Interview with “I’m Fine” Artist Brandon Chambers

This is the third installment of the I’m Fine artist interview series.

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Brandon Chambers || UMCP ’17 || Exhibiting in I’m Fine from June 5th through July 28th, 2017 at The Stamp Gallery || University of Maryland, College Park || Interview by Cristy Ho

First, please tell us about yourself. Where are you from and when did you get into making art?

I grew up in a middle class nuclear family in a safe community of single family homes. I certainly remember it as an ideal childhood. I had friends at church, friends at school, and friends in the neighborhood. I had an older brother and a younger sister to play and fight with, and my grandparents lived a five minutes’ drive away. My mother was a doctor and my father was a teacher. Perhaps I over-idolize them, but in my mind, they represent the ideal humans, or at least humans striving towards the ideal. Hard-working, patient, nurturing, intelligent, wise…resolute.

On the last day of second grade, I vaguely remember being told that I would not see my classmates again. My parents, having prayed deeply on the issue had decided we were moving to Jamaica, where they had grown up. I had been there before on vacations to visit cousins and my great grandmother, but had never thought living there was even a possibility. We’d gone to beaches only locals would know about, and I thought that meant I knew the country.

The difference between visiting a place and living there are vast, but I learned fast. I learned to call my teachers ‘miss’ and that saying ‘God know’ is like saying ‘I swear’. I learned that electricity and water pressure are not guaranteed, and to be careful carrying hot water. I learned about hurricane season. I learned that in church, the opening prayer can last thirty minutes. I learned that a mind is all it takes to be creative. Whatever else I learned there came to me through culture and socialization, and was too subtle for me to be aware of, but nonetheless has greatly affected my way of life.

Living in Jamaica gave me the opportunity to compare and contrast different environments, different societies, different experiences of life. Jamaica is, in many ways, where I developed my sense of self. I continued my childhood in that new environment and seven years later, to facilitate my brother going to college, we moved back to the U.S. Back to Maryland.

I did not start making art at any specific time in my life, and my family was not particularly art-centered. I developed whatever skills I have over years of dabbling, and for a long time considered that to be enough. I went as far as getting an associates in science before I realized that I was going through the motions of learning, but had no real excitement in it. No drive. Perhaps it was immature, but I wanted to follow what gave me pleasure because to be the person I wanted to be, it would take real commitment rather than sporadic interest.

So I changed my major, began taking art classes at Montgomery College, got an Associates degree in Art, transferred to UMD and just continued applying myself. I can’t say I had any artistic style for most of that time. If anything, I tried to keep myself and my ego out of the work. I have been consistently making art since then.

You focus on the idea of impermanence in your work. What draws you to this concept?

Impermanence is one of those existential truths that really resonate with me both because of my personal experience and as a modern societal trend where, because there is more activity, more things begin and as a result, end. Whether it is an emotion like fear, joy, confusion or anger, a school or career you are in, your friend group or relationships, your life or your favorite television shows, we are presented with endless examples of things that reach a conclusion. Beyond the sadness and feeling of loss, though, there is also the beauty of completion and the ability to look at something as a whole rather than a work in progress.

Your video “Reviling of Pleasing Corruptions” has attracted many perplexed viewers into the Stamp Gallery. As a docent, I am often asked why you chose to drink dyed corn syrup out of Pepsi bottles. Are you warning about the substance’s adverse health effects and is there a deeper underlying meaning to this?

Rather than warning people about the adverse health effects, it was my belief that people were already aware of them. What I wanted people to reflect on was the reality that knowing something is harmful is not always enough to end the behavior. I chose dyed corn syrup and Pepsi bottles because drinking two or three bottles of Pepsi a day was one of the habits I found myself repeating, and I realized that collecting the bottles and seeing them as a whole gave me a long term perspective of the cost, not only in money but also the unseen cost my body was paying.

The deeper meaning I hoped to convey is that there are countless things we consume that negatively affect us, and like the Pepsi for me, our society often makes these things particularly easy for us to obtain. These things are packaged and marketed in a way that psychologically attracts us. They are designed to be if not physically, then mentally addictive. What’s more is that the negative effects are often unseen and easily ignored until the habit is just a part of who you are. It doesn’t help that we are in a society where people generally encourage you to be who you are rather than change.

Can you elaborate on what the white cloth represents?

The white cloth represents that blank canvas of a person’s life experience. It is the untarnished mind and body. After the first sip, I spit out the dark, viscous mixture onto the cloth in disgust, but spitting it out, rejecting it, doesn’t make the cloth clean again.

The cloth is also meant to provide a sterile setting for the interaction. There is a man, his addiction, and a lack of any alternative. After spitting out the drink, after indulging and rejecting an experience, it would be great to move on to something better, something different. But, much like going to a vending machine and hoping to find something without corn syrup or without food coloring, something nutritious, there is often no real alternative, so we return to the same thing we rejected, again tarnishing the cloth.

Over time, the cloth is a giant mess, and one more round doesn’t seem like it will make much difference. There is no worry about containing the mess since it is already made, and the habit has been going on so long that in the grand scheme of things you might as well just continue.

It is important to note that while it is viscerally visible in the video, in reality, most of this is happening internally, and isn’t disgusting the people around you (or their disgust is also internal).

How did you feel before, during, and after the recording of your performance?

Directly before the performance my main feeling was relief that it wasn’t just a crazy/cool idea. There are so many times that I have ideas of things that could be created and it doesn’t happen, either because I’m too self-conscious or I spend too much time fantasizing about it rather than doing it. So yeah, it was a good feeling having everything set up since the only thing after that is the action, and I find that is the simplest part. What little anxiety I had was from worrying that I would break character or overact and ruin the shot. But that’s how creating anything is, and it was easy enough to ignore when the time came.

During the recording I really had to actively be in the moment while simultaneously being aware of composition, timing and the perspective of the camera. It was like being in a trance where, even though I saw the people and things around me, they weren’t separate from me and the performance. By the time I got 5 minutes in, I was in my own head, ready to go on, but knowing there was a lot of time to go. There was a point where fatigue, the smell, the taste, the sight and the repetition took me to a place of enlightenment, where I had a true, visceral knowing of the futility of the action. I continued with the performance after that, but it was the moment I felt I had been working towards, where I had learned or experience everything the activity had to teach.

After it was all done, I was just tired and sticky and covered in gunk naked. I had to take a shower/bath in a large sink with cold water, and wipe the corn syrup off with paper towels. But it was done, and I was relieved. More than that, it was one of the few times where I put that much physical commitment into a project, and the feeling of being a creator was overwhelming. It was the feeling of completion, where all that was left to do was to look at what I had done. I loved it.

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Moving on to your next piece, “Endless Impermanence” has a system of discolored patches and holes that are reminiscent of the visual complexity of a map. What materials did you use to create this effect?

‘Endless Impermanence’ is the result of laser-cutting into graphite grounded Bristol board. I used a combination of drawing, photography, digital painting, and digital editing to create an image in Photoshop to excavate from the paper using the laser cutter by burning into the sheets at varying depths and intensities to create the visual complexity.

Taking into consideration the abstract nature of this work, how did you know when it was finished?

‘Endless Impermanence’ is really the result of months of trial, error and success with the technique. To go too far could mean literally burning the paper away to where there is nothing substantial to present, or, after hours of working with the cutter, having a product that is a uniformed blankness. Luckily, I got to a point where I could tell on the computer roughly how far to go, and it was finished when the laser cutter stopped cutting.

More broadly, what concepts or artists inspire you?

The idea of virtual reality inspires me greatly. The possibilities fill me with as much fear as joyful anticipation. To me it represents the ability to fully have someone’s attention and have them immersed totally in the art. It brings up questions about what it is to be conscious, how vital the ‘real world’ is if the mind can be more expansive in the virtual one. I’m interested to see if the technology reaches a point where it takes effort to remain aware of which reality you are in. All these thoughts worry me, but that only hastens me to wonder and imagine more.

