On your site, you talk about your work as “celebrating escapism as a necessary counterweight to transcendence.” Can you say more about that and how it plays into your work?
Sure. I think a lot of my work is about counting time and thinking about human scale in relationship to other scales. The melancholy that induces, but the other side of that, too: the absurdism of humor or the joy of observation, which are both escapist in a certain way.
What is it that you enjoy — if you enjoy it — about that sort of impermanence that you're playing with there?
Oh, I think that's at the core of what art does — and, yeah, I totally enjoy it. That’s part of why I love art: the re-situating of yourself and your own concerns inside a larger construct. Art is such an open net for any kind of historical/cultural concern, or for transcendent meditation. That’s what I love about art.
What have you been working on in particular in Wassaic?
So I've been here for four days. I started on these notebook paintings, and I did one shadow painting and one cloud painting. I'm not sure what this series is yet, but I've also been making these kind of improvisational paper paintings.
What is the role of improvisation in your work?
I think it's a way to tap the unconscious beyond your work. You can't move beyond yourself. It's impossible. But you can at least tap veins that you're unaware of, in terms of subject matter, and it prevents you from censoring yourself. If I plan everything out, I'm constantly negating myself. Like, “Oh, that's not smart enough, or in line with these ideals.” And that kind of self-censoring, I think, really puts your audience before your work. Because then you're always thinking about the societal construct that you're making this work for.
Rather than thinking of a way that you can, hopefully, reshape that societal construct through the work?
Man, I don't even think art does that. I think art can do that in the making, but not in the viewership. Maybe I'm wrong about that.
I mean, I think that's a valid point. That art may not be affect social change as much as people would like to think.
It can, like, push boundaries of conversation within an intellectual class, and that has real effects. But I think they're more limited than the transformative effect of making art. And the possibilities that are contained within sharing that.
Wait, how did we get there? [Laughs.]
I don’t know how we got there. Doesn’t matter how we got there. But can you say more about what you think art does do, then?
I don’t know. You want it to affect positive change in the world. I think you have to have faith that all art somehow makes the world a better place or it's hard to keep making it, because it's such a selfish act.
But participating in an artist-run gallery, and just being in art, I’ve realized how narrow the art viewing world is, and how insular, and sometimes that bums me out. I just wonder what our responsibility is to a greater audience. Maybe we don't have one.
Do you think it’s mostly a self-responsibility, then?
I feel a responsibility to make my work accessible without a graduate education. As a viewer, I think art allows you to enter somebody else's experience, which can be transformative. And as a maker, it allows you to both talk about your own experience, but also kind of listen to the world in a really beautiful way. Whether that's research-based or perceptual painting. Any kind of art does that.
Is your practice primarily painting-based, or do you have a research-based practice as well?
I call it more a materials-based practice. I do research when I'm doing participatory projects and trying to situate myself in a community or a site, and I think research is a really important part of respecting whatever community you're entering.
But, mostly, I think through my hands and materials, and then the writing and research comes after.
What role does site-specificity play in your work then? Or to what degree is it important in your work?
I think anytime it's an installation you have to respect where you are, and what that audience is.
Last summer, I did a project in Muncie, Indiana, exploring pools as social space. I conducted interviews, I set up these hydrophones so people could listen to the pool, I did cyanotypes that people could keep. And in that situation, I think it was really important to research the history of the place, to try to understand the communities that I was making artwork with. And then also really dive into the social history of pools, because that was what I was exploring. Which is fucked up, if you haven’t read about it. [Laughs.]
I have not read it. Can you tell me a little bit about this “fucked-up” social history of pools?
Sure. Okay, so the first public pools were kind of like bathhouses that were instituted by an existing WASP majority for the incoming Catholic proletariat in New York City. They saw these unwashed masses, from their point of view, and they thought it would be a public good. But then, very quickly, with the Great Migration northward, they became sites of segregation and the kind of violence that exemplifies American history throughout the country. And that was true north to south.
And how did you seek to explore that in that piece in particular?
Oh, that piece wasn't really about the history. I wanted to know the history. I think that was important, and it might have helped shape some of the questions that I asked during interviews.
