The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2010

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MAY 2010 Issue
Art In Conversation


Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

On the occasion of his second solo exhibit, Teaching a Chicken How to Fly III, at the Larissa Goldston Gallery (April 2 – May 7, 2010), in collaboration with clothing designer Layla Abramowitz, visual artist Nicola Lopez, and sound/video artist Ronnie Bass, Gandalf Gavan stopped by Art International Radio to talk to Rail Publisher Phong Bui about his life and work.

Phong Bui (Rail): First of all, where did the title of the show, Teaching a Chicken How to Fly III, come from? Was there a number II and a number I? Does it at all refer to Joseph Beuys’s 1965 landmark piece, “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare”? The reason I’m asking is partly because I know you have a strong interest in Rudolph Steiner from your upbringing, and Beuys had a considerable connection to Steiner’s anthroposophy, which essentially was an esoteric philosophy that grew out of European transcendentalist tradition and theosophy.

Gandalf Gavan: I’ll answer the second part of the question first, which is that my interest in Steiner is rather indirect. Like Beuys, I went to Waldorf boarding school from second to ninth grade. So essentially, I was raised in the environment of anthroposophy and it therefore had a strong influence on my upbringing and, in a lot of ways, it still remains my philosophy. Then subsequent to leaving Waldorf, my mother and I moved to New Mexico and I eventually went to study art at Bard College. And Beuys is obviously a very strong presence within the rhetoric of art and art history, and his work has become more of an influence in art dialogue especially since the rise of relational aesthetics and the renewed preoccupation with social sculpture.

Secondly, the title for the show came out of two previous ones. Actually, while I was at an art residency in Bolivia with my friend, the sculptor Ishmael Randall Weeks, I started thinking about identity and portraiture as well as the role of aesthetics, partly because being in Bolivia as a foreigner and as an artist was, needless to say, very different than being in New York. I ended up adopting this image of the chicken, as a symbol of the domesticated bird. I feel that in some ways artists are similar in that they must conform to socio-economic structures that domesticate them, but then they develop methodologies that enable them to be free. As a domesticated animal, the chicken is a symbol of that tension between domestication and freedom, and ends up being a metaphor for the artist, as well. In order for our society to function, we all have to give up certain freedoms and art is an area that provides us with a forum to express aspects of our individuality that otherwise might be reigned in. Like a chicken that is domesticated against its animal nature, as an artist I find myself caught as I seek freedom through creativity and recognition through exposure. By placing works in galleries/museums I am both given the forum for sharing my work and positioning myself in a system that frames and restricts me.

Gandalf Gavan,
Gandalf Gavan, "Untitled." Courtesy Larissa Goldston Gallery, Photo: Photo315.

One of the things that I understand Beuys to be doing in his piece “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” is creating a scenario in which each element becomes a symbol: himself/the artist, the hare, the pictures. Through this setup I think he questions where creativity lies and who has the responsibility for generating or perceiving meaning in art and in life. He also includes the viewer in this equation, suggesting that, although the artist-as-shaman plays a vital role in creativity, the viewer is equally responsible for perceiving and enacting it. Essentially, I identify with this process of asking where the place for art is in our society: both physically—whether it really is in the “gallery”—and socially—how it is dependent upon social relationships.

This was part of my thinking when I had the first show Teaching a Chicken How to Fly I. In Bolivia, I actually called the show Pollos, Peligros y Otras Cárceles or “Chickens, Dangers and Other Prisons.” A year later, I returned to Bolivia to curate a group show with several artists from New York in the Simón I. Patino Museum in Santa Cruz. We also did some workshops and in the midst of all these activities I put on another solo show that was Teaching a Chicken How to Fly II in La Paz at CAF (Corporación Andina de Fomento).

Rail: Not that different from Steiner’s desire to find a synthesis between mysticism and science, what he referred to as “spiritual science,” Beuys also had a similar belief in his notion of social sculpture, which was primarily motivated by a utopian notion of the social, cultural, and political function and potential of art to bring change. Even more specifically, it is like Steiner in his second phase, in which he collaborated with different people from various fields—including drama, architecture, and especially the movement arts, which in some ways connected with Gurdjieff, who considered movement “Sacred Dance”—and made it a part of his teaching. Unfortunately, it only gets shown to the members or friends of the Gurdjieff Foundation, though you can see a bit of that in Peter Brook’s film, Meeting with the Remarkable Man. You similarly had Nicola Lopez, the artist; Layla Abramowitz, the fashion designer; and Ronnie Bass, the sound/video artist, as part of your collaboration. Tell us a bit about how the whole project initially got started and how long it took you to get it realized.

