LIZ COLLINS

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Liz Collins works in a studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn.  Her practice walks the line between art, design, and fashion, confounding and traversing the distinction(s) that are sometimes drawn between the three.

While one could read Liz’s promiscuous use of each mode of production (art, design, fashion) as a commentary on the artificiality of these distinctions – and this is certainly a valid read – I think it more useful to think of Liz’s practice as a strategic deployment of ideas in each mode of production equally.  Liz takes an idea, an emblem, or a strategy, and works through it in various iterations in order to flesh out its significance.  One body of recent work, Optic Pattern, is exemplary in this respect.  Liz is working with assertive zigzag patterns that call to mind everything from warning signs to dazzle camouflage to op art, in a wide array of media including housewares, fabric, painting, installation, and more.  On one level, the series is a propounding of a particular sort of aesthetic; the works’ bright colors and lively angularity invigorates the eye with a pleasing sense of order.  On another, the array of references from which the work is drawn creates symbolic associations that vary wildly depending on the mode in which they are presented or received.

For example, certain of the works can equally be considered fabric swatches, paintings, tapestries, or templates for design objects.  Yet the content of the work – the optic pattern itself – takes on strikingly different meanings depending on which is perceived as the operative mode.  In the mode of painting or tapestry (that is, art), the pattern draws on a history of geometric abstraction, conceptualism, and op art; Bridget Riley, Frank Stella, and Sol LeWitt come readily to mind.  In the mode of a fabric swatch (that is, as fashion), the pattern’s origin in warning signs reads as a playful subversion of the ordinary aim of clothing design; it seeks to repel, rather than to allure.  In the mode of a carpet (that is, as design), the pattern’s association with dazzle camouflage also has a subversive read, conflating the domestic with the militarized – or, perhaps more interestingly, the opposing desires for objects that assert themselves (and their value) and for objects that tastefully recede into the background.

Liz is also interested in production as a species of labor.  Her KNITTING NATION project involves the presentation of fabric production “live” in hyperabundant quantities as a species of contemporary art, forcing the viewer to consider the conditions in which even the most everyday of materials are produced.  As Liz herself puts it, “The project functions as a commentary on how humans interact with machines, global manufacturing, trade and labor, brand iconography, and fashion.’’  KNITTING NATION, like much of Liz’s work, draws on her deep experiences outside of the “contemporary art” context.  Rather than discard or disavow her “commercial” work – which many artists unfortunately do out of an apparent fear of publicly acknowledging the need to practice a trade or earn a living – Liz leverages the skills and knowledge she has gained to create work that is both visually stunning and politically potent.

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Q. Tell me a bit about your studio.  How long have you been there, and how did you find it?

A. I’ve been here two years.  I found it through K8 Hardy, who was in this building for a second before moving to another space nearby.  I love this space.  I share it with a dynamic and wonderful knit designer named Wade Jensen.  We’ve recently started collaborating, which is nice, as I love working with other people on creative projects.

Q. What does a typical day in the studio look like for you?  Do you have any habits, rituals, or practices that help you work?

A. There is no typical day.  No matter how I try to routinize my work life, it just won’t cooperate.  When I am at the studio, sometimes I just do computer work, other times I am making things for hours, or having visitors, or organizing stuff, or moving things around endlessly (which is my productive procrastination).  I always clean the studio before I start working, and by working I mean making things.  I can’t concentrate if the space is messy.  I’ve been doing this for years.  It’s definitely a ritual.  

Another thing I do constantly is drink tea or water.  When I do tedious, repetitive work that isn’t noisy, I watch TV and movies on the computer for hours.  Then I end up secretly associating whatever show I’ve binged on with the piece I’ve made.  Sometimes a piece will have an alternative title like the L Word, or Peep Show.

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Q. Textiles/knits are such a specific medium – how did you find your way into working with them?

A. I was introduced to fabric as an art form when I was a child.  Both my mom and my dad’s Mom were really into textiles and clothing, and my dad made sails for sailboats.  I learned to sew when I was really young and just wanted to make everything, so it came naturally as well as passed down from family.  My mom had some good Marimekko dresses, which turned me on to big, bold, iconic prints at an early age.

I didn’t find knitting until I was a young RISD grad living in NYC.  I came out of a textiles program but was fixated on weaving.  My housemate Olivia Eaton taught me how to hand knit on one of the many days we were hanging around our loft and I got the bug.  Knitting offered me things I couldn’t get from weaving – specifically a concurrent fabric and garment making process, and something direct, easy, stretchy, and portable.  That was 1991.  I was working at a textile studio in the garment district at the time that made novelty woven fabrics for the fashion industry, so I had access to some beautiful yarns.  They made lots of brushed mohair fabrics, so I in turn started to make some great mohair sweaters.

In 1997 I returned to school to do an MFA in Textiles and Apparel with a focus on knitwear and knit textiles.  It was then that I started using knitting machines.  I haven’t woven since.

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Q. You’ve recently been working with strong, optical patterns that resemble dazzle camouflage or warning signs.  Where do these patterns come from, and what interests you about them?

A. They come from many places: the backs of trucks and ambulances, highway signs, and all the other places a message is being given to the viewer to stay away or stay back.  I spent many hours driving highways from 2010 – 2013, so the optic patterns I was already thinking about and looking at from other sources expanded greatly with observations from the road.  I’ve taken many pictures of the backs of trucks from my car.  It gets a little crazy trying to get close to the trucks to get a good photo!  It’s something marvelous to me – this universal graphic language of shapes and pattern that registers the same message wherever you see it.  Some of the truck patterns are really beautiful, especially the reflective coned trucks and ambulances.

