Neal Rock spoke with student Ruffin Gallery Assistant, Olivia Pettee, ahead of his solo exhibition in the Ruffin Gallery, Flesh Poems. The show is on view until March 26, 2021.
How did you make the transition from painting to sculpture?
That’s an interesting question because I don’t think I have made the transition. I see myself as a painter and I see my work as painting. I suppose the preface to that is I came of age, so to speak, in the late-90s in London. I was in art school at the time and there were a lot of conversations happening around post-modernism, with Critical Theory, French Theory, a very rigorous questioning of foundations and origins. So, what came out of that were conversations about hybridity and questioning disciplinary boundaries between painting and architecture, sculpture and installation.
But, over time, reflecting on this, this has always been the case with painting. You could go back to Sienese icon painting and see that it’s always been hybrid in a way. There was a big thing about that at the end of the ‘90s. So, I started to think about painting in its relationship to object. Not just making pictures or painting images - the rectangular window onto the world - but painting also as an object in the world. I suppose I still do enjoy that hybridity of something being in the room, you have to physically interact with it, but at the same time it takes you somewhere else. It might refer to a bouquet of flowers or a face; or it might reference the material, it might remind you of ceramics or something. I find that interesting how the presence of an object can keep you in the room but then your mind goes elsewhere with it too.
How would you describe your work as a whole?
I think that my work is primarily engaged in conversations around painting and histories that pertain to abstract painting. [Materially] I literally use silicone paint, but silicone is a special material because it does things that oil and watercolor paint can’t do. Overall, I think that I look at my work as contained within a concern for painting, in a contemporary and historical sense. But I’m also interested in other things, as well: sculpture, film, philosophy, walking in the woods. There are many things that inform what I do that’s not really painting.
How would you describe your artistic process?
I really believe in and have benefitted from the idea that you make meaning through your whole body. It’s not just in your head. It’s very illustrative that you have an idea and then execute that idea. That’s a gross simplification but there is haptic knowledge, the stuff that you make with your hands, where you’re not quite sure what you’re doing but it kind of makes sense as you’re making it. My process really is very materially orientated but it’s also very much interpretative. I am transferring things all the time. I see my work as painting, but I also use monotyping and silkscreen printing techniques. I use photography. I make objects. I make my own “canvas”; I sculpt polystyrene that become supports for the silicone. So, even though I think that the work is materially committed, it’s also very hermeneutic. It’s very interpretative. It has a lot to do with the transfer of one material and kind of knowledge from one place to another. [Each of the pieces have] gone through multiple stages of transfer. So, they’re actually hollow forms with silicone skins dried on sculpted polystyrene supports. I’ll give you a visual example; if I put a skin of silicone on this phone (holds up phone) once that silicone is dry it’ll maintain the form of the phone.
I’ve never heard of that word! What does hermeneutic mean exactly?
It’s a Greek word. In philosophy it deals with interpretation. It comes from Hermes, the Greek god of translation. It’s not the same as philology, they’re very different things. So for me, hermeneutics is more to do with what interpretation is and does - when we hear a word, what that word does in our heads.
Are there any artists or theorists that you look to inform your work?
Well, I came from a class background where high culture wasn’t accessible to me. Even though I have a lot of privilege. I think it’s important that we acknowledge our privilege in the world: for me, being white, being male, coming from Europe, coming from within the walls of Empire. So, there’s a lot of privilege there, but in terms of my class background it was working-class, so I always was, and still am, very suspicious of certain things that are only accessible within the realms of the University or University life; for example, studying philosophy, studying hermeneutics. I also have a taste for things that question high and low, coming from histories of Pop Art to a certain extent. What do we deem valuable in culture, where we get our values from and who governs those values? If you look at the contemporary museum and University, there’s a call in this moment to radically change our institutions from what’s been happening. Obviously, this goes way back - we can look at the Civil Rights Movement and other various points in history. Going back to your question about influences: since growing up, I’ve always been interested in what are deemed ‘bad’ horror B-movies, so as much as I like philosophy, I put that on the same shelf as zombie horror films, or special-effects 70s Sci-fi films. The material that I use, silicone, is used in many of those movies. It’s silicone prosthetic special-effects . . . I can talk about Evil Dead 2 as much as I love talking about a hermeneutics philosopher or a queer theorist like Judith Butler. I think you can feed yourself in different ways as an artist, it’s important to question where these values come from in the culture that we live in.
I noticed that your current work is very distinct from your earlier work. How did you develop your artistic identity over time?