Gavan: Well, the reason I have been collaborating for the past five years with other artists came out of my desire to remove myself from being the sole author and to bring in other artists to create a situation where unexpected dynamics would arise. I designed a fashion collection with Layla, incorporating materials that I use in my work—I also did a lot of hand felting, as a direct reference to Beuys’s grey felt—and then we made a video afterwards. It’s essentially a haute couture collection made for 15 artist friends, who were individually subjected to the teaching the chicken how to fly exercises. By relating to the chicken in their own terms, each of their performances becomes a portrait, in a sense. The video in and of itself is not always actually that interesting to watch because there are awkward moments, yet there are really nice moments of just seeing how people actually react to the situation or happening. Then during the opening they would stand around like installations, wearing their designed clothes and interacting with the crowd, and finally, right at the end of the opening, some of them took off some of the clothes and hung them onto the various sculptures, therefore making the clothing part of the whole installation.

Gandalf Gavan,
Gandalf Gavan, "Untitled." Courtesy Larissa Goldston Gallery, Photo: Photo315.

Rail: Was it casual? Or did you instruct them where to hang their clothes on the sculptures?

Gavan: I instructed certain people where to actually hang the pieces, but not all, and by doing so, again, it questions the extent to which the sculpture just become a clothing rack. Similarly to Beuys’s idea of social sculptures becoming objects to be consumed, I wanted to see whether the hung clothes would be read as parts of the sculptures or not.

Rail: When I met you in 1998, you had just graduated from Bard College, and I remember you spoke so admiringly of Judy Pfaff, who was one of your teachers at the school. Could you describe what sort of work you were doing then and why you regard Judy as one of your main early influences?

Gavan: Absolutely. I came to Bard in 1994, the year she had just become a professor there. Actually Judy and Bill [William] Tucker were the two early influences on me as a young art student. While Judy worked in large-scale installation, or so-called expanded painting, Bill was working on monolithic, abstract bronze pieces. For me, Bill was the connection to European sculpture and the tradition of sculpture as “monolith,” but it was Judy who instilled in me a sense of specificity and caring within the whole studio practice. She taught me about how different materials work, how you handle them, and more importantly, how different media can come together, which inevitably has to do with space and other formal relationships. It was after college that I began to experiment with blown and slumped glass. I began by making organ-like forms and slumped sheets of glass. This ultimately led to the anamorphic mirrors that I started making in grad school, and also to large-scale installation work like the one for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Oaxaca, Mexico, in which I suspended 3,500 mirrored blown glass spheres above the street outside the museum for a city block. I have always been more interested in working with glass to investigate formal concerns (as I do with any sculptural material) and less interested in the fine craft of glassblowing.

Rail: Then around 2001, 2002, or 2003, just before you went back to graduate school at Columbia University, you began a whole series of collages and drawings, which seemed to embrace everything, from popular imagery—such as your cutouts of pornography and fashion magazines—to natural forms like real feathers, flowers, and so on. I’m referring to the show Out of Line at Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg in the summer of 2003, which you collaborated on with the painter Susanna Heller, whose work has always been an exploration of her own expressionistic pathos and spatial disorientation based on her own view of the urban landscape. Yet you both share this similar evocation of anarchy. What was the impulse of that change?

Gandalf Gavan,
Gandalf Gavan, "Untitled." Courtesy Larissa Goldston Gallery, Photo: Photo315.

