Patrick McDonough 131007-white turf painting action rosslyn
Before and after view
Courtesy the artist and G Fine Art
The exhibition examines the relationship between sustainability, aesthetics, and free time, a timely and important topic in the face of environmental flux and increased interest in alternative energy, technologies, and economies. Utilizing our interior gallery space and outdoor sculpture garden, McDonough presents discrete objects, performance documentation, and solar sculptures that blend wit and insight, playfulness and provocation. Sponsored by the Office of Sustainability.
On the occasion ofbrightveridiansentinelevents, Patrick McDonough spoke with Milena Kalinovska, Director of Public Programs at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Presented is an excerpt from their discussion.
MK: When did you decide to become an artist, and what kind of work did you begin doing? How do you see your own path?
JM: I feel like I have always had a certain curiosity about things that lead pretty directly into my way of being an artist in the world. But the first time I felt what I was doing held sway, I was in my early twenties and was making these David Lynchian sculptures about how people in the suburbs construct interactions through objects. After that I felt an accountability of sorts; that art was the way my thoughts wanted to be in the world.
MK: Why did you start thinking about your work in terms of breaking down the barriers between fine art and the everyday? Is that your key subject matter?
JM: I think that this really began with an introspective moment or moments. Where I am from, it is an engaged, educated, progressive place; but I felt that being an artist was still anomalous behavior. In contrast to basically everybody liking football, it seemed like this thing I was interested in was not especially typical. But at the same time, I saw real similarities between my behavior and others', which got me thinking about how concepts such as home decorating, landscaping, tinkering, and aspirational behavior are can be considered alongside the means and ends of artists and art audiences. [It was] less about breaking down barriers and more about finding where these two contexts are either tangential or parallel.
So the quotidian, or vernacular, or the everyday I think was a logical place to work. I am not sure if it is my key subject matter--I might locate that in my thoughts on the role and function of art and artists--though it is certainly a key lens that I utilize.
MK: Does art allow you to work with ideas connected to the real world? How do you decide what to source from everyday life?
JM: What I find perhaps most interesting about making art objects is their insistence on being both within and alongside the world. How an awning sculpture is both very much an awning, yet really not at all. I was reintroduced recently to Clare Bishop's working definition of art as "a form of experimental activity that overlaps with the world." She gets it really right I think, especially the notion of the overlap.
As far as what I am sourcing from, I tend to look for shifting signifiers-objects/constructs/networks that conjure multiple implications. These implications could be of class, history, affinities, or constituencies.
MK: Let's talk about your process. How do you go about producing your works? Do you work in the studio? Do you read, listen to music, sketch, and make notes?
JM: I do work in the studio, pretty consistently really. It is not the contemplative refuge of some artists, nor is it the workaday mentality, punch the clock model, but I try to be in the studio working on a relatively consistent basis. Most of the work ends up getting fabricated by me too, whether that be digital works or welded steel structures or anything in between-I don't have an studio assistant or anything so most everything falls to my hands. My iPod is indispensable to my working hours, though!
As far as how the works themselves progress, I think that I really benefit from working on several different projects or types of things at one time. This allows me a bit of distance when I circle back to a work to tweak it or discard it even. I feel like my mind gets to rest from a method of thinking or making while still putting one foot in front of the other.
My whole day to day though really embodies this new freelancer economy that seems to be on the tip of everyone's tongues. So while the physical studio time is compartmentalized in a sense, work is always happening. Grant writing hat becomes phone meeting hat, proposal pitching time leads into stop motion animation crafting on the laptop. Not to mention that I cross stitch on my couch at night! I am not alone in this model obviously, but it feels like the methodology informs the product.
MK: Talk about the transition from inside into outside and vice versa. How does your work respond directly to the environment, such as gallery space as opposed to street space?
JM: I hope that my projects are always consciously engaging with the context that they are inhabiting--not just the physical, but the historical, social, and hierarchical. Someone introduced me to the term once of "site responsiveness" instead of "site specificity," and that seems appropriate to me.
And, of course, the range of these sorts of characteristics is magnified once you start introducing art into the exterior environment--not only logistically, but how viewers interact with the work, and how much it even is outwardly contextualized as art.
MK: Do you think differently about pieces for indoors and outdoors?
JM: I think you must. The logistics are different, the materials are different, space functions differently. Indoor spaces are rarified, the works can be tenuous and will most likely be treated as such. Whereas in the outdoors you never know who is going to interact with it, which is exciting, or what they are going to do with it, which can be frightening.
