Your work synthesizes text with images to restructure and reframe specific ideas and experiences. It usually carries a political edge and addresses intense issues of American identity: race, expansionism (historical and present), and the consumption of tangible objects (such as oil) and relevant ideologies (such as supporting “big oil”). What brings your interest to these issues and why use text and image? What separates your work from other artists using text and image (Shirin Neshat, Glenn Ligon, etc.)?
My interest in cataloguing American identity starts with two basic definitions of “work.” Not only a synonym of the product of an artistic process, I
think a better definition as that word relates to my artistic practice is “that which time and energy is placed on or given.” Anyone could be asked what they invest time and energy in – video games, triathlons, money, sex, food, science. Some of these maybe more noble pursuits than others – I pantograph these issues and events using a healthy dose of satire and critical reflection.
My early artistic research and practice started with reflections on myself, including biographical and psychological dissections. But I strongly lack interest in egotistical, self-serving art. Mainly because so much of artist-focused work is created by very boring people. That’s where my artwork differs in origin from Ligon and Neshat. I’m very boring. I like clichéd objects and eat egg salad sandwiches. Where the aforementioned artists have the ability to start from self-reflection and are able to communicate their ideas to a broader audience, I can’t. And the society we live in is constantly changing and engaging; I learned very quickly that even a cheap coffee pot could filter stale grounds and give you good coffee (well, even if it doesn’t taste good it still contains caffeine). And that’s what I’ve since aimed to do: absorb to the point of inundation the world around me, its shortcomings, successes, follies, its cyclical nature, and, pairing those with historical research, reflect ideas back to the audience in hopes our cyclical nature will cease and we will continue along in the evolutionary process. That isn’t to say that I don’t find working cathartic, I do, I just evaluate success in how clearly my points are communicated to a viewer, not in how well I am able to paint a landscape I saw in a dream or remember from my childhood. It sounds quite Brechtian, but it works for me and keeps me engaged.
Text and image, when used successfully, is a divine pairing. And its modes are numerous, from caption when it works in support of the image (Chris Johanson, David Shrigley, Pettibon, Baldessari), to more intermedia usages (Imants Tillers, John Heartfield, Basquiat, Vautier at times), to decorative (where semiotics is relinquished and text is looked at in a purely formal way) or even visual celebration of language (Kay Rosen, Rushcha). Simon Morley cites that text and image interplay (in fine art) started with Manet painting advertisements in the backgrounds of his paintings. And that is the heritage of my work. My work is advertising, commercial, propaganda.
You work with a variety of materials (drawings, photography, printmaking) and I’m curious as to how you choose a medium for a piece you have in mind. When an idea strikes you, does it include the medium? Or do you choose the medium based on how you want the idea to be expressed? Are there certain (dis)advantages to communicating an idea via certain materials?
Working with text and image allows me a major advantage: I have an enormous bank of text that includes phrases that I hear or see in various media outlets. It’s constantly growing and currently bursting at the seams. And when a certain medium crops up that I have at hand, comes across my desk, or I want to seek out and utilize, I will grab a few phrases out of the text bank to pair with that specific medium. For example, here in Union Station in downtown St. Louis there is a lucky charm stamper (and little else). You can stamp up to 32 spaces of letters or numbers or punctuation. I wanted to make a few, and so I went to my text list and found a few phrases that I thought would work successfully on these coins. They happened to be “Results May Vary”, “Tails You Lose”,” and “Luck. Light. Love. Life.” I think that the medium and process of production is never far from the concept. Also, because I work with appropriated objects and phrases, it is important for the newly created object or hypertext to closely reference the appropriated object or hypotext. If the work is about banner advertisements, I use ripstop. If the work is about mass commercial production, I use offset lithography. The text and image (whether in form or content) always relate in some way. And that relationship should be overt and evident.
You’ve lived in the Northeast, South, and now the Midwest. How has your locality influenced your work, interests, and artistic pursuits?
While I will agree my location has shaped my own personal experience, I believe location has influenced my work and artistic pursuits minimally. Working with these ideas of American identity and communicating these ideas to an audience has commanded that my work be (at least in a narcissistic American sense) universal. And while I know I currently live in an ideal microcosm, events occurring in my exact location will have a hard time translating to a larger region the more specific the work becomes. Country is ultimately better than region, region better than state, state better than city, city better than house.
It’s common for artists engaging in socially and politically critical work to “burn out” in a sense. What keeps you motivated and/or inspires you? What artists do you find interesting at the moment?
I’m kept inspired by the failings of society, politics, and the economy. Once these three entities stop screwing up, I’ll put the cap back on my marker.
Cynicism must be the plague of socially or politically charged artists. I say this only because there have been points where it bears down heavily and can silence you under its weight and stifle your voice rather than continuing to be a catalyst for change and action. I keep interested and engaged by staying out of the way, like a court reporter. And this doesn’t make my work insincere because I’m not an activist or getting arrested for my beliefs. I’m an artist and a recorder of the times. Arthur Fellig never got arrested (ehhhh….probably), but he and his camera brought more issues to light than ever could have if he sat on a dirty street corner holding a sign and getting sprayed with a fire hose. Also a great motivator: bitterness. And it seems odd but my favorite artists now are the ones getting out there. I just realized Man Bartlett has a tumblr; Nate Hill is recording some great performances. Currently gracing my worktable are books by HC Westermann, Ray Fenwick, Paper Rad, Nazi art and advertising in America, James Elkins, and something about mound people.
What aspects of your work do you hope resonates with viewers? It might be a cliché question, but what would you hope someone would take away from your work?
My only hope is that my work asks people to simply ruminate on ideas and not just go with the grain. Too many times people shape their value and belief system based on the general population. I just want my audience to think about these parts of our identity in a new way, and decide what they believe about a certain value. What do you think (or, have you ever thought) about American’s energy consumption? What challenge does race continue to pose in our society? Who gains in a capitalistic economy?
As an artist and professor, what suggestions or tips would you make to young artists, both self-taught and recent college graduates, striving to have a successful career?
“Work work work work work work work work work.” -Governor Le Petomane
I have to be honest, I may have over thought some of these answers, but I’ve never felt more comfortable finishing an interview with a quote from Blazing Saddles.