The Bay Area Women Artists (BAWAP) Legacy Project’s mission is to highlight women’s historically significant and much under-documented and under-valued contributions to the Bay Area art scene. This thirty women strong organization is working diligently to compile an archive as a resource for future generations that represents the many active and talented female artists who played active roles in the arts over the past fifty years. One of the most engaging components of BAWAP’s practice is the creation of a series of video interviews that explores not only the key figures’ extensive art practice, exhibition history, and active involvement in feminist art groups, but also the challenges they overcame as they staked their territory in a male dominated landscape.
In one particularly compelling dialogue, BAWAP member Susan Leibovitz Steinman engages her former professor and mentor, Mercury Twenty’s Elizabeth Sher, in a frank discussion of her long career trajectory. Sher relates her transfer to Berkeley in the early 60s as a college Junior from the East Coast, and being confronted with sexism and a complete lack of women mentors. The conversation touches upon the struggles Sher overcame balancing the demands of motherhood, her teaching career, and her continued development as an artist. From this experience Sher’s search for community and a new model of engagement with the public ultimately led to a significant, award winning exploration of film-making that parallels her still ongoing multi-media and two dimensional work. The inclusion of Steinman’s video in the BAWAP archive will ensure that Sher’s role as a fine artist with work in major museums and important mentor for many generations of students during her forty-year teaching career at California College of the Arts will be preserved for future generations of art scholars and curators.
Mary Curtis Ratcliff is another long-standing member of M20, having joined the Gallery in 2008.
Curtis has been hard at work in her studio preparing for her February 2021 exhibition. For many months, due to the quarantine, her usual working process was interrupted by the fact she was cut off from her collaborator, master printer Tony Molatore of Berkeley Giclée . She reports that she was left to scrounge in the back of her flat file drawers, where all the trimmings from previous digital inkjet prints of her photos had been saved. Indeed, these scraps proved so fertile that so far she she has made over 26 works in the series she has dubbed “ScrapWorks”.
Until then…we leave you with a great interview from our Archives with M20’s Kathleen King (2008).
Can you remember any art that moved you when you were really young?
Once we went to Cranbrook when I was maybe about 8. I came across this big thing: it was horizontal, it had holes in it, had a sort of head-like form. I didn’t know what it was. It was interesting and attractive to me, and I kept saying, “What is that thing?” Well, they told me it was a Henry Moore sculpture.
Sounds like you were interested in natural forms, abstracted form. Even though you didn’t know what this piece was, it drew your attention.
It’s not too surprising that sculpture was the first type of art that I made. I did sculpture for about 25 years before I started the mixed media on paper work I do currently.
Did you do sculpture at RISD?
Yes, I majored in Sculpture and then Art Education my senior year. I really got into sculpture after I left New York City.
After college, I was into the early video scene in NYC. I was one of the 3 founding members of VideoFreex which later became a collective. I had spent 4 years in Europe, 6 on the East Coast, and with VideoFreex, I came out to California to document the avant garde movement of the late 60s on assignment for CBS News. That’s when I knew that there was someplace else to explore if I ever left New York.
I came back out here in ’73 and I thought, OK, I went to art school, what did I major in, oh yeah sculpture! I’ll do some sculpture now. (Laughs) But the important thing is that once I started making art, even with all the low paying or teaching jobs I’ve had since that time, I never stopped making my art. I always found a way to do it.
I wanted to make large sculpture, but I made a rule that I had to be able to pick them up myself. I didn’t want anything to do with a forklift, Cor-ten steel, stone, big chunks of wood, or having to ask someone to help me. So, I designed these large sculptures that were very light weight.
What were they made out of?
Hoops and ribbons. They were about 12 feet long and kinetic. One of the biggest, a triple hoop piece, was called Hollywood Car Wash. They were made from Japanese ribbon, which was the cheapest material I could find; it came on huge rolls. Then I went to fabric ribbons: satins, taffetas, rayons. The sculptures went from being suspended in the air to being wall mounted. I hung them all over the place, at the Oakland Museum, the Legion of Honor.
After that, I began doing large abstract goddess sculptures, about 6 feet tall.
How did you get into making goddess figures?