MK: How does the breakthrough happen?
JM: Breakthroughs for me have so far been a result of really great epiphanies and circling research. While I am certainly not some kind of conduit to a collective unconscious, I am unafraid to say that sometimes neurons in my brain line up without much knowing input from me. I think this is true of more artists and thinkers than we usually admit.
Real nuance and complexities, though, are much more a product of continuing to look and think and dig on these ideas that may or may not spring up out of nowhere.
MK: Do you repeat yourself, or do you always start from the scratch? Are you apprehensive about staring at a blank page?
JM: I know that many artists find insight through repetition, and thus difference through similarity. But personally, I don't seem to be very interested in doing something again, at least outwardly. Certainly I work my way back to certain forms and concepts-awnings, vernaculars, fan behaviors-but even with these serial works I am consciously trying to switch up the methodology somehow.
For this reason, I don't have much of a blank canvas problem, though I think an aggressively multidisciplinary approach suffers a similar problem. Namely, if you can do anything, what should you do? (This seems to be the endgame of hyperpluralism in general)
MK: How do you respond to failure?
JM: By making and thinking more. While it is frustrating at the time, we all know failure is the catalyst for development. I think it was Scott Reeder who said becoming a better artist is learning that most of your ideas are bad. Similarly, over time I have learned that how to separate out the good, but I seem to have to make the bad ones anyway. Otherwise they fester and rot. I'm not saying that anyone but me gets to see these bad ones, though!
MK: Are you always productive, or do you have periods when you just turn to something else?
JM: I feel like I have developed a sort of cadence in my production, stages of feverish production alternated with slower nibbling kinds of periods. Though this probably refers most accurately to the crafting of objects than to writing, meeting or conceptualizing new things.
MK: Do you try to educate your audience? Do you learn from your audience?
JM: I prefer to think of it as offering a challenge to my audience. As if I am putting forward an argument, that a viewer can then agree with, disagree with, or dismiss. Of course closing this feedback loop can prove to be difficult, but I do evaluate the success of a project based on responses to it once it has met the world.
I hope I learn from my viewers, though maybe comment cards would help! Seriously though, I value the dialogue I am lucky enough to have with other artists, critics, and art viewers. I might learn the most from my friends who are what I might call infrequent art participants, speaking with them and showing them my work can help breakthrough the codes and idioms that might become too comfortable and safe otherwise.
MK: Do you think it is enough for your audience just to look at the image?
JM: With certain exceptions, my work really privileges the physical experience. That might be because I frequently make sculptural objects, less often dealing with image creation. But also, with the public space projects, the context is so huge and dynamic that images can seem cold and lifeless in comparison.
I would also say that a sculptor friend of mine told me once that sculpture is for the most part a local endeavor. What I think he meant is not provincial, but that object making is from a logistical and reception point of view the equivalent of the local food movement. That is, place and presence and closeness are assets not detriments. While the great leveling of the internet will continue its rampage through the art world, I believe that this local-ness will persevere. And link arms with similar movements in entrepreneurship, hospitality, and city planning.
MK: Does your art have existential meaning, or is it more about your interest in the aesthetics of free time?
JM: I don't think these two things are mutually exclusive, far from it, in fact. It seems to me that the political structuring of modern human society is an effort to maximize free time--whether for certain individuals or for the group. This is in addition to many of our own concepts of self being tied up in our free time pursuits. And there has been some interesting theorizing about the future of work time vs. leisure time, and how many of us might end up with more free time (but perhaps less wealth) as job structures, resource sharing, and technological development all continue their rapid shifts. What that might look like is exciting to chew on.
Back to your question, I feel strongly that my work can be characterized as existential. Whether that is tied up in theories of free time, or my public works, which examine elements of the lived city environment. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about how individual subjectivity functions when considered from a so-called subordinate position. My work with fan behavior is an example of this (spectatorship requires the actions of another of course), as is my sustainability work (the environment makes us all feel insignificant after all).
MK: Can you live easily without making art?
JM: Art appears to be stuck with me and I with it! As I have grown in my work and as an individual, I have really come to the conclusion that art making is a substantial component of how I understand my relationship to the larger world. It helps me make sense of myself and this moment.
