Louise Stern is a London-based American artist and curator. Here she discusses one of her projects- Maurice, an art magazine with a difference.
Arght! : First of all, who is Maurice and where did he come from? Describe Maurice and its philosophy.
L.S: Maurice is whoever the reader wants him to be. Certainly he's curious, honest, interested in people, and he definitely has a sense of fun. He's also very restless, for sure. We asked the readers of Issue 1 to tell us who Maurice is, and with every issue, project, and workshop we understand more about who he is.
We were struggling to find a name for this magazine of ours, and in the end we thought, let's give it a name and let it find itself, as a person does.
I love art and what it can communicate like nothing else...but I could not find a regular way of communicating about art on a human level, without the jargon and posturing. So that was the birth of Maurice.
Argh-t! : How did the idea come about?
L.S: I was studying for a MA in art theory and one of our projects was to create an exhibition or an art magazine. I chose the magazine and with three others we came up with an early version of Maurice. One of our teachers really liked the idea, and told his wife, who is the director of the Whitechapel, about our idea. She offered to lend us support for fundraising. It was a much more exciting prospect than getting a job in some gallery or something (I hadn't started making work of my own yet.) We thought the support from her would mean raising the money and finding a way to get it out would be a breeze. Ha! Fat chance.
Argh-t! : How many and what kind of people are involved?
L.S: All kinds of people have worked with us or helped us in some way or the other. Browns Design and Jonathan Ellery who runs it have been so incredibly generous to us - they design the magazine and are always ready to step up whenever we need them. We have some artists who are steadfast supporters of Maurice, most of whom we showed in the recent exhibition. Maurice has some other good friends, like Adam Prideaux from Heath Lambert art insurers, who are always happy to help us out. We worked with new people on the exhibition too...Andreas Leventis who is a really good freelance curator "got" Maurice immediately and was a huge help, and the artist Ella du Cane was the one who hooked us up with the space. But on the day to day long-term front it's me and Shiraz Ksaiba, who is the kind of person who you know always has your back. Oliver Pouliot, my interpreter, has been with me since the very beginning and he's very good to Maurice too.
Argh-t! : Apart from the show you just did at the London Newcastle project space, what other projects (including workshops, etc.) have stemmed from the magazine and working with children?
L.S: We've done all sorts. Maurice seems to draw support from unexpected quarters. We've done a workshop with Camden Arts Centre, funded by the art fund Outset, and we've done a workshop for DU Magazin, a German literature/photography magazine who are really good. I've done a school workshop in Boston, Massachusetts based on Maurice too, and we've even been included in an exhibition in the oldest children's library in Paris. We've done some school fairs too, just sitting there with Maurice on a table selling it to whoever comes up. We have had some near misses too - a collaboration with the ICA didn't happen after all, and neither did a hookup with a great American magazine publisher who found us on her own & emailed us. A TV producer just saw the exhibition & thought we would be good on TV. It probably won't happen, but who knows - Maurice could stand its own in a lot of different worlds, I think.
Argh-t! : Do you know of any other children's magazines about art and if so how does yours differ?
L.S: The ones I know of tend to take the arts and crafts approach. There are some kids' books about art history. But Maurice doesn't teach "about" contemporary art, it just simply uses it as a way to understand the world. That's a completely different thing to either arts and crafts or art history.
Argh-t! : Do you see the magazine as a serious educational tool for children or just a way of talking about art from a different, much needed, perspective?
L.S: Oh god, I hope it isn't a "serious" educational tool! Nah.... We did make Maurice with the thought in the back of our heads that teachers could use it in the classroom, and we have a teachers' guide with ideas on how to use Maurice. But mostly Maurice is an art magazine, full stop. We don't even really think about it as a "children's art magazine", just as an art magazine.
Argh-t! : Up until now, how have you funded the magazine- I saw on your website that you offer it for free to schools? Do you also sell it in regular book shops?
L.S: We funded the first issue with donations from private sources - we have applied for numerous grants & government funds but have never gotten any of them. Damien Hirst, Christie's, Outset, and a City firm were among the funders of the first issue. We give it out free in schools & sell it in the Tate, Serpentine, and the Milton Keynes gallery. When we get the second issue out, it will be sold in Borders too, and Paul Smith shops.
