For this interview series, we sat down with the artists of “Intrinsic” – an exhibition on view at The Yard, Williamsburg Bridge in 2020 – to gain insights into their practice and learn more about what inspires them and the background informing the artworks they had on view in the exhibit (visible on the “Intrinsic” exhibition page on Antecedent Projects.) Artist Melissa Joseph shared her reflections on how her work with textiles and fiber art has evolved, the images her work expresses and the projects she is tackling end of 2020/start of 2021!
(Above work: New Wefts (2019) by Melissa Joseph, Inkjet print on Indian duppioni silk, twine, found stones and yarn. 24 x 24 x 2″)
ANTE mag. For “Intrinsic” at The Yard, Williamsburg Bridge, you featured works embracing a range of processes, including weaving and working with felt. Can you talk to us about the range of processes you engage with and how these have developed in your practice?
Melissa Joseph. I understand the world through materials. I use intuition and my image archive as points of inspiration and reference, and then filter them through media, often textiles and fibers. I feel a deep connection to natural fibers, stone, and heavy metals more than other materials. They always find their way into my work. I admire weaving, but I am a novice and it makes my brain work in a different way than it usually does. It’s a way to explore structure and have less control over the final product than I normally do. I like to challenge myself with things like this from time to time, but I will always return to the ways of making that feel more natural for me.
ANTE mag. Can you tell us about your recent work in residency with the Textile Arts Center and your recent exhibition there?
Melissa Joseph. The Textile Arts Center is an amazing place. It allows for play, skill-building, experimentation and growth. It is also the most supportive and empathetic community I have ever encountered. I was able to try several ways of making and in the end, I landed on felting. It was a way to paint with fiber, and I loved it right away! From the name to the process itself, it reflects the themes of my practice and personality. In my most recent exhibition there, I showed a collection of felt works alongside some found objects that I have collected. Any image-based work I make is always related to the emotions of the materials.
ANTE mag. What aspects of your practice have you been deepening during lockdown and quarantine in recent times? Have you embarked on new projects, series or processes?
Melissa Joseph. I am a double Capricorn, which might not mean much to some people, but to some it might explain how much I have thrown myself so fully into my practice during quarantine. It’s partly a survival mechanism, but it’s also a way to process some of the things that are going on. I really only started felting in March, so it’s been a covid-tinged discovery. I am in the middle of a pretty deep dive with it, trying to see where it can go.
ANTE mag. What upcoming projects can you share with us that are in the pipeline?
Melissa Joseph. I am excited to share that I am curating a few shows late 2020/early 2021. One is at a gallery called Shelter in Place. The gallery is 1/12 scale, so all the artworks are tiny. Another will be online through the Textile Arts Center. More info on shows I’m participating in and my curatorial projects on my Instagram, @melissajoseph_art . I am also a Video Artist in Residence at BRIC Media House in Brooklyn, so I am trying out some animation and video software right now that I hope will lead to something cool eventually!
For this interview series, we sat down with the artists of “Intrinsic” – an exhibition on view at The Yard, Williamsburg Bridge in 2020 – to gain insights into their practice and learn more about what inspires them and the background informing the artworks they had on view in the exhibit (visible on the “Intrinsic” exhibition page on Antecedent Projects.) We spoke with artist Sarah G. Sharp on the concepts that feed into her practice, the projects she is embarking on and some new considerations that are pushing her work forward.
ANTE. For “Intrinsic” at The Yard, Williamsburg Bridge, you exhibited works that feature a range of different camouflage printed fabrics juxtaposed against boldly colored embroidery depicting sacred geometry. Can you explain the genesis of this body of work and its evolution?
Sarah G. Sharp. The work in “Intrinsic” is from my series Kinship. When I’m working outside of NYC, at artist residencies in rural areas, or while traveling, I end up going to commercial fabric stores for studio materials. During hunting season these stores, despite usually being located in suburban strip malls, often have displays of camouflage textiles and hunter’s shirting. There is usually a huge range of camouflages, including “real tree” which is a sort of trompe l’oeil pattern of oak leaves and tree bark, and multi-distance or multi-scale camo, which looks like a pixelated version of traditional camo, but is made to disrupt the figure for digital video cameras used in contemporary surveillance and war zones.
When I was developing this series, I was reading Donna Haraway’s Staying With The Trouble. Her writing about kinships combined with my research into early feminist publications framed my thinking about the kinship between knowledge bases represented in these fabric stores; who was selling and buying these “camoflage” textiles, who was sewing them, then who was using the sewn product and how does this intersect with gender roles, domesticity vs. public persona and our ideas about wildness and nature.
The Kinship Chevrons use various camo and hunters fabrics along with metallic fringe and original machine embroideries with designs based on sacred geometry as a way to evoke the complexities of these relationships to the land, animals and plants. I want to diffuse and complicate the meaning of these fabrics made for hunting and war by combining them with formal languages and materials that are craft-based, celebratory and propose a new futuristic use for these textiles.
ANTE mag. Can you tell us about your work on other projects as part of your extended practice, such as the Toolbook Project?
Sarah G. Sharp. One of my persistent studio interests over the past few years has been print media from last century, especially underground and radical presses. In 2017, I decided to make my own publication, “The Tool Book Project” (https://www.toolbookproject.org/). The Tool Book Project is a three volume set of publications, and a platform through which I organize related gallery exhibitions, readings, panel discussions and other public events where artists and community members address relevant social issues together while highlighting and supporting organizations that are doing meaningful social justice work.
The Tool Book project was, initially, a response to a crisis I saw many artist and writers facing after the 2016 election, both in very real terms regarding how their lives and the lives of the people they love would be affected by the budget cuts and fear mongering policies of the new Administration and in terms of a crisis within the studio, questioning the value of practices that may not obviously intersect with social justice or activism. I wanted to find a way for artists to use their practices to support organizations that were already doing meaningful social justice and community organizing work, and make a way for artists to connect with each other around these issues. I put out an open call and compiled over 40 responses into the first Tool Book, which was also a fundraiser for Black Lives Matter, [the] Callen Lorde [Community Health Center], the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and Sane Energy Project.
During the production of the first volume of Tool Book, I was an artist in residence at SOHO20 Gallery in Brooklyn where I held a series of events. For one of the events, Tool Share Roundtable: Art and Activism, I invited four artists and writers who are also longtime community activists to publicly discuss how their political engagement intersected with or ran parallel to their studio and writing practices. The most recent volume, The Tool Book Project Volume III: Work Book, focused on Art and Labor, reprinting Art Workers documents alongside contemporary artwork and essays in a risograph magazine. Last November, as an artist in residence at the Textile Arts Center, I was able to combine my studio practice with Tool Book. I invited the original members of Tool Share Roundtable: Art and Activism from the first volume of The Tool Book project to convene with members of the Textile Arts Center community to revisit our conversation from 2017, and consider where we are now, in the lead up to the next election. We worked on a community quilt and discussed self-care, impeachment, election anxiety and reflected on how our lives and practices have changed in the past few years.
ANTE mag. What aspects of your practice have you been deepening during lockdown and quarantine in recent times? Have you embarked on new projects, series or processes?
