Devon McKnight

The Birth Of The Creative: She is power.

Devon McKnight in conversation with Ashley Johnson

Photo by  Paris Williford . Jacket from  Fort Lily . Obvi.  💋

Photo by Paris Williford. Jacket from Fort Lily. Obvi. 💋

It’s the beginning of summer in North Carolina. You can feel the heat creeping in, the cool breeze of spring on its way out. Everything is green. Green on top of green on top of green. Almost too much green.

I meet Ashley at a restaurant in downtown Winston-Salem. A city in the middle of the state known as "City of the Arts and Innovation" and also, perhaps, for Camel cigarettes.  This is  Ashley’s hometown.  We are both sweaty from the heat of late afternoon that’s gotten trapped in the concrete of downtown. We talk like girlfriends. Mostly about men and work and our vivid dreams, and we laugh so loud and full.  I am unbelievably at home and happy and I can’t help but think it is this land and its nature that drives its women to be so loud and in love, secretly building up enough sweat under their ass to fill a swimming pool, all while dining on pasta.  There’s so much I want to ask her but forget to, sidetracked by us being us, together, finally.

I started speaking with Ashley earlier this month after coming across some of her photos via social media. I was floored by them. Dark yet bright, colorful yet largely black and white, mystical yet familiar.

I now realize we got Ashley Johnson right out the gate. She’s fresh and she’s in it right now.  Her first bomb, Woven.

I really wish that the approach to Woven had a dynamic backstory. When asked about the series, I make sure I don’t generate intent where there was none. The truth is that Woven was simply practice. It was my first time trying to translate the images in my mind, and it all started with these magnolias growing near my job. They were the first blooms of the spring and they were dying. The idea of blooming dead really intrigued me.

Every day I would look at them and mentally commit to using them. I realized that by the time I figured out what I wanted to do with them, they’d be gone. So I asked models to sit for me and set a date--still with no idea what I was going to do. I figured if I just moved forward on it, the ideas would invent themselves. I noticed the bag of wool in the back of my car the day before the shoot and that’s where wrapping faces came from.

I didn’t plan any of the poses, I took pieces I had already made with the same materials and I improvised for each model. I also incorporated some large leafy greenery to some of the portraits.

A lot of people have called the portraits haunting. Someone compared them to Caravaggio paintings. Others, who know about the skin series I’m working on, talk about anger or oppressive aspects of the pieces because of the facelessness. Most of the photos I take and post are light and minimal. Woven was the darkest thing I’ve done from both an editing and conceptual perspective--even though I’m still not 100% on what the concept is. I learn more about what the series could mean as I observe and listen to other people’s experiences with the portraits.

I’ve started to write reflections as I’m conceptualizing and working so that when I’m asked these questions I know from where the work derives. The ideas don’t manifest until they’re out loud sometimes. And by then it’s too late to say “here’s why I wrapped their faces in wool.” I’m learning to be more intentional with the documentation of my ideas.

I lived alone for the first time in 2013. Imagine going from living in my tiny childhood home, 2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, 7 people; and then for the next 7 years always having 2-4 roommates; then suddenly alone. It wasn’t the alone time, it was the quiet. It was the reason I got a cat and the reason I picked up a bunch of yarn-related hobbies; I chose the medium since it was so malleable and doing finite things with my hands was meditative. I would intentionally choose projects that took a while to complete.

One of the first things I made was an area rug made entirely of poms of different textures, sizes and neutral colors. I draped that over her shoulders for the photo, it’s actually a REALLY large piece that holds a few hundred poms. There was one other piece I made recently with long tails that I also used for the shoot. It was a wall hanging that I used as a collared torso piece. None of the pieces I made were intentioned for this project. I just used what I had.

Ashley openly shares the deepness of her dropbox files with me. I feel like I have fallen into another world as I scroll and scroll through the countless beautiful, flowered figures. Ashley has only begun. These are her firsts. And I am drowning.

Woven is not her only series. Presently she is forming a few more based on masks made of flowers: Magnolias, Tulips, Cherry Blossoms.

I’ve been working on a floral mask series that you’re welcome to see! I’m lately really into female bodies and the concept of the acceptable female form; I’m drawn to flaws. Flowers are attractive, and reproductive; Feminine. I placed flowers inside of masks so that women would not have to feel the need to be traditionally beautiful (makeup, hair and all that), and let the flowers do that work for them. But wearing a mask forces the models to access all the self consciousness they have about their bodies. There’s this juxtaposition between flowers, which, all people can agree are beautiful despite shape, size, creation, and bodies, where that level of universal acceptance doesn’t exist; the experience for the models is to truly feel their own form.

Some women are limited, by no real fault of their own, in their connection with the world and that comes through in their bodies. Pop culture uses the term “basic”, I’ll use the term nearsighted.  Nearsightedness makes it incredibly difficult to challenge models to do things with their bodies or conceptualize poses that, for them, have never existed. In that, there’s a very real relationship between your body, your energy and my projects. They all have to be successful to make a successful image. The most provoking portraits in Woven are as such because all three of those elements blend seamlessly.