I’m also interested in the idea that information has a lifespan of usefulness. I was really excited when I saw the promotional posters for “I’m Fine”, but at the same time, I realized that once the show is over, it isn’t really useful information, just a signifier of something that happened in the past. The same is true for the majority of emails, flyers, texts and so many other sources of information. At the risk of seeming to promote book burning, a lot of the information we have surrounded ourselves with is outdated, and beyond being useless, can at times be harmful to people who mistakenly treat it as relevant or reliable. I’m interested in the idea of being able to separate timelessly relevant truths from temporary ones.

What are you currently working on and what are your plans for the future?

Well, I’ve been working on a project where I illustrate interpersonal relationship dynamics in a hieroglyph-type aesthetic. I design a scale system that force the figures in the composition to be placed in positions where they balance the scales and cause stability, or take actions that unbalance the system. The simplest example I can give is to have you imagine a see-saw with two people on either side of it, causing it to be balanced. In order to get closer to each other, they must both move towards the center. Now imagine there are three people on the see-saw where two of them want to be together, but the third does not. What type of balance would they need to reach, or how willing are they to unbalance the system to reach their goal? I am in the early stages of this project, but my end goal is a series of simple but powerful narrative images that can give me an insight into relationship dynamics.

As for the future, I’m looking at grad programs for next year. Until then I’ll just be developing skills, and doing what each moment calls me to do.

Lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring artists?

I guess the advice I have is to start seeking out a variety of experiences to draw from. If the only animal you’ve ever seen is a cat, making art about birds becomes pretty difficult. The narrower your experiences, the less you can express, and the fewer people you can connect with.

For more information on I’M FINE and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery

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Interview with “Midpoint 2017” Artist Hugh Condrey Bryant

This is the second installment of the Midpoint 2017 artist interview series.

Hugh Condrey Bryant || Second Year M.F.A. Candidate || Exhibiting in MIDPOINT 2017 from March 29 through May 22, 2017 at The Stamp Gallery || University of Maryland, College Park || Interview by Sarah Schurman

Let’s start with some background: where are you from? What brought you to sculpture and the University of Maryland’s MFA program?

I’m originally from Greensboro, NC. I attended school at UNC Greensboro and received a BFA in art with a concentration in design as well as a BFA in theatrical set design. After that I did an internship at Franconia Sculpture Park in Shafer, MN and ended up staying there for 2 years as the sculpture park manager. I met a lot of artists from all over the world at Franconia, made a lot of connections. It was there that I met Dane Winkler who just recently graduated from the program last year. When I decided that grad school was something I wanted to do I contacted Dane to inquire about Maryland. I was very interested in what they had to offer so I applied. The program is primarily studio centric and focuses heavily on developing artistic practice and the conceptual aspects of one’s work. It was everything I was looking for. The access to studio facilities here is great and the faculty’s accessibility is very helpful. I find it to be an engaging environment that has really helped me come into my own as an artist.

In all three of your MIDPOINT works, you convey a fascination with traditionally “masculine” materials. How do these gendered mediums inform the meaning of your sculptures in this exhibition and your art in general?

Growing up, my father was sort of a jack of all trades. He had a lot of experience in many different fields of trade labor and construction. He was a mason, a carpenter, a metal worker, a crane rigger, and also worked within the field of nuclear power plant construction and maintenance during the late 80s and early 90s. From a young age he taught me many different techniques in masonry, carpentry, and later metal fabrication. He instilled in me a very strong sense of self efficacy and a mentality that I could build or make whatever I wanted. Learning these things from my father created a very strong bond between us. He taught me to appreciate the craftsmanship involved in skilled labor and to enjoy the accomplishment of a job well done. The fascination I have with these materials is very much associated with those early experiences.

My father is also a very loving, caring, and emotionally intelligent individual. So I also learned from him to move through life with grace and love, the importance of being in touch with one’s emotions, and of exercising kindness and compassion with others. I may not have known it at the time, but all of this would have a very profound affect on me later in life in regard to how I view masculinity.  For me being a man is not about physical strength and stoicism as many boys are taught from a young age. I am first and foremost a human being before I am a man. To me that means understanding that there is a  spectrum of ‘gender’ that can inform one’s identity. The designation of gender does not have to define how we behave or who we are as human beings. Masculinity, femininity, and everything outside and inbetween are a great part of human energy.

I associate all of the aforementioned with these materials. I see the traditional link of masculinity to the skilled labor involved with steel and concrete to be an antiquated sentiment. But it is that link that I find so interesting when it comes to applying my views regarding gender to the art I create with those materials. Skill and labor are genderless and the sculptures I produce are part of that belief. I use sculpture as a means to communicate through form and express the emotional aspects of my identity.

Tell us a little bit about your artistic process. Was it drastically different for the three pieces or similar?

Within my process and practice there are two distinctly different and oppositional creative impulses. One is the tendency to control material with a great intention toward the outcome, I generally apply this to steel. The other is to accept that I have no true or absolute control over the material and therefore I must respond to the outcome once I have executed a process. That is the impulse I attribute to the ways in which I cast concrete. The former is a very tedious and time consuming process while the latter is very quick and rooted in intuition. I associate that with the intuitive and with the unconscious to a certain degree, something that is latent and must be awakened or found. I associate the tedious and sometimes overcomplicated tendency in attempting to control the material absolutely to the overly rational parts of my mind. That tendency is obsessive at times and can even become irrational, which is kind of funny to me. I try to find a balance between the two but it doesn’t always work out that way, but I think that tension is what informs the physical tension of my sculptures. Sometimes a piece or even certain parts of a piece take a lot of time to work through, which was the case with A Constantly Persistent Moment (temporal portrait) and Of Ideals & Relics. Sometimes pieces happen at a rapid pace, taking very little time. This was the case with It’s Impressive How Far One’s Neurosis Will Go to Protect Itself, which only took a day to make. What is similar for all three sculptures is that each one is subject to both of these creative impulses to some degree, but I pushed myself to be decisive and intuitive in making and responding to the outcomes of all three.

What concepts inspired your titles: A Constantly Persistent Moment, Of Ideals & Relics, and It’s Impressive How Far One’s Neuroses Will Go to Protect Itself?

All are inspired by the fluctuant nature of being. I make, respond, and contemplate.  The concepts I apply to all my work come from a place within my mind that relies on the intuitive and emotional, a place where I am illuminating the unconscious and studying the point at which the internal and external meet. All three sculptures are expressions from that place. Once something is done the title comes to me as I analyze what I’ve created.

All three works, particularly A Constantly Persistent Moment, convey the sense of being suspended in space. Does this choice juxtapose the concrete materials with their fragile positioning?

To an extent, yes. I like playing with tension. Accentuating weight and mass through tension is a process of play that I have always engaged in. The juxtaposition of these can create a interesting dialogue between sculptural forms and engage space more effectively, especially when intervening with the architecture of a space, such as the way that It’s Impressive How Far One’s Neuroses Will Go To Protect Itself does with the columns of the gallery.

It’s Impressive How Far One’s Neuroses Will Go To Protect Itself seems to be situated in a defensive position. How does the smooth base, guarded by spikes, represent the mind?

The positioning, gesture, and tension represents the unconscious constraints, limitations, and protective tendencies that occur within systems of belief we form in the mind. The title is something a friend of mine said to me one time. We were discussing the cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy that some people exhibit between their behavior/actions, their desires/expectations from others, and the systems of belief they construct. The propensity to say one thing and do another. A product of that is a protective and defensive mechanism that serves primarily to preserve the ego and avoid the pitfalls of guilt and shame. While this unconscious practice can keep the mind free of negativities regarding one’s self perception it can also form a prison built of beliefs that hinders realizations about (and improvements to) the self and the potentials of one’s existence. So… the spikes could perhaps be representative of those mental defenses that surround vulnerability. The cables an expression of the limitations and bonds that those defenses place on the mind; therefore, limiting its ability to experience growth and transformation into higher states of perception regarding how the self affects and is affected by the external world.

Was color a consideration when making Of Ideals & Relics? In what ways does its smooth, touchable texture communicate meaning?

