Looking for a brighter day

Leah Thomason Bromberg visits Lakwena Maciver’s studio

I walked past endless stalls of vegetables, a black and white dress I really liked, patterned fabrics of every sorts. It was crowded enough to make it hard to walk. I spent £1 on raspberries as I made my way to Lakwena Maciver’s studio toward the end of a Dalston street market in east London. Inside her studio it was still filled with bright colors and voices, but they were on the five paintings she was working on for her exhibition, The future’s gold.

Lakwena herself is quiet with a lot to say. Her work comes from political promises. They are cutting in what is promised, yet sincerely optimistic. The work points to how the state of politics are far from the way they need to be.

lakwenainstudio.jpg

My visit to her studio was a few weeks after another election in the United Kingdom which destabilized Theresa May and the Tories’ grasp of power, and a year after the Brexit vote--a process looming over us still. There is always the sympathetic look of knowing when the conversation turns to American politics.


LTB: What is your normal, ‘working size’ for your paintings?
LM: There’s something political in filling up space.

And there is political weight in filling space. Lakwena shares that she usually works really large, filling as much space as she can. Lakwena’s voice is undeniable in the work as well as in the space it takes over. The vibrancy of her paintings fill the space. The largest of her five pieces seemed about 4’ x 4’, yet feels much larger than that given her palette. Lakwena has also completed several murals in various locations internationally that also envelop the entire space. For The future’s gold she has painted the walls as well as installed her work.

Lakwena’s work seems to need to spread beyond the frame. Even in her studio, it feels like they have oozed onto the floor--it is covered in black and white checked utility rubber mats.

Pictorial space has always felt political to me: when else does someone have complete autonomy over an entire world? As a woman who was taught it was “good manners” to be quiet and invisible, I can’t help but appreciate the sass in taking up space. Voices need to go beyond their allotted space.


LTB: What’s the relationship between the image and the text?
LM: I think a lot about mirrors. There is a quote: “For now we see through a glass darkly,” which ends with the idea that “now we see clearly.”

A collection of fabrics and books fill up Lakwena’s studio. A small black and white necklace finds itself in the edge of one of her paintings. Her desk drawers are painted in a day-glo gradient. The patterns feel like they just naturally emerge from Lakwena, standing next to me in her lime green dress.

The paintings draw on her experiences as a sign painter, and she subverts the connection to commercial advertising with her politics. There is the analogy of commercialism with politics: selling a message that the future will be better if you buy this or vote for him. There’s also the analogy of a mirror--how advertising reflects desire. The way the patterns frame the text echo a sort of mirror in the work. It’s a biblical reference to our lack of vision into the future as Lakwena quoted: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (I Corinthians 13:12). 

The gold in the paintings also reflect poorly, a vinyl imitation of something far more precious. Lakwena opted for vinyl instead of gold leaf--it’s more commercial, less referential to history painting, and non-elitist. For a moment I’m lost in imagining all the Renaissance cathedral paintings and the apocalyptic visions in the book of Revelation. In that book there are promises of a “new Jerusalem” paved with gold, but the gold is so pure it is perfectly clear. Again: what we see here feels inferior. How clear is our vision of reality?


LTB: Where do you find the phrases that go into the work?
LM: For this painting, there’s a song by Gil Scott-Heron that says, ‘Black people / will be in the street looking for a brighter day. / The revolution will not be televised.’

The sort of discontent with the status quo and push for the newly imagined is a huge part of Afrofuturism. Lakwena herself likes to blend Afrofuturism with a messianic philosophy: waiting for, longing for, imagining a promised and better future. 

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised goes on:

Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville
Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and
women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run, brothers;
The revolution will be live.
— Gil Scott-Heron

The future and the revolution take on this mythical quality.  When are people more empowered than when they are creating their own myths? Myths are about making the ordinary, extraordinary--beyond and outside of the quotidian--as well as unrecognized by capitalist interests. Advertising has nothing to do with changing power dynamics.

Lakwena's paintings as contemporary work feel alive, living in both the present and the future. The text could easily become sarcastic or glib; but I found myself being spurred on to imagine what a golden future would maybe be.

She pulls out books about Oakland’s Sun Ra, a musician and artist whose bright aesthetic echoes in her studio. He took on his persona as a prophet and never deviated from it, becoming a pioneer of Afrofuturism itself. The small artworks inside the book are themselves mythic and feature characters wielding unworldly powers. This too is an imagined world grappling with extraordinary powers. There’s a similar sincerity in Lakwena’s work: optimistic but not removed from the realities of present day. 

That is after all what we are constantly promised: for the future to be great again, strong and stable. And the best slogans promise what we want. I remember “hope” being so important after the Bush years. For whom are these promises? Her son napped quietly next to her work, a reminder that politics and power dynamics aren’t at all theoretical. 

The present isn’t gold; let’s hope that the future could be.



Lakwena Maciver lives and works in London. Her exhibition, The future's gold, is at KK Outlet, London N1 from 7 July to 31 August 2017. You can also see more of her work at lakwena.com or follow her on Instagram @lakwena.

Cupid Ojala visited by Nick Naber

As with many of the artist I meet, I met Cupid through a mutual friend at a party. Cupid came right up to me and started talking. Typically, being the curmudgeon that I am this would be off putting, but Cupid has a sweet and genuine charm to him. We talked for about an hour at this party, later that night I took a look at his site. There was so much to mine there, from performance work, collaborations, and his line drawings. I asked him if he’d mind me coming to see him and talking about what he was up to.

