[April 26, 2020]
One way to be an artist is to be like Bruce Nauman:
“if I was an artist and I was in the studio, then everything I was doing in the studio should be art…” he said. And furthermore, “You just do whatever is at hand, and you don’t even worry about whether it’s going to be interesting or not interesting to anybody else— even yourself.”
I first read this on the wall at Nauman’s massive exhibition, “Disappearing Acts,” at MoMA PS1 in 2019. The quote was pinned up beside his video piece from 1968, Walk with Contrapposto, where a grainy Bruce is seen walking slowly down a tight hall, arms on his head, accentuating the step and buckle of his hips to embody contrapposto (asymmetrically aligned, shoulders off-axis from the hips and legs).
My friend Esther,* from Belgium, tells me in a recent email how her relationship with art is shifting, opening up. She writes to me like a young Bruce:
Which I translate as:
In 2017, I wrote lines of poetry like “a school of shimmering silver horizons” and “drowning looks like dancing” and “her farts are farts.” In 2020, Esther is photographing anarcho-feminist marches in Brussels and standing in front of hundreds of people, speaking through a megaphone. In 2020, I am writing this piece about feeling confused all the time. It’s called On Confusion.
Another way to be an artist is to make a list like Jack Whitten:
I signed on to a shared studio space in Chinatown on March 1st, about two weeks before the city would declare “shelter-in-place” guidelines in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. I brought Notes from the Woodshed, Jack Whitten’s lifelong studio log, with me on the day I signed the lease so I could sit with the record of a great artist in my lap in my studio. A note in handwriting on the inside cover of the book says, “Please do not read— not meant for publishing. Jack Whitten.” What happened?
To get into it, I fold paper. I take the paper I have and fold it as arbitrarily as possible and then react to each fold with an offset fold incongruously along the plane to create sort of lashes in junctions, mostly toward the paper’s edge. The folds feel like a way to break the paper plane before I even mark it, to acknowledge the limits of the plane and therefore, the rectangle. Grids have cropped up. It takes a few minutes, I’m not sure exactly, for each sheet of paper to be gridded completely. I suppose I do it, yes, to break the plane but at the same time, to build the plane, to afflict it with body. Or it’s not true— I don’t have a reason. I do it out of confusion, perhaps, a longing for a ritual and then parameters. I have never been formulaic, but that is more to do with the fact that I don’t know any good formulas than anything else.
Another way to be an artist is to do nothing like Tehching Hsieh:
Federico has no work for me until the virus abates and his shows are rescheduled. Therefore, I am no longer a painter.
In the Chinatown studio I am folding paper and writing poems on it.
Spoke to my friend Julia before the city lockdown and she’s been out, divested from the artworld after her last studio assistant gig resulted in disillusionment with it all. Getting rid of her own studio as well. In 2019, I talk to her about going to the Armory Show to see Fede’s work, and all the work, and feeling “ruined” as ruins, walking through pieces only these ones are not “half-sunk” in sand and time, but boxed in cubicles with gallery monitors securing their object. And anyway, I didn’t see hardly anything worth talking about.
Just before the lockdown Julia and I walked through Riverside Park and she did concede that she’s been working on a large quilt and that she is interested in public art works, park and city projects (no gallery). We have mutual dreams of employment as Central Park groundskeepers humming around in little Parks Deptartment buggies. She talked about buying land one day. I affect Julia’s words with a plan lurking in her life as though art, art itself, is the parasite disguised as motivation to make money, to buy land, but this is not what Julia is saying. The idea of art itself has dissolved, along with the distinction that we beg of art to be. I say back to her that I understand.
My admission to this art is predicated on the institutional success that each of these artists would receive in their lives and I cannot stop thinking about this. In the case of Jack Whitten, he actively pursued that success his entire career and though he was known and respected, he would not gain broader recognition until the last years of his life. In the case of Tehching Hsieh, his embrace of wasting time bequeaths concept and thus, subverts wasting time; he is either engaging with a fallacy of non-art or he is dissolving the barrier between art as apart from and art as a part of anything else in this life. Still, I needed Tehching to succeed so I could read his work, see his photos, and watch his interviews on YouTube. (The artist would go on to represent Taiwan at the Venice Biennale, 2017, nearly 20 years after his “Thirteen Year Plan.”)
About a week after that walk, Julia and her partner fled the city to quarantine elsewhere. Meanwhile, I wound up getting two emergency relief jobs on special assignment for the City of New York. In one warehouse in the Bronx I am boxing up meals for the elderly and in another warehouse deeper in the Bronx I am breaking down the boxes that we unload food items from. Then I bring the flattened boxes to a compactor to be prepared for recycling. While at work, my thoughts emaciate. I slip into loops of the same sentences or the same images replaying over and over again and I am not thinking about art. What am I doing with a studio? I have no idea when spitting through my head for half a shift is
And I am wondering everyday: once this crisis passes and the people go to work again, will I still have my job? It pays double than being an assistant painter. I am not thinking about art.
[Ecuador, 2019] Excerpts from my journal:
20 de Junio, 2019 ~ Thursday ~ 11:30pm
Andrés* and I finally made it to the jungle. It’s been pissing rain all day— the rivers are gorging. El Rio Napo and I can’t remember the other one.
This evening we got quickly to working in the studio space behind the lodge. Me sketching; Andrés was arranging glass.