I have a problem with artistic identity because I think that, in the world we live in, if you have some sort of recognition as an artist you often get branded, galleries and cultural institutions will end up branding you. You get known for doing certain things. I often think that our job as artists is to try to resist that sometimes. I say that with the knowledge that some people are fighting for identity at the same time. So, it’s not a level playing field. I think the question that you’re asking, about developing artistic identity, is really a question of meaning, a relationship to what is meaningful in your life. Forget about art – as human beings, what is it that we value, what is it that we care about, who do we care about? So, reframing the question in that way, I have a much more emotional relationship to my work now than I did twenty years ago. The shift that you’re seeing I see as an emotional shift. I did a lot of my thinking from the neck up when I was younger – thinking intellectually about art, a critique to a certain extent. Now I think it’s coming to something much more bodily and emotional within my work. I couldn’t tell you what my work is about, I don’t know what my work is about now. I could have told you twenty years ago but now I’m involved in a relationship which is to do with caring about looking and wanting to keep looking at work, so there’s a return to something that’s more visual. There’s also a quietude and a kind of melancholy in the new work, which is contemplative, maybe. I think that’s a visible shift over twenty years.
Definitely. I think that’s a good way to reframe the term artistic identity. It isn’t always clear-cut. As people, we can’t always make sense of the way we evolve.
Yeah, I think there’s something about the humility of being aware that we will never really know large aspects of what or who we are. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to buy into some idea of the subconscious either.
In terms of your processes, what kinds of challenges would you say that you face in the creation of your work, and how do you confront these challenges?
That’s a good question. I think that you can understand challenges in different ways. You could argue that there are social challenges as you get older as an artist in terms of maintaining a relationship to one’s work. I think a lot of artists I really respect have a real struggle with belief and doubt. I don’t know an artist that’s out there that I admire that hasn’t had a very long and ongoing relationship with doubting oneself and doubting one’s work. This is more existential, but I think living with doubt as an artist is important, and I tell this to students that I work with. They really don’t like doubt. They want to know what the work is about. They want to know why they’re doing stuff. These things never really quite resolve themselves in the way that people want. The challenge there is to know that even though it’s difficult to be with doubt, in a lot of circumstances it’s a precondition for making work, for being an artist. I think that’s difficult because sometimes if it sways too far you get a kind of doubt that stops you from doing anything.
I also think there are material and economic challenges as an artist. I’m fairly new to academia in terms of having a regular job. I’ve typically been a visitor at different places. There are different challenges now than twenty or thirty years ago. The cost of university education: do you get an MFA, are you prepared to go 100,000 dollars in debt for that? Is that worth it as an artist? How then do you go out in the world, survive and make time for work? I’ve experienced all of those. One of my favorite quotes is from James Baldwin: “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.” You need to endure. Overcoming it has a lot to do with community, having people that you know and love, who trust and believe in you. The overcoming of it isn’t located within the self, I think it’s actually located within community. That’s quite underrated. In cultures that brands us, we also get atomized and individualized. We get seen as units, products, and that gets in the way of community sometimes.
Even in the broader sense, the last year has put an emphasis on that and the idea that we really do need community. In your own experience, would you say that there is a time in your PhD experience or any of your schooling where community was important? How did that shape or impact your growth? Is there an instance where your community or support system really helped you transform and move forward?
I talked about my class background before. I came from a steel town. My father and family were factory workers and coal miners and steel workers. There wasn’t anything artistic in my family background at all. All I can remember is drawing and painting from a young age. But, in saying that, I also got really lucky. One of my early mentors was a Welsh painter called Michael Freeman. That might sound familiar because I started the Freeman Residency in Charlottesville, which is in his name, for UVa BIPoC and First-Generation graduates. He took me under his wing at the age of 11. He was teaching at a local community arts center, which was funded by WEA Cymru, the Workers’ Education Association Wales. WEA has a really interesting history. It’s pretty amazing. They funded community projects and centers in socio-economically deprived areas, working-class communities that didn’t have access to the arts: music, drama, art, painting, poetry. Freeman was paid by the WEA to teach retirees from the steel works how to paint and draw. I can’t remember how I got in touch with Freeman, but I went there one summer off school, amongst 75-to-80-year-old pensioners. He gave me an education outside of the state school system, which changed my life forever. I wouldn’t be talking to you today without him. One of the things his teaching made me realize, at least in Britain at that time, is that there is a state education for certain types of people and there is a different kind of education for people that can afford “better”. It put a fire in my belly and made me realize that education is often not equitable, realizing how lucky I was because he taught me many of the things I love about painting today. It’s why I work in public institutions. I believe in education as a public good, which unfortunately we have to fight for even more today than we did 30 or 40 years ago. I try, in my teaching and work, to be in the world equitably in the way that I was taught years ago. That’s a story that I think is important.
What would you say motivated you to become a teacher?
I look back and see how important teachers can be in society and that they can change people’s lives. But I also see it as one part of a chain link. You’re of a generation, passing onto the next. This may sound strange, but I don’t really see what I do as teaching. I see it as earning the privilege of being in conversation, which sounds very pious and kind of worthy. To me, “teaching” is a word that I have issues with, but I don’t take issue with conversation. I believe that you have to earn the right, in your life and work as an artist, to have these conversations. I’ve benefited from these conversations as a young artist, and I’m still benefiting from conversations with a younger generation.
That’s a great way to put it; I feel like every type of learning is essentially a conversation.
