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Brian J. Evans on Performing Costume Made of Nothing

Costume Made of Nothing is a performance created by the artist Pope.L and is featured in the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. It debuted at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) in 2012 and its most recent iteration at the Walker Art Center involved a weight-bearing structure and new movements. The performance takes […]

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Opening day performance of Costume Made of Nothing at the Walker Art Center, July 24, 2014. Photo: Gene Pittman

Costume Made of Nothing is a performance created by the artist Pope.L and is featured in the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. It debuted at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) in 2012 and its most recent iteration at the Walker Art Center involved a weight-bearing structure and new movements. The performance takes place in the galleries, thirteen times over the course of the exhibition’s five-month run.

Prior to the final performance of Costume Made of Nothing, I sat down with the performer, Brian J. Evans, who worked with Pope.L to develop this new piece. Join us on January 4, 2015, at 2 pm for Evans’s final performance, which coincides with the closing of Radical Presence.

Tell me about your background and training.

I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, but I moved to Gaylord, Minnesota when I was seven. I went to Gustavus Adolphus College for liberal arts and left with a dance major. I didn’t find dance until I was a sophomore and studied abroad as a junior, so I only had three semesters and two classes of dance training before I got into the field. I had always done performance and I got super lucky when one of my professors, who was in Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater, set me up with an audition. At the end of two rehearsals they asked me to come dance as an apprentice, and eight years later I’m a professional performer and teaching artist.

How did you find out about the opportunity to perform in Pope.L’s piece and what was your audition like?

I found out about the audition from a friend of a friend, and when opportunities like that come up, I take them. So I looked at the video of the performance at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and my first inclination was that I didn’t want to do it. In this iteration the performer just stood there and put his arm into a hole in the wall, so I wasn’t so sure about it. But I did a little research on Pope.L and was impressed by what I found on Google. So I auditioned and went through the poses, and what then really peaked my interest was having a Skype conversation with Pope.L directly afterward. I remember he gave me directions to try out different movements, and he told me to go away and come back after thinking about it, but I decided to try to incorporate those instructions right then, on the spot. That’s when the collaboration started. I thought, ‘Good, let me try to do something that would inevitably start us on a process of collaboration.’

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Pope.L at the opening day performance of Costume Made of Nothing at the Walker Art Center, July 24, 2014. Photo: Gene Pittman

What was it like to work with Pope.L for that brief time that he was here in July? What was the working process?

There were three rehearsals, two to three hours each. In the first one, he said right up front that he’s not a choreographer and he’s not going to try to choreograph anything. He said that he would need me to collaborate with him to figure out the movements. He didn’t want to do what he did the other two times. The structure at the Walker is three times as big and is weight bearing. Right away we talked about his influences: Bauhaus and the German stylistic movements. We talked about character, and I thought to myself, ‘why the structure, why the costume?’

In the second rehearsal we got into it and he had this image of me hanging from the pipe. How to I get up there? Do I jump or crawl? So I improvised and crawled up and he said, “Yes, keep that.” We decided that I would say “Well” three times at different pitches and volumes. There are headphones attached to the piece, so what am I listening to? There were terms like ‘step and fetch it,’ ‘the funky chicken,’ and butoh—that’s where the walk came from. He would then send me away with different assignments like, how does this character walk, how does this thing look, how does he interact, why is he traveling, what does he do every day, and why does he continue to go to this structure? In the third rehearsal we had a set of instructions and a character sketch, and for opening night that’s what I had to work with. Since then, the character has evolved into a more multi-dimensional entity.

How has the audience reacted to this piece?

Pope.L and I talked about how it’s unimportant that there’s an audience. The character will do the performance regardless of an audience. There have been a lot of people that want to imitate me or block me when I’m moving through the space. I remember on opening night after it was done, Pope.L told me that this character doesn’t want to be touched, doesn’t want to be messed with, isn’t really inviting. I have to fight the temptation of allowing people to influence me. I don’t think this character is human so I don’t feel like I’m being mean to anybody, but I do find myself thinking, ‘Don’t touch me, don’t come close to me. I don’t know how I would react if you did.’

So it’s been interesting how people interact with me, whether they move or not. Older people tend to have a slightly more reserved reaction. I know I’ve startled people. Teenagers are always running away, but kids are fascinated. It’s performance art in a gallery, which is very different from performance on a stage. As a performer you’re trained to think that if people leave early you’re not doing your job correctly, but because this is not that, it’s been fine that some people stay for five minutes. It’s a different way of thinking about performance art.

Tell me how the performance has changed over time.