The patterns also come from a deep internal place that is very old.  I looked at my portfolio of woven fabrics the other day for the first time in many years and discovered that my obsession with the zigzags and other vibrating patterns was as present then as it is now, but it feels different, of course, because I am 25 years older.  I fell in love with Janine Antoni’s Slumber piece when I saw it in the Soho Guggenheim in 1991.  It deeply affected me on many levels and influenced my performance/installation project KNITTING NATION.  The EKG machine measures the heart, and the EEG measures dreams … or something like that.  I love the lines that represent being alive.

The patterns can be, at once: warning signs, visual manifestations of energy fields, anger, ecstasy, and images of vibrations – maybe sort of like auras of space.  They act as a soothing and stimulating visualization experience for me, both when I imagine the patterns and when I make them.  I also like to see how straight of a line I can make freehand over and over again.  I never get tired of this challenge.  It’s about being totally present.  Time falls away.  Visual experiences can produce altered states.  I’m so into that.  The hypnotic aspect of pattern.  

The dazzle camouflage concept is smart and confusing and strange.  Does it work?  I first learned of it when I read Lynda Barry’s unforgettable novel Cruddy many years ago.  There was a character who dressed in a manner akin to dazzle camo, with a cacophony of bad prints, so that it almost erased her from being seen.  I love that idea because it doesn’t really work.  So there’s something that is about getting the viewer’s attention in a brash offensive way, and seducing them at the same time through vibrational hypnosis.

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Q. We looked at a few paintings on paper from this body of work, but also works in thread on paper as well as textile work.  When you’re painting, do you have the idea of how the pattern might translate into an object in mind?

A. Sometimes, but lately I’ve been painting just to paint, and then I move some of that work into textiles afterwards, when I see things that will translate really beautifully through one process or another.  Because I’ve been working with textiles for so long, it’s easy for me to envision patterns translating into a broad range of results.  I like expansive ideas that can travel across a body of work and manifest multiple times in different languages of texture, scale, technique, and material.  On the other hand, if I’m doing a piece where I know the end result is going to be made a certain way through a specific textile process, I might make the work on paper somehow simulate the textile work, so I can get closer to the effect it will have once made into cloth.

That is the case with the black chenille zigzag fringe on white paper.  I was going for a woven look and treated the yarn as I would have wound a warp for a weaving loom.  It was a truly revelatory process and the photos that documented the making of that piece are maybe even more exciting to me than the final work.

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Q. One thing I was struck by when we met is how flexibly you alternate between speaking of many of the pieces as design, as fashion, and as “fine art.”  Do you see yourself problematizing the design v. fine art distinction, or is that a distinction you intend to bypass entirely?

A. Well, maybe both.  Sometimes it’s just not a conversation I need to have, and the work defines itself through its context.  This is the case with so many things that interest me.  Context can be everything.  And then there is the reality of function, which is a slippery word.  Everything has some sort of function.  I’m finding lately that through installation work I can merge my art and design visions.  Space has become my new body.

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Q. In addition to working within what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “the art world,” you work as a freelance knitwear designer.  How do you balance these sides of your professional life?  How do they inform one another?

A. Balance is hard, because I can’t pull all nighters the way I could when I was younger and I still have the same desire to produce prolifically in whatever spheres I am working.  I am a more effective knit designer now, managing projects and deadlines better because of years of experience and super stressful moments both here and abroad.  Fashion deadlines are intense and relentless.  I feel like after many seasons, I can finally say I’ve got special strategies in place that help me steer clear of the nightmares that can happen.  I do design projects very selectively now because to do great work, which I want to do, I need a lot of energy and focus.  I can’t spread myself thin, so I generally do one or two projects and then spend the rest of my time on artwork.  

Working in the fashion and textiles industries was a big part of the impetus to start KNITTING NATION, and the deeper I got into doing design work on site at factories the more reference material I had for that project.  The current narrative I call “optic vibrations/energy fields” is a seamless convergence of my textile designs for knits, carpets, embroidery, and wovens with my artwork – paintings, wall pieces, installations.  But this design work is not for a client so I’m only dealing with satisfying my needs (and hopefully those of the market, somehow) versus my collaborators’/clients’.

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Q. From 1999 – 2004, you produced a ready-to-wear line. How did that experience change you as an artist? Is there anything you miss about it?

A. It was a wild and amazing ride that gave me a great deal of experience in managing large scale projects that involve many people.  Doing KNITTING NATION was so much like producing a fashion show, so it never has felt daunting to deal with big productions, lots of details, and public venues.  I don’t get overwhelmed, and actually love engaging with big spaces.

When I first started my line, it really felt like I was making art.  My early work was very visceral and talked about sex, desire, and my emotional landscape, alongside all kinds of other references and ideas like punk, DIY craft, bondage and fetish, and geometry.  The forms came out of the fabric, always.  I actually came out through that work.  It was an intense time where I felt like I was doing self surgery and my clothing effectively acted as a metaphor for this and also was the place where I sublimated many of my desires.

As I went on I learned – sometimes the hard way – that at the end of the day I was selling clothes to make a living, not just to get good press and great editorial for my innovative knitwear.  Some of the art part had to quiet down and become more “accessible” so I could survive.  I will forever worship Rei Kawakubo, who I truly feel is just as much artist as designer, and has stayed on that edge for her entire career.

I don’t miss the hard parts of it, which ultimately outweighed the less-hard/feasible parts for me, although fashion shows were so fun.  I loved that whole process of showing when I loved my collection.  Selling was always something I was less excited about.  Business was and is a constant challenge for me and I didn’t know enough about production and manufacturing to sustain my product line.  But I had some great stores, like Barney’s and Kirna Zabete, and it was rewarding working with great buyers like them.  We made everything by hand domestically so that was special.