I’ve been shooting nudes a lot, and it’s really challenged my perception on the concept of photogenic bodies. I’m undoing years of construction myself--knowing that I have this vast appreciation for female forms of every kind--but also reconfiguring what I believe to be beautiful and what I’m told is beautiful. There’s also unignorable realities. The chief reality being that smaller bodies translate the shapes and angles I see much clearer. So I don’t prefer thin frames because they’re thin, but I will choose the body I like for the project it suits. Lately I’ve been using Kristi Sims a lot. She was the first portrait I posted on Woven and the first for the floral portrait series.  I want to build a way to work around this. Because the bulk of art audiences are nearsighted. How do I develop my points without distracting them? This new work also makes me appreciate my own form in ways that hadn’t imagined. Its a free flowing love for my flaws that’s generated by the women I shoot and protected by me. And most importantly, this love did not need to be validated by a man.

As we talked I realized she was me, she was many of my friends. Young, creative people trying to make it work. Stumbling, hitting the walls of the system, slowly finding their way to themselves and to others through their own creative process.

I do not have a full picture of who I am,  I just know I can’t afford to stop moving. Quick  backstory: I’m pretty sure I spent 2011 sleeping. I hated college, home life would not stay home life, and I got so down that I just responded by sleeping. Somehow, one day, I just told myself that every day I will do something. It didn't matter what it was. If you go through a depression sometimes just making a sandwich is a job; I started making lists of things. Lists on lists on lists. Make this, fold that, print that one thing, join this project, say yes to social stuff, and cross them off one at a time. And that’s where the bulk of my drive came from. Not the work, but the willingness to just do the work. That wasn’t where I began my work, but it was a definite turning point that got me to the level of productivity I’m on today.

It took me 7 years to get out of UNCG. I started in theater and realized I didn’t like theater people during a class called Voice of the Actor. I was rolling around on the ground screaming and making wolf noises and said, “this isn’t acting..this is stupid.” I remained undecided for a while then picked up screenwriting--mostly because a friend I really admired had gone into the entertainment industry. As I rounded out that major, I had so many English courses that I picked it up as a second major and then in 2012 I finally graduated.

As far as my “art” that has surprised me just as much as it has surprised everyone else. I’ve always been interested in exploring more complex themes and making more challenging images as a means of documenting my interests. I’ve never much cared for photography, but I’m obsessed by the way people react when they remember a thing they’ve forgotten--especially if I’m responsible for documenting that memory. I take pictures, record things and archive experiences throughout my life for other people. How that transitions into my work, I’m unsure, but my art is rarely ever for me.

As far as studies, I’ve never had any formal training artistically, but I digest the work of others relentlessly then practice my own. This is the first time in my life where I’m confident sharing what I’ve become out loud. What people see from me now is just me opening a tiny, tiny window after years of saying nothing as a creative.

In addition to creating these series’ of portraits, Ashley formed Fort Lily. an outerwear resell brand imagined for and strengthened by everyday women.

I just started doing EVERYTHING I could find to do to keep me busy. If I stop moving, I get down; Fort Lily came about because I was tired of myself. I was wearing so many hats that I just exhausted myself. So I basically sat down and said “what are my favorite hats, and how do I wear them every day, and make them profitable?” (Because I don’t want to work for anyone else). So I found my hats: femininity, collecting things (thrifting), curation, photography, design and business and put them all into this one thing. There was a growing network of online shops who were thrifting just about anything for nothing, fluffing the price and selling out FAST. So I took that model, chose a niche (outerwear), and branded it, which was something a majority of the shops weren’t doing.

I have commitment issues, so since I’m dabbling in clothing, I wanted something seasonal that I would only need to dedicate a certain number of months to each year. Reluctantly, I threw away all the other hats and focused just on the business. The response has been really surprising. I’m going to keep going with it until either I get bored with it or it takes off. So far so good.

This is Ashley. This is the creative. For most artists today, making a living off the work is laughable, likened to winning the lottery. So if we’re lucky, we pick up full-time jobs, and if we’re luckier, it’s something we can stand behind. Creativity becomes integrated into every part of life, out of necessity. You see magnolia blossoms blooming dead on the way to work.  You are inspired.  You schedule a photo shoot for after work. I have begun to notice that this way of life has somehow, perhaps, made us more creative in a more interesting way.  There is immediacy and truth and strength because there is no time for anything less.

Ashley works for a non-profit in charge of overseeing the delivery of publicly-funded mental health, intellectual/developmental disabilities and substance abuse services. She explains that she’s in the middle of a transition as the organization is merging. In fact, there was once 11 non-profits devoted to mental health assistance in North Carolina. They’ve been cut to 4.  A common scene in the once Democratic state.

In conversation, Ashley will say that she is lucky, but I see it as smart and hungry. “I just used what I had” translates as “I will find a good use for literally anything”.  Ashley projects confidence, adventure, hilarity, love..so much love, and an everyday unsure nervousness that gives her reason to pursue, to search out.

Every part of her life is useful. And because of her love of others, others are giving back to her. She collaborates or finds people offering her their skills and knowledge at every level. This is not luck, but the love and support that exists within community; a concept that seems to be dying but is so precious.