From the first time to today’s, and this was the twelfth time, it’s gone from more of a hollow character sketch of making sure I did all of the instructions right, to allowing myself to let the character interpret those instructions. That usually always changes because I, myself, as Brian, come to it differently everyday, because something’s happened or I’m thinking about something, or I’m totally focused, or I’m trying to reach a goal.

There were some performances where no one moved except for leaving and coming, and there were others where the audience would surround me and circle the structure. It’s different every time. When nobody is here I’m usually hoping that I don’t perform too quickly because there’s no one to feed off of. This was new today: when I was approaching the exhibition, I felt totally alone, so I thought, ‘I’m going to do my solo and no one’s going to see it and that’s fine.’ So that was a different mindset. I recognized people were watching me after a while, but my way into it was a solitary one.

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Opening day performance of Costume Made of Nothing at the Walker Art Center, July 24, 2014. Photo: Gene Pittman

The structure is like a prop or a second performer. How does its presence affect your performance?

I haven’t yet (maybe it will happen in the thirteenth performance) attached an identity to the structure. I will say that the structure does feel different. And that’s partly because of my physical stamina and how I’m able to approach it. The structure is the thing that keeps me grounded in what I’m doing. I always go back to it and everything is about that interaction, so I don’t ever really feel like I’m alone. Then it doesn’t really matter if anyone is watching, because this structure is consistent, unlike most things in my life [laughs]. Once we bolstered the structure, the thing became unbreakable. It’s always going to be there to support me.

Have you done any other performances that are like this—in the contemporary art realm, as opposed to performing arts, on a stage with a seated audience?

No, I’ve never performed when it’s called contemporary visual art. I’ve done things that are more along the lines of visual architecture or improvisations that had minimalistic movement parameters. This is something more in-depth. This performance has been different in that it’s just me and that structure. Every time I’ve done it, it’s gotten a bit more involved. Most of the time you don’t get to dive into a piece, you just have your weekend of performances.

Have you ever had to do something multiple times over the course of many months?

I’m part of a dance company, Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater, so we do a lot of touring. There are three or four full-length works that I’ve done anywhere from 30 to 50 times over the span of five months on tour. Costume Made of Nothing is different because it’s the same space, the same apparatus, the same lighting, the same area, and we’re shooting for the same duration. In the work I do with Stuart Pimsler we really want to know what the audience is thinking and feeling, and in this piece, I feel very autonomous. I wonder how many people saw me perform and what they felt and thought—and I’ll never know.

Pope.L asked me to record one of your recent performances with the idea that he would send you feedback and ask you to change aspects of the piece. I wonder how Pope.L envisions the final performance.

The little I interacted with him, I got the impression that he was very respectful of my process. The last thing he said to me, which has really influenced me, was that he was going to come by at some point. In the back of my mind I didn’t think he was actually going to, but because he said that, I always perform it like maybe he will that time. I think it was part of his plan.

 

 

Brian J Evans - Head Shot

Brian J. Evans of Gaylord, MN is currently in his seventh season with Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater. In addition to performing, he serves as the company’s Musical Director. He is a graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College, where he earned a B.A. in Liberal Arts with an emphasis in dance. In 2009, he was recognized by the Star Tribune and the following year received a SAGE Award for Outstanding Performer. He also teaches at the Saint Paul Conservatory for the Performing Arts and Young Dance, and served as Dance Program Administrator for SPDT at FAIR School Downtown. Evans has also worked with numerous directors and choreographers on productions throughout the Midwest and performed as a singer/dancer at Valley Fair, as well as appearing in a feature film.

Influences and Hallucidations: Going Behind Andy Messerschmidt’s Art

Shortly after he completed Friend Me/Follow Me: Graze Anatomy (2012)–the mixed-media installation just inside the Walker’s Hennepin Avenue entrance–we asked Ely, Minn.–based artist Andy Messerschmidt to share some of the visual and conceptual influences behind his work. He responded with a series of images–from a French visionary environment cobbled together by a French postman to a […]

 Friend Me/Follow Me: Graze Anatomy (2012)

Andy Messerschmidt, Friend Me/Follow Me: Graze Anatomy, 2012

Shortly after he completed Friend Me/Follow Me: Graze Anatomy (2012)–the mixed-media installation just inside the Walker’s Hennepin Avenue entrance–we asked Ely, Minn.–based artist Andy Messerschmidt to share some of the visual and conceptual influences behind his work. He responded with a series of images–from a French visionary environment cobbled together by a French postman to a Hindu pilgrimage–plus a few “lines for elucidation/’hallucidation'”: (more…)