But, really, it was about how people conceptualize this public space and use it now. Especially cross-generational, cross-racial, cross-class, because we went to different public pools and private pools. Introducing that history in my questioning would have been kind of leading. I wanted their take, not my lecture.
I want to make sure that I have the full scope of the project. You did this research on the public pool as a space and conducted these interviews, but what did that end up as?
I made a video that stitched together a lot of the interviews, and it was displayed in Muncie. People, if they were up for it, made two cyanotypes. If they just made one, they kept it; if they made two, I kept one. And those were also on display.
I didn’t reuse those cyanotypes, but I ended up re-using a lot of the processes in a different pool-based installation later that year. I think about the ideas in material after the research-based project is over.
Is there a through line between that project and the work you're making now?
The cyanotypes were all [of] things people had on them. So, like, goggles, sunglasses, empty water bottles, tampons, snorkels, Barbies, lots of toys. There's a starkness to their relatability. It was like a still life of everyday shit, that I didn't pre-select.
I like that as an exhibition title: A still life of everyday shit.
[Laughs.] Yeah, and in these things I'm working through [in the studio], and maybe some of the others, there’s that same concept of eminently relatable material honored somehow.
What is important to you about surfacing that “everyday shit”?
I'm not sure exactly. I’m still really thinking it out, and I'm still highly skeptical that it's about that. But what draws me to it is that there is a sort of cultural coherence to capitalistic norms. Like, the fact that we all clean with the same stuff, regardless of class. I mean, I don't know, maybe some people only use generic stuff. But everybody's seen the commercials.
There's an Andrea Fraser essay called “Why Does Fred Sandback's Work Make Me Cry?” Have you ever heard that Dan Graham quote, like, “All artists want to make something more important and interesting than art?”
I have not heard that.
I'm probably slaughtering it, but that's the gist. So Fraser’s premise for this essay is that art wants to get us back to a hypothetical place where there is no societal division. I mean, that's obviously a privileged position to take, but I think there's something true to that desire, whether it's condescendingly naive or not. So I'm just trying to think through that with these objects.
You framed it in an interesting way a couple minutes ago: you said that you were “highly skeptical” that your work is about the ideas we were talking about. Which, for me, provides an interesting window into how your practice works. Do you sort of see your art-making process as a way of answering those questions that you have, to the point where you don't really know what a piece is about until it's done?
Maybe. I mean, I see it more as a process of asking questions. When art answers questions, I'm always curious who benefits. It’s more about trying to ask these questions through images, to sort them out for myself and, hopefully, the viewers.
Why are you skeptical of art that answers questions?
I think when art is didactic, it can reinforce accepted truths. And maybe that's good, but I don't often know who that affects.
Do you think you can answer a question without being didactic? I feel like there's a line between didacticism and answering questions.
Yeah, totally. And I don't think there's very much art that’s didactic.
It’s a little bit of a strawman sometimes.
Yeah, but, more… [Long pause.] I think art gives more space for the viewer when there's ambiguity for them to insert themselves. That’s all. I'm not trying to judge people who have a strong message to believe in. That's great. But I think it's helpful to provide space for the viewers to figure it out on their own.
So it’s more about framing a particularly interesting question and bringing the viewer to consider a question rather than, like, here's my answer.
Maybe. I mean, I think it could be more mystical than that. We live in a really design-based culture and time right now. Working in academia, everything's pushed towards STEM and problem solving. The research-based movement in art is all a reaction towards where the funding is, and how to enmesh art it in other funded systems once liberal arts dies out. But I think that problem-solving mentality can lose some of the magic of what art does.
Anthony Bowers is an artist and educator working across media in painting, sculpture, and installation. Originally from the Midwest, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2014 with an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts and has worked in Philadelphia teaching at Drexel University, University of the Arts, and Cheltenham Center for the Arts, also working as a studio assistant on many large scale installation projects at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. Anthony also holds a BFA in Painting from Indiana University, he has been a resident at the Wassaic Project and the Golden Foundation Painting Residency, and he is a curator/member of an artist-run project space, FJORD Gallery.
2019 Summer Residency