Concluding my guest blogging residency at Art 21, where I’ve looked at the processes of artists who both produce significant bodies of work without a team of studio assistants, and dedicate themselves completely to their artistic visions, performance artist Martha Wilson not only concerns herself with the creation of her own work, but also the preservation and support of other avant-garde artists, as the founding director of the not-for-profit alternative space and organization, Franklin Furnace.
More widely recognized through her work with Franklin Furnace, Martha Wilson’s art has steadfastly focused on women’s subjectivity and the performance of gender. From early photo-text pieces, where Wilson dressed as a man who is impersonating a woman, to her performances as First Ladies Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, to her most recent works, in which Wilson revisited the framework of her early photo-texts to investigate the role of a woman over 60, Wilson stands as an artist whose strong and humorous voice has endured and remained current through many waves of feminism. With 2011′s I Have Become My Own Worst Fear, her first exhibition as an artist represented by a commercial gallery (PPOW Gallery), and a recently-published monograph, The Martha Wilson Sourcebook, Wilson’s art is currently receiving the critical attention it deserves.
I spoke to Martha Wilson at the Franklin Furnace office in Brooklyn about the evolution of her art, her relationship to feminism, absurdity in art, and the Culture Wars.
Emily Colucci: For these past two weeks on the Art21 Blog, I’ve been focusing on artists who I find inspiring both in their refusal to use a team of assistants to create their large bodies of work, and their unquestionable devotion to their art–as with your work, both as an artist and as the founding director of Franklin Furnace, the not-for-profit organization concerned with the support and preservation of avant-garde art. What is your artistic process?
Martha Wilson: A year ago, I was invited to join the PPOW gallery and as part of that process, Jamie Sterns, who was the director at that time, wanted a photograph of my studio, which set me back because I don’t have a studio. So instead, I took a picture of my desk. That’s where all the magic happens, where I sit and think.
Watching artist Kenny Scharf paint a monumental, public mural entirely by himself on a very cold November night in New York City, I was astonished not only at Scharf’s free-hand skill, but also his artistic drive, painting character after character, to create a bright, smiling beacon of fun on the Bowery.
After witnessing Scharf painting tirelessly, there was no question in my mind that Scharf not only refuses to use a team of assistants to make his art but also, devotes himself completely to his art-making process, fitting perfectly with the theme of my two week residency at Art 21.
Working continuously since the early 1980s in New York, Scharf is only beginning to receive the critical recognition that he deserves for his long and varied career. Often lumped together with his friends and fellow artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Scharf’s work has progressed past the art of the 1980′s to become a testament to his own enduring aesthetic, marked by happy characters, Hanna-Barbera cartoons, customized appliances and futuristic outer-space scenes.
With art ranging from paintings to sculptures to murals to Cosmic Cavern installations, the largest being his basement space in Brooklyn, which he turned completely into a black-lit, day-glo world where he holds dance parties and performances, Scharf’s body of work stands as an example not only of long-term artistic creation but also, proof that art can and should be fun.
I spoke to Scharf about his artistic process, the role of spontaneity in art, the B52′s and how he feels about the legacy of art of the 1980s.
Emily Colucci: For these two weeks at Art 21, I’ve been focusing on the artistic processes of artists who do their own work and devote themselves entirely to art-making. What is your artistic process?
Kenny Scharf: I believe in doing the work myself. I don’t have anyone helping me other than stretching and gessoing the canvases. The actual art-making, I do all myself. It’s not that I don’t think anyone else could do a good job. It’s what I love to do.
“I’m here to create an empathetic, honest, strong visual language, by working through every process I can, whether it’s drawing, painting, sculpture, performance or music that will touch as many people as possible. Life is short.”–Michael Alan
Focusing for these two weeks on artists who not only do their own work but dedicate themselves entirely to creation, no artist, in my opinion, has an artistic output that matches Michael Alan in both staggering quantity and careful attention to each individual piece and his entire work as a whole.
A born and raised New Yorker, Alan’s art touches many genres ranging from drawings/paintings, sculptures, live performances and his music, Michael Alan Alien, collaborating with musicians such as Jello Biafra from The Dead Kennedys, Shinji Masuko from The Boredoms, Jeff and Jane Hudson and artist Kenny Scharf.
Working in several interconnected styles, Alan’s art ranges from extremely detailed line drawings to delicate watercolors to complex collage drawings that feature cut-up prints of his own drawings and paintings. Alan weaves together all these different variations of his work by altering his own images and figures through various techniques and processes, constructing an entirely unique world with his imagery or a “visual language.”
