© Joy Garnett and Figure/Ground Communication
Joy Garnett was interviewed by Dr. Julia Schwartz on December 2oth, 2012
Joy Garnett is an interdisciplinary artist and writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY. Her paintings, based on news photographs, scientific imagery, and military documents she gathers from the Internet, locate instances of the apocalyptic sublime in mass media culture. Her social media projects examine the intersections of our digital and material worlds. Her work has been exhibited at MoMA P.S.1, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Milwaukee Art Museum. Her paintings have been reproduced on book covers and in numerous publications including Harper‘s, Perspecta: The Yale School of Architecture Journal and Cabinet magazine. Garnett serves as Arts Editor at Cultural Politics, a contemporary media theory journal published by Duke University Press. Her writing has appeared in the anthology Virilio Now (Polity 2011), and in the forthcoming Virilio & Visual Culture, The Virilio Dictionary (both with Edinburgh University Press 2013), and The Cultural Politics Reader (Duke University Press 2013). She is currently working on a family memoir about politics and art set in Egypt’s Old Regime. She is represented by Winkleman Gallery, New York.
What attracted you to the arts? What were your earliest experiences of making art?
There is definitely an artistic tendency that runs in my family. There’s my mom, who was an artist and a freelance photographer. She was born in Alexandria, Egypt, into a family of illustrious poets and painters. I’ve been researching the family history on and off for years: they were all eccentric artists! Radicals! Utopians! My grandfather, Ahmed Zaky Abushady, was an influential Romantic poet and editor who published several high profile journals in the 1930s and 40s. The most radical was Apollo, a platform for experimental Arabic poetry that really pushed the envelope. He organized a salon called ‘Apollo’s Society,’ whose members included notable and emerging poets from around the Arab world.
My mom grew up around a pair of eccentric older cousins, the Wanly brothers Seif and Adham. They were famous painters of the period. There’s now a museum wing dedicated to them in Alexandria. I think they are the reason why my mom initially wanted to become a painter. I found her childhood sketchbooks — she had aspirations early on. On top of that, her mother, my grandmother, an Englishwoman, was descended from the famous Lancashire poet and labor organizer Samuel Bamford, and styled herself after the 19th century adventurer and author of Letters from Egypt, Lady Duff Gordon. So, my mother and her two siblings grew up in an atmosphere of creative and political cross-cultural ferment, in a milieu of avant-garde and politically rambunctious artists, when Egypt was negotiating a volatile mix of European Modernist influences and elements of Arab nationalism. For literature and the arts it was an exciting if difficult time, full of conflict. Her father was in the thick of it.
I was born in the suburbs less than an hour’s drive from New York City, which was my immediate source for art when I was a teenager. My mom had me drawing and painting when I was one or two years old. She was then dabbling in oil paint — she was a truly awful painter! She didn’t inherit the Wanly genes, unfortunately. But happily, she was already quite a good photographer. We would paint together in a small room at home that she had tricked out as a studio. Soon she dropped painting altogether and committed herself to photography — good move. She used to tease me that there was room for only one painter in the family. She went on to become quite accomplished. She was obsessive, really. Our house was one large darkroom and studio with storage for her work. She was never not working on her photographs. I wonder if this, along with my fraught, competitive relationship with her, has something to do with my need to make and remake the connections between painting and photography in my own work.
My dad too was in the habit of producing large numbers of photographs of a more technical nature. He is a scientist, and I grew up hanging around his lab and helping him with experiments. He had an additional home lab in the basement, adjacent to my mom’s darkroom. It was like an artist’s studio. He would attach a camera to the oculus of his microscope in order to document experiments, sometimes with Polaroids, sometimes with 35mm film. I remember having fun manipulating the microscope mirror in order to emphasize different details before photographing them. Among other things, this gave me a sense of the artful, constructed and interpretive nature of photographs, even when they are functioning as scientific evidence. Something I was to circle back to later as a painter.
Did you go to art school? If not, what did you study in school? And how did you come to art?
I got my first taste of painting instruction when I was in high school. My parents would drop me off weekly at the studio of a painter friend of theirs, Stanley Serin, who had studied with the great under-known American painter Edwin Dickenson at the Art Students League in New York. We’re talking post-Ashcan School Romanticism. I learned a lot from Stan, who was channeling Dickenson, who impressed him with advice like ‘put some pink in the ear.’ Stan taught me about having a ‘punctum’ in every painting. He didn’t call it that, the punctum is something Roland Barthes wrote about in connection to photography that I didn’t read until I was in grad school. It means something like a visual exclamation point. Some pink in the ear.
