Beauty, Irony and the Found Image

A conversation between Robin Bernat and Karen Tauches–
Beauty, Irony and the Found Image: consideration of two exhibitions.
Joe Peragine, Nature Porn, Etc., Solomon Projects
Dawn Black, Mad Semblance, Get This! Gallery


On the whole, I find artists are troubled by the idea of beauty. For instance, in several online conversations I have had with fellow artist, Phillip Buntin, professor at Kent State University, he warns of the slippery slope beauty can create into a kind of beautiful emptiness.

These are Phillip’s words precisely:
“I am judging the merits of and arguing for the value of some aesthetic experiences over others, and warning of the dangers of seductive imagery that seeks to sway or appeal to our emotional natures without intellectual depth or compassion.”

I think he makes some clear distinctions between “beauty” and “the beautiful” but I would argue that anything beautiful is tapping into this larger idea of beauty and I’m not so sure that beauty is so easily corruptible.

Phillip expounds further saying, “Well I do think that most people are easily manipulated, but I wouldn’t say that most are stupid. Certainly in the U.S. we have devolved into anti-intellectualism and our culture continues to drift towards being almost entirely one of passive consumption. A state of being that plays into a ready acceptance of simplistic messages and seductive predigested imagery.”

What are your thoughts about how beauty is used in contemporary art and more specifically in Joe Peragine’s current exhibit?


I agree with Phillip Buntin that people are easily manipulated by “beautiful emptiness.”  But I, too, enjoy beauty, especially when it’s on my own observational terms.  I prefer to discover a beautiful flower, an altered billboard, or professional artwork on my own, without prodding and by surprise.  I couldn’t live in a world without finding beauty, but it is an elixir not unlike alcohol. It’s intoxicating. It offers an escape. It’s one of the most basic human pleasures and it’s readily there for us at every turn.  A wise 21st century person is reverent to beauty’s corrupting power, as it’s so overused.

Contemporary artists are in a tricky position.  As independent producers of imagery, objects and environments that wish to attract, we must compete with some very powerful visual forces.  Already, our daily lives are submerged in the aggression of mainstream visual culture; it constantly bombards us with images that wish to manipulate and stir up desire. Why make more of that? Why get lost in that desperate cacophony? Serious artists are pushed to make things that are somehow distinguishable from the kind of common beauty that has been harnessed to sell things.  Or, on the contrary, they mock and reflect our ridiculous commercialized world. Some artists are successful by making their content and style the source of beauty instead of focusing on technique & surface value. In this way, they flaunt their freedom from the visual norms of advertising or propaganda. Ultimately, this is the radical opportunity every artist possesses.  Artists are free to use their own creativity any way they please. Unlike paid creatives, they are self-authorized to communicate.

To make purposely ugly (unaesthetic) or political work just to get attention and express outrage often proves a waste of energy (see artwork of the 90s). This approach is relatively unpopular right now.  Speaking this kind of art language may get an initial response or street credibility, but ultimately turns people away. We hold on to things of beauty and throw away that which disgusts us. In the end, an artist still wants to please an audience, albeit small, and be remembered.  Of course there are different contexts for different genres of art. For instance, I just love to see ignorant graffiti in gentrified neighborhoods. The contrast warms my heart. There’s one scribble near my house in Cabbagetown that says, “public art is for fags.”  It’s ugly, ignorant, raw. . .and also beautiful in its rebellion. After all I tend to agree: a lot of public art is absolutely terrible, institutional mediocrity.

So fine art is a challenge for anti-intellectual American masses who are used to cracked out visual aesthetics or some watered down aesthetic symbol of aristocracy. Bold colors, sexuality, flashy text, false promises, gold-framed oil paintings. Contemporary fine art tends to be a lot weirder than that. It’s harder to get to sometimes and it’s more subtle  and demanding.  Let’s face it, most Americans just simply aren’t interested in visual refinement but then they have a choice not to engage in the cult of “art.”