I had one show – my last – where my heart wasn’t in it so the show was not as strong.  But I had some really beautiful ones and still love to see the pictures and reminisce about some of those days.  The music I chose was always a really powerful and memorable element.  Gary Graham and I collaborated on a capsule collection one season called GRIZ, which was a non-commercial pursuit that we treated as an art project, and that was amazing.  Mike Potter, the artist responsible for Hedwig’s looks, did super wild hair and makeup and it was all so incredible.  I miss that crazy raw energy we had, but appreciate and love where we all are now.  I am a healthier person now, which makes me happy.  I don’t miss the ego roller coaster that I was on.

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Q. What makes a good studio visit?

A. A good connection.  I had an amazing studio visit with Valerie Steele, from The Museum at FIT.  She is brilliant, funny, and easy going, so we had a great time, in addition to a positive exchange about my work.  I was a longtime fan of hers so when she came I was so excited and honored.

I think a good studio visit is like any other satisfying and productive exchange: there is a connection between all parties involved, questions are asked, answers are given, and people feel like something happened – a spark, possibilities, interest, appreciation, ideas, suggestions, laughter (?), connections; any or all of the above.  I thought your visit was excellent, Grant.  [Thanks, Liz!]

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Q. Is there anyone you have by on a regular basis to discuss your work?  Or any particularly important conversation partners who have informed your practice

A. Julia Bryan Wilson has been my prime conversation partner for my art endeavors for 10 years now.  I feel so lucky to have such a great connection with her as a friend, colleague, and collaborator of sorts, and I value her feedback tremendously.  E.V. Day is someone I share a lot of my work ideas with and talk through things.  She has great insights and advice and we are truly kindred spirits.  Same goes for Gary Graham.  I love living in NYC because there are such great friends, peers, queers, and community here, and even those who don’t live here often visit here so I probably see them more than I might if we lived in the same town.  I feel really supported.  It’s an exciting time.

Liz Collins is a New York City-based artist and designer.  She has had solo exhibitions at, among others, Occidental College, Los Angeles; the Textile Art Center, New York; AS220 Project Space, Providence; and the Knoxville Museum of Art.  Her work has also been featured in exhibitions at, among others, the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York; the Museum of FIT, New York; Participant, New York; the Milwaukee Art Museum; and the Museum of Arts and Design, New York.  Her ongoing site-specific installation/performance project KNITTING NATION, which involves a small army of uniformed knitters and manually operated knitting machines, has been featured at venues including Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum, Saratoga; and the Museum of Modern Art.  Collins was a United States Artist Target Fellow in Crafts and Traditional Arts (2006), a MacColl Johnson Fellow (2011), and is member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Modern Painters and Textile Forum.

 

JOE MAMA-NITZBERG

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Joe Mama-Nitzberg works in a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  Though I’d visited Joe’s studio before, I recently was lucky enough to spend time one-on-one with Joe on a snowy Saturday morning.  Working in photography, design, video, painting, and what I would loosely call digital collage, Joe examines the problematics of taste and style by juxtaposing or manipulating found images.  His works lure the viewer in with their elegance and sense of care; once drawn in, they upend the viewer’s expectations and call into question the viewer’s relationship not only to the specific works at issue, but also to broader cultural values as a whole.

I knew Joe personally before I first saw his work in an exhibition at Andrew Edlin Gallery.  Later, I became mildly obsessed with a video of his, Style is Everything, 2010, via the web.  That work, embedded below, is emblematic of certain trends and strengths in Joe’s work as a whole.  Taking the form of a music video for a house track over which the artist repeats lines from Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp, the video cuts between or juxtaposes the interpretive (literally or figuratively) movements of sign language and voguing.  (Subcultures in general, and particular subcultures – musical, aesthetic, sexual, political – are common reference points for Joe.)  On one level, the video is stylish; it presents, in almost deadpan fashion, two attractive individuals in stylish black and white, elegantly cut together in a restrained but very compelling, chic way, over a pleasant musical arrangement.  On another, its juxtaposition with an urtext of cultural theory calls its stylishness into question, with Sontag’s lines insisting on the need for aesthetic judgment founded in something other than pleasure, detachment, or style – in other words, for a politically informed sense of taste.  In this work, as in many others, Joe offers the viewer both pleasure and a critique of that pleasure, all the while presenting his reference points with varying degrees of sincerity or irony (or sometimes both).

Sontag wrote, “Camp sees everything in quotation marks.  It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’  To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role.  It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.”  Joe’s work, despite and often in fact because of its occasional humor, reasserts the presence of the real in the (cultural) unreal.  It exists at the place where sincerity and artifice, politics and pleasure, meet.  By examining the way images gain currency or become iconic (both double entendres deliberate), often by utilizing the images’ own charge, Joe implicates the viewer in the cultural conditions that create their power.  Joe reveals how even the smallest changes in taste – such as how the type-font of a  book cover changes between editions – depend on unstable aesthetic criteria that are themselves influenced by political and economic forces.  Joe, often by following personal interests, obsessions, or history, thus offers a visual and poetic examination of potency that implicates every viewer – including, happily, the artist himself.

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Q. Tell me a bit about your studio.  How long have you been there, and how did you find it?

A. My studio is in Greenpoint and is approximately 170 square feet.  It’s a five minute walk from my home.  It does have a window.  I got my studio through a referral from the artist Sarah Bedford.

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Q. What does a typical day or session of making work look like for you?  Do you have any habits, rituals, or practices that help you work?   I know, for example, that you generally conceptualize or begin executing work outside of your studio, and then bring the work into the studio when it has evolved to a certain point.

A. I wish I had more of a formula, or at least one that I could recognize in myself.  I basically read, look, and think … pretty much all the time.  A thought, phrase, or image comes to me that I find interesting, and I go from there.