June 22 ,2019 ~ 00:23, just after midnight ~ in my cabin
The Rios Napo and Misahuallí continued to swell and roughen today with the constant rain. Massive trees swept down river, whole trees. By about 3pm the water began to swallow the town. We got a call from Blanca— they lost the canoe! The canoe is metal so once it takes on water it doesn’t float or capsize, it just goes under.
June 23, 2019 ~ almost midnight
Andrés and I met with a man from the town named Carlos who came to the lodge to talk to us about the residency. We recorded the interview. Andrés posed his central question: if we have a residency site here and invite many foreigners to come participate, how can we integrate the project with and cooperate with the town and local peoples. Carlos took his time and responded very thoughtfully— he spoke about the vanishing local traditions and languages. About the vanishing food and dances. Everything is fried now, he said.
June 27, 2019 ~ 8am at the lodge
We went into town in the evening just to buy some essential groceries. Once we crossed the river, Andrés said to nobody in particular,
“Oh… I want to destroy myself tonight.”
He didn’t really. But he did drink himself to sleep in La Bola Ocho. We never got the groceries.
I hope I don’t have a brain parasite.
Going to bed with my stomach weird. Maybe all the Guayusa tea? Maybe the broken water filter? The river water too. Pre-sleep headache like a flattened palm edging through my eyes.
In the evening around 8 I began to draw and I had some moments but now I don’t know. I have no clue. I played with metal and gesso to work on the canvas Andrés left me and I fucked it. It looks like shit now. I would have preferred the untouched canvas. I crumpled up a bunch of sketches. I thought I would draw nature here. I haven’t yet. Almost 2 weeks in the Amazon. I feel very lost and I feel dishonest now— totally unsure of myself in art. I try too hard or, oof, kill me I am wasting time. It’s so confusing— not just today, everyday now— it’s so confusing. I hope I don’t have a brain parasite.
But I like being here without Andrés. It’s peaceful.
Miercoles 10 Julio ~
I normally swim with Christofer, Blanca’s son, in the evening around 5 when there’s still light but not enough to burn me and we swim up along the rock shore opposite the town, climbing up and jumping from the rocks at different stops along the way until we reach the rope tree where we can climb the tree and launch ourselves out over the middle of the river and it’s so fun and hilarious.
Tonight we did that, crossed the river then crossed back swimming and in the vein of the current I drifted on my back under a blood orange sky with mellow lavender clouds. Then I looked back upriver at the rocky shores and lush jungle bending into deeper greens, and the town darkening around dim street lights flickering on… the river velvet it is green then pink then dusk makes it metal.
Andrés and I would never get the residency going.
I left the jungle in August to move in with Arnoldo Sicles, friend of Andrés’ and master printmaker at la Estampería Quiteña in the Center for Contemporary Art in Quito, to perform a printmaking residency at his home studio. Another artist, Julianna Anna Belén,* was also living in the apartment, using the press to make her woodblock images and glue them to the walls of ancient Quito. She would be my teacher for the month while Arnoldo kept his normal work schedule. Julianna played a lot of metal at first but I kept switching it so then she started playing a lot of Jeanette and Natalia Lafourcade over the desktop speakers. We carved woodblocks on and off all day for six weeks. I took breaks to sit on the small balcony and read Andrés’ copy of Conversations about Sculpture, a book of discourse between Richard Serra and Hal Foster. From my journal: Summer in Quito feels like autumn in NYC. The apartment is always cold.
During my first weeks in Quito, Andrés installed his show in +Arte Galería: an assemblage of wood and scrim structures and about a thousand blueish-gray and pinkish stones he had recently collected from the jungle floor. The show was called (Con)figurar (meaning to figure or to form or to shape or to belong or to appear, with parentheses isolating the con which means with, in english.) The wood and scrim were stood up two meters tall and painted white. A number of them connected in an assembly of corners to create two mirrored configurations that suggested two fragments of a labyrinth. Or: The wood and scrim were stood up two meters tall like frames hinged at the corners with papery veils that evoked the freestanding folding screens that conceal nudity in ancient bedrooms. Or again: The wood and scrim were stood up in two shapes configured to mirror each other with only a narrow passage between them, suggesting the narrow passage Moses parted so the Jews could safely escape Egypt via the Red Sea. Or atleast this is something that popped into my head when I saw the show. Andrés scattered the blueish-gray and pinkish jungle stones all over the gallery floor and also outside the big glass gallery front on the sidewalk. He also included two prints in the show.
At the opening, I don’t remember Andrés explaining the piece to anybody, though he probably did. And as I circled the small gallery space with friends of ours, I don’t remember if we talked about it at all— we just walked through the structures over and over, kicking stones.
At the closing, a small audience sat in folding chairs around Andrés’ piece and listened to him and the gallery explain the work. Andrés also presented his past paintings and installation works in a projection on the gallery wall, going through his beginnings as an artist, education and drop out, first gallery show, etc. The audience asked questions about (Con)figurar but now I can’t remember any of them.
However, I do remember the story he told at the end: Andrés said that when he was a child living with his grandparents, they would go out sometimes. While they were out, Andresito would take a crayon and mark the wall at the edges of some piece of furniture. He would then move the furniture and fill its empty wall space with crayon drawing. Then, before his grandparents could return home and find him drawing all over the wall, Andresito would move the furniture back into place. His grandparents would walk all through the house, suspecting nothing.
Only he knew.
Andrés Hessinger: www.afhess.com
Esther Massinon: @rse.the (instagram)
Julianna Anna Belén: @alquimia.888 (instagram)