The Belgian surrealist painter, René Magritte, he of the infamous “pipe” painting: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, “This is not a pipe”, in equally obtuse fashion, apparently said to someone asking him to explain what he meant by one of his works, “if could do that I wouldn’t need to paint them”.
Now Magritte may have said that, but I have found that in general artists love speaking about their work. I definitely do, but in my defence I love speaking about art, period. With my own I just have more insight into it, which is quite logical, and probably makes the talk more (I have been told this by people who have attended my lectures) heartfelt and passionate…and also informative, I suppose. So I use this in way of introducing the fact that in the past two weeks I have been interviewed twice about my exhibition at the artSPACE Gallery, Prick! Subverting the Stitch.
Above: Self-portrait 2013-3 am (2015).
The first one, and I was really humbled by this, was by a third year fine arts student from Rhodes University. She had an assignment which required her to review an exhibition and she chose mine! Me, being written about by a university student! An academic interest shown! The kind of thing an academic conceptual artist such as myself lives for! Here are the questions she asked and my answers:
1.) When/how did you start making art? Why do you make art?
I have always loved all the arts and I suppose I was what people called “an arty kid”. Despite this I never really had the confidence to fully commit to it, and as a boy in a tough neighbourhood I was never really encouraged to either. I suppose it was because I grew up in a low to low-middle class suburb and went to an all-boys school where art was not even offered to a matric level. As a result I honestly did not have much exposure to art whilst growing up apart from the odd craft class. I am reminded of something Scarlett Johansson’s character, Vicky or Cristina, I forget which, says in the Woody Allen movie: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).
“I just have to come face to face with the fact that I am not talented, you know. I can appreciate and I love music but … It’s sad, really. I feel like I have a lot to express and I’m not gifted.”
Sadly that is how I thought of myself: an art appreciator but never an art participator. As a result I walked around with this huge hole in my life that nothing I did seemed to fill. The truth is that you will always go back to what you love and I would repeatedly do this with art. I ran a décor and interior design company and then eventually ended up in the fashion industry which in turn eventually led to me getting into creating art and then exhibiting. As I acquired skills my confidence grew, and so did my thirst for all that was art, so I decided to go back to university and study art. I did this part-time through UNISA and am at the moment doing my masters through them. I also lecture for them now, mentoring the Kwazulu-Natal students.
As for why I create art, for me it is an integral part of who I am. I have a need to create and to communicate, to speak to people, through my visual language. The world can be a pretty grim place and this is because of the human race. Art reminds me that we are capable of more than just taking or destroying, it gives me hope. This is something I want to share with people. When I work on an exhibition I always have this in mind, so my goals are to entertain the viewer but also to educate and inform them.
2.) What is your preferred medium and why?
I am a conceptual artist so I tend to choose my medium based on what my theme is. Performance (my body) and embroidery (thread and stitch) appear in a lot of my exhibitions because my work often deals with gender issues. But if I had to select a medium purely based on the enjoyment of using it, it would have to be oil paints. I love the painterly, the joyful feeling of creating form and space on a 2-D surface is an experience like nothing else. Oils have their very own character and personality too, and the more you use them the more they become a part of who you are as an artist. They become friends you converse with or sometimes just hang-out with in your studio and on the canvas.
3.) Have you ever stepped out of your comfort zone and discovered a whole new genre of art? How did it turn out?
Two words: performance art! Way, way, way out of my comfort zone! I highly recommend every artist try it at least once. It is all about the body (un) comfortable, not only yours but your viewer’s too. For my third year practical requirements at UNISA, as the artist, swany, I explored the nature of my Gaze. I selected five performance artists to focus on: Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), Carolee Schneemann (1939), Mary Beth Edelson (1933), Hannah Wilkes (1940-1993) and Marina Abramovic (1946). Inspired by their work I chose to turn the gaze upon myself in an attempt to experience a little of what these women, and women in general, experience. The work consisted of an installation, visual works, a documented performance and the resultant video, and utilized the five selected feminist performance artists, and my presence as well as the audience to investigate, interrogate and comment on this relationship. I performed the exhibition piece, Gaze (2012), at artSPACE Durban. I shed my hair in it as a form of ritual cleansing and shame/grief/sacrifice before altars of each of the artists I admire.
Was it successful? On a personal level, and also as an artist, certainly. I grew tremendously from the experience. I learnt that our body is the very centre of our symbolic universe. It is a tiny model for humankind, and simultaneously, a metaphor for the larger socio-political body. If we are capable of establishing all these connections in front of an audience, there is hope that they will recognize them in their own bodies. However, it is important to remember that the same thing that makes this possible also proves to be what makes performance art so very dangerous. There is very little remove between artist and audience/viewer. You have no control whatsoever over the audience/viewer. This is the challenge of performance art. This is what makes it so liberating and intoxicating but also what makes it so terrifying and hurtful. Often you get to experience both which I did.
From the Gaze exhibition I took what I had learnt and for my honours degree created Proof of Life (2013) which was extremely successful and for which I received distinctions from the university. If you go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esoe8bg3iLI there is a video of this work.
4.) What, in your opinion is the hardest step in creating a masterpiece?