How long have you been working on these drawings?  You’d been doing a lot of Performance work previously? 

I went to The Vermont Studio Center Artist Residency last May and I spent the past year processing what I did there. I’ve been working on and finishing up other projects. Then the election happened, and I no longer felt inspired to work on the performances.  I can't believe how affected I was by the election. I started doing these Queer drawings, and it's been a nice way to be political and in your face but also have these affirming images of the community that I want to see. They are fun and unpredictable things happen in them. 

I'm looking at the drawings and I see you and friends, which is great. Others have celebrities like Cher and Divine. Are you conscious of using yourself and your friends in the work when you sit down to draw them?

Yes, but most of them are different faces I’ve seen. Some are celebrates and some come from a drawing group at the museum (Leslie-Lohman Museum Of Gay and Lesbian Art) has. They have a male model every week and sometimes I'll take one of these drawings and work on them at home. I don't see any trans woman or trans men posing at these. I want to make this dialogue between trans bodies and different genders.

And then in that in-between forms in some of the drawings, and  I am inspired to use symbols of Queerness

From different decades Joan Crawford, Cher and Divine. Also, there are happens to be this man wearing a harness who looks like me with a flower in his ass. These two queer folks gender nonconforming are enjoying the first day of spring with a masculine flower vase.

CUNT 3.14.2017 Weird Sisters, 2017, pigma pen on paper, 9x12 inches

There's like a certain humor to most of them. Some are obviously erotic but I think for the most part there's like an inherent humor. Is that something that you're conscious of when you're putting them together or deciding where people are going to be placed on the page?

Humor is a great way to get people to look and to listen.  It's a sneaky way that I get people to see the people in these images. I want them to like or to find something endearing about them. It’s nice that people who don’t identify as queer can make associations with the people in my drawings. Many of them are of my friends horsing around. 

In this drawing I was inspired Vincent Tiley who collaborated with Chris Habana to do a performance at the Museum of Art and Design. Instead of humans I drew the figures as unicorns and changed their bodies a little bit. But for the most part this is what Vincent Tiley's sculpture with the jewelry looked like. Chris Habana’s jewelry is gorgeous and it's totally impractical.  His jewelry makes the wearer suffer It's suffering by choice it's a fetish. People may look at this and feel uncomfortable but by making it a unicorn it's kind of endearing. 

CUNT 6.20.2017 Unicorn Games, 2017, pigma pen on paper, 9 x 12 inches

Yeah it's a different thing, totally. You center everything on the page nothing is pushed off the edge or hidden, why do you make it all visible? 

No I like that they are illustration. I love Norman Rockwell's really cheesy family portraits of Americana, but I am also inspired by Edward Gorey’s unsettling family images. So cheesy and unsettling could turn into Queer Americana.

I went to see Jennifer Finney Boylan and Caitlyn Jenner speak at the 92nd Street Y. I live in New York so I can see shit like that. I enjoyed their conversation and the things Caitlyn said pleasantly surprised me.  It's so easy to attack someone who is coming from privilege, you know? But, transitioning sucks for everyone.  She maybe doesn’t look like she's suffering but she's suffering, that's for sure. In this way she's conscious of being a role model for other trans people.

Do you see these becoming some sort of like book?  

Yes, potentially...this series of work is interrelated. I like that they can also be broken down into smaller series. As the year goes on they are going to divide up into different categories with in the series. I definitely want to do a coloring book, coloring books are things that I’ve made in the past and I enjoy. Coloring books are accessible for a lot of people. I’ve also been thinking about doing a printmaking residency. I could see these evolve to the next level as etchings or silkscreens or something like that. 

They lend themselves to so many different project possibilities. Their current scale is personal but I’d love to see them super large and in your face. It would give it a different life. 

Looking at these now and seeing the unicorns here and Joan Crawford I’m thinking about video or animation. Possibly life size…like a stage set, inspired by Edward Gorey’s Dracula. He created an animation for mystery, when I was a kid I loved watching it.

That would be really cool. I don't know how to do that. That's something I definitely would need to ask around for help on.

Have you seen the movie “Fantastic Planet” It’s all animation and there's a lot of brain imagery and sexual imagery. 

So you're doing these and then you're also are you working on other series too?  Is this the primary series? 

I have footage from “Ranger Risky” that I’m trying to finish up and put together a video for “Kelly the Cub Scout.”  

[Looking at the paintings behind Cupid] Do you know about Ingo Swann? He’s this artist that government to paid to see through walls. He made art and wrote books about seeing aliens, psychic abilities and desire. He really had an otherness quality that was genuine. I have been trying to Astro-project before I go to sleep at night and now I feel inspired to make-work in outer space.  I'm dead serious; I'm going to figure this out.  I'm not sure about how to do this project. I have a good friend who is also interested in doing work about Space. Sci-fi is a kind of escape from my daily grind. 

[Viewing at Kelly the Cub Scout]

In this video I'm wearing my brother's Cub Scout shirt, which I and grew into. I had this elaborate fantasy around it. My brother hated the Cub Scouts. He was over it he never really did anything in the Scouts. I made up all these things in this performance like getting a Swiss Army knife. My brother got a knife when he was 10 years old, I didn't get a knife neither did my sisters. Then we all complain about it so much that we all got these crazy survival knives.

