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.

 

JENNIFER MOON

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Jennifer Moon lives and works in Los Angeles, California.  I met Jennifer through curator, writer, and all-around-genius Noëllie Roussel, and grew more and more intrigued with Jennifer’s life and art via Facebook.  When I realized I would have a bit of free time during a trip back to California, I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon in conversation with Jennifer at her home in Culver City.  Jennifer is currently working on the second part of Phoenix Rising, a three-part mediation on love, revolution, and personal change.

The project is both an act of self-examination and disclosure, as well as a manifestation of The Revolution, a self-authored philosophy for transformation and expansion authored by Jennifer herself.  Phoenix Rising Part 1: This is Where I Learned of Love reflects on Jennifer’s time at the Valley State Prison for Women through photographs of objects obtained by the artist during her incarceration (prison relics), an accompanying book documenting her time, and a sculptural installation of the letters exchanged by Jennifer and romantic partners both in and out of prison.  This is Where I Learned of Love is the first body of work of Jennifer’s I became familiar with, and is exemplary of two things about her practice that I find extremely compelling.

First, Jennifer’s recent work usually involves self-disclosure.  Jennifer’s art is, to a certain extent, indistinguishable from her life; drawing a strict boundary between the two is not possible (or, to Jennifer, I think, desirable), and Jennifer places so much of her life open for the viewer.  There is vulnerability and self-exposure in Jennifer’s work, a self-exposure that is unique for its rigor and courage.  Although much contemporary art and literature purports to be confessional, how much about the artist or writer do we really get to see?  And how much of that is motivated not be genuine vulnerability or trust in the viewer, but by a need for attention, approval, or acclaim?  In contrast, Jennifer demonstrates her commitment to authentic self-disclosure by exposing not just those parts of herself that would otherwise be acceptable or fit into certain confessional genres.  There are, after all, ways of being vulnerable in public that are culturally acceptable, in which case, what does this vulnerability actually cost?  One might be willing to discuss personal growth, or relationships (and their failure), but, say, your time spent in prison?  Jennifer’s willingness to “go there” gives her the freedom to the reveal the connections between all the parts of her life, and inspires courage in the viewer.

Second, Jennifer’s work asks the viewer if they have the courage to believe.  When we met, one question I asked, with some embarrassment, was, “Do you really believe this – do you really believe in The Revolution?”  (She does!)  I found this question embarrassing because I knew it revealed more about myself than about Jennifer.  Why is it that I felt the question needed to be asked?  First, I think it has something to do with the way art is made, exhibited, and analyzed at present.  We are trained to look at work critically, and critically in this context usually means skeptically.  We do not take what artists assert at face value, and all the more so when those assertions are, like Jennifer’s, expansive.  Second, this critical stance toward art is connected to, for some of us (I suppose I should just as well write, “for me”), a critical, skeptical posture towards belief structures in general.

As Jennifer puts it more eloquently below, she is not asking viewers to believe in The Revolution.  Nor is she espousing it as a global system that will work for everyone.  What she is doing – and what the work models – is challenging the viewer to operate from a position of belief, and not belief in Jennifer or her beliefs, but in themselves.  It is this challenge that makes Jennifer’s work so compelling, and unique among the artists living and working today.

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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 my garage at my house in Culver City (though I’m rarely in there; most of the work I do takes place on my laptop in my office but I have ambitions of someday making stuff in my studio).  It’s very organized in my studio; it’s like a set for a studio.

I’ve been here at this house for almost 3 1/2 years.  My parents own the property, which is a duplex. I live in the back house and they rent out the front house.  My parents basically bought this house for me, mainly out of fear that I will not have a place to live after they die and in hopes that I will someday become an adult with a regular income and take over the mortgage.  I am absolutely fortunate when it comes to my living/work situation, actually with a lot of things, all of which I am exceedingly grateful for; it has enabled me to focus on The Revolution!  Thanks, Mom and Dad!