Ok….so we’re still talking about the merits of beauty in art here..but I’m a little confused by your terminology — I’m wondering which art you mean that is “some watered down aesthetic symbol of aristocracy” and I’m wondering, too, what you mean when you describe “political work [that is made] just to get attention and express outrage and often proves a waste of energy”?  We’re getting a little off topic perhaps but to my recollection, there are some amazing pieces that I would consider both political and beautiful, that elicit profound reactions from their viewers and it lasts over time. A little later in this conversation we talk about Gustave Courbet, but there are other examples.  You could easily say that Goya’s portraits of the Spanish Royal Family were intensely political images and at the same time amazingly beautiful and forceful.  They, indeed, were made precisely for the aristocracy to which I think you are referring. I don’t think they were a waste of energy.  To provide a more recent example, I’ll talk a little about a performance work that was made by Mierle Ukeles completed in 1980 called “Touch Sanitation” in which she traversed all five boroughs of New York City  shaking hands with every single sanitation worker in the city.  Her performance, documented in photographs, was intended to show how these sanitation workers existed as a kind of underclass of untouchables in the city and her actions were meant to expose an unspoken caste system and to undermine it.  The work was political, meaningful and, I think, timeless.  I’ve made similar remarks about a particular work by Ann Hamilton that she made for the Spoleto Festival in 1991 called “Indigo Blue” in which she reminded everyone — the city of Charleston and the audience for the Spoleto Festival — that the very industry that had provided wealth to the city historically was based on slave labor.  I’d say that was a very specific political work, effective, and also timeless — and flew in the face of the very “aristocracy” or power elite who had commissioned her to create the piece.

Touch Sanitation - Ukules

You’re completely right about artists having an opportunity to be agents for beauty, for social commentary. Do you want to respond?


Beauty is a motivator like bright colors in graphics. In the same way, flowers use beauty to attract bees and gardeners who cultivate them. It’s a useful veneer, an important survival technique. Artists have an opportunity to communicate inside a protected tradition. Fine art audiences ultimately gather in the name of beauty; this is a long-standing tradition handed down by the most elite people in world history who could afford the luxury of focusing on such a splendorous and intellectual part of life.  As we have matured, our concepts of beauty have become more sophisticated. Personally, I find content to be the greatest source of beauty in art; this is where the greater visual culture often fails us. Aesthetics only sweeten the punch.

“Watered down aesthetic symbols of aristocracy”–I’m thinking here of “art” spaces in general.  Although the spaces where we traditionally receive fine art are not supposed to be the focus, they have a great effect on our experience.  Regardless of the actual art that is sanctioned for their decoration, these spaces allow average people to experience the grandeur of aristocracy and the power of art institutions.  For many, a visit to an art space is a fantasy.  Average people do not live or work in such environments–high ceilings, emptiness, bright light, people dressed in designer clothes, wine, socialites, hollow sounds, shelves minimally populated with esoteric art publications. And so, humorously, this aesthetic is replicated even in the smallest of spaces. Thus the elixir is watered down.  Don’t get me wrong. I love grand white art spaces. Local examples include the High Museum, MOCA-GA and the Contemporary. But they are, indeed, symbols.  Right now, with so many average people feeling disenfranchised from the dream of getting rich, the tradition of maintaining grand art spaces, just for the pleasure of looking, seems ridiculously opulent. And now we are seeing low-brow and street art positioning themselves as the accessible gritty alternative.

As far as ugly and provocative work goes,  I agree with you that there is some very good work that is beautiful, provocative and political.  But that is not the norm.  I think a lot of people cringe at the mention of political art, the same way people cringe when they hear the words performance art.  That’s unfair but, quite frankly, justified.  There’s a high quotient of failure, hostility and risk involved in those genres that produce a lot of waste.  It’s really challenging to want to keep such works around. The true anger and the desire for change that some artists need to express become muffled by the actual process of publishing within the boundaries of the fine art institutions. On the contrary, there are plenty of opportunities to make art within political movements but that work is not protected or promoted by galleries or upper class patrons who appreciate subtlety and intellectualism.  Art within political movements has to be art for the masses, online art that gets a lot of hits, art that can be carried in a protest march or wheat-pasted to a city wall in the middle of the night.

So if artists want to participate inside the fine art community where aesthetic standards are much better yet want to produce work that reveals ugly truths, they must produce beautiful/artful style, be friendly or otherwise use clever tricks, obscuring or burying the ugly parts.  This is exactly how Goya and Courbet operated.  Both had gorgeous technique and were full of compassion (that is quite beautiful), so much so that history kept these works for the record.  Mean-spirited, attention getting acts don’t go very far because you must be a pretty charismatic magician to convince the fine art community that your ugly outrage is important enough to support.  A much better bet is operating inside the tradition, sticking closely to beauty albeit of an unconventional sort.  Humor is another contemporary form of beauty as illustrated in Ukeles’ work.

Ann Hamilton is a funny example of how art gets muffled. I saw her speak several times in Atlanta over the years. She was always an art goddess for me. But, the last time I saw her, as time has passed, she seems out of touch as an artist. Perhaps the privileged art life has tamed her.  But then, she always seemed to embrace classical beauty and the aristocracy, elegantly infusing some work with politics. Perhaps, the political aspect in her work is so subtle it’s invisible save for bookish crowds.  That piece at Spoleto festival–those piles of blue shirts was, indeed, one of her best moments. Does it connote slave labor? Well, that’s there very remotely.