I shaved all my body hair off to transform into this character and I used that hair to make this fire starter. That's like an ongoing thing I want to redesign the packaging for it, it’s like a sculpture kind of performing performance piece. People can buy my body hair and start fires! It smells terrible. 

[Watching the video] This is my ideal bedroom, which was my little bedroom for months to the month at Vermont Studio Center. There is a poster of Prince and the Revolution, and Michael Jackson and E.T., and Smokey the Bear. 

I’m working on editing the “Ranger Risky” video has taken me a couple of years because I just haven't had time to finish it but now I feel inspired because Wonder Woman is back.  Wonder Woman plays a key role and when I'm dealing with the ranger for this video series. 

Is it a character that you think you're going to reprise?

It's a character that I have I'm going to edit all the shorts and put out. It’s finishing up a lot of things that have been hanging around because I haven't had a to of time to devote to editing. 

That takes a long time.

I thought about getting another iPhone to have two angles because using the iPhone has been so much easier to take photographs.  I have this doll called “Not Me,” and not me is a pillow person sewn to full size my size.  My size is kids size, right? 5’2” 100 lbs., the doll is a recreation of a doll my mother made. So, I’m like putting this little project in here and there too. How did this relate?

This was the reason why I bought the book it all sounds like a puzzle or something to do with a childhood but it's a really deeply personal thing to be wearing your brother's Cub Scout uniform and then also to be carrying around a doll that is exactly your size.

Exactly! Exactly!  I'm time traveling to my child to talk about these things I think are interesting or unique or queer. The doll doesn't have a gender. You put the doll in wherever clothes you want to and it’s whatever gender then. It’s made out of old bed sheets and I have these little photos on my Instagram which taken with my iPhone about with this doll does, because the doll does things that I "don’t do".  It's kind of like making fun of myself a little bit but tongue in cheek. There is one of the doll sitting on the toilet in my tiny bathroom. It says only “Not Me, only gets alone time in the bathroom." Something like that or, putting the doll in bed and gravity pulls the doll down in places so it looks more human than not. It's interesting that we played with this doll that was like a miniature person to play with, and then as a kid we would do little craft things. Yesterday I spent three hours making 40 origami pieces because number one I wanted to calm the fuck down because I’m on vacation and just do something that I could focus on without a computer. We used to do this when I was a kid and now it helps my creative process. I’ve been drawing little faces on them, thinking how expressive they could be. Anyway it was like time traveling back to my childhood for a few hours.  

Well, there is no specific destination with this. Sometimes it's just nice to make something and then like maybe later down the line leads to something or maybe it doesn’t.

Absolutely mundane, turn off my brain and just go with the flow.

I just did this presentation at VCU and I'm thinking about archetypes of masculinity and I've been doing it the whole time throughout my career and certainly until I prepared a presentation for VCU…in my undergrad I was making paintings of Elvis Presley. I kind of masculinity icon of sexuality controversy also male beauty…

Especially in those later years.

Oh yea. Gluttony.  It was interesting because I was an Elvis Presley fan and I grew up as an Elvis Presley fan. When I stopped painting portraits of Elvis, I started painting portraits of myself and I painted myself with no hair. I would remove my gender, I’d do pull-ups and pushes ups and photographed myself and make these black and white paintings. It was very hard to tell my gender in this process. At that time I didn't have the language of like trans or queer. Nobody talked to me about identity politics or identity… because I didn't know what I was doing and no one around me knew how to talk to me about it. They were just like, “fat over lean, here’s paint go do your thing.” 

Painting is also this older mode. Where if you make your work as a performance maybe it has more impact for the subject matter that you're talking about.  That may be my bias.

I think it's attention span. You know like sitting down and taking time to focus on something is hard for people to do because we have so many things flashing in front of us. Noticing everyone on their phones on the train they're not participating because there's this dialogue with your eyes you have the people you look at them on the train.  If there's someone crazy doing something you shoot a look at someone and you smile like you're like, “OK I'm not the only one.” It’s this silent kind of communication. That's something I think in the queer community constantly finding places to see each other. Whether you see yourself in a museum, whether you see yourself in a drawing series or you connect with… someone contacted me and said, “I really like how you draw these figures.  I really like the hair on these figures I really like the line quality. I like that they're in this pseudo sexual but mostly playful kinds of kinds of poses.”  The sex is there sex is always there it's going to be there but it's more about intimacy it's about community. 

You're creating something that’s deeply personal but I also feel like you've done a good job of making it not so personal that others can't enter into it.  It has a more universal feeling to it than, “Oh this is me doing all of these things.”   When you're playing a character there's a humor to it that allows everybody else to be in on it, and it doesn’t need to have a page of text for a viewer to understand it

Exactly. Exactly. It's right in front of you.

The most universal for me looking at your website was the “Cupid” series.  It seems super personal to have these people coming to you for these love prescriptions.  It’s also pretty evident that it’s a wide range of people who came not just those who are queer identified.  Can you talk a little bit about what that experience was like?

Yeah, that was a good series because I learned in that series to let people come to you instead of trying to people to try to sell something to people or entice people because I would hold a sign and I realized that maybe more of like oh, “ I have this, come here come here, come here.”  People were like, “We’re in New York. Why would we want to come to you, why should we come over there, what’s this about?”  When I sat down and waited for people and they were too curious to find out what I was doing. “You're just going to sit here and talk to us?”  I said, “ yeah” In 10 to 15 minutes you're (the person sitting with Cupid)  going to give me some kind of insight that you don't even realize that I am telling to you and I'm going to I'm going to figure out what that is and get back to you. People just dump, they’re so excited to talk about themselves, their feelings and was going on.  When I was a barber I’d ask them open questions and they just would tell me everything. When you say you’ll take time to listen you're going to somehow transform their information is something they can use. It doesn't cost anything. People are really excited about it. That was a unique kind of thing.