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

A. I totally have habits, rituals, practices (though I’m not sure if they help or hinder my work, probably both).  For the most part I do the same routine nearly every day.  Unless I have scheduled appointments, my workday looks like the following:

1. Wake up: 5am is my most favorite time to start the day though that rarely happens; anytime between 6-8am is more usual.

2. Log into my laptop and put on some music.

3. Grab my office wastebasket, squat on the floor, and run my fingers through my hair to grab loose hairs and dispose of them in the wastebasket.  Pick up fallen hairs off the floor and dispose of those.  Lightly blow on the floor around me to reveal camouflaged hairs and dispose of those.

4. Carry Mr. Snuggles off the bed, clean his eye boogers, and place him in his bed on the floor while admiring him.

5. Half make my bed, focusing on removing loose hairs.  Note: I used to fully make my bed every morning, straightening and smoothing the sheets, evenly distributing the pillows and pulling the comforter over, but one day I made the mistake of looking underneath the covers and discovering a collection of leg hairs.  That started an annoying ritual of harvesting leg hairs underneath the covers before making my bed, which took like half an hour.  So now I half make my bed and resist looking under the covers.

6. Scan new emails, sort, and flag.

7. If dishes have not been washed the night before, wash dishes while contemplating work for the day.

8. Make coffee or tea and feed Mr. Snuggles.

9. Respond to flagged emails and do KCHUNG stuff while drinking two cups of coffee/tea.

10. Shit.  Sometimes shit again.

11. After an hour or two, start feeling hungry and make breakfast food and continue to work while eating.

12. After emailing/KCHUNG stuff, start on my work, which generally involves some degree of writing.  Eat easy to prepare food when I start to feel hungry and continue to work while eating.  Note: Sometimes emailing and KCHUNG stuff are the only things I do for the whole day.  Once I hit the five hour mark of emailing/KCHUNG, I start to feel like I’m gonna die.  According to articles written about the habits of productive people, I spend too much time emailing.

13. Around 2-3pm, start feeling really gross and greasy and realize that I need to brush my teeth and shower or wash up (shower days are M,W,F), so I do that, which is another routine in itself.

14. Take Mr. Snuggles on a walk.  Note: Thank continuous expansion for Mr. Snuggles because without him I would not take walks and taking a walk has become an invaluable part of my routine.

15. Sometimes shit.

16. Feed Mr. Snuggles and eat dinner while relaxing in front of the TV or working.

17. Depending on my energy level, I will either continue to work, do light housework, or watch TV.

18. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I ride in the evenings.  On Wednesday evenings, I attend a meeting.

19. Floss/brush teeth and wash face.

20. Sleep: 10pm is my ideal time to go to bed (anytime between 10 pm-12 am is usual).  I like to sleep 8 hours but I’ll take 7.

Thanks for asking me this question because it made me realize that I’m kind of a hair freak with poor hygiene and inefficient work habits.  I knew I have control issues and practice poor hygiene but wasn’t fully cognizant of my questionable work habits because I always seem busy. I think I use emailing and KCHUNG to procrastinate.  Oh and I forgot to mention that Facebook is always open so I use that to distract myself too.  Oh and sometimes when I finish a project, it takes me a while to get going on the next project (especially if that next project is solely writing).  Once, I spent three days watching Charmed.  Oh and one more thing, I’d like to add working out to my regimen.  Thanks for bringing this to the forefront of my attention, Grant!  UPDATE!: I just started a Hip Hop dance class on Monday evenings!

Q. Much of your early work involved the assumption of various characters or personalities, together with the creation of backstories and a narrative structure in which the personalities/characters lived.  More recent works are drawn more directly from your own life.  What prompted this shift?

A. When I was assuming characters and playing dress up with my early work of Deedra Inc. and The Startouchers, I realized that all these personae were magnifications or caricatures of different aspects of myself.  For example, Deedra Swan portrayed the part of me who believed in world salvation through corporate ventures (which I still believe to be a useful tool for dismantling capitalism, as described in Faction 3 of The Revolution); and through Electra I got to play out my fantasies of being a superhero (though tragically so).  And of course the character of Jennifer was an exaggeration of me at the time in the early 90’s, smoking a lot of weed, antisocial, and wishing to dispose of my body and existing on an astral plane.  The Startouchers were definitely the most removed from me and my life and it marked the end of dress up.  With The Startouchers, I went to my extreme of fantasy play and through that I realized I’m more interested in the exploration of self.  I decided to drop the safety of facades.