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Q. Some of the works I saw in your studio are not finished pieces, but are like sketches or mock-ups of projects you will execute in a different medium or at a different scale.  When you’re working on a piece, do you generally have an idea of a precise size, medium, or installation strategy?  In other words, what role does creating and hanging the preliminary sketches/images/mock-ups serve for you?

A. I used to have more of an idea of what a finished piece would like like from the start.  That was often a dead end and a way to discard a piece if it did not live up to my initial expectations.  I am trying to be more open and live with the first version of the work for a while until it reveals itself as to what form it should end up with/in.  I am trying to have more of what is often referred to as process.  Hanging things together helps me see how they are relating to one another … which piece is screaming too loud and/or which needs more of a voice.

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Q. On the one hand, much of your work incorporates highly specific reference points; on the other, you’re usually addressing larger questions such as the role of taste or memory. How do you try to balance these goals?  How do you know when you’ve successfully done so?

A. That is the hard part.  Having studio visits helps.  I definitely am very interested in how different viewers with different relationships to the source material read the work. I don’t believe there is just one correct read.  I am more interested in how our own agendas inform all we see.  I hope I implicate myself and my own ideologies in the work and also leave space for the viewer to address their own.

Q. You’ve worked extensively in the commercial realm in art direction, design, and photography.  Have those professional experiences informed both the work itself as well as the way you approach it?  If so, how?

A. Absolutely.  I always think about how these strategies are used both inside and outside the context of “Contemporary Art.”  I am very interested art historically in classic postmodern work where simply re-contextualizing a commercial process was a critique.  I love and am informed by that work, but I think we can agree that it can’t still be that straightforward.  That said, I don’t believe we are finished with that critique.  We may need it now more than ever.  I believe so much of the original critique has been perverted or become dated in its canonization.  And you know I love to push the “dated” button.

Also, I probably have more years experience “making” things in a commercial setting than I do in a classic studio art practice, so I have to cop to it.  That said, I think it adds a positive insight to my approach as well as what I hope is a “healthy” cynicism.

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Q. You often work with found images.  Do you search out specific images, or do you also file things away as you come upon them thinking that they may, at some point, provide a jumping off point for a piece?

A. They find me.  It is a combination of coming across an image that sparks an idea, and having an idea and then looking for an image to enhance it.  I do want some of the work to have a residue of Google Image Search and refer to these contemporary tools.  But, I don’t want to make Google Image Search art.  That is someone else’s job.

Q. Much of your work engages with questions of value or taste by mimicking or utilizing some of the structures or tropes that you also critique.  There’s obviously some risk there that a viewer might gloss over the underlying critique you’re offering.  Is that something you keep in mind when you’re making a piece, or would doing so perhaps get in the way of what you’re trying to accomplish?

A. Yes. I am knowingly taking that risk.  My thinking is so informed by that type of questioning that I don’t believe I could make work without it.  I do want the work to seem very legible.  I don’t want it to have an initial read of “difficult work.”  But, I do hope that there is enough play, humor, rupture, and slippage to clue a viewer into thinking about both the form and the content of the work on another level(s).

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Q. Some of the work engages with aspects of your own personal history, but in a fairly allusive or non-specific way.  Knowing you personally deepens my experience of some of the work, but it doesn’t feel like it would be necessary for a viewer to appreciate it.  How do you find the right balance with that? Or is that not something you’re particularly concerned with?

A. Again, I don’t know how to not include those parts of myself in the work.  I do ideologically have a love/hate relationship with the artist biography and the psychologizing that comes with it, but I absolutely do participate in it and find it helpful in appreciating the work of other artists.  It is not always necessary, but can really make me understand work in a more positive manner.  I guess if they like my work enough they might want to know more about it.  I personally am more moved by and connected to work that feels like it has a real investment/commitment to the artist’s life, history, and thoughts.  Just a clever strategy or a pretty thing doesn’t usually have a great impact on me.  I’m tough.

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Q. I think there are ways in which your work is examining the moral or ethical issues that lurk behind, say, the role of taste in contemporary culture.  Is that intentional – that is, is it something you hope a viewer picks up on or feels implicated in?

A. Yes. I don’t know what else to say.  Either the viewer has morals and ethics or they do not.  They may or may not be the same as mine, and mine could definitely be misread.  I do not want to be didactic but I really hope that there is some aspect of this that comes through in the work.

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Q. Your partner is also an artist, and you have collaborated together in the past.  Any tips for those of us whose partners are artists who are sometimes asked for our feedback about their work?

A. I really doubt I would be making work again if it were not for Marc.  He has challenged me and encouraged me from the day we met.  We are very honest with each other about each other’s work.  I hope we are kind, but honest.  It is the loving thing to do.  That does not mean the other always likes it or agrees, but I know that Marc wants me to be the best artist I can be, so I listen.  And believe me, I dish it out way better than I take it.

Q. What makes a good studio visit?  Is there anyone you have by on a regular basis to discuss your work?  Or any particularly important conversation partners who have informed your practice?

A. The same thing that makes a good artist.  Curiosity, engagement, rigor, intelligence, humor, compassion, etc.  Maybe a little sass too.

Marc is definitely my most frequent studio visit.  He helps me tremendously.

I really would not have started making art if it were not for the artist Larry Johnson. He was the first person to tell me I could and should “go for it.”

Joe Mama-Nitzberg lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.  He received an MFA from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.  His work has been featured in exhibitions at Marc Foxx (solo exhibition and group exhibition), the Seattle Museum of Art, Bellwether Gallery, Gavlak Projects, Andrew Edlin Gallery, the Salzburger Kunstverein, Los Angeles County Exhibitions, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, the Renaissance Society, the Lousiana Museum of Modern Art (Denmark), David Zwirner Gallery, and White Columns, among others.