Post–The Exception and the Rule

By Susy Bielak, Karen Mirza, Brad Butler, Yesomi Umolu We are about to tell you the story of a journey. An exploiter and two of the exploited are the travelers. Examine carefully the behavior of these people. Find it surprising though not unusual. Inexplicable though normal, incomprehensible though it is the rule – Bertolt Brecht, […]

By Susy Bielak, Karen Mirza, Brad Butler, Yesomi Umolu

We are about to tell you the story of a journey.
An exploiter and two of the exploited are the travelers.
Examine carefully the behavior of these people.
Find it surprising though not unusual.
Inexplicable though normal, incomprehensible though it is the rule

– Bertolt Brecht, extract from The Exception and the Rule

Image courtesy Alexandra Harley/Veronica Ochoa

Image courtesy Alexandra Harley/Veronica Ochoa

Last Thursday night, in the midst of a blizzard, a collection of players and spect-actors created a forum in the Museum of Non Participation. Within the space of the gallery, we enacted a play, Bertolt Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule, whose very subject was on trial.

Also, on trial, were these questions:

  • Where does power reside in the room?
  • Who gets to speak, and who is silenced?
  • Which facets of a narrative will come to light?

Within Brecht’s play , the “rule” implies a legal language or a directive, while the “exception” evokes being ungovernable or searching for an alternative to either the state or the free market. Together, they act as both a statement, that “the rule cannot exist without the exception,” and a question, as to what a state of exception might be. Through the story of a merchant and his servant, The Exception and the Rule explores themes of capitalism and economics, labor and hierarchy, legislation and state ideology, hiding and secrecy, and the lack of union rights.

Image courtesy Alexandra Harley/Veronica Ochoa

Image courtesy Alexandra Harley/Veronica Ochoa

As described in our prior post, a significant part of Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s engagement at the Walker and in Minneapolis was working together with Twin Cities’ citizens to translate this play, using methods of Augosto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed in a series of four day-long workshops. The performance—presented as a one-night only event–was the culmination of this immersive work. How do you take process-based practice and the intimate space of a closed workshop to the open and very public space of the gallery? These were the challenges and the risks at play as we presented our interpretation of the play to an audience of between 80 – 120 people.

                 7

I am the narrator
I am the translator
I am the transcriber

I am the one who bears witness
To the uncomfortable being of other
In that in-between space

Who holds the tension in this space?
Who has author(ity) here?

- Andrea Jenkins, extract from Deep Privilege

The audience, or spect-actors, were brought into the Rules of Engagement through the Games for Actors and Non Actors:

GameofActors

Within the performance, there were formal contradictions between flow and rupture. Ruptures came from literally breaking out of Brecht’s tale through freeze frames and Forum Theater. Through freeze frames, players and audience alike were able to pause and silence the performance in order to interject narratives/opinions/discontents from their own lives and experiences. In Forum Theater, a real event was enacted in which the spect-actors were invited to take up the position of the oprimido and re-imagine the scenario, in order to affect change.

co-erced, manipulated, guided, coaxed, rehearsed, coddled,
cajoled, nursed, pushed into…..forgetting a—l-l of that mess-s-s-ss-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s through …..

– Veronica Ochoa, extract from of 13 ……

There were tensions between image (Boal) and narrative (Brecht). Throughout the course of the performance, players cycled as readers made their way through the script. Multiple players voiced single characters, while, simultaneously, others generated improvisational tableaus (the body as phonetics). Both pushed against binaries, engaging the simultaneous roles as oppressors and oppressed.

In conclusion, we find ourselves in a contraction, in the space of having generated new modes of language, and acknowledging the limits of language. There’s an inability to find a means to speak to all of the registers on which this work operates–mute, voiced, gestural, political, social, personal, anguished, agent.

(nos)-otr@s *

A reconfiguration of nosotros, the Spanish for WE. There is nos, the subject “we”. This is the people with power [the oppressor, colonizer, privileged] contained with-in—– hyphenated —–yet in constant exchange with the other, el otro, the oppressed. I add the @ to have both-genders-in-one and in order to neutralize the masculine predominance that exists within the Spanish language.

– Rigoberto Lara Guzman

This can’t be the conclusion.

The performance—an ephemeral, manifold act—was, and is, experienced through a host of positions (of body, perspective, etc.). We acknowledge that this work can only be documented collectively. We invite you to join us in the process by adding to the comments stream below.

Entering The Exception and the Rule

If your name is a sound, what does it move like? On Saturday April 6, fourteen people gathered in the Walker’s Barnes conference room for the first of four days working on radical political theatre practices in preparation for a performance piece applying working methods of Augusto Boal to Bertolt’s Brecht’s 1929 learning play The […]

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If your name is a sound, what does it move like?