Sarah G. Sharp. I have found that this crisis has made me question some of my normal ways of working. I have been much more focused on the parts of my studio practice that are generative, for me, rather than making work for public consumption over the past few months. So, a lot of drawing and playing with materials. I’ve been thinking about how to adapt the parts of my studio practice and inspiration that is based on being out in the world and seeing and touching materials.
When the lockdown started, I was preparing for two Spring solo shows that were postponed (one of them will be at NARS in Brooklyn in May 2021.) My vision and the work for those shows has developed and shifted during quarantine, so they will be quite different from what I had initially planned.
ANTE mag. What upcoming projects can you share with us that are in the pipeline?
Sarah G. Sharp. I have been developing textile and wallpaper patterns based on my research into feminist publications from the early 1970’s, at the height of the fight for the ERA and leading up to Roe v. Wade. In my research, I was interested to see smaller, regional communities having conversations about issues we are still navigating today, like reproductive rights, fair pay for women, recognition for domestic labor and unchecked white privilege. I found a lot of dialogue around women using new media technologies of the era, like video and cable TV, but also radio and other art forms. There were also reminders about global resistance movements working in solidarity with each other and that armed struggle was seen as a viable option in the name of revolution.
The patterns I am developing, tentatively titled “Burn Witch, Burn,” are based on articles about witchcraft, the power of cable television, radical socialism and women in the art world. I am also developing an Augmented Reality component to this project. I hope to debut this work at NARS in Spring 2021.
Rusudan Khizanishvili (1979) is based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She is a figurative artist who has been exhibiting in the West in the last ten years, more so in Europe. Recent years have brought more exposure to her unique, sumptuous manner of handing acrylic and oil paints. She invites viewers into her multi-layered portals of distorted figures and animals, with these portals acting as symbolic doors between cultures, nations, times and identities. The artist explores borders as a cultural phenomenon while commenting on a society starved by the prevalence of digital reality in her practice. These works lack harmony because, to the artist, contemporary reality is more about the dissonance than about a peaceful co-existence.
As it is with the music of Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, Khizanishvili creates tightly controlled dissonance within her overall harmonious tableaux. In the following interview, themes touched on include this atmosphere of uncertainty in Khizanishvili’s works as well as in the world at large. This interview occurs as the artist’s works are currently on view in Berlin for “Rooms & Beings,” a solo show at 68 Rooms, the project space of Galerie Kornfeld curated by Mdivani and up through January 9, 2021.
Nina Mdivani: On many levels this is a very disorienting time globally. How did it affect you?
Rusudan Khizanishvili: Right now, we are living through an extremely complex and stressful circumstances, our planned and structured life has been taken from us and we would need an extremely long time to return to our pre-pandemic frame of mind. By directly affecting the whole world the pandemic brought changes, pushing us to reconsider our own personal positions. The crisis pushed us into a deep self-analysis, and even more profound self-reflection was triggered by the public discussion of racism. In a certain way, Georgians can sympathize with what has happened in the wake of the outcry surrounding George Floyd’s murder in the United States. Going back to the 1990s collapse of the Soviet Union, this incident triggered civil war, bringing the question of rights for ethnic minorities to the forefront of public attention. And the question of ethnic as well as national identity is still an issue in Georgia, not fully resolved in the face of the continuously aggressive foreign policy of the neighboring Russia. This was a theme explored by a group presentation “Crawling Border” at Venice Biennale in 2015 where I represented Georgia along with several other artists.
ND: Has the pandemic changed anything directly in your work? If so, what precisely?
RK: Being blanketed by the cover of pandemic has significantly changed the visual aspect of my paintings. Until now, the closest I have ever experienced such an existential crisis was only through books such as Plague by Camus and Touch by Daniel Keyes. This spring served as a litmus test for my work, taking me on a faraway trip within myself. For a specific period of time, a ceaseless interaction with the outside – that, until now, was one of the ways of expressing myself -has been unexpectedly paused. This catapulted me more toward my subconscious rather than the real life. This change was somewhat traumatic, awakening fears that I have not faced before and bringing physical dimensions to unexpected states of mind.
NM: Fears play a role in your art.
RK: Yes, fears are integral to my visual language as I allegorically paint what terrifies me. This element came to my art over time. I graduated from Tbilisi Academy of the Arts with a degree in film studies what is roughly translated into art director in its Western understanding, so early on I started to create my compositions from a perspective different than a traditional figurative approach. Even today, I approach my paintings as though they are following one moving image after the other, creating a cycle of works. After my graduation I still felt like I was a student for the next 7-10 years. In those important years I worked through my own technical challenges, between what should be and where I was at that moment. Over time I started to travel abroad through invitations to various residencies and art symposiums and at one point found out that I am radically shifting away from any kind of national or folkloric themes in my art. My personal struggles, my search for identity started to gain some aggressive overtones.
I would say that in 2013 my visual language as you can partially observe it today started to take shape by inclusion of taboo images: images of my fears that I started to talk about openly. I found parallels to this approach in the art of African tribes, where interlocutors of the Higher Powers work with images of individual fears. At that time, I started to get feedback from viewers that some paintings produce anxiety in them, namely works about symbolic cross-breeding between animals and humans that I was exploring at that time. And I realized that I was on a right track, because whatever is hidden deeply scares us.
NM : Who are you as an artist now?
RK: For me, there exist two types of artists, artists who take their stand through actions and those who are storytellers. I certainly am the latter, because I concentrate on my own vision of the world. I look at global questions through my own viewfinder, understand how they affect me and then I retell this story using my own instruments. What I talk about now is the human being writ large. There is all this talk about human rights, but I deeply feel that humanness, uniqueness of any particular person as an individual became obsolete and forgotten. So, whatever I work on is always about a Human, how they try to survive in the world that they have personally created and how the process of saving one’s dignity or humanity is taking place.
What I am working on right now could be understood through the phrase that there is no harmony left in this world, so I am exploring disharmony and dissonance in the world of total aggression. I am certain that art should not strive to be beautiful. I might change my opinion, but this needs to happen naturally. This perception of the world is also visible in my choice of materials. When I started, I was consistently working with oil paints that dictate their own classical laws of painting; gradually, I switched to acrylic and mixed media. I believe our synthetic existence should be envisaged by synthetic means.
Something new and as-of-yet-unexpressed unexpectedly returned me to oil paints during the pandemic, though. Several exhibitions were postponed and, unexpectedly, this allowed me new space for a deeper self-exploration. As an artist I was given a new stimulus through this release from my comfort zone and this state will continue for a bit as the main motive of my next works.
NM: Do you have a clear idea of what exactly you want to do when you start a painting?
RK: Literature plays an important role in this. The first step I take with a new work is: I think of a sentence that centers a painting around it. Inside my mind it always comes in English, probably as certain homage to American novelists and poets as they have considerably influenced me over the years. Steinbeck, Faulkner, Kerouac, Plath, Whitman and many other classics of the American writing tradition act as creators of the first outline for my art. This tradition of literature taught me honesty and differentiation of who I want to be and what I want to say. As with them, I am trying to be very open in my works and express what is hidden deep within me.
