to just focus on the work. I think she was right.

The most valuable aspect of getting a grad degree is meeting other artists and beginning to build a network. No one ever told me this. I worked two jobs through grad school and spent the rest of the time in the studio. I’ve had to play catch-up with my social art skills ever since. If I had it to do all over again I would definitely choose a more affordable school and spend more time just hanging out with fellow artists.
Sous-bois #4, 2007, oil, acrylic, spray paint & collage, 24' x 18'

BS: Todd, you have had several exhibits in London, including exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery. What do you enjoy most about exhibiting? Has exhibiting helped your work to mature-- as in the feedback you take in from observers?

TK: Well, I love the attention, to be honest and, of course, it’s great to get feedback from viewers. Such things help me justify all the time and money I spend making paintings, but I’m still not certain how it helps the actual process of making a painting. When I make work it’s just me inside my head letting it come out. I think any maturity in my work has come from changes that have happened to me personally. I recently left London and moved back to New York and since the move have shown my work very little. Often I invite a group of friends over to the studio for drinks and that has seemed like enough of a ‘show’ for me right now.

BS: You have created several series of paintings. I must say that I enjoy the landscape series and Rocky Valley series the most. Why do you enjoy working in series?

TK: I don’t really start on a work with the thought that it will make a good ‘series’. Painting is largely about imagination, momentary inspiration, present consciousness and serendipity. I start a painting always believing it will end up at a certain place but it never does. So I start it again. Before I know it I have a series on my hands, each piece coming closer to the original idea and simultaneously suggesting a new approach.

Last September I made myself stop working on the Cezanne inspired Sous-bois paintings because I was afraid of being trapped in the same painting forever. I spent about six months working on paintings with my name in them and then almost without realizing it started painting the Sous-bois thing again. Evidently, there is still loads to work on in that Sous-bois series.
Sous-bois #6, 2007, oil, acrylic, spray paint & collage, 24' x 18'

BS: What can you tell us about your art in general? Gives us some insight into the thoughts behind the work...

TK: The magic of painting, whatever else might be going on with the image, is primarily the creation of space on a flat surface. I’ve been fascinated for a while now with the work of Cezanne, particularly a painting titled ‘Sous-bois’ which translates into something like ‘underbrush’. It is composed of a loose arrangement of marks that appear to depict the dense interior of a forest. I’ve been making my own series of paintings titled ‘Sous-bois’ in which I layer marks to create a sense of space.

Since moving back to NY I’ve become interested in the way a graffiti artist creates space by tagging a location; the creation of space by claiming it. I’ve been working on a series of paintings that use my name and initials in the composition. Spatially, the paintings are flat but wherever they hang they create a space that is particularly mine. I think, in all honesty, that is what every artist seeks. Not just the depiction of space on a flat surface but the creation of a space that can be named as one’s own.
Abstracts #1, 2008, oil, acrylic, spray paint & collage, 24' x 18'

BS: What about influences? Are you influenced by any specific artists or art movements?
TK: My influences change over time. Early in my high school days I came across a section of books in the local library about Warhol, Johns and Rauschenberg. I loved looking at those books; I loved looking at what these guys were doing compared with the high-minded essays being written about them. It seemed like they were getting away with something!

A couple artists I love looking at right now are Laura Owens and Katherine Bernhardt. When looking at their work I have a sense that they have really been there and this thing really happened as a product of the moment.
Abstracts #2, 2008, oil, acrylic, spray paint & collage, 24' x 18'

BS: What are you working on at this time? Can you give our readers some insight into your current work?
TK: I’ve just stretched three more canvases with the intention of carrying on the Sous-bois series. Now that there has been a six-month break since the last Sous-bois painting I’m calling them ‘abstracts’. Also, I’m continuing to work out some paintings that use my name or initials as a takeoff on the graffiti idea. That’s pretty much what is happening in the studio right now.
Abstracts #3, 2008, oil, acrylic, spray paint & collage, 24' x 18'

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art?

TK: Maybe I’m just holding on to youthful naivety, but I still think that painting can make the world a better place.
You can learn more about Todd Kelly by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Art Space Talk: Christian Schumann

The majority of Christian Schumann's paintings are like a visual car-crash of images within images-- laced with a dash of social commentary and childhood wonder. Christian allows his intuition to guide his paintings. He has stated that vagueness and random selection is actually obvious intent. Over the years his intent has shifted from the abject/grotesque to the desire to include everything in giant amalgams of impossible visual sculptures to self-parody to the natural world to the internal world. In a sense, his works are just as complex as the reality we face in our daily lives-- lives that can be deceptively simple on the surface.

