Henry Gepfer

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HENRY GEPFER

Artist-in-Residence

 
 

About the Artist

 
 

My recent work communicates the embarrassment, shame, failure, violence and vulnerability that undergird typical, heroic projections of masculinity. I deploy alter egos and performative strategies in my work that act to introduce multiple ways of framing identity.

The characters that populate this work, Dandelion the Clown and H. Lloyd, are fictional, emotional projections of interior and exterior selves that populate my consciousness. Dandelion is a character who embodies my inner-most desires and represents the queerness I often feel compelled to repress. By contrast, H. Lloyd, a character based on the silent film actor Harold Lloyd, provides me with a charming, protective veneer that enables me to pass as “man enough”. These figures function to both conceal and expose my vulnerabilities and deviation from heterosexist conventions.

The works made by these characters traffic in the language of masculine abstract-action heroics. In his pieces, Dandelion emerges as a latter day Pierrot whose gestural abstractions are used to illustrate the foolish misery of the painter while the pieces made by H. Lloyd revel in populist absurdity. Warholian portraits pit macho painterly abstraction against postmodern parody, thereby mocking and exposing the masculine power dynamics identified with mid-century “patriarchs” like Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning.

To underscore the artifice of these fictional alter egos, I also present works that are attributed to myself, Henry Gepfer, as a mediator poised between twinning personas. Unlike the works of Dandelion and Lloyd, pieces attributable to this third, “true” self dispense with an explicit figure alluding, instead, to an abject body whose traces linger in the sweat and secretions of shredded underclothing.

I am relying heavily on both performance and process to create an object-oriented body of work. I draw on the histories and vocabularies of painting, printmaking, sculpture and photography, complicating the often arbitrary division and separation among different media. Both aesthetically and personally, I feel increasingly comfortable moving away from a literal and metaphoric center and finding power, instead, in the margins. In this recent work, I locate my investigation of identity in complicating notions of masculinity and diversifying my artistic practice.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 

Interview

with D. K. Broderick, May 2018
 

You've expressed a desire to make art that continually tries to do something dumb in a smart way. How do you think about the relationship between these two terms — dumb and smart — and in what ways is this relationship at play in your work?

I like the merger of high and low culture. It creates an interesting dynamic. So whether it's referencing art history or talking about theory, trying to do so in a way that can be enjoyable to someone that has not been indoctrinated into academia, is something that I'm continually exploring. I really like the idea of lessening the gravity of high culture by commingling it with things that are otherwise incredibly stupid like putting your face through a wall. There's no good reason to ever do that, but it can be funny from the perspective of physical comedy, and the laughter associated with that painfully moronic act can accompany intellectual pursuits.

On the topic of stupidity, my work also references various notions of manhood. When I say manhood I'm not using it to refer to the condition of being human, I'm talking about the ways that we socialize boys into expectations of what it means to be a man. There's a lot of violence and force involved in getting someone to believe that "weakness" is undesirable and not helpful in any way. Or that having feelings is a detriment. I think that the way we socialize into that is incredibly small-minded and it's incredibly damaging. So I try in my work to treat it as stupid as I perceive it to be.


You produce work as one of three characters: Dandelion, Henry Gepfer, and H. Lloyd. Do each of these characters think about this issue (the stupidity with which individuals are traumatically conditioned) differently or do they share a common belief?

They each have different perspectives for sure. Dandelion is in this situation where they're always remaining hidden from view. Because it's a defense mechanism. There's always that fear of putting yourself out there where if someone sees that I'm not a manly individual or that I identify in a certain way, that there will be repercussions. H. Lloyd on the other hand, being a facade that is meant to face the day and was inspired by Harold Lloyd because that character is, in comparison to the male and masculine characters he's up against in his films is forced to be clever. So I'm not sure that they're consciously thinking about these things, they're just acting out the things that they're meant to represent to me. They illustrate those points through their idiosyncrasies.


You didn't discuss Henry. What about Henry Gepfer?

Henry Gepfer is meant to illustrate vulnerability. I guess as a verbatim sense, it's not hidden, it's putting on display all these things that are otherwise humiliating. Nobody ever tries to show their gross sweat stained t-shirts or underwear to strangers. That's would be a very terrifying experience. So Henry deals with those things and with the abject directly.


Is there a character that you gravitate to more or do you find yourself embodying them all in more or less equal amounts?