D-L ALVAREZ

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I first met D-L Alvarez in San Francisco through the artist Jennifer Locke, and his recent residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in Brooklyn presented a wonderful opportunity to spend time with him in the studio.  D-L works in drawing, video, sculpture, and performance, often in the context of exhibitions that work across all of them, to examine and extend the psychological and/or political potency of particular historical or cultural moments and images.  His work takes these images and distorts or transforms them, mimicking the way in which loaded imagery exceeds the viewer’s ability to fully possess or understand its significance.

For example, in The Closet, 2006-7, D-L created abstracted, almost pixelated black and white drawings of Jamie Lee Curtis and the villain in the 1978 film Halloween.  This abstraction is both visual and thematic, forcing the viewer to step back from the immediate impact of the subject matter and consider not only the original cultural conditions under which the the film Halloween was made and gained notoriety but also our present moment, in which the film continues to resonate.  Similarly, The Visitor Owl, 2012, a hybrid film/live performance created in collaboration with the writer Kevin Killian and its performers, features modified reenactments of scenes from the Sidney Poitier films Blackboard Jungle, 1955, and To Sir with Love, 1967.  By fusing these two films, D-L and Killian, among other things, examine the way in which Poitier’s own visibility and significance evolved over the course of a decade filled with cultural change (and certain forms of stasis), and then link and push that examination into our present moment.

In other words, D-L uses visual history as material to create visual forms and associated narratives to examine the cultural and psychological conditions of visibility.  What images gain cultural/psychological charge at particular moments, to whom, and why?  For what reasons would an image continue to maintain that charge?  And how can an understanding of these questions and problems inform a politically informed response to the present historical moment?  You need a civil rights bill, not me, 2011, a drawing that was part of The Air We Breathe: Artists and Poets Reflect on Marriage Equality, is illustrative.  The drawing presents an image of two lesbians on a motorcycle from the 1970s and takes its title from a Stokely Carmichael speech in which Carmichael reminded his white listeners that it was they, not he, who needed a civil rights bill in order for them to appreciate his inherent equality.  The initial image selected by D-L would have had its own psychological charge when created – why else would it have been photographed and preserved? – and that charge continues in the present moment on the basis of his investment in it (the decision to draw and present it).  But it also expands into or co-exists with different meanings in the context of an exhibition and book on marriage equality in the present day.  The dragged, smeared effect in the right hand portion of the image is thus both the means whereby D-L inserts his own hand into the drawing and claims a particular type of relation to it, but is also a formal device simultaneously suggesting erasure (what other alternative paths toward liberation has the gay establishment forgotten in its focus on marriage equality as the civil rights issue for queer people) and extension (pictorially dragging the past into the present historical moment to re-assert its importance).  

I think, then, that D-L’s exquisitely beautiful work is a sort of critical history of images.  D-L mines various pasts (his own, the queer community’s, popular culture and/or sub-culture(s)), brings them into the present, and in so doing offers a critique.  This critique is not merely negative; it does not simply refuse a particular idea or trajectory.  Rather, it injects the past into the present in order to imagine an alternative future in which we can see, and thus can be, different.

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Q. I visited your studio at the ISCP, which is a temporary situation for a residency. Tell me a bit about how you usually work when you are in San Francisco.

A. In an indirect way, having both this studio to work in and the time to work in it makes me nostalgic for Berlin. The economy in Berlin when I was there (1999—2009) allowed me to give myself a ten-year residency. I was living the dream: supporting myself off my art. After the economic crash however and a few years of minimal sales and a lot of pasta, I returned to San Francisco for a teaching job. Ironic that the place where I found work would explode in the next few years into one of the most expensive U.S. cities. There I have highly limited time and space, and engage in what you might call “table-top creativity”: small drawings and lap top endevors.

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Q. What does a typical day where you are making work look like for you? Do you have any habits, rituals, or practices that help you work? I know, for example, that you read quite a bit.

A. Yes, there’s the research phase, where I dive into books, primarily history, biographies, and social-political texts, but some fiction too and films. Then a design phase. Honestly I wish I could skip the design phase, but for some reason, it’s hard for me to start work on any one piece before I map out the whole layout of an exhibition. Then at last comes the most practical phase: making work. A typical day of that can be up to twelve hours in the studio, separated in the middle with a two-hour nap and much snacking.

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Q. You often begin a drawing with found images or motifs. Are you always looking for and gathering image sources, or do you have an idea for a project and then go seek out material?

A. The project usually comes first. Though as I gather images, I file them, so it’s possible something I don’t use this time around will resurface later.

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Q. Whatever imagery you’re working with, there’s usually a degree of distortion or visual frustration that you implement. Do you see this as an assertion of authorship, or is it about something else?

A. It’s a way of asserting a belief that everything I do is on some level, collaboration. The distortions generally have one of two manifestations; they either start to directly incorporate other visual information in the form of a second image, or part of the image is left blank or blurred, a physical space left empty for the viewer to fill. This of course can take place with any images out there; we complete the image in the moments of and after viewing it. But I like having that physical space there to open it further, to acknowledge this partnership with the viewer.

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Q. On the one hand, your work is very formal; on the other, you are usually working with or alluding to some sort of narrative. Do you see these two impulses as complementary, or is there a tension you try to maintain between the two?

A. Definitely complimentary! I studied writing under some of San Francisco’s New Narrative authors, so I’m aware of narrative as a very formal art form: not something contradicting visual formalism, but in tune with it. This training makes me prone to read into art and objects even where narratives are unintentional. Like the sort of dialogues that happen between works in group shows, the way two or more pieces by artists coming from various disciplines can start telling a new story that might not be present in any of the works singularly, but starts happening when they’re placed in proximity.