I want to say briefly that, for certain, “Indigo Blue” was all about slave economies — and hardly in remote way. Indigo and cotton production were at the root of the Charleston economy and it was all made possible by slave labor.

Well, I wasn’t intending to take up the standard for traditional art spaces — but we’re circling around irony again in another form.  Traditionally, art museums like the Louvre or The Hermitage were palaces of an old aristocracy: one that hasn’t disappeared — it’s just been replaced with a different kind of ownership — some of it being public.  These palaces housed the collections of kings and queens, popes, and, in the U.S., the new aristocracy of the robber barons like J. P. Morgan.  So, obviously, yes, these spaces are full of opulence and grandeur and showcase the works in which these patrons had a vested interest.  It promoted their place in society and politics. And, to be sure, when the average viewer visits such spaces, they are taking in not just the art but the architecture and the social milieu of these people. But perhaps these spaces are the perfect examples of the revolution at work: One, these spaces, exhibits, and art works are no longer the property of  Russian czars nor J.P. Morgan; they have been made into public institutions and  are readily available for any one to experience offering free admission for scholars and artists most any time.  And, there may be a history lesson in the experience of those spaces: they have become palaces for art treasures from a particular culture.  Now, we can decide for ourselves whether the objects they house are a part of our cultural heritage or not.

Secondly, some of these cultural institutions are the embodiment of modernity.  The very tall, white cube that you describe is the very one that the Bauhaus posited as modernizing and democratizing the very thing that is the crux of your complaint! The clean functionality that they promoted was intended to be a showcase for modern art – spaces that would not interfere with the experience of art but work in tandem with a new sort of zeitgeist.  Finally, I can’t really get behind this idea that there is a specific “sanctioning” of the one and proper art by arts and cultural institutions.  In my mind, though the form itself may be antiquated, I don’t believe that even the High Museum pretends to say through their exhibitions, “This is the only real art.” I think  their message is directed to a very small small sub-set of society that, unfortunately, is relatively uninformed about the broader cultural movements afoot.

You are completely right that fantastic, engaging, political, beautiful, ugly, provocative art is out there for us all to experience in the form of graffiti,  posters, demonstrations, performances and online experiences.   Surely, we know, as art producers, that these institutions are not and can not prevent, in any way, the creation and dissemination of art that is provocative, forceful, imaginative, accessible and maybe even beautiful.  Something raw and of the moment can and will happen and neither museum directors nor designer-clad patrons can water it down.  It’s akin to what I was asking at the very beginning of this discussion — can something that is inherently pure, like beauty, be corruptible? Perhaps the more important question is why are we looking for an art experience that defies a kind of categorization in the very place that’s the bastion of categorization? If you don’t require museums to validate for you what you think is really art, then don’t look for it there.

So, getting back around to Joe Peragine and his show at Solomon Projects — a clean, white cube! — irony!!

I wonder whether the introduction of the found image changes or mitigates in any way this idea of beauty. Is it introducing an element of irony?  Does the introduction of irony make all that beauty somehow more acceptable?

In my mind, in Joe Peragine’s exhibit, I think maybe that’s what happening: beauty is being reconsidered through this filter of irony.  The more I think about it, the more I am reminded of the paintings of Gustav Courbet: he was doing something truly ground-breaking when he began making paintings of the most ordinary and mundane activities in his own rural province but made them on the scale of grand history paintings.  No one believed that images of road workers or mourners at a funeral should be on the scale of important mythological themes that supported monumental ideas about patriotism and loyalty.  But Courbet persisted and maybe even changed people’s minds about what’s glorious in the mundane.

By making paintings based on dioramas, Peragine is making something ironic yet I feel strongly that these paintings remain, fundamentally, about beauty.

Why this emphasis on the ironic do you suppose? Is there something inherently wrong with beauty? Are we incapable of taking in beauty without tempering it somehow with irony?

Joe Peragine - Elk


Sometimes, I think ironic work is a cop out in that it refrains from sincere emotion. It does however protect us from outright sentimentality. In ironic work, the means of expression is the opposite of the literal meaning. It’s a sarcastic riddle.

