American Polymath: an Interview with Christopher Stackhouse
Christopher Stackhouse is an American writer and visual artist. He holds an M.F.A. from Bard College and Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts, and he is an editor at Fence Magazine. His work includes stage acting, music recording, painting and drawing, poetry, critical writing and performance events. Among the highlights of his oeuvre are the drawings that accompany John Keene’s text in the collaborative volume Seismosis (1913 Press, 2006) and an essay in the monograph Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks (Rizzoli, 2015).
I reviewed Stackhouse’s poetry collection Plural (Counterpath Press, 2012) for the Denver Quarterly in 2014 and contacted him after the piece was published. He mentioned the review, and we struck up a correspondence. The results follow.
Christopher Stackhouse: The last painting I produced was in 2005 or 2006. Nevertheless, I’ve made some small collages, a few drawings, and taken some photographs since then. I have been collecting things for collage in small boxes, some of those proper archival boxes, and some shoe boxes and other kind of package containers. The most substantial artwork I have been involved with is a collaborative project called This Red Door, founded with artists Jared Friedman and Jomar Statkun. It has in large part functioned as an unauthored (or maybe multi-authored) large-scale conceptual work, or, in Beuysian terms as a “social sculpture.” I recently wrote a piece about a work by artist Jessica Segall that was staged / installed at Recess Art Space in NYC back in January of this year. I was invited to participate in their Critical Writing Program. In the essay I wrote in response to Jessica’s piece. I described my take on it, that is very much how I might describe the artistic aspect / medium of This Red Door that I am most interested in – “art […] as moments being [formed] between people,” an aspect that is intangible but capable of being collectively cultivated by all participants. Here is the essay.
I have a series of white paintings that I started a decade ago, and plan to pick up again after I finish the next book of poems. I also have several images of drawings from my collaborative book Seismosis created with writer John Keene. There is plenty to discuss, and a variety of vantages from which to discuss art. I am open to creating a conversation however it may unfold.
Erik Noonan: I enjoyed “Thinking about Jessica Segall’s ‘½ A Cord’” and I’m interested in these remarks:
Art certainly need not be consciously politicized by artists. Whether artists like it or not, art is ultimately being instrumentalized for political ends, to preeminently serve an oligarchy, especially in the global network of which New York’s art world is intrinsically part. What makes artists look foolish is pretending that this is not the case because it is inconvenient to whatever it is whichever artist is trying to achieve. It is much easier to strategically pretend to be naïve. Yet, the challenge of deciding what to do with given circumstances is a hard one – up to a point. At what juncture does an artist evaluate the incentives to make art?
I’m curious about your experience of the media of writing, drawing, and painting. How are they related, and unrelated, to each other?
CS: Communication, in the broadest and most basic sense, is what guides artistic production on all levels. There are technological developments, and changes in a given social body, that put constant demands on human expression. Every generation has to interpret and re-interpret the world that they inherit. Some might argue that what we call an “artistic experience” is a conditioned response acquired by eruditional scheme. To insist that “art appreciation” is always learned through a set of curricula is arrogant. An attitude like that discounts billions of types of aesthetic experience. It is much easier to systematize, to insist on stable hierarchies of art, than to accept the changeable spectrum of culture that occurs between our birth and death. We tend to look at history as a stable thing, that it is on a dependable trajectory. What makes art so persistent – in the case of your question about writing, drawing, and painting (however what I am saying can be applied across all fields and disciplines) – is that it means nothing and everything at once. There are no real poles. A good friend, a stellar scholar and poet, Geoffrey Jacques, has a habit of saying about poetry that “Every poem is about the same thing.” He means love. Let’s say that is the case with tangible (and intangible in the absolute conceptual sense) art. Let us say that art wants to be loved or to interrogate or antagonize love in all of its forms. Writing, painting, drawing mark time; they evidence contemplation and action.
EN: Last weekend I found a copy of your book Seismosis, a collaboration with John Keene, and with your last email in mind, I read: “My chief motivation for drawing is, I guess, what it is for those who have no aims beyond self‐expression. It’s an intimate act, my main means of getting what’s inside me or outside me down, on a page, it’s a refuge, an act of love.” As I read these lines and others alongside the drawings with which the text of Seismosis is interlarded, I wondered if this “act of love” might be the Communication you described in your email. Is expressive communication a form of love for you, something cosmic, like Dante’s “love that moves the sun and other stars”?