The Jennifer Moon Plan in 1995 was the start of making work drawn directly from my everyday life.  It was devoid of any fantasy and severely real in its references.  At the time I was experiencing difficulty motivating myself to work or do anything, so I enrolled twelve people to help me adhere to a one month schedule that I laid out in The Jennifer Moon Day to Day Planner.  In exchange for their participation, subscribers received a one year subscription to a magazine of their choice that I received through Publisher’s Clearing House and American Family Publishers.  It’s maybe too complicated to explain the details of the project so I’ll just attach an image of the Official Rules as well as an image of The Weekly Organizer for The Jennifer Moon Plan, which was given to each subscriber.  The Jennifer Moon Plan also marked the start of making work with the intention of bettering myself and my ongoing negotiation with the social realm.

I still love fantasy and impossible things and since then my work typically blends fantasy, the fanciful or fantastical with stark, often banal reality and it’s always autobiographical.

Official Rules to The Jennifer Moon Plan

Official Rules to The Jennifer Moon Plan

The design of The Weekly Organizer for The Jennifer Moon Plan is based off of Richard Simmons Deal-A-Meal.  You move cards from the left to the right as you complete a call/visit and when all the cards are on the right, you are done for the week.

The design of The Weekly Organizer for The Jennifer Moon Plan is based off of Richard Simmons Deal-A-Meal. You move cards from the left to the right as you complete a call/visit and when all the cards are on the right, you are done for the week.

Q. The texts you have written for The Revolution reference thinkers like Foucault and Hardt, but also TED talks and life coaches.   Are you always looking for ideas to incorporate into The Revolution, or is it more that you incorporate them as you come across things that are helpful to you personally?

A. It’s definitely more the latter.  When I come across something that I strongly relate to or that has been helpful or true for me in my quest for continuous expansion, I will reference it.  Friends and people I meet in my everyday life are my greatest resource.  I believe things present themselves to me when I am ready for it.  It is something that I have come to trust and have faith in, which is my connection to the 3CE (Third Communal Entity).  My job is simply to remain present, hyper-aware, open, willing, and connected.

Q. How do you want viewers to understand the relationship between distinct works (for example, a single Prison Relic photograph) and The Revolution?  Do they need to be aware of and/or understand The Revolution to appreciate the individual pieces?

A. I hope my work has multiple access points that are equally satisfying to the viewer based on what s/he is seeking or wanting to see and experience at the moment.  In Charley Ray’s Senior Studio class at UCLA, I gave this slide presentation of my work from 1993 to 1995, which I later added onto and restaged as a Pasadena public access show (Jennifer Moon Works 1993-1996).  After the presentation, Pentti Monkkonen made a comment that has followed me since.  He said that my work was like an organism.  Another student then remarked how there are different tiers of access into my work, like a pyramid: for example, one could enjoy the superhero photographs as they are (remain at the tip of the pyramid) or go deeper into the lower levels of the pyramid and figure out there’s a whole complex narrative and structure that connects all the work and then perhaps go even deeper to make larger political and social connections.  Charley liked Pentti’s comment but scolded this other student for stating something he thought was obvious but her seemingly obvious observation had a profound impact on me.  I think about her comment often when making work and I also think about Pentti’s comment often.  I approach my work as if I’m building an entire world or a multiplex universe and in the creation of a believable world or a living organism, everything is important, even the smallest of details.  This allows for pleasure or appreciation of the work at varying degrees and levels.  So to answer your question, no, the viewer does not need to understand The Revolution in order to appreciate the Prison Relic photographs.  Some people just like a nice photograph (thank you, Patrick Connor!) or a good prison story and that’s just fine with me.