The color is intended to exhibit softness, a kind of sensitivity. The texture coincides with that intention. The meaning I attach to that is there is strength within vulnerability. To acknowledge and accept vulnerability is to be in touch with what one’s inner strength can overcome. When one doesn’t acknowledge vulnerability it can sometimes hold one back from experiencing true and genuine connections with others. To put yourself out there is tough, but it is one way to overcome or rise above the unrealistic societal ideals and expectations that have a hold on us all. Through the material characteristics of texture and color I hope that people are inclined to interact with it, to have a more intimate and tactile experience with it. The smooth and delicate appearance is juxtaposed with the mass of the concrete, the reality that it is concrete… When the realization of what it is made out of occurs the viewer’s perception of what is possible is shaken. In a sense, I wanna drop cosmic eggs of knowledge on people’s heads, blow their minds in regard to material possibilities.

How do your three sculptures interact in conversation with each other and MIDPOINT as a whole? Do you think your work complements or questions Bekí and Jessica’s respective pieces?

With each other… I think they speak to the flexibility and openness of my approach while also communicating the multifaceted nature of the concepts I’m playing with. The mind and one’s internal emotional world are complex places. I like to think that these sculptures ride a line that exhibits both complexity of thought and simplicity of form. I feel there is also a conversation involving a sense of temporality that can be embodied in form. Whether it be a kind of potential for action to occur, a sense of stasis, or even sense of immobility.

I feel that there is a form of aesthetic or maybe visual complement to Bekí and Jessica’s work. There is a bit more visual complexity and intricacies to their work whereas my work utilizes simpler lines and shapes. I feel it may be a middle ground between what they’ve produced.

Your contributions to the MIDPOINT exhibition exude a sense of tension. Through the contradictions you explore, are you commenting on universal human experience or isolated, personal moments?

I think there is a little bit of both. I’m using concepts that work universally or at least incorporate a common thread of consensus in human experience, but I’m also using a lot of my personal perception and experience. So I’d have to say that to some degree I am commenting on both.

What and where are your sources of inspiration? Do your influences extend beyond the art world?

Hmmm… My former professor, Andy Dunnill, was a huge influence on me. He passed away a little over a year ago and that also inspired me in certain ways, especially how I think about making art. It made me realize that what I make my work about should be deeply important to me. Andy’s work and his continued mentorship post-undergrad had a profound affect on me. Even his passing and his memory continue to affect my work. I plan to dedicate the work for my thesis exhibition to him.

My friend Jemila MacEwan has also been a huge inspiration, especially in the expansion of the scope of my work and how I think about it. She is a sort of muse to me in a way. Her friendship and generosity are constantly pushing me to be a better person and artist.

Outside of that I look at the world around me and I read a lot of science fiction. The imagery that my mind creates while reading is a huge inspiration and part of how I envision things I am interested in making. Reading sci-fi has given me a library of mental imagery that I often pull from.

How does teaching and collaborating with other artists shape your artistic vision?

Learning is a constant thing for me. When I teach I am also learning from my students and empathizing with the way they see and perceive the world through art. Collaboration is the same way. I think learning and keeping the mind flexible and plastic is important to responding to what you make and improving upon it. The more perspectives I’m exposed to the more likely I am to maintain a mental plasticity that allows for transformation and growth in my work and artistic vision.

Tell us about any current projects or future endeavors. How has pursuing your Masters impacted the trajectory of your artistic career?

I’m really focused on developing my thesis. I want to start now because I know I’ll need a lot of time to come to a decision about the scope and ambition I want to apply to it, how big I want to make it. I have time though.

Besides thesis I’m going to participate in an arthouse residency this summer in upstate NY. I’ll be building housing+studio space for the artists that come to participate in residencies there. It’s always nice to build or make something that doesn’t have to do with my thesis work so that will be a nice distraction.

As for my Masters and how that has impacted my trajectory… I know now for certain that I want to teach. That gives me a lot of direction as to what my next steps might be and where they may lead me. I think teaching will also provide me with a means to keep pursuing my own work. If I can teach and still make art then I’m set. The future has a way of not conforming to expectations though so I try not to think too far ahead. Helps me a avoid unnecessary disappointment.

What do you hope visitors take away from MIDPOINT 2017?

I hope my work provokes inquiry and makes them ask questions. I like to ask questions or provoke people to ask their own. I’m not really interested in the answers though. As long as the work sticks in the viewer’s mind for awhile and causes them to contemplate possibilities. That’s the best I can hope for.

Bryant’s work is included in MIDPOINT 2017 in The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from March 29 through May 22, 2017

For more information on Bryant, visit http://hughcondreybryant.com

For more information on MIDPOINT 2017 and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery.


Interview with “Midpoint 2017” Artist Bekí Basch

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Beki Basch, from Reaper, black and white copy shop prints

This is the first installment of the Midpoint 2017 artist interview series.

Bekí Basch || Second Year M.F.A. Candidate || Exhibiting in MIDPOINT 2017 from March 29 through May 22, 2017 at The Stamp Gallery || University of Maryland, College Park || Interview by Grace DeWitt

To start with a little background, where are you from, and where did you study as an undergrad?

I’m originally from New Jersey, and I moved to Baltimore to study at MICA for undergrad.

What brought you to the arts in your undergrad career, and why the M.F.A. program at Maryland?

I started taking an interest to arts when I was about 15-16. From that point on there wasn’t a question as to what I would study in school, so what brought me there was just a sense of knowing that’s exactly what I wanted. I point this out specifically because after undergrad, I felt weirdly bruised, and after one large-ish project, I pretty much stopped making art for several years. My newfound drive to make work comes from healing those bruises and regaining that same high school-like sense of purpose to be an artist. The M.F.A. program at Maryland (in particular) was chosen for purely practical reasons. I didn’t apply anywhere else.

Having seen your previous work, can you share a little bit about the automobiles and puffins as a source of inspiration?

My work always draws from disparate sources, but the impetus is the same and it all comes from me. Puffins comes from back when I was 16 and writing a sort of myth about an island where puffins lived and floated around in balloons. They were these symbolic perfect creatures and in my story when two birds were in love, their bodies and the balloons would join together in a sort of reverse mitosis. Puffins have grown with me and I am always finding new ways in which their existence in my work makes sense. Automobiles came into play once I started formulating a narrative for a project in which the car represented my husband. It was going to be a video of him transporting a flag up a hill during a hill climb. I have since gone in a different direction with it, but ultimately cars are so multi-faceted and ubiquitous; there will likely always be inspiration there.

Moving into your MIDPOINT 2017 pieces, do you feel that the significance of either of these objects, or any others, has changed for you over the course of your MFA?

I think when you make work, you can never consider everything at play. Even the simplest pieces reveal truths over time that you didn’t ‘plan’ for. Right now, I am really enjoying the piece NEVER LET ME GO and in taking time to appreciate it, I am able to consider if I would do something similar again and how. For example, sometimes you think something is about your love for someone else, but then realize the duality is more within yourself.

Can you describe your physical and mental process in creating Reaper, and perhaps share some insight about the items used in the piece? (The hot dog has gotten some particular attention in the Gallery).

My mental process is connected to the physical process in that creating these photos was a highly intuitive process. I tend to plan a lot and I wanted to take this opportunity to present something a bit less planned and a bit more vulnerable. There is an artist I really love who works a lot with natural history and the combination of natural materials with man-made, especially contrasting contemporary imagery. I think she was in mind when I was dreaming these up. I had a lot of material in my studio that I had used or planned to use for one thing or another and I thought of combining them in a physical 3-dimensional way; to just take an overhead black and white shot would yield interesting and effective results. The images are edited slightly, but mostly to create that shrink wrap/wet effect and to boost the contrast, and place more focus on the center of each rather than any background.

Can you speak about the choice in materials for Reaper?

There are a lot of odds and ends in my studio and it’s nice to have an opportunity to use many of them without getting too focused on their structural capabilities or any other properties. Simply composing objects and snapping a photo is a really liberating process, since I usually plan a lot and don’t often make something quick the central focus of a piece.

