Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Olivia Berke, Stella Mulroney, and Zoe Iatridis

interviewed by Mary Brody | Visual Processes | Fall 2020

Image by Zoe Iatridis

Four housemates reflect on their art-filled home.


When studio art majors decide to have a casual dinner party, what they are really doing is constructing a performance. Classic table settings have been jetissoned and in their place are hand-made clay figurines. Absolutely no utensils can be found, and meticulously picked out rocks from Chance Creek stand in for plates. The candle wax is to be poured and manipulated while eating, and please, consider saving the bones from your meat for some artistic repurposing. I, as an English major, am privy to this knowledge as the housemate of three senior studio art majors. I’ve been best friends with my two housemates Olivia and Stella since freshman year and have just gotten to know Zoe, our third housemate, this semester. I’ve watched them all grow and struggle as artists during this strange school year, but mostly I have been paying attention to how their artistry has taken up space in our off-campus house. I sat down with my roommates to chat about who they are as artists and to reconcile the ways in which their processes have taken on our home as their vessel during our fall semester.

OLIVIA BERKE 

Mary Brody: So, I think I know you’re going to hate this first question but, what would you say your artist statement is at the moment if you have one?

Olivia Berke: No, no, I will answer questions if that is what you want. It’s not going to be perfect though? 

MB: Yes, of course. 

OB: Right now I’m interested in the balance of or the exact moment that an object can no longer stand on its own—and also when it can. I’ve been trying to find and explore those moments through trying to create something that exists only in these very specific times and spaces. I’m also just very interested in the idea of collapse when things are placed in such precarious positions, so it’s a lot of accumulation and balancing and stacking for me right now. 

Beyond that, I think just as an artist, a general through line in my work would be making things that are kind of two things and nothing at once—basically I’m just always very interested in hybridity. I frequently use found materials and recognizable objects and then, either in a repetitive way or in some small altercation I force, try to change how you think about them.

When we arrived at our house in early August, Olivia immediately started building a wire sculpture in the backyard. It was four tall ladders made of and connected by thin wire, and no one could understand how it balanced like it did. Olivia spent weeks in the field across from our house standing on one foot, then the other, trying to understand the thing she created. 

As the COVID-19 school year approached, it seemed like the precariously positioned sculpture in our backyard might be one of the only constants in our lives. The wire sculpture withstood high winds and heavy rains. Our landlord would recklessly mow the lawn all around the sculpture, getting extremely close but never disturbing it. Then one day, a friend came over and tapped the side of one of the ladders lightly, causing it to immediately crumble over. Olivia said this was a sign, but I’m not fully sure what she meant by that. 

MB: I love the balancing stuff you’ve been working on and I also think it’s, yes, definitely a relatively new focus for you. 

OB: Definitely, and also organized chaos. Oh! One thing I think I should mention that is just very core to everything is thinking about ways of using, or really maybe forcing, materials and discovering these relationships where you’re pushing it to do something and it’s pushing back at you to do something else. I’m also always listening and trying to work with and against the materials I use.

MB: I think that kind of give and take and communication is really visible in your work and just connects nicely to your concerns with hybridity and balance. I thought of how I’ve definitely noticed in my witnessing of your artistic evolution over the years that rummaging and scavenging have become pretty huge for your practice. Could you talk about that process and what you’re looking for?

OB: Yes, I’ve always been interested in objects that would be considered not noticeable or are typically overlooked like, you know, trash or just discarded extra material. Let’s say that something falls off of a bike—then there is not only the story that that instance holds but the whole history of the object and I just see a lot of beauty in that. And, you know, I think other people see that beauty too. It’s just I’m talking about objects that we are typically conditioned not to look at. 

In my work it’s about finding these objects that have feelings and emotions, taking them out of their context, off the side of the street, and then using them as a jumping-off point. Usually if I find something I can say, “Okay, well this object needs this to make it something that tells a story or expresses something important.” But also it’s not that the work starts around an object. 

Sometimes I will be working on something and I’ll be struggling to finish it, and I can’t figure out what it needs and then I’ll walk down the street and see the perfect thing to complete it! You know? That’s it! And you take it to the studio, it’s some tree branch or something, and then you paint it and that is it! And now that we have a house I can just retrieve and collect so many massive things I couldn’t before.

The first floor of our house has served largely as a collection ground for Olivia’s strange found materials. I wake up one morning and go into the foyer, and there are scraps of roofing and tiles and other remnants of a house that was demolished nearby. (When Olivia finds out there is a house being demolished nearby she is like a kid on Christmas.) These scraps already somehow look like both art and garbage to me, but Olivia describes the whole new life she plans to bring to them once she gets them into the studio. Often, as soon as the materials arrive in the living room or foyer, they are taken away to be worked on, leaving the house feeling empty until Olivia goes rummaging again and refills the space. The garbage really makes our house feel like a home.

MB: So, shifting to the now: How has quarantine and the strange state of the world been impeding or accelerating your process? 

OB: It’s been hard. It feels like nothing is important but everything is important at this time. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what making art means right now and how my practice fits into that. What I’m thinking about right now is that the opportunity for community building is so at the center of art, but it’s so often that that is not the case. There were definitely times over quarantine when I was too sad or angry to work, but now, having the space to do it, creating and thinking about it as a means for connection, is really what keeps me going. And to connect this back to what I was saying about my interest in balance, I think that it is informed largely by the kind of emotional pendulum we’ve been living in, and looking for that stability, maybe just for my own sanity. 

MB: In terms of Senior Studio, do you have any mission or specific approach for this year?

OB: If I’m being perfectly honest, what I want out of Senior Studio is just to feel confident enough that I can do this as a career. The stakes are lower than in the real world so I want to really be pushed and told when something is bad and why. This is the only thing that I want to do so it needs to be what I do, but it sucks because it’s such a hard thing to do or make money off of. So yes, I’d just like confidence. But I also am enjoying building an understanding of a studio practice and how to self-motivate to be constantly creating and be more introspective. 

“I’m interested in the balance of or the exact moment that an object can no longer stand on its own—and also when it can”

Olivia Berke

MB: Can you speak about the pieces you have in the senior halftime show?

OB: Yes! My first piece is called Point/Counterpoint and it was the only piece that I had made weeks ago. Everything else was made specifically for this show. That piece had actually started as a floor piece, but we moved it to the wall for the show which was exciting. I’ll admit I was against the wall at first, I guess. Or I didn’t want the wall to feel like too much support for the piece, but I really think it held its own. 

Then I had Plank and Hoop, which was really about the themes I was talking about earlier—gravity, balance, and things pushing back or supporting things. The plank in that piece was really just such a great chunk of found wood. I also liked that it was next to my drawing, An Impossible Stability, to contextualize it a bit. That drawing came together sort of last-minute, but I do think it tied the pieces together nicely. 

My last piece, Forced Attraction, was truly a puzzle to put together. The tubing I used to make the structure just did not want to mold, but I think that helped with communicating what I wanted to about an uncomfortable or awkward connection and instability. I was happy with it as my only freestanding piece in the show.