MK: Let's talk about your White Turf Painting Actions series, 2013, which started the weekend of June 7. You said that this series examines the relationship among sustainability, aesthetics, and free time through meteorological nostalgia (for snow) and the politics of place. Let me ask you first what inspired you to conceive this series of performative events? Historically speaking does an artist or do movements inspire your thinking?
JM: The real impetus for that series was this sinister notion of what if the world gets so hot that it never snows again? Then we will all be forced to use white paint to approximate these lost landscapes. Which links up nicely to this idea that I have moved from a frequently snow filled place--Wisconsin--to a city where snow is a rare event. So it becomes a shared nostalgia.
At the same time, these performances are an inversion of people painting their brown grass green in arid climates. And looking at how aesthetics are learned, and what ramifications that has on the implementation of sustainable technologies. Of course, these works can be reductively understood as the marking of specifics spaces: parks, sites of transition, and neglected areas, which relates to how municipalities and institutions make use of art and artists for various ends.
As far as influence goes I don't know if artists or movements are too omnipresent for me. I would like to think that I am pretty well-versed in Western art history and can find links between what I do and other artists. But more important to me are probably two essayists: Michel de Certeau and Lewis Hyde.
Hyde not so much for The Gift as is perhaps more popular, but for Trickster Makes the World, a book that examines how trickster behavior from polytheistic cultures can be observed in artists in our [mainly] monotheistic present. To paraphrase these behaviors include the employment of wit or pranksterism, ability to slip between worlds and contexts, and the trickster as signifier--indicating the borders between worlds by resting on said borders. De Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life, on the other hand, examines how individuals manipulate external constructs, from urban plans to recipes to language, for their own purposes. Internalizing these texts strikes me as more foundational than any one artist or history.
MK: You have developed an interesting take on what public art may do. I loved your awning structures for the outside of G Fine Art and Conner Galleries. Can you tell me what drives your interest in public spaces? Why does public art matter?
JM: Public art matters because it inserts itself into our lived experience in a much different fashion than work presented within the relative safety of a gallery or institution. (Of course these spaces offer their own opportunities) The capacity for wonder, confrontation, intervention, and even transgression are heightened in public space. And as someone who is interested in engaging audiences who might not identify themselves as art participants, the utilization of public space as a vehicle is crucial.
What is perhaps most important about public space art is that artists are amongst the most exciting philosophers of the urban, the rural, and the virtual. The insights produced by artist led and generated projects in these spaces are having and will continue to have real and true impact on the lived environment of a range of individuals. Art and artists have long been used as agents of change and development within public space-from beautification efforts to gentrification cycles-with perhaps now being the perfect time to recapture the control of these narratives for the art and artists themselves.
MK: At Flashpoint Gallery, back in 2010, you created an exhibition that started as an event. Why did you transform the gallery space into a recreation room in which you installed a foosball/ping pong table, a mini fridge, and an area for watching live screenings, with "I Love Sherrie Levine" digitally printed on woven rugs on the floor, a reference that is only clear to the art-loving public?
JM: That exhibition was an examination of how art participant behaviors mirror or relate to non-art behaviors, filtered through the lens of domesticity. The entire tableux was site responsive--though Flashpoint Gallery is at ground level it is the basement of the building in which it is housed, so turning it into a faux basement/game room seemed natural. I believe this to have been a pretty formative show for me for these reasons.
The examples that you gave are illustrations of these points. Numerous works were crafted to juxtapose art spectatorship with other types of fan behavior--the digitally printed rugs, the sports works. Likewise, decorative traditions stood side by side with art history, tinkering next to the predominant de-skilling narrative of contemporary art. And of course I implored viewers to contemplate notions of community with the foosball/ping pong table, mashing multiple groups and players into the same space.
MK: Can you talk about 2011 Opening Act at the Civilian Art Projects? What is the significance of the city of Madison, the change in the music industry, and its echo in your exhibition? What are you getting at with 112303-tattoo on your body?
JM: That show was the first time that I chose to isolate music fan behavior as a conceptual rubric for a body of work. In each case, I wanted to emphasize behaviors that were examples of overactive fan behavior, such as backmasking, which is when you play a record backwards to try and hear any secret messages that the band has left for you. I linked this to my own biography by crafting a birdhouse replica of the Smart Studios building in Madison, WI. This production studio, located in my hometown, mixed and recorded bands such as the Smashing Pumpkins, Sparklehorse, and Nirvana. In doing so, I became an enthralled, nostalgic tinkerer, glorifying a decaying edifice that has since risen into myth.