How about your process in creating Core Samples?

These pieces were concrete cast into trash bags into a long box each. Then I added objects and resin interchangeably to make some sunken treasures.

Never Let Me Go is currently located in the Tawes fountains. What led you to this installation decision?

I had created two concrete pieces last year that I put in the fountain for a couple of hours and took some photos and made a little photo book out of them. The book was a linear transition of photos that showed the pieces clear through the water but with their hard edges made wavy by the ripples, and then slowly progressing to images where the pieces are totally obscured by harsher waves in the water.

You’ve mentioned that your practice is project-based. Working in this way, do you ever struggle to know when you’re “done” with a project?

The short answer is yes. Before I came to UMD I was struggling a lot with never having deadlines. I was working on a project and yet watching the world sweep past me, wave by wave by wave. My sense of time was, and maybe still is, by nature, super slow. If there was nobody around and nothing to do, I would be happy just napping in a field all day. That being said, I now recognize the advantage of having deadlines and I use those to ‘know’ when a project is ‘done’ but that’s just for whatever needs to be ‘done’ at that time. I think you let the idea work itself out and then you work with it and then leave it alone, but I don’t feel like I will ever have it all figured out, and especially not by any deadline, so I just do the best I can by the time something needs to be done, and then one day, I figure something else out and work on it more, or just feel pleased by that.

Are there any other events, concepts, particular artists or art movements not yet mentioned here, that also inspire your work?

Everything. Not even sure I could list them. I see little bits of every source in everything I do. The artist I was mentioning before though is Camille Henrot. I am not particularly inspired by other artists though − it feels a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I am of course inspired by them, but not much more than everything else out there − comedy, nature, music, mythology…

You wrote a really beautiful statement for MIDPOINT 2017, which you read at the opening reception. Without putting any words in your mouth, do you feel that that such an interaction with your audience was helpful to you, or essential to exhibiting such vulnerable work − if I may call it − as that in MIDPOINT?

We were required to have a little artist talk, but the last time I did something like that, I really screwed it up, and I was working with a friend and I really screwed it up for her too. Unfortunately, I still live so much inside my head that it’s still rather difficult for me to say what I want. I am also generally in disbelief that anyone would really want to listen. Writing a statement and reading it aloud is a bit of a cheat, but I figured since this is a learning environment, it could be a good lesson for myself to try to bridge the gap between thinking-writing-speaking.

When someone walks into MIDPOINT, what do you hope that person will grasp about your work?

If there is anything, I hope it would only be that they take a minute. Putting anything in a gallery is a signal for you to take a minute. It’s important to do that anyway and just appreciate the formal and conceptual elements of everything around you, but I have specifically composed this work out of the things around me and put them in the gallery because I cared to do so. If you come in and take a minute and try to find your own entry point, you might connect with the work. But it’s okay if you don’t.

Can you tell me a little about your upcoming show at Current Space, or what you’re currently working on?

My show at Current Space is a deadline for the project I couldn’t finish before I came to school. I am mostly working on that right now. I am also slowly planning for a project in Iceland this summer where I have a one month residency coming up. It’s funny but the Current Space show has a car sculpture in it and the piece in Iceland will largely be about puffins. I swear these are not my only interests.

You’ve also mentioned to me about an up-coming expedition to Iceland you’ll be going on to work with live puffins, can you explain some more about that opportunity? Do you have any insight about how it will impact your work?

Yeah, this has been a long time coming. Like I said, the puffin thing started a long time ago for me. I don’t know why I liked them at first, to be honest, but when I learned they were Iceland’s national bird, things started to fall into place a bit more. In some ways, I expect it will be incredibly anti-climactic. You just can’t engineer these things. I have been on this side-quest to see puffins in the wild for years. I’m not an active birder or anything, I just find myself in places where puffins live, over and over and over again and never see them. You could call that fate, but who knows really. There is almost no way this upcoming trip could live up that − but I feel myself going to this happy place where I can keep myself open to beautiful experience. For example, last August I went to Maine and went on a puffin watching boat and it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Nobody could have planned it, but the water, the fog, everything, was silver and still and surreal. I think I romanticize certain things and then when I am in their presence I am reminded to be extra conscious of the beauty and symbolism present in everything.

More broadly, do you see your work heading in a particular direction over the remainder of your Masters, or beyond?

Sure. I have some sense of the future, but I think it’s mostly to keep myself going. Like I said, I have a problem with momentum. I just get too existential about things. I would love to keep working so I get more and more practice and I keep growing. Before I could see that I wasn’t growing much or being challenged for a long time. In some ways my lifetime goal might just be to write an artist statement that makes sense, but then again who really cares.

Lastly, any advice for undergraduate artists? Anything you would tell your younger self as you entered the arts?

Yes, of course. I am still very much that self, or at least I try to maintain it. I don’t understand this thing where art is a game you play, like some petty argument. It’s too earthly. The best thing you can do is shake off all the rules you know and start from square one every time. I think art needs to be a fulfilling, spiritual practice, and you just need to let it lead you places sometimes. I think art is an expression of the divine within, and surely everyone has that.

Basch’s work is included in MIDPOINT 2017 in The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from March 29 through May 22, 2017.

For more information on Basch, visit www.bekibasch.com.

For more information on MIDPOINT 2017 and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery.


Interview with Black Maths Artist Antonio McAfee

Antonio McAfee || Baltimore-based visual artist || Black Maths October 31–December 10, 2016 at the Stamp Gallery || University of Maryland, College Park || Interview by Grace DeWitt

This is the second installment of the Black Maths artist interview series.

To start with some background, did you grow up in the Baltimore area, where you’re currently based?

I moved to Baltimore when I was 9. My father was in the army so my brother and I were born in Germany; prior to moving to Baltimore, I lived in Oklahoma and Kansas.

Where did you study, and were you gravitated toward art early on, or did you have to find your way to art-making?

As a kid, I gravitated to understanding how things worked and story-telling. I started out taking apart toys and other devices (trucks, Nintendos, stereos, etc.) just to exercise my curiosity of how things worked. I also wrote stories which was something I would get absorbed in. Drawing was another activity I did quite a bit for many years, but I was mostly captivated by technology and telling stories, which plays a crucial role in how I think and work in the study. As evident in Black Maths, deconstruction and narratives really drive my current body of work, and has since college.

Art-making came into my life in high school. I went to Carver Center for Arts and Technology which is a magnet high school that allowed students to major in primes. Officially, I was in the Culinary Arts program but during my second year I saw the work of two visual art students (Justin Blische and Johnny Rogers) who were doing experimental photography, and it completely fascinated me, in part, because I have not seen much like it at the time. I wanted to learn how they made their images, so I approached the photography teacher (Charles Schwartz) about taking a class and I have been obsessed ever since. Junior year I participated in the school’s Italian Exchange Program; during this trip I went to the Venice Biennale and it blew me away. Going to galleries and museums was not a big part of my life; seeing ideas presented on a grand scale was the turning point, and I decided to dedicate my life to art.

Right after high school, I studied at Morgan State University for a year, then transferred to the Corcoran College of Art and Design to be as immersed as possible in art. Right after that I attended the University of Pennsylvania to get my MFA in photography. While at the Corcoran I worked at numerous art institutions and learned a great deal about facilitating exhibitions, collections, and programs. This experience influenced me to study Art and Culture Management at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Your work in Black Maths, the Counter-Archive Project, transforms black-and-white photographs made for the The Exhibition of American Negroes organized by W.E.B. Dubois, Thomas Calloway, and Historic Black Colleges at the Paris 1900 International Exposition. How did you come across The Exhibition of American Negroes?

In graduate school, I was on a trip to San Francisco, while there I visited my aunt who was studying at UC Santa Cruz. She gave me a chapter from the book Photography on the Color Line in which the author dedicates a chapter to analyzing the photography of The Exhibition of American Negroes. This text was eye opening because it introduced Du Bois’ involvement with photography, and thinking about archives as something I contribute to, as opposed to something that is static and set in stone.