Symbols inside my works are pertinent to me in the process of painting them, but I never try to force my view onto the observer. To me, they are at a complete freedom to see what there is in that particular point of their life trajectory. I often use religious or mythological themes in my works, I am drawn to sacred nature of this or that story. I am in an imaginary dialogue with an artist who created the work on that theme before: it never is a direct homage, more like a very broad variation on the theme.
NM: Where do you see yourself within mainstream Georgian and international art?
RK: Because I was born when the Soviet Union still existed not in Georgia, but in neighboring Northern Caucasus, Russian was my first language. Later when my family moved back when I was thirteen, I had to learn Georgian. I suspect that at that time my own visual language had been conceived, as what I could not verbalize at that time later became part of my work. My visual vocabulary developed organically from the combination of mythological, pagan symbols as well as in dialogue with elements of Classical art. Based on this I consciously or unconsciously have always perceived myself as an outsider artist within the tightly knit Georgian ‘mainstream’ art. Subsequently, I keep feeling a much deeper affinity with Western and, even more so, with the American art (Louise Bourgeois, Helen Frankenthaler, Rauschenberg, Rothko, Basquiat, de Kooning, Henry Taylor, Kara Walker, Sam Doyle, Henry Darger.) For me, the most important part has always been a creation of a universal painterly language that would be completely free from any national or folkloric references, any kind of national self-identification. Being an artist who lives in Georgia and converses using a global language about private as well as more abstract questions, this has become my most important artistic task.
NM: What are the main obstacles and breakthroughs you have encountered in the past two years?
RK: These past two years have been very important for me as far as my own self-positioning goes as well as for analyzing my work in the context of the larger society. A big obstacle I encounter is distance, and although I travel a lot and this helps in enriching and globalizing my visual language, I still feel this is not enough. For me to be understood in the West and to be seen by a larger audience, a wish of any artist if she is honest with herself, I need to be more closely connected to the international art scene. And this is my main goal, to be an actor of the big stage: a goal that I am slowly and diligently work towards. – ANTE
In 2021 a dual exhibition is planned at Annarumma Gallery in Napoli, Italy and a group show at Thisted Museum of Contemporary Art in Thisted, Denmark.
The influence of Afro-Carribean and Latin American culture permeates CANTAR DE CIEGOS/SONG OF THE BLIND: Esperanza Cortés’ solo show at the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts at Appalachian State University. On view through February 6, 2021, this meticulously curated solo show brings Cortés’ work to a new audience through a presentation of the artist’s installation and sculpture works. The spirit of Frantz Fanon and the critical lens he cast onto the fraught legacy of colonialism across the Americas seeps through the framework Cortés creates in her installations and sculptures, latent in the textures, materials and compositions on view at this solo exhibition.
The artist reflects on the works on view in her own words, noting, “My work is informed by the extraordinary hybridization of our Americas…its title speaks of the seizures of lands, the enslavement of people and pillaging of precious natural resources which created the massive wealth of the European Nations and the United States. 90% of Indigenous people in the Americas were decimated by Europeans, from a combined impact of massacres, disease, and overwork. Through this genocide there was a loss of cultures, languages, knowledge, and the rewriting of histories. The history we consumed afterwards in the Americas was written by people of European lineage. For that reason we are unable to recognize the history and accomplishments of people of Indigenous and African descent without prejudicial rhetoric. Which leads us back to this moment in time.” Throughout the exhibition, the artist refers to her own Colombian heritage and the rituals, folk traditions and performing arts that she has encountered and embraced in her own personal legacy. Trained as an Afro-Latin dancer, the artist mines the traversal of sacred space and incorporates this rhythmic and three-dimensional approach in her artistic practice.
Cortés notes, “My installations which are organic and improvisational constructions are infused with hope and renewal.” Her works bring the figurative into dialogue with the abstract, bringing out motifs that reference folk iconography from Colombia and pay homage to her roots. With two grandmothers who served as community healers, or Curanderas, in her native land, the artist reflects on the impact of community on individual and the ability of transcultural transcendence to provide a new perspective on what brings out the shared commonality across communities while acknowledging the hierarchical oppression that colonialism brought to the Americas.
In her work, the artist pays homage to the Afro-Carribean and Indigenous histories that have guided her, giving space to the plants, materials and patterns that various cultural influences have guided her and informed her artistic practice. The artist honors and elevates women of these communities as the vital pillars who have worked to hold together families, traditions and enduring craftsmanship. Her loving appreciation for these vital histories and the legends of women who have made their mark in Afro-Carribean and Latin American history is palpable. The balance of aspects of the figurative as combined with organically derived materials such as glass and metal reference the land itself: the constant factor that continues through generations and roots communities to their location and histories.
CANTAR DE CIEGOS/SONG OF THE BLIND, a solo show of works by Esperanza Cortés, is on view at the Turchin Center’s Mayer gallery through the first week of February 2021. Contact the gallery for a video and/or virtual tour of the exhibition: firstname.lastname@example.org .
We spoke with artist Zac Hacmon to mark the occasion of his solo show, Dispositif, at SLAG Galleryin Chelsea during the Fall of 2020. Our discussion ranged from discourse around boundaries – their formation and documentation – and the use of scale to elicit responses from the visitor. As we toured the show we naturally discussed the non-neutrality of architecture and industrial design, and how abstracted forms can still recall the lingering effects of these intentions. The interaction of these works with one another, their industrial appearance contrasted with the aesthetic approach of the artist to the materials at hand, and the expectation and denial of utility in these works composed of ceramic tile all call to mind the readymade and found object in art-making. We plunged into the show and questioned Hacmon on some of the perspectives he has adopted over the course of his practice, inquiring as to how these viewpoints have impacted his work and, particularly, this suite of sculptures on view at SLAG through Oct 18, 2020.
ANTE Mag. Thanks, Zac, for walking us through your exhibition. We discussed the concept of “profanation” as it relates to your work; could you elaborate a bit on that concept and how it informs your practice?
Zac Hacmon. The concept of “profanation” is based on my recent research which follows the structureof religion and its apparatus. If we talk about the “profane” we must define the sacred first, for something to be sacred it means it was removed from free use of men and from the sphere of human law. Therefore to profane means to return things to their free use and to their pure state. Following this hypothesis, in my work I wish to profane our socio-political structures and the way they form in our built environment.
ANTE Mag. I see. During our conversation I was also struck by your remark “to play is almost a political act”: would you elaborate on that and how it affects your approach to your work?
ZH. It is based on a recent text I started to work with by Georgio Agamben. The text describes the act of play as a political task and it continues the discussion we had before, about the “profane” and sacred. If play breaks up the unity of the myth and rite of which the sacred is powered by then the myth disappears but the rite stays. Same can be addressed with my sculptures in this “Dispositif” show at the Slag Gallery. There is an element of failure in the sculptures, they lost their original function as an architectural structure but they also got a playful element to them that can be activated by touch and movement almost like a toy.
ANTE Mag. I would like to hear your views on the formal qualities of your sculpture as relates to space for inclusion and exclusion – could you provide some context for how sculptures on view at SLAG Gallery relates to boundaries or thresholds?