CS: I haven’t looked at a copy of Seismosis for a long while now. I really enjoyed its creation at every stage. I do not physically own a copy of it at the moment. I can’t remember from which text-poem those lines come. I say text-poem to be specific, because the drawings are a type of poetry themselves. I have to say yes, of course expressive communication is a form of love. Seismosis is a premiere example of that. I hadn’t thought about communication itself as an entity, as a kind of common shape among other shapes, in that way, but yes, of course it is. Considering love as a universal force that attends all being, might be a stretch. (A side bar: What does “form of love” really mean?) Yet, again the forces that give us the stable perception of a cohesive reality are fleeting and simultaneously vivid; to quote another fantastic poet on the subject “[t]he phonographs of Hades in the brain / Are tunnels that re-wind themselves, and love / A burnt match skating in a urinal.” I love Crane precisely because he wasn’t very “sober.” Though, his technique showed a fidelity to his ideals and to the complexion of his personality. There is also that kind of multivalent, unspecific but urgent kind of love expression, that wants everything, like with Donne: “Mad paper stay, and grudge not here to burn / With all those sons whom my brain did create, / At least lie hid with me, till thou return / To rags again, which is thy native state.” Cosmic openness.
EN: I reviewed your poetry collection Plural for the Denver Quarterly last year, and these lines from “Description” stand out for me:
Af–am contribution to Abstraction, variation
Pattern making, smallness versus the typified
‘Grand gesture,’ to write as one draws, geometric
lines, subsets confined and confirmed by points
When I read this, I was struck by your characterization of the African-American contribution to artistic abstraction as a matter of intricacy, if I understand you. Some other lines from that book also made a lasting impression on me. This from “Notes from Panel Disc. @ the Fish Tank Gallery”:
Thinking about what
Art should speak (say) to a position from a position of an artist.
The artist takes a position based on how s/he sees itself in
contextual dialogue (art historical?) with the human condition.
The artist interprets his/her world to create meaning, or/and,
comment on the way meaning may be transmitted.
In San Francisco there’s a permanent collection at the Museum of the African Diaspora which includes some Abstract Expressionist works. There was a show of African-American Abstract Expressionists last year at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York. Which artworks or shows, if any, have been significant for you as “what // Art should speak (say) […] on the way meaning may be transmitted” – and also, at the same time, which artworks or shows are examples of the “Af-am contribution to Abstraction” for you? Is there a piece, or show, or body of work, that combines these two things, for you?
CS: If by “intricate” you mean complex, multifaceted, marrying interrelated social, aesthetic, historical, and economic parts then you at least understand where I am coming from. “Description” was written in response to John’s writing on my drawings in Seismosis, as was to some degree Part 1 of “Extractions” and perhaps more or less one or two other poems in Plural, like “The Critic Loves” is probably one. They are not direct responses to John, per se, but more to ideas he and I shared with each other over the course of making that book. We discussed a good deal the critical seriousness afforded certain participants in painting abstraction – Hans Hoffman, Burgoyne Diller, Paul Klee, Mondrian, Kandinsky, on through some of the post war figures, etc. We talked a lot about Richter because of all of the appropriation he’s gotten away with and rich off of. And yet someone like Alma Thomas somehow goes unappreciated when not under-appreciated. There are likely countless other Black painters that made abstract paintings and sculptures who are excluded from that conversation for reasons of simple-minded racism, chauvinism, and various other kinds of partisanship. Hence in that poem, “Description,” the mention of Beauford Delaney. It took an extensive show of work by Norman Lewis with Lee Krasner at the Jewish Museum to begin to make a correction out of the neglect his career suffered because of the purveyors of art during his time. I think of the career differences between Sam Gilliam and Frank Stella. Gilliam is a far more sophisticated painter than Stella, but Stella is more famous and by far financially richer. Ed Clark made some of the most beautiful abstract paintings of the 20th Century. Donald Judd gave him a show in his apartment at one point. He was close friends with Joan Mitchell. Clark is a real doyen of American art, and most people who profess to know about art have no idea who he is. He’ll be 89 years old in a month. I could go on and on about this but for the moment I will spare you the rather well-rehearsed rant.
When I wrote those lines from “Notes from Panel Disc. @ the Fish Tank Gallery” they weren’t intended to deal with race or class or gender or anything of the sort. That poem really is a response to what I perceive as the negative effects of a constant read, a constant insistence and reliance on art for art’s sake as a kind of excuse to ignore the utility of art, namely how it has been monetized, and by whom, and to what ends. It is extremely simplistic, and I believe disingenuous, for any so-deemed artists to say that s/he only makes art for themselves. If I hear that, if anyone hears any artist say that out loud, that so-called artist that says it, that person who says it, is lying. It is not easy reconciling oneself to one’s own creative needs. It is easy to become defensive, or to create strategies to protect oneself from the harsh realities that are visited upon our confusion about what art means.