It's cool that you're saying that people were so open about it.  That's an experience you have in New York, most people seem really closed but once you have a conversation with somebody… for the most part people are open to that connection to talk to somebody.

Yeah, I can't help myself I have to break the rules I have to talk to someone on the train. If I like their outfit I tell them, if I smell their food and it smells good and I hate them I'm going to say, “Hey, I hate you your food smells really good. Where do you get it?” That was a really good performance to interact with a wide variety of people. It was training because it was work. I was like a real psychologist I was like, “oh, shit should I get certified and start charging?” 

You could.

But all this life experience listening to people like, I was a barber for seven years and I would talk to people about their lives for seven years so I had…all these different kinds of people straight, gay, families, non-families, drunks, and tow truck drivers with one eyebrow. 

Everybody needs a haircut.

Or, it plays some kind of role in your life at some point. They want to haircut and you just let people talk, some people don't want to talk. They're like, “I talk all day I hate fucking talking.” That would be me when I would go home, I don't want to talk about work. I spent all day talking about work when I come home I to think about art I want to think about something fun something new for me. Looking into the Sci-Fi thing or like mythology or looking at archetypes of identity is something that I've been also doing with these because I see archetypes and queer identities starting to pop out of these [referring to the drawings].

When do you typically make your work?

In the morning before going to work is when I get my best work done and for the “C U Next Tuesday” drawings I'll start drawing at the beginning of the day and finish it when I come home and that's like the thing I'm looking forward to when I'm coming home from work because I know that I have to do this drawing. Having these kind of deadlines…like the  “Love Prescription,” thing every month on the 14th day of the month I would go find a spot to do this and I would tell people 24 hours beforehand.  When you ask permission people ask too many questions and when you just show up and do it people say, “Oh that was cool, I'm going to tag you on my Instagram and repost this.”  For the people who participated it was it was much more than that.

For these specific drawings Tuesday is a full day, start the day with a drawing and end the day with a drawing and I work in between. Then the rest of the time I'm doing research in the morning or working through these files to figure out what I want to do and I was looking at archetypes and reading a bunch of science fiction kinds of things. I just picked up “Otherwise: Imagining queer feminist art histories-imagining a New Queer Reader,” that my friend Kris Grey just he helped write an article about trans identity a over year ago. Between reading Otherwise and Edward Gordy's Books and editing Ranger Risky I have my summer cut out for me. 

For additional information about Cupid please visit his website, Tumblr, or Instagram


Katelynn Noel Knick visited by Erin Latham

Katelynn Noel Knick is a painter and installation artist based currently in Norman, OK. Knicks’ work is boldly intuitive and heavily process based. Through her interplay with space, form, and materials, her work creates a sense of fascination and imagination in the viewer, and allows for them to step outside of themselves to consider the spaces around them.

Can you tell me about your process?

I start my process usually with a sketch, usually in my sketchbook. I draw in pencil and then layer in with color and forms that move around the surface. Lately, I’ve been using these sketches to then inspire my larger paintings and spatial works and use them as reference.

I was drawn to painting in school and began taking sculpture classes. My work is very intuitive, reactionary, and autonomous work and based in abstraction that lets the work tell you what it wants to be. The rest of my life is more controlled so when I’m creating work it is easy to have the intuitive conversation and let the work become what it wants to be.

How did you get started making work in this vane?

It started in my undergrad work at the University of Oklahoma. I took my first painting class with Marwin Begaye. He did a project where we weren’t allowed to use representation, instead he would roll die and we would paint and draw different colors and marks based on the number combination. It really clicked with me and that’s when I decided to pursue abstraction. At the same time, I was taking contemporary sculpture classes and was challenged with making objects. I used skills that I already knew, such as sewing and incorporated the subject matter from my paintings into three-dimensional forms. Through continuing sculpture classes, I explored more with other materials and was introduced to other techniques like metal and wood fabrication, 3D modeling and printing, and started to explore spatial works.

Have any other experiences outside of school affected your current body of work?

I went to Anderson Ranch Art center for a workshop with Holly Hughes who teaches painting at RISD, and is an amazing relief painter. The course was called “Not Flat” and was about turning 2D work into something more sculptural. I planned to go and create a bunch of studies using different materials, foam and paper and just make as much as I could while I was there. Breaking down the painting and adding three-dimensional forms has begun to elevate the work to the processes I’m now working with.

Are you creating your installations like paintings, in the same thought process or creation process? How do your paintings turn into installation?

I take the space I’m doing the installation in and imagine it as a blank canvas. Using the nooks and crannies and the big open spaces and try to imagine my work filling it in and inhabiting the space. I incorporate the movement and forms used in my paintings to guide and inspire how I will be laying out the installation and go from there. Sort of like a map. I use painting techniques and ideas like blending, layering, line quality, negative space, and color combinations when creating the spatial work. This is a fun challenge I’ve given myself to create this same effect but with materials. How do I recreate this big yellow blob with pink spots using layered paper, thread, and chicken wire? Or how do I convey this white blended texture using plastic trash bags?

Are movement and direction important to your work?