Can you explain how you encountered the ideas of Lucy Lippard, and how your work in Black Maths resonates with Lippard’s thoughts on intersubjective time?

Lucy Lippard initially came to me in an art theory class while I was a student at the Corcoran. As a feminist theorist, she offered a critical point of view that was new and exciting to me in that context, enabling me to think much broader about representation. Ms. Lippard presented the idea of intersubjective time in her essay Doubletake: The Diary of a Relationship of an Image, in which she discusses different levels of personal attachment to a black and white photograph of a Native American family. Through stages of research into the photographer and the family Lippard developed a deepened affection for the photograph. An affection that transcended time and evolved the more she researched.

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Antonio McAfee, The Trickster (In Motion), 2014, digital C-print

This mimics the engagement I have with the portraits from the American Negro Exhibition. Researching and understanding the back stories contributes to knowing the whys and whats of the portraits, which allows for personal points of entry I can relate to. Using photography to address misrepresentation and realigning it towards accurate representations struck a chord with me because being subjected to others’ expectations, assumptions, stereotypes, etc. is an on-going battle. Images are a profound way in which people understand each other, so it is pertinent for me to use that medium to counter those notions and take depictions of others to a different direction that a) deconstruct and reconstruct photographic portraiture and b) offer depictions that are influx, inexplicable, and play with static representations. It is through experimenting and remaking these images that I develop a deepening connection to these pictures, their time period, and the narrative behind their inception.

You mentioned at the Black Maths opener that a certain book also played a large role in inspiring the Counter-Archive Project. Could you go into further detail about that?

Photography on the Color Line by Shane Smith is an influential book in which the title of the project comes from. Dr. Smith outlines the context that contributed to the creation of this project by Mr. Colloway and Du Bois. To combat racist ideas and depictions of Blacks, The Exhibition of American Negroes was created to survey their middle class status from a lower social and economic status (slavery, sharecropper, etc.), using photographic portraiture as a counter move to reposition one’s self and others, to establish control of how someone or a group of people are to be seen, understood, and engaged. I think it is powerful to have a personal stake in history, in particular, a document that is locked in a time, place, idea and to take back some authority of history and rework it in a way relates more specifically that person. This process can reveal a web of connections that may not have been noticed before, ushering new directions, ideas, and relationships.

A Small Nation of People by David Levering Lewis and Deborah Willis (on display at the gallery) is also informative because it presents research conducted about the exhibition which presents more information about the people photographed and the backstory about how the exhibition came about and Du Bois and Colloway’s experience developing and exhibiting the exhibition. In general, literature plays an essential part in the ways I think about myself, others, and what I do: books from The Body in Pain: Making and Unmaking the World by Elaine Scary, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, to White Teeth by Zadie Smith.

Counter-Archive is photography-centered. Have your artistic endeavors always focused on photographic elements, or has this interest developed from projects in other media?

The core of my endeavors is photography. I also make pieces in video, drawing, collage, sculpture, and painting, but they revolve around photography and portraiture. My interest in other media developed from photography.

To what degree would you say that spontaneity, or an uncontrolled use of materials, play a role in your work?

Spontaneity plays a huge role in my process. Using glue as the initial method to alter pictures gives me a jumping off point I cannot completely control and allows for moves after that guide me in unexpected directions. It helps keep the images and process fresh, offering new challenges and problems to solve, but the more I use it the more I can understand.

“The Trickster” and the “Woman in Black” are recurring characters throughout the Counter-Archive Project. Was there a specific reason for repeating or revisiting these characters?

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Antonio McAfee, Woman in Black Cross Fade, 2014, video

While I am working on one piece questions of “what if this or that happens” come up. So, I will make many versions of the same figure because I want to see my initial idea through, but I do not want to ignore the various stages along the way, especially if they are effective images. It is a matter of paying attention to what is in front of me and letting different stages and thoughts sit for a while to see what they offer.

Could you explain what led you to the incorporation of 3D elements into Counter-Archive?

The 3D portraits are an extension of The Trickster (In Motion) which is an image of The Trickster that has been duplicated and overlapped to give the effect as if someone is looking at him cross-eyed. I wanted to enhance that effect by creating figures that seem to
vibrate, shift left and right, and turn visible and invisible. One way to achieve this was to use a 3D visual that actually did that with the assistance of red, blue, and 3D glasses.

It appears that you explored a number of photograph manipulation techniques in your series. Could you explain your process in creating El Tarta, one of the more noticeably varied works in the collection?

El Tarta is a collage that is made of fragments from the 1900 studio portraits. I use a transfer process that takes inkjet ink from dried glue –- applied to the studio portraits -– to acrylic medium. From there I glue the medium pieces, holding the ink onto paper to build figures partially from scratch.

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Antonio McAfee, El Tarta, 2016, pigment ink on paper

 

What about your process in creating The Abrupt Unmaking?

For The Abrupt Unmaking, I poured glue onto the inkjet print and let it rest there for three months. Over time, the print buckled and curled as a result of the hardening glue; then I peeled off the glue, leaving the wistful impression of a fading figure.

Can you tell me a little bit about your conceptual and physical processes in creating the three Unmaking and Making panel pieces in the show?

The process for creating the panels pieces is the same as El Tarta. After transferring the ink to acrylic medium I glue the pieces, building out the figures and simultaneously abstracting and camouflaging them amongst the black, white and grays tones of the photographs. These collages are a move towards more imaginative interpretations of these individuals, trying to see far I can push my interpretations. This process is closer to drawing than most of the work in the show. It has been a fruitful, challenging move away from the strictness of the historical aesthetic and image, to reconstruct the figures to numerous small pieces.

Were there any other particular experiences or connections that emerged from creating certain pieces in Counter-Archive that you’d be willing to share?

Woman in Black Cross Fade was an exciting, spontaneous development because I just happened to come across a three-eyed figure that had two heads blended together. I have been fascinated by three-eyes figures in Christian paintings for some time and always wanted to make some, but other pieces and techniques taking place in the studio superceded that goal. Once I came across the merged head with three eyes, I remembered immediately “I have wanted to create images like this;” it was an exciting surprise that felt like an accomplishment.

I understand that the exhibition title ‘Black Maths was a joint decision between you and Adam. Would you mind explaining a little bit about how the title relates specifically to your work in the show?

The title Black Maths comes from the idea of reworking traditions, offering visitors the chance to take in styles of images and sounds that may be familiar or established. Through experimentation, Adam and I have developed process-centered methods, i.e., our own equations, to produce pieces that are rooted in the past or a certain event but offers new interpretations to what they mean or how they function today.

When someone walks into Black Maths, what is one thing you hope that person will grasp about your work?

The abstract/inexplicable is valid and powerful in its own right. No one has to bear the burden of proving his or her existence or normalcy, which is quite often the plight of people that are categorized as “other” and not a part of a dominant culture. It is quite all right having others put in the effort to meet you halfway to understand who you are.

Do you feel that the message or significance of either the Counter-Archive Project, or Black Maths, has changed since its state at opening?

No, I do not think it changed. It has just been presented holistically to showcase the range in which the message can be seen in the array I have been working and conceptualizing it.

In close, can I ask what you’re currently working on?

I am working on an 8 1/2 ft tall portrait collage of D’Angelo as Mary Magdalene with life-size photographic sculpture cut-outs the 1900 portraits. This month I am participating in two group shows as  well.

 

McAfee’s work is included in Black Maths at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, October 31–December 10, 2016. Read more about Antonio McAfee.

McAfee will be joining Adam Holofcener in an artists talk in the Gallery on December 10, 2016 at 2 pm. Read more about Black Maths.


Interview with Black Maths Artist Adam Holofcener

Adam Holofcener || Sound Artist, Composer, Performer  || Black Maths October 31-December 10, 2016 at The Stamp Gallery || University of Maryland, College Park || Interview by Sarah Schurman 

This is the first installment of the Black Maths artist interview series.