Ashley preaches it when describing Fort Lily, “We’re not just producing a product, but cultivating the idea that competition is divisive and collaboration is progressive.”

She is power. In a moment of failure, Ashley crawls out of a sadness and makes her life. Brick by brick. She finds the opportunities that don’t exist by making them. And with the help of a community that she seeks out, brings light to others and to her city, hoping to inspire those that feel as hungry as she.

Write here...

Write here...

Ashley is currently taking a break from social media to focus on her creative projects but you can link up and anticipate her return.

snapchat: @hiaj

instagram: @hiaj

www.hiaj.co

What is a Keith Daly?

An Interview with Keith Daly

by Devon McKnight

He's 46 or 25. Maybe 32. He's from France and Germany, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles, New York (upstate and Manhattan), and maybe Florida on some weekends. He's an artist that fell into his art, and it would have happened there if it didn't happen here. He's a sculptor, no... a painter... that installs space; no, that puts paintings in a room and they tell us a fiction….a biographical fiction...about a place..and a man; a ghost?

 

About a falling-apart and a dead town and a legend that we just want to get close to somehow. He forages and gathers… Keith is one that doesn’t make sense. He mixes and chops his words and sentences. But you go with it. Because it’s beautiful. And it’s curious. And you want to find the dots and you want to connect them, but at every turn you’re disconnected and attached to a new storyline that distracts you from those previous dots you were just connecting. But you go with it, because it’s beautiful and it’s new and it’s curious...and you want to figure it out.

Keith has the space that he creates within, the empty rooms he sets-up. And then Keith has a way of entering those everyday spaces, the spaces we all exist within. This is from his series waving at planes:

really? i thought "mahalo" meant "goodbye".    no, it means "thank you".    ah, i also thought it meant "my hole".    sure, "man-hole".    so duarte says it again, but slower: "ma-ha-lo", and that's it, the residency is over. no refunds. no free rides. barely a smile. no flowers. just me and mahole, back in santa cruz (hola mah hole, que tal?), standing with the dogs by the ocean. after 5 weeks on the road, from doucheldorf to berlin, stuttgart to venezia, to nizza (and nearby villages) und barcelona the question at this point is: what is the connection between this small surfer town - with its hippies, dreadlocked vegans with little foot wear, art ladies (non-gender specific term), google weekenders and righteous eco-hipsters - and the art world at large: NY, Berlin, LA, London, etc.?

really? i thought "mahalo" meant "goodbye".

no, it means "thank you".

ah, i also thought it meant "my hole".

sure, "man-hole".

so duarte says it again, but slower: "ma-ha-lo", and that's it, the residency is over. no refunds. no free rides. barely a smile. no flowers. just me and mahole, back in santa cruz (hola mah hole, que tal?), standing with the dogs by the ocean. after 5 weeks on the road, from doucheldorf to berlin, stuttgart to venezia, to nizza (and nearby villages) und barcelona the question at this point is: what is the connection between this small surfer town - with its hippies, dreadlocked vegans with little foot wear, art ladies (non-gender specific term), google weekenders and righteous eco-hipsters - and the art world at large: NY, Berlin, LA, London, etc.?

Uploaded by Nick Ibarra on 2014-12-08.

As a graduate student at San Jose State University, Keith comes equipped with a studio space. A narrow space that he uses as a office, storage unit, and think tank. Here you can see the beginnings, middles or nothings of Keith’s future plans and present decisions. I think, because of the years he’s lived and his current mode of having been an independent adult for a while, he has all of his findings or materials neatly piled in categories. Tall 1x1’s grouped over here, found discarded paintings lined up over there, small blown glass jars lining the wall that separates his space from the considerably less filled space next to him and it’s like one long run-on sentence. Even in their organized states, these objects speak to each other, call out from across the room. Wood pieces lock eyes, similar blues whistle for attention, other people’s unfinished attempts at portraits or still lifes are bold sentence starters tucked close to tattered fabrics or the stump of a ceramic glaze tester.

 

Everything is significant. Everything is placed either specifically intentional or intentional without specificity. There is no beginning and no end apart from entering or exiting the space, thus pushing your presence. The audience is the reader and it is hard to come into this studio and not want to read every line before leaving.

One evening I visited Keith at his studio. The space was lit by a lamp, maybe two, and as we let one conversation blend quickly into the next in our usual black hole of thought sharing, I began taking clumsy photos of Keith’s clusters. Each photo is a cropping of the larger organism that is his space. It’s as if I was singling out intimate conversations in a crowded European bar at 1am.

KOD: I finally gave that owl painting [pictured above in my studio] to Rebecca Kohn at MLK University Library. She loves owls. I added blue to the painting, so that it would also carry some reference to you (since it was you who gave me that painting). Incidentally, the University library just purchased all four of my artbooks (“herb.s”, “Of Museum and Gallery Benches”, “A Case of Display”, “Old Beginnings New Beginnings”) for their Special Collections.