Argh-t! : Have you had a lot of interest from schools and teachers so far?
L.S: We have had so many excited comments from teachers and schools. They say there's nothing else like Maurice and that kids really enjoy Maurice and that it works in the classroom. They look forward to getting the next issue.
Argh-t! : What does Maurice have in store for us in 2010?
L.S: We have to find the money to publish first! And then I can answer that.
Sam Griffin is best known for his beautifully seductive and technically accurate drawings of buildings. However, far from simply reproducing reality, his work asks us to look beneath the lure of the surface at the constructs of society and question the integrity of our belief systems.
Argh-t! : How would you describe your practice, what are your main interests?
S.G: My interests lie in looking at architecture as a product of a particular set of belief systems. I suppose architecture is a useful tool to do this because ideas can change very quickly but buildings can’t change as fast. I’m also interested in buildings because they are a very good representation of our desire to look at problems in the world around us and create solutions for them. And that interests me because effectively, you don’t build buildings for the past, generally, you build buildings for the future, so looking at a building is like looking at a sculptural proposition for a future that is almost impossible to predict.
Argh-t! : What’s your relationship to interiors? Your work to date seems to have been quite focused on the exterior appearance of buildings, with these new pieces you seem to be moving towards exploring inside spaces and their effect on us.
S.G: Unlike most monuments, buildings are chambers, so you experience them not only as a punctuation in the landscape, but also in the form of an installation, as a sort of total environment. Once you enter within them and because they are hollow, they connect metaphorically as vessels and repositories for experience. You’ve not got to make a giant leap of the imagination to look at a building like a church and understand the way that it functions within a community: that a church is there as a point of focus to help rationalise a belief system which is difficult or inherently impossible to understand fully. And obviously within the building itself there are these architectural cues that focus attention in a particular direction; the building has a particular ergonomic manifesto.
Argh-t! : A flow?
S.G: Yes, I mean if you weren’t a Christian and you’d never seen a cross before and you walked into a church and saw the gold cross on the altar you would still know where you’re supposed to look. So there’s a kind of visceral effect of that ergonomic meta-structure playing itself out.
Argh-t! : So it’s really the relationship between buildings and people that you’re interested in?
S.G: Of course, but also the interplay between people and instigators of belief systems in general. I mean it might seem like an obvious parallel to draw but in the wake of the recession, our tendency to willingly invest faith in ideas and systems which seem to be completely infallible has become all the more apparent. The belief that within the free market there is this system, which can actually improve our standard of living…because the corporate ethos that led to the crisis was based effectively on people still adhering to the Thatcherite and Reaganomic belief in the consummate power of capital as a vehicle for self fulfillment- and this ideology is a very singular, solipsistic one.
This problem is epitomized by Thatcher’s famous quote ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women’
It’s just me, me, me- I go and get it! Hence the title of that piece in the show (Creatures), “Even if I could help you I wouldn’t”. I’ve actually been trying to make a Thatcherite sculpture.
Argh-t! : It’s not something you advocate, though?
S.G: No it’s more about seeing how that kind of sentiment and atmosphere can be aestheticised and is aestheticised. The creation of bits of visual shorthand that people can understand as a very succinct summation of a much wider set of ideas and beliefs- just in the same way that a logo works.
Argh-t! : Tell me a little a bit about “Even if I could help you, I wouldn’t”. Where did the idea come from?
S.G: The sculpture is based on one of (Frank) Stella’s prints from the late 1960’s ‘V Series’ called Quathalmba. He went on to make essentially what were much more sculptural “Maximalist” paintings, which I really don’t like – they have none of the efficiency of his earlier work. The defining feature in these early paintings and prints, though, is that there is effectively no narrative in them bar a very loose nod to the structural arrangements associated with perspectival image making. Essentially the proposition is just about form, it is just a shape. In the same way that the painters that preceded him, like Rothko, who considered painting as an extension of the architectural space, actually began to look beyond it being just a 2D thing but as a sculptural form within space.
