1. I would like to start my questions by discussing the title of the show at CEPA: Totems for a Flattened Now. It is an intriguing title, alluding to temporality, simultaneity, mythology, and spirituality or rather, it has me thinking about those things. What was the impetus for the title and how do you see your work shown at CEPA in dialogue with the title?
I think of each photograph as a discrete but ambiguous unit of symbolic meaning and when you start putting those units together larger structures emerge. Totems are familiar cultural objects which act as matrices of significance, complex structures of symbols that have the practical effect of forcing images into physical proximity to one another in a way that individually framed images cannot, but also, and maybe this is a bit naive in today’s hyper-commodified art climate, act as reminders of the less practical, more spiritual dimensions of art objects. The use of an ancient physical structure of symbols is an interesting avenue to explore to me in a time which seems to be accelerating towards some imagined and idealized future built on perpetual newness. The title and the works are about recognizing that there is no escaping history, the past and the future exist simultaneously and that what we call the “now” is just a temporal term for where those two things meet and express themselves.
2. Your still life photographs and montages are very vivid and energetic, and I understand that you work with found material in your practice. Can you discuss your photographic practice a bit? How do you decide what to photograph and the objects you stage in your still life images? Do you begin with a concept, or do you find yourself drawn to certain objects or sites? I would love to hear more about how your approach your work.
My work grows fairly organically and I rarely embark on “projects,” per se. I always have a camera with me so I’m always photographing out in the world and the way that that happens isn’t too dissimilar from how I find objects in junk shops or on the street: I have my interests (sci-fi, philosophy, history, and the history of art) and I’m drawn to things that seem full to the brim with anthropogenic significance and labored over materials, from high culture to utter kitsch. Right now I love photographing in museums for their sculptures, but I also never miss a chance to photograph in my grandparents’ house because it’s full of the gnarliest textiles; I try to stay open and find what I’m looking for wherever I happen to be.
The still lifes in my studio are free form accretions of objects and images. There’s not a whole lot of order to the chaos, but over time rules and processes have developed: I do generally start each one by constructing the background first, for example, and any time a group of objects and materials moves too close to “telling a story,” I like to pull it back a bit and allow some more ambiguity into the scene. Each still life comes together over about a week of studio time.
3. Seeing your work, I was really struck how your work oscillates—even within the same photograph—between a kitsch and camp style (and I mean that as a compliment) and high modernism. Specifically, I see this in the chilies in the background of Primary Document 031915 and the grid, which appears in much of your work. These are just two instances of these two poles I see combined in your work. What are your relationships to these styles?
History is not a single arrow moving to the right; it is a mess of stories and conflicting directions, constantly being reworked and rewritten in the present. It’s interesting to me how the high modern imperative to move the world toward some more efficient version of itself, via the industrial processes that were built on that model of modernist efficiency, has been written onto the mass-produced junk that we’re all so inefficiently wading through today. In a way I like to juggle the styles as a way of toeing the line between an idealized, anachronistic judgement of good taste and the sobering fact of what all that good taste has left for us: a pile of worthless, mass-produced junk.
Of course many of modernism’s central tenets have been debunked: the myth of the lone male artistic genius, for example, has been shown to be a self-righteous delusion which is not just arrogant, but dangerous in its bigoted narrow-mindedness. And yet it’s a mindset that I think a lot of artists both male and female are still guilty of adopting, and not for the worst reasons: modernism, with its attendant images of Clyfford Still making his colossal paintings in a three-piece suit for the sake of pure aesthetic contemplation and dudely competition, offers a very nice change of view compared to today’s image of the artist as a kind of shabby entrepreneur with paint under their nails whose sole commandment is to “innovate.”
Whether Greenberg was slinging snake oil or not, I think to a lot of young artists the era of modern art is a pleasant delusion of a sort of mythological time of artistic titans in which art seemed unequivocally important and culturally valued, and no one seemed to need convincing of that fact by a salesman. Modernism might just be a very difficult set of ideas for artists to abandon completely because it situates art and art objects at the center of cultural discourse instead of at the periphery of it, which is where it seems to be right now, despite the recent and incredibly lame attempts to shift it back (e.g. Jay-Z twerking with Marina Abramovic, Bjork at the MOMA, James Franco’s sad forays into the art world, etc, etc, etc.)
4. In some of your still lifes it feels to me as if there is a narrative undergirding the image, such as in the photograph with the Venus de Milo, lilies, mirror, and neon lights. But the story becomes almost incoherent as the juxtapositions of objects, textures, and colors constantly interrupts a linear format of reading these works as each object references outward to previous temporal and spatial contexts. I see this as a type of storytelling that puts as much work on the viewer as it does on you, the artist/storyteller. How do you see storytelling play out in your work and how does it contribute to the recycling, transforming, and re-representing of myths and images?
I’m wary of attaching distinct narratives to specific images and that line, the one separating narrative from nonsense, I think is one that has haunted photography since the very beginning.
I’m more concerned with having my photographs build a sort of symbolic ecosystem with each other rather than connecting narrative dots within a single one. I like to allow objects and images to reflect and change through one another, to open each photograph up to multiple interpretations. As you point out, this puts the burden of understanding the photographs on the audience, but we live in a time in which stories are constantly being packaged and repackaged into smaller, more digestible, less complicated bites; audiences are asked to commit very little to the objects of their attention. I think one of the primary labors of art right now, more than it ever has been, is to elude easy narrative, to challenge understanding, and to ask its audience to commit to taking an intellectual ride with it.
5. To begin to conclude, what are some of the major influences on your work? Are there any artists that you consider as having a major impact on your work?
My answer to this question seems to change by the hour. Most of my influences these days are non-visual: science-fiction and philosophy, some history and cosmology. Instagram is one of those things where it’s hard to point to the ways in which it’s influenced me, but I spend an embarrassing amount of time looking at it. I’ve been looking at a ton of Magritte and Barbara Kasten lately too. And if you’ve ever seen Daguerre’s still lifes, it’s pretty mind-bending to consider how little photographs themselves have actually changed since those first successful experiments, although obviously the discourse around them has become oceanic.
6. Lastly, I see that you are originally a Buffalo native before moving out to the Bay area. How did living in and growing up in Buffalo/Western New York impact your career as an artist?
I graduated from Canisius High School in 2006. Jesuit education covers a lot of ground, but it also skirts around some big cultural topics and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that when I started my internship at Hallwalls in the summer of 2008 I didn’t have a clue what contemporary art was or, for that matter, modern, or any other kind of art. At the time I was studying filmmaking, and an opportunity to assist Kevin Jerome Everson during his residency at Hallwalls came up. I didn’t really know it then but that was what started me down the path towards making art; it was the first time I was able to see people who lived their lives in and through a community built on a shared belief in a thing and that that sort of community—over-educated, over-opinionated, highly critical, and deeply diverse—was what I wanted to be a part of.