MB: What is your hope for postgrad?

OB: Oh my God, just write down, “Shrieks.” But really, all I could hope for in the future is being able to create and work toward making art more accessible. It’s just such a valuable tool and if you don’t like it that’s fine, but at least you know how to make something with your hands, you know? 

I think it’s an interesting time and a real moment of reconciliation for the art community about the future of art and all of the current issues embedded in the art world as we know it. Beyond that, who knows? Maybe one day I’ll get a studio and hopefully, way down the line, I could make some money off  of my work. I don’t know, I want to be an artist! 

STELLA MULRONEY

MB: If you have one, what would you say your artist statement is? 

Stella Mulroney: I’d say it’s more of a vibe than a statement. 

MB: Sure, an artist vibe. 

SM: Well, I think a lot about dreams, you know, the dreamscape. I have really intense dreams where I am frequently visited by entities that are honestly beyond my comprehension. I also find that I have a lot of dreams where I’m experiencing a very real feeling of pain, like, I frequently have violent car-crash dreams that are almost sensory or somatic. So I’ve been focusing a lot on trying to make the things that are in my dreams represented in reality and representing bodily pain that I maybe haven’t actually felt physically—while lucid—but that I feel in my brain while sleeping. 

On a separate note, I also use a lot of writing in my work. Writing won’t necessarily appear in the final piece, but I do a lot of writing, trying to articulate what I am making as I make it. To get it out of my brain I need to write it out first, I guess. Sometimes I feature recordings or videos of spoken word in installations, too. Songs I write too, sometimes.  

On any given day in our house you can hear Stella singing a tune and strumming her guitar in her room. Her soft voice fills the taut silence of a home full of artists who quietly sculpt or paint, and in my case write. My room in the house is directly under Stella’s. Most nights, I hear her take breaks from working on her pieces for Senior Studio to sing a little song. I never fully recognize any of them, they aren’t popular or well-known, but they feel safe and familiar because they are something Stella crafted.  

Stella Mulroney, Osmosis

MB: Similarly to Olivia, when I first met you, I would have probably only described you as a photographer, but in your time at Oberlin it’s been nice to see you experiment with sculpture and, like you mentioned, video. Could you talk about that evolution? 

SM: I don’t think I came to college knowing I would definitely be an art major, but I loved photography in high school. When I got to Oberlin I just decided to take a photography class because I figured I’d be good at it, and I ended up loving it so much and falling in love with the whole department. 

I truly never thought I would sculpt in all my days, but then I took a sculpture class with Nannette Yannuzzi and it changed the way I looked at what I could do. Like, everything opened up. I got very excited about different dimensions and movement in art. I also don’t really think I necessarily want to primarily be a visual artist in life, but I have loved it here and it informs everything else I do. But I will never draw in my whole life. 

MB: The strength of your emotions around drawing brings me to my next question: a lot of the work you’ve made here is very powerful in how personal it feels, could you talk about that level of intimacy and how much of “you” is in your work? 

SM: A lot of artists, in a way I really respect, are in their work but in a very removed way; the work is still their heart but it’s not easy to identify the artist in the art. I bring a lot of personal narrative into my work. I find using personal issues in my work really cathartic and also I am a chronic oversharer so it works for me to a certain degree. I just have never seen the reason to not be candid about more personal or difficult things, so I find it easy to bring up that level of transparency in my work. Also, for myself as a viewer, I really enjoy when I see that candidness in other work because I feel such a deep connection to that. 

MB: How has working in these unprecedented times been? How has it affected your approach to your last year?

SM: There is a good amount of un-motivation. I feel, as we all do, pretty emotionally drained already, and creating art is kind of an emotionally draining activity. I’m glad to have deadlines again to get me into creative motivation. But I feel disconnected from the studio, too; I do most of my work from home because there is more space…  

Stella does have a lot of space in our house, and when she is not filling it with art, she is amassing a large army of reptiles upstairs. Close to 30 animals live in Stella’s room/studio with her: one leopard gecko, one lizard, two frogs, a few snails, and 20-some-odd exotic fish. These animals likely have a better idea of Stella’s artistic process than anyone else. Some days, Stella will move a piece she’s working on about her dream entities out of her room and into the living room. And most days, a new box of crickets or tank-cleaning snails arrives on our doorstep. Stella’s space is in constant flux—living creatures coming in and creatures of artistic imagination being pumped out.

SM: … I also have never been into a very regimented studio practice. It’s weird—I don’t want to make art about the unprecedented times, but it also feels weird to present art about my dreams. I guess it’s a nice escape but there is some pressure to respond to this moment through art, and then maybe my art could be an escape for the viewer, too. 

MB: Can you speak a little bit about the piece you have in the senior halftime show?

SM: Yes! I did a video installation titled Osmosis. I was thinking about subconscious entities or things that can weigh down on your physical form, and trying to balance fighting that off and letting it happen. It was a pretty personal and reflective piece. 

I was thinking a lot about my past life and the idea that for a lot of people, in order to grow, there has to be some kind of shedding of the past or getting rid of older parts of you that may no longer be useful, even if that’s painful. Along with that, the audio is a song I wrote in high school and the bass recording is from high school, but I sang over it again now just to think about peeling away and piling on. 

“I just have never seen the reason to not be candid about more personal or difficult things, so I find it easy to bring up that level of transparency in my work.”

Stella Mulroney

MB: What would you say you envision your future as an artist looking like?  

SM: This is maybe funny for this interview, but for me personally, I think being a studio art major in college has made me realize that I don’t want to be a visual artist in life. I’ve loved studying here, but I think it’s great that I learned that it maybe can’t be the main thing I’m doing. I’ll certainly be working in a creative field and everything I learned as an art major here will impact anything I do, so I am very glad I got to explore myself here. 

ZOE IATRIDIS 

MB: What would you say your working artist statement is at the moment? 

Zoe Iatridis: I mostly paint portraits, mostly self-portraits. I’ve always found it pretty difficult to say what they’re about because I generally don’t know when I start. I feel like the work kind of emerges from some intuitive place in me, and only after does it make sense, sometimes many months later. 

I would say, though, that I’m concerned with trying to capture some truth about the way that I experience the world and the things that have impacted me in my life, kind of knowing that that is futile. No matter how good my work is or how evocative a painting is, nothing will truly allow me to instill in someone what I’m feeling or thinking. We’re all always feeling some impossible combinations of emotions all the time, and it’s very difficult to make sense of ourselves and impossible to communicate to others in a totally true way. So that is kind of what my art is concerned with broadly. 

More specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot about home and family and one’s place, or the relationships we use to root ourselves and find some sense of selfhood through. I’m always pretty focused on ephemerality, too.

MB: I only know you as a painter, and you’ve mentioned to me that painting has always been your medium. Can you talk about discovering that? 

ZI: I was always a creative and quirky kid, but I never really had an outlet for it, and would just draw on my own time, so I never considered myself an artist. I started painting during my first year of high school and just kind of never stopped. It wasn’t really a decision, either—I didn’t think about it, I just began to paint. I’ve experimented with other mediums, photography in particular, but none have felt as authentic to me. 

