Sean Naftel

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SEAN NAFTEL

Artist-in-Residence

 
 

ABOUT THE ARTIST

 
 

Sean Naftel is a visual artist based in New York.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 

Interview

with Katie Angermeier Haab, January 2019

We went to church camp together as teenagers. This isn't a question, it's just a fact. It was wild to cross paths with you for the first time in twenty-five years in the tiny town of Wassaic. I remember you as a kind, genuine, older, safe, teenage boy with very little confidence, which wasn't at all unusual. I don't remember the exact conversations we had, but you were memorable for me as a human. Perhaps it was that we had something in common at our cores that was yet undeveloped. Perhaps it was because my very first teenage moments were shaped while I rode around in your trashed Ford Taurus listening to "Hey Jealousy" by the Gin Blossoms, trying to make sense of the lyrics, guessing that I would understand them when I was older, but knowing that I was at that moment being defined. And in the company of you.

My question is this: what did you think of teenage me? That's really what we all want to know. But who gets the chance to ask!?

I was shocked to see your name on the list of people coming for studio visits. I kept thinking, “Could there be another Katie Angermeier in the world?” There’s no way it was the same amazing girl I met at camp when I was 15. The second I saw your face I felt like I was transported back to a hot summer in Baldwin, Kansas. To the feeling of being so awkward and strange-looking. I was a big romantic mushball as a teenager. When I met you I was totally smitten. You were this tiny ball of energy with big eyes and an open heart. I loved getting letters from you (which I’m pretty sure I still have). You also felt safe. I could tell you everything without being judged or made fun of. I could be weird and introspective and goofy. Always a place that anything was open for discussion.

Oh, and I had a huge crush on you. Huge.

Ha! I had no idea. But I didn’t even know what a “crush” was yet. I never would have noticed. You're basically the same as an adult as you were as a kid, except you have way more confidence and facial hair.

Thanks! I feel like I changed and lost something for a while and only in the past 5-10 years got it back. The facial hair is just so people from my past ask, “Is that...? Maybe? I can’t tell with all that beard.”

How did your youth shape your art? Your parents were art collectors, but unconventional ones. Will you riff on that, please?

My parents’ house was always the weird house. We had art everywhere and that only became more the case as I got older. I mean everywhere: salon-hung walls of 2D work, ceramic sculptures on the floor and covering every inch of the bookshelves, welded steel pieces scattered around the yard. My friends would have wall art from Pier One or family photos. We had a twice-lifesize 3⁄4 rear view painting of a naked, obese woman, and abstract lithos. In my memory we always had artwork, so it became the norm for me. It never seemed strange that ascending our staircase to the bedrooms there were 10–15 nudes, and the stairs to the basement had the same—only all landscapes. It seemed so natural to me to have it around that when I’m at a friend or family’s houses that don’t have artwork hanging all over, I’m uncomfortable.

My folks were great about encouraging both my sister and I to draw, paint, make stuff, whatever. As a kid we lived outside of St. Louis. My dad worked at a university and was good friends with the head of ceramics. Some of my earliest memories are sitting in his studio playing with clay. Art seems like it’s all I’ve ever known really. It has been a constant part of life.

Speaking of your sister, tell us about her work and why you devoted a page to it on your website.

My sister is one of the two most talented artists I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. She is endlessly creating new work. Paintings, sculpture, taxidermy, drawings, pyrography, even cross-stitch. It’s constant and it oozes out of her. She’s also a huge pain in the ass. All of this amazing work she has been making in her studio in Kansas City is, well, in her studio in Kansas City. It needs to get out somehow. I know she is super-busy with her work in animal rescue and doesn’t have time to make work, shoot it, build a site, etc. But I do! So I put her up on my site. People should see it. It hasn’t been updated in a while. Again, she hides new stuff in her troll cave in KC, but it’s really great work. A section on my site is just a little thing, but I do truly hope people are giving it a look. It might the best work on the site really.

I remember when you wrote me a letter, telling me how you lost your virginity. I was so happy for you. Other dude friends have told me similar stories and I've not had such a supportive response because they were predictable a-holes and braggy in regards to their sexual exploits. But you were grateful, tender, and stunned. You were also thrilled. I held onto this while I grew up because your response taught me that dudes could be decent and relatable. Again, not a question. I just think you should know this. I could weave in gender and sexuality and ask how that factors into your art if you want me to. Do you?