On Saturday April 6, fourteen people gathered in the Walker’s Barnes conference room for the first of four days working on radical political theatre practices in preparation for a performance piece applying working methods of Augusto Boal to Bertolt’s Brecht’s 1929 learning play The Exception and the Rule. The impetus for this gathering–a process of workshopping, translating, and performing–is a key element of Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal.

Led by the artists, the workshops immediately established a space where institutional roles of curator/artist/producer/participant collapsed. From the onset it was clear that we would all participate equally in the activities to come. And the roles we each play daily– labor lawyer, father, educator, student, playwright, activist–would simultaneously materialize and dematerialize. During our time together, we would confront the fundamentals of where we stand and act in the world–politically, socially, morally–exploring our mutable positions (and positionalities) through movement and voice.

But first, we have to introduce ourselves. We each do this through performing our names– crossing a circle we’ve formed as a group, moving towards another participant, and enacting ourselves through sound and movement. A trilled erre, hurried consonants, languid strolls, skips, hops, leaps. Characters begin to form and morph within the span of a few paces. This sets the tone for the days to come– rich with movement, reflection, and rigor enacted through Boal’s games.

Brad and Karen led us through a rich and complex succession of games. Following is a taste of a few.

Hypnosis

Hypnosis a game of trust. It’s also a game of power. One person holds out their hand and the other keeps their face within four inches of it. The person with their hand out leads, the other follows, and then they switch. There are two rules. Both people must be silent and need to maintain four inches between the face and hand.

If you were to float above us during this exercise, you would see pairs of people respectively running, crawling, walking at snail’s pace. Some of the leaders did so gently. Others were more aggressive. Some pairs moved meditatively, like tai chi. Others moved acrobatically.

There were three progressions of this exercise:

First–One leads, one follows. Invert.

Second—Neither leads, neither follows. How do you move with mutuality?

Third: Both resist. How do you move?

We paused every so often to scan the room to see what positions bodies had found themselves, and to digest each as positions of power.

The game called up questions of parity, mutuality, leadership, internal conflict, and the ease and difficulty of trust. We formed a collective body– one that made clear the ways in which the position of being a leader or follower, are inherently precarious.

Image Work

We stood in a circle, turned outwards and closed our eyes. We were told a word and instructed to illustrate it with our bodies. Some of these words–like silence, trust, merchant, and coolie– came directly from the group’s response to the play. We made these images silently, first for ourselves and then for the group.

We then turned into the circle and presented our body images as body memories. With some of these, we were asked to hold our position and gravitate to others in the room with whom we felt some affinity. We clustered in groups that became tableaus  and were told to freeze in place. Group by group we showed each other our tableaus. Our fellow players were asked to describe what they saw in the happenstance scene, to tease out the hierarchies of power between bodies and gestures.

This is a just a brief fragment of how we worked, building a collective consciousness and a shared vocabulary that was at once physical, emotional and verbal– bringing the body to bear in the production of knowledge. During the performance due to take place tonight at 7pm, the audience will witness the slippage between Boal’s practice, Brecht’s narrative and the life experiences of the players. The event will be improvisational and open to contributions from its audience. This framework invites consideration of the subtleties of power, not only of the play’s characters, but of the players and the audience in the space. In this way, this moment serves to open the discursive space embedded in the exhibition itself. In place of being a finite performance, it serves as a rehearsal for how viewers might engage in the Museum of Non Participation throughout its Walker debut.

Artists in Conversation

Holy Bible: New Testament

In every work of art, there is a hidden set of influences that the audience may never see: conversations the artist had with peers, exhibitions he or she saw while creating the work, expectations for the medium that were established by predecessors. Throughout The Living Years: Art After 1989, you can see the different ways artists bring other artists, both contemporary and historical, into their work. The dialog between artists is made explicit – the influences no longer need to be guessed at because, for example, the work might be a blatant recreation of an iconic sculpture or it might state flat-out who was involved. In doing so, the artists explore the types of exchanges that occur in the art community and how these define artistic identity.

Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy’s Fresh Acconci (1995) is fresh in that it is new, with the pair remaking seminal 1970s video pieces by Vito Acconci. But it is also fresh in the way we might refer to a back-talking child. Kelley and McCarthy restage these once intimate videos, placing them in the context of Hollywood and the porn industry. While Acconci’s videos are sparingly staged and naturally lit, this updated version features naked models in a sun-streaked Hollywood hills mansion. The original stand-alone pieces, now sandwiched together into one cyclical 45-minute video work, become a nightmarish playhouse that the performers cannot escape. In choosing to cast glamorous models to play the actors (unlike previous collaborations between the pair where they themselves performed), Kelley and McCarthy are commenting on their own feelings of entrapment by Acconci’s legacy. Yet at the same time, the artists are making an Oedipal attempt to break free of it. In an earlier collaboration, Family Tyranny (1987), recently shown at This Will Have Been: Art, Love, & Politics in the 1980s, the two artists explore the relationship between an abusive father and his son (performed by McCarthy and Kelley, respectively). That video begins with the text, “The father begat the son. The son begat the father.” With Fresh Acconci exploring and criticizing the idea of artistic patrilineage, it could have opened with the very same lines.

Anonymous II

Kris Martin. Anonymous II (2009). buried human skeleton, certificate accompanying burial. overall 16 x 16 inches. Image: Walker Art Center

(more…)

Then & Now: Further Reading

As we roll into the third week of our dedicated online feature on art, love and politics in the Twin Cities in the 1980s, here are a couple of suggested readings your delectation: Joanna Inglot interviewed by Jennie Klein on the history of WARM Selective Recall: Twin Cities Art History (ARP! Issue #2, Fall 2007) […]

Scavenger Fun with Lifelike’s “Fixture” Artworks (and Yes, There’s a Prize)

“Fixture: Model 12Y85,” by David Lefkowitz Real life ranges far and wide and happens in unexpected places — so too with the Lifelike exhibition, which includes a number of artworks placed outside the Walker’s galleries, Jonathan Seliger’s milk carton and Robert Therrien’s table-and-chair set being two outsized examples. However, the “fixture model” paintings by David Lefkowitz and […]

“Fixture: Model 12Y85,” by David Lefkowitz

Real life ranges far and wide and happens in unexpected places — so too with the Lifelike exhibition, which includes a number of artworks placed outside the Walker’s galleries, Jonathan Seliger’s milk carton and Robert Therrien’s table-and-chair set being two outsized examples. However, the “fixture model” paintings by David Lefkowitz and ashtray sculptures by Ruben Nusz are not so immediately apparent; not only are these two series of artworks life-sized, but they’ve been distributed throughout the Walker in various nooks and crannies and other unobtrusive places. A natural set-up for a scavenger hunt, yes?

First up is the hunt for Lefkowtiz’s diminutive oil paintings, partly because the artist is giving a free gallery talk  here next Thursday, April 19. Altogether, he installed 21 of these trompe l’oeil works depicting electrical outlets, thermostats, control panels, and other electrical wall fixtures, but we opted to go easy with this first round of clues, below: six of the seven are for the “fixtures”  in the Lifelike galleries. See the FAQ below for details, and watch for the ashtray hunt in early May!

1. One of the works in Lifelike features a somewhat gloomy setting—you could shed some light on it with a lamp “plugged in” to the nearby Fixture: Model #0 1???.

2. Fixture: Model #12S41 appears to be grimy, but it’s nowhere near as gross as the evolving fruit on display above it.

3. A large swath of species from the agaricales: agaricus order directs the eye up and over to Fixture: Model #91SM1.

4. It’s hard to tell, but a woman seems to find Fixture: Model #12RY8 more interesting than her offspring.

5. If you were to plug a toaster into Fixture: Model #12F72, a nearby work has something that could make use of it.

6. Could Fixture: Model #12KT7 be an emergency control panel for the adjacent artwork?

7. Fixture: Model #12PS1 is well-camouflaged by real-life counterparts in the Cargill Lounge.


SCAVENGER HUNT FAQ

WHAT is the the prize?
A $25 gift card for the Walker Shop.

WHO’s eligible to win?
Those who correctly locate all seven artworks will be entered in a drawing.

HOW do I enter?
Write a detailed description of the location for each artwork, or send photos that either identify the individual pieces or show their location.

WHERE do I send my entry?
Email it to chyna.bounds@walkerart.org or tweet it to @walkerartcenter with hashtag #lifelike.

WHEN? By Friday, April 27.

 

From the Archives: Jud Nelson’s Hefty 2-Ply

On view through May 27 as a part of Lifelike, the 1,500-pound Hefty 2-Ply made quite a splash when it first landed at the Walker in 1981.  The Walker commissioned Jud Nelson in 1979 to make a piece for its permanent collection; it took nearly two years to carve it from marble. Known for his depictions of everyday […]

On view through May 27 as a part of Lifelike, the 1,500-pound Hefty 2-Ply made quite a splash when it first landed at the Walker in 1981. 

