I was sitting on a bus for hours, which gave my mind the right amount of time to start contemplating. Looking out the window, watching the Italian landscape pass, I wondered: “What’s next?”. It was the Summer of 2015, I was still working at the 21er Haus, and (instead of relaxing at a beach) I was on my way to the Venice Biennial. I realized that I needed change again. So, I made a list for future accomplishments:
- realize project within the 21er Haus
- organise own exhibitions
- write about international studio visits for blog
- travel far and for pleasure
- get curatorial job abroad
- find meaning and
Some of the points I can proudly tick off (1 and 2), others I’m still struggling with (5-7). Number 3 and 4 you can read about in this, and the following blog entries. It’s February, 2017 and I’ve just started my big trip that kicked off in Los Angeles, where I was invited to visit Joshua Rains in his studio at the USC Roski School of Art and Design, where he’s currently pursuing an MFA in Art.
In his previous life, Josh graduated from college with a mixed-degree in biology and chemistry, but chose to work as a graphic designer post college. Having always been a painter and drawer, he finally decided to apply to MFA programs in 2016. I kind of regard him as an ‘art world virgin’ as Josh didn’t have a traditional art school prior to admission at Roski, which in my mind makes him more prone to draw his inspiration from intuition and experimentation than from imitation and ‘outer influence’. That doesn’t stop me from drawing comparisons, though. When seeing Josh’s current video series, I was immediately reminded of James Benning’s works. Like Benning, Josh explores the passing of time through its artificial extension as well as the documentation of the subtle transformation of their subjects. While Benning wants us to see the political and economic inscriptions on landscapes in his durational pieces, Josh subliminally extends the destruction of objects. What we see in Josh’s videos, like Untitled (Mirror) or Untitled (Couple), is the recording of ceramic figurines thawing, recorded in time-lapse. While you’re watching his videos in anticipation for something to happen, the figurines begin to ‘sweat’, crack, and very subtly break into halves. In Josh’s studio, a lot of different porcelain figures are lined up against the wall, which he buys cheaply at thrift shops. I imagine that everyone has one of those dust traps at home for one reason or another. For Josh they function as a memory of his grandmother, who rigorously collected them. “I always thought they were very expensive pieces because of the care that my grandmother gave them. Only after she died did I realized that they had no actual monetary value”.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to experience Josh’s video work in an exhibition space but I know what I felt when sitting through some of Benning’s films (like Measuring Change, a static view of Smithson’s earthwork sculpture Spiral Jetty for 61min.). Even though it made me nervous and tense at first, I calmed down after a while and started to concentrate on the subtle changes in the scenery. Finally, I found myself in a contemplative state of mind that guided me towards unexpected thoughts and long lost memories. Josh’s work definitely holds the same potential and moreover touches upon topics like the relation to his grandmother, the destructive force of water, one’s individual relation to paraphernalia, and the viewer’s perseverance. And I encourage everyone to sit through what I like to call ‘endurance pieces’ – what’s eight minutes, or rather 61, compared to a lifetime after all?
The other work Josh and I were engaged with during my visit was a wall painting in various shades of grey which he applied by hand while watching porn. Feeling secure in the solitariness of his studio, Josh undressed and let his body react to the groanings and moanings coming from the film. What you finally see are the abstract traces and ecstatic splashes applied by his body as if it were the brush. The more Josh and I talked about the painting, the more interesting it became as it exhibits various stages of tension. As a gay man in LA, or broader speaking in the US, Josh must constantly confront his own sexuality. “I’m not ashamed of being gay. I’m more concerned with my own fragility when confronted with it by others. Where I grew up, it wasn’t okay. It wasn’t accepted. You internalize all that shame, and it manifests itself in many destructive ways. You grow up with this, and you try to build a place for yourself in the world, but it’s so delicate. I think this is why I don’t necessarily feel a part of any specific ‘world’. I’m not sure I’ve ever been 100% welcomed”. Needless to say, as current policies in the US are developing backwards rather than progressing forward, Josh’s wall work depicts a contemporary metaphor for the repression of sexuality, its public abashment, and the resultant retreat into privacy. “I might paint over and redo it. Maybe I’ll even record the performance next time, even though I hate that idea! I’m not sure how this is supposed to exist outside my body.”
I get Josh’s reservation. It takes a lot of courage to expose oneself to the world and face potential humiliation, negligence, and/or irrelevancy by others. The same way Josh uses wall and paint as means of expression, I handle this blog as a means of drawing comparisons between the (art) world, the lives of artists, and unavoidably my own precarious situation. And even though I always have doubts about publishing texts, the hope that my blog has some meaning and relevancy to somebody prevails. A friend once told me that courage is formed through experience and that as soon as you commit yourself to something, opportunities will align. Thus, what I hope to convey is that with the right amount of passion, dedication, and perseverance anyone can generate the courage to power through doubts and anxiety – and to generally survive this day and age.
That said, let’s keep on working.