ZH. The industrial materials I use for my work range from private spaces, domestic and home to the public realm and institutions, by doing that I try to create a hybrid of one over the other and question their coexistence. I use the grab bars in my work in order to create potential for individual access and also to call attention to aspects of regulation mediated through contemporary architecture. The sculptures can be conceived as ruins all together but the ruin is being commoditized and repurposed.
ANTE Mag. Elaborating on the above question, can you provide some context for how your ideas around public versus private space is reflected in your practice?
ZH. Privacy is the higher form of intelligence as we wish to cultivate the self and the being. In contemporary society privacy is long gone, as we live in such a technologically advanced system that we are not even aware of our privacy being gone and violated. In relation to my work, I try to employ this conflict and the duality that I see in our structures, conflicts between function and dysfunction, between public and private.
ZH. The use of readymade is very critical to our time even more than it was 100 years ago when it was presented by Marcel Duchamp. These days, we’ve already crossed the line of no return in terms of the global effects of pollution. Before my Fine Art studies I attended a product design and industrial design degree but in my fourth year I decided to quit when they asked me to design a remote control for air conditioner or a cellular phone, as I didn’t want to be part of the waste industry. I think that through my use and manipulationof the readymade I create an antithesis approach which profanes our acceptance of consumption.
ANTE Mag.Can you discuss the role of the readymade and your work? Is the use of industrial materials in any way political, and why or why not?
ANTE Mag.Finally, can you share some of your upcoming projects with us?
ZH. I am currently working on building Capsule no 4 and Capsule no 5 at my LMCC studio. The “Capsules” are part of an ongoing project of creating alternate, autonomous and inaccessible spaces that invade and penetrate the white cube. The “Capsules” will be part of a group show at the Cathouse Proper Gallery which will take place in November 2020. This work will be site-specific installation for the entrance of the gallery; you will encounter these portals right before you enter the exhibition space. For 2021, I am working on a collaboration with the RDJ Refugee Shelter, in West Harlem (which is a shelter for refugees experiencing homelessness in NYC.) For this project I plan to work together with the shelter residents to create an installation at the shelter space for Fall of 2021.
The fault lines that are determining our future are trembling in the lead up to this Fall 2020 election, which will be one of the most consequential Presidential elections in our lifetime. Honoring the scale and seriousness of the voter turnout this fall, the New York Foundation for the Arts is partnering with KODA creative lab for the panel discussion, “Womanhood & Women’s Rights.”
This virtual event will take place on Wednesday, October 21st from 6-7:30 pm, and features a conversation led by professor Ginetta Candelario in discussion with artist Lina Puerta, artist and author Elia Alba, and art historian Tatiana Reinoza. Honoring the the 100th anniversary of the women’s suffrage in the United States, the purpose – according to KODA Lab – marks an occasion to encourage especially Latinx communities to vote.
As per the event site, the conversation will focus on identity at the crossroads of the individual and the collective, and re-examine how gender identity influences our social, political, and economic rights. This event is open to everyone and is particularly geared towards women-identifying individuals. At the intersection of our current sociopolitical reality, and in dialogue with art history and art and culture, this discussion will hold valuable insights for anyone seeking social equanimity in increasingly unequal times.
My work gets called “Didactic” a lot, which I learned in grad school is often the white-elitist way of saying “I don’t want to learn history that is not compulsory Euro-centric history.”
Multi-disciplinary Xicana artist and activist Alicia Smith is the featured winner of our open call, and it is with great satisfaction that we are featuring her in a weeklong Instagram takeover she’s spearheading this week (if you haven’t seen her videos you’re missing out!) and in this special interview with the artist. The artist holds her MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and was featured at the art fair UNTITLED in San Francisco in Fall 2019.
Smith’s work spans video, performance, printmaking and sculpture to bring awareness to the existing, inaccurately romanticized tropes that deny indigenous women their individual complexity, simultaneously demonstrating their beauty and strength. We learned more from Smith’s perspective on the implications her practice has on the greater art world, as well as the lessons that she has learned from her ancestors and from the wider diaspora of indigenous nations that have informed her practice as an artist and activist.
(Featured Image: “Erendira”, image courtesy the artist.)
ANTE mag. Thanks so much for chatting with us today, Alicia! We recently learned about an artwork that you donated to raise bail funds for Black Lives Matter, can you tell us more about how this came about?
Alicia Smith. Thank you! That piece is “Molotov Hare,” and it was created really with Black and Brown solidarity in mind. A marriage of indigenous archetypes and anarchist imagery.
There are many indigenous traditions that involve the rabbit as a symbol of rights of passage for young warriors. The Aztecs had their Eagle Warriors walk through underground caves and emerge, ready to defend their tribe. There are jade sculptures depicting rabbits protecting men wearing eagle headdresses to illustrate this ceremony. Black Elk once said: “For the rabbit represents humility, because he is quiet and soft and not self asserting – a quality which we must all possess when we go to the center of the world.” The rabbit is also a trickster. The Anishinaabe’s Nanabozho in the North and Cherokee and Black communities in the South. Many stories of Br’er rabbit are in fact adaptions of West African tales of Anansi the spider. The trickster felt important in the piece because of his ceremonial role. He forces us to re-evaluate where we delineate societal rules and agreements. He does this through perpetually undermining them.
The image is about duty to your people, and that to change the rules you first have to break them. It felt extremely urgent: I cut the block in a day and started taking orders and I did use the piece to raise bail funds for Black Lives Matter OKC and Millions for Prisoners New Mexico. I’m really proud of this work and [proud] that people have been using that image when they protest police brutality.
ANTE mag. As a Xicana artist and activist, your work embraces themes such as decolonization, the Americas’ native nations and knowledge of the natural world such as plant life and medicinal practices. Can you tell us more about the origin of this journey for you as an artist to research and integrate the crucial, yet still too often overlooked, history of indigenous peoples in your work?
Alicia Smith. I feel like I didn’t have a choice, haha… when the ancestors come knocking you better stand at attention and that is sort of what began this path for me. I had always been a pretty feral child, bringing wild animals inside of the house, and I always had a real lust for knowledge, especially in the way of ecology. I feel like re-examining those complex relationships through that cultural lens has taught me more than anything else. My work gets called “Didactic” a lot, which I learned in grad school is often the white-elitist way of saying “I don’t want to learn history that is not compulsory Euro-centric history.” I know doing that kind of work might dissuade people from wanting to look at my art but I hope given the political climate at large that those same folks are at least taking a moment of pause as to why they don’t want to learn indigenous history of the land they are on. But above all else, if it isn’t for them – it’s not for them, and that’s fine too. I love encountering first-generation kids, folks who went through a diaspora, who immediately connect and resonate with the work. At the end of the day if all I did was preserve one inch of sacred knowledge in a piece, then I’ve done my job of being a good ancestor for those who come after me with questions.
ANTE mag. To expand on the above question, can you delve into the range of your practice – spanning video, installation, mixed-media – as relates to the themes such as native culture and traditions and decolonization in your work?
Alicia Smith. By foundation I am a printmaker. So all my work often starts as a relief print before it goes into the world of durational art. I like the idea of being a Tlacuilo: a scribe or codex painter, someone who is recording history, ceremony, etc. So I think my 2-dimensional work acts as a kind of codex and my performances and video are the ceremonies themselves.
I call my work “Secondhand Ceremonies,” inspired by Robin Wall Kimmerer, because these are partial reconstructions and partial innovations. When you are descended from people who survived genocide it means necessarily reconstructing the old with new innovations: Adaptations.
ANTE mag. You reflect on the words of Anishinaabe cultural ecologist Melissa K. Nelson in your description of your work, “Teomama.” Nelson remarked, “the Native Woman’s body [in so] many stories acts as a kind of meeting place.” Can you expand on how this reflection impacted the development of your work?
Alicia Smith. It’s cosmogeneology. In science it’s just evolutionary biology. The most seemingly innocuous Ant has been on this earth for 120 million years. And in indigenous ways of knowing we don’t look at the ecosystem from this sort of colonial scientific gaze. These beings are our siblings. Plants, animals, insects, fungi, they’re our older brothers. And to explain that ethic of kinship, rather than talking about primordial soup, we do it through these eco-erotic stories, where women are often at the intersection. In the Popol Vuh a woman becomes pregnant eating fruit from a tree. There are stories of women marrying stars, bears, becoming pregnant by the wind and on and on. It establishes an ethic of kinship. When I do these performances with Hawks, Wolves, Deer, Horses, Rivers, and so on, its so important to me to convey the medicines of these beings and their teachings as well as the metaphors I imbue them with in the work.
ANTE mag. How has the uncertainty of 2020 impacted your practice, and what current body of work are you focused on?
Alicia Smith. I am very fortunate because I have a government job where we were put on admin leave. I’m also very fortunate that I have been given some room to do what I love to do and share stories from my home, for the museum that I work for. This time at home has been really beneficial for my practice. Unfortunately people who are privileged who dont have to work a 9 to 5 job are usually the ones who can devote more time to their practices and end up rising in their art careers. But this time has allowed me to be so much more productive and to do what I really want to do which is engage with my community and in social justice causes.
Multi-disciplinary artist Sun Young Kang’s multitudinous, scholarly practice mines art historical precedent and a range of scales and materials. This 2020 UAH Contemporary Art Fellow (which is NEA-funded) has exhibited in multiple solo and group shows both in the US and abroad, and she is currently based in New York State. Her work has received multiple accolades and recognitions, and her practice manifests the conceptual across various sites and installations.
We chatted with Kang to gain insight into her practice, including aspects of art historical precedent that have informed her practice, her philosophical outlook and the trajectory in which her work is headed.
ANTE mag. Can you tell us about your practice, specifically in relationship to repetition and the Korean concept of Yeo-baek and the influence of the Dansaekhwa school on your work as referenced in your statement?
Sun Young Kang. My interest is in exploring the duality fundamental to human existence: different realities or worlds both in space and time and the tension between them, the co-existence of antithetical ideas. I reside in between two different cultures. My feeling of marginality makes me wonder about the concept of boundaries, the space or time in between, as well as the interrelation of, different ideas or entities. My focus on this also comes from my background—Korean Painting and its key aesthetic and philosophy of “Yeo-Baek.”
Yeo-Baek is the physical empty space in a painting that the brush hasn’t touched and remains as openness. This untouched part of painting is considered as important as the part filled with images. Visually, Yeo-Baek creates the balance of positive and negative space in a painting. Conceptually, this negative space stimulates the viewer’s imagination about what is not there and invites them into the artwork. This quiet blankness makes the artwork interactive by requiring the presence of the audience.
This contemplative yet interactive aspect of Yeo-Baek is also an important aesthetic of most of Dansaekhwa art. When I was in school majoring Korean Painting in mid to late 1990s, I don’t recall hearing the name “Dansaekhwa.” But many of the students were inspired by the aesthetic of several Korean artists who are now spoken of as the pioneers of the “Dansaekhwa movement.” It is obvious to me that my practice also reflects the influence of the aesthetic of Yeo-Baek and Dansaekhwa.
The most obvious connections to Yeo-Baek in my work are the physical empty space as a key element both conceptually and aesthetically and the audience’s presence in activating and completing the piece, whether it be as a reader of my book or as a physical part of the installation space. The minimal or limited amount of techniques and materials in each project and the repetition in the process of making and in the resulting texture and visuality evoke characteristics of Dansaekhwa art. Rather than specific images or colors, my practice focuses on the material itself: the lightness and delicacy of paper and other soft materials, such as thread, hair, and powder, and light and shadow effects. Each material has metaphoric meaning intrinsic to the theme or concept of my work. I routinely use simple but obsessively repetitive processes in the making, such as cutting out or burning paper or printing repetitively, casting objects, stitching or hanging hundreds or thousands of threads in a space. The meditative aspect of a repetitive working process is also present in the Dansaekhwa artists’ practice. The repetition in my work visualizes time-passing and symbolizes time made spatial, reflecting the passage in between or across boundaries, and the repetitive use of a technique and minimal materials creates a tactility, a visual obsessiveness, that brings the audience close to my work.
ANTE mag.Your practice moves between book art and installation to 2-D work and works on paper, can you walk us through the evolution of your practice as a multi-disciplinary artist working across multiple mediums?
SYK. In Korea, before I joined the Book Arts/ Printmaking program, I worked strictly on 2-dimensional paper canvas, but the transition from painting to book was not as radical is it sounds. The most common material for a book is paper, as it is for Korean painting. The intimacy and the quiet interaction that a book can offer its readers was for me very much like the interactivity of Yeo-baek. Also, in a book form, 2-dimensional paper turns to 3-dimensional space as the pages are stacked, folded or bound together, and that structure offers a sense of narrative and time passing. An intimate and portable book can contain the idea of space and time that through the viewer’s imagination is unlimited.
Some of my early artist books focused on visualizing the invisible space in the structure of the book. I used the repetitive processes of cutting, burning or printing to create tactility as well as to evoke meaning. This has been key to most of my installation projects as well. My interest in the physical, conceptual space of a “book” and its interaction with the viewer led me to create large spaces in which audiences could physically immerse themselves, contemplating time passing and dwelling in uncertainty, as they took part in creating a space that envisioned the boundary between antithetical ideas, ideas often visualized as light and shadows. Below is a description of an installation that I recreated several times, an example of how a sheet of paper became a large space and how an installation evolved from the philosophy of Korean Painting and the concept of the space of a book.
Sometimes I consider my 2-D works as books or my books as works on paper. That depends on each project, on my thoughts as to how an audience would interact with my work, how best to communicate my idea. Without thinking, I move between different mediums.
ANTE mag. Can you reflect on an exhibition, residency or fellowship you’ve had and how that has impacted your practice or provided a turning point?
SYK. Every experience of an exhibition, residency, and fellowship that I have had has been a turning point in some way. I cannot begin to list all the opportunities and support from institutions, organizations, and individuals that have impacted my practice. One particularly important experience was my first oversea residency in 2017.
I was invited to be a resident artist of the Soulangh Artist Village in Tainan, Taiwan, through COPE NYC International Artists in Residence Exchange Program. It required courage from the beginning, as I had to be away from my family and travel to a country I didn’t know. Also, at that time my mother in Korea started to develop Alzheimer’s, which had a powerful effect on me, making me reflect on my past, my home, and human connections encased in memories. The spirituality of the local culture in Tainan and its relation to contemporary life inspired me. There I created my first work without paper at all, using cotton thread and sugar powder.
This was a temporary site-specific installation for which I used locally found materials and which I shared with the local community, all strangers to me, not by any kind of direct communication, but simply through the emotional exchange made possible by the installation itself. I came back home without any physical work, but with incredible memories and friendships and inspiration. This residency led me to think about the temporality of the physical art work into which I put so much energy and time. I came to value more the process of interacting with my surrounding and creating works for a specific place and time than creating physical artifacts that lasted beyond that. I began to feel that the experience of the work, once it came to life, and the memory of that, were enough.
“The Endless Lines” consisted of 3-dimensional structures built by using strings of 1-dimensional thread, my attempt to visualize the invisibility of time passing (the continuous lines being my illusion of flow of time) and the spirituality and beliefs of a culture that could not be grasped by our concept of any dimension. This installation made me think of how we define the passage of time and how time creates memories that connect individuals and the past and future. I started to use in my work the 1-dimensional physicality of thread as a metaphor for connectivity or continuity and my shed hair (also a kind of thread) as a metaphor for the detached self, memory-loss, and disconnection.
Last year I again created a site-specific work, this time in Seoul, Korea, and again came home with empty hands. Traveling to a place far from where I reside limited my materials and techniques. I carried in my suitcase rolls of thread, needles, magnets, and some small pieces of paper and with those created 6973 miles of force in 1cm in Korea, my home country.
ANTE mag. Can you tell us more about what you’re working on recently and what direction your practice is moving toward? SYK. My present practice is a continuation of my recent work, but instead of temporary site-specific installations, I have gravitated toward work that I can do alone in my home studio, whether it be a small-scale work or an installation. My practice now involves more planning and designing than being inspired by something unexpected or a new setting.
Currently, I am preparing an upcoming exhibition. I have been invited by the University of Alabama at Huntsville to be the 2020 UAH Contemporary Art Fellow (funded by the National Endowment for the Arts) with a solo exhibition and public events. The visit has been postponed from this fall to early next spring due to the pandemic. I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity to look forward to during this isolation. For this exhibition, I am going to expand and develop my previous paper installation project In Between Presence and Absence. So, I am now back to the cast paper process which I did for many years. I want to accentuate the interactivity of the space given to me for the installation, a space that to me seems quieter than those of my previous installations.
ANTE mag. What’s one specific work you’ve made in the past three months, and what about it is inspiring you consider new concepts and formal evolutions in your work? SYK. Since I cannot travel for a residency or exhibition, I am looking more into myself. These days I think a lot about my home, which seems farther away than ever, and my mother—now in a nursing home and not allowed contact with anyone outside that home—slowly getting close to the end without understanding what is going on in the world around her. These painful thoughts have led me to revisit and rethink my previous work “Line-Drawing II: The New Existence”, which I began at the Vermont Studio Center during a residency a year ago and developed in my home studio at the end of last year.
The two primary materials with which I am working for “Line-Drawing II: The New Existence” are bricks and my shed hair. A brick, broken in half, represents a split self, two identities, the space between the past and the future. Shed hair symbolizes for me the detached self and memory loss, suggesting the weakened connection between my current self and my past self and between me and my home country.
I repeatedly hammer on the brick to create a crack and eventually split it into two pieces. After breaking the brick, I photograph it and, again, in a repetitive movement, embroider on the photograph, with my hair, lines between the two parts of the brick. Those repetitive actions visualize the concept of ourselves as the embodiments of time passing between the past and the future. One cannot connect two heavy objects such as bricks with delicate hair; that is only possible on a two-dimension rendering, a photograph, of the brick pieces. I see my line embroidering as reconnecting, symbolically and impossibly, the gap between past and future, between two identities, reconnecting the two parts of a split self. In reality, the present is continually shifting. The future becomes the past. Establishing an identity and settling into the space between past and future are profoundly difficult. Thus, I explore the concept of time and space through the 4-dimensional process of breaking the bricks and line-stitching the photographs, the 3-dimensional bricks and embroidered hair, and the 2-dimensional photographs.
For the past couple of months, besides working on my upcoming solo exhibition, I have been working on this project, which I have renamed “Impossibly Connected.” Although the theme and concept were established, I didn’t consider the piece complete. My idea was to recreate it by re-photographing the bricks to get more spatial depth in the photos to emphasize the exploration of different dimensions of time and space.
My feeling of being marginal, living between two cultural realities, trying to bridge two identities and wanting to explore themes of time and space and the conflict between past and future seem more pressing to me now than ever. And I sense that other people are feeling the same. My repetitive motion of impossibly connecting the broken bricks in the photo with my shed hair evokes and embodies my constant questioning: What is the reality that we believe is real now? How can we reconnect each other after this? Where can we find the lost time? Completing this project may not be important, but the symbolic movement of connecting the pieces allows me to question and think. I will work on this piece for as long as I feel I need to. I feel this process will take me to a new place, a new direction. What or where I don’t know.
Artist Gabriel J. Shuldiner demands much of his medium. An artist who creates works by building layers of paint and industrial materials in a meticulous manner, his paintings are comprised of sculptural layers constructed in careful relationship with the preceding layer, existing in a unique and original tension indigenous to the particular work itself. His attention to construction –and just as fittingly, deconstruction– becomes apparent in the singular surface of each of his finished artworks.
We touched base with Shuldiner to gain insights into his studio, and as an Open Call winner, to learn how he has perfected his practice.
ANTE Mag. Can you tell us about your practice, specifically within the context of layers upon layers as referenced in your conceptual artist statement?
Gabriel J. Shuldiner.While painting, I gradually build up a work… layers upon layers. It’s primarily all paint, along with some industrial construction materials. Each layer informs the next: how the materials work with and against each other. There is always a sense of surprise, of tension working with the matter, but intent remains, and as layers compound, remnants of previous layers are left over, hidden, revealed, and exposed, becoming layers upon layers of physical matter which mirror the conceptual layers I also attach to the work.
ANTE Mag. You specifically mention three terms, Brute Minimalism, Hybridsculptural painting and Post apocalyptic black – can you explain how each of these terms define your work?
G.J.S. I was looking for a quick way to explain my work in the most concise manner as possible. I like words and word play. I don’t like definitions; having to define things and describe things that should be seen and experienced is something I don’t like, but I understand the necessity. My work is influenced by so many visual genres, and musical genres. Traditionally my work is steeped in the history minimalism and abstraction and conceptualism. But my work is also brutal…brutal in a good sense. It’s delicate and playful, brutal and raw. The term I use is “bruteminimalism”: it just came to me and it sounded right. I’m a painter who creates Hybridsculptural paintings rather than a sculptor who creates painting-like sculptures. Given that my work fluctuates between painting and sculpture, the works I create are literally “hybrid sculptural paintings” As for “postapocalypticblack”, I felt the word appropriately described my own unique variant of black. It also aptly riffs on the age old falsity that “painting is dead”. I heard that term a lot in graduate [art] school and thought it the most ridiculous statement ever. It seems to come along every few years. Apparently painting has been dying ever since the first cave paintings appeared… this term perfectly played on that absurdity. You just can’t kill it. The physicality of the material, the blackness of the material… it is postapocalypticblack. You know it when you see it.
ANTE Mag. Recently you have shown at Monica King Contemporary, how has it been exhibiting your work during the pandemic and how has it been different for you showing work now than pre-COVID?
G.J.S. I had a piece in a benefit auction Monica King Contemporary set up to help raise money for the CoVid cause. I love her gallery and was grateful to be asked to be in it: I had been looking for ways to help during the pandemic. At the time I was offering limited-edition mini-paintings direct via my Instagram and donating 50% to the CoVid-related organization of the buyer’s choice. And then the gallery asked if I would take part in their benefit. A completely virtual online benefit. Of course I said yes.
Showing my work now, during CoVid, I feel I’ve adapted to the current virtual world quite well. I’ve done several Zoom artist talks, a few interviews and have had several group shows. I’ve also sold work! All virtually. Given the physicality of my work and the crucial importance of light as an actual material, a 2D screen doesn’t do my work justice. I think that’s true for all visual arts. But it’s extra true with my work. There is something magical, experiential and spiritual about standing before a painting and looking at it. It’s a personal experience between you and the work. This pause in showing work in the real world is definitely strange. But at the same time, there are so many new outlets to get the work seen, and seen by so many more. The reality is that most people will initially discover my work virtually. That was probably true pre-pandemic, but now and post-pandemic, it will be the primary way people will experience my work, so I’ve spent a lot of time perfecting the way I photograph [the work] and I’m pretty happy with the results.
I see the image as I see my aforementioned descriptive terms: as a quick way to show, explain and attract… with the goal of having that introduction lead to an in person studio visit – which is convenient because my studio is in Chelsea (Manhattan.)
I have several (studio visits) lined up, but I’m not yet ready for in person studio visits, no matter how well-enforced the social distancing and masking.
ANTE mag. Can you tell us more about what you’re working on recently and what direction your practice is moving toward?
G.J.S. Throughout CoVid, I’ve been lucky enough to really focus on creating a new body of work. I’m really tightening the work up, and I feel I’m actually making my best work now during the pandemic. Every painting I have ever created has gotten me to this point.
Working without having any deadlines or distractions has been very freeing, and creatively inspiring. But for the most part, my routine hasn’t really changed all that much during Covid. I still paint every single day. Right now I’m working on some larger pieces. That’s where my head is right now. I’m used to having complete control over my work. I like making work that I can handle physically, as I want to be able to move the piece around as it is created. The back becomes the front, and the top becomes the bottom. I want to be able to twist, cut, rip, tear, punch. The deconstruction is just as important as the construction.
The way I work is sorta manic. I work on multiple pieces at once, bouncing ideas off each work. Eventually certain works tighten up and reveal themselves and then I move in to complete them. The way I show my work is the opposite, super minimal: one piece surrounded by nothing. The majority of my current work has been relatively consistent in size and thus easily maneuverable. The direction I’m headed is larger, so I’m figuring out how to navigate the larger works in a similar manner. I want that intimacy to remain. I’ll figure it out.
ANTE mag. What’s one specific work you’ve made in the past three months, and what about it is inspiring you consider new concepts and formal evolutions in your work?
G.J.S. I have a complex equation in my mind that has to balance itself out in order for me to consider a work complete, and successful. It’s just a feeling I get. With “zTCTdyH<B\,H3h]_system” for example, I feel I have accomplished that. The way the different materials play off each other makes someone wonder: what is the surface? What is the support? Is it a painting or a sculpture? What is it made of, and how is it made? The interplay of light upon the varying shades of black, creating various areas of white and grey. I can stare off into work I consider successful for hours and it transports me.
Ultimately I am painting primarily just for myself… which is a crucial point. And that’s the test, really, to reach that space: that place [which means for] me, someplace calm amidst such concentrated chaos.
Each work looks so simple. It’s a black painting. But the longer you gaze into it, the more the complexities gradually reveal themselves.
We sat down to learn more about her time specifically at Franklin Street Works, and how the organization is dedicating its next chapter to archiving its powerful body of programs, events and exhibitions, contextualizing them for a new audience.
(Below image, Cut Up: Contemporary Collage and Cut-Up Histories through a Feminist Lens curated by Katie Vida, installation view. Foreground: Faith Ringgold. Background (L-R): Meredyth Sparks, Martine Syms, and Lourdes Correa-Carlo. Photo by Object Studies
Lead image, Roots & Roads, curated by Anita N. Bateman, installation view. Foreground: commissioned site-specific installation by Nontsikelelo Mutiti. Background (L-R): works by Jay Simple and Bryan Keith Thomas. Photo by Object Studies.)
ANTE. Thanks, Terri, for sitting down with us! So Franklin Street Works was known as a contemporary art space but during your time working there, it achieved recognition for engaging with social justice as well. Can you elaborate on the founding of the space, its evolution and how social justice aligned with FWS’ mission?
Terri C. Smith.Being the founding creative director of an arts organization is a unique perspective because you are steeped in its institutional history and have a deep on-the-ground understanding of its growth and impact. When I was invited to co-found Franklin Street Works by Stamford lawyer and philanthropist Kathryn Emmett she had the idea of an art space with a cafe. It was up to me to craft the specifics in terms of mission, vision, and programming. I had been in Connecticut working in the arts for a few years and had a sense of that scene. When I began conceptualizing what FSW might look like, I was thinking a lot about NYC alternative art spaces from the 60s and 70s like Artists Space, The Kitchen, and Food and their commitment to emerging artists and grassroots principles. I also had 15 years of experience working in two accredited museums and valued good scholarship and museum best practices. So my thinking was to create a program that included rigorous exhibitions and also integrated values of community inclusion – a discursive, social, and activist community hub with contemporary art at its center.
When we first opened in Stamford, Connecticut, showing conceptual art necessitated a lot of interpretation and direct conversations with visitors. In the beginning, merely showing conceptual art felt like a form of activism! All of our exhibitions were original, thematic group shows curated in house by guest curators or myself. This thematic approach aimed to build an audience beyond arts-interested individuals by drawing connections between contemporary art practices and events in our day-to-day lives. In other words, if an exhibition included work about the environment, the idea is that it would attract folks who might not be familiar with contemporary art, but, because of their interest in nature, science or conservation they would have a point of entry. It was an individualized approach that aimed at connecting, often challenging, contemporary art to a broader public.
As far as how the social justice trajectory connected to our mission, these key factors spring to mind: our coincidental opening of the space when Occupy Wall Street was encamped in Zuccotti Park; an archive of artist activist collectives we developed for a 2013 exhibition; our exploration of Franklin Street Works’ values with a 2014 strategic plan; and a show on immigration Yaelle Amir curated for us in 2015 (see above, “Acting on Dreams.”) I’ve only recently realized it, but Occupy Wall Street was a profound influence on the formation and direction of FSW. I knew some artists who were involved in the Park – many of them affiliated with Bard MFA. It was intriguing to me how artists brought an unmonumental sculpture/MFA materiality to activism and how an alternative, pop-up social system that shared qualities with social practice projects was being constructed from scratch there. I now understand FSW was influenced by OWS’s materiality and its creation of an inclusive, activist space that interrogated the status quo and posited corrective, world-building scenarios.
Social justice as an exhibition theme was directly addressed for the first time with our 2013 exhibition Working Alternatives: Breaking Bread, Art Broadcasting and Collective Action, co-curated by Mackenzie Schneider, Jess Wilcox and myself. We were thinking about how artists used food, broadcasting, and collective action during the early history of alternative spaces in NYC, and how artists were still using these tactics. Jess explored artists who use food, Mackenzie looked at artists using media like television and newspapers, and our gallery manager, Sandrine Milet, and I explored collective action, sending out an open call for materials from self-described artist/activist collectives. The starting date for our artist/activist collectives was the end date of an existing archive organized by NYC artist/activist collective Political Art Documentation & Distribution (PAD/D), which included socially conscious arts organizations working from 1979–1990. We put a call out to more than 90 collectives and received materials from approximately 30. While the show was on view, Brooke Singer, a Professor of New Media at SUNY Purchase (who was in one of the collectives we exhibited) invited us to take the archive out of its boxes and present it as an exhibition at the College’s Passage gallery later that year. Sandrine and I curated Collective Action Archive with Purchase students Stephen Barakat and Gina Mischianti, writing additional interpretive texts about the collectives and exhibition essays from various points of view. Eventually the materials were accessioned into the SUNY Purchase Library zine archive, making them available to students and scholars.
Nadia Wolff-commissioned performance, A Litany, at the opening reception of Roots & Roads, curated by Anita N. Bateman. Photo by Terri C Smith.
This year-long immersion into collective action art practices was followed by Franklin Street Works’ 2014 strategic plan, which re-emphasized our commitment to socially conscious art and community engagement. In the strategic plan, we described our core values, “Art is part of a larger social enterprise and thereby serves as a catalyst for social action. Both the individual artist and our communities are vital partners with us. The artist creates new models and impacts our communities. Our communities generate creative conversations within our space and elsewhere about our production.”
The next year, when Yaelle Amir curated Acting on Dreams: The State of Immigrant Rights, Conditions, and Advocacy in the United States, FSW’s work in social justice really began to crystallize.I personally had an “ah ha” moment about how actionable elements could become part of an art exhibition when Yaelle asked us to create a resource list of regional immigrant organizations for the catalog. I was energized by how Acting On Dreams was firing on all cylinders. The artworks and commissioned installations were well executed and materially interesting, but it was also exhibition as logistical support, community gathering place, investigative journalism platform, educational venue, and more. From then on, we were off to the races in actively planning exhibitions that addressed social justice issues head on.
ANTE. The pandemic has affected everyone in the arts, and has required flexibility and resourcefulness. Your team has recognized that the time has come to put future exhibitions in the physical space on hold. What are your goals moving forward in building an archive? In addition, how do you hope this archival project will evolve? What resources in particular are you seeking to help achieve this goal?
TCS. It is important to me that the legacy of Franklin Street Works lives on through a digital archive that is organized and accessible to anyone interested in contemporary art history or any of our 415 past exhibiting artists and collectives. I’m working with a handful of past board members to map a path forward in creating that. Right now we are exploring the best approaches in applying for archiving grants. I’ve also been talking to other small art spaces that no longer have physical spaces but still have an online presence, and chatting with archivist friends about the best order of operations in getting started. Since the entirety of FSW’s institutional memory is in my brain and my computer (and back up disk, of course!) it is my responsibility to organize the materials in preparation for a professional archivist. In a perfect world, I’d like to have the spirit of FSW live on in a less localized way. It would be exciting to see the archive combine with a national program of grants for emerging artists and to create and/or support commissioned projects.
Love Action Art Lounge curated by Terri C Smith, installation view of Carmelle Safdie’s commissioned, site-specific installation. Photo by Object Studies.
ANTE. What particular aspect of your tenure do you reflect on with satisfaction?
TCS. There are so many, but two aspects that come to mind immediately.
First, the transformative nature of Franklin Street Works’ educational programming. The physical space of FSW is an intimate repurposed Victorian row house. So when we had tours, talks, and performances, there wasn’t much physical distance between the community and the presenters. I also intentionally set a very welcoming tone that signified there wasn’t much, if any, hierarchical distance between artist and audience either. I think this intimacy and casual, social vibe created a comfortable space for learning, questioning, and authentic connection that was memorable and resonant. There were dozens of times when a past event attendant would volunteer specifics about how it changed their perspective or affected the course of their work or life.
The second aspect is a personal one. I developed so many wonderful relationships with FSW’s artists, curators, staff/board, interns, and contract workers these last nine years. So many of the people we partnered with on projects were collaborative, talented, and conscientious. My life is vastly enriched for having known them. I was 43 when I co-founded FSW. Frequently in middle age we can become set in our ways, but my life was infused with an endless stream of compassionate critique, encouragement, and aspirational thinking. Many of the folks I worked with became my teachers, modeling generosity and inquisitiveness, pointing out when I was being old fashioned or on auto pilot, and perennially challenging me to work toward optimal equity and inclusiveness. As stressful as the labor of running an art space can be, the love, laughs, and learning outshone the fatigue that sometimes accompanies this type of work.
Sherry Millner artist talk on the occasion of In this place where the guest rests, curated by Jacqueline Mabey. Photo by Michael Mandiberg.
ANTE. How have you focused your energy on moving forward during the pandemic as a cultural producer?
TCS. With the COVID-19 pandemic, this is such a universal question right now in the arts and beyond. Right now my energy is focused on staying connected with close friends, taking care of my body with exercise, and connecting to nature (and my dog) with walks and gardening. I’m also doing some freelance grant and copywriting for an Alzheimer’s organization which has me thinking about how the labor of families, especially women’s labor, is literally keeping eldercare afloat in the U.S. I am thinking there is a feminist exhibition on labor, healthcare, and ageism in there somewhere. Things are still fresh with FSW closing, and I lost my mother recently too so there are a lot of new normals to digest, consequently, I am doing a lot of reflection right now, in a good way, I think, I hope..! Haha.
As we touched on earlier, I am starting to organize materials for an FSW archive. I am also awkwardly working to shift the Feminisms and the Arts class I teach at UConn-Stamford to distance learning and continuing ask colleagues and friends – especially those whose practices are about creating more equity and inclusiveness in the art world – how I can support them and their work during these difficult times.
In contemplating the last nine years, I’ve realize that curating for me is most rewarding when it’s in collaboration with a community where I feel a significant connection. Ideally, if I were to commit to another full-time position in the visual arts, the community I choose to work with would be as important as the organization. The places that feel like home to me are Bridgeport (where I live) and New Haven (where I have friends and there is a vibrant art scene) as well as my hometown of Nashville, TN. So I hope to stay put in Connecticut or move back to Tennessee. That said, we never know what the future brings, so I’m keeping an open mind at the same time