"Hefty 2-Ply" on view as part of "Lifelike" (with Rudolph Stingel’s oil painting "Untitled (after Sam)," from 2006.

The Walker commissioned Jud Nelson in 1979 to make a piece for its permanent collection; it took nearly two years to carve it from marble. Known for his depictions of everyday items — Shirts IV: Van Heusen and Chair are also part of the Walker collection — the artist opted to make a garbage bag bursting with familiar throwaways from the latter half of the 20th century.

Nelson at work on "Hefty 2-ply" in his New York Studio, 1980.

He started by roughing out its form from Italian Carrera marble, using a hammer and chisel, then refined the piece with rotary grinders and finished the details with dental drills fitted with diamond bits. Several items, including products from Coca-Cola, General Electric, and Kitty Klean, date the sculpture to a distinct period and are all identifiable — by the artist, at least — within its bulges and wrinkles.

The artist installing his work in July, 1981.

Nelson, an alumnus of Bethel College and the University of Minnesota, was on hand to install Hefty 2-Ply in Gallery 7 (now the Medtronic Gallery), and the sculpture was unveiled in a special ceremony as part of the Walker’s 10th  anniversary celebration of its Barnes building on July 12, 1981.

Cartoon from the "Minneapolis Star," July 16, 1981

More than 12,000 people showed up for the festivities — some 8,000 more than were anticipated — and Hefty 2-Ply‘s debut stirred up further press and interest, such as this cartoon from the Minneapolis Star.

At the Walker's 10th anniversary celebration

As with so many of the painstaking replicas in Lifelike, the realism of Hefty 2-Ply has a special kind of allure. And while it’s tempting to touch – alas, the the usual museum rules apply to this favorite Walker artwork. 

 

 

“I’ll be the judge of that”: John Waters on the power of — and hatred for — contemporary art

Gallery view of “Absentee Landlord,” with works by Claes Oldenburg, Gedi Sibony, Scott Burton, and Marlene McCarty. All photos by Cameron Wittig. Filmmaker and pop culture provocateur John Waters has played many roles in his career, but never that of curator until now. At the invitation of the Walker, he enacted a “curatorial intervention” in […]


Gallery view of “Absentee Landlord,” with works by Claes Oldenburg, Gedi Sibony, Scott Burton, and Marlene McCarty. All photos by Cameron Wittig.

Filmmaker and pop culture provocateur John Waters has played many roles in his career, but never that of curator until now. At the invitation of the Walker, he enacted a “curatorial intervention” in one of its current collection exhibitions and the result, Absentee Landlord, is infused with his trademark blend of subversion, wit, and insight. Walker curator Betsy Carpenter recently spoke with Waters about his lifelong interest in art and his own photographic practice.

Betsy Carpenter
Most people coming to the exhibition will know you as a filmmaker and a writer, but fewer will know that you are an avid collector of contemporary art. Since this is your first foray as a curator here at the Walker, would you give us a little background?

John Waters
I bought the first piece in my collection when I was maybe eight years old. I went to the Baltimore Museum of Art, and in the gift shop they had for probably a dollar a print of a work by Miró. I remember I loved it and took it home and put it in my bedroom, and all my friends went, “Ew, that’s horrible, why would you hang that ugly thing?” And I realized the great power that contemporary art has. I still have that piece and it really looks real because it’s so old and it’s in this old frame. It’s the only fake I have in my whole house but it was the first thing in my collection, so I like to think of it as real.

Carpenter
Do you remember what it was about the Miró that struck you?

Waters
Well, I wasn’t looking for compliments. I was just saying to myself that I liked it— and then I was amazed to see how crazy it could make people who couldn’t see what I saw, which was, I guess, art. That was the first time that had ever happened.

Carpenter
Were your parents interested in art?

Waters
Not especially, but we did have big books of classics, of old masters and that kind of stuff. And of course, I always looked at anything with nudity—as a child that was the main thing I wanted to look for in the old masters. We got Life magazine, and at that time it was like getting 100 magazines today. Life made Jackson Pollock famous; I remember reading the article “Is Jackson Pollock the Greatest Living Painter?” and being obsessed by  that. Later, as a teenager, I pretended to be an abstract painter but my work was horrible; I kept none of it. I wanted to be a beatnik—that character that Ric Ocasek played in Hairspray, that’s kind of what I wanted to be. I remember liking Marisol’s work, and I really liked Kienholz a lot. His works were fascinating to me—a little bit dirty and a little bit shocking.

Carpenter
So true, there is definitely a dark side to his work.