Beyond being tutored by Stan, I didn’t formally study painting or attend art school until I was in my twenties, when I went to Paris and was enrolled in the École des beaux-arts for about two years. I finally got my MFA in painting at The City College of New York, where I now teach a graduate seminar in interdisciplinary art practice.
So for that long stretch between Stan’s tutoring and the beaux-arts, I was pretty much a ‘self taught’ artist. I always had a studio in whatever room or apartment I was renting, and I continued to thrash around on my own. My father, who had dissuaded me from going to art school because he wanted me to get a ‘real education,’ convinced me that in order to become a halfway decent artist or a writer, you had to experience the world. So, while in college and later during grad school, I gave in to my tendency to be itinerant. I traveled incessantly and on a shoestring: Europe, North Africa, Asia. I’m not sure if that can be done in quite the same cheap, spontaneous way nowadays, so I’m very grateful to have been able to do that.
I also entertained the possibility that I might become an environmental biologist. I couldn’t leave that idea alone. I attended McGill University in Montreal, as well as their environmental college in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, but I ended up with a BA in ‘Humanistic Studies’. I must have changed my major every semester or so: Calculus, Astronomy, Ethology, Ornithology and Biology, and later Film Theory, Screenplay Writing, English Lit, Classical Arabic, Middle East Studies, French. I spent a summer reading Arabic at the American University in Cairo. They call that a liberal arts education.
Can you describe your first projects/ exhibitions.
The first year that I exhibited my work was in a group show in New York, at Lombard Freid Fine Arts in its original Soho location, in the summer of 1998. That was a great show called ‘Ground Control,’ curated by Lea Freid and Roxana Marcoci, who is now a curator at MoMA. It had a lot to do with my subject then and now, where technoscience, sci-fi, government secrecy, etc., all converge. They showed one of my triptychs of solar flares, and one large painting of the surface of the Red Planet. They sold all of them. I was shocked and amazed. And bamboozled. I thought it was all just going to keep getting better. Actually, for a while it did. That was an amazing time, the end of the nineties. All that unbridled optimism and tech utopianism.
In 1999 I had my first solo show at a NY gallery called Debs & Co. These were paintings based on declassified images of US government nuclear tests. I think I realized at that point that I had found my subject.
Who were some of your mentors? inspirations? influences? What about current influences? who do you look at now or listen to?
There are too many to list, but here are some painters whose work has been important to me: among the dead, I am really into James Ensor, and Turner, of course. Manet. Monet. The late Jack Goldstein. As for the living old guard, there’s no getting around Richter. Vija Celmins has also been a huge influence. And Marlene Dumas. Peter Doig. Luc Tuymans. As for younger painters, I am a big fan of Jules de Balincourt, Lisa Sanditz, Barnaby Furnas. I’m leaving out a lot of painters that I like. There are so many, I just happen to be thinking of these guys right now.
Could you talk about a significant success? Or a noteworthy failure that was an important turning point in your career?
I’m trying to think of a distinct success that was also a failure. Maybe everything I’ve ever done. That’s probably true for most of us — a condition of our times! Success is an ever-receding point in the distance.
Can you describe your rituals or routines in the studio – ie, daily painting vs. sporadic, music, etc.
My rituals seem to happen outside the studio, leading up to being in the studio, and then picking up again once I leave. It’s about a 30-minute walk to the studio from my apartment. As I walk, I leave behind a predominantly Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn and arrive at an Italian one. Very ‘Old World.’ There is also the intermittent influx of artisanal foodstuffs and hipster bars and coffee houses. Either en route or on my way home, I visit butchers and markets and plan some kind of dish to cook when I get home. There are also many bakeries, not to mention junk stores, all along that route. There’s a famous weird old store that sells tombstones and memorials, and on certain days they also sell fresh baked loaves of bread — ciabatta, olive bread – cooling on racks next to the filing cabinets and granite slabs. Crazy.
For me, the best conditions for creativity are those that reinforce a sense of locale, like walking and doing odd things along the way to somewhere: not just shopping for bread, also doing things like photographing objects on the street with my camera phone, uploading them on the spot, etc. This keeps the juices flowing. I seem to need to constantly push things outward. Maybe that’s a response to being constantly set upon and flattened by our bloated and inane mass media.
Can you talk about your choice of materials: what draws you to them; are you consistent with this or do you switch it around (ie oils all the time or gouache in one studio and oil in another, photography, things like that). I remember reading about how you finish paintings in one session: am I remembering that correctly? Is that speed of working an important component? Given the subject matter, it might well be a metalogue, like painting at the speed of light or at least the speed of the bomb’s glare.