Movement is important because it creates space, taking a flat space and being able to create directional space with it becomes interesting to me. Even though you aren’t able to physically move through a painting, you can still move throughout them visually. I am considering transitioning this idea to my larger installation work in order to create the same feelings the painting evokes. I want the installations to have the same juxtaposition of stillness and energy.

How do your materials affect the content of the work? Is it important the materials have had a previous life?

The type of materials is not as important to me as their function or potentiality of function. I use a materials that have a previous life or ones that don’t, ones that have specific intentions and ones that don’t, it’s really a mixture. I always alter them to make them my own, through dying, cutting, melting, painting, whatever the material will allow and whatever the piece calls for.

How is wonder conveyed in the work? What is important for you in creating this sensibility in the viewer?

The idea of wonder really comes from the process of creating and the process of asking questions. I’m not really trying to create a sense of wonder through spectacle, but instead I really enjoy how my work creates a sense of wonder through association and curiosity. When people walk into their favorite coffee shop and utter “Oh!” because there is a floating sculpture, which wasn’t there the day before. The moment when all of a sudden everyone’s looking at the ceiling they never really considered before. That’s my favorite moment. My paintings also create this moment in a different way, when people see specific forms in my paintings and say “This reminds me of…” and share with me what they think the painting is or looks like to them. I think that’s the powerful thing about the style I’m doing, people can have a connection with it that’s fun and surprising and not exactly what they were expecting.

You talk about altering what art can be, but are you also interested in elevating materials from everyday experience?

A lot of that comes from the practice of using raw and altered materials. For example, I enjoy using plastic trash bags because I can get them in large amounts; for a low cost, and they work well for the purpose I’m using them. Trash bags are something, which is recognizable, but after I alter and repurpose them, people have a difficult time identifying the material even though they use it everyday. I love the idea of using “non-art” materials to make fine art, and asking the audience and art institutions, why are we not using everyday materials to create high art?  Someone told me during a critique they thought this was very political, but in a subtle way. I never thought of myself as a political artist but I do believe that encouraging people to question things is important.

Where is the work going next?

Since I’ve graduated I’ve done several installations but recently have been on a break to focus on painting, which inspires the installations. I’m excited to do a large-scale installation this summer for my solo project at IAO Gallery inspired by this new body of paintings. My first solo show will be comprised of an immersive installation. It opens July 14th and the Individual Artist’s of Oklahoma gallery space. I am influenced by artists like Judy Pfaff and using negative space in the paintings and create this work as installation in the space. Right now I’m still working on painting in this style and exploring how that can become spatial work and how I can refine this process. Also considering applying for graduate school to begin an MFA program.

For more information about Katelynn please visit her website.


Joey Parlett visited by Nick Pereslugoff

Genesis 11:1-9 contains the mythical story of the city of Babel and the fate of its people. The world had a single common language that enabled man to devise great projects, each surpassing the former in their sophistication and wonder. However, this unity aroused a parochial blind spot: a hubristic desire to construct a tower so tall it could reach Heaven. God, struck by the arrogance of man’s ambitions, scattered them across the world and imparted different tongues onto them. Where there was once cohesion and understanding there was now only babel, an inherent inability to understand a neighbor’s speech. The Tower of Babel represents the tragic telos of man’s creative ambition; that soaring towers of magnanimous proportions do not culminate at the precipice of Paradise, but in scattered confusion.

Brutalist Babel (2016). Image courtesy of the artist.

Brutalist Babel (2016). Image courtesy of the artist.

Joey Parlett’s work can be interpreted as manifestations of antithetical themes present in the Babel narrative; construction to overwhelming and superfluous excess and, oppositely, deconstruction to monistic absurdity. His work Brutalist Babel (2016) renders the Babel myth in the likeness of 20th century Brutalist architecture.  Different buildings and structural elements, collected from found books and materials, are layered over one another in an impossible amalgam of rigid, geometric facades. The work can be seen as an encapsulation of the spirit and process of his practice in general. Working primarily from found images ranging from public domain photographs of NASA projects to Renaissance paintings, Parlett combs through his collection of images, navigating through different avenues of inquiry by rendering an aspect of the image in pen and ink; either adding to an inherent idea found in them, or by a phenomenological bracketing, isolating one element from the context of the images’ totality for the purposes of comparison or juxtaposition.

His latest ongoing series, In The Desert, deconstructs Giovanni Bellini’s famous painting, St. Francis in the Desert, through works that center on objects within the painting. Bellini’s work is known for the minute narrative details in the painting’s landscape. Each object is carefully placed and considered with respect to Biblical and Franciscan literature. The scene is washed in a warm radiant light facing St. Francis, arms outstretched, beholding the Divine. Not only is the work a formal masterpiece, readily apparent aesthetically, but it is also immediately intelligible symbolically with the help of a small amount of background information. By deconstructing the painting through its individual elements, Parlett also deconstructs it’s symbolic order.

In The Desert (2015). Image courtesy of the artist.

In The Desert (2015). Image courtesy of the artist.

The work In The Desert (2015) is Parlett’s first work in the series, giving the series it’s name. Having been familiar with the importance of the landscape in Bellini’s work, Parlett chose the landscape itself, the first plane behind St. Francis, as an object to be considered. Removing several elements, the desk and fence in the lower right, St. Francis himself, and the farther two planes in the top left, revealed a curious and serendipitous rabbit hole directly in the middle of scene, where in Bellini’s work, St. Francis’ hand, bearing the marks of the crucified, points to. From here, his curiosity was piqued, galvanizing him to move into different parts of the work.