In the mid-70s there was a beginning of the Goddess movement in the Bay Area and I was very interested in it. In 1978 there was a big conference at UC Santa Cruz. Carol Christ from Harvard was one of the keynote speakers, and she spoke about the re-emergence of the Great Goddess and its importance as a development in the history of religion. One of my sculptures hung over the stage at that conference.
My sculptures were also used as part of Goddess ceremonies, in processions and various performance pieces. I did performance art myself at that time, and designed sculpture to be used in ceremony and performance.
I know you travel extensively and I think you went to Malta to study the goddess culture there.
I went with Jennifer Berezan on a pilgrimage to the 6000-year-old goddess temples in Malta. First, I had to look on the map because, gosh, we had these tickets and I had to say, “Where is Malta?”
(Laughs) Really, just exactly where is it?
It’s an island south of Sicily, east of Tunisia, in the Mediterranean. 6000 years ago there was a cult worshipping the Goddess there, and they built numerous stone temples. I did a series of 2-dimensional works inspired by my trip there. Prints and mixed-media.
You did sculpture for almost 25 years and then you moved into doing prints and other 2-dimensional work. Tell me how that evolved.
Helene Aylon, an artist and friend of mine from New York, encouraged me to do this residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Sweet Briar, Virginia. She thought I’d really love the place, and she kept after me for about five years. I hesitated because, being a sculptor, I hated schlepping all my materials to a far off place to create work, and then have to schlep it all back. My partner Peter suggested that I apply for the residency and just simply do something different while I was there. That started a whole new way of working for me.
I was doing a sculpture series about cakes at the time. So, the first thing that I took up when I got to the Virginia Center residency was drawing. After about a week I decided I wanted to paint, too. I found some wallpaper sample books and began cutting cake shapes out of them and collaging those onto painted backgrounds. That was the transition from 3d to 2d right there. I was doing cake sculptures up to that point. It grew into the 2D painted collages of cakes, then it took off from there.
I went back for a second time a couple of years later, and I decided that I wanted to transfer images onto one another. I had met a wonderful artist Alice Harris from the first residency. I called her up the night before I was supposed to leave and I said, “How do you do this?” She told me the process over the phone from New Jersey. That really changed my practice from painting and collaging to begin to start layering images.
At one point, I did a 4 by 6 foot piece with a printed background. It took me about 5 years to figure out how that piece worked. I kept trying to paint the background but then I realized that I needed to print the background. I realized I could take photos of images for backgrounds. Then on top of that I could transfer, collage, paint and draw. That’s my present work.
I’ve been looking at your recent work in the gallery and it’s interesting how you integrate the layers of imagery with the drawing and painting. You create a new, unique, and I think, mysterious image. It reminds me of that old process of hand coloring a photo, but you don’t just color it in, you work with the images, your coloring responds to them, joins them together…
That’s part of what I’m trying to do with this work, to evoke a sense of mystery and to not be obvious with what things actually are. I’m playing with abstraction and reality.
The viewer can spend a lot of time looking, deconstructing the image in their mind, figuring out what it is.
I’m glad you are seeing it that way, because that’s what I’m trying to do. I want to get the viewer intrigued and engaged with the image. The fun of these images is that it’s not particularly obvious what they are.
I feel like I can wander around the image visually. I’m thinking, “How did she do that?” “Where did that come from?” You are building an image from many images, collaging and transferring in layers, but also you’ve done other interesting things: you’ve transferred a rectangular photo, then added drawing off all four edges, expanding on the photo with drawing. Sometimes you repeat or mirror the image to transform it.
My father had a darkroom when I was growing up. I grew up watching him take photos with this big Graflex and printing them and seeing the results. I have this idea of how to make images from him. I started taking photographs when I was really young, maybe around seven or so, and I’ve never really stopped. They are my archive. Right now on my poor little Mac I have over 5000 images. (Laughs)
The other thing that was neat about my parents is that my mother made all my clothes. She even knitted our sweaters. About a week before she died, I told her, “Mom, you taught me to make sculpture.” And she said, “No, I didn’t.” I said, “Yes, you did!” We would go to the fabric store in Birmingham, Michigan, and we would pick out Butterick or Simplicity patterns, we’d get the fabic, buttons, lace. Then we’d go home, lay it out on the floor and cut it out, then sew it up. We actually made a sculpture—a three-dimensional object—that happened to be a dress.
