About the Artist
with Lucy Commoner, April 2019
In 2017, you received an Educational Fellowship at the Wassaic Artist Residency. What were the educational aspects of this residency and how did the experience impact your work?
During my two months at the residency, I worked with the Wassaic Project’s education director and the art teacher at nearby Stissing Mountain High School. Together, we planned a long-form project that would be a totally new process for the students. It began with a meet and greet; I introduced several classes of 9th–12th graders to different bodies of my work. We let the students guide the project and, after they saw my large-scale objects, every class wanted to make their own. Because teenagers all seem to have a current obsession, it was an amazing thing to see them own their interests then work together to make something taller than them. At the end, the students installed the sculptures all around the school. Some of the things chosen were fun and ubiquitous: an ice cream cone, a paper plane, an iPhone, and a 9 x 9 ft. Rubik’s cube! More specific sculptures were a nether portal from Minecraft, a Parisian toothpick, and the “buttersock” from the TV sitcom, iCarly. The whole thing was so grand and multi-faceted and unlike anything I did in high school, all at the direction of the students. That felt great.
Before that, my teaching experience was mostly one-day museum camps, painting workshops, and as a roving substitute at the Art Institute of Chicago. So, getting to know these kids over several weeks was very special. I learned (and remembered) that the art room in a public high school is an oasis — a place to ramble and reset from the drama in the hallways or at home. As their projects developed, I had moments of, “Oh nooo, I would totally make this.” That turned into a big yes and I still repeat some things to myself that began with those students: perfect is not a real thing, stop looking at it and work on something else for a while, it’s okay to change your mind, and everything is exercise.
Your artwork has been widely exhibited over the past 10 years and you have a varied and multi-disciplinary practice that includes painting, drawing, sculpture, and installation pieces. Your work is predominantly representational/figurative and often includes people, animals and playful juxtapositions. Can you elaborate on how your work has evolved over the years and describe your current interests?
I was a narrow-minded young painter, but I was a great painter (by standards no longer important to me). At some point in school, I began to feel like I had been deceived into a kind of dogma. I’ve spent much of the last 10 years fighting myself and my tendencies toward representational painting.
When I moved to Chicago in 2010, I began painting on top of found objects — books, rugs, decorative items. Using trompe l'oeil felt like a natural step toward my desire to make work about representation itself. With time, I hoped the different bodies of work would slowly bleed into one another, and I think it’s beginning to happen. Outside of painting, I’m using unfamiliar materials and processes for each new project, which has helped me take canvas and paint out of this sacred realm and changed painting into something joyful, less intense.
At the moment, I’m continuing with many groups of work simultaneously. I land on certain subject matter and stay with it for some time. These forms are tactile parts of my day that I romanticize and make metaphors around. At the moment, that means basketball, 99 cent stores, color codes, how-to instructions, clocks, and the dog (always). There’s a long game of telephone between the paintings and sculpture and I like to think that my work, if it’s a dialect, has a lot of slang in the mix.
You often play with scale in your pieces, engaging the viewer through the unexpected large scale of your imagery and objects. What is your artistic intention with this manipulation of reality?
When scaling up, I’m thinking about the potential change to the space around the object as much as the object itself. The sculptures are no fun alone on a white wall. They need bodies, architecture, and nature around them. Many of the items are modeled on things specific and dear to me, but ultimately have a broad read and a complicated history. I want them to be seen by children, my family, and my co-workers in other industries. I want them to think along with me about mass production, DIY, sentimentality, idolatry, and novelty.
Flyweight, the 1:12 scale gallery I made with Jesse Cesario, does something different. It’s a miniature room with wood floors, white walls, and a sky light — a mostly blank slate for artists to have a space all to themselves. It’s all about the artwork and what’s possible when NYC rent, material costs, storage, and transport are not barriers. It’s made to be photographed and doesn’t necessarily need to share space with anything else.
With both of these approaches to scale, there is a comedic aspect to the making-of. There are moments when 12 foot tall pants get dropped off at the drycleaners, the big joint I lit is put out with a fire extinguisher, or my hand sweeps the gallery with a cosmetics brush. It’s important to me that the works are shown without these stories, but that they carry a performative quality with them.
In your current installation of “Charm” and a series of friendship bracelets, you have created greatly enlarged versions of familiar objects. The superstitions connected with a rabbit’s foot and the crafty DIY associations of the friendship bracelets carry meanings for many of us. You are representing a lot of good luck in your shocking turquoise rabbit’s foot on its elegant marble base and major friendships in your 6-foot long bracelets! How did you conceive of these pieces, and what do you hope the viewer will experience from your very witty and technically accomplished installations?
As a hobby and starting point, I research how objects originated and how they came to be popularized. There’s a sadness to this; most things I choose have gone through the commercial ringer and had their histories ignored. Friendship bracelets certainly still carry a lot of meaning but have been far removed from their use in religious and political protests. Similarly with “Charm,” the story of the rabbit’s foot as a good luck talisman involves fertility, redheads, the Underworld, and the moon all wrapped up in the racist imagination and impropriety of historians recording other cultures’ lore during the 19th century.
Then, there’s the kids with faux animal feet dangling off our backpacks. The version I made was based off the foot I saved up for in 1992, in my favorite color that year. Each of the 12 bracelets is also dedicated. For “Metro Mall,” I used all the rope available at the dollar store in a Queens shopping center and for “Dog Vision,” every rope is dyed a color perceptible to dogs, or so we’re told. As far as technical accomplishment, I had to watch a lot of Youtube tutorials posted by tweens and I stayed making mistakes.
The size is limited to what I can make with materials most similar to the original object. Though they are large, I wanted them to move and behave in a way that still connects people to what they’ve known. Rendering in a large scale could help us feel small while considering the complexity of familiar ornaments, especially those we carry on our bodies. I choose to model after items that have been held or worn by many people and if you’ve owned it, it concerns you. Getting a laugh is good, too.
Photos by Jeff Barnett-Winsby