Ideally my studio will be empty in a few weeks so I can enjoy sitting in an empty space! Ah, the blank canvas! But looking back at your pictures of the studio and seeing them just after the picture of my ongoing work waving at planes (or at other things), I see a huge contrast: the crowded studio with what looks like some granny’s collection of knick knacks, and the simple action of waving at a tiny dot in the sky (a vapor trail?) from a deserted beach. Incidentally, since my work often includes words, text, either in a longer written or book form or just short phrases or word puns, I have a version of “waving at planes”, which is, fittingly, from the perspective of standing on a beach with (no) gun in my hand (hello Albert Camus / The Cure). It’s called “waving at waves”. Here it is, never seen before this interview!

Waving at Waves   - (December 2015)

Waving at Waves - (December 2015)

 

The waves waved back. In those previous sentences one might experience a digression from waving, planes, beaches to Camus. All condensed. You said it well, it can be hard to follow my thoughts, but that’s the point, thoughts, or mind, as a challenge -- if one tries to follow it can actually be fun. To whom does Camus wave? I went to college with his grandson, Antoine, we both lived in the south of France at the same time. A wonderful poet. I’m honored that you pay attention to my thought process. I think you got it nailed down pretty well.

Going back to the pictures of studio clutter - the calculated displays and associations of works. They have this outsider artist feeling, you know? the crazy hoarder…? and then “Waving at planes”: it’s pared down to the minimum: all you need is a plane in the sky, and an arm to wave. Done. Hard to wave if you’re just a torso. Guess you could grin really hard.

The studio is a theme, a work in itself. Nothing new here since Bruce Nauman bouncing his balls or Daniel Buren. For my thesis I’m thinking of inviting each member of my community to a one-on-one meeting in my studio. The meeting would be the work. A bit like how when you and I did “An evening with”: the gathering and conversation among artists and art historians was an artwork in itself, not pointing to something else.

DM: Although the studio as work is nothing new, I don’t see it much talked about presently. Unless I’m missing a huge part of contemporary art. I mean studio visits, such as this one, are super hip. But you’re not really “creating” in the studio or making traditionally. I reckon that’s often the way of the conceptual artist, BUT what I see is a blend for you. You are as much a maker as you are a thinker. Even in the way you make writings. The way you arrange items or put down marks and collaborate with a found painting or arrange a discussion about a dead artist, it all is done with the same style, clumsy but thoughtful and smart. And I think that points to how creative thought is all connected and we can see it pretty clearly in you and your life. AND that brings it back to Bruce Nauman and the conceptual artists like Allan Kaprow, Art as Life, or Acconci or even back to Duchamp...they embodied their art. Their life was the art.  They were activists in a sense. Every move challenged common thought, required us as audience to rethink our place, our actions, our everydayness. It was disruption.

So when I look at you, I think “this is a model. Look at how he blends sculpture, space, painting, object, photography, video, performance, concept...life!” I am reminded of my favorite artists that taught me how to think. Yoko Ono, giving us instructions on how to experience life, showing us what vulnerability feels like. Your work though, has always, always, made me smile. I smile at the “trickery”, the smarts of it, the curiosity that is laid in front of us that is completely infectious. For me, as a viewer, you bring life into your audience. You activate us, move us around, drive us crazy in a funny way, and leave us confused. And THAT is so fucking refreshing.

KOD: I’m so glad you see, said all this. The art world, as far as I (eye) can see, to paraphrase Lawrence Weiner, in the Bay Area at least, seems contrived and claustrophobic. I think it lacks balls, with its overwhelming emphasis on practices such as either formulaic formalism, or what has become the obligatory social practice / activist work. It’s very hard to come up with anything new and meaningful. These are often just more forms of superficial entertainment. 

My work tends to critique things when they become a trend. Sometimes the strategy or position of not-producing, not-making, not-proposing, not-applying is the only valid course (I’m thinking here of Jan Verwoert’s discussion around the notions of Exhaustion and Exuberance). Most of my applications, as of late, have been about the process of application itself and its idiosyncrasies, which is a very tricky and risky game. The pitfall is invisibility, which, in the (visual) art world, means death. So it’s an existential quandary that comes to the surface. We thought existentialism had been evacuated from art (and literature) after the 70’s or 80’s. But it returns as the real, not as the represented. It returns as the artist’s angst and constant need for validation.

Studio visits, as you note, are indeed hip (but  your visit was much more than that) because they provide entertainment. It’s kind of the farmer’s market, the meet-the-producer for the art world. In light of our culture’s constant need for the “real”, studio visits, open studios, social practice, engaged art, activist art tend to fill that need. Yet they are just another representation, another script. Ditto with residencies. There’s no longer a place to hide, no mystery, no depth. Everything has to be spelled out, fit neatly into a category or another. Hence the trend of long, overly verbal museum labels. Some current works are described as conceptual because of the amount of verbiage that accompanies them. But this verbiage, in fact, is a response to an appetite for reification and our inability to be with something we do not understand. The growing interest for the “outsider artist” is a response to a demand for art that is authentic in a world where the only authentic is quite intangible. I’m actually working with an “outsider” for my thesis show. He’s not as outsider as he seems to be. Francesco Bonami said, “there is no outside”. Maybe that’s how we should navigate the artworld. The process -- or at least the feeling -- of ostracism that pervades the Bay Area art scene is pretty real.