In terms of contributions by African-Americans to abstract painting, that is a complicated question. It is not one artist or even a handful to be named. It is the African Diasporic culture itself. The entirety of it is greatly responsible for the persistence of Abstraction in the Western Hemisphere over the past century and a half. In a kind of relief Wilheim Worringer discusses this in Abstraction and Empathy (Abstraktion und Einfühlung). His approach to the subject is an ignorant one, in the best way. He is trying to describe a way of seeing that is foreign to his worldview. The challenge is bald in his writing about it. I mean too, if you look at Modernism say from Delacroix through to Pollock, Eurocentric Western culture is utterly dependent on African cultural retention that manifests, shapes, informs and tests cosmopolitan notions of culture. Robert Farris Thompson talks about the powerful spirit of the continental African energy that spread throughout the West with great acceleration after the establishment of the Triangle trade. If we look at the history it is impossible to honestly omit African influence from modernism. One person and one painting I am interested in finding out more about, in relation to art history is George Washington Carver and a painting of his. There is some discussion that he made the first noted / known abstract painting in the United States.
EN: North African colonization and trade shaped ancient Mediterranean civilization from its earliest days, and Achaean partisanship suppressed the facts for centuries afterwards, obscuring the true character of our cultural heritage. A diasporic African influence is inseparable from the formation of the West in general and the United States in particular. And it still exerts massive authority.
It would be dishonest for an artist to plead exemption from these matters. They demand an earnest engagement in disciplines besides art, like those you’ve adduced. As you note, there’s a way of making art that doesn’t play dumb about the forces at play.
The works of the artists you mention – Alma Thomas, Beauford Delaney, Sam Gilliam, and Ed Clark – have a cosmopolitanism and an independence that distinguishes them from the efforts of their contemporaries. There’s a kindred quality in your own work, in oil on canvas and pen and ink on paper, that stands out against our cramped and blasé moment. What does your work in collage and photography mean to you? And how is This Red Door related to the practice of making artworks?
CS: The drawings in Seismosis were originally from a series of works on paper called the Perpendicular Series. The word “perpendicular” has a quirky sound to it that I like, and, it has an etymology that is congruent with the open and closed, or circumscribed elements of the exercise I set up in order to make the drawings. I went about it adhering to some basic generative constraints. I chose a selection of pens of different point sizes and pencils of various grade scales as well as a few basic colored pencils (grays, blues, greens, and reds.) Most if not all of the drawings were made, or at least started with me standing up over the drawing table. That gave me full arm mobility down to the fingers to draw. It also provided a different way to use gravity. On the drawing table I placed a cut of canvas to cover the table, a ¾-inch furniture grade plywood board that was about 24 inches squared on top of canvas, and a piece of scrap paper of 70lb stock weight on top of the plywood. I allowed myself to continue drawing off all of the edges of the sheets of paper, capturing the drawing motions’ moments along a mark making line’s trajectory. I began making the drawings on 4×6-inch sheets, gradually moving up to 6×9-inch sheets, and eventually went on to make a few at 16×20-inch, and 22×30-inch. The first few that I scribbled out were done on 3×5-inch sheets of paper in a spiral-bound sketchbook during my daily travels. They were born out of boredom with figurative drawing, and figurative drawings that I ultimately wanted to be read as texts. They took on the look of text-figure hybrids before turning into pure line drawings. I had been fascinated as a kid with Rene Smeets’ Sign, Symbol, and Ornament. I used that book to make drawings, lifting things here and there. Not quite like the way Basquiat used Henry Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook, differing in that rather than appropriate symbols for their import and meaning, I riffed off the linearity of graphic designs and ornamentation. There isn’t much use of symbol in Seismosis, nor was there in the Perpendicular Series. Those drawings are what they are. I did try to avoid figuration, tried to avoid representation, but landscapes appear, as do body parts, and other recognizable forms. I was also reading Gerhard Richter’s interview in his monograph Drawings 1964-1999 where he discusses paintings as being for the “public” and drawings being for the “private” domain of the artist. There are other artists that I have appreciated for their conceptual and material interest in the line drawing. Path Soong and Beatrice Caracciolo come to mind. The permission to scribble freely came from the essentially unknown Black American painter named William White. He died at age 35 in the 1970s if I am not mistaken. Years earlier, his widow Dorothy White showed me dozens of his drawings that were in the most basic sense studies of color, line, space, and optical velocity. He was using crayons, colored pencils, graphite, and ballpoints. I had made several of the drawings before John and I began to collaborate. All of the drawings in Seismosis were made between the years of 2000 through 2006. With a loose system in place, once John and I began working together I had a framework from which I could readily respond to John’s provocations, projections, requests, inquiries, and correspondences. Seismosis in many ways is a book of poetic correspondence between writers.
