The title alone, Cogwheels Carved in Wood, intrigued me enough to reach out to writer, critic and editor Jonathan Griffin about the exhibition he recently curated for Night Gallery. The show features artists Derek Boshier, Gina Beavers, Jamian Juliano-Villani, Sean Kennedy, Oliver Payne and Lucie Stahl. Based on Jonathan’s answers below I am thoroughly looking forward to seeing the exhibition, which opens April 19 and runs through May 17.
How did this show come about?
I’ve been in LA for four years now. About a year after I arrived I was doing a studio visit near where I live in Echo Park. On the door next to the studio I was visiting was a bit of tape with “Boshier” written on it. I asked the artist I was visiting if it was Derek Boshier, who is kind of a legend in the UK. He was in this film directed by Ken Russell, Pop Goes the Easel, from 1962 and it’s an iconic document of the British Pop Art movement. My friend who I was visiting put me in touch. I did a studio visit and found out that Derek had been living in LA for the last couple of decades, and before that he had lived in Texas. He was still making work just as vigorously as ever; he’s in his 70s, but he has tons of energy, and his work is really stridently contemporary—especially the works he’s made in the last 10 years or so. That work features things like smartphones, tablets and laptops. You will see figures holding iphones, or iphones falling through the air, and within the iphones are other images, so they’re frames within the frame. We became friends and meet up for breakfast quite frequently.
About a year ago Night Gallery casually asked if I would ever be interested in curating an exhibition. I’m not really a curator, so I had hesitations about that crossover, which a lot of art writers make. Not because I’m not interested, but more because of the kind of exhibitions writers are expected to present, which are essayistic group shows, a thesis illustrated by artists’ works. I’m not really interested in that position. What I really love is the idea of doing monographic shows—where you build a relationship with an artist and the knowledge of the whole career, and you’re able to frame their production in an interesting way. So this show, even though it’s ended up as a group show, is more a monographic solo show idea. It struck me that the most interesting way to do this with Derek would be to relate his work, which has kind of existed outside the mainstream contemporary art dialog, to the work of younger artists, who I feel Derek has a huge amount in common with. People in LA have become more conscious of Derek’s work since he was in Made in Space at Night Gallery in 2013. All the artists that I invited to be in the show were either peripherally aware of him, or immediately excited about the stuff of his that I sent them.
I feel like I keep hearing this term “post-internet art” lately. And as kind of trying as it is, I’m wondering if you were thinking about that idea while curating this show?
I’ve written about post-internet art quite recently and I have to say that I’m not super interested in a lot of the artists who are associated with that term. These artists I don’t think fit into that category because they’re specifically not involved in work that operates in the network of the internet, which is designed to be transmitted as jpegs or as webpages. It’s not really what they’re about. What intrigues me about all these people is that they have quite traditional practices. They’re all painters, appropriation-ists or sculptors, but the conventions of painting or picture-making have been influenced in really fascinating ways by the ubiquitous experience of the web, of mobile devices, of consuming images through glowing screens. What’s really striking is how physically engaged all these artists are in the work, and how important materials are to them. Even an artist like Lucie, who makes work by scanning images and printing the results, creates finished objects that are extremely physical. Some of her past pictures are coated in resin so they’re really goopy and tactile. The ones in this show have actual pencil drawings fixed to their surfaces. It’s really not about the dematerialized digital image, but about a material end point.
Along those lines, how did you select each specific artist?
I’ve written about Sean Kennedy in the past and I know his work well. Lucie Stahl I recently interviewed, so I began thinking more deeply about her work at that point. I’ve known Oliver’s work for years, since I lived in London. I knew he lived in LA but he hasn’t shown a great deal here. Gina and Jamian are based in New York, so I have only met them briefly; other people alerted me to their work and I’ve been following them since.
Before I read your press release I realized that I was unfamiliar with almost all the artists in the show, so I Googled them. I started wondering if this was going to be a painting show. Then I read your press release where you specifically say that there is lots of painting in the show, but none of it is done with oil paint. Can you talk about how you’re thinking about painting here?
A number of things emerged, almost accidentally through putting this show together. One of the things that struck me after I’d made the selection was that none of these artists use oil paint; all use acrylic, which seems really appropriate. Oil paint was traditionally developed to convey flesh and the human body. These painters are making work that derives from plastic images, backlit colors on plastic screens, or from commercially produced objects, and so the fact that they all use acrylic gives their colors a certain brilliancy. It gives their surfaces a flatness. There’s an unambiguous immediacy to the surfaces in Derek and Jamian’s paintings. Gina is interesting because she uses uncolored acrylic medium as a kind of sculptural material, so she’s building these reliefs in this substance to which she then adds color afterwards. It’s very different from any oil painting practice. Another interesting phenomenon with Gina’s work is that she responds to these disembodied images by making something incredibly physical, something that doesn’t translate into a jpeg. It’s the same with Sean’s hanging sculptures—they refer to image conventions, with information arranged in a picture plane, but these things are hard to photograph, they really have to be seen in real life.