Her father, my granddad William Curtis Carter (that’s where I got my name) was an engineer. I was surrounded by people making things on a very real level. I picked up on all that stuff.
Tell me some more about the body of work that you’ll show in your upcoming show at Mercury 20, Chosen Terrain. I’m looking at this piece called Waterweb which is fascinating.
I’m showing a large diptych called Parting of the Plates that I made earlier this year. It’s 80 inches long by 30 inches high. It starts with a photograph that I made of some elliptical circles I found in a botanical garden in Maine. I photographed them in such a way that I created a third circle in the middle. I printed them very big and I started painting and layering all sorts of things on top of them, creating maybe 4 or 5 different layers.
What kinds of things did you layer?
Other photographs—of birds, a Japanese garden, a reflection of a tree in a pond.
Is that the image you used in Waterweb, the tree in the pond? I was not sure if that was a double exposure or how the tree got into the water…
I was doing a residency in New Zealand this February, and I took hundreds of photos, some of which resulted in pieces in the show. Waterweb uses a photo of a creek. On top of that I transferred a photo of a spider web in a fence. Then I drew in colored pencil over that. I had been trying to photograph spider webs for years but it’s a hard shot to get. One morning in New Zealand, we took a walk on the farm next door. Droplets of rain and dew had been caught in this web, illuminating it. Photographing it against a dark tree in the distance, I could actually see the web structure.
I love the fence, which is also a grid and a nice counterpoint to the web. And it’s a hand-knotted fence which is so beautifully crafted.
The joinery of the fence is like nothing we have in this country. I had to draw each one of the joints in by hand. I had to really study how the metal was tied.
It’s a lovely piece and I enjoy looking at it.
Part of my challenge with the residencies has been traveling with my work. In 2000, I was in a show in Osaka, Japan. I heard horror stories about artist’s work that never made it through customs, so I wanted to make some work that I could carry with me on the plane. I designed a sculpture that is about 6 feet high by 6 feet in diameter, which I will show at Mercury 20. This piece is called Debabalizer. It’s like a big tinker toy, made of wooden dowels and joints. It’s in the form of a four-tiered cake. I had the phrase The Dream of a Common Language, which is from an Adrianne Rich poem, translated into 5 languages—Japanese, Arabic, Hindi, Greek and Russian. Paper flags are hanging down from the dowels on the top tiers of the sculpture, with the phrases are transferred onto them. The third tier down has the words earth-air-fire-water on it. On the bottom tier, I photographed the hands of a friend who does sign language, spelling out the phrase.
What is it about that cake form, or ziggaraut shape? Is it the Tower of Babel from the Bible?
It has to do with the circles and hoops. I know I’ve been influenced by experiences I had as far back as 1972 when I went to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. I met Leonard Crow Dog who was head medicine man for the American Indian Movement at the time. I witnessed a Sun Dance ceremony there, which is done in a circular form. After that I began to use a lot of circles in my work; it’s a universal symbol but the Native American culture has been most influential to me.
You have really traveled a lot.
All my life I’ve traveled and lived in other countries. My next trip is to Quebec. I’m really looking forward to using my French. They are having their 400th anniversary, and there should be all kinds of great art to see.
That sounds like fun. Of all the places you’ve been, what’s been the most life changing?
I think the experience of going to India was life-changing. It’s like going to another planet. I went around the world in 2002, and that was one of the most memorable places I’ve been.
Many goddesses to look at in India.
For sure, so many goddesses (Laughs)
What’s on the horizon for you after the Mercury 20 show with Jamie Morgan in September?
I’m busy! I have another travel challenge. I’m having a solo show at the Hess Gallery on the campus of Pine Manor College. That’s where I went to school before I went to RISD. Unfortunately, they have no budget for me to transport my work (Laughs). The gallery is large, too, so I was wondering what to do to fill it up? I thought I would try something new, have my background images printed onto canvas, which I can roll and transport less expensively. That’s what I’m working on now.
I’ll be in a show at the Berkeley Art Center in 2009. A group show with various artists who worked at the New Pacific Center in New Zealand. And, I’ll have a two-person show in a gallery in El Cerrito showing my paper doll series. Then East Bay Open Studios, and then in July another show at Mercury 20.
Mary Curtis Ratcliff
Artist Charlie Milgrim is one of five M20 members who have been with the Gallery since nearly its’ inception in 2007
Here’s an interview with Kathleen King from 2008.
We encourage you to check out her newer work at her recently relaunched website .
She is also selling reasonably priced prints online in our store
Interview with Kathleen King
Portrait by Peter Honig
March 6, 2008
Tell me where you’re from and something about your childhood.
I was born and grew up in New York City. My father was a concert pianist, who stayed home and practiced every day, and my mother was a college professor.
Did the fact that your father was a musician and your mother an educator influence you? How did you come to be an artist?
I did study music, took private violin lessons and played clarinet in the junior high school band (laughs) but I knew I didn’t want to be a musician. I realized early on there was a calling for me that had to do with art. Even when I was about five years old, I felt that things that I drew were really important.
So you got into art through drawing?
I wasn’t sure why, but my drawings were the most meaningful things for me when I was growing up. They are what sparked me, but I didn’t really find my way with art until my teens.
You came out to the west coast for college?
I went to The California College of Arts and Crafts, where I focused on glassblowing and metalwork. I loved the fire arts! I studied with Marvin Lipofsky and Dennis Leon. This was when I first got interested in sculpture. The techniques and processes really fascinated me. It was all new and wonderfully challenging.
Then you went to UC Berkeley for graduate school?
I did. But in between the two, there were a number of years where I did window display, and installations for New Wave clubs. This was a very formative period. I loved the immediacy of putting up a display and getting feedback. It’s very much like doing installation—many artists cut their teeth on window display—Johns, Rauschenberg, Warhol. It was good groundwork for what I do now, which is working with space and visuals.
Growing up in New York I saw fantastic window display all the time—and a lot of art. My mother had a membership to the MOMA and we went often. I liked all the art at the MOMA when I was young, but my biggest, early influences were Duchamp and Cornell.
So through Duchamp you became interested in conceptual sculpture, which is a big part of your work now.
Papa Duchamp was also the patron saint of many artists here in the Bay Area. I was also influenced by the work of David Ireland, Paul Kos, Ann Hamilton and Rebecca Horn.
I see an affinity with your work and that of Paul Kos. The simplicity; the way you both hone it down to the symbols, objects, space, and let them all play together.
I studied a fair amount in the time between art school and graduate school. I basically educated myself during that period. I also traveled extensively, hung around and attended a lot of lectures the SF Art Institute. It’s interesting how all that developed in my own work. I don’t always see all the influences but I guess that they are there.
My work comes from another place I can’t really identify. Images often come through a glimpse. I don’t deeply meditate about them. Often the objects I find inform me of the direction of the work.
How did you get into using found objects in your work?
That came out of the window display, because I was constantly collecting objects and putting them together, so my dialog with “things” grew out of that. The task of attracting attention to sell products became another dilemma for me. I felt it was really important to communicate what I was passionate about. I realized that instead of selling products I could sell ideas, environmental and political action. I understood that because people were so influenced by advertising, that this form gave me a way in, a way to communicate or “advertise” my ideas to people. That was my original impetus for it.
Early on I did a piece called Pretty Hands and Feet, which I made in a wooden box that contained bottles of this product called Pretty Hands and Feet.
Oh, I know that product. (laughs)
I put this cheesy Renoir-like print with dainty hands and feet in as a backdrop, next to several bottles of pickled pig’s feet, I liked the ironic interplay between these commercial products.
I traveled to Egypt in 1987, it was an amazing experience. I was really moved by the power of the scale of the monuments. When I came back, I wanted to bring that narrative in, so I did a few pieces using pyramid forms. I did a whole series called Secrets of the Pyramids. One day I was driving up San Pablo Ave. and I ran across about a hundred huge machine nuts, they must have fallen off a truck, so I parked, and collected them all and I made a pyramid piece out of them. There was also a stuffed iguana in that piece. I found weird relationships between the pyramids and stuff I found in my everyday environment.
You must have felt the strangeness of the ancient place of Egypt and the modern place you came back to live in.
It was really emotional and dramatic for me to see the cradle of civilization and all the art which has been preserved for thousands of years. It was important to me to see the immense value this art had to its civilization. It made me more driven and determined as an artist after witnessing the power of Egyptian art in its context.
So you went from this pyramid shape which is elemental, to being well-known for working with the sphere, more specifically, the bowling ball. How did that come about?
That came out of a trip as well. I took a drive across country with Ray Beldner—an artist who was a big influence, a collaborator, and my husband at the time. We were making a hand-held film we called The Magical Misery Tour. We went to various environmentally toxic hotspots like coal-fired electric plants which were blamed for acid rain, Nevada silver mines where birds were being killed by cyanide gases just by flying over them, that kind of thing. It was amazing that we got access to a lot of places, being young, innocent-looking student types, they let us in and talked to us very frankly sometimes, and sometimes not so frankly.
One of the places we went on this trip was Carlsbad, New Mexico. Near there, the US Government planned to bury nuclear waste, which would be trucked in from all over the US. So here I had gone to the desert of Egypt and now I was in the American desert, which seemed to me like a very sacred place, but they were planning to defile it and basically create an environmental disaster. My first bowling ball piece, Carlsbad Lanes, getting back to that (laughs) was an installation sponsored by Haines Gallery at 49 Geary. There was a huge unused space in that building which had been a Western Union Telegram station. Cheryl Haines got about 10 artists together to do installations in this raw space before it was re-fashioned into upscale art galleries. I went in and saw a black stripe of linoleum on the floor that cut through the space, and I immediately envisioned the piece. I decided to make a bowling alley and use it as a metaphor for the burying of nuclear waste. I used 50 gallon drums as bowling pins so the scale was extreme. I got real bowling balls and sandblasted the words Earth, Air, Water and Fire on them. I covered the drums with salt, because that’s what they were planning to do, bury the drums of nuclear waste in salt! I was so disturbed about this after that trip; I did this first bowling ball piece in response.
Did you then just get entranced with the bowling balls?
By that time I was in graduate school and about eight months after I did the first piece, I finally did fall in love with the balls. I did a piece with two music stands. I put them up against the wall, and I put two bowling balls on them and they held; they just balanced by gravity up against the wall! It just amazed me, that these very heavy, perfectly round objects could be held by almost nothing at all. After that they were all I could think about. It was the beginning of a love affair that lasted a number of years.
You’ve explored so many aspects of the bowling balls whether it was the weight, their spherical/planetary nature, their likeness to human heads, the fiery patterns that they often have on the surface…
I use them as metaphors for a lot of different things. I have about 600 of them. I did a piece that the DiRosa Preserve in Napa has where I used 80 black bowling balls. They tend to work best when you use all one color. In Department of Appropriations, I hung 25 bright red balls from the ceiling at Gallery 16. Sometimes I just need a lot at once. (Laughs)
For DiRosa, you did a piece with bowling balls in a bathtub.
Originally I visualized the All For Me piece after my friend David Raymond offered me a gaudy spa to do an installation at the Trident Hotel Art Expo in San Francisco. All the bowling balls were sandblasted with the word “ME”, it was a piece about ridiculous opulence. This is where Rene saw the work. When it was first installed at the Preserve it was staged in a claw foot tub and put in an outdoor area. I discovered a huge marble spa in Rene’s former home at the DiRosa Preserve, where he let me move it, so now its site is much closer to my original idea of the piece as a metaphor for decadence.
You also did one where the tub is upended and all the balls are spilling out.
That’s called Spill and it’s about water issues.
That’s great. I love what you do and how you are not heavy-handed with your politics. You use humor very subtly, and I wonder how you feel about humor in art and the way you approach that?
Growing up in New York, everything had to be funny, and if it wasn’t funny it didn’t exist! It’s culturally part of the way my brain got wired. Humor is a key – a way to get people to follow what you’re saying. Like art, humor is what separates us from lower life forms.
Well, humor is an art. It’s one of the classic arts but people don’t think of it that way so much anymore. It’s not easy to make people laugh, or think. Humor is connecting disparate things and surprising people.
It’s a way to make a connection. I did a couple of pieces called Nice Jugs and Nice Set. Those started when I was in a junk store called Economy Corner. Actually, it’s where Rock, Paper, Scissors Gallery is now. I saw this jug when I was in there and I said to myself, “Ooh, nice jug.” (Laughs)
(Laughs) And you cracked yourself up.
Yeah, I cracked myself up and I thought, oh my god, this is slang that I heard when I was growing up. So of course I got two of them and hung them on a wall in conjunction with some movie marquee letters and pawed out letters. That was in the SF Art Institute’s Nine Bay Area Women show.
Gender is another theme that your work often touches on?
It’s there. I let the work go in a lot of directions. At the root though, I need to make something formally interesting out of it. All the elements need to come together.
A technical question: you sandblast words on to the objects you use. How do you do that?
I cut a vinyl mask, form it to the object, then I use a sandblaster, which is a high -pressure air gun that shoots sand, and slowly erodes the material. You do it in a sealed box so that the sand doesn’t fly all over, or get in or on you. It’s like a paint sprayer but at a much higher velocity.
What are you working on for your April show at Mercury 20?
I’m drawn to aggression—missiles and guns—it’s in the zeitgeist, so I’m doing some work with that. Of course we are a country at war right now, which is being swept under the rug and hidden behind a veil of technology and economic prosperity…
Lack of journalism?
Yeah, grey journalism and everything deceptive. The latest work is about war and peace, aggression and dissent. The show will be called Homeland. So we are working with all those issues. It’s going to be clear in intent, but poetic. People won’t be clubbed over the head when they enter the gallery. But that’s what I’m after—to work politically, and poetically, and always with irony.
KK: What does the romance—if that’s the right word—of the American West Coast mean to you as a person born and raised on the East Coast?
PH: I grew up outside of Boston…and I would have to say that we didn’t think about California that much. Representations of California from my youth would be television shows like the Beverly Hillbillies, maybe the Brady Bunch? As I got older pop music like the Doors and the Grateful Dead started creeping in, and the literary California of Steinbeck, the Beats, and Ken Kesey (or Tom Wolf’s version of Kesey).
Cars had eight track tapes and they were so big and funds were limited. We didn’t have that many …and one of them was the Eagle’s Hotel California, which made a huge impression. Hotel California was probably the most memorable vision I had of California. “We are all just prisoners here of our own device.” The fact that it was not a boosterish anthem escaped me. I don’t think I realized it was a sad song until I had lived here about 10 years. After it was the theme song at our wedding…mixed in with NIN’s Head Like a Hole…
When you were younger, did these impressions draw you to this place?
I can’t say that I was particularly drawn to California, I just ended up here on a trip with a friend who was moving to LA to pursue acting. But I had been exposed to the work of Californian artists John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, and The New Topographic photographers, and in college had just read Rebecca Solnit’s Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era, so I was into the work of Wallace Berman. I had a vague notion that Duchamp had his first retrospective in Pasadena where he had infamously (and very frenchly) played topless chess with Eve, and that Warhol had also been first shown at the Ferus Gallery. That these luminaries had first gained acceptance here seemed important.
California was (and remains) an exciting locus for art, music and literary activity. But upon moving to Berkeley in 1991 I had trouble assimilating. My roommates kept babbling on about this geeky dial up message system. My neighbor had a start-up involving computers…it was really unclear to me what one would actually do with computers. One week in, the hills caught on fire and the sky went dark. I met my wife Sarah, who had just started her grad program at UCB. The following week Bill Graham’s helicopter crashed and there was a memorial concert in Golden Gate Park. The computer nerd next door took me there by motorcycle across the Bay Bridge and pulled us into a grove where the motorcycles were parked. We were surrounded by Hell’s Angels who had their tongues out to receive sacramental tabs of LSD. Things moved fast out here.
I lived on Oxford Street near Vine, and I had joined a temp agency in the city. One morning I got a call to report to an art gallery near Union Square. I was convinced that my resume, which had almost no job experience and no useful skills had, through some miracle, been chosen because of my art history degree. A chance for a breakthrough had presented itself.
I walked towards the BART station by going down Vine towards Shattuck. I would pass the original Peet’s Coffee. There was always this ragged crowd loitering around, relaxed and bearded. I was always rushing by, razor-burned. There I was off for my big break in the City, sweating through a cheap oxford shirt
I got into the city and went to the gallery. They handed me a sandwich board contraption with the Mona Lisa on one side with the face cut out. I put this thing onto my shoulders with my face sticking through and walked around outside for hours handing out coupons for discount framing. This went on for a few blissful weeks.
On my way home I would see the same folks still outside Peets. It occurred to me that this was an inverted order from Boston. There one derived their identity and prestige from how hard you labored and how serious you were…the Puritan work ethic. Here the status was conferred by how actively you resisted that ethic…and that means of self-definition.
California seemed like an interesting place with many different layers of reality…a web of sub-cultures.
Have your feelings changed about it after living here for three decades?
Well I don’t think that either coastal model of existence is superior. And having left Berkeley, I can see the argument that it is a privileged bubble. With time, much of the revolutionary gloss of technology has worn off. It was a gold rush. And business as usual.
Leaving Berkeley (for my wife’s job) has revealed a bigger, nuanced, less utopian reality. On one hand California is at the forefront of a class revolution. It is also a war zone.
I now live in a prosperous region — Santa Barbara.
“Such a lovely place,” like the Eagles sang.
That’s if you believe the realtors’ ad copy. But it is a fortress, an island built on capital. And that’s not a physical place, but a mental construct.
California is similar to Paris in that it is a screen on which people project images of themselves to be viewed by other people. It is a work of auto-fiction.
What it is to be Californian has been so well explored by Didion and Solnit, so much better than Kerouac, the Surf Industrial complex, and the PomWonderful lobby…
The exhibit itself include two poems you’ve written. Is the writing of poetry a new art form for you, or have you been practicing it all along?
I have been writing on and off for all my life. But not well. I studied creative writing in college, but I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t ready to say anything. It was painful, but necessary, to come to the conclusion that while I could craft something, had turn of phrase, I wasn’t honest, and I didn’t know or respect my audience.
Writing for me is thinking. But not all thoughts are good, or should be in circulation.
The same goes for all the arts. There is a tension between the notion of “getting your work out there”/ “labor every day and go through the process” and basic economic principles of conservation of energy and resources. I try to free myself from ambition and self-definition through merely participating in a model of cultural production. But that’s not a task that is attainable.
It is, of course, internal contradictions like these that define us. They dominate our internal dialogue, vying for attention. For me the juggling of multiple realities and contradictions is the subject of my art.
This show “Still,” has you moving in a poetic–gentle, utopian, visionary–direction. The photos are intentionally unfocused and embedded in a layer of glossy resin. What are the artistic precedents that have inspired this work?
This body of work has some qualities, that as you say, suggest something — gentle, utopian, visionary, poetic.
This is an effect crafted through composition, color harmony, scale, juxtaposition, surface. And its placement within the gallery, with a price tag affixed. Lodged in a system of critical discourse intersecting with a mean economy…in a really awkward way.
I am a story teller. I have a story. I am the author who presents this story, this vision. And while there is a character, who has my name, it is a work of fiction, a parable. They say identity is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves…and I am doing it right now. Certain people have a compulsion to communicate this facet of their identity dialogue. In doing so, I am creating a work of fiction whose details and whose aim are not necessarily sympathetic to the reader/ viewer’s expectation or agenda.
How did you choose the images and iconography of the photos in “Still”?
The images in the show almost look like something you might put over the couch. If you had a different couch. Or a different life. Or the artist was more likeable. Or you were told they were worth something by someone with cufflinks. Or the artist had a more cultivated resume, better teeth, a staff of six. Was not so verbose. Knew how to focus his camera.
What is the soft detachment of your work saying about Modernism and its heroic journeys as we hit the cold, hard reality of the year 2020?
It’s the chromatically elegant, soft focus story of an artist with poor eyesight, in his backyard, with his blurry wife, over an ill-defined kitchen sink, rhetorically asking “where have we been?” and answering his own questions – basically talking to himself, asserting something to the effect of “… thinking about stuff, feeling conflicted.”
I paint a picture of …of something less than reassuring.
OK, one more Eagles’ lyric, “What a nice surprise, bring your alibis.”
Well…the lies we tell ourselves…those are the best ones!
Yeah, life is less than reassuring, we can’t quite get behind the gloss, pull it in focus. Even at our best, in times of prosperity, in beautiful places, we remain a nervous system. My vision of paradise…is a sad song…with a beautiful chorus.