Joe Peragine’s title “Image Porn” speaks directly to this and yet his riddle does not leave the audience cold.  His paintings are both nostalgic  and sadly beautiful for the loss of nature and pokes fun at our culture’s commercialization of it. His imagery harkens back to advertisements of wildernesses and animals that are lost now in a style that is an homage to graphics great Ed Ruscha. Everybody loves pictures of wild animals! I see the reference to dioramas. His colors are blown out and airbrushed, look professionalized like National Geographic-commissioned pamphlet covers . The images function more like symbols than original portraiture. I guarantee that when he sat down to paint, he used an assortment of images clipped from magazines. We’ve seen that moose portrait many times before, backlit by a neon sunset. Peragine’s choice of romanticized animal poses, of sparkling stars in the woods are humorous as well as indulgent. It’s a tease that walks the line between beauty and marketing. By using traditional fine art techniques and showing in an upscale gallery, he positions the imagery and audience. Otherwise he could sell directly to the zoo’s marketing campaign. Indeed, this is an ironic approach to beauty. Making his cake and eating it too, he makes social commentary while also producing visual pleasure. I have no problem with art that’s enjoyable. That’s the stuff we keep around.

I like your reference to the paintings of Courbet, who made historic paintings of unseen reality or realities that certain classes deny. Paintings are a language that speak to a particular audience. Patrons of fine art tend to be more educated and have more adventurous artistic palettes. They are also more connected to power. To speak politics to them is more bang for the buck. When an artist is able to do both, make beauty and communicate something meaningful, that’s when Art with a capital A is produced.

Dawn Black


Which all made me wonder about Dawn Black’s images.  On first viewing, I was astonished by both how beautiful the images were and how imaginative each image was. But, after I learned she had re-created these images from found images, then I had no choice but to remove originality from the equation and re-evaluate what I thought of the work.

Finally, I decided that, whether they were found images or not, she had managed to make them her own by re-contextualizing them, not so different from Joe’s approach, and they remain things of beauty, of intense attention to craftsmanship, ethereal and formidable.

I’m especially fond of the watercolor and drawing she made of the model Kate Moss.  She managed to take this very recognizable public figure — a living symbol of pre-digested beauty in some senses — and recreate an image that is tentative, illusive and, I would argue, beautiful in itself beyond the actual subject of “Kate Moss.” This piece and several others from that exhibition demonstrate that appropriation cannot really be an end in itself — that her very reinterpretation of these found images into delicate objects brings a kind of transcendence to the appropriated image.

Any thoughts?

I think unoriginality is particularly important in art right now.  The gates have been opened for using found imagery. I’m glad. For, it would be wasteful not to reuse some it for fine art purposes. It makes a statement to the future about this over-abundance of visuals in our mainstream culture all having a certain flavor.  When an artist starts to collect from these massive amounts of visual refuse, new bodies of art become re-contextualized. Lots of artists are playing with this in our time. It’s a movement. Black takes the time to repaint something that was mass produced for magazines. With technical prowess –she sure knows how to use watercolor! — she imbues new importance into images with her careful attention and placement in a gallery. I like her small works the best, which emphasize their candy-like preciousness, no doubt titillating consumers. Some works are much better than others. The grid shows off her ability to curate a fine assortment of images from the third world and fashion.  I guess this is the strongest content of the show, which is fairly light. . .fashion juxtaposed with indigenous style.  Ho hum. . . I see much wilder approaches to third world and fashion in a Peter Beard journal .

Mierle Ukeles, Touch Sanitation, 1980, New York

Lisi Raskin, Command and Control, 2008, Installation view, High Resolution: Artists Projects at the Armory, Park Avenue Armory, New York, NY, Courtesy of Guild & Greyshkul

Joe Peragine, American Elk, 2010, courtesy of the artist and Solomon Projects, Atlanta, Georgia

Dawn Black, Conceal, 2010, courtesy of Get This! Gallery, Atlanta, Georgia

Dawn Black, The Basel Lepidopterist, (2010) courtesy of Get This! Gallery, Atlanta, Georgia


Filed under: Conversation, Exhibition, , , ,

Stuart Horodner and Stuart Keeler discuss ‘Aerge to Walk, —’

Stuart Keeler walking

Photo: Yi-Hsin Tzeng

Stuart Horodner

Several years ago I curated an exhibition called Walk Ways. It included Hamish Fulton, Francis Alys, Janet Cardiff, and other artists who examine walking as a rich activity linked to thinking, cities and nature, activism, leisure, etc. Your recent walking performances in Atlanta intrigue me. What prompted them?

Stuart Keeler

Aerge to Walk, — is inspired by a few of the precedents you mention and they continue to inform me as I continue to develop my own language of walking. Aerge is the “act of plunging into an immediate environment, with an awareness of time and mental state of a special quality separate from everyday life”. In Atlanta, there is not much walking for the sheer enjoyment, or need, the car rules the built environment in this city.