Ha ha, oh my lord! A masterpiece? Convincing yourself that you are capable of creating a masterpiece, I suppose?! Creating it and then convincing others that it is a masterpiece! What I hope you get from that is the one thing which I believe prevents an artist, or anyone for that matter, from creating: a fear of failure. You should never be afraid to fail. Failure means you are doing, it means you are learning, it means you are experiencing. Importantly it means you are in the game! Self-doubt is one of the biggest obstacles an artist faces.
5.) What inspires you? What inspired the idea behind Prick! Subverting the Stitch?
I was raised by women, notably my widowed mother, so the role models in my life have always been women. As an artist this remains the same. I am a pro-feminist man and in my artwork I explore gender issues using embroidery and stitching to deconstruct certain societal perceptions: 1) that it is a craft associated with the feminine and not considered an art form, 2) the manner in which I create it which is associated with the masculine (in a factory, on production lines) as well as the non-creative, reproduction of banal images. Those things are generally at the centre of my work but if I am totally honest I am stimulated by virtually everything. As an artist you tend to see the world, and by “see” I mean “SEE”. In general the average person tends to just look at the world (and I realize I am being a little elitist here but it is what it is) while artists are continually questioning, deconstructing, imagining and re-imagining what they are seeing. I always warn my first year students that their year is going to make them incredibly uncomfortable because they are going to begin to see the world in a completely new way and it will never look the same again. So to return to your question, what inspired “Prick!”?, it was my exploration of embroidery, , challenging the traditional decorative connotations of embroidery and deliberately going against the assumed decorativeness of needle and thread.
6.) Is there an artwork that you are most proud of in the exhibition? Why?
Ah, tough question to ask any creative person…or parent for that matter. They are all your children and you love them all in different ways. I suppose if I had to choose one it would be “Merica, Fck Yeah! 2012”. It is probably my most personal piece (more so even then the self-portrait) in the exhibition. It took 3 years to complete and reflects my failed emigration (my green card fell through) to the USA in 2012 to become a full-time artist. Present are images/icons of my childhood saints as well as of my broken dreams. As usual I also question stereotypes and social constructs by using embroidery and stitching and the juxtaposition of images and media.
Below: Merica, Fck Yeah! 2012 (2015)
The second interview by an arts journalist was for a regional newspaper. Here are the questions and my answers:
- What does your work in the exhibition, Prick! Subverting the Stitch represent/symbolise?
The works in this exhibition represent approximately 3 years of experimentations with embroidery, stitching and thread. These explorations of embroidery are also an exploration of gender, and reflect my continued struggle against societal constraints and prejudices. If we consider that masculinities and femininities are constructed by the societies we are part of then our behaviour and perceptions are therefore determined by them. I use specific images and instances from popular culture to illuminate this in an attempt to deconstruct these societal constricts. I also locate myself in this society in this exhibition in a self-portrait holding up a local newspaper. In particular I juxtapose these “pop” images with critical text to make clear the subversive messages they present and the behaviours they re-enforce.
- Can you tell me a bit more about your work in terms of the mediums you use?
As the title of the exhibition alludes to, my chief medium has been embroidery thread. I am a conceptual artist so I tend to choose my medium based on what my theme or concept is. Performance (my body) and embroidery (thread and stitch) appear in a lot of my exhibitions because my work often deals with gender issues. I challenge the traditional decorative connotations of embroidery deliberately going against the assumed decorativeness of needle and thread. There is a sense of brutal force applied to fabric that often feels like a violation, an attack. The viewer is made aware of the piercing of, the sheer trauma of the process. I achieve this by layering stitches over stitches and juxtapose this with areas where I purposefully leave them out so the fabric shows through, wound-like. I will provide you with examples to illustrate what I mean: my self-portrait work consists of 1200000 stitches (over 1 million), each of my “Playboy” works contains at least 60000 stitches. The sheer volume of stitches adds a weight and presence that the viewer is subconsciously, uncomfortably aware of, like a predator in long grass, sensed but not seen.
- In terms of your creative process, where do you get your ideas from?
I am a pro-feminist man so my ideas/concepts are generally generated by this. I have an intense interest in how we construct gender identities in our societies and how inequalities and subjugation are enforced with, ironically, very little force. We play the roles that society dictates to us. I focus this interest with an immense amount of research. I consider myself an academic conceptual artist therefore research is as important as making. Thus my creative process can almost be considered practise-based research. I am at present busy with my masters in visual arts which will be concerned with these societal constructs so the “Prick!” exhibition can almost be considered a forerunner or a practise run of the exhibition I have to present for that degree. So to get back to the question: the idea is sparked by gender issues and my awareness of them, informed and underpinned by the research I carry out to fully understand them, and then the visual is created through a rigorous making ritual and presented to the viewer in an effort to deconstruct and disrupt perceptions.
- What can audiences expect from attending the exhibition and viewing your work?
I quote Mariska Karasz’s, Adventure in Stitches (1949): “Free yourself of any traditional concept of what embroidery should be …”
So what do you take from this? Well, when I look at my responses retrospectively I get to see kind of where I am in my career as an artist and that is kind of cool. This is why I enjoy speaking about my work (and yes, it is also narcissistic to a certain extent). Speaking about your work requires you to think critically about it, to review it and to provide your own response to it. This is the gift that the student and the journalist afforded me and this is why I am humbled and grateful when people have the interest and take the time to ask me questions about something I have created. So I always relish the challenge of questions asked about my work. Ask away, dear viewer, ask away!