Q. Michael, you’ve lived and worked all around the world— the US, England, and Germany. How long have you been in Dallas, and what brought you here?
A. I settled in Dallas in 2009 after having been offered the post of Chair of the Division of Art at SMU. Although I’ve completed that role, I continue to teach there. One class that I’ve designed is “Critical Issues”, a survey of the practices and debates that shaped art from the 1960s to the present. Another is “Systems”, a foundation-level course exploring systems theory where the emphasis is rule-driven practice that aims to provide an alternative model to naïve conception of self-expression in/through art.
Q. Your new exhibit is a type of system that presents viewers with options for assembling their own custom artwork. You’ve described it as “production on demand.” Can you elaborate?
A. The idea of “production on demand” — or “demand-driven production” — is another way of describing the situation of commissioning art. There is an ironic relationship to more conventional consumer behavior, such as the ritual of selecting options for an automobile in conversation with a salesperson. I thought, “Why not introduce this ritual to the gallery setting?” Ordinarily, the process of commissioning a work of art is quite involved and the assumption is that it such a conversation between artist and patron is only appropriate for rather large-scale projects. On the contrary, the works I am inviting people to commission may be as modest as mid-size dry goods. Above all, the idea of entering into a more intimate relationship with the patron is appealing to me; this is what a system of production of “bespoke” art may facilitate.
Q. Imagery for a custom designed artwork is selected from your book, The Fourth Book, also the name of the exhibit. Is this a reference to Thomas Carlyle’s concept of the Fourth Estate?
A. The Fourth Book is a label, literally the fourth in a series of bookwork projects that I have completed since 1986. I do find your reference to the Fourth Estate quite fortuitous, though. Is this Carlyle citing Edmund Burke? In any case, the meaning of the term, the “Fourth Estate”, seems to be historically contingent yet I assume the accidental meaning you’ve pointed out is absolutely relevant to the art of satire, editorial illustration, and the power of the press.
Q. The book has six chapters. The first is titled “Just Men,” which features images of men-only situations in various contexts. They appear to be in conversation but instead of words, you’ve used black plumes to express dialogue and moods. What is meant by the chapter title? Why use plumes instead of words?
A. I guess this work is my stab at producing the great American (graphic) novel. Some critic once compared me to an artist of the 50s and 60s who described himself as “a writer who draws”. I wouldn’t say that, since I like to think of myself as an artist whose works sometimes involves writing, sometimes drawing, sometimes something else. The definition of what it means to be an artist has changed substantially since the 1960s at least, so I’m not sure why people are still surprised when artists are involved in a meaningful way with urban planning, science, philosophy, or politics.
The chapters, as you call them, began as a convenient way to separate different series. Putting them together in one volume gave them a stronger narrative quality. The collection as a whole seems to engage consistently with the distribution of power in social relations. I didn’t set out to produce such a vivid picture of the state of the union; in retrospect it seems to have been inescapable. “Just Men” is the largest collection of images, numbering 40, and it is clearly a typology of violence, exploitation, and inequity. The title is a pun that may be read it at least two ways, as an inventory of exclusively masculinist behavior or as a view of social justice from the subaltern position. The image of the “plume” appeared in my work during the 1980s, first in the context of a graphic design commission, later as an element in a design for a t-shirt commissioned by a French fashion designer who regularly works with artists. The graphic image of the plume takes many forms throughout the book — as a spiral or a helix — and is susceptible to multiple readings. For example, as Charlie Gere points out in his most recent collection of essays, “Unnatural Theology”, fire = a divine presence; plume = an absence as such.
Q. In your new show, a viewer could interpret certain images as references to the current administration. But earlier works located outside the main gallery suggests you have been involved with political themes for a while. What are the benefits of reusing or recycling content?
A. It’s inevitable that the scenarios depicted in “Just Men” could be taken for somewhat examples of political satire directed at the current administration. But the absence of heads among the “active” figures in the series is meant to take the viewer/reader in another direction, towards a characterization of a general trend in our history that was only temporarily abated during the previous administration. I wish to disempower the actors in these scenarios. While I’ve been involved with political activism for some time my intention of installing works from the late-1970s through the early-1990s alongside the most recent work is to demonstrate how I understand the making of meaning and form in art.
(As an aside, let me add that politics is a term that gets bandied about in the artworld, generally to denote works that seem to be engaged with current affairs. For me, politics is not a matter of representing a subject it’s a question of practice. None of the so-called political themes that might be ascribed to my work are the result of my selection of burning topics of the day. They are markers of my own engagement with organizations, coalitions, political formations, and sometimes — as in the case of housing issues — my own political work.
Earlier works, from the mid-1980s for example, used many of the same visual elements that are evident in “The Fourth Book”. Yet while image of the plume is identical throughout, I believe that is functions differently at different moments in time. The recycling or recovery of previously employed motifs is a way for the artist to exert agency over their visual culture repertoire, a refusal to historicize meaning.
Another example is the use of a specific palette throughout the exhibition. The group of hues — bronze, lilac, robin’s-egg, marine, and crimson — figured as a prominent feature of the interior scheme of the mid-19th century Crystal Palace international exposition in London. The American poet Walt Whitman cited them in his ode to the Centennial Exposition of 1876 held in Philadelphia, where he transformed them in a metaphor for diversity. I would like the viewer to be aware of these arcane historical facts, and use them to reflect on the process by which symbols are formed and entrenched in a particular context of use. Whitman generalizes this palette first to celebrate America and then as an affirmation of the universal truth of diversity. Yet the original context for this particular group of hues was a showcase for industrial dominance and the fruits of exploitation of the British colonial Empire. That Whitman appropriates these hues to affirm American “diversity” is somewhat ironic considering the poet’s well-known attitude towards =recently emancipated African-Americans. In the work on view in “The Fourth Book”, I re-appropriate the same hues with the intention of using them as a hectoring backdrop to symbolize what Whitman ideally hoped them to mean: the liberating possibilities afforded by the social reality of true diversity. This was an ideal that Whitman could not realize owing to his racist views; the same inability to live diversity animates resentment and racism in our own time.
