Interview with ‘(Sub)Urban’ Curator Matthew McLaughlin

This is the first installment of the (Sub)Urban interview series. (Sub)Urban features work by Amze Emmons, Yoonmi Nam, Benjamin Rogers, Nick Satinover, Christine Buckton Tillman, and Sang-Mi Yoo.

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Installation view of (Sub)Urban at the Stamp Gallery. On right: Nick Satinover’s A Pink Slip Fashioned Flag (for College Park). Woodblock prints. 2017.

Matthew McLaughlin | Artist, Professor | Curator of (Sub)Urban from October 30 through December 16, 2017 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Grace DeWitt

Let’s start with some history. I understand that you’re a professor here, at the University of Maryland, College Park. Where did you grow up, where have you studied, and what brought you to this campus?

I grew up in Greenbelt, MD, just down the road from College Park and the University of Maryland. I received my BFA in Fine Art from Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, FL and my MFA in Printmaking from Arizona State University. I became connected with UMD after meeting Professor Justin Strom at an opening and his inviting me to the campus to meet with Professor Richardson, the Chair of the Art Department. A few months later, I was contacted about my interest in teaching foundations courses for the department.

Could you talk a little bit about the curatorial process behind (Sub)Urban? Is this your first curated show? How did the exhibiting artists come to your awareness?

(Sub)Urban is my curatorial debut and I’m quite happy with its reception by the local community. My curatorial process has a strong connection with my personal interests and areas of research for my own artistic practice. My own work focuses on the human relationship to its environment, mainly focusing on suburban and urban spaces and our alterations. So for this exhibition, I was interested in bringing together artists I admire for their practice and their conceptual exploration of similar subjects to my own.

Some of these artists are friends I have gained since graduate school, like Benjamin Rogers, who went to ASU with me, and Amze Emmons, who I met through printmaking conference events. The others have been on my radar through the suggestion of fellow artists, conference exhibitions, and Instagram.

How do you feel your word choice in the show title connects to ideas about suburban and urban spaces?

I think my show title reflects on the connection that urban and suburban spaces have, even though many try to deny it. Whether the connection is through the white flight of the 1960s or the overlapping cultural connections of television, music, etc, these two spaces that try to be separate have a strong relationship, and I wanted the title to reflect that.

It seems that you provided the (Sub)Urban artists with a certain level of exhibitory freedom while curating this show. Did the decision to work in this way create any challenges for you?

The only challenge that came from this freedom was the challenge of bringing all the work together in a comprehensive exhibition, once I knew exactly what I was going to receive. When I contacted each artist, I had some specific ideas in mind, but knew there would need to be some flexibility because of availability. I have run into this issue with my own work and having it in multiple exhibitions close together, so I understood the hassle of giving them very specific requests versus generalities. Yes, there may have been a print or piece that I would have preferred, but if it was designated for another exhibition first, I was happy to get another from the same series.

You’ve mentioned in person that your practice exists in the same conceptual conversation as many of the works in (Sub)Urban. To what extent did your artistic practice play a role in the curatorial process of this show?

My personal practice and conceptual interests had a massive role in the curatorial process for the exhibition. As I mentioned earlier, all the artists in the exhibition are people I admire and have followed, in one way or another, for some time. Just as researchers in other fields read articles by colleagues at other institutions, artists pay attention to those creating art in similar conceptual and visual avenues to know what is being explored already and how it might inform their own work.

This show covers a variety of media, often within individual artists’ practices. Was it important to you to display, say, sculpture from self-described printmakers, or prints from self-described sculptors? Or did this element to the show come about organically?

This element of the exhibition came about organically as a whole, but was more specific for each artist. My intention in requesting some of Yoonmi’s Generally Meant to be Discarded sculptures was not to specifically present sculptures created by an artist traditionally trained in printmaking, but to show work that I found compelling and interesting for its conceptual and material ideas. That the exhibition has installation and sculptural works by artists with MFAs in printmaking and drawing, alongside their more traditional works, came about when I brought all the works together and realized what I had done.

Were there any subtler themes, phrases, or concepts not marketed with the show that you either intended to visualize in (Sub)Urban, or found yourself revisiting as you compiled the show?

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Yoonmi Nam’s Take Out (Thank You Thank You Thank You), from the Generally Meant to be Discarded series. Lithograph on gampi paper and cast glass. 2016.