I like the idea of a metalogue. I’ve actually been referring to my recent series as ‘The Speed of Painting’ ! I like to work fast, after longish stretches of digesting and internalization. I paint with oils because they have a particularly good light-refractive quality, and there is something about the way colors mix that is unique to oils. I use a ‘wet into wet’ technique, that is, I work only while the paint is wet, dealing with the different layers and colors while they are still ‘live.’ I do complete each painting in one go. With small canvases I tend to work in series, sometimes doing two or three at a time. I suppose this way of working emphasizes the performative aspect of painting, where each work is produced in and comes out of a particular moment. Once I’ve stopped, it’s done, I don’t revise. I also work with sumi ink on paper. I really prefer wet media, and have been working towards an economy of means with wet media for years.
There is another body of work that I’ve been developing more recently, since about 2008, which I’ve dubbed ‘Social Media Performance’. So yes, the performative aspects of making art have been on my mind. These social media projects are distinct from one another, and come out of real-life situations. Usually they develop in the space of conflict between the virtual and the material. They are often participatory and take place in real-time; they entail a combination of smartphone photography, social networks (Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, etc), and eventually, sometimes, I produce images and installations that are part documentation, part independent art object. All of these projects are archived online, which satisfies an archiving compulsion I have.
Do you start work with a concept or does the idea come later? Your work is based on found images, based on culling from the internet. I know you have written extensively on the subject of appropriation of images and copyright law. Is there anything you want to say about how you came to work in this way, the process of it, and or any other aspect of it?
The relationship between painting and the technical, electronic image is what interests me. The paintings are paradoxical in that they are at once a depiction of something — usually a real life event — and a depiction of their source image, which is a kind of framing device for the event. The paintings, therefore, are at once contemplative and critical, expressionist and theoretical. My research almost always has to do with images in the current media, their attempt at representation or their power to manipulate the viewer. There are projects where I narrow my focus – ‘declassified images’, or ‘news images’ — and projects that mix up different kinds of source imagery: snapshots, reproductions of relevant works of art, cartoons, military images, advertisements, movie stills, etc. I seem to always end up with images of post-apocalypse or impending disaster — there’s a surfeit of them — and my paintings have been referred to as pointing to or manifesting the ‘apocalyptic sublime’.
In terms of the basic mechanics of it, I collect images for any given project, usually by searching and pulling them off the Internet, and then later I choose several from this batch and print them out in hopes of being able to ‘translate’ them as paintings. So I am very up front about my use of this common method of appropriation. The process of translation is embodied in the way I paint, and in the medium of paint itself.
Because the post-photographic electronic image is what drives the dominant narratives of our age, my feeling is that at this juncture, painting offers itself up as a strangely apt strategic counterpoint: a tool for intervention. Painting, even when fast, is slow, since it is tied to the human body. My thoughts about this have developed over time, influenced by my readings of French essayist Paul Virilio, who has become a person I both admire and like to argue with. He writes about what he calls the ‘pollution of distances’ whereby we, as human beings, are losing touch with the poetics of our innate slowness, a seemingly trivial thread in our collective history that has to do with how we deal with inefficiency: gradual or obstructed delivery conduits, endless waiting, distraction, impatience. These are important, if not essential, human responses to obstruction. They are more important than we think. I believe what Virilio is getting at is that the inefficiencies in life are what give rise to human creativity. Art is not a result of enabled efficiency; it comes instead from a position of limitation, and overcomes limitations by complicating them, not by eradicating them. But our technologies keep closing the gaps in efficiency, creating a pollution of distances whereby elapsing time and the space between things have collapsed. Hopefully, artists are prepared to complicate things if not disrupt and derail what has become an institutionalized systematics of speed that permeates and controls nearly every aspect of our digitally synced, automatically updated, cloud enabled continuous and increasingly homogenized lives.
Could you talk about the political aspects to your art (do you have a better word for it)? I was looking at the Predator paintings and wondered if people ever missed the subversive and malevolent political context and content in them, like the lines indicating a viewfinder or crosshairs; or Pink Bomb (2011), a lusciously painted canvas depicting a military explosion, which might be mistaken for floral abstraction for the unsuspecting and uninitiated.
I think that painting is a radical gesture. Painting itself is a political act, an intervention, a détournement. By contrast, I don’t think it is truly radical or politically expedient to try to hitch painting or any art, really, to an ideological or political agenda. As is often the case with so-called ‘political art,’ the moment that a work pushes through a clear, unadulterated message, it stops being art and crosses over to agitprop — propaganda. It becomes a pitch, an advertisement for a cause that displays the trappings of art on its surface. Art, by contrast, when it functions as art, is not clear, it’s much weirder than that, and it does something more profound than promoting a particular message or political agenda.