Asked about the process behind creating this visual language, Alan explains:
There’s so many different processes that it’s hard to just pinpoint and discuss A takes you to C. I’m working on building a language through various ways of drawing and painting and arranging and rearranging thousands of different images that I’ve created. I’m interested in the exploration, the continuation of the world and characters that I build and how they evolve through time. My process is to document life…an intangible space and put that into a piece of paper or canvas and then you have truth. It all starts with my line, the continual DNA through my work.
Compared by Robert Shuster in the Village Voice’s “Best in Show” to Egon Schiele, Alan’s unique line joins Alan’s multitude of works together.
In today’s art world, a majority of major artists have at least one or a team of assistants that tend to do most if not all of their art-making for them. Having written articles on a wide variety of artists and worked in a number of art fields, I’ve witnessed artists who don’t even touch their work. In response to this growing trend of artists not doing art, for these next two weeks I’m going to highlight the artistic processes of a few inspirational artists who push themselves, both physically, emotionally and sometimes through illness or injury, to create, whether through drawing, painting or performance.
Known for his physically strenuous performances–from his caged performance as his alter ego Patina du Prey to his Mummification performances, where he is completely wrapped in colored tape and sometimes moved throughout the city–Hunter Reynolds’s work questions issues of gender, sexuality, HIV/AIDS, mortality and rebirth. After surviving two strokes related to being a longterm survivor of HIV/AIDS, which forced him to quit making art for six years, Reynolds has continued to create art, having several exhibitions and two solo shows at PPOW Gallery and Participant Inc., and perform, with his last Mummification performance featuring Reynolds being placed in the center of 10th avenue in front of moving traffic.
I spoke to Reynolds about the progression of his performance art, how to preserve and document performances and the ability of art-making to deal with emotional and physical pain.
Emily Colucci: Looking at your artistic process, most of your work has been performance art, often fairly confrontational performances that incite audience reaction through the use of your body. How did you first begin working in performance art?
Hunter Reynolds: One of my teachers was Chris Burden who is such an insane guy so the whole idea of these crazy performances he was doing. I was going to these performances in the scene of Downtown Los Angeles even before I thought about doing performance art myself. Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy… Then I started looking at Laurie Anderson, Vito Acconci and action-based performances that were more body-oriented. Those were the things I started gravitating towards. Then I was a member of this class assignment in a sculpture class that turned into a performance art group. A group of us got together and formed this performance/installation/tableau called Unarmed that was about nuclear disarmament. We created these scenes of very apocalyptic scenarios. Very Mad Max. We became this thing in LA for a year and a half and I learned a lot of how to make my body into a sculpture-kind of object, pretending to be dead and then using very subtle things to interact with the viewer. There I started responding to my school and my performances in school were tests. Instead of doing a final written test, I would do a performance and I wouldn’t tell the teacher about it and I would do it right in the class.
Perhaps ignorantly thinking that the culture wars related to David Wojnarowicz were over, I originally intended to reflect on the long-term effects of A Fire In My Belly (1986-7) in HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery from the perspective of one year after the controversy. However a week before the HIDE/SEEK exhibition even opened at the Brooklyn Museum, the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, as well as several newspapers, were calling for the museum to remove Wojnarowicz’s unfinished film.
With protesters now traveling from Pennsylvania to picket the exhibition, a look into the effects of the A Fire In My Belly controversy gains a new urgency, as another battle begins in the new culture wars.
A little over a year ago on December 1, which is also A Day Without Art or World AIDS Day, the Smithsonian, bowing to pressure from House Republicans John Boehner and Eric Cantor, removed Wojnarowicz’s A Fire In My Belly. Responding to complaints from the National Catholic League, the House Republicans and others objected to an eleven second clip of the film portraying ants crawling over a crucifix. Fortunately, many museums took action and placed the film on display and in their collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum and the Andy Warhol Museum. Despite the controversy, the Brooklyn Museum, as well as the Tacoma Museum, received the travelling exhibition of HIDE/SEEK with the film and furthered the importance of educating the public on Wojnarowicz’s work with a room dedicated to explaining A Fire In My Belly.
While the Brooklyn Museum is dealing with a new round of outrage regarding A Fire In My Belly, conjuring a nagging sense that we are doomed to repeat the culture wars over and over again whether it is with Wojnarowicz, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano or Chris Ofili, the question remains what will be the lasting effects of this battle on Wojnarowicz’s work, future curatorial decisions and the politics of art.