Gavan: Well, right after 9/11, Nicola and I moved to Morocco and we lived in Tangiers for four months, which gave me a chance to break away from my previous training at Bard while thinking about possibilities of finding my own voice as a young, aspiring artist. And Morocco was an interesting place where the old tradition is mixed with the contemporary. You can hear that mixture in their music, for example. Actually, once I was at the flea market there and I bought a box that was full of zinc plates what fascinated me about those plates was that they combined the iconography of the Arab old world with Western commercials. I started printing those images onto paper while incorporating Arabesque features into the drawings along with my own doodles, scribbles. In essence, they’re collages or assemblages of these different cultural modes of iconography and production, which I felt was my way to expand and explode the strict formalist language that I’d been taught in school. There were also many images in that piece that came out of my “day job”—for five years I worked for Patrick McMullan as a celebrity and party photographer. Three to five nights a week I would go out and photograph tons of parties and fashion; in some ways that experience was like walking through a collage of different social strata in New York. The piece started out with one or two drawings combined and gradually accumulated, being added on to from all sides, eventually becoming a 10 × 30 foot drawing that was no longer restricted to the square format. That piece was entitled “Current Frequencies” and when Richard Timperio came to the studio when I was back in New York, he suggested that it would look good with Susanna’s drawings. Since I’d been familiar with Susanna’s work ever since she came to Bard College as a visiting artist in 1996, it was exciting to have a chance to share a two-person show with her. In fact I think what Nicola and I were doing in those days was strongly influenced by Susanna’s and Judy’s work. In our own ways we were trying to go off of the grid and infuse our work more with site-specific environment and architecture.

Rail: And while you were doing that body of work you also began making those gestural neons, which evoke Pollock’s all-over gestures. But on some other levels, while everyone else was appropriating, according to their own definition of appropriation, and in spite of your love and hate relationship to it, the way in which you deconstruct—tearing things apart, rejecting or recombining and so on—seems to recall the works of Franz West, Dieter Roth, and Kippenberger. Does that make sense?

Gavan: Sure. I’ve always loved Pollock. In some ways, he’s one of those artists that young artists are not supposed to admire anymore because we’ve been taught that abstract expressionism is part of old history. But for me, my attraction to Pollock’s work has to do with the undeniable energy and vitality that I’m trying to capture, if I can, in neons. A good example is the ceiling piece I did at P.S.1 Café Gallery in 2007. What I did was take the notion of gestural abstraction and just literalize it in three-dimensional form with the neon, and I continued to do that sort of work for a while. Dieter Roth’s retrospective at MoMA’s temporary space in Queens and at P.S.1 in 2004 really struck a chord with me, mostly because in his prolific output, there is as much an intentionality behind it as there is a resistance or ambivalence to the preciousness of what art is. He did it in every form, be it painting, printmaking, installation, or video and so on. And I identify with that degree of freedom and energy. The same can be said of Franz West and Kippenberger. The cool thing about West’s work is how he is always vacillating between art and design: the casual and the intentional, the abject and the crafted. One thing that always struck me about his work is his playing with the line between sculpture and furniture, which is something that I am definitely doing in this show. Kippenberger, on the other hand, has this fantastic sense of irony where you are never quite sure if he is being sincere or really toying with you. Is he the artist as the protean hero, or the artist as the jester or trickster, sort of a German coyote? I am attracted to art that has that sense of humor and tension between seriousness, ambivalence and play. I wonder if that’s a German thing.

Rail: Then came another shift that occurred some time around 2006 or 2007, where the gestural forms of the neons became the singular, rectilinear form. Whereas the early neons were made of a singular color, the rectilinear neons had different color segments within them. And unlike the early neons, which were either installed on the ceiling or wall, the later ones either leaned against the wall or connected other objects. What can you tell us about that shift?

Gandalf Gavan, Still from
Gandalf Gavan, Still from "Teaching a Chicken How to Fly III." Courtesy Larissa Goldston Gallery, Photo: Photo315.

Gavan: I am a formalist by training, so in a way the straight, linear pieces were really developed as a response to other artists like Pollock or Brice Marden—or Barnett Newman, who opened the dialogue of a singular line standing on a plane while it interrupts or divides that plane. These pieces are a way of engaging in that formalist dialogue, but in a much more tongue-in-cheek manner. They also came out of my interpretation of Dan Flavin’s work, which was essentially generated out of a conversation between painting, sculpture, and architecture. In a painting, whenever there is a line in a field it becomes a representation for a person; what ends up happening in my neon linear pieces is that each line of light ends up acting as a stand-in for the idea of identity or individuality. Another thing I like about these linear pieces is that they could almost be construed as high-end lamps.

Rail: I never thought of it that way. Were you aware of early Keith Sonnier pieces from the late 60s when they were composed of a few elements such as cloth and neon, or neon and glass, or neon with incandescent light and cloth? In other words, they were of a more eccentric nature and much less technologically involved, and certainly more modest in scale that the later works.