Stella interests me because of the aesthetic precedent his work created – these paintings and prints almost behave like logos or icons; that is to say they are succinct visual devices that allude to a wider set of beliefs and debates.
In the title of his first painting of this kind, ‘Die Fahne Hoch’, I think Stella even nods to the intentional totemic power of the works he was creating – the title means ‘Raise The Flag’ a reference to the anthem of the Nazi. Like the forward-looking German society that would have rallied to the cause of this song, Stella’s painting is a call to action – an invitation for us to repudiate past traditions (in this case aesthetic) and follow a revolutionary cause.
Argh-t! : Your drawings have a nostalgic feel to them whereas the sculpture looks quite futuristic, was this stylistic departure intentional?
S.G: I think the sculpture looks like a totem, like a religious symbol, or a corporate logo. It is futuristic looking but it’s also very austere. I mean you could see that on the front of a Mies Van der Rohe or even a Richard Rogers corporate building; it’s suggestive of how the austerity of Minimalism has been cannibalised by corporate aesthetics. I was really interested in the idea that if that were a religious symbol within a religious space it would be the point of focus. If that was the logo on the front of a corporate building or on top of the letterhead you would know that it’s actually the shorthand for a much larger set of beliefs and ideals. When I showed the sculpture originally, it was in a basement space and spot lit; there were light traces of the sculpture all over the room. I was interested in the way a stained glass window works within a church, the interplay between form, space and projected light. It also looked a bit like a disco and I’m interested in that as well; in so much as there are these spaces that we construct for ourselves where some kind of communal experience takes place. Whether it is the church, the nightclub, the festival or even the office.
Argh-t! : There’s quite a contrast between the seriousness of your subject matter and the seductiveness of the drawings in particular.
S.G: Well I do think that my drawings make strong references to the language of religious iconography but mainly I’m interested in the use of aesthetics as a recruitment tool to pull people into a particular set of ideas; literally the investment of faith into something, which may or may not exist.
Argh-t! : What role did the Slade (School of Fine Art) play in forming your current practice? Were you always interested in these types of ideas?
S.G: Yes, even before the Slade my undergraduate degree show was about the willing suspension of disbelief and the disparity between a lot of ideas about the future, which cropped up in science fiction, and our innate inability to realise those ideas; how we consistently set the bar too high for ourselves but how that process of setting the bar too high for ourselves is necessary. And before that, in 2001, I made a lot of work about the film 2001 and how different it was to the actual year 2001. But I was also interested in looking at science fiction as a cultural phenomenon and how it has a seductive nature to it because it has a particular coherence, a critical amount of logic, that makes it make sense, but at the same time it’s completely implausible!
Argh-t! : So the relativity of reality…
S.G: Yes, I was fascinated by this guy (David Wilson) in the States who opened the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which is an anthropological museum but it’s curated and designed in such a way that it’s almost impossible to tell whether the exhibits are real or not. Even to the point that if you delineate the research and look at the sources cited, the academic validity of the whole thing is very difficult to unpick.
Argh-t! : And is it real?
S.G: No, I don’t think it is but the point is it’s so well executed that it’s very difficult to prove. It raises this problem of belief systems that appear so encompassing that they seem true, or at least fairly robust, but in fact they are just constructs. Their real genius lies in their innate cogency – they resist circumvention and thus any attendant process of deconstruction.
Nicola Pecoraro works across mediums ranging from photography and painting to sculpture and video to produce works that are inspired by science fiction, German Romanticism and New Age art of the 1970’s. He works experimentally using materials like industrial paints and solvents, unfired clay and found objects, exploring and creating new dimensions of the natural world.
Lunar landscapes, cosmic storms, monoliths and portals are just some of the things we talked about…
Argh-t! : I notice you are reading, amongst other things, a book on the sublime. Is your work influenced by German Romanticism?
NP: There's definitely a nod towards Romanticism, but there's a lot of thought about time, also. I get influenced by what could be seen as a surrealist/futuristic aesthetic because a lot of what I see around me I find reminiscent of science fiction scenarios. The way a landscape can trigger a certain narrative in your head, even if it's on a microscopic level. It's also got to do with adaptation and identity.
I think the vernacular of science fiction makes sense within this context.