I think so. We have to get out of this idea of the banking model of education; you are an empty vessel and I’m going to give you something that you don’t have, I’m going to instill in you some kind of expertise. It’s a one-way system. It’s an economic model of knowledge, which I don’t believe in. But a conversation has to be two ways. I have to listen to your questions.
What advice would you give to aspiring visual artists who are interested in creating interdisciplinary work?
If you’re a young artist and you’re interested in interdisciplinarity, there’s a responsibility to follow your nose and find the artists that you’re the most excited about. It starts with looking at work that you admire and respect. That could also mean thinkers or filmmakers or philosophers or whatever. It’s important to really pay attention, not just to what they do, but to what they say and think and where they’ve been. It’s not just the art, it’s the person behind the art. Not just the person behind the art, the culture that this person comes from and who they’ve been talking to. It’s like a tree; seeing the roots and suddenly finding that they’re going fifty feet down the road and you had no idea previously. Follow those roots to find what actually led the work to be the way it is. In terms of Faith Ringgold or Lynda Benglis, two artists that I really like, you can look at and love the work, but if you listen to them - to what they say and how their interdisciplinary ethos has been fueled and nurtured - you get an ecosystem. And you get to feed on that ecosystem as well. Not just the work in isolation but this whole network of associations. So, my advice is be attentive to the ecosystem and let that feed into your desires and interests.
How would you define the title of your exhibition, Flesh Poems, in relation to your work?
Flesh Poems comes from an essay by art historian Suzannah Biernoff, who has written extensively on the relationship of art and cosmetic surgery. Henry Tonks is the subject of this particular essay. He was a widely admired and respected professor of anatomy and drawing at the Slade School of Art in London, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was also a surgeon. Today, he’s famous for his surgical drawings of war veterans whose faces were torn and blown apart in WWI. Harold Gillies, one of the modern progenitors of plastic surgery, was tasked with reconstructing the faces of these war veterans. He asked Tonks to record the faces in pastel, before and after the operations. He also made diagrams of the actual surgical procedures too. I’ve been interested in Tonks for quite some time because of silicone, prosthetics and material histories of prosthetics. When Biernoff named that essay Flesh Poems, it struck a chord with me because I think I’ve always struggled with a tension in my work; it being read as a visual semiotic and at the same time something felt. Feeling the presence of a painting, it has a physical effect on you. It touched a nerve because I come from a country that’s bilingual. Coming from Wales and not speaking my own language, I grew up looking at Welsh words and Welsh language as exotic symbols. There’s this estrangement within language. Flesh Poems has something to do with this tension between looking at something and information being withheld, like a mask or a face that has some kind of disfigurement. It’s not a literal use of Tonk’s work and it’s certainly not any kind of allegory on war but it has, on a more existential and material level, to do with intimacy and disfigurement, reading and looking. It seemed to be a container for the show, the name and those drawings. Tonks’s drawings are so captivating and complex in terms of what they’re doing. It’s kind of art, but it’s not. They’re medical drawings on the one hand - belonging to histories of surgery and anatomy - but on the other, they're involved in aesthetics and art. They don’t quite settle in either one properly, I find that fascinating. They’re intimate but also really grotesque.
Is there a piece in Flesh Poems that you’re very drawn to or that sticks out to you in the exhibition?
There’s one in the show called Prosopon, which is an old Greek word that means ‘face and mask’. That work is about five years old and it’s the biggest piece in the show. I’m using that as a framing device for the new work. It’s not my favorite work, per say, but it’s a work that commands a great deal of attention because of its size, so it might be the thing that pulls people in. I’m really excited to show the new work as well. There are new works in the show that I only finished about a month ago.
What do you hope that people take away from Flesh Poems?
That’s a question about audience, I think. And, what that is predicated on is the assumption that I have some kind of intentionality. I don’t think that accounts for the fact that I’m an audience member too. As an artist, one of the responsibilities that we have is to be a viewer. That’s really difficult for young artists because they’re so involved in making that they don’t quite understand the importance of stepping back and viewing. I don’t mean just looking at what you’ve just finished. I mean really trying to be a viewer. Different audiences are going to get different things, but as a viewer myself I’m looking for things that disrupt the clichéd, the obvious. It’s also to do with access. There are various kinds of education that people have with art and because of COVID we’re going to get mostly a UVa audience. Depending on where you’re from, and what kind of education or life experiences you’ve had, you’re going to get very different things from the work as well. That didn’t answer your question, but I think the notion of an artist being a viewer is an important one.
I think that does answer the question. It relates back to when you were talking about how you don’t quite know what your work is about.
It’s predicated on the idea of ownership, right? If you ask an artist what you think an audience’s take-away should be, it’s predicated on the notion that the artist has some kind of ownership over the work, which is different from responsibility. I try to have my students question an idea of ownership that relies on economic, imperialist or colonial models. There are whole histories of power enmeshed there that need to be questioned. I say that as a dude coming from Europe (laughs).