Which means that one rarely enjoys the freedom to encounter the real textures of the city—places, people, the surface of things.


There is no flirting, no subtle observations and casual social interaction in a car with the environment around you, you are contained. With walking, the physical form of the body elaborates on the mantra of “form follows function here” It is in this sense that moving forward with a stride, a gait, the stance and start of walking hints to a human endurance, a primal function of moving forward – in this sense the physicality of the act of walking from point A to Point Z.

Stuart Keeler walking

Photo: Yi-Hsin Tzeng


How did you decide to use color as a key element of the walks?


The performance pieces initially sought to examine the idea of walking as a subtle activity of endurance, a physical and performative drawing process in the city spaces of Atlanta. I am interested in marking or drawing with color as a memory with monochromatic charges of color for the observers, mainly those who drive by in cars. The use of color is a statement of action and immediacy, and will mark the space. Do you have to know its art in progress? No, rather the blur of red, a snippet of blue or a slow moving figure of yellow – all in one color ensemble creates a moment in mind, that people can wonder, cause attention to the act as a performance, or create a new memory of that location while in progress. It is fascinating to note over three days of walking I only encountered about 19 pedestrians total…another topic on itself!


Yes. Since the South is often understood as a storytelling culture, it may be that people noticed you and told someone later on. “You know, I saw this dude walking down the street…” No matter who noticed and what they thought, you gave yourself these experiences. What did you learn through the process?


Atlanta, is the center of hysterical post modern city planning! Such an odd sense of disconnection, awkward zoning and self conscious design. Walking from Center Point along Buford Highway was the most fascinating, people honked car horns, people waved, there was a sense of open spirit and this for me created the much talked about, and often missing “sense of place” in the built world. Stopping along the way, talking with people was great, and people who you think are not interested in “ART” or care about it, actually “get it” and want to contribute in some way or are encouraging. This was inspiring. At times the pace was slow, other times it was more clipped and quick, the constant was a slight dream state, the noise of traffic, the uneven walking surfaces became a new mantra of a site specific experience within a self mandated art context. Marking place with memory is personal, quiet and an interesting private activity in the public realm.

The piece became very much about social mapping, my connecting, or trying to connect with the city and its geography. Some people assumed I was absolutely insane, dressed head to toe in one color, while others seemed to acknowledge the celebration of color and the fact that I was walking was a ritual of some type, and a cause to comment, or to smile. This is interesting to me. There were many stops along the away, it is through this that new stories, new ideas, new experiences of “my” Atlanta has changed.


I like this notion of actions that become part of the memory of a place. Bruce Chatwin examines this in his classic book, The Songlines. I wonder about the numerous Atlanta sites and histories that go un-recognized and un-felt because not enough people are walking them, knowing them with their bodies.


This is interesting Stuart, as I have been fascinated by the historic markers here in “The South”, they remind us of such epic events as The Battle of Atlanta, Sherman’s March to the Sea, Peachtree Battle and other epic Civil War based actions. On the walk up Buford Highway I noticed there are three such markers hidden amongst the overgrown brush marking a history that I deem is largely forgotten or foreign to the current culture? In the vein of Chatwin looking at the Aboriginal culture and the act of “dreaming” while in motion on foot, this is a celebration of place, a rite of meditation as a true relational aesthetic before the buzz began! My walking piece in Atlanta seeks to examine and create a personal story while simultaneously claiming a place.

Filed under: Interview, , , , , ,


Scott Ingram: Hey Jennie, so my thought is to ease into this conversation by giving a little background on where and how these ideas about Ellsworth Kelly started in our work. I’m thinking back to the first work of Kelly’s that I ever saw. In 1992 I had moved into a large warehouse space in downtown Des Moines, the Percival Gallery was about 4 blocks away and they had a large green “pie” shaped print on paper. It was about 60″ wide and probably 24″ tall, a woodcut as I remember it. A beautiful print that a 23 year old kid could not afford at the time.

Shortly after moving into the warehouse I walked into a museum for the first time and began working for the Des Moines Art Center in the prep department. The DMAC has a vertical canvas titled Yellow Blue, 1963, oil on canvas. It is a beautiful painting. A few years later I helped to install a stainless steel Kelly sculpture in the lawn of a private collection in Des Moines, that really blew me away.

Over the years I don’t know how many hundreds of works by Kelly I have seen, but I have to admit that for as much as I appreciate his work, I’m not a big fan of his recent canvases. I love the works on paper and sculpture but I think the edges of the canvases lose definition for me because they are slightly rolled. It kind of makes me crazy to think about the precision he gets in his sculpture and printmaking and the detail and definition you find in his drawings. The rolled edge on the canvas seems easy.