I like dealing with Dandelion more because I can romanticize that character in a way that I can't with the other two — they’re just reminders of all of my faults. Not to suggest that Dandelion doesn't have faults. I just have more of an attachment to that character. That said, I realize that I can't just make work as that character without facing the reality that the other two characters represent as well.


Given that Dandelion is a clown, can you speak a bit about the figure of the clown in your work and why it is important to you to make work from the position of a clown?

Dandelion is modeled after my sister Lisa. When I was growing up she was a clown. As a part-time job she would work parties and she would always take me along with her. My sister has been an influence on me my whole life. She's responsible in ways that I am not. I always look up to her in that way. She was also the first out queer that I knew. So in thinking about gender most of my life and considering what it means to be a person that's somewhere on that spectrum of queerness, I put a lot of stock into her as a person. Dandelion emerged out of Lisa's face paint. I then outfitted that character in a way that I thought was fitting.


It's interesting that you discussed being a clown and being queer together, would you care to elaborate on how the two are linked for you?

To me they’re totally related. Because clowns represent foolishness for me. While I prefer to identify myself as bisexual, I recognize all the clumsy baggage that comes along with that in our culture and have grown to hate that term. It also comes down to the really dumb and not PC term "assclown" which is lobbed at kids often. So, in my logic they are very related terms and positions. But I don't think there's necessarily anything other than my own subjective experiences and views to back that connection up. It just felt relevant to me so I've gone with it.


There's a certain amount of violence present in the work you are making right now, both in terms of the actions you are performing and the pallette you are working with. What function does violence serve in this particular body of work and in your practice more generally?

I think violence is always present, whether it's in the subtle violence of throwing a dart at an image of a person or in the other work that Dandelion made with handkerchiefs. Those take on violent markings, and when you look at the face afterwards it has an apparent physical result that took place on my skin. The character of Dandelion is rooted in the everyday violence that we commit to ourselves by hiding the parts of ourselves that we feel to be important to us. At least that's been my experience. The more time you expend, the more labor you put into hiding yourself, you’re only really doing yourself a disservice by forcing yourself to take on the weight of bad feelings that you're either projecting onto other people or that you think that other people are putting on to you. I'm interested in dealing with that subtle violence.

This piece is a little bit more overt in its violence, but it's still about violence inflicted on ourselves. It was inspired by a Langston Hughes poem called "End," in which Hughes is talking about this room where whose traits can only be expressed through the things that are absent. There’s no window, there’s no clock, there's no time, outside the door there is no light there is no dark there is no door. I think about that a lot in terms of notions of the closet. The closet is not a physical space — it's a space that you force yourself into or that you feel yourself forced into. In that sense, the only real entrance or exit is up to you to figure out. There are external factors for sure but it's a situation that you can — and I say this from a privileged point of view — take steps to make more welcoming or more hostile. So in dealing with four panels of drywall, they're meant to represent four walls of a room.

 
 

I really like the idea of lessening the gravity of high culture by commingling it with things that are otherwise incredibly stupid like putting your face through a wall.
— Henry Gepfer
 
 
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It doesn't seem like this work is necessarily about what is on the other side of those four walls as much as it is about one’s attempts at getting outside of the space created by those four walls. Do you feel like one can ever be outside of a room or is it really more of a process of coming to terms with whatever room one is in?

I think coming to terms with that room, whether you're out or not, or queer or not, is crucial. We all have things that we hide so we all have our own rooms. Where we hide things from other people. So for me it's really just about coming to terms with that space. For me, this piece would take on totally different connotations if those panels were painted a pearly green or something. Or if I took the time and pains to hide all the flaws in their construction. It's just a matter of trying to deal with the space that we allot to ourselves or that we are allotted.

The idea of performing in front of people is something that makes me extremely uncomfortable. So I feel like it's something I have to deal with as a result. Part of the performance and this piece is about confronting that fear as much as it is dealing with any other fear that I may perceive to be within four walls that feel like they're closing in.


If you got to a point where you were making a performance work and you no longer felt uncomfortable —

I just wouldn't do it. It's not worth doing. Or at least it wouldn't be any longer.


In that case, it seems that an important part of your process is to work through things — historical, material, and personal. While we've been talking I found myself considering and reconsidering the ways in which you are making imprints with various parts of your body. As a means of moving the conversation towards the specificities of your work and the methods you channel, perhaps we could discuss the ways in which your work falls between printmaking and photography while including elements of performance, sculpture, and installation. Why is it important to you to work in-between all of these different disciplines?