Nothing that I intended or found before hand, but upon installation, I made some connections between some of the work that I hadn’t previously. There was a subtle theme that questioned the reality of urban and suburban spaces through the reality of Yoonmi, Christine, and Amze’s sculptural pieces. Each of these artists made work that re-created elements of urban and suburban spaces and life, but with materials that alter the audience’s interaction with them. Specifically considering Yoonmi’s Generally Meant to be Discarded sculptural series, the two in the exhibition have such a life-like quality people easily think the artist is displaying actual takeout bags and containers, but once they approach the work, the reality of the material nature of the sculptures immediately alters their relationship with it. This subtle switch brings in larger questions for the audience about their relationship with their own environments.

In your own words, what happens in terms of the viewing experience when elements of the suburbs are taken out of context, like in Amze’s Street Life Flat Pack series?

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Amze Emmons’ Street Life Flat Pack (detail) in the Stamp Gallery. UV coroplast shapes. 2016.

To me, when elements of urban and suburban spaces are taken out of context there is a sense of importance that is typically glossed over when seen on the street, but also the viewer is exposed to the item and forced to interact with and consider it from a perspective they had not considered before. Especially when this is taken to the next level, by an artist re-presenting the known item in a new material context, as with Amze’s Street Life Flat Pack and Yoonmi’s Generally Meant to be Discarded series.

It feels like Christine’s Clay Paper Chain comes from a different corner of the suburban experience. Could you touch on your intent in including her work in (Sub)Urban, or the area you feel that her work covers in a show that covers so much about the suburbia as we know it?

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Christine Buckton Tillman’s Clay Paper Chain (detail), ceramic, 2017; and Self Portrait, wood stain on model airplane, 2016 in the Stamp Gallery.

I chose to invite Christine because I felt her work touched on a more interior connection with the suburban experience, similarly to Benjamin and Nick’s works. Christine is a mom and a school teacher; I felt both works spoke to that experience and its personal nature, while also relating to Yoonmi and Amze’s works through the material nature of each and allowing the viewer to question both the reality of the artwork, but also question the idea it’s presenting.

Would you consider (Sub)Urban to be a critique of suburban or urban spaces and/or their social purpose?

No, I consider (Sub)Urban to be more of a survey of urban and suburban spaces, the concepts that we apply to them, and how we relate to each environment. I look at the exhibition as a tool to expose the audience to new ideas and perspectives of spaces they know, maybe rather well, and try to engage the viewers in re-thinking their own relationship with these environments.

This show is one of few in recent history at the Stamp Gallery that features multiple artists who collectively, and vastly, span across the U.S., and even includes some who work from international backgrounds and influences. What was your intention in curating a show here that comes from so many regions?

I wanted to expose the student body to a larger idea of the art being created in the country, and I wanted a greater representation of the work being created around the concept of the exhibition. The suburban and urban experience may be considered more universally understood, but there are subtle differences from regionally specific traits that affect the culture of suburbs and urban spaces around the country. I felt an exhibition of artists that spanned a larger swatch of the country would give a better overall interpretation of the suburban/urban experience to the audience.

I also prefer to see exhibitions that bring a more varied group of artists when considering their location and background. An exhibition of local artists on a specific concept or theme can have repetitive elements that make it only relatable to that region, while an exhibition like this can connect to a large contingency of the population.

A connection within (Sub)Urban that has fascinated me is the many ways that the suburban experience is outwardly homogenized, and yet remains internally idiosyncratic. Has this show, and seeing these artists’ work all together, expanded your perspective of suburban and urban experiences in any way?

Not really, as my own work has been examining and reconsidering the nature of these spaces through those idiosyncratic characteristics that many others gloss over. But it has expanded my perspective on how these ideas can be explored, and thus it is beginning to form new ideas on approaching my own artistic practice.

The exhibition vinyl in the Stamp Gallery contains two quotes: “This world is but a canvas to our imagination” (Henry David Thoreau), and “For to Thoreau the significant relationship is not that between [hu]man and [hu]man; it is the relationship between [hu]mans and [their] environment” (JB Jackson). Could you share some insight about your inclusion of these quotes in the show?

The JB Jackson quote was the main one I wanted to use for the wall text, but I felt it would be a little hard to understand without a little context about Thoreau. So I searched for a Thoreau quote that would give the best general insight into his thinking that could be expanded upon by the JB Jackson quote.

JB Jackson is a writer who, from the 1950s forward, focused on writing about the American landscape and the development of urban and suburban spaces. He greatly influenced the development of contemporary cultural landscape studies.

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Left: Sang-Mi Yoo’s In Transition, pigment inkjet print, 2016; and Anomalous Traces, laser cut wool felt, 2015. Right: Benjamin Roger’s The Perfect Romance of Self-Reliance (detail), oil on canvas, 2014 in the Stamp Gallery.