Waterfall Mountain (2017). Image courtesy of the artist.

Waterfall Mountain (2017). Image courtesy of the artist.

Comparing his work to a web page, Parlett describes the process of moving through and investigating an image as similar to clicking through hyperlinks. A main page, the original work by Bellini, contains a finite set of objects, each with an implied meaning within the work. What would it be like to “click” on one of these objects, a rock or a desk,

 and be brought to a more detailed page pertaining to it? Waterfall Mountain (2017) elucidates this idea most clearly through an arrangement of different representations of water, including the one in Bellini’s work, arranged into the shape of a mountain. Similar to Pippin Barr’s v r 3, a VR museum containing different digital representations of water, the viewer is invited to contemplate a variety of approaches to drawing water, a substance that is notoriously difficult to replicate. However, by arranging the water samples into a mountain, Parlett once again invokes a Babel theme that points towards the absurdity of the project; to represent a substance that is inherently dynamic, chaotic, and unstable in a flat, static, and graphical way. Thus by “clicking” on the water, what is revealed is not an essential insight, like what one would expect to find by being directed to a new web page from a link in another, but an essential absurdity; by bracketing water off from the rest of the image, it looses the contextual meaning it has in Bellini’s work, reducing it to a series of marks on a page.

Parlett often stretches the link between the smallest element of an image and it’s meaning. Given that Parlett’s work derives from photographs or realist paintings and imagery, in the case of Bellini, one can draw a metaphorical link to Roland Barthes’ photographic theory. To Barthes, photographs have two key elements active within their symbolic frame work; a photograph’s punctum, the small or simple detail of a photograph that gives us a personal impression, and its studium, or more general meaning within culture as a whole. Parlett’s work treats the objects in question like punctums, small elements that give us a unique impression that’s not quite comprehensible, isolated like in Waterfall, and compares these to the studium that the object has within the original work.  The result is a discursive ambiguity, an impression that is definite but ambiguous. We know that the collages are water, but we are simultaneously aware that it is merely a representation of water, lacking the Biblical meanings in the original work.

Tunnel (2015). Image courtesy of the artist.

Tunnel (2015). Image courtesy of the artist.

Unlike most photographs, a drawing can be reduced to a basic level as a series of marks or textural information. The stroke of Parlett’s pen is laid in the open, free for the eye to see. As the viewer steps back from his work, the image becomes more clear at the expense of the strokes’ visibility. This is realized most fully once the image is digitized, where, due to screens that compress the work into smaller sizes, the images become the most “real” looking versions of themselves. By bracketing objects within images, honing in on the small details, punctums, or representations, Parlett doubles the metaphorical link between distance and clarity. Not only is there a relationship between physical distance from the work and its actual visibility or clarity, but there is an analogous link between the singularity (the degree, or distance, Parlett has traveled down the road of representation from the original image) or isolation of the image the work is derived from, and the increasing incoherence as a studium. 

Library (2016). Image courtesy of the artist.

Library (2016). Image courtesy of the artist.

Ultimately Parlett’s work grapples with the dialectical relationship between the process of making and the act of representing. Parlett’s idea of the final work is never fully known beforehand. He collects images and sieves through them, contemplatively searching for something that catches his eye. After getting a hunch, he moves on to reproducing the feeling of that hunch, drawing out the implicit within the explicit images. Perhaps, this is why Parlett so often depicts caves as well as towers; close quarters and unimaginable constructions; both resonate with the process of moving through information, collecting it, and trying to make something out of it all. The cramped, technologically absurdist scenes Cupola (2016) and Tunnel (2015) bristle with nervous minute details, wires and buttons covering every surface. The scattering anxiety one feels by looking through these images mirrors the same energy expelled by the artist in looking for an image to begin working with. Each button in the scene, each wire, beckons a curious question. What exactly is all this for? In the words of Heidegger, “questioning leads a way,”  but to where? In the back of the rooms, at the focal point of each work, stand two blank windows, staring back at us in relief from the swarming surfaces around them. Like in Mystery Cave (2015) and Library (2016), these hypnotic blank spaces are sheer impossibility; representative of the horizon, the limit, of the possibility or articulation, definition, and representation in general. They are precisely the opposite of Sugimoto’s theater scenes; pure white rectangles that represent, and as photographic exposures, literally are, the totality of the information (i.e. light) displayed on them. Beyond the mass of information in our increasingly technological, information hungry society, what is there? Technology begets technology; representation begets representation; information begets information. We move forward without knowing why, knowing nothing else but the continual construction of the Colossus.  When they appear, we are drawn to these soothing gaps in representation. Yet, perhaps, walking up to them, curling a hand around the door frame beholding the light, we are suddenly struck by the unknown; where are we going?

 

For more information on Joey’s work, please visit his website.


White chalky powder

Eleanna Anagnos: A Profile

By Kelly McCafferty

Eleanna Anagnos and I met in 2015, when we were both asked to participate in a NYC Creative Salon discussion on the topic of research.  I instantly liked her energy and her viewpoint in the conversation.   I visited her studio twice—once in June 2016 and in March 2017—and the combination of both visits was edited into this profile.  Among many things, we talked about her materials and process, the spirituality within her work, her childhood as a gymnast and her recent residencies in France and Upstate NY. This was the first time I decided to use two visits rather than one to condense into a profile and the second visit really deepened my understanding of Eleanna and my fascination with her work.  