MB: And have portraits always been an area of interest? 

ZI: I’ve been drawing portraits my whole life. I have notebooks saved from kindergarten of learning to draw the components of a face; I was obsessed, I filled whole pages with just noses and just eyes. So it’s just been forever. My dad will sometimes say I need to find something else to paint, but I can’t! There’s nothing else for me. Only recently, I would say in junior studio last fall, is when I started really explicitly making self-portraits. Prior to that, I would paint a lot of people that looked a lot like me but weren’t meant to exactly “be” me. I love the exercise of repetition in repainting the same face, my face, over and over in this kind of compulsive way, and I think that that connects back to my concerns of trying to communicate and be known. It’s kind of like looking at yourself and trying to understand and repeat it while also allowing yourself to be vulnerable and portray whatever version of yourself needs to exist in that moment. 

One day, while moving furniture into the attic, I discovered Zoe’s collection of self-portraits. What seemed like over 20 large rolled canvases were spread out around the floor. Out of curiosity, I began to unroll them, not understanding who they were or who could have made them, but recognizing some feeling of familiarity in the eyes of each portrait’s face. I moved them near the window, allowing the light to wash over them, and I finally saw Zoe. It felt kind of like I was looking at something I shouldn’t be, that maybe I was invading the privacy of my new roommate just by happening upon these canvases. Now, I think that that intense vulnerability is just inherent in Zoe’s practice of portraiture, and the way I felt in the attic was a possible moment of artistic success for my new friend.  

MB: What has your evolution as a painter been like at Oberlin?

ZI: I came to college knowing I loved art and knowing I wanted to be an art major, but I had no idea what I cared about—I just felt like I had to do it. I actually didn’t take a painting class here until the spring of my sophomore year. I think most of my first two years were about exploring other mediums and techniques, which I think did end up making me a better painter. I was so focused on learning something new in those two years though, rather than learning a specific concept, so I just kind of felt like someone who was taking art classes but couldn’t fully connect. Then, when I got into that painting class, I started to feel the shift to actually feeling like an artist.

MB: What is painting and finishing up your college career under these circumstances like? 

ZI: I think it’s really affected my work. I’m still broadly concerned with the same thing, but I’ve gone down a narrow path of focusing on loss. I think this time has forced everyone to confront the fact that every important thing and relationship in your life is fleeting. In my work, I’ve been trying to reconcile the sadness of that fact with the happiness of having those things when you do. In quarantine I was feeling so stuck, but now I think that I was just digesting everything and I’m ready to make art about it. 

MB: Something very cool about you is that you are actually a double major with art history and you have a curatorial job at the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Could you speak about how studying art history has impacted your process?

ZI: It never occurred to me that I might want to be an art history major as well, and then I fell in love with the department. I think studying art history has informed my work in really interesting ways, and making work has informed the ways I think about art history. I really do think all artists should have some knowledge of art history; it just seems silly that you wouldn’t know the context of what you’re creating. 

Also, yes, my curatorial job at the Allen—I’ve been doing a lot of research on paintings that we have acquired from like 1900 to 1980, and it’s my job to go through the curatorial file and go through all the auction records and places that the pieces have been before. It’s really interesting to be intimate with a piece of art in that way and track its history, so I’m enjoying it. I think just being with art in many different ways as an artist can be really important. 

“I’ve been drawing portraits my whole life. I have notebooks saved from kindergarten of learning to draw the components of a face; I was obsessed, I filled whole pages with just noses and just eyes.”

Zoe Iatridis

MB: Can you speak a little bit about the pieces you have in the senior halftime show?

ZI: I am showing a portrait of me as a child—painted from a photograph my grandmother gave me—a painting of me and my mother on the couch, and a large painting of me lying on a lily pad, like a frog. 

The image of me and my mother on the couch has been something I wanted to paint for a while. I’ve been thinking about the craving of my mom’s comfort and the limitations of that as I get older. It was hard to paint sometimes because I love my mom so much and I really wanted to do it justice. It was definitely tricky and it was my first time working with mixed media, with the textures, which was actually sort of an accident. 

The portrait of me as a child is just special because it’s a moment I now know was one that I spent with my grandmother. It sort of feels like something kind of separate from the timeline of my life, so it’s a nice connection to my grandmother, whom I love so much, even though it’s not part of my memory with her. 

The lily pad painting just came from my strange dreams about frogs over the past few months. I don’t really believe that dreams are symbolic, but I truly dream about frogs in a way that is serious and… sad? Maybe melancholy? This sounds crazy. I don’t know, it’s just become a thing that serves as a marker for where I’m at in my life right now. I think maybe just seeing my paintings in the show, without an artist statement or anything, they may not seem like they’re in conversation. 

Of course, to me they are related or in conversation, and I’m excited about it because it’s like three divergent paths off of the same theme. I also think I want to continue to work on them next semester, and then one day maybe they’ll make more sense to the viewer in conversation.

MB: What is a hope for postgrad? 

ZI: I don’t know. All I know is I have to be making art and prioritizing that in my life because it makes me so happy. But I don’t really know. I want a life where I can make work, and hopefully show it to some people, and hopefully some of those people like it. There are so many uncertainties in the coming years but I know art has to be at the center of my life, so that is really just the driving force for me.

The halftime show opened on November 13th. When I spoke to Zoe on the Saturday after the show about how she thought it went, we were less than a week away from Thanksgiving break, and Zoe would be the first of all of us to leave the house and head home for over a month. That Saturday night, we all sat in our living room, which was filled with Stella’s sculptures and Olivia’s masks and a painting that Zoe had made of the outside of our house the very first week we moved in. It was sad to think about the art, which really felt like its own life force in our house, being left alone in the dead of an Ohio winter. After a wave of silence, Zoe looked up at all of us and said, “You know, it’s really dawning on me, how much I’ll miss you guys and the house and my tea on the porch in the mornings and the backyard at night and just, you know, our space.” 

Categories
Graphic Arts

Issue Artwork, Fall 2020

by Wilder Voice Artists | Graphic Arts | Fall 2020

The following works appear independent of any print piece in the Fall 2020 issue.


Categories
Graphic Arts

Issue Artwork, Spring 2020

by Wilder Voice Artists | Graphic Arts | Spring 2020

The following works appear independent of any print piece in the Spring 2020 issue.


Categories
Graphic Arts

Issue Artwork, Fall 2019

by Wilder Voice Artists | Graphic Arts | Fall 2019

The following works appear independent of any print piece in the Fall 2019 issue.


Categories
Field Notes

The Genderfuck Art of Stephen Varble: A Conversation with Curator David Getsy

by Nell Beck | Field Notes | Spring 2019

Jimmy DeSana, Untitled (Stephen Varble performing Gutter Art with onlooker), 1975. © Jimmy DeSana Trust.