Brian Taylor recently told a new MFA student, “don’t let the MFA program tame you” - when I look at Andy Warhol’s piss paintings, or the things that Sigmar Polke, Christoph Schlingensief or Martin Kippenberger did, I think, “oh yes, Brian is right, but good luck”. Very few people today can sustain that level of artistic fuck-you and non-conformism.

OK, nuff said. I guess this was the part where I become negative and critical. I hope you’re still smiling :) I’m really just grateful to (still) be alive (like or unlike, rather, On Kawara). But if I were dead, maybe I’d be grateful to be dead. Who the f. knows.

DM: “there is no outside”, how could the art world ever exist like that? For the art world to be the art world, there must be the art world and then everything outside of that. And to me, and I think you too, that’s art’s/artist’s greatest downfall. Social practice is an “art thing” trying to touch the “other” world. And it is so clear, that desire for the outsider..the authentic...especially in the bay. Look at all the newcomers from the .com world wanting to be near the culture of SF and Oakland, but can’t see that they’re destroying it because ….people don’t want to be around things they do not understand, so they modify.

How do you erase the boundaries? Boundaries that so mimic our boundaried countries that are kicking people out and keeping people out and for why? I reckon it is only appropriate that the art system mimic the systems it exists within.

what have we become?

Where is all the negative, critical work? I also wonder, if this speaks to why your work is often seen as and has been criticized as a joke, like you’re tricking the audience? Questioning what is, often has this immature or annoyance factor. People want known beauty. To probe is to annoy.

You know I also really enjoy the empathy aspect of your work. You’re asking us to ride this wave with you and it’s not a soft clearwater wave, it’s Atlantic ocean style, murky green with possible jellyfish.

KOD: Yes, empathy is good. It’s what makes this whole thing worthwhile and workable. Once for a scholarship application I had to answer the question, “how do you feel your art will make a difference in the world?” I said “I am not sure. But right now, I want to firmly hold your face and squeeze it so that your lips are pushed up against one another into a huge pout and the only sound you can make is a surprised moan.” I was also wondering how to answer your question “what have we become?” -- I was going to say “an egg” but now I think jellyfish is better! And I’m glad you mention the Atlantic -- I haven’t been in it in a while.

Manatee!

DM: as a young girl, I was obsessed with manatees.  The cow of the sea.

 

KOD: Before I forget, in the very beginning of this interview, you mentioned a “ghost”. When I hear of ghosts in the context of art, and especially painting, I often think of that Andrew Wyeth painting, called like that. Wyeth painted his image as reflected to him by a very dusty mirror. I also get Andrew (Wyeth) confused with Andy (Warholes) for obvious reasons.

DM: Now that you mention it, all of his paintings have this ghost-y feeling. Like they’re all so still or quiet and… empty. Warhol too...especially the portraits and especially now.

KOD: Maybe that’s why you included the picture of that painting with the sort of blue ectoplasm? [above] Anyway, when you say “biographical fiction”, I think of the story and artwork of Vishnu “JJ” Lieberman.

DM: Yea JJ, but also herb.s. and even, a little, After Asher. A lot of your work has this “fake” realness to it. Like the jokes that are funnier because of the large amount of truth they hold and how they expose us but it’s done with humor so it feels good and it feels shared. Louis C.K. is great at this.  Your installations, paintings, and even photographs seem like stories to me, often one that we just fell into. But really, I wonder if we are just seeing your ponderings; your wonderings. You know?

KOD: My wander(w)ings? You’re right: not just JJ. Things tie into other stories. The borders are not immutable. Sometimes they blend seamlessly. At other times they are more rough, de-skilled (I dare say) juxtapositions. As if art brut, arte povera, COBRA (or supports-surfaces?) came back and took over the whole thing and said, “hey, why so clean??” After Asher was like that: some very formalist (and whacky) work tied into a dialogic and conceptual piece on an artist who was not very much interested in the production of objects. Speaking of connections between stories, the title of this here interview “What is a Keith Daly?” reminds me of Ray Johnson’s amazing text, “What is a Moticos?” Am I a Moticos? Hmm...

KOD (or KPD): Yes, thanks for including that -- that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Ray Jay sure knew how to draw a rabbit. And I love trains! Jarmusch trains, preferably. “Mystery Train.”

DM: You could have written that. It reminds me of Dr. Seuss books, merging the everyday with the nonsense. Just the right amount of nonsense to make you question life and what is real and why not?

Look out for Keith's Thesis show at the end of April (25-29) at San Jose State University as well as San Jose State's group MFA show at Pro Arts in Oakland the first week of September. 

Click here: k o    d  

 

 

 

Trying To Make Sense of Something

an artist profile by Devon McKnight

It’s Saturday night, and we’re sitting in Wardell McNeal’s bedroom. Two distracting black kittens are investigating my new smells and playing with anything worth pouncing. It’s a small space in East Oakland. The room is bookshelves. Shelves filled with philosophy, fiction, poetry, Derrida, Baudrillard, Murakami. 