 

Eleanna’s studio is in the basement of the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus.  The large space is divided into three rooms, one of which is her studio.  The bulk of the space is the artist-run gallery, Ortega y Gasset Projects which Eleanna has been involved with since 2014.  Over the course of our two visits, we didn’t discuss Ortega y Gasset at all—it was quite literally the elephant in the room.  It wasn’t a conscious omission on my part.  I was drawn into Eleanna’s world and I wanted to give her the space to open up about her work.  There are other future discussions there about the realities of participating in an artist-run space and embodying the dual roles of artist and curator.  We spent our time discussing the work.

 

Eleanna’s work is mysterious.  And it deserves a thorough look.  Her materials and processes are purposefully elusive.  There is thought here—you can feel it radiating off the work.  Sometimes the work feels like a long meditative breath.  Sometimes it feels like a busy mind spinning and rolling thoughts over and over.  The Buddhist duality of big mind/small mind kept coming to me. Because there is a duality in all of what Eleanna makes.  Sometimes that duality is a mirroring effect in the form and sometimes it is within the materials.  She makes work on paper and with a sculptural material called Hydrocal that is a gypsum cement.  The works on paper exist between painting and drawing and the works in Hydrocal are both paintings and sculptures and yet not fully either. 

 

When I visited the studio in 2016, I had recently seen the big Richard Tuttle show, 26, at Pace on 25th Street and it was fresh in my mind.  I asked Eleanna at one point if she was into Tuttle and if she had seen the show, which was basically a 50-year museum-style retrospective presented in gallery format.  She said she loved his work and how did I know?  To me, the parallels between Tuttle and Eleanna’s work were obvious—a paring down of form, color, texture—something that feels both mysterious and intrinsically known.  And something about intimacy, not just intimacy of scale, an intimacy that exists between the work and the viewer (and originates with an intimacy between the work and the artist.)

 

A few times Eleanna and I talked about scale in her work.  Some of them are quite small—almost handheld.  She told me that she began making small work out of her own practicality.  She used to make large 10 ft oil paintings, but she was interested in the challenge of getting the same impact and kind of power now in a small work.  She wanted in 2016 to work bigger—that was the next goal for herself and she was working out how to make it happen.  When I returned, she had made two bigger pieces—almost 4 times the scale of her other works.  The shift in scale did something for sure.  It opened up the work and made it more commanding and powerful and remarkably the intimacy was still there—just magnified.

 

The work—the pieces specifically in Hydrocal—led me down a chain of associations—tablet, relic, mask, shield.  They feel like something both ancient and current.  And that is something that Eleanna is striving for in them.  Eleanna mentioned on both visits a strange personal anecdote, that her mother and her share an otherworldly connection.   Her mother somatizes Eleanna’s experiences.  Whenever Eleanna is experiencing something psychologically intense, her mother experiences it bodily.  One memorable time it happened, Eleanna was in France and her mom was in Chicago.  Her mom’s heart fluttered and she called Eleanna asking what is wrong.  Now, years later, choking has replaced the heart flutters.  Eleanna emphasized to me that the work isn’t specifically about that connection between her mother and herself—it is primarily about space.  But what is space exactly? That connection opened up questions for her and scientific research of somatization has not proved its existence.  But Eleanna knows it is real.  And something about that is the center of the work—how do we communicate with each other?  Eleanna talks about energy and how we are all energy and that our being/spirit doesn’t end at our skin.  Eleanna loves moments like that and says the best art for her, encompasses those moments. 

 

Aside from space as a concept, there are many repetitions in her work—repetitions in form and material.  The triangle form is one that arises often.  She tells me the first time the triangle surfaced was in 2010.  And it has remained embedded in the work since then.  In 2011, a residency at Anderson Ranch in Aspen, Colorado is the first time she began working with plaster as a medium.  She completed an object in plaster that replicated the everyday feel of a crumpled piece of paper and it seemed to be floating when hung on the wall.  She realized that the aerial and ground view of the mountains was affecting the work and that within those mountains were tons of triangles.  And now those triangles are clustered in twos and threes throughout her work.  And those triangles as all her forms are wonky and at times jagged and other times soft.  She accounts for that wonkiness by explaining that energy is not straight, it comes in waves.  And she is interested in the imperfect; anything with a hand in it.

 

Eleanna tells me that the minimal quality of her work came to it through time.  Her previous work was large paintings full of energy and color with a space that overtook the viewer.  The work she makes now is slower, but no less intense.  She tells me that there is so much crazy out in the city that she wants her work to offer respite and be a place where you can contemplate.  A few times she mentions the work serving as an icon.  She tells me that she grew up in a Greek Orthodox family and was surrounded by Byzantine icons and the meaning in them.  Those icons were figurative and narrative and that differs with her work—but she wants that spiritual importance to remain.  Icons are the most important things in the room.  If she can pack meaning into the work sensorially and take religion and narrative out, then the essence of what is left is what she is searching for.

 

She does use color in her work, albeit sparingly and controlled.  The mediums of that color are varied and have a mysterious origin.  The color is applied in the drawings with ink/oil paint/watercolor and put upon a strange material such as yupo paper (a paper that is essentially a plastic) the pigment separates from its binders and liquids as it dries and creates a contradictory surface.  She also uses a compressor to create chalky smoky effects on both the paintings and drawings.  This powdery feeling is all over the work.  Eleanna told me a story about when she was in graduate school and her mentor, Stanley Whitney, emphasized the importance of touch.  She was pouring over books of paintings and he directed her to look at the work in person—nothing could replace that experience.  And that idea of texture and touch, has been become really the center of her work.  She tells me that with studio visits people often reach out their hands to the work—they want to see it with their fingers because they can’t really understand what they are seeing with their eyes.