In 1976, Stephen Varble got out of his limousine and entered Chemical Bank in the West Village of New York to settle a fraudulent withdrawal from his bank account. Wearing a gown of fishing net embellished with sequins and fake dollar-bills, breasts made of condoms filled with cow’s blood, and a toy jet-fighter as a codpiece, Varble silently stormed the bank. A cardboard speech bubble that read, “Even though you may be forged – Chemical still banks best!” was suspended over his head. When he was told by the manager that he could not be helped, Varble punctured one of the condoms under his gown, and used the blood that poured from it to write a check for “none million dollars.” To applause from the customers, Varble turned towards the door and wordlessly exited the bank. He had been wearing only one shoe, to “symbolize his economic loss.” He climbed back into the limousine and drove away.

It was almost by accident that David Getsy, OC ‘95, a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, stumbled upon the work of Varble while doing research for his upcoming book on a different artist, Scott Burton:

“I came across an unpublished interview where Burton was talking about the role of sexuality in the arts,” Getsy says. “He said one of the most radical artists of the seventies was Stephen Varble. He explained one of these performances where Varble spilled milk at an art gallery out of one of his dresses, and I had just never heard of this person. And I thought I knew my stuff! So I filed it away as a name to pay attention to.”

Since his death in 1984, Varble had been largely forgotten by the art world, due in part to his own steadfast rejection of self-promotion and publicity. By the time that Getsy, by then a distinguished professor of art history, had first heard of him, Varble was almost completely wiped from the art world’s short memory. In 2011, Getsy was asked by the arts organization Visual AIDS to curate an online gallery of slides, which included photographs of Varble. It was this that finally pushed Getsy to try to answer the question that had been plaguing him: who, really, was Stephen Varble?

Getsy embarked on what would evolve into a years-long project culminating in three exhibitions on the work and history of Varble. Currently, ONE Archives Foundation Gallery in West Hollywood, California, is showing “The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day,” until May 17.

“Varble himself had never had a museum exhibition,” Getsy says. “His last exhibition was over 30 years ago; nothing had been written about him in an art publication since, like, 1977.” Instead, much of Varble’s work was kept in the personal collections of the people he had shared his life with. Films were stored in closets, photographs were packed in boxes, pieces of costumes were tucked away in basements; Varble was scattered all over the place.

For Getsy, this unconventional approach to research involving real people rather than collections was both rewarding for his work and a moving personal experience. “What was great about this process was that even though it required a different kind of research practice, it became very much an emotional, a lived practice… more and more people were excited and honored to share their stories and their memories,” says Getsy. “It didn’t feel like work. It felt like discovery.”

Most likely, that is how Varble would have wanted to be remembered. During his lifetime, he was decidedly opposed to any forms of institutionalization or elitism; a steadfast refusal to conform is what drove much of his work. Would Varble have been happy to see his work displayed in galleries now, if he had been so determined to avoid them in the ’70s? Perhaps not. But, as Getsy argues, Varble’s work is too meaningful to allow it to be lost. “I think that’s the one cautionary tale,” Getsy says. “No matter how self-determined, DIY, oppositional, [it’s important] to be like, ‘What is not just the impact today… but what is the way you think about what the legacy will be of this work? How will it be remembered?” As stirring as it is to deny the legitimacy of institutions, the messages found in Varble’s work deserve a platform today. It feels paradoxical to try to honor an artist who so firmly denied recognition of any sort; yet if Varble preferred anonymity and oppositionality in his life, the significance of his work now reaches beyond that.

***

Stephen Varble was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1946 to a staunchly Christian family. Growing up, he was a choirboy. Varble’s upbringing instilled a deep sense of religiosity in him, one that would carry him through much of his work in his adult life. “My parents wanted me to be a missionary,” he once said, “but I became a monster instead.”

While studying English at the University of Kentucky, Varble immersed himself in Lexington’s LGBT scene by joining the Pagan Babies, a queer theater group. He moved to New York in 1969 and received an MFA in directing from Columbia University in 1971.

Varble soon began to move into the world of 1970s New York performance art, particularly through his burgeoning romantic and collaborative relationship with the influential Fluxus artist Geoffrey Hendricks. It was this relationship, as well as inspiration he found in the groundbreaking work of the filmmaker Jack Smith, that allowed Varble to establish himself as a major figure of seventies queer art.

Varble’s work revolved around disruption and garbage. He constantly placed himself in spaces where he was not welcome, and was an outright challenger of gender binaries, capitalist structures, and the elitism of the art world. He only grew more radical with time. Hendricks largely influenced Varble’s transition from film to theater and performance art. One of the earliest examples of this evolution is seen in Varble’s “Blind Walks;” dressed in all-white and walking blindfolded through the streets of New York, Varble would blast Stevie Wonder songs from a cassette tape recorder and carry a blank board strapped to his arm, Jesus-like. Moving through the city without sight put Varble in an incredibly vulnerable position – yet this was only the beginning of a long career of fearless disruption.

Varble and Hendricks split in September of 1974. Following the break up, Varble developed a female alter-ego whom he dubbed Marie Debris; she would come out not only in staged performances, but also at dinner parties. In this genderqueer costume, usually composed of pieces of trash and everyday items such as chicken bones, pipe cleaners, and milk cartons, he would parade the streets of New York performing various forms of public interventions. For his series Costume Tours of New York, Varble, dressed in his brazen ensembles, led spontaneous and unauthorized gallery tours in SoHo for anyone who wished to join. These tours, like many of his performances, were largely wordless except for cooing and clicking sounds. It was a flamboyant mockery of wealth and class pretensions, as well as commentary on the blurred lines of gender identity.

Varble’s disgust with the classism and celebrity that he saw pervading the New York art scene only grew as he began to gain more recognition against his will. It was inevitable that, no matter how much he challenged the system, the system would eventually conform itself to embrace him, thereby taking away from the message he was trying to send about the perils of hierarchy. Yet Varble managed to deride the recognition he was gaining. He had only one gallery show during his lifetime, which he sabotaged brilliantly. By titling it “The Awful Art Show” and forcing the gallery to price each piece outrageously high so as to prevent anyone from buying anything, he assured the failure of his own exhibit.

But the attention didn’t abate. Varble felt his work was being more and more restrained by it all. “He became increasingly frustrated with how much the most radical actions or the most fantastical costumes would still be absorbed by the art world, by the art institution,” Getsy says. “This is the story of not just Varble, but all institutional critique and oppositional art. It’s built into the narrative of progress that contemporary art defines itself through… absorb[ing] its challenges as part of its reason for being.”

In 1977, Varble retreated from the spotlight, in part in reaction to the newfound attention, but also because he met his last partner Daniel Cahill, a married merchant marine. “Cahill helped reactivate the religiosity that had been part of Varble’s worldview since he was a teenager,” Getsy says. “It really enabled him… And actually the most strident anti-capitalist statements all come from this moment when he’s re-embracing the idea of a spiritual mission of salvation from late capitalism.” During these years, Varble was producing plenty of work—as well as being a performance artist, Varble was a novelist, playwright, and lmmaker—but he focused mostly on video, returning to the medium that had captured him early on, before first meeting Hendricks and falling into the performance world of Fluxus art. But in the midst of making his epic movie, “Journey to the Sun,” Varble got AIDS. With the film unfinished, he died on January 6, 1984, in Lenox Hill Hospital.