I don't think it's important for me to work in any particular way, I think it's important for me to work in the ways that are engaging to me. Whatever media it makes sense to work with and in at a given time for a given project is what I will use. That said, printmaking and photography are two disciplines that I always come back to. I do make prints on paper and I'm very interested in the vocabulary of printmaking and all the ways in which it can be manipulated, especially in forms that aren't traditional print media. I still think of creating an imprint or a monoprint on a drywall panel as part of a printmaking practice but it takes a sculptural and performative form. There will also a photographic component to the end result of this piece. I don't want to say that I work in a way that serves an idea, but instead that I work with whatever materials feel engaging and exciting to me at a given time. I usually try to take the time to make sure that the materials I'm using make sense with what I'm thinking about mentally at any given moment. I think it's healthy to work with as many forms as possible. We're in a time where no one really has to say, "I'm this or I'm that."


It can be difficult to not think of Bruce Nauman and Ugo Rondinone's respective clown-based works when experiencing any work of art that deals with clowns. That said, depictions of clowns and jesters have a long history in the arts. What art historical lineages — distant or recent — do you situate your work within and how does your work build on these genealogies?

Well, I guess I can talk about movements in art. Gestural abstraction of the mid-20th century has been influential. When we talk about manhood, there's nothing more machismo in terms of recent art history than that period of painting. Uber-masculine figures were often foregrounded in front of anybody of any other gender. So I think about that a lot. But in terms of artistic influence and/or lineage, I love Janine Antoni, I think she makes incredibly smart work. Bruce Nauman obviously comes up a lot, for all the reasons that you probably mentioned his name. But he's not really somebody that I'm actively thinking of. I know he dealt with clowns and sexuality and aggression. And as much as I really enjoy Rondinone's clowns, they're both just not people that I look to for guidance. Timm Ulrichs has been somebody on my mind recently. He makes such smart work. Even more recently, Kate Gilmore's work has had an impact, especially when considering breaking through walls.

Those are the people that are on my mind frequently. The way that these artists are not just having one conversation is something that I strive for. To produce a piece that somebody who understands art history and theory can enjoy that piece as much as somebody who just has a casual interest in art. They might think it's a little bit weird but they might be able to appreciate it for some of the things that are happening in it. I think that's a really great way to approach art. And if I take anything from these artists, it's the importance of being able to have multiple conversations. If you're only having one conversation you're gonna shut out people.


Where do you see this work going?

At the moment I've begun to stew on how relevant it still is to my day-to-day life and practice to make work in this way.


How long have you been working through these three characters?

For the past two years. I think there's still plenty of things to be mined from these characters and plenty of things for them to address. I have a very short attention span so instead of thinking about what else I can do I tend to just move on and be done. So that's something fun to always be dealing with. As I assume is the case with any other artist making working in alter egos, I don't think you forever want to be that person. Maybe I'll reach a point in my life where the things that they represent are no longer the things that I need to talk about or making work about. When they're done they'll be done.


What does working through an alter ego allow an individual to do that they wouldn't be able to do otherwise?

It's both a self-defense mechanism and an allowance to do that which otherwise might not make any sense in your life. To deal with heavy personal traumas by putting on a face and perform as somebody or something else gives you that leeway of not having to be yourself at a time when you're feeling extremely vulnerable. I should also state that while these characters may be representative of what I feel and of what I'm working through, they're not necessarily me. That's an important consideration — they all are but none of them are. Being able to put on these costumes is a reiteration of what H. Lloyd stands for in the first place: a protective performative facade that allows you to hide away vulnerabilities.


When you make a work as one of these characters, who is given authorship? Say for example, on a wall label or an exhibition text, are you listed, "Henry," or is a character listed, "Dandelion," or is it "Henry as..."?

On my website they're all listed as themselves, but they're all creations of mine so ultimately I'm authoring everything that they do. I tend to think about it cinematically. Maybe this sounds really stupid, but the relationship I have with these characters is the same as how a director will direct a piece through an actor and an actor will carry it out.

 
 

I think it’s healthy to work with as many forms as possible. We’re in a time where no one really has to say, “I’m this or I’m that.”
— Henry Gepfer
 
 
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Photos by Walker Esner