Waters
So I was always drawn to that kind of stuff. My parents did not discourage it, but they certainly didn’t love my interests. Before my dad died he used to say to me whenever I would buy something, “You bought that? They saw you coming, boy.” I’ve never even sold one piece I’ve collected in the past, but my dad was the only person I ever would be uncouth enough to show auction prices to—like “See?” I find that really offensive in general, but with my dad I liked doing that and he would laugh.

Carpenter
You are also a photographer. When did your photographic practice start? Was it an extension of your filmmaking?

Waters
Around about 1990, I think, I started doing it for myself, but I didn’t show it to anybody for a while. Before that I had collected contemporary art for a long time. I have a silver Jackie Kennedy print by Warhol and a couple of Lichtensteins that I got in high school. The Jackie was given to me by my girlfriend—it was that long ago. It was $100, which was like $1,000 then. It was a lot. So I did collect art very early, and then I stopped for a long time, and when I finally got a little money from making movies, I started again. I went to every gallery around the late ’80s, and always went to Colin de Land’s gallery, American Fine Arts. I really liked his shows the best. One day Colin just said, “Do you ever paint or anything?” I said, “No, but I have these little photographs.” He said, “What do you mean you have these photographs?” So I did have a  whole body of work already, and I think I had purposefully only showed them to very few people until Colin came down and saw them and he offered me a show.

Carpenter
Do you think you needed to have that support or a certain validation from a gallery to take your work seriously as an artist?

Waters
Oh, yes. Especially for me coming into the art world from show business, something which in America—not so much in Europe but in America—creates this great skepticism.

Carpenter
Let’s go back to talk about what it was about contemporary art that your eightyear- old self who bought the Miró recognized as a power to piss people off.

Waters
Well, Jackson Pollock pissed people off. Then Warhol pissed off all the people that liked Jackson Pollock, which was even more exciting to me. So of course Pop art is what got me hooked. I was very, very obsessed. As a teenager I actually would sneak away to New York on a bus and go see shows. I saw Claes Oldenburg’s Store when it opened originally, and the really early Warhol films, too.

Gallery view of Absentee Landlord, with works by Yves Klein, Eugene Meatyard, Carl Andre, and Russ Meyers

Carpenter
You witnessed key moments, legendary really, of 20th-century art. Today the art of that era has been accepted, even embraced by the general public, whereas back then it wasn’t.

Waters
Oh, it was mostly made fun of. You look at Warhol’s beautiful little soup cans on the walls, the ones that started the whole thing, and they’re so exquisite, and they’re hand-painted, and they were so amazing. And you realize how incredibly radical that was. To me, that’s what the ’60s were, not the Beatles and stuff, but the Warhol years and certainly the larger Pop art  movement and the fashions from Betsey Johnson’s Paraphernalia shop. Warhol certainly was the first ever to put drugs and homosexuality together, which was incredibly radical at the time because gay people were kind of square then, and Andy made them much hipper. I think he began gay liberation, even though he was the kind of gay person who didn’t even fit in that world. I’ve always found the people I’m most attracted to are minorities that can’t fit in their own minority.

Carpenter
So turning to the current moment, do you feel that the contemporary art world today still has that same sort of power to provoke?

Waters
Minimalism used to be the easiest way to infuriate people, but now that they have gotten used to it, it’s lost a little bit of its kick. That doesn’t mean it’s less good, but people have seen it before so they’ve gotten a little more used to it. Contemporary art still can make people crazy, but there is not a new movement. I’ve always wondered what the next generation of rebellion is going to be. When I was younger, it was being juvenile delinquents and beatniks and hippies and punks, and then grunge and rappers, but now what? Well, if you’re a bad boy or girl now you’re a hacker. That is how you rebel, and there is no fashion from hacking except bad posture from sitting in front of your computer. Certainly appropriation — “stealing” to the general public — can still anger people, yes. Some civilians can have great hatred for contemporary art, and that’s why whenever you go to court and have a jury deciding on appropriation, you always lose when you try to explain because they are angry that it’s worth that much in the first place, much less that you “copied.” The jury hates you for liking it and being able to see the art in it.

Carpenter
The idea that somehow artists are swindlers …

Waters
Maybe they are, but is that bad? I can’t stand when people say they’re “artists.” I always say, “Well, I believe that’s up to history to decide.” Or, “I believe I’ll be the judge of that.”

Carpenter
But don’t you consider yourself an artist?