Jennie C. Jones: I totally know what you mean about the edges, and I feel a fondness for the older works as well. Especially, the works on paper. The “Drawings on a Bus” series was the best thing I saw in NY a few years ago and I was thrilled that it was recreated as a publication. Its amazing that he produced so many drawings in his early years–enough that he can pull from them now–re conceptualize them in groups OR use them as studies for new paintings almost 50 years later. They still hold their weight.

Well that was a digression, I’m glad to hear the story of how Kelly has woven in and out of your story as an artist. I mentioned in my talk at the High Museum of Art, I disliked his work in college — especially the series they installed at The Art Institute of Chicago when I was a student.

I think also at that time and what I still grappled with is somehow needing permission to operate as a formalist and what that means in the larger conversations surrounding gender and ethnicity. In grad school I had a negative first impression when I saw Ellen Gallagher’s paintings around 1996. I think I felt as though she was almost at that place of universal language, an artist of color who was going to be a contemporary formalist of sorts–but instead of being say in conversation with, Agnes Martin, she was still tethered to identity politics in the tiny mark making of lips and eyes. I was at once jealous of her lovely works and angry that they had to operate with signifiers. I indeed, qualify my aesthetic, but link my modernist intentions to their precedent in music history and audible formal contributions of jazz. This is a very old point of contention dating back to the Harlem Renn. and essays like the “Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” by Langston Hughes, nothing new. Just a bigger market! ANYWAY, I guess I  wish I knew what Kelly was listening to back in the late 50s. Both in Paris and in New York! just read the first paragraph that sums it up:

SI: As I sat in your talk at the High Museum last Saturday I couldn’t help but think about your Breathless series in relation to Kelly’s Automatic drawings that he started in Paris in the 50’s. I guess you are thinking of them in terms of collage, or are you seeing them as drawings? Or do you see a difference between the two? i know we spoke of them in conservation terms and the shifting over time or the staining on the paper. Which I find very funny, thinking of Kenny G as a stain.

JCJ: I embarrassingly confess that I don’t know the Kelly drawings you are thinking of. I think perhaps the leaf drawings –simple contour line, are the ones that cross my mind. But I have to say the Breathless series is something I never put in the Kelly compartment in my brain, as they are so whimsical and open that I think of them in the Non Geometric realm, whereas Kelly –even knowing his line drawings still is the master of the Geometric to me. The master of balancing space and depth of field. What I think of as emptiness as fullness.

SI: I was also thinking about your other drawings and collages on view at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center right now, I couldn’t help but think about the very Dutch aesthetic in much of your work. Your “Red, Black, Blue- Woofers, Wires and Such” really made me think a lot about Rietveld’s architecture and his Red Blue chair as well as the Schroder House in Utrecht.  You probably well know that Rietveld and Mondrian were quite friendly.

JCJ: I understand your connection to architecture, especially after seeing your work and visiting your studio (which were both great!) Afterwards I saw the buildings we drove past in a new way. I thought of your story about Kelly and how he sees the world, light shadow, hard edges, and the colors in nature.

I’ve often read the term ‘architecture’ when speaking about Modernist Music composition and that is my modernist inspiration — another formula or structure.

SI: For me this is the crux of where our conceptual ideas meet our visual resolutions, combined with ideas of re-mixing, re-contextualizing Modernism.

I guess the conversation was going to swing this way at some point, but I am interested in your thoughts on appropriation. My work personally would be nothing without it and I believe that neo-appropriationism is the final movement or direction for art to take. It is a card that was in play long before Warhol’s soup cans, but I don’t think until recently has it been at the forefront of the art dialogue, it took Richard Prince to make it a medium. What I am ultimately talking about is the appropriation of the conceptual. Assuming not just an object or an aesthetic, but an idea. I am really interested in the way you borrow the look of an object and place it in a context that makes the viewer search for content in a household object. I am referring to the speakers in your installation, wrapped with their fabric grilles nudges at the principals of canvas, of wrapped linen, really poking at painting.

JCJ: I totally know what you mean. I think appropriation is a word that is associated with post modernism, but still I think of it as modernist– appropriation to me begins with Picasso’s ‘relationship’ to African sculpture OR the Dada use of newspaper ad clippings as poetry and in collage. I also think all art-making takes its cue from something, someone at this point–therefore either you address that or not, you use that as the blatant ‘meaning’ or you kind of pretend to be somehow original.  What you address as, neo-appropriationism (which I like a lot!) in my own practice I would call neo- modernism, used in literature but not in the visual realm, a term that has sporadically been used to describe a philosophical position based on modernism but addressing the critique of modernism by postmodernism. I think your work is both conceptual and about conceptualism, NOT appropriation. Both of our work is a form of revisionist history in a way too.