Black Maths embodies a visual and auditory conversation between the works of two Baltimore-based artists. Holofcener’s quadrophonic sound installation Upresting configures field recordings from the 2015 Baltimore uprising into a new sound installation that evokes a body navigating a protest. Visitors are encouraged to speak into a microphone to experience their voice join a multitude.

To start with some context, did you grow up in Baltimore? Did your upbringing and schooling bring you to art?

That’s a good question. Well I grew up in Baltimore. Nobody in my immediate family were art makers. Definitely grew up in a sports household. I’m a white suburbanite, I wasn’t good at sports so my angst sort of channeled itself by playing punk rock music. My first engagement with art actually was somewhat through my grandfather, he grew up in East Baltimore and he got me hooked on jazz and literature. My schooling: I was extremely fortunate. I went to a school in the Baltimore called St. Paul’s school. That school was full of fascists, but the academics were really good and the guy teaching jazz there (I believe he still teaches jazz there) his name is Carl Grubbs and he was actually John Coltrane’s cousin. Carl, he’s rich, he’s as sick as can be, and he’s also sort of an artist. He was wasting his time with stupid white boys; we weren’t worthy. I feel like the combination of literature and jazz pushed me into thinking of art making in a more concrete way. Having access to intellectuals…a lot of teachers in my high school were intellectuals. Part of my neuroses got me to this point where I needed to then hear, listen, read, and see everything. Then it was just a slow matriculation on the course of avant-garde (all art media), it’s more grounded in the more bizarre subcultures out there.

Your sound installation Upresting reawakens the 2015 Baltimore Uprising in a way that invites the individual to experience collective emotion outside of its’ original context. How does Upresting explore the relationship between the individual and society?

That’s a good question. I look at all things on a continuum. On that continuum, things like the Uprising, they manifest the expression of the many and the expression of the singular all at the same time. For many of the people at the Uprising– there were a lot of people in Baltimore, they’re not from Baltimore, they don’t care about Baltimore; they weren’t gonna care about it later. Then, other people were not from Baltimore and trying to give a damn about something. For a lot of people it’s hard to separate their Ego (Ego with a capital E here): they are bringing to fruition whatever their compulsions are. Even myself to a certain extent, my whole career outside of art making has been in the public interest and I never even really did any protesting because a lot of my own pathways had put a narrative in my head that ‘well you know, you’ve got to use your skills and privilege to sort of operate within the system.’” Protesting is an extremely important part of that process, I just didn’t know if I was the one to do it. If you’re protesting I think you really need to be there as a vessel. You really need to remove your ego.  It’s definitely one of those aspects of my privilege of white male-dom…It’s hard to really work in that space where you are just a vehicle. The Uprising was such that even those who didn’t feel compelled to act that way normally, everyone just felt crazy compelled. Everyone just felt like there was there was a magnetism in that way. It was an intense feeling. Then that sort of groupthink mentality that kicks in. I thought about it a lot: so much that got me thinking about Upresting while I was in the protest, especially the really long ones that would last all day long. It really helps me, the sound that operates in the protest is what joins everyone together. This exhibition is strange for me, when I first got funding to do the piece, it was sort of a community art piece. Nowhere really did I say “Upresting by Adam Holofcener.” The piece for me has kind of come full circle because I conceived of it as this very aesthetic, intellectual thing, and then I had the opportunity to make a piece of public art about it,  and because those things interest me very much I took that opportunity. Then, when the opportunity came to bring it back into the realm of this more intense aesthetic it came back. It involved the many and the few; it gives you the opportunity to look at it from either of those perspectives. In contexts like this it’s worth diagnosing it from both sides.

People tend to dichotomize individual identity and society. Does Upresting suggest that collective voices can diverge from society’s message?

That’s an interesting question. Cecilia and I were talking about this before the exhibition. One of the things I thought a lot about is how you organize a collective message. What are the other opportunities that people have in such large numbers, you know thousands of people, to try to channel a good message at the same time. To me the most premiere counterexample is a sporting event; something like a football game. You have 60,000 people chanting in unison. They’re collectivizing their message but their message is a lot easier to package, and why I think that football games happen all the time and a protest happens a week after someone gets killed and then they  dissipate. It’s hard to chorale the thoughts of two people of any complexity, let alone 60,000. The really amazing thing about protest or trying to organize collective people, like community organizing too (God bless anyone who truly is grassroots organizing), even people from the city council and they have to have meetings where they have someone come inside and they start screaming that the cracks in the sidewalk are yelling at them. It’s hard to chorale. Complexity, obviously, an honest protest or rally or something that is trying to bottle that very nuanced magic, I think that’s what adds to the heightened, almost spiritual nature of the event, but it makes it harder to contain. A lot of people there are there for a lot of different, but converging reasons. After the sports game people can be like “we all won;” “we all didn’t”. After you leave a protest and you’re  like “what occurred?” Other times you might be like “I felt solidarity.” There’s multiplicity of feelings. It’s very important that people continue to act in that way–protest–it’s a very important part of the organizing process.

How do you think that that pairing your individual work with Antonio’s Counter Archive Project further investigates the relationship between the individual and collective? Is the message of Upresting different when in conversation with Antonio’s visual installation?

Another good question. I think Antonio’s work (this is my own reading of it), the photographs that he’s taking from Dubois really are attempting to not only distill the comments and the materialized form, between the whole category of people (individuals of color at the turn of the 20th century); they are primarily formulated by individuals. He’s commenting on the communal by exploring these individual presences. With my work, there’s a lot of different voices that come into play but it’s still somewhat focused on the individual experience. The opportunity for a singular voice to impress itself upon the environment that is embodying the many. When I first spoke to Antonio about working together we really thought a lot about–we both think a lot about process, these very academic ideas, sociological, anthropological, ethical, and then we were also like “how can we approach that from a unique form? A unique way of packaging that has a lot to do with conceptual processes.” My art is always based upon larger ideas and concepts. I’m not the type of person that if you gave me a cabin the woods, I’d be like “yeah!” I’d be like “I don’t know.” I don’t have an internal muse. I need to read five newspapers a day and be out with the people. I think Antonio is that way too, he’s really good at being inspired by all these amazing, ridiculous, horrifying wonderful things in the world has to inspire us. Being an artist is a very a selfish thing, you come at it from this singular solo page and then you attempt to take it back to your community and a larger whole.

By extending the life of the 2015 Baltimore Uprising beyond its temporal existence, Upresting challenges conventional notions of time. How is the ephemeral eternalized and universalized in your work?

To a certain extent I’m not sure. A lot of my practices involve improvised or aleatoric or experimental works. A computer program itself is on an improvisational journey. I think the universe operates on these types of irrefutable ephemera. I always get really nervous by anything that’s trying to put anything in stone. I really don’t want my reading of communal events or something like the Uprising to really have anything that is definitive about anything. It’s not my story to tell. Look, I’ve had these powerful experiences walking around the streets of this city that I care about and in which I live and work with a lot of other people, and I felt it this way and it was kind of ever-changing and different and to me, that’s interesting. In many ways, it’s inspired by an extremely emotionally politically and universally charged set of circumstances that demand a tremendous amount of respect from whomever is interested interacting with them. It all comes from almost the same impulse I have–it’s my kind of artistic practices. When I’m walking down the street and the car mixes with the sound of the, all the sounds mixing all the time there’s always that opportunity for you to sort, in an aural sense it’s without language so it’s tough. The mathematical complicated nature of the universe is such that when things sort of come together, to me that’s sort of like the closest that you’ll get to some kind of church of experience. Something like a protest is the closest you’ll get to a really intense of orchestra. There are so many opportunities and people and voices and places; things that are gonna make your hair stand on end. The form is very important.

What is the current relevance of Black Maths, especially post-election?