 

For an end result that is so tactile and physical—and almost transcendently effortless—I realize through the two visits with Eleanna, that the work is put through a rigorous thought process.  She shows me on her phone how she uses a drawing program to create changes to her work.  She starts with a photo and then draws and overlays a myriad of possibilities for continuance.  The process and the work seem so rooted in physicality, but Eleanna’s mind is constantly turning to crack this puzzle of physicality in a mental way.  Eleanna is a planner.  And these pieces, however effortless they may seem, are a result of both mental and physical time. 

 

The work is rigorous, her process is rigorous and she adds to it a full life—running Ortega y Gasset, holding down a day job and being a New York City artist and all that entails.  I find that she echoes time and time again how important and transformational her time at artist residencies is for her.  The residency in Aspen opened up her work in a sculptural way and brought her the knowledge of how to make a clay mold and use Hydrocal as a material.  It completely changed her trajectory.  And anytime talking to Eleanna about residencies is centered on her experience of the landscape—the vastness of the mountains in Colorado, the cliffs in France and the winter in upstate New York.  She described to me the residency in Cassis, France that she completed last summer and how she realized she needed to change her process for it—shipping Hydrocal pieces back to NYC was not practical.  So she dedicated her time there to working on paper and used oil paint and varnish to create a translucency to the paper that she hadn’t achieved before.  She let herself work quickly and repeat forms over and over, not questioning herself. 

 

She described the landscape of Cassis as a series of fingers jutting out into the water—each finger actually a cliff 1300 feet high dropping to the water below.  She tells me she grew up on water—on Lake Michigan and Green Lake in Wisconsin—and it has been two decades since she has had access and she took advantage of it.  The natural world of mountains and rocks and stones seems to be a huge influencer to her work.  Besides the natural landscape, the architecture of the local museum and its’ intricate metal gate and shadows affected her.  She said that Cassis was healing.  We talked about the idea of “feeding the well” as she calls it.  She would describe her days there—hiking then studio, swimming then studio and kayaking then working in the studio.  Physical activity and the landscape cleared her mind, but it also sunk itself subconsciously into the work.

 

After her residency in Cassis, she returned to NYC and her major project last fall/winter was curating a solo show of the work of Monica Palma at Ortega y Gasset.  She said she was so excited to share her work with the public and that Monica is a fantastic artist and human.  Eleanna made a curatorial decision to choose work that spanned the last five years of Monica’s practice to show breadth rather than focusing on the newest work.  And Eleanna’s decision paid off—the show was written up in Art in America, a first for Ortega y Gasset.  Eleanna said she was thrilled to support Monica and also put the gallery on the map.  It was kind of an underdog moment for her to see an artist-run space get the same respect as a commercial gallery and she was really excited.

 

After the success of the show, Eleanna spent seven weeks at the beginning of 2017 at a residency at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York.  She said that her residency at Yaddo, as all her residencies, allow her to loosen up her type-A personality and get outside of her head.  She calms down and slows down.  She goes for a walk, she breathes, she steps outside of herself.  She is in a constant space of being grateful—for the huge space to work in, the ventilation, the slop sink nearby, the privacy and being taken care of with food and comfortable surroundings and also for the gift of being surrounded by people who are serious about their work. 

Eleanna’s big goal of the residency was to make the Hydrocal pieces at a bigger scale and see what that scale shift did to the work.  She completed two bigger pieces at Yaddo—and I believe that yet again a residency has totally opened up her work.  The scale of the new pieces is dynamic and they remain as strange and intimate as the smaller works, just at a higher concentration. 

 

Making the bigger works caused her to realize that she is a painter, making sculptures.  There are lots of logistical problems that she needs to deal with.  The first big piece is too heavy for her to lift.  She added foam to the inside of the next one to lighten the weight.  Experiments with tinted polyurethane dried with an unexpected shrinkage and all of her mental planning wasn’t leading to the physical results she expected.  But in this process was a bit of magic—the materials were forcing her to change direction, reroute, and be spontaneous.  In a conversation with a fellow Yaddo resident, who works with beading—a material that is a physical manifestation of time—she realized that her work, while also full of time and thought and devotion appears to be effortless.  It appears to be outside of time.  And we talked a bit about what that realization meant for her.  She didn’t want the work’s validation to come from an idea of labor but from a shift in experience and thought.  She said she also had two other big realizations at Yaddo brought through conversation.  Another one is that she is a Gemini and her work is all about duality and how funny that is to her to never have thought about that before but the duality of the Gemini twins to be in all of her work.

 

The third realization she had was that her childhood spent training as a gymnast since age five explains some of the particularities of her practice and her commitment to process.  Knowing she was a gymnast changed my view of the work as well—but not in the rigorous, structured way she was thinking.  I was reminded of the physical world of the gymnasium and how there are these strange symbolic geometric idols everywhere—the rings, the bars, the vaults and the pads.  It is a world of textures—the textures of metal, plastic, cloth and leather.  And what about the talc powder—that one really made her laugh.  She said, yeah she never thought about that before.  Her childhood and her adulthood were spent with her hands in white chalky powder.

 

For more information on Eleanna check out her website. For more information about Ortega y Gasset check out their website

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