Wardell sits at a tiny desk with an overhead light where he works on his paintings in the small amount of non-working hours he has. His daily grind is trouble shooting marketing strategies and product design at A2B in San Francisco, a company that designs and manufactures electric bikes.  It’s one of those jobs where you’re never really not working, a lot of after hours and late nights. So the weekends have become Wardell’s “studio time.”

He contemplates his everyday sketches. Sketches he makes on the BART commutes from the East Bay to the City or in bars after work where he unwinds with a shot and a beer. These drawings are where I first encountered Wardell under his Instagram name @post_structure. To me these sketches are the work, constant figures of the downtrodden. I was drawn to the mess, the history of line, the prolific-ness, the everyday, the seen, the felt truth of it all.

The sketches exist as themselves, as practice, and as reference. Ideation. They’re him, they’re what he sees and they’re what he sees in others. They’re the overlooked bodies of a society who forgets.

I’m reminded of modern masters like Matisse and Picasso that drew constantly. Constantly sketching models. Contemplating the world through the figure. Wardell wants to perfect his skill. He wants to challenge himself. He wants to know everything. He’s hungry. He shows me pages in his stack of sketchbooks where thoughts were born, where they appear again in another more elevated form, and then later in one of his paintings. Having never been to art school where one presumably learns to paint and draw and sculpt, he has recently embarked on teaching himself. He reads books about Picasso’s Guernica, studies how-to’s on the steps of painting and references Caravaggio’s depictions of horrifying scenes. He sees a Barry McGee show and is inspired. He visits St. Louis and Ferguson and a concept is born.  He is a student of life.  Wardell is an observer, seeing the fine print in the everyday, slowly connecting ever-present parts of his life.  

I ask him where the people in his drawings come from. It’s complicated, but it goes back to his first models, his younger brothers who are twins. Long face, round nose, larger lips. Back in the day he’d draw his brothers with exaggerated features and they’d hate it.

But this was also Wardell creating character. You can see his sketches mimic his mood. A long BART ride after a late night working delivers sleepy passengers, or the weight of financial and racial burdens gives way to a long-necked, slumped-over figure.  

I struggle as I write this to name the facial expression: 

-Tired, but a specific tired, tied tightly to a constant head above water and the water is thick with blood

-Disbelief, in the blatant destruction of the body, your body, and a world that is complicit

-Profound loss, as a daily, every single day emotion 

I ask when his practice of daily sketches and Instagram posts started, “sketching and ‘gramming sparsely 2.5 years ago, then started being religious about it around November of last year.”

In late November of 2014, Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown was acquitted of any murder charges and the nation erupted in protests. 

These gestures are the sadness of today, the weight that our generation carries from home to job and out with friends and back home and in to bed with us. 

For the majority of people of color in this country, everyday is like quicksand, eating them alive as they walk down the street. But Wardell stays hungry for more knowledge and skill and life, day in and day out, in the midst of a society where young black bodies have become our detritus.

When I ask Wardell why he draws, he says, “I’m just trying to make sense of something.”

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Making space.

Devon McKnight in conversation with Alexandra Lawson.

In a time of such highly visible social injustices, I keep asking myself what is the artist’s role in creating change? For Alexandra Lawson it seems the answer has always been a bit clearer. Alexandra thinks in terms of community, conversation, and participation. She wants to blur the line between artist and audience, the everyday and the art space. The idea isn’t new. We can see influence from Situationists International lead by the popular Guy Debord and their experiential psychogeography, but Alexandra seems to be carving out a space for the social artist or at least a dialogue about doing just that.

What I find most fascinating about Alexandra’s work is its simplicity. It gets down to the essence of life. The sweet moments, the things that make humans beautiful…our ability to feel and to love and to express that to one another and to share that love.

Alexandra in her light-filled writing space.

Alexandra in her light-filled writing space.

Look at the titles of her projects…I Value You, Experiential Breakfast, Tell Me Something.  I think one of the things that drew me to Alexandra is her desire for face to face dialogue which can be a rarity in the age of texting. If you meet Ali you will notice what a great listener she is and how interested she is in who you are, what you’re all about and she’s not afraid to be pushy with her interest. Ali is looking to connect. She knows the importance of discussion, conversation, and communication.  

Toowoomba, Australia, where Ali is living, working and learning is a small town on top of a hill in Southern Queensland.  The closest large city is Brisbane, two hours away.  I realized, although Ali is located in this somewhat remote town, I see her as an international artist.  

AL: When I decided to stay and do the PhD in Toowoomba, a fellow PhD candidate Tarn McLean and I wondered how we would have dialogue with artists in our fields, that is within Social Art and Painting Expanded; we decided to start a project space called RAYGUN PROJECTS with the intention of bringing international artists to Toowoomba, to engage in dialogue with us, which we have successfully done for the past four years. Over that time we have been able to create a system of networks with wonderful artists/people from around the world whose work we are interested in. So yes, I work with people from many backgrounds and places, which I adore doing. 

I find this interesting as often artists feel they need to be in New York or Los Angeles or Berlin to be a part of the art world and its conversations, but these two decided to bring the world to them. By importing, they not only build a new dialogue, but a global one; building a global dialogue out of a small town.