Q. In addition to creating art, you’re a writer and educator. You’ve also been involved in legislative activism and community organizing. How do you view these various roles? What activities have you been involved in recently?
A. The critical practice that I’ve been involved with is very much about the reshaping of artistic identity. Skepticism towards a conventional understanding of the artist’s role has consistently been a feature of my work as an artist and is part of the reason that I embrace an anti-specialist standpoint; a position I term “versatility”. From my experience as a member of Art & Language to the present, I’ve opposed conventional ideas of what it means to make art professionally. The phenomenon of the artist as writer on art is hardly new. Yet in the context of Art & Language, we took on the role of principal mediator of our art in order to displace the ignorant critic, of which there were many, writing nonsense about Conceptual art. At the same time, it was important to raise the issue of the status of text, where it stood in relation to these new kinds of Conceptual art objects, whether as critical commentary or as art or as both at once. Then, these various competencies were relatively compact and it seemed that simply “being an artist” could encompass a great deal more than simply working as an individual in a studio. Now art is awash with collaborative, interdisciplinary projects; artists find themselves rubbing shoulders with scientists, activists, philosophers, corporations, and politicians. This is an enormous expansion of the field of art, perhaps so large that the ambitions of some contemporary art defy containment within a feasible model of holistic practice. At the same time, the “versatility” demanded of many artists, and others, is one born of precarity rather than the fulfillment of an ideal of completeness.
In my practice as an artist, much of the activism I have been engaged with flows from the conditions of the production and distribution of art. Among other issues, this has included the organization of artists wishing to protest the cultural policies of museums, an analysis of the State’s role in the politicization of culture, and the perennial problem of gentrification. Some of these issues have generated distinct bodies of work or facilitated new directions in the social organization of my art production. In other cases, the situation of engaging in direct political action demanded that I simply utilize an appropriate set of visual or discursive skills without considering how political activism might become aestheticized as art. In some situations, to pursue the making of art out of the “content” of protest cannot be justified; to do so would be to place one’s self outside the field of practical political work. I would like to stress that this position, which is pragmatic, has little to say about the “political” nature of art and culture and its value as an adjunct to protest and the development of oppositional positions. Sometimes, making art is a distraction that draws one further away from one’s obligations as a citizen; at other times, it is perhaps the most immediate or available means to raise one’s voice politically.
Over the years I’ve worked with many coalitions and political activists: the New York Loft Tenants — to secure legislation to keep artists in their lofts — the New York Tenants’ Union, and other anti-gentrification struggles in the Lower East Side and Brooklyn; produced media for a dissident wing of the Transit Workers Union, designed the newspaper of the National Lawyers’ Guild; supported the Black United Front; raised money for the early liberation movement in Zimbabwe; and participated in a group of “cultural workers” alongside Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones).
Recently, I attended the “Artists’ Campaign School” in Detroit, an initiative funded by Fractured Atlas Foundation to provide support for artists considering running for elected office; and authored an opinion on “social sculpture” in defense of Ash Studios, Dallas. The idea behind the Artists’ Campaign School is that artists have a repertoire of competencies that make them ideal candidates for elected office. We can certainly dispute that assertion, yet my personal experience at those workshops in Detroit was of meeting people who had established successful, long-standing community institutions, some of which base their program around art and culture. It remains to be seen whether the skills and tacit knowledge of artists and art-minded community organizers will translate into successful political campaigns. At present, there are a few examples where artists have either been elected or ran high-profile campaigns for city council and mayoral positions.
As an educator, it has always been important to me to translate my pursuit of versatility in and through art into a coherent set of courses or curriculum. Over the years I have found some scope within academia for such activities and projects; the most recent in Dallas was the realization of a new model for curating, in the form of the Free Museum of Dallas, which was an exhibition and project space that occupied my physical office while chair.
Q. Your work has been categorized as Conceptual. For some, that description might be off-putting; it sounds like the viewer might be required to think their way through to meaning. Do you think conceptual or systems-based art is accessible to a general audience?
A. I can’t imagine any significant encounter with art as anything but an occasion for “thinking through”. Besides, any art is accessible if one provides free and open access to the proper tools. Elitism should not be confused with difficulty, and difficulty should not be collapsed into inaccessibility. Accessibility, in the sense of immediate comprehension, is a hallmark of some contemporary experiences and an adjunct to frictionless consumption. I don’t find it to be a particularly compelling paradigm for creation of my art. One reason is that my history as a Conceptual artist is far more significant as a determinant of my current work. Conceptual art threw the audience for a loop and created a crisis in art criticism because it challenged the most widely held assumptions about art; namely, that the work of art should exhibit a degree of skill, that it should be a robustly physical object, and should be a vehicle for emotional expression. If pluralism means anything at all, then it must mean that we have to expect to encounter distinctions with a difference. If our expectations about art remain fixed regardless of the type of work we are viewing, then we will miss a great deal. I hope the visitor to my exhibition will do some of the hard work of looking and thinking, if only as a gesture of reciprocation to acknowledge thought, time, and effort that went into the making of the work. Certainly, we are all aware of the visual pleasure to be had through our engagement with art; but there is an intellectual pleasure, too, that may be derived from the experience of my work.
Laray Polk is a Dallas-based artist and writer. Email: laraypolk (at) att.net
Copyright Laray Polk & Michael Corris © 2017.