Christian has been involved in dozens of group exhibitions throughout the world-- including exhibitions at The Chelsea Art Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, MoCa, Mary Boone Gallery, and Dunn and Brown Contemporary. He has also had solo exhibitions at the Gagosian Gallery and White Cube. His work has been featured in several publications-- including, Art in America, Juxtapoz, White Cube (first edition), Time Out London, Frieze, and ARTnews. Christian studied at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Plastic Youth, 2007, Acrylic on canvas, 52" x 74"

Brian Sherwin: Christian, you studied at the San Francisco Art Institute. What can you tell us about your academic background? Did you have any influential instructors? Do you have any advice for students who are considering SFAI?

Christian Schumann: I graduated from SFAI in 1992 with a BFA. The program at that time (and most likely to this day) stressed a diversification of fields of study, which resulted in my actually spending a lot of time in the PV (performance/video) department - which they now call New Genres. I took several classes with Tony Labat and Doug Hall there and was exposed to tons of material that I would not have otherwise.

Most of my painting classes revolved mostly around studio time, with no single teacher really acting as mentor. Perhaps I was too stubborn for that sort of thing as I had my own ideas about how to do things then. Drew Beattie taught a collaborative painting class which I'd say is one of the better painting experiences I had at SFAI.

The other students attending there at the time were a highlight. I guess if I had advice for any potential students of any art school that would be to make a lot of friends - interact and try to spend time with the most creative, constructive people you can find as these friendships could really matter later on. Once you're out of school the ability to experiment with your work will probably be usurped by the necessity to earn rent, so use your time wisely and the school's resources as much as possible. Also: have fun, be weird and avoid junkies.
Inside, 2001, acrylic on canvas, 86"x90"

BS: You have been involved in exhibits in Spain, Germany, Italy, England, and the United States-- including group exhibits at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Chelsea Art Museum, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary art, MoCA... the list goes on. How have these exhibiting experiences influenced you?

CS: Not sure that exhibiting in any specific place has been an influence that had any affect on my work although having had several shows I have also had the resulting opportunity to be reviewed in print a number of times. I'd say reviews have influenced me more than the actual exhibits as they have finally inured me to criticism from the outside world. It took years to not care what others think about what I make and that change in outlook has probably influenced me to date more than any particular show.

BS: One could say that you have been successful in bridging the gap between the mainstream and underground scene. Your paintings have been embraced by both. For example, your work has been featured in Juxtapoz, the popular magazine that features underground art, but you have also been featured in Art in America-- which commonly supports work that is considered mainstream. What are your thoughts concerning this opinion?

CS: Well, I only got to be in Juxtapoz because I was lucky enough to make some collaborative drawings with Gary Panter that they reproduced; I probably wouldn't have been included were it not for Gary. That being said, I think I tend to fall into a gray area between the two worlds, especially with my earlier paintings which have a more direct visual relationship with what I guess people call lowbrow nowadays.
I don't know, categorization is difficult as I tend to be open-minded regarding style and change my own methods of painting often. I've absolutely always been drawn to comics and that is an influence, as a result there is a part of the world that will always look down upon my work as "cartoony doodling" and therefore incapable of being serious work. Not much I can do about that.

Homestead, 2005, acrylic on panel, 40"x50"

BS: Christian, your paintings have been described as, "gaudily-colored, cartoon-expressionist images with an undercurrent of social commentary and personal suffering". Others have described your work as "fantastically painted nonsense". Give us some insight into your paintings... can you tell our readers about the thoughts behind your paintings and the intentions you have in creating them?

CS: Gee, it really depends on the painting. Despite most of the work's general similarities they are improvisational and since I don't plan anything the starting point of each painting creates a situation where I somehow have to re-learn how to solve a painting every time I begin. Adding to this, up until recently I would try not to repeat myself or make a series of work that had similar attributes - this was a habit of constant change which really in the long run makes things difficult because I would purposefully exclude successful ideas to the point where I would abandon things I should have kept experimenting with. Fortunately there's always the future and I have time to re-examine some old tricks.

To focus on my intentions - just as the compositions are made so is the meaning. I trust in the weight of subconscious thought which is all-pervasive. Vagueness and random selection is actually obvious intent. Over the years that intent has shifted from the abject/grotesque to the desire to include everything in giant amalgams of impossible visual sculptures to self-parody to the natural world to the internal world. So far I only wish I'd painted it all better.
Empty Bottles and Full Ashtrays, 2002, gouache on paper, 26"x40"

BS: Can you tell us more about your process? For example, do you work intuitively or do you create sketches and preliminary drawings before working on a painting? Do you need a certain environment in order to work-- specific music playing for example? Or do you just have at it, so to speak?