Tell me about the title of the show?
The title comes from something Derek once wrote about the importance of drawing. His point was that the handmade is always intertwined with the technological. Even when machines were mass-produced in the industrial revolution, someone had to first sculpt the cogs inside the machine. The interesting thing, for me, is that Derek wrote that in 1979, before computers were even a consideration in our daily lives. He’s always had this interest in technology and its relationship to traditional forms. In the 60s when he was first making Pop Art it was totally informed by television images, by the mass media, magazines and newspapers, so the way he related to technology back then is not so different from the way he relates, and even the way these younger artists relate, to technology now. Even though the laptop has replaced the book, to some extent, or the iPad has replaced the TV screen, the function of these things within his paintings has remained broadly consistent. All of these Pop artists—people like Peter Blake, who went to college with Derek, like Pauline Boty, who was Derek’s friend—have made work that has a lot in common with the work by emerging artists who are sourcing and handling their imagery from the mass media. The carriers of media information may have changed over the years, but in many ways, the effects of confusion and estrangement have not. A painting by Derek that is in the show, which has been incredibly important for my thinking about all this, is called Pauline Goes Digital. Pauline Boty was also featured in that 1962 film Pop Goes the Easel. She was a young, talented and beautiful artist who captivated the scene. She was one of the few female pop artists at that time and she died incredibly young. Derek painted this large picture and it imagines how Pauline would have responded to digital technology had she lived. I think the answer is that, as with Derek, it would be an incredibly natural transition in her work.
I tend to think of artists as generally being highly intuitive, or able to interpret the current/ future landscape in a way that most of us can’t quite see. Is that something you thought about in terms of technology and humanity and these artists’ works?
Quite honestly I don’t really see it like that. I don’t think of artists as prophets, or mystic seers or what have you. I don’t think most artists think they’re making work for the future, if that’s what you mean. I prefer the idea that artists are exposed to the same cultural conditions as the rest of us, more or less, but for whatever reason they respond to them, personally, in ways that are outside of the norm. The same stuff goes in, but very different stuff comes out, to put it super simply. And, while people sometimes recognize artworks immediately as being ‘of their moment’, generally it takes us a while––at a mainstream level––to come to terms with whatever it is they’ve produced. Sometimes it happens quickly, but often it takes years or even decades. You can never tell when something is going to suddenly become relevant. I don’t think artists plan that, or predict it. That’s what I like about the conundrum of Derek’s career. He’s been through these different phases, different levels of success, making vastly different stuff, but the work that he’s making today, which to me feels totally contemporary, actually resembles in many ways the work he was making in the early 60s, when he was still at art school. That’s incredibly inspiring to me.
You spoke about it earlier, but talk a little bit more about the crossover in your art writing and your curating?
I’m still figuring out the relationship between the two. At the moment, it seems most appropriate to see them as different activities, not unrelated, but separate and distinct. I don’t see a conflict, necessarily, but I also don’t want to try and project or extend my writing practice into my exhibition-making practice. I like doing both as well as I possibly can. It’s refreshing to be involved in these different kinds of activity. I’m enjoying working with and encouraging the production of actual artworks, rather than just writing about them. I think one issue that both writers and curators have to deal with is the question of how much you make these things about yourself. It’s always been my instinct, in my writing, not to try and compete with the artist I’m writing about. I want to take a similar approach with the exhibitions I’m involved in.
How did you end up in LA?
I used to work at Frieze on the editorial staff and I decided to go freelance so I could write fulltime. Suddenly I had nothing holding me in the UK, I could go wherever I wanted. Meanwhile my girlfriend, who is now my wife, has family in LA and was also ready for a change. We came here not really having any expectations, or knowing what we were signing up for. We certainly didn’t think we were emigrating and it’s been a surprise to me that maybe I’ve found my spiritual home here. I really love it.
I feel like there’s been a lot of discussion recently about the state of the LA art world. What do you think about it?
I just wrote a piece for Art Review about exactly this. I’ve been here long enough now to have a circumspect attitude to the changes here. I’ve seen new galleries arrive and then close. I realized that LA is difficult to transform from outside. New galleries and new institutions, no matter how great they are or how great their contributions, can only very gradually change the existing art landscape of a city. So I guess I’m saying don’t get too excited that it’s going to supersede New York overnight. But having said that, we’re in a good moment and we’ve got a lot of reasons to be optimistic. There’s a lot to look forward to.
Any other upcoming projects? Would you want to curate again?
Yes definitely. I’d like to work on some long-term, in-depth projects with artists who are less known, even in LA at this stage in their career. I’m particularly interested in self-taught artists and their importance for people who’ve come up through the academic system.
That’s particularly interesting because of all the art schools here.
Yes, but also because of California’s history of people who pursue their own creative practices outside schools. You have artists who really are just getting on with their own thing outside of the glare of “Contemporary Art Daily.”
All images courtesy of the artists, & Night Gallery, Los Angeles