Welcome back to BOMB in the Building, where each week we’re featuring a BOMB contributor relating to a Season 5 artist. This week, we’re switching it up again and featuring an interview by an Art21 artist instead. In BOMB Issue 95, Spring 2006, Allan McCollum spoke with Harrell Fletcher about his project at Domaine de Kerguéhennec Centre d’Art, Bignan, in France. The conversations fits neatly into the Systems theme for this week, as well as being one of our favorite recent interviews to appear in BOMB. We hope you like it as much as we do!
Allan McCollum: I enjoy that the meaning of your work doesn’t reside in any one piece. In fact, looking at any one piece you might pass over it; they’re often so simple and easy to describe. But looking at project after project (the number seems to go into the hundreds), and then your Learning to Love You More website with a couple of thousand more projects, a certain set of values comes through. You’re not trying to produce singular masterpieces, and almost all your work is about people other than yourself. A lot of the things that we expect an artist to do, you do backward. It constantly takes me by surprise.
Harrell Fletcher: It’s about having a set of natural proclivities. I see the structure of how an artist is supposed to operate, but some of those things don’t feel comfortable to me. In graduate school, I started realizing that I did not have to follow the normal course.
AM: How did you perceive the “normal course” while you were in school?
HF: It’s so concentrated in graduate school; you see all of these people going into their studios, spending hours and hours making objects or paintings. And it’s supposed to be about isolating themselves. Maybe they have a wall of inspirational clippings from magazines, but that’s the extent of their interaction with the world.AM: Where did you go to school?
HF: I went to Humboldt State University for three years, the San Francisco Art Institute for one year, and then the California College of Arts and Crafts. I was coming from a photography background, and that led to going out in the world and finding things to document. But even then I was frustrated by the system in which art was shown. I wanted to make booklets of photographs and hand them out on the street rather than try to find a gallery to show them.
AM: I never would have guessed that your impulse to do these projects came from photography.
HF: I’d become interested in new forms of documentary and I just started making books. They were almost like making an exhibition—I could hand one to someone and they’d get the entire idea.
AM: In the same way a photographer can put together a book of photographs.
HF: Except I was making one-of-a-kind works. I made about 30 of them. Then I started making Xerox books, and that led to the various publications I make now, newspapers, small books, etc.
AM: What happened to those early books?
HF: I still have them. They’ve never been shown. This relates to your first comment about seeing my work best as an overall set. In graduate school I was doing an independent study with Larry Sultan and whenever he would ask to see work, I’d give him these books that I had made years before. At one point, he was like, “Why aren’t you showing me any new work?” And I said, “I’m trying to make you into my ideal viewer. I want you to be prepared before I show you anything new so that you know exactly where I’m coming from.” It was as if I were trying to show him 30 exhibitions I’d done, all contained within these books.
AM: So much of your work seems to have been done for what might be called a fairly narrow audience. Like your piece Some People from Around Here, those big eight-foot signs along the highway in the small town of Fairfield, California, blown-up painted plywood cut-out portraits of local people. Clearly, the chosen audience was the local townspeople.
HF: About a million people a week commute past Fairfield to the Bay Area. That was the audience. Also the local people who were represented on the billboards, and their friends and neighbors. The local people had this thrill of suddenly seeing a person they know, or maybe a person they see every day, being treated the way they’re used to celebrities being treated. The excitement for those local people was knowing that I wasn’t just making it in their backyard for their friends to see, but for all those people who don’t know them. That’s the difference between a normal citizen and a celebrity: people who don’t know them personally can still recognize a celebrity’s face.
AM: You’ve got images of the project on the Internet. That’s where I saw it, in New York City, 3,000 miles away. I’m a part of the “art world.” So, now you’ve got an art world audience looking at the works, as well. All artists have to think about their audience, but it’s especially complicated with you when you work with local people in these small communities.
HF: At the time the piece was done, I didn’t know that would happen. I was trying to make work that would function without special art knowledge so that people could access it in a direct way, which might also be incredibly complex based on their own personal history and associations. At the same time, as an artist I have knowledge of the history of art, and that goes into the work too. There are multiple readings, but sometimes having too deep a reading takes you away from the actual experience.
AM: What do you mean, the actual experience?
HF: That first encounter with something.
AM: The first encounter of “us” in the art world, or simply the first encounter?
HF: For anyone. David Hammond says that the art world audience is the worst one, partly because they’re overeducated and partly because they’re too conservative. They have expectations and immediate cynicism or they try to dig into it too deeply right away.
AM: But people who don’t study contemporary art are just as likely to have an impoverished way of looking, a knee-jerk ‘Oh, that’s just elitist,’ or ‘My kid could do that.’
HF: Especially if the work that you’re presenting to them seems like something they could have made themselves. I’ve tried to make projects less about my own personal aesthetic, which might appear to be a my-kid-could-do-that approach because that’s an aesthetic that I like. But I give the work a certain level of technical proficiency so people feel that it’s validated. The portraits on the highway are not hyperrealistic, but they’re not sloppy either; people can’t automatically say, ‘I could do that.’
AM: I see, because they couldn’t do that. (laughter)
Read the full-length BOMB interview here.