So in addition to Ali’s personal practice and her PhD studies, she also co-runs RAYGUN.  The space sits above a row of shops on one of the main streets in Toowoomba. It’s a simple, small room with two windows looking down onto the streets. It is full of bright Australian sunlight during the day and sparkles with streetlight in the evening. 

Sal Randolph’s The Expanding Library of Art: RAYGUN Edition 2014

Sal Randolph’s The Expanding Library of Art: RAYGUN Edition 2014

Tarn and Ali both have studio spaces down the hall from RAYGUN which makes it all a pretty ideal setup.  As a social artist I wondered what type of role space played in Alexandra’s work. 

AL: The room that I write in is definitely my studio, I refer to it as a studio, and have just spent the best part of the last 3 years in that room, the furniture changes position often, and it has books and stuff everywhere or is super sparse depending upon my head space. It is the space where everything happens. Regarding the space that my work exists in, I refer to that ‘place’ as ‘social art’, in that it is made by an artist and it very much exists within the theory, history and discussion of ‘visual art’.

Alexandra’s studio.

Alexandra’s studio.

DM: Do you see the running of this gallery space as part of your practice...your artwork? Or do you like to separate the two?

AL: Interestingly this question is asked often. What Tarn and I do at RAYGUN is certainly an extension of our own practices, and we collaborate on projects sometimes; such as recently at NLH Space in Copenhagen where we undertook a project called Sharing Loving Giving, which is a kind of practice that exists as the ‘third hand’ of RAYGUN. 

Our primary activity at RAYGUN is to work with artists to facilitate a solo show. Sometimes we have group shows, but primarily we work with one artist who we engage in a dialogue with throughout the exhibition process, which we love. 

SHARING, LOVING, GIVING at NLH space in Copenhagen, Denmark

SHARING, LOVING, GIVING at NLH space in Copenhagen, Denmark

I met Ali years ago when she was studying abroad in Greensboro, North Carolina. Soon after meeting we began collaborating.  Ali brought this unbridled will to make connections to Greensboro, a town that at the time was a bit quiet and disconnected even though it was clustered with universities and colleges. Ali had a sense of the social, community and engaging art, something Greensboro was desperate for. I wondered if the US and its artists had any influence on Ali’s thinking and if this country offered her something different from her Australian culture.  

AL: In the US I met an artist named Lee Walton, who was highly influential to the honours thesis I was writing at the time, in addition to my thinking and my work. Prior to coming to the states I wrote a paper on Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, however upon meeting Lee and experiencing his classes and being exposed to some of the people he introduced us to and spoke about was significant to my thinking at the time. Lee also introduced me to an amazing lady named Sal Randolph who I have had the pleasure of working with towards projects at RAYGUN. Regarding US artists bringing a perspective that is different from Australian culture, Harrell Fletcher described Australia as being a little like LA, but with people speaking with a funny accent, meaning they are not fundamentally different, but in saying that, of course an individual’s direct experience/culture always influences their work to a degree. 

Excerpt from Valuable People

Excerpt from Valuable People

In Ali’s work VALUABLE PEOPLE she calls upon the global public to submit names of people they value and why. In many of her projects Ali calls upon the experiences or ideas of others.  For her PhD she is researching the realm of social art and studies the ideas and knowledge of prominent social artists to influence her own thoughts. You could say experiences and thoughts are her media.  In a consumer society such as ours, I wonder if this type of work is overlooked because it isn’t tangible and often it is temporary, existing only for a moment.  I wonder if this makes artists like Ali nervous. Because their work can’t be consumed, thus is it less desirable? 

AL: You are touching on ideas that I had when I was researching initially and ended up focusing my research around the social artist, proposing that social artists (also known as participatory/live/socially engaged artists) are currently displaced, due to the use of everyday activities and objects to facilitate their artwork. As a result, social artworks have been traditionally unable to self-identify as art, and are often misread and misrepresented through a variety of other fields (such as theatre, politics, pedagogy etc) both historically and within current debates. I proposed that a ‘place’ should be established for the social artist, as the social artist is as valuable to the creation of social art as the traditional artist is to the creation of traditional/modern art objects for visual pleasure. Therefore social art deserves a place, to be acknowledged and understood within visual art practice and associated theory and criticism. My work exists within that debate.

I was drawn to this type of work because the paintings and objects (I love painting and object based work very much) didn’t seem to be achieving the outcome that I needed, I became interested in creating an experience for the participant. Regarding being nervous about the existence of the work, no, I am not nervous. There is more and more literature/debate emerging re (for/in?) this type of work by writers such as Claire Bishop, Grant Kester, Nato Thompson etc, it certainly has a presence even though it is not often discussed in depth, or is merged with non art activities. 

Regarding the incorporation of tangibility into the work, yes, the projects that I create usually do have some kind of tangible ‘trace’ object, which I consider to be only documentation, created in order to understand the intentions of the project after the work has occurred. 

DM:  Where do you imagine your work existing? What is its best space?