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Q. You work across drawing, sculpture, installation, video, and performance. Does a project generally begin in one medium and expand into others, or do you keep other media in mind while you’re working, regardless of whether, say, you’re working on a drawing at one particular moment?

A. The work, for me, is the complete exhibition. So yes, I’m always scripting the dialogs, deciding as I go what parts of the conversation will be in harmony and where to insert discord. Though many of the lines happen without my say, which is where the work gets exciting and what keeps me at it: the parts where it pulls free of the leash and shows me something I hadn’t thought of.

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Q. I was intrigued to hear that you studied theater production at Gallaudet, a university for the deaf and hard of hearing. How did your work travel from theater into what I’ll loosely term “visual art”? Has that experience informed your work in any particular ways?

A. Both theater arts and American Sign Language continue to be strong influences. The path it took started when I did these very unassuming long-term performance works in the mid-to-late Eighties. As theatre, they were more or less invisible. So to share them later, I created drawings and objects as illustrative documents. These illustrations, which began as an afterthought, became the focus, until instead of documenting my own performances, I was documenting moments from a broader history. In a way you could say I went from doing a first-person narrative, which is something many beginning writers gravitate towards, and started authoring more complex stories.

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Q. When you’re working, do you tend to focus on one discrete piece at a time, or one body of work, or do you have an installation/exhibition format in mind as well?

A. The last two: I work on one exhibition at a time, but the story I’m reflecting on usually unfolds over a series of exhibitions. For example, after revisiting a major story that hung over my childhood, that of the Manson Family and their crimes in the late-Sixties, I found I was working with a theme so large it took several chapters to put down all I wanted to say about it. I devoted seven exhibitions to it over a span of five years.

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Q. You also put together zines, curate, and collaborate with other artists. What interests you about working in more collaborate formats? How do those experiences inform your work?

A. The sort of creativity that happens communally, and the social dialogue that is a byproduct of that, informs even my solo practice. Putting my head together with people I admire and seeing what comes of it: I live for that. I told you how exciting it is for me when art pulls away from the leash. Well, working with another person, or a group, means this is your starting point. From the get-go the art is already not in any one person’s control, and I’ve found that with the people I’ve partnered up with — Matthew Lutz-Kinoy, Suzette Partido, Gelitin, Jennifer Locke, Wayne Smith, Gwenaël Rattke, Kevin Killian, and others — the thrill of it is you really do end up finding a middle brain. The work that comes from collaboration is not half one person’s doing and half another’s, but a creature that only exists as a result of this team effort.

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Q. Those of us who follow you on social media are lucky enough to see the collections of images of other artists’ work you put together. They’re almost like small exhibitions in and of themselves. Do you have a particular gallery going routine, or ways you learn about and keep up with other artists?

A. I have the opposite of a routine; I bounce around and find art through occasional Internet searches, recommendations, teaching, gallery hopping, drunken conversations, research jags, and even random walks. I collect these finds online as a reference source. Some of the work inspires me, whereas other works bother me but in ways I find interesting. Ideally, I wish people would attack these posts more. Mostly I gather them because I want to have a conversation about them, which happens seldom online, but does happen more often in the classroom, when I share the work with students.

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Q. What makes a good studio visit? Is there anyone you have by on a regular basis to discuss your work? Or any particularly important conversation partners who have informed your practice?

A. Rick Jacobson was my original go-to critic. He ran a space in San Francisco called Kiki Gallery, and was great for not letting me get away with anything half-assed. He had a cynical and dry sense of humor, strong politics, and a queer eye. I made work with him as my ideal audience in mind and still do, though he died in 1986 at the tail end of the type of AIDS that existed before the cocktail. I don’t have any specific person as my ultimate critic anymore, but rather rely on various voices around me as a sounding board. When I look at my life, that’s something that makes me grateful—I’m almost always surrounded by smart, lovely, creative, and generous people. That generosity informs my work more than anything.

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D-L Alvarez lives and works in San Francisco, California.  He has had solo exhibitions at Derek Eller Gallery, the Berkeley Art Museum, 2nd Floor Projects, Jack Hanley Gallery, Kiki, and numerous venues in Spain, Germany, and France.  Alvarez’s work has also been on view in exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Drawing Center, Ratio 3, Andrea Rosen Gallery, P.P.O.W, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Hammer Museum, New Langton Arts, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, and numerous venues throughout the United States and Europe.

BILL ALBERTINI

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Bill Albertini lives and works in a loft on Mercer street in SoHo. I recently had the pleasure of spending time in Bill’s studio on a cold New York Saturday morning. Going to Bill’s studio is always a bit like stopping by a scientist’s lab – there is always some new experiment going on or some new technique being developed. Bill is constantly adopting new techniques and strategies, pushing them to their limit, and moving on when he has mastered the tool at hand.

Bill studied sculpture at Yale, and his early works were often large scale installations or architectural interventions. Eventually, Bill expanded into photography, video, and more discrete sculptural objects. As a general proposition, two strategies recur throughout his work as a whole: the manipulation of time and the mutation of reference points. These strategies work conjunctively. For example, earlier works mix together emblems of political, social, religious, and aesthetic history. Motifs from disparate historical moments cohere into works that bear the traces of diverse time periods, creating objects and environments that unmoor themselves from historical time. In so doing, Bill asks the viewer to experience time differently and see commonalities or divergencies from a meta-historical perspective. In some recent works, Bill has taken the design of a traditional cooking vessel from Central America and added improvised forms which were refined and printed using 3D printing technology. The resulting objects resemble both ancient fetishes and futuristic vessels equally.