How can the age-old medium of painting serve as a radical gesture? To paint or to engage paintings as a viewer are activities that go against the grain. That’s where the politics of the everyday comes in. Painting disrupts the ubiquitous dominance of the electronic image, of all that is infinitely reproducible, streamed endlessly, transmitted instantaneously. A painting asks the maker and viewer alike to give up very different parts of themselves than what they have become inured to giving up. It is radical in terms of where we’re at.
Also, I’m not so sure I really care if people ‘get’ the backstory to my work. Some will get the allusions, others won’t. That’s kind of how allusion works. I don’t like the over-explainy didacticism I see in many museums. I almost rather people had no idea of what the sources are for the paintings. The problem is with the idea that there is a ‘correct’ way to view a painting, or a necessary background for engaging a work of art. Just engage and see what happens. I wonder if the experience of the ‘uninitiated’ or ‘unsuspecting’ viewer is just as valuable — or more valuable — than that of the initiated viewer. They may come to the work expecting something based on a set of naive assumptions, and possibly they will come away having gotten something else. The element of surprise is important. That’s the problem with studying too much, in lieu of experiencing things: scholars and theorists tend to see their own set of preconceptions as being the ‘correct’ ones. It can take the fizz out of everything.
Can you describe what you are working on now?
I am working, as usual, on too many projects at once. But that’s how I like it. With painting, I’ve been developing two different bodies of work that do similar things in different ways: one series is highly chromatic, flower-like explosions that simultaneously function as abstraction and as translations of photographic representations, aerial views or simulations of real events. The sources are very broad — fire works, military ordnance exploding, supernovas, Hollywood movie car chases, first person shooter games, etc. Consistent throughout is the theme of the explosive event, contraction and expansion of all kinds. Apocalyptic-sublime flower paintings that are in fact disaster flicks. The other series that complements these works is comprised of monochromatic, grey and white, and mainly grid-like images based on declassified or leaked military images of night vision bombardments. They employ a different kind of abstraction, and allude to a machine vision that is more literal, sober and sinister.
There are other projects that entail a lot of writing: I have chapters coming out in two different books on Virilio published by Edinburgh University Press in early 2013, as well as a forthcoming chapter about painting and technical images (I still have to write it) in a book coming out with Duke University Press next year. I’m excited to have the opportunity to write about these things, which, you may have noticed, stray from the usual concerns of contemporary writing on painting. I feel like I’m opening a fresh vein.
But my main big writing project is a demanding and overwhelming book, a family memoir about my Egyptian grandfather Abushady and his circle, and the story of my hunt for him. I’ve been writing and researching this book in earnest for the past two years, in between other things. It’s coming along.
What’s next as for as projects and/or exhibitions?
I have a few group exhibitions coming up. ‘Pink Bomb’ is traveling with ‘The Tool at Hand’, which originated at the Milwaukee Art Museum last year. The show is the result of an experiment and commission initiated by The Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee. Their chief curator approached a group of artists working in different media and asked us to create a work using only one tool, as well as a 3 to 4-minute video documenting ourselves in process. The show travels to the Philadelphia Art Alliance (Feb 1 – Apr 28, 2013), the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft (May 31 – Sept 8, 2013), and finally to the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Oregon.
Closer to home, I have two new paintings on view in ‘Your Face is a Landscape’ curated by Sara Reisman and Reina Shibata at Field Projects, NY, in Chelsea (Dec 13 – Jan 26, 2013), and four paintings from my new night vision series, which are based on screen grabs from the Wikileaks ‘Collateral Damage’ video, will be on view in ‘Secret Wars’ at Proteus Gowanus in Brooklyn, NY (opens Jan 12, 2013).
Continuing in this cheery vein, paintings from my China Yangtze Three Gorges Dam project will be part of an exhibition about climate change curated by Amy Lipton at Ramapo College Art Galleries in Mahwah New Jersey (Jan 30 – Mar 6, 2013). The title of the show, ‘It’s the end of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’, comes from a 1987 song by the band R.E.M. with lyrics by Michael Stipe, and intended as ironic even back in ’87. The phrase ‘and I feel fine’ obviously meant that everything was not fine. The year before, Stipe wrote ‘Cuyahoga’ about the river in Ohio that caught fire. This theme feels rather timely especially for those of us who live in New York and New Jersey, and still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Sandy. Included in the exhibition are quite a few New York-area artists: Lisa Sanditz (one of my afore-mentioned painting heroes), Adam Cvijanovic, Jason Middlebrook, Peter Edlund, and others.
Any advice for future or emerging artists?
Remember, you probably didn’t invent that. ‘Your work is only as good as the obscurity of your sources.’ (Richard Serra, ca.1969). And please don’t let the fizz go out of it.
© Joy Garnett and Figure/Ground Communication. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joy Garnett and Figure/Ground Communication with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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