Appropriation is something else all together when it comes to music, sampling and mixing actually changed the law. Especially as both the music “industry” and art “world” are so lucrative and the art world unregulated no less!  I love this quote and have used it before when asked about copyright and how much I manipulate pre existing recordings.

“The primary objective of copyright (or here for us, appropriation) is not to reward the labor of (original) authors, but [t]o promote the Progress of Science and Arts.” “To this end, copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work. This result is neither unfair nor unfortunate. It is the means by which copyright (appropriation in art making) advances the progress of science and art.” –  US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (Italics – Jennie C. Jones)

SI: You are also doing something that i really enjoy, which is borrowing from design. Lifting the essence of the walkman designs and putting them on paper. I did this in my Holland Drawings when I was lifting corporate colors from commercial vehicles, buildings and shipping containers in the Netherlands. In so many ways it isn’t even re-assigning content because it still has its origin, if the viewer is informed. Which to me starts to talk about being aware and informed. I was also doing it in my chair drawings for Knoll.

JCJ: What I love so much about your Knoll drawings is that they revert the objects back to the core gesture from which they came. Someone once said to me in a studio visit  ” you only make drawings!”, implicating for a career I would forever be in a ‘low market’ Fuck you! I’m not sure when works on paper became so much less important than other media. I explained that everything started as a drawing–I pointed to the molding lining the ceiling of the room, the table, the chair he was sitting on etc. All these things were manifested from a drawing. This is the crux of why your work and the subtle kind of awareness in your life translates to a paying attention, and attention into practice–from buildings to corporate color pallets to  the curve of an armchair.

For me it was making low tech sound pieces on ‘vintage’ audio equipment, that brought awareness. Holding these clunky devices –how could I ignore their aesthetic. Hence the Walkman Compositions–to me that was in direct conversation with the Bauhaus, addressing fundamental questions of craftsmanship vs. mass production and the practical purpose of formal beauty in commonplace objects.

SI: I also think the formalist properties of what you are dealing with are really interesting. It is a battle I have had to face since 2000 when I met Kelly and made a life changing shift in my work. It hasn’t been until recently that I came to grips with my formal qualities and realized that I wasn’t interested in the formal, I was interested in the timeless. I know that isn’t popular and trendy, but I know it’s true to what I feel I need to be creating. I need to look at history to move into the future.

JCJ: There is for sure a timelessness to the language of formalism, minimalism. I think sometimes I know that it is cliché and I do it anyway to emphasize my relationship to the absence on some level of women and artists of color in that genre. My first works using speakers as proxies’ for voice in a way were over the top ‘modern’.

SI: I have been watching the Michael Jackson memorial and thinking about barriers, specifically in the context of you being an African-American woman working in such a formal way. I smile and shake my head knowing it is an iconic white male artist that you are channeling in a very empowering way. It is also interesting in relation to the jazz references you are making as well, based in black culture and adopted by many older white males. (which makes the Kenny G pieces even more hilarious) Grappling with ideas of permission, I believe, get thrown out when it prohibits you from creating without barriers.

JCJ: You are right!  100%. I’m glad the art world has shifted out of the “post black “conversation a little bit. Seems in the age of Obama, perhaps,  we can have deeper conversation about art, aesthetics and ideas, like we are doing with this correspondence. Oh that smacks of corny humanist idealism, but….

SI: It is interesting though, you seem to have reached a “happy medium” and charged the work by including the concepts of jazz into the work. Which is based in black culture, as well as it’s creator. Ultimately, Charlie Parker is bigger than Ellsworth Kelly. It really would be interesting to see what Ellsworth listens to.

JCJ: Thats a thought bomb. Maybe the title of a book I’d like to read “Ultimately, Charlie Parker is bigger than Ellsworth Kelly: Mid Century-Modernist Art and the Birth of the Music Industry”

SI: I think it is something that Jerald Ieans and Odili Donald Odita probably deal with in their paintings, beautiful painters, but not really making race the central issue in their work.

JCJ: True, also elder artists like Alma Thomas, who I like to reference. She gets put in the category of folk art. I love her work. This one reminds me of your nail polish paintings and Barnett Newman.

Alma Thomas in her studio.

Alma Thomas in her studio.