***

Varble in the “Demonstration Costume With Only One Shoe” for the “Chemical Bank Protest,” 1976. Credit © Greg Day

In early March of this year, HIV was cured in a man referred to as the London patient, the second such case since the global epidemic began decades ago. Nearly twelve years previously, one other person had been cured of the virus that causes AIDS. The Berlin patient, who has since been identified as Timothy Ray Brown, 52, now lives in Palm Springs, California.

Both men were also diagnosed with cancer, for which they received bone marrow transplants, and it was those transplants that ended up containing a mutation resistant to HIV. The success of the most recent case of the London patient has inspired a newfound hope that a cure for AIDS could be discovered in the near future.

The impact of the AIDS crisis on the art world was monumental. Many artists were lost far too early, but the epidemic led to the production of incredibly powerful and politically influential work. Some more well-known examples might be the AIDS logo series by the collective General Idea, or Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ slowly disappearing pile of candy, which symbolizes the loss of his partner. Today there are many artists, such as Kia LaBeija and Jonathan Molina-Garcia, who are still working to fight HIV/AIDS through their work.

Following his own death of AIDS, the crisis of the 1980s and nineties swallowed Varble’s work of gender nonconformity and replaced it with national fear-mongering and homophobia. To preserve Varble’s queer art, hidden by history, Getsy had to divert from traditional forms of research; he needed to connect with people rather than databases, friends rather than institutions. Because Varble was so opposed to museum or gallery collections, what saved Varble’s work were intimate connections more than anything else, a valuable, but fleeting, mode of conservation. Through Getsy, this memorialization was honored and then expanded upon through the current exhibitions.

Getsy talked to Hendricks, Varble’s partner when he first moved to New York, along with a plethora of others who had, in some way or another, shared a relationship with Varble. “That was what was exciting about it,” Getsy says. “To realize that it was all there, and it was held by his network of friends.”

Varble’s work comments on many of the concerns that still resonate today—anxiety around late capitalism and the false and restrictive nature of gender binaries. As Getsy says, what Varble—an outcast, a queer man who lived and died during the AIDS crisis—did so well was to take what society has “devalued or… discarded, and reclaim it and love it and give it value… I think that’s the big relevance.”

Varble’s story is one of genderfuck, of oppression, of the power that comes from radical self-expression, and of the injustice of the AIDS crisis. Getsy’s work in reviving and curating Varble’s work brings to mainstream conversation topics that were once only found in the corners of society. Varble’s gender nonconformity and his embrace of the trashy and the crude are today at center stage, and it is Getsy who is encouraging us to confront that. And as other 1970s guerilla artists and performers, like the Cockettes, Lorraine O’Grady, and Hunter Reynolds, are also being rediscovered by today’s generation, Varble now seems to fit right in.

Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Eva Kocher

interviewed by Bridget Conway | Visual Processes | Spring 2019

Works by Eva Kocher

Bridget Conway for Wilder Voice: Give us a brief introduction to your art. What themes and ideas do you work with? What materials?

Eva Kocher: Since starting at Oberlin, I’ve really been driven by my identity. I have been making work that relates to my Blackness and my struggle to find a place as a biracial person who comes from a displaced Black heritage. But my personal story is what I usually tend to draw my inspiration from. Dealing with these different struggles, I’ve had to find my own voice in art history and I think a lot of when I first started making work I was doing all the photography and making art that spoke to that very explicitly.

In my junior year, I decided that I wanted to take a step back from creating images that felt a little bit too obvious or heavy-handed. I wanted to go back to working with my hands and try to evoke the same sort of visceral reactions that I was trying to do in my photography through physical objects. Finding this abstractness in this relationship to Blackness. When I was first beginning to make work I related it to my history, my Blackness and my identity as a woman of color, specifically a biracial woman, and existing in this world, but also in Oberlin College––I felt like I really needed to prove myself as an artist.

There’s just so much pressure to create work that talks about my identity, so I wanted to step away from that and create work that just spoke to me. I trust that it all has to do with who I am and the experiences that I have, but it isn’t trying to prove anything to anyone else. It’s more about an experience of catharsis for myself, a rebuilding and recontextualization of my history and where I exist in history. I began making more sculptures and, in my junior year, I started working a lot with hair, as you can see here. I am going back to that this year which I’m really excited about. Hair for me has always been this very charged thing.

My mom is African-American, my dad is white, blonde. I always was told that I grew up with “good hair,” that’s just a term that’s used a lot in the Black community. Being biracial, I had looser curls and I was told to love my natural hair. There are all of these ideas of class and gender and femininity wrapped up in hair. My mom has a lot of struggles, a lot of internal conflict. She grew up in an upper-middle-class Black family, so there are all of these things that she hung on to. She was trying to live vicariously through me, her light-skinned biracial daughter. Me and my mom are super close and so I always hung onto every word that she said and I really wanted to always be the best for her. Once I came to college I connected to the Black community here and found myself in that community in a different way––separate from my own family. I was thinking about ways in which I could exert my own autonomy by changing my hairstyles: getting boxed braids and getting extensions with synthetic hair and using that as a way to connect myself to this culture that I was always told I couldn’t be a part of.

My work is very process-based and a lot of the work that I make comes out of a very long contemplative process. Creating work and going through the ritual is doing these certain things which will then ultimately lead to the final production. So, I started off doing a lot of braiding with various materials––I was using a rope, I was using synthetic areas, using real hair and making these long braids. I was doing that because the ritual of braiding felt very important. It felt very connected to this history of braiding in the Black community, which is something I wasn’t really exposed to in the same way that a lot of other Black people were. But not having done that disconnected me from something. I started doing that and was creating a lot of different sculptures with hair. I created a few prints using hair and seeing how I can insert myself this thing that I wasn’t really a part of.

I also did a photography project with my mom during junior year where I had her dress up in different traditional styles, like hairstyles that are a part of Black culture. I had her wear a wig, I had her wear a durag, I had her hair natural, I put a scarf on her head and wrapped her hair, and took these portraits. They were these very raw depictions of her. That was really important for me moving forward this year. Work in the past has often been very emotionally taxing for me––constantly making work that is meaningful. I was kind of trying to step back from that, so I started doing a lot of drawing this year, going back and making things that were more abstract.

I started thinking about the other ways I’ve been empowered as a woman of color. I started thinking about sports: expressions of aggression and movement and music. I was forcing myself to trust my intuition and trust that all these things are a part of me. Creating art as a woman of color in itself is a revolutionary act, and Black abstraction is not something to stray from. In a lot of ways, it has been even more empowering to be able to make work that is inherently tied to who I am but doesn’t have to speak explicitly to my experience. Or translate that experience for the viewer and create work that feels good and is coming from a very real place.

Coming into my final thesis exhibition, I wanted to go back to making work that didn’t speak very explicitly to my experience. I’m working a lot with generations. Something that was a huge part of my family history was tied to Martha’s Vineyard. My mom’s family was one of the first Black family to own property on Martha’s Vineyard and my family’s been going there for the past seven generations. I’m the seventh generation, and so the number seven is coming up a lot in my work. A huge part of my displacement and disconnection from the outside of my family is because there’s a complicated history resulting in my family having to give up a lot, and not really being able to continue that connection to Martha’s Vineyard. A lot of family trauma has been caused by that and that has been like a really really difficult experience that I’ve grappled with for a very long time. I’m trying to go back through it and recreate my own, I don’t want to say history, but try to create a future that feels less tied to trauma and more about rebuilding in the way that I know how to. I am trying to focus less on the things that I feel detached from and I tend to dwell on the negative parts of my history. But I want to focus on my history in a way that’s meaningful for me and not for anyone else.

BC: I’m really intrigued by your charcoal drawings. Can you explain what you’re referencing and your process for them?

EK: I’m really inspired by the work of David Hammons. He’s incredible. He’s a Black installation artist, activist and performance artist. He has these pieces that are whole-body prints. In some of his earliest works, he covered certain parts of his body in oil and printed basketballs and stuff like that. That’s a body of work that is really inspiring to me, especially when I was first working with hair. So I have had these boxing gloves for a while. As a woman of color, I often feel like I’m defending myself and having to find ways to feel empowered within myself. I’m working with the ideas of protection and femininity. I am also thinking about the exertion of anger. I’m highlighting the beauty and light in anger and aggression- -not just as a woman, but specifically as a woman of color. I am thinking about that a lot. There are lots of associations with boxing and African-Americans. So I have these gloves, and they are making me think about a lot of things.

Outside of that, I was really fascinated by how they’re cracking. It reminded me a lot of human skin and self-preservation. I was wondering how I could I find a way to print this because I really wanted to use this texture. Originally, I was going to paint a page and print it. But then I realized that wasn’t going to work. I was like, maybe I could use charcoal. So I covered that original piece of paper with charcoal and tried to put my fist to it, but it didn’t show up. Obviously, it didn’t work out at all. But then I wondered how I could get the charcoal off of my gloves, so I punched another piece of paper to just try to get it off and I really was fascinated by the way the charcoal came off of the paper. When I punched it, it just felt really beautiful. It felt like a performance in a way that felt really empowering to me. So I started making these prints, and I was like, what if I was able to capture this action on a piece of paper? And what if you were able to see the vibrations and see the power that I put into this, and find some sort of like beauty in that? So, I started creating all of these prints, and every time I did it, I would do a different combination. They feel really serious, but they’re also very playful. I was like, okay, I’ll frame them to give them this reverence, but in this very playful way. Every time I did a different combination, I would write what I did. I was thinking of the titles as a way to explain the way that each one made me feel. I decided to tie it back to who I am rather than the actual icons of boxing because boxing is something I don’t really have any experience or history with. But this act was really meaningful and a huge part of my process and my thought process in this whole project that I’ve been working on like this whole body of work it just felt really essential. I felt like there is a need to sort of just like put my own personhood into the pieces and it’s kind of like what the newer titles are related to.

BC: Could you talk about the various pops of color around the studio? How does color figure in your work?

EK: In my house, there is a lot of African art. My great aunt was a figure in the Harlem Renaissance. She had a lot of pieces with a ton of color in them. That was my first inspiration and my first example of a successful Black female artist. I think just having these big pops of color have always kind of like brought me back to that. I’m thinking about the history of African art and work from West Africa. I was also inspired by the colors we considered in class with Matthew Rarey. So I started doing a lot of investigation of that. I was also part of a group called Dance Diaspora which is West African dance. It was one of the many ways that I was able to really find community here among other students of color. I was very inspired by the prints that we wore in the performances. Those colors are important to me. The color red has also always been important–it’s in the American flag, and to me it symbolizes blood and pain. It’s also in the Swiss flag. I always go back to red. I’m always attracted to red. With the black and white, I don’t really know if there is a reason. I’m really attracted to like very simplistic things, and there’s always been this like cleanliness and order associated with like just like black and white images for me.

BC: Who or what do you count as inspiration for your work?

EK: It’s hard to say, honestly. I have so many inspirations. My first and foremost inspiration is my mom. She’s a part of everything I do, every work I create. And by extension, my grandma (my Nana), who passed away when I was eleven. She continues to be a huge part of who I am. And then my dad, and my family in general. I’ve always been really really close to them and they shaped me into who I am. They are behind everything in terms of my artistic inspirations. I am also inspired by David Hammons, as I mentioned earlier. One of my hugest inspirations ever. And he continues to be. And Johnny Coleman is one of my greatest inspirations and mentors. There’s like a lot of different artists I’m inspired by that I haven’t mentioned. I kind of go in waves of who’s inspiring me at the moment.

In my house, there is a lot of African art. My great aunt was a figure in the Harlem Renaissance. She had a lot of pieces with a ton of color in them. That was my first inspiration and my first example of a successful Black female artist. I think just having these big pops of color have always kind of like brought me back to that. I’m thinking about the history of African art and work from West Africa. I was also inspired by the colors we considered in class with Matthew Rarey. So I started doing a lot of investigation of that. I was also part of a group called Dance Diaspora which is West African dance. It was one of the many ways that I was able to really find community here among other students of color. I was very inspired by the prints that we wore in the performances. Those colors are important to me. The color red has also always been important–it’s in the American flag, and to me it symbolizes blood and pain. It’s also in the Swiss flag. I always go back to red. I’m always attracted to red. With the black and white, I don’t really know if there is a reason. I’m really attracted to like very simplistic things, and there’s always been this like cleanliness and order associated with like just like black and white images for me.

BC: Who or what do you count as inspiration for your work?

EK: It’s hard to say, honestly. I have so many inspirations. My first and foremost inspiration is my mom. She’s a part of everything I do, every work I create. And by extension, my grandma (my Nana), who passed away when I was eleven. She continues to be a huge part of who I am. And then my dad, and my family in general. I’ve always been really really close to them and they shaped me into who I am. They are behind everything in terms of my artistic inspirations. I am also inspired by David Hammons, as I mentioned earlier. One of my hugest inspirations ever. And he continues to be. And Johnny Coleman is one of my greatest inspirations and mentors. There’s like a lot of different artists I’m inspired by that I haven’t mentioned. I kind of go in waves of who’s inspiring me at the moment.

Categories
Graphic Arts

Issue Artwork, Spring 2019

by Wilder Voice Artists | Graphic Arts | Spring 2019

The following works appear independent of any print piece in the Spring 2019 issue.


Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Nina Josephson

interviewed by Bridget Conway | Visual Processes | Fall 2018

Nina Josephson, Captured Beast

Bridget Conway for Wilder Voice: Tell me a little bit about your work!

Nina Josephson: So I like to create these sort of weird brightly colored bizarre creatures primarily with papier mâché and with needle pointed felt. And so the sort of thought behind all of this is that I’m trying to represent the weird little beast that lives inside of all of us. And like here these creatures that represent like the various visceral emotions and actions that people take that we’d normally just sort of bottle up; love and sorrow, entrapment, motherhood. I’m sort of just trying to think about how I can draw out the beast within us and focus on this little kernel of truth inside of people through these ridiculous forms. And just one more thing I’ve done because I think that it may be confusing: These forms are so strange and surreal and alien and goofy, my hope is that I sort of hope they’re so unlike yourself when you’re looking at them that it sort of gives the viewer space to connect to them and see themselves in these because they’re so, so bizarre and so out there that you know you’re not necessarily looking for a connection and the connection will find you.

BC: Yeah they look kind of like almost like cartoon characters but from like a scary children’s show or something like that.

NJ: Yeah, yeah.

BC: They find this really nice line between almost scary and and just kind of unsettling but also like I want to pet one!

NJ: Well I definitely like to play along that line of, like, creepy and cute and scary and playful especially now. I feel like now I’m sort of moving out of the gross-out weird pickled pigs and chicken feet. I sort of have moved away from that, chilled out a little bit, but I don’t know I think that’s a really fun sort of dichotomy to engage with.

BC: So other than moving into this more fantastical world how has your work changed as you’ve grown into senior studio and your time just as an art student at Oberlin?

NJ: It’s crazy! I started out printmaking and was just super into printmaking, which is still cool, but I think it was just like the first medium that I was introduced to at a college level and was really pumped about and was, I don’t know, just at an exciting start and then sort of as I started taking more classes and started questioning what makes good art and what I should be sort of working towards, I started moving into the third dimension a little bit. This is the first year that I’ve fully done the 3D stuff but definitely my work is a lot more playful, and a lot lighter. I don’t take art less seriously but I take my own art less seriously and just have sort of given myself more space to just do things that are fun rather than like being like “oh, how will this go over at the critique?” Yeah, I’m happy with the direction I’m sort of taken.

BC: Yeah! Other than just taking more classes why do you think that your scope and motives have shifted?

NJ: I guess just engaging more seriously with the art world and taking myself more seriously as an artist who can actually make things that are actually art. That sort of switch and understanding where you’re like, “Oh, I can create art too.” Taking your work more seriously and placing more value in the things you create really makes you sort of change the style. I guess I’m being weird by saying I’m taking myself less seriously and also taking myself more seriously but I’m having more fun and taking myself seriously. Yeah, that’s what I would say!

BC: That makes sense. You can sense that you were pointing to some of these creatures and explaining what they were—what are you working on here? What’s this creature going to be?

NJ: This guy has six legs and he sort of is like a little daschund and he’s going to have a striped tail. And yeah I think this is sort of a process driven work because I don’t really know who he’s going to be until I’m finished with him. You know, I think their identities and characters sort of develop with the colors and the textures and the story happens as this guy happens so right now I don’t really know what’s going to happen with him, but I think he might have sort of been starting on a little baby for him, so maybe this one’s going to be a mommy too.

BC: Alright, I like it! So in your work do you  find a rhythm in the process? I’ve noticed in a lot of these they have a lot of similarities. So when you start a new piece, how do you decide where you’re going? Or do you just start off with some plaster and go for it?

NJ: I guess it’s like a little bit of a formula that I stick to to keep these creatures in the same sort of realm of existence. Like I like the heads with a rim so it looks like they’re wearing a little suit or something with their heads exposed. And I like the polka dots. And of course the bright colors. But in terms of their form, I sort of just wing it. I work with chicken wire and it’s like really hard on your hands. That’s the worst part to me, making the actual structure and I’m just rushing through it like, “I just gotta get this done!” And then you sort of create more of the form once you add the layers. I guess there’s direction and there isn’t direction. Sort of like a matrix that I’m following but each one is a little bit different. Sort of like trying to make it work as I’m working with it.

BC: Yeah! Are these ones that are hanging and fuzzy, are they constructed in the same way?

NJ: No, so these these are crazy! These ones are really big felted creatures—needle felted, out of that wool stuff that’s sort of like this fluff y wool roving. This has, like, a skeleton with one piece of wire and then you sort of wrap it like poly-fil or whatever and then the wool roving and then you, like, stab it up until it sort of forms a little guy like this.

BC: Another thing I’ve noticed is how those are obviously hanging to the walls and they have this wool felt that looks really inviting to touch and these other creatures are the size of a small dog or something like that. How do you want people who are looking out to interact with your work?

NJ: Oh, I want them to interact with it! Everyone always says that they want to pet these and I want them to, even the ones that aren’t as fuzzy. I think they’re so sweet and just to engage with them and touch them… I mean I make them out of papier mâché so they’re light and they’re durable and they’re not going to break. So yeah, I want people to think they’re like little puppies or babies and I want people to be excited about their bright colors.

BC: And it’s very fun! It’s kind of like they’re living with us in a children’s book.

NJ: Yeah. Yeah! I want to put them in a giant room of polka dots and really get it going.

BC: So you talked a little bit about, like, the reasons your process has changed, but what are some of your inspirations, artistic or otherwise, that inform the work you make?

NJ: Oh, well I definitely have my favorite artist influences. I really like Allison Schulnik who works in clay and also animation and also makes figurative animals but they’re super influential to me and I think about them a lot. Also Louise Bourgeois. Love those little creepy spider guys. I think all these artists who sort of have these weird alien creature animation things, not animations but animated creatures, those are really what I think about. I’m thinking about this whole world that already exists out there and all these different funky guys and I’m trying to sort of add my own into that space.

BC: Yeah like that, it’s very engaging. Is there anything else that you’d like to say about your work or that you want people to know when they look at these?

NJ: No, but I can plug my website! My website is ninajosephson.com and my Instagram is nina.makes.art, and that has my in-progress works!

Categories
Graphic Arts

Issue Artwork, Fall 2018

by Wilder Voice Artists | Graphic Arts | Fall 2018

The following works appear independent of any print piece in the Fall 2018 issue.


Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Octavia Bürgel

interviewed by Bridget Conway | Visual Processes | Spring 2018


Bridget Conway: Do you have an artist’s statement or intention for work that you’re working on right now, or work that you’ve worked on in the past?

Octavia Bürgel: Well, I don’t have an artist statement currently that I’m proud of, but I make work that’s largely photographic. I’ve been doing photography for eight years at this point. I mostly do work that talks about race in some capacity, as it directly relates to my experience. Recently, I’ve felt like my most comfortable ways to talk about that have been through abstraction, although the majority of my work is largely representational or figurative. I’ve been dealing a lot with ideas of identity and construction and how we can represent facets of identity through abstraction, but also through the repetition of specific motifs and imagery and ideas.

BC: What are some of those abstractions or other motifs that you rely on in such a representational media?

OB: I’ve been doing a lot of things with image distortion. So mostly distorting images to the point that they’re unrecognizable, and then questioning whether or not those images can realistically be called photographs. I think a lot of my real interest in photography is also embedded in the physical technique, the literal techniques and processes that are required in order to make a photograph. And so I think my work is very process-based because it’s consistently informed by whatever—however I’m printing or distorting the image. So recently, this woodblock that I just printed is like this photograph of a bunch of Oberlin baseball players in the 1800s. I’m trying to distort that to reshape the narrative about the importance of education, because this is like our school. And I think there’s a real way that sports and white maleness lend themselves very easily to glory and celebrity. And I feel like we talk so much about the “great American sports” and all of these things, but also this project for me is really about being like, yeah, OK those things are interesting, but like specifically at Oberlin, the legacy that we brag about has directly to do with the legacy of slavery. I feel a lot of my work is a constant sort of questioning and hopefully the work itself can be a process of answering.

BC: Do you want to speak a little bit about the work that you either brought or that you wanted to bring?

OB: Yeah, I’ll talk a little bit about the work I wanted to bring. So, I think for a long time—and this also very much coincides with my experience of growth and developing a sense of self and identity, in my college career. Because I think my earlier [work] or the work at least that I was doing when I… first started doing photography, it was just very simple. You know, you have a camera and you take pictures. And that’s just like what I did for years. Then I took a couple of photo classes here and there and the projects that I was doing were sort of related to identity, but more through like space. And then when I got to Oberlin, I started talking about my identity in this way that was mostly through self-portraiture. And I’ve found, oddly enough, that self-portraiture is a thing that I feel very comfortable doing. I think because you just need one person to do it. So more and more, as I’ve been in school and reading a lot about many of the Black artists who have come before me and who have been dealing with ideas of Blackness and abstraction, and Blackness as an abstraction, as a state of nothingness and death, I’ve been very much starting to be pulled in a more abstract or theoretical direction, and so I did this piece… last semester, it doesn’t have a title, but I was thinking a lot about landscapes and specifically urban landscapes, because every time I would go home to New York I was walking around and there’s just textures and colors and sounds and everything. And I was just like, Oh my God, you can’t synthesize a place into a photograph.

I have a lot of thoughts about photos in general too, but I think photographs, people usually think of as being reductive in some sense, as being a flattening of a real experience. And I definitely buy into that idea to a certain extent, and so last year I was really starting to think about landscape and textile. And so I did this piece that was—making these prints, both photographic and screen-printed—images of basketball courts because they’re just… I think that there’s just so much to be said for the basketball court as a symbol, as a graphic symbol. First of all, just because it’s so recognizable automatically, but also the court in so many Black communities is a really fraught space where it’s at once supposed to be representative of freedom and joy and the ability of movement and, I guess to a certain extent, the awareness of having a body is directly tied into any kind of physical activity. But then on the other hand, it’s also for many people a source of life and hope and the idea that… I don’t know, it’s just so much, it’s such an image of success, and I think that I just really wanted to trouble that invention. I was using a variety of media, and I was taking these images, of basketball courts and kind of… oh, I was distorting them! Oh my god, I didn’t even realize, but I was messing with them so they would print a little weirdly.

I have a lot of thoughts about photos in general too, but I think photographs, people usually think of as being reductive in some sense, as being a flattening of a real experience. And I definitely buy into that idea to a certain extent, and so last year I was really starting to think about landscape and textile. And so I did this piece that was—making these prints, both photographic and screen-printed—images of basketball courts because they’re just… I think that there’s just so much to be said for the basketball court as a symbol, as a graphic symbol. First of all, just because it’s so recognizable automatically, but also the court in so many Black communities is a really fraught space where it’s at once supposed to be representative of freedom and joy and the ability of movement and, I guess to a certain extent, the awareness of having a body is directly tied into any kind of physical activity. But then on the other hand, it’s also for many people a source of life and hope and the idea that… I don’t know, it’s just so much, it’s such an image of success, and I think that I just really wanted to trouble that invention. I was using a variety of media, and I was taking these images, of basketball courts and kind of… oh, I was distorting them! Oh my god, I didn’t even realize, but I was messing with them so they would print a little weirdly.

Before that, I guess the piece that sort of […] thinking a lot at the end of last year about race and that was really the first time that I was directly talking about race, because before that, my work that was mostly self-portraiture and it consisted of exactly that. But I would kind of just be like “Oh, this is about identity,” without putting any real kind of term onto it, because I think my experience of being half white and half Black always made me into a weird kind of thing that nobody really knew what to do with, where I felt ostracized from my white family and also ostracized from my Black family, and just didn’t really know if it was even remotely possible for me to talk about race because I didn’t know what I was. But also, I think so much of the experience of being a Black person and the experience of being a mixed person or any kind of person who is somehow “uncategorizable” or an anomaly, is feeling literally ignored and fully invisible. And so it’s really important to me that people actually have to be able to look at the work and engage with the work and not brush the work off. 

Image by Octavia Bürgel

Yeah, it took me awhile to figure out. So I started making work about Black masculinity, because I just had been thinking so much about all of these relatives that I had, and family members and friends. And all of these ideas are coming directly in a time when police brutality is, it’s constant, it’s everywhere. It’s impossible to get away from. And so not working within some kind of response to that or some kind of very emotional feeling about the way that this constant stream of murder was affecting me, felt, I don’t know, a little bit disingenuous. So I started making this work about Black masculinity by just sort of compiling archived family photos and printing them using a nineteenth-century photographic process. And I was printing on silk and that was the first time that I had ever printed on a material that wasn’t photo paper and it felt really, really exciting and freeing to be exploring different types of material. And so, for that piece specifically, it was really the silk that was so important to me because the whole “I can’t breathe” slogan was just everywhere and so I was just —these images need to be able to breathe, they need to be able to move. They can’t just exist as this flattened thing, and so now I feel, I’m very much in this phase of trying to understand how photography can be not a reductive thing but an additive process. And how can you make photos and prints and these very two dimensional objects into some construction of a life or an identity. 

BC: Where do you see your work going from here? What are your next projects planned for you know, senior year? Different media or continuing with photography? 

OB: I feel like I’m always going to be using photography in some sense… I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that the times that I’ve taken extended gaps from any kind of photo-related work have felt really, really weird…there are a lot of ideas that I’ve really been trying to work through this semester specifically about mixedness, of being mixed of any background. And I have been really fascinated because we’ve been doing a lot of readings in this printmaking class and also in this translation workshop that I’m in here. They’ve been mostly kind of theoretical texts, but they examine the ways that, for example, in translation, the way that there’s this dichotomy between the original and the copy, and the original and the facsimile. And the same I think can be said for printmaking. And photography too, you have the original moment and then you have a photograph, or you have the matrix or the drawing or whatever the idea is, and then you have the print. I think that that applies really well to a mixed race identity because there is the feeling of being other, and the feeling of being uncategorizable comes from being viewed as a copy, in a sense. But I do really want to start getting more sculptural and definitely less… I don’t want to say less figurative, because also some of the ideas that I—one of the main ideas that I want to do is fashion-related. And I think that there’s just so much to be done with fashion in terms of making it into art, and I also think that there’s so many ways that there can be fashion that is specifically for an outsider identity, and how does that represent us. So that’s kind of what I’m going to be working on next year, but I’m also working on a lot of other things.