Gavan: I was only moderately aware of his early work and in retrospect I would say that he could be something like my older brother from another mother. Not only am I sharing a material that he very much came to own, but there are huge formal parallels. I think that where we differ is in our larger vision and overall concerns, and in the tone of our work. Although my linear neon pieces have the formal concerns that I just spoke of, they usually also incorporate other sculptural elements that point to my ambivalence and self-consciousness about that very formal investigation.

Rail: Let’s go back to where we left off in the beginning: weren’t you born in Germany but somehow educated in Russia, then grew up in Santa Fe?

Gavan: I was born in Berlin in 1975, but shortly thereafter my mother moved us to Santa Fe to join the Synergists, which was a commune that grew out of the Theatre of All Possibilities. This group drew from the ideas of Gurdjieff and Buckminster Fuller, and worked with people like Brion Gysin and William Burroughs. They were highly invested in exploring new eco-technologies and eventually built Biosphere II in Arizona. So I grew up on that commune until I was 5. Then from there my mother sent me to Scholss Hamborn Boarding School, which is the Waldorf school I was talking about before, where I spent eight years. After that I came back to New Mexico, finished high school, traveled in South and Central America for a year, then went to Bard for college. And it was during Bard that I decided to go to Russia to study at the Repin Academy, partly because I wanted a more rigorous academic training in art, which I loved at first, but at the end I hated it. Maybe it was the Russian winter. Anyway, when I was leaving, my host mother gave me a Russian icon, and when I was stopped at the border with it, the police detained me because of that—and the fact that I didn’t have an exit visa—and I was almost put in prison. Fortunately I was able to go back to the academy, get an exit visa, and then they let me go eventually. I think there is still a court case out in Russia against me.

Rail: And your mother was a painter who had a strong presence in your life?

Gavan: She had a huge influence, and I adored her. When I was a kid, I thought she was the greatest artist ever. In fact, I thought everybody was an artist. That was the kind of environment I grew up in, which was part of the Steiner idea where dance and music is an integral part of life. I was taught music, dance, as well as painting, knitting, and wood carving for eight years. But I remember when I was 4 I told her, “Look, mother, I’m sorry—I’m not going to become a painter, I’m going to become a sculptor. I hope that’s okay with you.” Needless to say, it took me years to move away from her influence. Otherwise, I grew up in her painting studio. Her paintings were mostly a synthesized style of the Neue Sachlichkeit and Mexican muralist painting. She, in fact, did a lot of murals in Santa Fe and various places in Mexico. So certainly she was one of the largest influences in my life, no doubt.

Rail: Can we talk now about your selection of materials? Let’s begin with bent mirror—which you explained a bit earlier—neon, and fur, the three identifiable materials of your work.

Gavan: The mirrors started when I was in graduate school and they came out of my thoughts regarding the function of the artwork and the viewer’s expectation of the artwork. Traditionally I think the artist creates the painting first, and then the viewer looks at it and sees him or herself in it in some way, or else they see it as a reflection of a cultural identity. So, part of my tactic is to always invert this type of logic and say, “Well, instead of giving you this object and putting the responsibility on the artist to create these objects, I’m going to let you face yourself,” as people normally do when they look at themselves in mirrors. But mine are bent so the reflections are all distorted, creating abstract and fragmented imagery that changes according to the surrounding environment and perspective of the viewer. The inclusion of the neon came largely out of a fascination with the material and its commercial application, as well as its effect on your eye. It is also a way of literalizing the rhetoric of the “energetic gesture” in that it truly is a line of energy. I also liked the fact that it has so many art historical precedents. The fur has a much more anecdotal origin, as my mother wore a lot of fur all the time.

Rail: She was diva-like glamorous.

Gavan: She was indeed. [Laughter.] Also, what is our desire with fur? Do we in fact feel empowered when we wear fur? Quite different than Beuys’s use of the felt, which actually is related to fur in that it’s cut hair knotted together, whereas the fur is directly primal. On a more formal level, by putting the fur together with the neon and the mirror as three distinctly different materials, it in some ways counters the coldness and brightness by giving the work an element of warmth.

Rail: How about the use of Styrofoam? At times you use it as a flat two dimensional object like painting, and other times it’s carved, molded, or even gets a patina like a sculpture. I’m referring specifically to the piece in the middle of the gallery where you have this huge, bulky, dense piece made out of foam resting on the pedestal in contrast to a smoothly carved piece of marble, and you have the neon connecting the two—it was very precarious and curiously balanced. Could you talk about that piece?