AL: It’s an interesting question; I am assuming that you mean where is the work best displayed? I have come to think that ‘showing’ the work isn’t that important, I like that idea that it might exist beyond the initial experience as some kind of trace object, such as a book for example. 

DM: I love this too, probably because we love the book as object so much. It’s a keeper of ideas.  

“What is it’s best space”...meaning in your lovely imaginary or best world...how would or where would these projects/experiences/situations occur? A gallery, a street, a coffee shop? All of the above?  I was just watching Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present and I realized I had always thought of her as this museum artist but she activated many spaces...the Great Wall of China, outdoor plazas, and also museums. Love that. Sometimes I feel we place the burden onto ourselves to be gallery or nongallery...space or nonspace. 

AL: I have watched ‘The Artist is Present’ this week too! I watched it with the intention to identify whether Abramovic considers herself a performance artist, or a social artist. Her lineage has been in performance, and I think that everything she does and every one of her intentions is so very heavily grounded in performance, which is interesting, this is why it is located without question in a visual art context.

DM:  So! What will you do now that you are finished with your PhD?

AL: That is a good question, I am still adapting to this change, but am primarily absorbed with growing RAYGUN. Tarn and I are in the process of making it financially sustainable, as at present it is funded by a wonderful funding body called ‘Arts Queensland’, we are adding more programs next year and have three publications underway. There are certainly exciting times ahead

Making a mark and loving that mark

Francesca Cozzone visits Devon McKnight

I met Devon at the beginning of summer 2014. We were introduced to each other a couple times before, but it was when we were both invited to a nice little gathering of artists, I got to know her better.  She is a collector, a curator, and without a doubt, a painter. She continuously moves through her work. Never forgetting about her past pieces and ideas, but always striving for a new direction.  It is her own never-ending story.

Devon’s studio is located at San Jose State University where she is finishing her third and final year in the Masters program.  It is a large enclosed room off to the side with a divider separating her studio in two spaces.  There were prints of blue, almost swatch like, all over one side of the room.  After completing them a year ago, she pulled them out to process through them again, possibly cut them up and pair them with new companions.  

You can see she is attracted to this very blue, appearing all over both rooms.  Small and large boxes of paints lay around her studio. As for the rest of her color palette, she takes a little more playful and productive, not blocking from the exploration of her work.  I pointed out some work with color you wouldn’t normally associate with her work.  I was excited to see the bright colors being introduced, but she explained it quite differently, “I really hate all those colors. I try to put up things I don’t like, to see what happens.”   She continued saying they were too magical. Devon finds comfort in everyday colors, colors she finds on her walk to school.  She gravitates to blue, yellow, green, to found surfaces and wood.

“It is bright without being loud.  It’s more my personality.”

These relationships she discovers on her walks have become a large part of her process. She has found ten different ways to get to her studio, and changes up her routine as frequently as possible. She brings these observations back to the studio to build new relationships and non relationships. Moving towards a more narrative approach, she is developing a story of ongoingness, a seamless connection between each piece.  The narrative is connected to her walks and has found ties to growing up in the South.  Originally from North Carolina, she recalls mostly learning from her parents and grandparents through the telling of stories over supper. Her newest source has been Rebecca Solnit’s writing.  McKnight enjoys how Solnit writes memoirs and connects them with historical and contemporary information.

With her solo thesis show in April, she is figuring out how to balance out all her interests.  McKnight came back to school to reconnect with her painting and was really interested in learning more about the Casualist movement.  These investigations of painting spawned more sculptural work and shed light on her curatorial background.  In her time off away from school she was curating shows in alternative spaces, going on site-specific residencies,Raygun in Australia, and participating in art conferences like Open Engagement in Portland and Conflux in New York City. Space has always been influential to her work, from working off the pipes and outlets to a previous owner’s yellow spots on the floor.  The work has gone from paintings to monumental pieces back to paintings.  Her balance is to keep working, to keep processing through the work.  Like other artists that deal with a sense of casualness, she is discovering “what is the difference between studio space and showing space and what showing means because people think it is full of intent, and a final thing, but nothing here feels so final.”

This would come full circle, now she is spearheading her group MFA show, the student run show usually located at Art Ark Gallery. This year’s graduates are taking a different direction and looking towards alternative spaces to have their show.  With galleries all over San Francisco closing or relocating due to rising rent costs, alternative spaces (bars, stores, pop-up galleries) are a current outlet for artists and curators. McKnight’s class has taken full advantage  and decided to work with multiple venues including South First Billiards,Pho 69 which is part of Phantom Galleries, San Jose City Hall, a projection screen on 1st street (run by San Jose Arts Commission and Zero1) and potentially the Zero1 Garage and Cafe Stritch.

“This fell…it was big but it fell and I liked how it fell.”

Her studio perfectly shows paintings. Paintings on paintings, paintings as sculptures, and paintings as installations.  As we combed through the tubes of paint, I casually asked if she identified as a painter or as an installation artist.

“Oh yes, everyone wants to say I was moving into spatial work. but I still see it as painting.  I never learned sculpture. This is basically form, color and composition, which can go with many art forms.”   


For more of Devon’s work visit devonmcknight.com.