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Bill’s video works commonly involve task-based activities that inject the human and the accidental into the mathematical. In one work, he repeatedly filmed his hands moving cubes across a gridded field. Although the parameters for each pass were identical, variations such as slight differences in Bill’s counting of the time periods between movements occurred. This doubling of time (the ideal of the artist’s rules for the exercise and the real of his subjective experience) was made more complex still by a slight slowing down of the ultimate speed of the video and color variations (the viewer’s experience of the artist’s experience). In the end, the piece allows the viewer to encounter and experience different sorts of time simultaneously.

Regardless of medium, like Tarkovksy (a sometime reference point for the artist), Bill is sculpting in time.

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Q. Tell me a bit about your studio. How long have you been there, and how did you find it?

A. I found out about the space by word of mouth in the mid-nineties. Thinking that it was probably way out of my league, I didn’t go and look at it immediately. When I eventually got around to checking it out it was immediately apparent that it was the perfect live-work situation for me and my partner. A real plus is that the building is one of the last in SoHo that strictly enforces the AIR residency requirements passed by the City in the 1970’s. One has to be certified as a practicing artist by the Department of Cultural Affairs in order to live here.

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Q. What does a typical day in the studio look like for you? Do you have any habits, rituals, or practices that help you work?

A. I find that it is important to spend at least some solitary time in the studio, every day if possible. I try to do this even if I am not working on something specific; I will engage in mundane activities like checking email, reading the newspaper, or apparently doing nothing. Just being in the studio with all my stuff usually puts me in a work mode. I have learned that it is equally important to leave the studio if I reach an impasse. Fresh air really does clear the mind and often solves whatever problem I have encountered, or at the very least helps me realize I have been barking up the wrong tree.

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Q. You consistently incorporate new technologies and techniques into your practice. What prompts you to search out and adopt new tools? How do you feel it contributes to your process as well as the finished work?

A. I guess I am inquisitive with regards to technology. As long as I can remember I have been taking things apart and putting them back together (with varying degrees of success) to see how they work. I am also very resistant to the notion of a “signature style” in my practice even though what I wish to convey remains surprisingly constant. Whenever I feel that I am becoming comfortable with a process I tend to question what I am doing; I try to surprise myself. I blur the lines between learning and making, rarely read manuals, never take classes, and often use tools be they hardware or computer software for purposes for which they were never intended.

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Q. You often incorporate symbols or forms (historical or cultural) into your work. What attracts you to a particular formal or symbolic reference point?

A. At the end of the Cold War I started incorporating history in my work as another material, like concrete or steel. A system of invented symbols with vaguely religious and political references helped me do this. I have not been consciously using them for some time, but occasionally they pop up in my work. I guess they are part of my personal history now.

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Q. You work across a diverse range of media: photography, video, sculpture, and installation. Do you have an idea or theme you are considering and then decide the proper medium of its expression? Or is the process more intuitive/spontaneous than that?

A. The latter would be more accurate, but the “idea” is always hovering in the near distance. Intuitive experimentation reels in the idea.

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Q. Do you have different strategies or approaches depending on the medium you’re dealing with? For example, your video works are generally task based, but some of the recent sculptural works seem more playful or free-form.

A. I said earlier that my ideas remain pretty constant, so the various mediums I use tend to get pushed to conform to my set of work rules. For instance I believe that as a visual artist I should avoid linear narrative, but video, which I regularly work with, is inherently a linear story-telling medium which makes for a conundrum. I try and keep my video work “linear-narrative free” by making them short, without a beginning or an end, so that they loop relatively seamlessly. I want the viewer to be able to come in and start watching at any point, and I want the viewer to be able to spend as much or as little time as they wish and still grasp the essentials of the piece. I guess this is why the videos are more task based than my other work: I am forcing the medium to conform to painting/sculpture norms.

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Q. You somewhat recently started spending a fair amount of time outside the city at your home and studio in Mattituck. Has working in that environment brought any shifts to your practice, strategically or thematically?

A. Yes, more than I expected. I grew up in the country so I was surprised how new everything seemed. I guess I expected more of my formative memories to be put into play, but this was not the case. I have been doing some video pieces where trees are the main actors. Also there is a large terminal moraine boulder on the shore near our house that I have been photographing and filming for the last three years in different weather conditions and at different times of the year.

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Q. Your practice obviously involves a lot of work with the computer, but the result is very often a three dimensional object. How would you describe the relationship between your physical studio space and the digital space of working on the computer?

A. For years the computer has been an integral part of my practice, it is both a sketchbook and a virtual studio/workshop. I can create environments and objects using 3D apps like Maya which can be output as still images or animated for use in video. This is besides editing traditionally created video and still images. Often I work with a mix of the real and virtual. Three or four years ago I started making 3D printed pieces, and as the cost of the process has declined, it no longer is something I procrastinate about using even for tests. I have just started a new series where I am crumpling a piece of paper, videotaping the act, photographing and 3D scanning the result. I may end up with a piece or pieces that incorporate video, photo, 3D print, and computer animation from one simple action or process.

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Q. What makes a good studio visit?

A. Someone who is engaged and asks questions, it is not fun doing all the heavy lifting.

Q. Is there anyone you have by on a regular basis to discuss your work? Or any particularly important conversation partners who have informed your practice?

A. For a long time I used to have a small group of people come for studio visits on a regular basis but over the past few years I have been inviting a more diverse group which has been exciting. I have found that social media has helped me contact people that I do not personally know, people that would be difficult to cold-call. Facebook is good for something other than wasting time!