Argh-t!: Your work is a lot more abstract than it used to be. You used to paint a lot of faces. Can you explain the shift from figurative to non-figurative work, especially in your painting?
NP: That’s funny, I've never seen it as non-figurative.
When I started to make work, figuration was a way of entry for me but it also gave me the limitations I needed to explore a certain type of expression. I used the face as a rule from which to work from. These days my way of working just isn’t as literal, I guess.
The language of science fiction is just one way for me to resolve a narrative that has to do with the sublime; places that could be transcending time. That's just one way of reading it, though. I've always liked Robert Smithson's Monuments of Passaic: all the detritus and industrial obsolescence, which will become monumental in the future.
Argh-t!: Would you like to go into that a little bit?
NP: I walk around here at lot on my own picking up rocks and discarded objects and things like that and I just like the way things shift from their original function.
There's all these places and objects that were never meant to be like that, they don't have any function, they're sort of ‘weird natural’ because they've been made by man, but organic in that they've been left on their own to go through changes. It's a bit like in a garden or forest where the flow of things changes and everything takes on another function.
Argh-t!: But not through cultivation…
NP: No completely naturally, like maybe there's a bubble of asphalt and that breaks and then these roots come out and then rubbish goes in and gets covered by other rubbish and it all gets beaten down to a pulp but then there might be some broken glass next to it that looks like a crystal...so it' s kind of sublime. For me, it's a lot about having sublime visions within this landscape that isn't really meant to be seen like that at all.
Argh-t!: Rome must be a pretty big influence then?
NP: Yes. I mean that's why I like it here, because it's mostly ruins and it's definitely not at the centre of western culture, not anymore at least. It's very specific and it's very layered- you have all these different times, eras in front of you at the same time. But I'm also interested in this other unofficial layering…
Argh-t!: The layering that takes place on a smaller scale?
NP: Yeah, I just like that some things start off as man-made materials and how through time they've almost become part of some different landscape. I'm interested in the narrative that this can create.
Argh-t!: Like the brushed glass you get at the sea from discarded bottles?
NP: Kind of. Those have literally gone full-circle. They're in the process of reverting back to being pebbles which in turn will become sand, etc.
Argh-t!: What are the sculptures made of?
NP: Clay, and other stuff...bits of stuff I find on the streets, photographs, bits of wood and then I just paint them with this technique that's something I've developed: enamels with different solvents, other water based paints mixed with synthetics...it produces different reactions.
When you look at it, it looks like a chain of events…over which I have limited control.
Argh-t!: You talk about the importance of layers in your work, and how the architecture of Rome is an important influence on that. You also mentioned popular Surrealism- the juxtaposition of these brings to mind collage. Does the history of collage also belong to your set of influences?
NP: Yes but I try not to make the collage too obvious because collage is a dangerous field; it’s really easy to put two images together. You can do it safely, you know, you can have an intuition about two images or you can do it conceptually and I’d rather do the second thing because you will still get an intriguing composition. The interesting part, for me, comes from the space that is created in between the images.
Argh-t!: It seems to me that collage in your work acts as an opening, an entry to the world you are actually trying to show us. These points of entry take on different forms in ‘Waterfall Container’, say, and ‘Star Head Bleeder’ but in both instances they remind me of Fontana’s slashed canvases.
NP: Fontana’s ‘Spatial Concepts’ are about infinity so, I guess in that sense, they are similar but the ‘openings’ in my work are more akin to portals and monoliths.
It’s the same principle with my bleached photographs. You have one time frame, which is the image, and with the manipulation, the layering, you open up another time frame; with these I'm trying to get through what's behind the image. It has a lot to do with what gets triggered on a perception level when I go to these places- what isn’t there.
Argh-t!: What are you working on at the moment?
NP: There's a short story by Philip K Dick where he writes about this scientist who is trying to preserve all musical writing. To do this the scientist turns these scripts of Mozart etc into different animals. He then lets them loose and leaves for a while. On his return these animals are all wild and feral; they have turned from these domestic creatures into feral beings because they were left free to roam in this big garden and when he puts one of these animals back into the machine to revert it to a symphony it has become something unlistenable, a total cacophony. It's a great story.