Only a little embarrassing but I love that you brought it in to this. I’ve had a few other people tell me similar stories and it never ceases to surprise me that so many guys respond that way.

As for your question, gender and sexuality don’t work into my work on a conscious level. I do think about it and enjoy having very lively conversations/arguments on the topics, but really haven’t felt a need to incorporate it into my work. I feel like others do it so well.

Like a piece of cooked spaghetti, you seem to throw a concept at the wall and see if it will stick, but first you dip it in Super Glue. The insane processes and systems that drive your work make my head spin. First off, is that the desired effect?

Ha, love this! But honestly, no. It does seem that way, but no. I don’t realize it until someone looks at me like I’m an alien or losing my mind.

Secondly, does it make your head spin?

Short answer: no. I find it really natural. I think it is very similar to how I think about most things, though.

Thirdly, would you please explain how your brain works from the conception of an idea on through realization? I was especially impressed by this with your MACA and Attenborough-Naftel collaborations. Your follow-through is 100%, which is badass, and I want to personally copy that process. Explain how I can do that, please.

I haven’t got a clue really. My head is pretty noisy. I think your spaghetti metaphor probably works here. A bunch of crap is normally bouncing around my head. And every now and again something hits and sticks. Once it’s there, it’s there. I can’t get rid of it. I feel forced to see it through. It could happen quickly but often it feels painfully slow. And a fair amount of the time the realization is a failure. Hell, even the journey tends to be full of failures but I kinda love it when it is. I don’t think I’ve ever made something and said, “Yep, that’s what I expected.” The failures are the things that make the undefinable beauty for me in the work.

As for copying my process, I don’t think it’s that hard to copy, really. When an idea is so compelling, so bright that it shines in your conscious and unconscious mind, you’ll see it through. You have to.

I like that, Sean. A lot. Thanks.

Coming off of a period of intense loneliness in my own life when I was living abroad, mothering a small child, and very isolated, I love, love, loved the focus of community, collaboration, and inclusion in your work. Why do you think you were led to this focus? Why have you stayed?

I think it was for very similar reasons, really. I was living in the west of Ireland, in a small village, going to a tiny art college for grad school. The only person I knew there was my wife, who had moved with me. It was really tough: on me, on her, on us. I was excited to be there, but feeling out-of-whack and disconnected. That’s when I met my primary collaborator, Chris Attenborough. We were the only two men in the MFA program and our studios could not have been more different. Chris sat at a desk in an all-white, empty space, working on his computer. My space looked like a child painted the walls after a dumpster exploded. I don’t know why that’s important but it always feel like it was. One day we were at the pub talking and realized that regardless of our working styles, we shared very similar ideas about artmaking and social interactions. That is still mostly true. And Erin was the same way. The three of us started a curatorial platform called Roving Project in Ireland. Our focus was using slack space for contemporary group exhibitions. It was post-Celtic Tiger and the economy was tanking. There were an absurd amount of empty space from shops to homes to hotels. We began it mostly because we could, and thought it would be fun to activate the space somehow, but also because we enjoy and find value in placing art in a context where it can touch as many folks as possible. I really love all of the collaborations I’ve done over the past 13 or so years, but I think Roving Project was the most successful and most meaningful.

You're not afraid of joy and even seem to insist on incorporating it. Why? Is this a dumb question?

Not dumb at all. Yes, it’s important that artists are around to expand the cultural capital of a society (blah, blah, blah), but I feel like if you’re not enjoying it, why do it? Being an artist is kind of thankless and a little rough. The pay is crap, most of time. You’re almost always on the hustle. A broad swath of the population is either confused or thinks it’s pointless.

Weird way to start my answer I suppose, but the short of it is that my internal and personal pleasure, joy, excitement, in making extends very much to my joy and excitement when presenting work. It seems like, especially currently, that it’s very easy to forget about the daily positives because they are, well, constant. A good cup of coffee, someone holding a door, the sun slowly warming you on a cold day. The negatives are loud aberrations to these norms we expect. I think there is a lot of power that can be harnessed in joy and excitement. It’s where I want to place my creative energy. Knowing that I’m making something that can make someone smile and activate their brain and hopefully spark a new way of thinking about an object or situation is why I make stuff.

Holy shit, I am so goddamn cheesy. Ugh.

You are. Good work. Keep that, please. It was great to get to know you all over again, Sean.

 
 

The failures are the things that make the undefinable beauty for me in the work.
— Sean Naftel
 
 
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Photos by Jeff Barnett-Winsby