Gavan: Sure. Styrofoam is one of those materials where you have all this volume and mass but no weight. Ever since the advent of process art, it has become part of the vocabulary of sculptural materials. I felt it was visually interesting to place it in opposition to the carved marble, which is more of a permanent and precious material that belongs to an older tradition of sculpture. That center piece is called “White Elephant Kill Kill,” and the neon connecting the two of them is a way of creating tension while diffusing the differences between the two materials.

Rail: It’s a very compelling piece. How about the untitled piece with multiple neon pieces leaning against the sheet rock that has sprayed graffiti words in various colors corresponding to the different segments of color in the neon piece?

Gavan: It initially got started in the studio where I would casually write down my thoughts, notes, ideas, and so on on the walls. Then sometimes I would spraypaint them directly on unprimed Sheetrock, which becomes a form of painting but still refers to its industrial function of “wallness.” And the reason you can’t actually read anything anymore is because I continuously put one thought on top of the other. In other words, these thoughts start erasing each other until the writing becomes a gesture, which refers as much to the idea of abstraction in painting as it does to graffiti.

Rail: Well, I read the graffiti like the lyrical form of the early neon. Is there a relationship between the found and made objects in your work?

Gavan: Yes. Again, going back to the piece with foam and marble and back to the idea of attentiveness, which relates to our earlier discussion of Steiner and Beuys: if you spend the time making an object, you will imbue it with an inherent value. Through the activity of making, you transfer a part of yourself into the object and you “charge” it with your energy. Found objects, on the other hand, have undergone a process of production that is very different from something that is intentionally made. And when you take a found object and recontextualize it in an artwork, you give it yet another layer of history and meaning. Each object is thus inevitably infused with its own past. I think there’s a tension that can be created by placing these objects with different origins next to one another and I am interested in the conversations that come up between them. I am also interested in the questions that these relationships end up posing about the role of creativity and its transformative powers. Putting these found and made objects together in the gallery also makes us look at our system of placing values on art—and how it is that we value one process over the other.

Rail: I also noticed the inclusion of geometric structures made of thin metal rods, which I suspect is a recent element in your work. How did it come about and how do you see it relating to the rest of the materials in your work?

Gavan: On a fairly straightforward, formal level, these metal pieces provide a geometric structure that I felt the rest of the work needed to play off of. These structures are mostly vertical and more or less human scale, so they are automatically read as abstract stand-ins for the human figure and become mannequins in a way, functioning also as clothing racks. And again, I’m constantly understanding and analyzing my work in terms of art historical references and so to me these structures refer to someone like Pevsner or the Russian Constructivists’ geometric abstraction, or even just to the idea of “geometric abstraction” as it is learned in Sculpture 101. So they end up being structures that are historically loaded but also very simplistic—in terms of both form and function.

Rail: One last question, what are the lyrics of the two songs that you collaborated on with Ronnie about? All we know is they’re sung in German.

Gavan: The reason I’m referred to as “the German pop singer” in our collaboration and the lyrics are written in German is that even though it is presented to an American, English-speaking audience, I wanted to engage with this genre of music but recontextualize it so that it becomes just unfamiliar enough to make it into something different. I don’t want people to focus on the lyrics; I want to take the voice more as an instrument while still keeping the structure of language. It is distanced from the slickness of typical pop music by its low-tech production and by its placement in an art gallery, all of which has the effect of making it into a kind of abstract pop music. It’s kind of similar to placing found objects next to made ones or making sculptures that are also clothing racks. It questions the different kinds of value and value systems associated with creativity. At the same time, the singing in German is a way to reconcile my German background with my American one. The themes are basically about love, individuality, and freedom.

Rail: Did you write the lyrics?

Gavan: I did.

Rail: Did Ronnie create the basis for the rhythm and music and then you elaborated further on the lyrics accordingly? Or is it vice versa? Or was it simultaneous?

Gavan: Ronnie created the beat and basic chord progressions on the keyboard, and then I improvised the melody simultaneously with the lyrics on top of it. It was a very immediate and spontaneous process; we actually ended up using the first takes. So it’s not about crafting an incredible piece of music but, again, more about the event. That’s what I was trying to do at the opening with friends wearing the haute couture line, walking around the sculptures, talking to the crowd, all of which was infused with my performance as the German pop singer with the video projection behind me. There’s fluidity and an erasure of excellence in technique. And yet, it’s all there.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2010

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