Waters
I don’t call myself that. I say I use photography. I choke on saying I’m an artist because I really believe that is not up to me to decide. Sometimes it’s just easier to say that because you have an art show. But really, my work is hardly like Ansel Adams.’ I’m hardly using photography in that way, so it doesn’t really work to say I’m a photographer either. But when people say that to me, “I’m an artist,” I always do choke a little and think to myself, “Well! We’ll see about that!”

Waters and Carpenter (left) working on “Absentee Landlord” with chief curator Darsie Alexander

Carpenter
One of the benefits of working with you on this exhibition is that you have kept me laughing, and many of the works that you have selected for the show are ironic, even laugh-out-loud funny. But our audience should know that you take the art you collect very seriously. I’m interested in this fine line between seriousness and humor.

Waters
Well, to me contemporary art uses wit, and uses humor a lot, too. I would say Richard Tuttle isn’t funny, but he can use wit in a way that startles you. And I am serious about what I collect, but at the same time I embrace the impenetrability of some art, I embrace the elitism of the art world. I find it humorous because it is a secret club. Art is a magic trick. That somebody can take one thing and just put it here and call it art is a magic trick—if you can see it, and at first you can’t see it. You have to start going to galleries, you have to read, you have to learn about art history. But once you see it, you have that power—and it is power—forever.

Most people are mad that you can see it, and they think you’re lying and being pretentious. To me, pretension is pretending to see something you don’t. Well, I do see it. There is a certain humor about something that takes someone two seconds to draw that maybe goes on auction 30 years later for $10,000,000, but that’s great. That’s the magic trick of art! A lot of the art I like brings out the most unsophisticated thing you can possibly say about art, which is, “My kid could have done that.” And, the thing is, “Well then, stupid, why didn’t he? It just sold for $2,000,000. Who’s the moron?” Or the emperor’s new clothes. To me, well, that is art! If you  can convince somebody that you have fashion when you’re naked, isn’t that what art is? You learn to see something that others can’t.

 

Outtakes from John Waters’ media session for “Absentee Landlord”

This morning John Waters shook hands with a fan at the downtown Minneapolis CVS Pharmacy en route to the Walker, where he appeared in front of Claes Oldenburg’s giant French fries sculpture to shoot a short video welcome for his new exhibition, Absentee Landlord. He then proceeded to the Cargill Lounge, where he charmed a group of media folks […]

"Just Pathetic," yes? John Waters behind a Claes Oldenburg, shot with one of those underpowered iPhone apps.

This morning John Waters shook hands with a fan at the downtown Minneapolis CVS Pharmacy en route to the Walker, where he appeared in front of Claes Oldenburg’s giant French fries sculpture to shoot a short video welcome for his new exhibition, Absentee Landlord. He then proceeded to the Cargill Lounge, where he charmed a group of media folks before leading them on a preview tour of the aforementioned show — his first foray into curating. 

During a post-tour Q&A, his mention of a 1990 exhibition in Los Angeles called Just Pathetic as “one of the greatest contemporary art shows ever” prompted a Google search. Many agree, it would seem; it was the first show curated by Ralph Rugoff, who was until then primarily known as an arts writer. Since then, says the Guardian UK, Rugoff has “shaken up art audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, inspiring them to engage with the kind of puzzling, cerebral work that tends to put off all but the most dedicated of contemporary art aficionados.” Not unlike Waters’ own aim with Absentee Landlord, perhaps … though he noted repeatedly throughout the tour, in so many words, that contemporary art only puts off those who refuse to give it a chance.

Spinning things out a few more degrees: Just Pathetic traveled from L.A. to the legendary American Fine Arts in New York, whose founder, “art dealer and aesthetic provocateur” Colin deLand, was the first to show Waters’ own work in photography (as he notes in an interview in the upcoming Walker magazine, Waters is pretty emphatic about not calling himself an artist).

And now that Rugoff is director of the Hayward Gallery in London, it’s hard not to wonder what Waters’ future holds. He did note during the Q&A that “you can never have too many careers”; and he has, after all, just returned to the States from the 54th Venice Biennale, where he was one of the jurors who awarded artists on June 4. Of that experience, he singled out Swedish artist Klara Lidén, whom he and the other jurors gave a special mention to for her Untitled, (Trashcan) installation — a piece he didn’t think much of until he later saw some trash cans lined up along a beach elsewhere in Venice. He and the other jurors commended her work for  “its wit and rage, as well as its ability to bring the logic of public intervention into the museum space.”

Another item too amusing not to mention: Waters — a collector with his own very astute sense for art’s monetary value — recalled looking at wall labels for artworks with his dearly departed friend Divine, whom he said would note the names of the collectors and start plotting a home robbery. “That’s why those labels say ‘Private Collection’!” he explained.

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