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Q. Your current project, the Phoenix Rising Saga, is a three part series with an ambitious array of works and associated texts.  How did you conceptualize its complex, multipart structure?  Has its structure or components evolved over time?

A. The Phoenix Rising Saga was born from an obsessive crush I had on a girl; it was probably one of my most severe obsessions apart from my insane, three-year obsession on Charley Ray (speaking of Charley in my answer above).  Anyways, I devised the project in a desperate attempt to get this girl alone in my house for a photo shoot where I fantasized we would then make out and have sex.  It almost worked, I mean, I almost got her to do the photo shoot (the making out/sex part was never gonna happen; though I didn’t know that then).  Spurred by intense desire and longing, I wrote a convincing enough proposal that she agreed to do the photo shoot (you can read the proposal in this Facebook Note); but then backed out four days before the shoot because she found out my master plan (which you can also read about in another Facebook Note).

So I didn’t get the girl but I got a super, multipart art project that I love.  The components and structure have definitely evolved over time.  For one thing, it expanded from a single show to a three-part series.  Some pieces that are listed in the original proposal have been scratched or expanded upon to evolve into different pieces.  The Phoenix Rising Saga is largely about love and as my ideas and experiences of love changed, so did the work.  I am eternally grateful for this one girl because she propelled me to make art again, for real.

This whole process reminds me of this one episode of Charmed where Paige helps a group of leprechauns for personal gain reasons.  At the end of the episode, Paige admits her selfish intentions and one of the leprechauns responds with these very wise words: “Doesn’t matter what brings a person; only what they leave with.”

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Q. The second part of Phoenix Rising will be shown at the Hammer Museum for Made in L.A. 2014.  When we discussed your plans for some of the work, I was struck by the degree to which you walk the line between self-disclosure and openness regarding your personal life, but also a sense of reserve, either by obscuring the identities of certain individuals or by creating a narrative structure to contain the work.  Is that something you aim for?  In other words, how much of yourself are you willing to “give away” in the work?

A. I am willing to give away everything, all of myself.  The times I hesitate or show reserve, as you say, is when other people are involved.  In the past, I have upset friends when I’ve revealed something personal about myself in my work that also inadvertently revealed something personal about them.  My intention with my work is not to publicize other people’s personal stuff or call them out or embarrass or humiliate them (which doesn’t mean that hasn’t happened).  So this is something I think about often.  My work is autobiographical and takes from my personal life experiences, which means that it also involves other people since that’s how life is.  I am constantly negotiating how to talk about my vulnerability without involving too much of another person.  This is especially the case for my radio show, Adventures Within.

I have committed myself wholly to the 3CE but that doesn’t mean other people have.  I strive for continuous expansion, which means that someday it will be necessary for me to expand outside of myself, my body and my psyche, to combine with others and the 3CE to create a new form of consciousness and being beyond our current imagination.  In order to achieve this, I must be willing to reveal and share ALL of myself, to give all of myself without fear.  In a sense I am aiming for a certain kind of death, a death of self.

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Q. We spoke a bit about the role of belief in your work.  I think that your work asks viewers to believe in your project – to recognize your own belief in The Revolution and, implicitly to believe in it themselves.  That’s different than the usual viewer’s mode of criticality or reserve.  How would your ideal viewer approach your work?  And how mindful of you of potential gaps between that ideal viewer and the “typical” viewer?

A. Hmm, I guess I’m not all that mindful of potential gaps between an “ideal” viewer and a “typical” viewer because I’m not sure what a typical viewer is, or my ideal viewer is the typical viewer.  I hope that my work deals with very human things that all people can relate to so distinctions like typical and ideal seem unnecessary and almost unexpansive.  I am very mindful of the viewer though.

Belief is absolutely a large part of my work, almost a prerequisite to unlock the magical components of the work.  Though, I’m not so concerned that viewers believe in my beliefs; I’d much rather have them believe in themselves.  Speaking of ideal, I guess my ideal situation is for my work to inspire the viewer to embrace their own vulnerability, adventure within their own dreams and fears, acknowledge their own feelings, question their own beliefs, become critical of themselves in a kind and loving way, and then start their own revolution.  My primary focus is getting myself to believe.  If I believe, others will too.  This I am certain.  The greatest joy I’ve experienced is when someone tells me of a project they started that was partly inspired by my work.  Now that’s belief.

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Q. Lately I’ve realized that a lot of artists whose work I find compelling took extended breaks from making work (voluntarily, involuntarily, or by accident).  You also had a period where you didn’t make work.  Did that change the way you approached making work or your idea of what it means to be an artist?

A. Fuck yes!  Oh my god, like a lot.  I feel like I’m finally living and interacting with life in the way I always talked about back in the day but was never able to achieve no matter how hard I dreamed, fantasized, visualized, and hoped.  Perhaps it’s safe to say that I’m finally walking the walk instead of talking the talk, as that saying goes.  I remember during one of my crits at Art Center, someone, I believe it was Mason Cooley, remarked that my work is largely about failure.  I love that statement because it was very true on many levels.  And I’ve learned that failure is one of the most expansive forces in existence: it stimulates change and a deeper level of self-awareness and compassion.

Something truly transformational happened during my extended break from art and life.  I was given a gift to acknowledge and explore my dark side to its fullest so that it could loosen its grip on me and fall away.  Today, my darkness no longer needs to dictate my perception and behavior because I’ve honored it, I’ve loved it for what it is, and I’ve learned what it needed to teach me, which is an empathic understanding that I could never get from my lightness.  Now, this is not to say I no longer experience darkness; it’s just harder for it to determine how I interact with myself and the world without my awareness and consent.  I’m also not advocating for anyone to be a junkie and go to prison.  That’s just something I was fortunate to experience and live through (not everyone lives through that).

After going through nearly a decade of darkness and then getting sober, it took me another few years to start making work again.  I found myself wanting to make art but not being able to take any significant action towards it.  I realized that I had a lot of fear around making art and I had to identify and explore those fears so that they could also loosen their grip on me and fall away.  And again, it’s not that I eliminated those fears, those same fears come back now and then but with less strength because I can easily identify when I’m in fear and what that fear is, where it comes from, and how to work with it.  If you can’t already tell, I am a huge proponent for hailing one’s darkness because it has led me to the most expansion, joy, and freedom.

The main difference between me today and me back then is that I can say I love myself and mean it.  It’s this love of self that has granted me immense amounts of courage, the courage to build a life based on impossible things.

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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?

The only person I talk to on a regular basis about my work is Young Chung; and sometimes it’s more like running to him in despair.  He’s really good at reassuring and putting things in perspective and he also excels at not being shy with his opinion, which I like a lot.

I just started having studio visits so it’s kind of a new thing for me.  I’ve probably had less than ten in my life outside of school. From those handful of visits, the ones that stick out for me are with Michael Ned Holte, Emily Gonzalez, and Jean Milant and Salomeh Grace.  These stick out because they were super engaging and fun; we talked about other things besides my work and I left feeling energized and inspired.  I also like studio visits that are no nonsense and only about the work: they come in, I show, they leave.  I certainly appreciate those too.

In terms of important conversation partners who have informed my practice, I would have to say Michael Blomsterberg.  I reference him the most in my work.  He’s not an artist and we don’t talk about art.  He’s a life coach and we talk about life, which I guess makes a lot of sense as to why he is so integral to my current practice.

Jennifer Moon lives and works in Los Angeles and is a graduate of UCLA (BA) and Art Center College of Design, Pasadena (MFA).  She has had solo exhibitions at, amongst others: Transmission Gallery, Glasgow; Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles; China Art Objects, Los Angeles; and Richard Heller Gallery, Los Angeles.  Her work has also been featured in exhibitions at, amongst others: Cirrus Gallery, Los Angeles; the Glendale College Art Gallery; the Gwangju Biennale; Marc Foxx, Los Angeles; Kiki Gallery, San Francisco; and American Fine Arts Co., New York. 

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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.