SI: So I took the weekend and waited to respond, I needed to let this all soak in a little bit. You mentioned something that I think is interesting and an issue I have been facing for awhile now myself. Drawing, when did it become a second rate art form? I work primarily in drawing. You made a comment at the Contemporary about drawing prices never going over 1200 bucks. For the most part that is correct. It’s interesting to me because I would place prints in the same type of genre along with works on paper in general. I am interested in unpacking this idea a little bit because as commonplace as this thought it, there is a constant contradiction. Ed Ruscha comes to mind first, he has made a career on paper, whether it was, drawings, prints, books, photography you name it. His canvas to paper ratio has to be well over 100:1. I also think of Henry Darger, and Bill Traylor, whole careers on paper. Even Rauschenburg got away from canvas later in life, but made prints his whole career, Johns too.

JCJ: All points well taken in referencing artists who are known or lived more from their works on paper. I didn’t know that about Ruscha–funny because I only really remember him for the canvases. I’m really not sure when the decrease in interest or value occurred. I wanna think it was in the 80’s boom, bigger paintings and individual artists as incorporated “cultural producers” . Thats why I think I was so moved to see more and more Kelly drawings appear in Chelsea. They are not just a peek into his thought process for the bigger works , but they stand on their own completely as pieces.

SI: I personally love working on paper and have enjoyed the challenge of making it a little more than a work on paper. I think it is unfortunate that people think that a drawing is the beginning and not the end of a work of art. The immediate is what I enjoy about it so much. I’ve been spending the last 5 days in my drawing studio pushing ideas out of my head. Some will be the beginning of something and others will just be drawings, but they are always part of a bigger project. Some of those drawings will make it to the fabrication studio and be paintings or sculpture, but it will still be an important drawing in my process.

JCJ: I love paper too, obviously and for me there is also the element of always working in a series and I feel they are like pages of sheet music.  I think there is a deeper connection between writing, mark-making and music notation. I’ve not explored that too much on a more blatant level.

I would imagine that for you may be looking at blur prints and that relationship to architecture my be there as well. Like how you mention some things will stay as drawings and others move ahead to fabrication. My first collages started as impossible installation plans. Hundreds of earbuds pouring out of a red ‘conduit or woofer. (Not totally impossible but…)

SI: I just had a thought, maybe the collector that thinks a drawing is sub-par, isn’t really a collector. I’m going to work on that theory for a moment.

JCJ: It was a curator and business type who had a gallery in the 80s actually! His concern was one of sustainability. How will I live off of my work eventually if I remain in a certain price bracket. Well, I’m now on my second year of living from my work as I heavily pursued grants for the more conceptual aspects of my ‘practice’. All is well, it’s more that the words ‘just drawings” really struck a deep chord in me. I’m still making them.

SI: I am also glad you inserted the Alma Thomas piece, I love Alma Thomas and that was really nice. I was thinking about Jack Whitten again the other day too, who was hanging out with Christopher Wilmarth back in the day. I am a huge fan of Wilmarth. I can’t even imagine what those studio conversations were like, but I don’t see them being about race.

I don’t know if it is the “age of Obama”, maybe that’s just a good barometer. But I started seeing something interesting watching Kojo Griffin’s work develop, as well as Laylah Ali. I grew up in small town Iowa, I wasn’t taught racism, but I lived in a white community with a George Washington Carver monument in a pocket park a block from the town square. If there is one thing I learned in a farm community, it’s that black and white cows all milk the same color. Now I’ve lived in Atlanta for nearly 15 years. For me Kojo and Laylah leveled the playing field and talked about an almost lack of race. I guess for me I like seeing the conversation shift. I’m interested in the focus on aesthetic and idea. It’s not a perspective I know coming from small town Iowa.

JCJ: What’s funny for me is I think especially for Laylah most kids I know where talking about how she was using her alien characters as proxies ( a word I used before for my own use of speakers in conversation with each other).

I do think that there is that read on her work, social narratives that look a bit like afor futurist versions of Jacob Lawrence Great Migration series. Also the scale and materials are the same small, tempera. She is actually the artist who kind of gave me the comfort to own working on a small scale, and use the intimacy of that. It is interesting that there s another conversation historically among African American artists, just like how I would equate Alma Thomas with Ellen Gallagher is a way. I’m so happy that you knew her work, many people don’t.

Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence


Laylah Ali


Kojo Griffin

Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence

As for the age of Obama, who knows–maybe that’s just me talking smack. I love your statement about cows! I’m from Ohio you know, I still have my days in NYC where I think I can’t live in this town. That’s why I hide out in Brooklyn so much, love the trees and the neighborhood feel.

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