When someone walks into (Sub)Urban, what do you hope a person will grasp from the show?

I hope they find the humor in the work, the intrigue in the material use of some pieces, but overall, gain a fresh perspective on suburban and urban spaces.

What is one thing you have learned from curating this show?

Solid respect for curators and gallerists who do this for a living. To come up with one exhibition theme, coordinate artists and the shipping of their work and then lay it all out is one thing, but to do it over and over again. Wow.

To close, is there anything else you’d like to promote here? Any current or upcoming shows you’re participating in, either as artist or curator?

I have a few new ideas for other curatorial exhibitions, but currently, I’m focusing on a residency to get a lot of work completed.

 

McLaughlin is the curator of (Sub)Urban in The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from October 30 through December 16, 2017.

For more information on Matthew McLaughlin, visit http://www.matthewtmclaughlin.com/.

For more information on (Sub)Urban visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery.

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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.


I Walk Through This Piece, and I am Denied Harmony: Nara Park’s “Never Forget”

cm_install-5Above: Nara Park, Never Forget. 2014. Plastic packaging boxes, vinyl. The Stamp Gallery.

When I first stepped through Nara Park’s Never Forget, I experienced a strong and unexpected cognitive dissonance. Shiny, striking, beckoning, Park’s work stands familiarly in our dimension, and is undeniably dynamic. My mental hesitance was not immediate, but seeped into me with closer inspection of the piece and its label. Park builds with “bricks” that are hollow, that have nothing natural about them, that have no part that ever came from earth or should ever return to it. “Moss” exists in a stagnant state that does not begin or end in growth, only geometry. I walked through “stone” that had no history beyond a factory print date and folds under Park’s hands. All of her work is made of mylar, plastic, vinyl, and patterned with ink printed off-site.

And I felt truly alienated. I felt an alienation that was amplified by my weeks spent with Never Forget, working in the site of its stature, and so I began to articulate a ‘why.’

I walk through Park’s work and am forced to recognize the bounds I tie to the trueness of materials. I have begun to recognize how much of the things that I love, I shamelessly love for their grounded nature. Grounded: I love not the space things occupy but the matter with which they occupy that space. Nature: I love not the things alone in this moment, but the things as a part of moments before and moments to come. It is not a realization of materialism in the traditional sense, but a sudden awareness of a strange attachment to materials nonetheless.

In other words, I was not rudely asked to reflect on how much I love to possess things, but rather asked to reflect on why I love the physical things I love. I love the buttery texture of oil paint. If you were to hand me an aerosol can of oil paint, I would not love oil paint. I grew up in a world of true-false questions and Holden Caulfield’s crises over phoniness, and so I grew up hating fake and loving transparency. And somewhere along the way, as I loved the transparent and honest and real, I either created or found the romance of those characteristics. These vinyl shipping boxes before me that held nothing but contained “PROTECTION,” “DIGNITY,” and “LOYALTY,” were completely artificial and completely without romance.

Really though, that’s the point. Like a poem you write and then find online in Comic Sans, my experience with Park’s work is not my own, and what Park is saying is not romantic. And despite how my staggered impression makes it seem, Park commits no crimes in her studio practice. She is openly and wholly un-aggressive about the altered realities she builds, and in a way, her written words seem to express greater humility towards her materials than many of those uttered by sculptors who wield the very materials she mimics.

Her goal is not to deceive, her goal is to understand. She asks us to figure out something with her. What really matters, to us as persons, and to us as a people? What about the things that matter, actually matter? What about the things that matter, should?

In the present, I continue to fall in love with the unique character of materials, the behaviors they practice that you take away when you only offer their image. I am still greedy: I want to experience an item with all of my senses, and am betrayed by the option of only using one. But I am also at times made humble by the way in which I consume the visual, tangible world. Here is Never Forget, filtering objects through one sense. Here are “inscriptions” that purposefully encourage dissonance. Here are items I have trouble connecting with because of their materiality, serving as a list of attributes that have no materiality at all.

Transparency is not about things that are true to their form, nor does it blindly communicate a harmony. Transparency is the champion of alienation, dissonance, discomfort. Because in this discomfort, we are made to reflect, and to grow.

In this way, there can be nothing more transparent, more honest, more real, than massless boxes building massless ideas.

Nara Park‘s Never Forget can be seen in Collective Monument, along with work by Onejoon Che and the DZT Collective, at The Stamp Gallery, now through March 11, 2017. 

Grace DeWitt