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Bill Albertini lives and works in New York. He has had solo exhibitions at Martos Gallery, Alona Kagan Gallery, Temple Gallery, Muranushi Lederman, Althea Viafora, and White Columns, amongst others. His work has also been shown in exhibitions at Gallery Maisonneuve, the Center for Contemporary Art Atlanta, Christopher Henry Gallery, the Cleveland Institute of Art, Sculpture Center, and Jack Tilton, amongst others.

ERIK HANSON

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Erik Hanson works in a basement studio in New York’s Lower East Side.  We had an extended conversation about his work and his life over a bagel from Essex Street Market (thanks Erik!).  Though I’ve known Erik for a few years and seen his work in group shows, this was my first time visiting his studio and seeing most of the work.  The first painting of Erik’s I saw in the flesh was one of the wood grain paintings you can see below.  I was particularly taken with its spatial and textural complexity, and the way it toyed with my sense of space in a mysterious yet comforting way.  That series of paintings was made in the same studio you see here.

Erik studied comparative literature at Columbia University, but knew he wanted to be an artist from his childhood in Minnesota.  Much of Erik’s early work involved photography.  Subsequently, he began making drawings and eventually paintings that documented the experience of listening to particular albums that were significant to him (Erik was a punk DJ in Minnesota and still spins on occasion in New York).  These took a number of forms, including grids of paint chips representing albums whose size was determined by the length of each song, as well as spirals whose size was determined by the length of a song.  This body of work initially began as a way of introducing content to more formal/minimal contexts, but the work evolved and moved in unexpected, painterly directions.  This painterly move eventually found expression in the wood grain paintings Erik recently made that I first saw in shows.  Erik describes them, and how his most recent work is taking the use of wood grain in new directions, below.

Erik also makes beautiful sculpture.  At the moment, among other sculptural works in Erik’s studio there are two works hanging on the walls, wood grain branches that project from the wall with simple clay flowers affixed.  Each branch represents one side of an album and the flowers individual tracks from each side (the tracks are written on the flowers).  As the albums are ones that were significant to individuals who are significant to Erik, they almost function as portraits as well.  Having only seen Erik’s work in painting previously, viewing his work across media in the context of his studio really helped me understand his practice as a whole.

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Q. How long have you been in your studio, and how did you find it?
A. I found my studio on Craigslist in 2006.
Q. What does a typical day in the studio look like for you?  Do you have any habits or rituals that help you work?
A. No rituals or habits.  I like to spend an extended period there each time I go so that I can let myself experiment and try new things without feeling like I have a deadline to meet.  I like to pray and/or meditate before I get started so that I can be open and have faith in trying something new, being willing to experiment and make mistakes on the road to finding something new.

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Q. The experience of listening to specific albums and songs, sometimes under specific conditions, is a theme in some of your work.  If you could only pick five or six albums (or artists, if albums is too tough!) that you could listen to in the studio, what would they be?
A. My taste is all over the place.  My last obsessions have been Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories, Elton John’s Captain Fantastic, Nick Drake and David Bowie are enduring favorites, as is Dusty Springfield, she kills it every time because she really inhabits the song.  Lately I’ve been listening a lot to Ella Fitzgerald and Dean Martin.

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Q. Your practice encompasses drawing, painting, and sculpture, and you made photographs in the past.  What prompts you to take on a particular subject or theme in a particular medium?  Do you go through phases of working primarily in one medium or the other?
A. I definitely go through phases. Since my last solo at Sunday in 2010, I’ve done major projects in photography, drawing, painting and sculpture.  I use whatever medium is correct for the idea I have. There’s also a feeling of getting a medium down, like I’ve got it and I’m not surprised by it anymore; then it’s time to set it aside and move onto the next project.
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Q. Take me through the process of making a particular painting. How do you start? Do you take breaks from making a particular painting and return to it later, or do you work on one piece at a time? How do you know when a piece is finished?
A. The In My Mind painting, which is what I had just finished before you came over, is a great example.  It’s based on a selfie I took of myself in the hospital last March after I had had an operation to remove a bit of blood that had collected between my brain and my cranium after I fell off a stair railing.  Before that had happened, I had been making paintings of these abstract rooms with multiple chambers and contrasting colors and intense wood grains, which I had always thought of as interiors of my brain or body.  So I had this photo of myself after a tiny hole had been drilled into my head, and it seemed perfect to depict this as a way into my wooden paneled brain with all of its multiple chambers where secrets and the parts of me that make me feel too vulnerable to share are.  I pretty much work on one piece at a time and I know when it’s finished when it looks the way I want it to look and it’s still lively.

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Q. What do you love about your studio? Is there anything you would change about it, if you could?
A. I love that it’s so close to my apartment, I can be in bed five minutes after I leave.  It’s relatively cheap and warm in the winter and cool in the summer because it’s a basement.  If I could change it, I’d make it three times the size for the same price.

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Q. What makes a good studio visit?
A. A smart, open-minded visitor is the best, someone with no preconceived ideas about what I do and if they do have them, a willingness to see where I’m going now is important.

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Q. Is there anybody you have by on a regular basis to discuss your work? Or any particularly important conversation partners who have informed your practice?
A. Frank Liu has been one of the most consistent visitors to my studio.  I’ve learned so much from Frank and his enthusiasm is infectious.  I often talk about my work with AA Bronson, he knows my work pretty well but welcomes changes.  He’s open-minded and smart and likes it when his expectations are challenged, he’s been a great mentor to me.

Erik Hanson lives and works in New York.  He has had solo exhibitions at HORTON / SUNDAY L.E.S., Printed Matter, Eleven Rivington, Derek Eller Gallery, Allston Skirt, and Esso Gallery.  His work has also been shown in exhibitions at Andrew Edlin Gallery, Envoy Enterprises, White Columns, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Von Lintel Gallery, PS1 MoMA, Sculpture Center, and D’Amelio Terras, among others.