It’s really hard for me to even think about my own work right now. It’s been a little bit of a wild ride. We have our artists talk coming up and I haven’t really told anyone about the exhibition since the election. Anything I did is totally irrelevant. Even if this is possibly conceptually talking about something that might be Relevant (with a capital “r”) it doesn’t seem to be. How relevant is it? A lot of what I’m interested in…[being] on the vanguard of the newest most bizarre type of aesthetic criteria or a new media being created. I knew none of it really mattered because I disagree with most things that occur most of the time anyway. You fall really hard between “its pretty bleak” and the intense optimism–this is more important than ever people need to be thinking harder and empathizing more than ever. It’s hard to answer because everyone is still mining this particular existential crisis and will do for a long time. Something like the election is still so emotionally intense, a lot of work I was thinking about I wanted to not do anymore and I had a lot of new ideas for work I want to spend a lot of time thinking about now.

What do you hope visitors will gain or contemplate because of Upresting or Black Maths as a whole?

I think when you go to something like Black Maths, there’s part of me that’s like I don’t want to tell anybody what to do how to feel ever. What comes to mind if someone is like, really asking me. It’s one of the reason why I feel so obliged to try to utilize my privilege for other people. Black Maths does this pretty well, I think it might’ve done it better than I’ve ever done up to this point….My whole life of being an artist has just led from one continual opportunity after another to gain other perspectives. Every situation that you go in you should tear down into millions of perspectives that are attending to anything. It’s only been five years that I haven’t been outwardly hostile to my audience. I’m still on training wheels [laughs]. To me something like Upresting is just avant-garde music. It’s weird sounds doing weird stuff. It’s funny, especially coming from a music composition/performance background, I’m really used to standing in front of an audience and  people coming in with a brain that’s like “I like when people make sounds that are either difficult to listen to and I haven’t heard before, they might be out of my sonic palette,” or it’s gonna be such a difficult thing. In a gallery context people are so much more accepting. Sound is a full body experience. There is part of me now that’s thinking less that every act is a political act. It’s easier for me to be like, I want everybody to go, because if everyone doesn’t go then what’s the point. It’s a challenge because I’m never not gonna do weird shit. I’ll always never prescribe anything to anybody. Everybody’s just got to think hard about everything.

Adam Holofcener’s work is included in Black Maths in The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, October 31-December 10th, 2016. Holofcener will be joining Antonio McAfee for the Black Maths Artist Talk Saturday, December 10th at 2pm. 


Featuring Nilou Kazemzadeh

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Part of the Frequency series. In the Laboratory Research Gallery.

Nilou Kazemzadeh recently received her B.A. in Studio Art Spring 2016. Her work is currently featured in the Stamp Gallery until July 29th and her show, Frequency,  is on display in the Laboratory Research Gallery in the Parren Mitchell Art/Sociology Building until June 30th. I had the pleasure of interviewing Nilou regarding her work.

To start with a little background, where are you from, and what first got you into art?

I was born and raised in Maryland. I can’t remember the specific place or time where I picked up a pencil or crayon and made a conscious decision to make “art,” but I can say I’ve always been surrounded by it and I remember enjoying it so it’s something that stuck with me.

What drove you to pursue a degree in studio art?

When I entered university I was undeclared, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue art. I ended up taking two art classes, intro to printmaking and intro to painting, at George Mason University my second semester of freshman year. I really enjoyed both classes so when I transferred to The University of Maryland I declared myself as a studio art major.

Could you talk more about the relationship between your work in Drawing Board and your work in Frequency?

One show is exhibiting the midpoint of my process while the other is showing the end product. In Drawing Board, my plates,which I use to print my pieces, are being shown. In Frequency, the prints that come from the plate are on display. In Frequency, my intention was to show the viewer what could be done with just a single plate, printed over and over again.

How was the process of approaching Frequency different than the process of approaching your work in Drawing Board?

Before I completed Frequency, I focused on producing one or two satisfactory prints. Each time I printed I made sure my print would come out clean and even. In contrast, Frequency is about repetition. Before I focused on building up texture on the plate before printing, this time around my plate was simplified while the texture came in through the application of ink. For Frequency, each time I inked the plate I created variation through how much ink I would leave on the plates surface.

There appears to be a cultural charge to your work. Could you expand more on that aspect?

Outside of my house, there really wasn’t anything that I could relate myself to. There has always been a disconnect between me and my Iranian heritage. In order to bridge that gap, I use Persian imagery such as Farsi in my work. Every time I create a work that is related to my culture, I study and learn new things about Iran’s history and it makes me feel closer to that side of me that I’ve neglected until now.

Are there any particular artists, art movements, or other concepts that inspire your current work, or your art overall?

In my most recent work, I use a lot of poetry written by Persian poets such as Omar Khayyam, Forough Farrokhzad, Rumi and Sa’di. I pick poetry that I can relate to. One poem I used from Farrokhzad, titled “Gift”, she asks her friends to bring her a light and a window to her house. She expresses her longing to see a glimpse of the outside world. Or Khayyam’s poem, “Sleeping Ignorance”, and Sa’di’s poem “Bani Adam”, which expresses the human condition.

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Untitled Cheragh Plates. In the Stamp Gallery.

I’ve also been inspired by the Safavid period of Iranian history. Things such as architecture, illuminations, and calligraphy were rapidly being developed in this era. Artists that inspire me, and really push me to continue creating cultural art are Monir Farmanfarmaian, Hossein Zenderoudi, and Parviz Tanavoli. They are a few of the Iranian artists who have contemporized Persian art by their usage of calligraphy and architecture.

How do you see your work in the Stamp Gallery fitting in with the concept of the show, Drawing Board, as a whole?

I think the basis of the Drawing Board is about exploration, there are a lot of pieces that show the midpoints, or stepping stones leading to other works. Whenever I create new prints, I learn new ways of approaching printing. The first prints I did in collagraph, I focused more on getting a clean even print, each and every time. This time with Frequency I wanted to experiment with leaving and manipulating the surface ink. This is what produced the cloudy/smokey look.

When someone walks into Frequency, what do you hope that person will grasp about your work?

One of the biggest obstacles I face is having the viewer not be able to understand what the calligraphy says when the calligraphy is an important factor to the overall piece. In past work I tried to use English but I felt as though I was making the work too obvious. But through that piece I learned that I shouldn’t fully rely on the calligraphy, but on the way I present the work. I hope that the size and quality of the prints help express its meaning.

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Part of the Frequency series. In the Laboratory Research Gallery.

Is there anything that you are currently working on that you wouldn’t mind sharing?

The work I’ve done so far, I’ve relied heavily on studying and viewing work through my laptop. I haven’t really experienced anything first hand. My work is inspired by my Persian culture, but I haven’t been to Iran for over 5 years. There is a big difference between viewing a painting through Google and actually going to the museum and experiencing the painting up close. So I’m happy to say for the rest of the summer I will be in Iran seeing everything up close. I won’t be making any work but that will come afterwards.

Any future plans for your work and yourself? Upcoming exhibitions? Graduate school?

Right now I am in route to get my Masters in Education at the University of Maryland. In terms of my work I see getting my MFA in the horizon.

Lastly, any advice for budding artists? Anything you would tell a younger Nilou just entering the arts world?

I think I need to wait 5-7 years before I can really answer this question. But if I can give any advice I would telling my younger self and young artists to just do it. You really don’t know what you can achieve if you don’t try. I think my biggest fault is that I spend too much time thinking and not enough time doing.

The Stamp Gallery is located on the first floor of the Adele H. Stamp Student Union. The current show, Drawing Board, is up until July 29th and the gallery is open Monday through Friday 11:00 AM – 6:00 PM.

The Laboratory Research Gallery is located in 3rd floor west wing of the Parren Mitchell Art/Sociology Building. The current show, Frequency, is up until June 30th and the gallery is open Monday through Thursday 12:00 PM – 4:00 PM. Learn more about the Laboratory Research Gallery by visiting their blog.

Written by Christopher Bugtong


Interview with Midpoint Artist Zac Benson

This is the last installment of the Midpoint 2016 artist interview series.

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I read on your website that you attended school at the University of Tennessee for your undergrad career, what influenced your decision to join the University of Maryland MFA program?

 So after I did my undergrad at the University of Tennessee, I did a semester post-baccalaureate program just out at the University of Colorado at Boulder. After that I went to New York City worked for a year and I was applying to grad school and I came here primarily for the funding. They put you in the classroom a lot and that kind of subsidizes the tuition… kind of a tuition remission and so it was mainly because of funding but also Professor Foonsham, I kind of followed his work. Kind of wanted to work with him as well.

In addition, your website mentions that your gallery works gain influence through your personal faith as well as your engagement with society, that being said, what was the influence behind God is Greater?

 So it stemmed from when I heard about the demolition caused by ISIS to St. Elijah’s monastery and it really got me thinking because that was the oldest monastery in Iraq, I believe it’s like 1400 years old, just a little bit over 1400 years old and ISIS came in with heavy equipment to bulldoze it. I would have thought that they would have just bombed it and just gotten it over with in a second but they came in with heavy equipment. It probably took like over a week to two weeks and just destroying that history of not only the Christian faith but we’ve also heard of other destruction they’ve done. So I wanted to make a piece about that to try to figure out how do I convey what happened, what they did, just in visual form, in art form. So I decided to get Bibles that were translated into Arabic and then I laser cut just the aerial image of the aftermath onto the Bibles and trying to convey that destruction. So within the Christian faith the sincerest object is the Bible so laser cutting the destruction of that monastery onto the bibles I’m kind of recreating the monastery onto the bibles, I’m also talking about the destruction of it as well. it’s just kind of this dialogue that’s happening. But it was mainly because I heard about that story and was concerned about what was happening and I wanted to convey that concern in some way.

Do you ever feel limited by your desire to utilize “abandoned and discarded material” in your artwork? If so, why or how might this limit your work? If not, why or how does this set you apart from other artists?

No, I think it does limit me and so, therefore, speaking directly to God is Greater, I actually bought those bibles, so those actually were not reclaimed. Those were brand new. So I’m getting to the point in my work where if it is necessary to use new material, I will. With that said, going back to part of your question, I don’t know if I want to be classified as a recycled material artist or a reclaimed material artist and so, therefore, I like the ability to kind of go in between each one. Sometimes if the content of the piece allows me to use reclaimed material that I’ve found – if it speaks to it. If the reclaimed material speaks to the concept, I’ll use it. If not, I’ll go buy the material that speaks to it. So it does limit it but I don’t allow it to, if that makes sense. Because if it does, then I just go find the material that is right for the piece. But that actually just happened only about two years ago. Before I would almost never use new materials, strictly only reclaimed material. So this is kind of a new thing for me of using new material. Just about a year and a half two years ago.

What was it that drew you to work with these kinds of materials?

My first sculpture class at the University of Tennessee was kind of a special topics class. It was called Eco Art and so, therefore, you had to use reclaimed materials, you had to speak to those issues under the umbrella of environmental art and that was the first sculpture class that kind of started me on this path. Also, side note, both of my granddaddies on both sides of my family were penny pinchers so I’m kind of like that as well. Now I don’t like that as being the reason why I use reclaimed materials because you shouldn’t let that hinder you but I think that did contribute to it but mainly I think it’s because I took that eco class as my first sculpture class. Now growing in these past eighteen years, I really enjoyed the act of finding. A question I get asked a lot is, “how do you know which materials to pick up and what not to pick up?” so if I go by a dumpster and there are twenty 2x4s and I go by another one and there are a hundred chair legs, how do I know which one to pick up? And I like that process, of what stimulates me at that time because obviously I don’t pick up everything that I see that’s free. So I like that process that the material engages me in some way and therefore I respond and take it to my studio and try to implement that in my work.

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The incorporation of faith can often be seen as a controversial topic, has God is Greater created any controversy? Is this the intended purpose?

I don’t know if controversy is the intended purpose. I do talk about faith in my work but actually, some of it has been controversial because I also talk about where my faith makes me stand up for issues and some of those issues are very unpopular in a contemporary sense. But dealing directly with this piece, I think everyone is onboard with the idea that if you disagree with someone or a faith or belief, you should not necessarily act harmfully on those beliefs. You can speak to them and that’s totally fine and that is where I think we all agree but if you go past speaking and act, just like ISIS did with the temple, that is when we all stand on the same plane and say, “No, that’s wrong.” So with this particular piece, I haven’t had any issues with it like other pieces I’ve done. One of my previous pieces was actually dealing with Planned Parenthood and abortion and that was extremely controversial but what I try to do is stand lightly on those issues and not stamp my feet, if that makes sense, and maybe start to have a dialogue and not an argument.

What is the meaning behind the title of your work?

 So I liked it being a little ambiguous where you’re not sure. The word God is kind of ambiguous in this because you’re not sure who God is. If you’re talking about multiple belief systems or faiths as we are whether it’s Christianity or Islam. So the word God in there, God is Greater, which God? Whose God? My God? Your God? So I like the ambiguity of it but also it’s pretty direct if you do think about it in that way as well. So that’s actually where that last question comes in. I want to speak to things, to stand firm in my beliefs but not to an extent to where it ostracizes the viewer if they believe something different. So it allows the viewer to come into the title, come into the piece with still allowing me to state my beliefs…Now I can tell you exactly what the title means but I feel like that can be controversial. Personally, why I did it is I believe…so if we’re talking about the God of Christianity, I believe He is greater than this demolition. Christianity, the belief system, obviously is affected by it but in the long term, that is not shaking the faith. So if you dig into the title, you might come to that but if not, you might just be like, “who’s he talking about?” But if you look at the piece and the description, then you might come to that, though ISIS came in for a purpose: to destroy a portion of the faith, it’s actually not destroyed. The faith system is a lot bigger than one monastery or one person. Which in history, you can obviously see that with the Crusades, with what Christians did, they didn’t shake other belief systems. So you can actually see that with martyrs etcetera it actually… it makes the faith stronger. Usually, when the faith has pressure on it, it makes it stronger which is actually unusual…kind of an interesting aspect of when one belief system comes up to another. It harms it in the short term but almost benefits it in the long term which is kind of interesting.

Undergraduate students make up a bulk of the Stamp Gallery’s audience, what kind of emotions do you hope to evoke from the students regarding your work?

 I think probably two emotions. Hopefully, awareness that not only that these things are happening as we can give sort of a long list of what ISIS has done but that this one action has happened. The knowledge of this. As I was making it I was speaking predominantly just to family and they had not heard of it. I think it was actually back in 2014 that this happened and I’d just heard about it in 2016. So it’s even unusual for me, as the artist, to be making a piece that I think is contemporary like of today and it’s actually of two years ago. So it’s almost like I’m kind of late to the party. So I think awareness that this is happening and hopefully that we can do something more. And I think maybe just to engage in the piece. I hope that visually it was engaging enough that they can be like, “oh hey, this is kind of visually interesting, let’s look into it more, let’s figure out what it’s saying” So I hope to intrigue the viewer with the aesthetics of it but also hopefully to be more aware of what is happening because a couple of my next pieces are going to deal with how Christians are being targeted in other countries. Mainly right now in China so I want to bring awareness to what’s happening to people of my faith in certain areas of the world.

Are you working on any newer pieces right now? What plans do you have for your artwork in the near or distant future?

Yea, I’m working on a piece right now. So in China, in a province, the government has taken down 1200 crosses from churches and in some places have actually demolished the whole church. In one situation which I might be more direct in this piece and talk about this situation and not the umbrella view or the aerial view, just on like May the tenth I believe, the government contracted out some individuals to go demolish a church and the pastor and his wife was going to stand against it so they stood in front of the bulldozers and they actually buried the wife alive and tried to bury the pastor but somehow he escaped. So that was just like three weeks ago that this is happening that, at least I don’t think would happen in contemporary society but she was buried alive just for her faith and so my next piece will probably deal specifically with that situation and might continue to deal with situations like that or more direct faith-based work.

And is this going to be shown?

Not yet, it’s just kind of in the idea phase right now so we’ll see. Now the God is Greater piece will actually be in a show with a couple other pieces, it’s my solo show in a gallery in Greenville, South Carolina on the campus of Furman University in September.

For more information on Zac Benson, visit https://zacbenson.com/