CS: I never make sketches. Everything is developed in an intuitive manner. The approach I developed growing up is derived from a mush of ideas from expressionism and the Beats. In painting, one act creates the idea of the next - it is a conversation of sorts which slowly turns into a frustrating puzzle with my own limited nature. Increasingly, the only requirement I need for working is just to have time to do it in the first place as the whole process requires so much of it.

BS: What about influences? Are you influenced by any specific artists or art movements? Have any specific world events inspired you?

CS: Absolutely everything has been an influence - hesitant to name specifics as I'll leave people out unless I write a half-page of names - I'm sure just looking at my work reveals it all. The trick for me is to move past direct influences and into my own world where I don't know what I'm doing or going after, where the influence is unknown.

No specific world event has inspired me but as I am fairly cynical in regards to humanity there is a veiled political aspect to what I do. Maybe my outlook is internalized in the paintings somehow - a vague reflection of my reaction to world events. Hope that doesn't sound too silly. I did once write that art can change a viewer's outlook and behavior which a critic noted was a childish notion but for me I still believe art can subtlety transmit new avenues of thought and change individual beliefs.

BS: What are you working on at this time? Can you give our readers some insight into your current work?

CS: Right now, a series of drawings, watercolor on paper. Improvised landscapes that could be described as a sort of speculative fiction. Over time these fictional internal worlds I have been painting have become denser and denser so now they are quite detailed and have recently reminded me of my childhood when I would pull apart kneaded erasers until they formed strange ripped-apart yet fluffy sculptural shapes. I would play with this stuff until there were all kinds of tiny surface events going on and then I would just look at it like a contemplation stone. I think that sensation is what I'm going to try to get at with this work.

Astral, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 40"x50"

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art?

CS: A few years ago I became totally uninterested in images. Maybe it was seeing one too many paintings like my own with stuff like cartoon eyes and text and the rest. It all became too knowable and in a way, senseless. At that point I began to make paintings using no images but with the same amount of brush strokes. They are paintings of painting, mark by mark.
Slowly, after realizing this shift from an ugly external culture to an abstract, natural form I have gained a new appreciation for human imagination and the idiosyncratic individual, it's relationship to nature and the possibility that our imagination is all we have to fix the horrors that remain ahead of us.
For me, I guess I shall remain childish and see painting and art as the symbol of what we are capable of - and the more unknowably weird our art is then so much the better and whether it's cartoony or abstract or figurative or minimal, it remains human.

You can learn more about Christian Schumann by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Art Space Talk: Zach Stein

Zach Stein's installations, monotypes, and paintings tend to be experimental in nature. This is achieved by the fact that Zach utilizes a variety of mediums in an intuitive manner-- everything from hot glue to rum. He is an artist who is not afraid to test the limits of his materials. Zach is currently a student at the University of Kentucky.

Untitled, Dimensions: 18x24, Medium: monotype.

Brian Sherwin: Zach, you are currently an undergrad at the University of Kentucky. Can you tell us about your experience in the program? Do you have any influential instructors? Also, what are your plans after graduation?

Zach Stein: Finally getting the chance to attend college and pursue a career that I enjoy is great. Out of high school I was not "college material" so I didn’t go. I worked shitty factory jobs but I always managed to keep a journal and sketchbooks to keep my sanity. After marrying my wife we decided that it was possible for me to go to school. I was unsure that I could survive academia until a friend of mine took me to visit George Szekely’s art ed class. His philosophy of artistic freedom inspired me a lot.

The program at UK is trying hard to work with what little we have. There are actually a lot of changes going on right now. New faculty members like Logan Grider and Ebony Patterson have helped to re-energize the department and have taken the critiques to another level. I am seeing better work from many of my classmates and there is a greater sense of community.

As for my future plans, I am trying extremely hard not to think about that right now. I want to go to a good grad school. I also love Kentucky. Since I am already entering the race late I have been very anxious about catching up. Many people say you have to go to New York or L.A. to be successful, but with the Internet and through places like Myartspace, people throughout the world can see my work. So, for the moment I am easing my anxiety by planning on teaching here for a couple of years and then finding a low residency program for my MFA. Ultimately, I want to teach at a college level, I am inspired by the creative energy that circulates there.
There is no Spoon, Dimensions: variable (pvc=8x8x8), Medium: wire, pvc, hot glue.

BS: I really enjoy your installation titled 'There is No Spoon'. In this piece you utilized wire in a manner that reminds one of lines drawn upon paper. It is as if the piece is an 'atmospheric drawing'-- lead has been replaced by wire.Was this your intention? Tell us more about There is No Spoon...