White Painting (Dash) was completed in 2003. There is very little oil paint used in the painting. It is mostly spray paint, acrylic with additives and graphite in the mix. Though it is vertical in orientation it is a painting that is part of a hopefully ongoing sequence of paintings that started with a horizontal painting called Chrism. Chrism was completed at some point between 2001 and 2003. I painted several white paintings (some completed, some not) up until spring of 2005. Those paintings are also to some degree influenced by verbal language. From a non-theoretical standpoint how might a painting insist on being described for what it is, for its content first, then intimating subjects or leaving space for subjectivity while asserting its object identity as just a painting to be taken for all that we do and do not understand any painting to be? What happens when the painter and the painting are each self-aware, expressing cognizance of language-dependence for interpretation? Paintings made subsequent to White Painting (Dash) were also concerned with the formal basics of optical texture (especially the appearances of “wet” and “dry”), and surfaces that allude to raw non-painting surface qualities (skin, ore, bone, wood, stone, concrete, shell, teeth, cloud, etc). Physical and conceptual patinas on the paintings also came into play. With Dash, one of the prominent features in the painting is the lonely linear mark (the dash), a highlight in an infinite trajectory through space.
I made collage before painting. I like the ones I made after I started painting much more. I started off using collages as studies. I continue to use collage, or rather, these days, the materials gathered for collage, for study in texture and color relationships. Generally, I enjoy works on paper more than canvas. I enjoy making them, holding them in hand, and looking at those made by other artists. Even beyond ostensible “subjects” there is a material reality, material energy, that makes itself known when it is about what materials are in the hand and what the hands want to do with that material and what the material will allow. There is then no false sense of infinitude. The handler’s abilities are at least delimited by the parameters of physics, and in the case of aesthetics (beauty vs. non-beauty) everything is then pressed against the eye / mind relationship, concentrated by the resulting mediation of what the hands can and want to do. There are other aspects to what I am trying to get at – purely tactile qualities, spatial, aural, olfactory, etc. For several years, I’ve collected bits of paper, metal, plastic, lint, cloth, leather, that I found on the streets, during my travels, in public spaces. I was especially interested in waste from my home and those of friends and family. Used lint roller paper became a staple, the gray lint build-up from the clothes dryer as well. I also have a collection of used match books, paper from various kinds of packaging. It sometimes feels energetically peripatetic. The collecting is maybe a process of hyper-abstraction that insists on reconstituting fragments and residue with command. I haven’t gone as far as categorizing or cataloguing or indexing the bits I’ve gathered but I have small boxes that contain them. Out of those I expect to make collages, but then I sometimes open the boxes and enjoy rearranging the contents to compare / contrast them. Before needing to box things, I used binder clips to hold all of the items that I imagined might work well together in a two-dimensional collage. Before that there would be these tidy discrete piles all over my studio and apartment. Those became clips full that took on an attitude of their own, especially when I hung them on the wall. So, I started to compose semi-sculptural images, not quite wall relief, not exactly collage. And, I would say too modest in scale to be assemblage. I showed six of those for the MFA Thesis Show at Bard in 2008. The summer before that I showed three of them in a small group show put together by dealer / gallery owner Rose Burlingham. The barn, up in Clinton Corners, New York, at the time was owned by one of the artists in the show, Lindsey Brown. It included work by Mary Carlson, Joanne Howard, Stephen Westfall, Lindsey Brown, Mary Jones, and Cora Cohen. There was a poetry reading at the opening by Sam Truitt, Mary Donnelly, and Susan Kinsolving. The artist / writer Joe Fyfe was there. He took some notice of those little collage-like works. Right away he wanted to know who did them. Rose told him that I had done them. He and I talked a bit about them. At the time I hadn’t seen his work. Maybe I read a few things, thinking that he was exclusively a writer. Since then, he’s someone whose artistic efforts I have found quite thoughtful from time to time.
Photography as art today presents some interesting problems. Those are born mostly out of how much access there is to compelling photographic imagery produced probably more by amateurs than professionals. We could argue whether or not amateurs have begun to have more influence than professional photographers in terms of broad relevance in the history making moments of our time. There is conversation being had that insists that literacy among images is retaking priority over word-language. Images are perhaps even more duplicitous and ambiguous than spoken or written language. People in favor of picture-image dominance over the linguistic, verbal, and literary (in the best sense of literary) are, perhaps, on a basic level unaware of how much the onslaught of imagery is abjectly frivolous. It compromises the generational handing-down of information and record on one hand, and, on the other it gives far more detail than posterity might want or need. Text and image function well together for art, for journalism, for sharing the priorities of a culture whatever those priorities may be. In that sense, I think the photographic image has an in to being some of the strongest art, if – if – it can be wrested from the purely art-historical, and, from academic / theoretical dependence. Criticism in / of photography needs to return to and maintain a line of vernacular description of the prerogatives and concerns of respective photographers, respective practices, and even discrete images that are proposed to be works of art. Stephen Shore and William Eggleston are examples of people who took the pedestrian to another level. Now that sensibility is widespread. They are, among others, arguably masters of it, precursors of the aestheticized snapshot. Then you have people like Roy Decarava, or more recently Mitch Epstein or Alec Soth, where there’s documentation, record-keeping, aesthetics, and cultural conceptualism at play in this way that is at once rarefied, earthly, and useful. In the most radical sense of capturing aesthetics in the document you have people like Alvin Baltrop and Nan Goldin. All of these artists are doing Instagram well before Instagram relaying information about culture in a way that is, as much as it can be, unmediated, or perhaps better thought of as without consequential intervention. There are many others, but when you look at the work of these people (think of the “selfie” in relation to the oeuvre of Francesca Woodman for example) you see what I mean about the frivolity of the imagery trafficked in social media circles or people looking for “documents” of whatever “events.” Things we see, online, featured as discrete photos, fail as art, but yet occasionally for distinguishable reasons per image capture our attention at least temporarily. The photos I’ve been taking on several different digital devices, mostly phones, and, over the last 15 years analogue using a Canon Sure Shot Classic 120 Automatic, are very much like my drawings. They are interested in being received in this way of turning the really diminutive and mundane into the grand or at least mysteriously explicit. They are mostly abstractions. I appreciate, for example, the tidiness of abstract photographer David Mitchell. But I test myself to see how I can turn everyday encounters into abstractions of cultural import, or perhaps, how might I engage the political by avoiding being overtly political.
Art-making is inherently collective. Our work depends on everything that has come before it. It is invested in the contemporary moment. When it is better than good it also anticipates a future. This Red Door for awhile, at least, represented the fluidity of artistic practice. It also looks at the condition of reception in art – how art and ideas are received. When it is at its best as a project there is no distinction between the public and the private, and relationships are positively aggressively changeable. The interstices of transition are where the art lies. If you look at the documentation of This Red Door over the course of the past few years you can very plainly see its strengths and weaknesses. The project, irrespective of what we want from it, always delimits itself. It points to human limitation. It points to both the futility and agency of social intervention efforts in art and free, open public conversation. It establishes various kinds of order as necessary. When Jared, Jomar and I founded it, at one point early on we realized it was an artwork, after a time of not describing it as such, not knowing that that was what it was or was going to be. I think the collaborative aspect of it inevitably took a beating early on. That has to do with, as Howard Becker would refer to it, our “reputation.” It is extremely difficult to have a successful collaborative project – in the social context of neoliberal capitalism, where individualism is so highly prized, and collectivism is seen as second class and burdensome – when the majority of the people that encounter the project are looking for a specific leadership. Leadership as it goes is embedded in the project. It is in essence a space where self-regulation is to be the most prized attribute. Self-regulation is most evident when the tensions of hierarchy are absolutely relieved. In that way, This Red Door is always on the brink of failure. Still it relates to my specific individual work in this way – it requires the artist (collective / collaborators) to listen very closely to the art work. The art work (TRD or a painting or drawing or relationship or a melody or … ) will indicate what it wants both for its long term survival, temporary pleasure, and edification. What the project has iterated for me is that that is what ultimately has to be listened to. There is a kind of necessary objectification that needs to occur when you’re working on something. You have to take your will out of it from time to time. I heard an apropos statement the other day which is universally and timelessly relevant – “the ego is not reality.” Artists need to know that sentiment well. If anything This Red Door has brought this attitude further into my understanding what it takes to have a genuinely productively practice. That goes beyond making objects, attaining notoriety, or being successful in common societal terms. There is something in this about being a compassionate human being, being as selfless as you can be, and at the same time being willing to challenge your art and intentions and challenge other people about their artistic intentions. We have a responsibility to each other.
EN: Thank you for sending me the announcement about your event at Azusa Pacific University, “Bannister to Basquiat.” How did it go?
CS: It went fine. I expanded the lecture on Black American painting some, including 65 images up from 41. It included the photography of Deana Lawson, art works by Miles Davis, and I talked more in depth about Chasseriau. I stayed focused on painting, even with those additions. There were some technical issues, so it started a half hour late, which ate into the Q&A time. During the Q&A I managed to discuss the painting Christ Blessing, Surrounded by a Donor and His Family, while responding to a question on the relevance of ethnicity in art. I didn’t show an image of the painting. I just described it. I still finished the lecture in under an hour. I covered a lot of territory in that timeframe.
EN: Your photographs impose pattern, form, and tone on an environment where the randomness of nature rules. They have modulation, harmony, and balance, and they appear design-sensitive. You alluded to a politics of photography. Could you expand on this topic as it relates to one of the photos?
CS: Every image has, to some greater or lesser degree, political interests, or at least some principles that are inextricably tied to social elements. The hyper-conceptual tied to Western classicism in the photography of, say, Sharon Core, is richly social, entrenching itself in that tradition. At the same time the deep reverence she feels for that tradition is burdensome. Those traditions dominate her understanding of art. I am thinking of her flower photos. She gardens, finds rare flowers and seeds, and maintains a garden from which she often chooses flowers for her still life reproductions of well known Flemish, among other types of, paintings. Most of which were originally painted during the Enlightenment period. By rhetorically indulging catchword notions of “process” and “appropriation,” under the rubric of “conceptual” (or under the lamer term “post-conceptual”) art, she avoids examining that burden. I have seen her give a lecture. The question of socio-economic and academic influence is somewhat lost when she speaks about the work. It is not lost when you look at the work, and realize what is there, happening, in the picture. This doesn’t diminish the quality of her work, but it does ostensibly simplify it. It lays her strategy rather bare. And if that artistic strategy is analyzed closely, its reveals how incredibly burdened she is by our socio-economic times. She’s making beautiful familiar objects to sell. Still our situation has made her productive. On the other hand, we could look at the work of someone like Alvin Baltrop, specifically his photos of Queer life on the Chelsea Piers from the 70s and early 80s. The drug addicts, people having public sex, the homelessness, etc. The casual nature in which the photos are taken is pure lyrical documentary. The beauty is in the voicing of the pain and euphoria of dereliction. I mean to use that word “dereliction” in a very affirming sense. I mean by that, an abandoning of values of a status quo, in order to find a value that personally satisfies, and, in a very genuine way has the capacity to edify personhood. My photos are not like either of these people’s, and are not as immediately powerful or useful. But I could say, for instance, that the photograph of barbed wire atop a fence in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn taken in 2004 is socially complex, and, politically indexical. This is especially so if you know that neighborhood or one like it. Materially speaking barbed wire is violent. Its use is inherently restrictive when not punitive. That photo captures and aestheticizes that violent material, at a moment when it is essentially inert. However, the blades and barbs on the wire are still very much expressive of their potential to do harm. There are also the associations that we have come to make with barbed wire – prisons, empty parking lots, grounds protection, theaters of war, stark barriers. None of these things are seen in the photo. At a glance all of these things can come to mind, but the initial encounter for photographer and subsequent viewer is aesthetic. It is symmetry and line, contrast and harmony, optical, and for a moment imaginary.
EN: Path Soong and Beatrice Caracciolo are magnificent. You seem to favor sparseness and the handmade, along with an unfussy, coarse elegance. Your comments about the drawings in Seismosis emphasize congruency and defiguration. Your remarks on White Painting (Dash) demonstrate that the studio is a zone where paint isn’t applied to depict physical objects, but to model and track the activities and energies of the human subject: the mind, the heart, the spirit, the soul, and the body – inside space-time and outside it. How did Signs, Symbols and Ornaments help you arrive at a de-figured line?
CS: Most people who love art appreciate a strong drawing, no matter what it looks like, no matter the style or content. Drawings, when done with intent and the freedom of the drawer, is intriguing to look at. To draw what and how she wishes always carries a tinge of beauty. An exhilaration underscores the effort. Painting has this quality too. Perhaps painting has that more now than ever. The strictures that are so present – cultural, academic, economic, etc. – have managed to clear the field for the serious-minded and self-driven. To use a phrase I once heard the painter Joe Overstreet say, “painting is hard.” What he meant by that, was that there are so many distractions, so many things calling on the eye and the intellect, and even the sensual pleasures that come with the habit of looking at paintings. It’s as much a craft as it is a privileged art. It requires a very distinct independence among practitioners. Drawing and painting as individuated practices still hold unique places in everything that we call art precisely because no one seems to really need it anymore. For that, it is freer. It can be itself in its time, in our era, without historical hindrance. It can be ineffective or effective depending on who is looking. It still maintains a well-understood, or at least an intriguing, quality. What any given community might want from it is up for grabs. It is a genuinely open conversational space, just like any other, with interlocutors and interlopers, bullshitters and actors who have something inspiring to say.
I have always wanted to communicate something exclusive about my experience. Everyone wants this from time to time. I have always wanted to add something to the conversation that wasn’t tied to any extant position. Most artists are hyperaware of the possibilities in the value of being able to do so. This is of course impossible, or if it is possible, it is unsustainable. After awhile isolation becomes untenable. While holding such a position, I found myself reaching out for material, for inspiration, for something or someone with which to dialogue. One way to do this was to copy drawings from books and photography. Reproduced imagery tends to be flattened. I figured with drawing I could enliven such things. I then quickly considered that the most rich two-dimensional expressions actually came from text, or that which was or could be read as a type of writing, especially handwriting. The pictogram is interesting to think about as a foundation for all mass media communication. Pictures can be dictatorial and misleading. All images can be infused with too much direction, and with dishonesty. They can be too specific, or too narrow, or too controlling. Sometimes that’s fine, but there should always be a way out to broader territories of interpretation, to more subtle expression. I am not sure that I would say that all of my drawings are de-figured (or disfigurations). They mostly represent themselves. They are what they are. They were drawn with beauty, individualism offered to the collective, and with manual dexterity in mind.
EN: You mentioned your conversations with Mrs. White during a reading that’s archived at PennSound. Listening to the recording I was curious about what this encounter means to you. Could you go into detail?
CS: Ms. White (Dorothy White) is a curator in the truest sense. I met her by way of a poet and writer named David Mills. David and I met in the poetry scene of downtown Manhattan in the early 90s. He took me to an event that Dorothy was having at her apartment up in Harlem. Dorothy held wonderful salons. The first time I went up there to her place was autumn of 1995. I went to several salons that Dorothy put on over subsequent years. To give you an idea of what those gatherings were like, I met Hettie Jones (née Cohen) there in 1996, who introduced me to Cave Canem (of which I am fellow alum). I met A. B. Spellman, J.D. Parran, Marion Brown, Nanette Carter, Jayne Cortez, David Henderson, Amiri Baraka, Ed Clarke, Aishah Rahman, Steve Canon, Joe Overstreet and Corrine Jennings … and countless others of her generation and younger at her apartment and through events that she took me to in New York and Washington, D.C. I could name many more people. I ate and drank with these great artists. I exchanged ideas with them and listened to their stories. She connected me with a range of people that were / are necessary to my foundational understanding of my place in American art.
Perhaps the most direct influence from her, with regard to the drawings in Seismosis and my efforts toward painting, was her late husband William White’s work. I saw and we discussed his paintings and drawings, and what he was after with them. I have already said a fair bit about them, so for the moment I won’t go back into them. However, whenever I looked at them I realized they had a lot to do with optical freedom. The expression of the living unbridled eye. That was something that he had. He died at age 35 and perhaps hadn’t taken as far as he could have. She told me that he made hundreds of drawings. I saw enough to get inspiration from. Some of them are quite beautiful. They escape language.
EN: What have you learned from your experience creating This Red Door with Jared Friedman and Jomar Statkun, in terms of a group effort in the arts?
CS: It is difficult to abstract one specific thing. This Red Door has at the moment several problems. Most of those problems are personal and interpersonal. They also have to do with whom each of us (I, Jared, and Jomar) have surrounded ourselves. On one level when you are doing something good, as a group or as an individual, people initially outside of this who have yet to tap into an audience for what they do well, are curious and envious. Envy is not always negative. Sometimes it is a desperate kind of admiration. If you are dedicated to an art, you really have to use caution around the people you really care for. It is a dangerous combination. This is definitely true if the people you really love are artists, or, want to be such; or just as bad, one person or a group of people close to you have yet to understand what being dedicated to the creative life means to you on a profound level. I am being vague, but I think you know what I mean. Radical ideas are competitive, so you want them, those ideas, in spite of the inevitable challenges, among collaborators and loved ones, to be compatible. This is never completely possible but it is the ideal situation. The other thing is that collaboration takes airing things. It is okay to disagree, but it is best to disagree on specifics. Manipulating the people you live and work with is cheap. It is the way of the weak. Negotiation is always better. Be direct. Money, cash, or whatever represents cash, or power, or influence, is never the only capital on the table. Everyone has a voice that needs to be heard.
You have to recognize leadership in your collaborators and give them space to express it. It is also important to give credence to the contributions each participant makes, equally, from a material and conceptual standpoint. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. This Red Door is a kind of society. The essential function of any society is to provide a system that accommodates everyone at every phase. At the very beginning, and perhaps too optimistically, we agreed on the necessity for it to be a non-hierarchical space. The foundations of which are (or were, as I am not sure nowadays) based on generosity and self-regulation. This perhaps sounds more beautiful than it really is, as these things are hard to maintain. To truly have a non-hierarchical system it is paramount to establish some organizational features that allow for human flexibility and stability. That is, roles are defined but they do not necessarily define who is fulfilling them at any given time. Enjoyment is to be considered as well. People enjoy different things, different kinds of labor and recreation. With a project like this, this is something that I don’t think we collectively gave enough consideration early on. It is important celebrate a project’s successes, but it is equally important to be critical of the project. The successes are few, the failures are many. The success of anything depends on looking at shortcomings squarely and coming together with the people you are working with to see if you can do things better the next time around.
EN: I’d like to ask you about two ideas that seem related: one is in an interview by Yusef Komunyakaa, where he describes “a ‘service literature’ … a systematic need to define just what the essence of being black in America is about,” and the other is in an essay by Kamau Brathwaite, where he mentions a “literature of reconnection … a recognition of the African presence in our society, not as a static quality, but as root living, creative, and still part of the main.” Do you see these ideas in artworks that are being created now, and could you could comment on the relationship between them, if there is one for you?
CS: In a strange and very basic way Blackness only exists in America. People of African descent all over the world, particularly those who haven’t the chronic colonial experience nor its acute effects on a regular basis can really walk away from Blackness if they so choose. Being Black has a great deal to do with experience first under a particular reality. I needn’t go into what is that reality. It is pervasively evident. Africanness, its presence outside of the Continent, as it is called, is everywhere in the world. It is not so easy to define it from one place to another. Things are thoroughly mixed and hybridized. It should suffice, that if we look at the world from a logical perspective, a reasonable perspective, traces of African blood life are everywhere, in all human beings. How it manifests in different groups is interesting enough to think about. Its vital combinations, the level of deserved ennoblement that any given culture admits to African people and their acknowledged descendants, is what is pathetically at issue in discussions around the constructs of race. We are all “Black” by virtue of Colonial (and any rational genealogical) interpretation. Officially so Black people living in post-colonial paradigms face the challenge of expressing these very basic ideas, and, simultaneously surviving the effects of being accessible embodiments of racist ideas. And for considerable periods of time throughout history, most so-called “Blacks” have been disinterested in at least the pseudo-scientific categorization of themselves as a race. As far as culture goes, though, that is certainly a different matter. Black Americans are unique in that way, insofar as the United States is (or perhaps was … ) such a powerful global force, due, ironically, to the African diasporic presence in its sovereignty. The people of Haiti are perhaps the most interesting and important in such a study of “Blackness” in the West. They represent on a very basic level in history and the contemporary what “Blackness” means, as opposed to and paradoxically congruent with what Africanness means, from a typical Western point of view. As far as my work is concerned in this regard, I tend to not directly deal with these problems. Africanness is essential to my being. I live and operate in a Western situation. These things are inextricable from my character. There are many influences. I draw on them all without thinking about it too hard. Anything that I might say would seem cliché if not silly. It is kind of like trying to ask a mountain why it is mountain or a cloud why it is a cloud. Art is not as rational nor as natural, so that analogy doesn’t work so well. Let’s just say that if there is such a thing as Black art, or Black American art I am as much part of that as anything else no matter what I actually make. From a purely political standpoint I don’t have a choice but to be Black. I rarely question it. I am more than perfectly fine with that. The legacy is incredible. My production comes from a more undefinable place, no matter what it looks or sounds or feels like.
EN: You signed off on a recent message “Greetings from Hamburg.” What were (or are) you doing there?
CS: I was there for This Red Door. We acquired a 5-week residency there at a place called Westwerk. I was unable to be there for the full stay. I spent the final three weeks there. I didn’t do much with the project, except watch it unfold.
I did see and enjoy much of the town. I picked up more German language. I met a few interesting people, and spent some time with a Bard alum and friend Corin Hewitt, his wife Molly, and infant daughter. Molly just happened to be there on a Fulbright working with artists at this gallery. I stayed in a public housing complex designed by Le Corbusier, which was efficient, spare, and very nice. As per my usual European trips, I smoked a lot of cigarettes. As per trips to Germany, drank a lot of great beer. I wrote my most recent interview responses to you from the 13th-floor flat I rented in the Eimsbüttel quarter. I cooked a bunch at home, drank great scotch, took long nightly walks. I also spent a lot of time at this club called The Golden Pudel.
EN: How is your next book of poems shaping up?
CS: I haven’t checked on how my new ms. of poetry is coming along. I have been writing and publishing things that are to be included in the volume. I think about two thirds the way through it. I have been working on two collections. One has the working title And you should have this pleasure. The second is simply called In Parts, which is an ongoing series of octets that recycles language around desire, love, power among other things. It’s more musical than literary. It’s taking forever to get to the number I want to get to in that collection. I’ve been writing both of these for a long time. Some of this material was extracted from early ms. versions of Plural.
EN: What else is next for you?
CS: I am sitting on a panel with artist Duane Linklater in November, discussing his work. I am working on a couple of public programs with Alice Quinn. I am at the moment trying to finish a short book review of Baraka’s collected, SOS. I am also working to finish a catalogue essay on artist Suzanne McClelland. Both overdue…
I arrived in Detroit last Tuesday, worked with my dad on his house. On Saturday I drove with my family up to a little town off Lake Michigan, near Traverse City. I am here for the next two weeks. The house is full of folks, so getting time to write is a beast.
Erik Noonan was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Sherman Oaks. He is the author of the poetry collections Stances and Haiku D’Etat, as well as numerous articles on art, film, literature and music. He attended Hampshire College, Utrecht University, and the New College of California. He lives in San Francisco with his family.