Ari Ben­ja­min Meyers



L'OF­FI­CIEL ART : Which pro­jects are you cur­rent­ly wor­king on?

JU­LIA WACH­TEL : Right now I am wor­king on a so­lo ex­hi­bi­tion sche­du­led for this No­vem­ber at Eli­za­beth Dee Gal­le­ry in New York. I will be pre­sen­ting 9 large scale pain­tings. It's a conti­nua­tion of my last show at the gal­le­ry. This new bo­dy of work is more fo­cu­sed on the TV scape, and an emo­tio­nal res­ponse to the post-truth Ame­ri­can land­scape.

Let's go back to the ve­ry be­gin­ning of your prac­tice. You fi­ni­shed your stu­dies in 1979 in New York by gra­dua­ting from the Whit­ney Mu­seum's In­de­pendent Stu­dy Pro­gram. What do you consi­der to be your first art­work?

Dis­coun­ting the fact that I've been ma­king art­works since child­hood, I guess I would start with the ins­tal­la­tion piece I made for my ve­ry first ex­hi­bi­tion in 1979 at PS1 in NYC. I was gi­ven my own small room in which I crea­ted a li­ving room si­tua­tion. I pla­ced a TV on a table as one would nor­mal­ly see in a home. On the TV was a loop of “home mo­vies”. I shot them in Su­per 8, in B&W and co­lor and then trans­fer­red it to vi­deo. There were home ste­reo spea­kers in the room that played a sound­track loop com­pri­sed of dia­logue from TV soap ope­ras, that I edi­ted. The work dealt with a col­li­sion bet­ween the fil­med in­ti­mate in­ter­ac­tions I set up with friends, and the sam­pled sound­track.

Was it your first and on­ly ins­tal­la­tion?

I had been set­ting up ins­tal­la­tions in my loft in Soho. I was ma­king bill­board-like struc­tures made out of me­tal construc­tion studs and sheet me­tal. They were es­sen­tial­ly mi­ni­mal sculp­tures upon which I pro­jec­ted images. I had found a dis­car­ded box on the si­de­walk, with hun­dreds of slides that in­clu­ded eve­ry­thing from fa­mi­ly snap­shots to in­dus­trial pho­to­gra­phy. It was so ran­dom, and a re­source I mi­ned for some time. It was ba­sed on that work that I was in­vi­ted to be in the P.S. 1 ex­hi­bi­tion. But the slides were soon re­pla­ced by store-bought pos­ters that I ar­ran­ged on the wall. I ne­ver went back to ins­tal­la­tion work.

Could you des­cribe the pos­ter work?

The pos­ters were the kind that you might ima­gine a kid would put up in their be­droom. Ji­mi Hen­drix, Al­bert Ein­stein, Deb­by Har­ry, a cat dip­ping it's paw in­to a gold­fish bowl, etc. You have to re­mem­ber that at this time there was no in­ter­net and image culture was dis­se­mi­na­ted through a much more li­mi­ted va­rie­ty of plat­forms. I set up the pos­ters in a row on the wall. Al­most like cells on a film strip. I would then pro­ject sha­dows of vie­wers on­to the pos­ters, and trace the sha­dow and fill in with ma­gic mar­ker. It was my ver­sion of graf­fi­ti. The pos­ters when ex­hi­bi­ted would be wheat-pas­ted di­rect­ly on­to the wall and scra­ped off af­ter the ex­hi­bi­tion. So they on­ly exis­ted for the du­ra­tion of the show.

La­ter on, in 1983, you star­ted your gree­ting cards se­ries in which you ap­pro­pria­ted car­toon images.

As I said, I was wor­king with pos­ters which ob­vious­ly meant going to a store to buy them. The pos­ters were ex­pen­sive. To save mo­ney I would do the first se­lec­tion and rough edit in my head stan­ding in the store. I'd be there for an hour or so com­po­sing the work. I'd then buy maybe 15 pos­ters and take them back to the stu­dio to work out the piece. So I be­lieve my fa­mi­lia­ri­ty with the store as stu­dio in­fluen­ced the tran­si­tion to the gree­ting cards. One day I was in a sta­tio­na­ry store and saw some cards that im­me­dia­te­ly at­trac­ted me. They were what are cal­led “stu­dio cards”. Ver­ti­cal in for­mat, with a car­toon cha­rac­ter that ty­pi­cal­ly ex­pres­sed some kind of vul­ne­ra­bi­li­ty or in­ade­qua­cy. “I would have writ­ten you a card my­self, but I'm too stu­pid” – being a ty­pi­cal kind of mes­sage. I li­ked the fact that the cards were proxies for ex­pres­sion, which in some res­pect could be said for an art­work. The car­toon fi­gures were of­ten stan­ding in a space that loo­ked like a mo­der­nist pain­ting. The back­grounds might re­semble a Jack­son Pol­lock or Clyf­ford Still pain­ting, for ins­tance. The fact that there was such a pain­ter­ly ele­ment in these cards led me to the idea to re­stage them in pain­tings. It was so­mew­hat of a eu­re­ka mo­ment, as the gree­ting cards coa­les­ced so ma­ny things I was in­ter­es­ted in. They des­cri­bed a ground ze­ro po­si­tion of sub­jec­ti­vi­ty that dealt with class and an­xie­ty. Sca­ling them up to near­ly life size and put­ting them in pain­tings ele­va­ted the si­gni­fi­cance of the car­toons, while at the same time fo­cu­sing on our com­pli­ca­ted need for va­li­da­tion in the way we in­ter­act with and as­si­gn va­lue to sys­tems of re­pre­sen­ta­tion.

I am ve­ry in­ter­es­ted by the in­tel­lec­tual context that you were re­fer­ring to. Could you tell us more about the East Vil­lage Concep­tua­lists scene which re­vol­ved around the Nature Morte gal­le­ry, foun­ded by Alan Bel­cher and Pe­ter Na­gy?

As well as Nature Morte, there was In­ter­na­tio­nal With Mo­nu­ment, which first sho­wed Jeff Koons and was foun­ded by Meyer Vais­man, Kent Kla­men and Eli­zabth Kou­ry, as well as Cash-New­house Gal­le­ry which was foun­ded by Oli­ver Wa­sow. We were loo­king at the work of what is now known as the Pic­tures – ar­tists such as Ri­chard Prince, Sher­rie Le­vine, Jack Gold­stein, Vi­to Ac­con­ci, Louise Law­ler, to name a few. Those three gal­le­ries were the core gal­le­ries that were in­vol­ved in concep­tual ba­sed pro­grams. Other gal­le­ries like Cable and Jay Gor­ney fol­lo­wed. This scene was all hap­pe­ning at the same time as the Gra­fit­ti Art scene and Neo Ex­pres­sio­nists were al­so get­ting a lot of at­ten­tion. We felt there was a lot at stake. Re­mem­ber that Ro­nald Rea­gan was elec­ted du­ring this per­iod, and the Aids epi­de­mic was ra­va­ging the art world. Not that the work was li­te­ral­ly ac­ti­vist, but we vie­wed our­selves as ha­ving a so­cial res­pon­si­bi­li­ty to not turn our back on the me­cha­nisms of po­wer. But we were al­so ve­ry plea­sure-orien­ted and loo­king to ex­ploit that as well. Maybe you could call it the po­li­tics and aes­the­tics of se­duc­tion.

I have read Ash­ley Bi­cker­ton's sta­te­ment that the Pic­ture Ge­ne­ra­tion had “a co­ol ap­proach to hot culture”, un­like your ge­ne­ra­tion which em­braces the se­duc­tion in­herent in mains­tream me­dia.

I will speak for my­self be­cause I think we have all ap­proa­ched this so­mew­hat dif­fe­rent­ly. I took the Du­cham­pian idea of ap­pro­pria­tion via the work of Wa­rhol, Ri­chard Prince and Sher­rie Le­vine as a gi­ven. I didn't see ap­pro­pria­tion as a ra­di­cal act, as I felt it had al­rea­dy been ful­ly ab­sor­bed. At that time, my in­te­rest was more psy­cho­ana­ly­ti­cal. I was fo­cu­sed on how our iden­ti­ties are em­bed­ded in­to a re­pre­sen­ta­tio­nal sys­tem. That was more my fo­cus ra­ther than a me­dia cri­tique per se, or an ex­plo­ra­tion of the idea of the death of ori­gi­na­li­ty. I used poe­tic stra­te­gies with the aim of put­ting the vie­wer in­side a vi­sual and emo­tio­nal space ra­ther than lo­ca­ting the vie­wer “co­oly” out­side the art­work and cri­ti­cal­ly loo­king in. I wan­ted the vie­wer to have to dig their way out.

This in­te­rest was epi­to­mi­zed in the Ame­ri­can Co­lour se­ries that you first sho­wed at Ame­ri­can Fine Arts in the ear­ly 90s. You pain­ted people confes­sing their per­so­nal sto­ries or ac­tors in over­wrought mo­ments from day­time TV shows.

I've been in­ter­es­ted in what we now call rea­li­ty TV since its in­cep­tion. I re­mem­ber being glued to the TV as a kid in 1971 wat­ching the TV do­cu­men­ta­ry “An Ame­ri­can

Fa­mi­ly”, which one could ar­gua­bly cite as the first rea­li­ty TV show. But in the ear­ly 90s, rea­li­ty TV as a term didn’t exist. What did exist were TV shows such as the Oprah Win­frey Show in which people would come and tell sto­ries of their per­so­nal trau­mas -- they were sexual­ly abu­sed, drug ad­dicts, or so­me­thing else. At the time, I coi­ned the term confes­sio­nal TV to des­cribe the ima­ge­ry I was using. I saw this vo­lun­ta­ry self-re­ve­la­tion as a form of pu­blic confes­sion and ho­ped-for re­demp­tion. So from Wa­rhol’s 15 minutes of fame we flip the coin to the other side, where it’s not just 15 minutes in the spot­light but the hope that TV ex­po­sure will al­low for a trans­for­ma­tive ex­pe­rience. It’s a ve­ry per­verse idea. The evo­lu­tion of this of course is the Snap­chatFa­ce­book culture in which our lives are being constant­ly ex­ter­na­li­zed in­to pic­tures or short vi­deos.

Your work em­bo­dies Ju­lia Kris­te­va’s as­sump­tion that the mo­no­po­ly of re­li­gion in buil­ding col­lec­tive myth has been ato­mi­zed by our image culture, which now consti­tutes the new sa­cred.

The me­dia is the new sa­cred and it is all sur­face. It is not tied to ver­ti­cal sto­ry­tel­ling and his­to­ry. It’s constant­ly re­ge­ne­ra­ting and is dis­po­sable. There is lit­tle depth left in re­pre­sen­ta­tion as it streams in­to our lives. We have be­come su­per com­pu­ters in our abi­li­ty to pro­cess more and more pic­tures. Our ope­ra­ting sys­tem conti­nual­ly up­dates to ac­com­mo­date more in­for­ma­tion. And our ner­vous sys­tem keeps re­ca­li­bra­ting ac­cor­din­gly. To some de­gree, the aes­the­tics or poe­tics of my pain­tings is a vi­sual res­ponse to that, to re­create that in the form of a pain­ting, to put that in­to a sta­tic ob­ject that is meant for contem­pla­tion.

From TV culture, you shif­ted to the di­gi­tal realm. What has been the im­pli­ca­tion of meme culture and 4chan in your prac­tice?

Meme culture is fas­ci­na­ting. It’s a vi­brant as­pect of the de­mo­cra­tic nature of the in­ter­net, but of course it’s not va­lue-free, and func­tions for mul­tiple ends. That said, I’m ama­zed at how much time and ener­gy people put in­to crea­ting memes that are let loose on the in­ter­net. The pro­duc­tion va­lue is of­ten real­ly high and I’m al­ways ama­zed at how in­ves­ted these ano­ny­mous content pro­vi­ders are. I’ve made one pain­ting which I sho­wed in my last show at Eli­za­beth Dee gal­le­ry that used memes. The pain­ting, which is tit­led Stripe, pai­red the image of Kim Jong-Un with Psy from the Gan­gnam style vi­deo. I not on­ly used stil­ls from the vi­deo, but al­so two dif­ferent memes of Psy dan­cing that I found on the in­ter­net. The memes were crea­ted as how-to-draw Psy ins­truc­tio­nal dia­grams.

From the late 80s un­til the present, you have adop­ted one of pain­ting’s most tra­di­tio­nal genres, the land­scape. You col­li­ded to­ge­ther po­li­ti­cal content from Cher­no­byl and the Ber­lin Wall with the great fic­tion of ba­na­li­ty: rea­li­ty te­le­vi­sion. What was the ini­tial im­pulse be­hind this?

The first pain­ting from my land­scape pain­ting se­ries was made in 1989. I had po­sed the ques­tion: what would a contem­po­ra­ry his­to­ry pain­ting look like? I rea­li­zed that I couldn’t aban­don illu­sio­nis­tic space, as the pain­ting had to stand up to te­le­vi­sion and news­pa­pers which were de­pic­ting the same scenes. Ins­tead, I tried to dis­rupt the in­te­gri­ty of the image with the co­lor pa­nels to at least create a sense of dis­lo­ca­tion. As it tur­ned out, mo­men­tous world­wide events un­fol­ded short­ly af­ter I made the first of this se­ries – na­me­ly the ta­king down of the Ber­lin Wall and the Tia­nan­men Square Mas­sacre in Be­jiing, both in 1989.

Ce­le­bri­ty culture has al­so had a pro­found in­fluence on your prac­tice.

If one is ma­king pain­tings of the me­dia land­scape it’s al­most im­pos­sible to ignore ce­le­bri­ty culture. Back in the 80s, I sour­ced a lot of ima­ge­ry from People ma­ga­zine. At that time the ma­ga­zine fea­tu­red sto­ries of eve­ry­day people who, for wha­te­ver rea­son, were news­wor­thy, whe­ther it was a cri­me­re­la­ted sto­ry or some sort of per­so­nal achie­ve­ment. Now I would say most of the edi­to­rial re­volves around ce­le­bri­ties. I would guess that more people know the names of Kim Kar­da­shian and Ka­nye West’s chil­dren then they do the name of our Vice Pre­sident or Spea­ker of the House. As images, ce­le­bri­ties hold a lot of po­wer. They are pro­jec­ted in­to our in­ti­mate phy­si­cal en­vi­ron­ment, whe­ther on our lap­top in bed or on the gro­ce­ry line. I’m trying to reab­sorb this kind of ima­ge­ry in a way that brings the po­wer back to us as it was pro­du­ced for our consump­tion in the first place.

To conclude, which image has im­pac­ted you la­te­ly?

The image of Trump with Rus­sian di­plo­mat Ser­gey Kis­lyak in the oval of­fice. Be­traying clas­si­fied in­fo, all smiles.

Ju­lia Wach­tel, Bad, 2015, huile et acry­lique sur toile, 152,4 x 381 cm.

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