ZS: Every spring there is a student drawing competition that traditionally consists of still life and figure drawings. In 2007 I entered a deconstructed sketchbook of doodles and surprised myself by winning. This gave me a much needed ego boost (some may say too much) and I was determined to come back next year and challenge concepts of drawing and challenge my classmates to push themselves to think beyond tradition.

The title is pulled from a line in The Matrix, which basically states that the only way to bend a spoon is to realize it does not exist. I often pull my titles from pop culture references that may not be directly related to the piece but may help to add another layer depth or spin the concept in another direction for those who get the connection.So, its intention was to be a drawing that challenged drawing.
There is no Spoon (detail)

BS: Can you tell us more about your installations and the choice of materials that you use?

ZS: I have been trying to take a minimalist approach to my work lately. I used to throw everything I had into a piece. I still do on occasion, but I have found more inspiration in the simplicity of an image and slowly building upon that. I use wire because it relates most directly to line drawings. Initially, hot glue was just used as a connector, but as I began to appreciate the webs and drips it created I wanted it to play a more active roll in the work.Recently, I have taken a greater interest in plastic and I have been experimenting in what I can do with them. I enjoy finding new materials and playing with them to find inspiration.

BS: Zach, I also enjoy your monotypes. Tell us about your thoughts behind them...

ZS: My monotypes are actually where a lot of my current work originated. They actually began as a protest toward the new faculty. Any such transition is tough, they had to flex their muscles to let the snot-nosed students know who’s boss and my snotty little ego wasn’t getting stroked enough.

My only safe haven that semester was monotype class. My protest began by making a bunch of quick trace monotypes of "Fuck You" drawings. My intent was to present these crude sketches at the students Open Studio event as "what the new faculty taught me." Being one who never likes to waste process I printed the plate after about 50 small sketches and instantly fell in love.

The process is fueled by my interest in quantum physics, the infinite, and other such things that prove how little I know when I try to talk about them.
untitled, Dimensions: 18x24, Medium: monotype

BS: These works appear to be very complex-- how do you go about creating them? Do you work intuitively or is there a great deal of planning involved?

ZS: My work is very intuitive. I find the process very meditative. My goal is not to place content in my work, but to allow the viewer (myself included) to find their own meaning. I do have interest and influences that may affect my work but I want each viewer to come to their own conclusion. I find myself least satisfied with the work I try to force.

BS: You have also created a number of paintings. Perhaps you could tell us about your paintings?

ZS: My abstract paintings are very experimental. They usually involve a variety of mediums and a lot of mess. I enjoy the crayon paintings because they involve using a blowtorch and rum, but I usually drink as much as I burn and end the night chasing a run away flame around the floor. I don’t make those too often.

My goal when painting is to try and be as hands off as possible. I want to allow the nature of the materials used to play off each other. I also like to use layers of gel medium and resin to help give the painting a physical depth. My use of color is fairly random and probably makes hard-core color theorists cringe.
The Garden of Eden, Dimensions: 24x24, Medium: crayon, oil pastel, acrylic, rum, flame .

BS: What about specific influences? Are you influenced by any specific artists or art movements?

ZS: Early influences come more from music and film. I am a victim of MTV. I am very fond of industrial and punk music, but anything experimental is always good. I have always called Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Ministry my holy trinity.

I actually suffer from looking at too many artists. Influences include: Joan Miro, Paul Klee, Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko, Yves Klein, Sarah Lucas, Banks Violette, Sarah Sze, Carroll Dunham, Sol Lewitt, Diana Cooper, Jake and Dinos Chapman and anything else that passes by.

BS: Which do you enjoy creating the most? The installations, the monotypes, or the paintings? Do you think at some point you will focus on one over the others-- or do you plan to continue branching out with your artistic direction?

ZS: I have to work on multiple things at once. It depends on my mood and what kind of space I am in. I just enjoy creating something. My declared major is Painting, fortunately I believe in loose definitions.
Untitled, Dimensions: 18x24, Medium: monotype.

BS: What are you working on at this time?

ZS: Monotypes, for some reason I can’t stop. Painting in oil, for the part of me that feels I need to do something traditional. Fusing plastic, to do something with the endless supply of grocery bags, it makes me feel as though I can save the planet on my own…not sure where it’s going.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art?

ZS: I’m just glad that I am able to make work that people enjoy. It’s great that there are places like Myartspace where I can post my work and get feedback. It inspires me to want to work more just to know someone is looking. Thank You Very Much.
Zach Stein is a member of the community. You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin