Kathleen King interviews M20 artist Peter Honig about his exhibition STILL

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…

Poem “Where have we been?” wall text, installation view

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.


Table for Two, 24″ x 36″, archival pigment print encased in resin, 2020

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.