The tattoo work you mentioned is perhaps the most extreme, yet not, example. For this work, I had the words "DAMN RIGHT I'LL RISE AGAIN" tattooed on my lower back. In the Hold Steady song "Your Little Hoodrat Friend," the protagonist has the same words tattooed in the same spot on her lower back. Thus I am adopting a portion of her fictional visage, while also paying tribute to the song itself. While a seemingly anomalous act, this work in actuality allies itself quite neatly with the many people who have song lyrics tattooed on their bodies. (Plus, tattooing is at this point majority behavior, 3 out of 5 adults under 45 are tattooed)
To magnify the potential for fan behavior in this work, I have declared the skin containing the words itself the artwork, a gift that will be given to the person of my choosing. At this moment, it is slated to be given to a collector of mine, closing the loop on adulator and adulated between myself, him, and the Hold Steady.
MK: Can you talk about your intention to engage viewers on multiple levels? Does this relate to your hope that, because the work has layers, it can reach many people, including non-art people?
JM: An attempt to reach multiple kinds of people is definitely part of why I try to aggregate multiple layers into the works I produce. I also feel strongly that the capacity to unpack works in this way leads to a more engaging experience for those viewers who are willing to take the journey with me. It just seems richer to me that way.
MK: Can you talk about three parts that you say are almost equal when making a work of art: how the work is made, what it is made of, and what it actually looks like?
JM: I think that my aim with that statement was to suggest that one of the strengths of contemporary art as a means of thinking about the world is that the entirety of an artworks journey from conception through presentation helps craft its significance. This deep consideration of the who, what, where, when, how, and, to an extent, why of a thing plucks that thing from the world, while allowing legitimate insights into that world. Though this strategy of examination has bled over into other contexts, I feel that the breadth and depth present in art is what helps make it special.
MK: Massimiliano Gioni (current director of Venice Biennale) said that it is impossible to capture the sheer enormity of the art world today. He includes self-taught and outside artists alongside superstars, as well as Carl Jung's Red Book, an illuminated manuscript, and Shaker drawings. Why do you think this show is called a "game changer"? It addresses the theory that contemporary art is based on the subconscious. This show and its curator have no interest in the mainstream market. It appears to me that this is what some of your work also addresses—the desire to reveal the pure.
JM: It seems to me that for those of us who are legitimately engaged in contemporary art as an intellectual or philosophical pursuit, which I think is true of Gioni, there is a constant desire to counteract the financial side of contemporary art. But this seems increasingly difficult, especially if one wants to maintain some degree of legibility. Of course I could make artworks in my basement and never show them to anyone and that might do it, but short of that?
I think this is especially true of the top end of the art world, with its biennials and art fairs and blockbusters. So I would question your point that this Biennale is without interest in the market. The transit for the work must have been paid somehow? And the artists are not all unknowns? Nor is participation in the show deflationary to an artist's sales potential?
But I would agree that the hyperpluralized/outsider embracing show is searching for some idea of the pure or maybe for some true insights? While I think that this kind of form--discovery (to quote David Robbins)--is a slippery slope towards the opening up of the art context so far that the term becomes useless, I don't think we can ever be overexposed to human ingenuity, idiosyncrasy, and truly individualized relationships to the world.
MK: How do you surprise yourself?
JM: Every new endeavor seems to eventually end in a surprise! An example I always use was the residency I did at Socrates Sculpture Park in 2011. That project taught me how breakthroughs can happen through completing a task that you set out for yourself, when you aren't exactly sure that you can do it. Those are the best surprises though, for sure.
MK: What in your view revolutionizes artistic discipline right now? How are you embracing it?
JM: It seems to me that we are in the midst of a true reconsideration of the role and function of art and artists, socially speaking. Though certainly the older models of support, presentation, and production will continue to have a place, I feel that the real exciting developments will occur through new channels, likely much more alongside than within the high art world. Primary among my hopes is for a wider recognition of artists as thinkers rather than thing makers, especially amongst general demographics. One secondary goal of this being the potential for cultivating new and expanded audiences.
I hope to be embracing this through the ethos of my own projects at the very least. But I have also recently begun trying to brainstorm how existing models from outside the art context can be used as a framing method for these concerns. Predominant is the idea of the think tank, which is commonly understood to be a hybrid of content generation and point of view crafting. If artists can be grouped and contextualized as aiming for similar goals, there is potential for a dramatic paradigm shift both for artists and audiences.