Friday, May 08, 2009

My Certain Fate - interview w/Timothy Buckwalter

So I'm just about to head out for a west coast trip and want to share with you a discussion/interview I recently had with Timothy Buckwalter about the up coming show at Pharmaka - My Certain Fate.

HLIB: I believe you’ve had a solo exhibition at Pharmaka in the past? Can you tell us something about the venue and how you came to curate a show there?

TB: After my show at Pharmaka, we all went out to a late dinner around the corner (at Pete's Cafe). And I spent a large part of that time talking to Shane Guffogg, the founder of Pharmaka (and a super painter as well). At one point we started talking about if we could own any paintings in the world, what would we own. Kinda like a dream sports teams, only with art.

HLIB: Ok, so give me some names on your fantasy art team?

Let me think back, we both wanted to own the Monet Lily Ponds at MOMA. Guffogg wanted a Rembrant, and a pre-America Mondrian. I wanted the Met’s Newman. And one of those late Klines… the ones that were in several colors. I also wanted Alice Neel’s painting of the fucked up Warhol. For sculpture I wanted Kippenberger’s Happy End of Franz Kafka's "Amerika" and Duchamp’s “Etant donnes.” And a Sherrie Levine. The game isn’t about just dropping the names of cool shit or picking the most unattainable pieces, it’s about rattling off pieces that you’ve loved over the years and would want to have in your life on a daily basis. Anyway, out of that I wrote a proposal for them about this show -- which for me is that dream sports team. Everyone that is in the show, I would love to have in my collection (and I do own works by some of the artists we are showing).

Over the years, I've collected a lot of art. They form a sort of narrative about my life in the art world -- almost everything I have is by people that I've had some kind of art or life experience with -- either showing in the same exhibitions, represented by the same galleries, living in the same neighborhoods… etc.

With My Certain Fate, I've tried to take the idea of a personal collection and expand it. Expanded it in a way similar to the premise behind mixed tapes – all of these artists say something to me, and I want you to experience those feelings as well.

HLIB: Some people may know you by your reputation as an online curator. What made you want to venture into the realm of curating a show for an actual space versus a virtual space?

Well, it’s kinda the difference between playing Grand Theft Auto and going outside and stealing a car. They are both real. And each serves a purpose. But one of those options involves a lot more work, and real danger. Having reached a certain level -- if you will -- in the binary world, I wanted to try option number two.

HLIB: Aside from the unique opportunity offered by Shane Guffogg, is there anything particular about the Pharmaka venue that influenced your decision making regarding the subject matter and scale of the show?

Certainly, on the most basic level Pharmaka is huge. It is this cavernous space on the ground floor of the Rosslyn Hotels. I don’t know if it was the lobby of one of the hotels or just the retail space. Either way it is enormous. If you’ve seen a movie since the early 80s that has a scene with a bunch of hookers, crackheads and junkies in a rundown SRO, it was probably shot in the Rosslyn.

So instead of choosing a few artists and showing a large selection of their work, which is what I started with at the beginning of the process, I decided because of the amount of space I could have to really connect the dots between a lot of different works from a much larger group of artists.

And the fact that Pharmaka is a non-profit meant I could follow my heart a lot more. I was able to concentrate on artists that either don’t have a regular gallery in LA or have never shown there.

There are plenty of people in LA that would have been perfect for the show – Brian Kennon, for one – but I really wanted to focus on out-of-towners. The one exception is John Altoon. I got a really hairy one from a private collection. Altoon seemed really necessary for the show. To me there is no one more LA than Altoon. And no one who is not seen enough down there. Every city has at least one artist like Altoon – someone who touched the mainstream for a moment then spiraled off into their own intergalactic exploration. The Bay Area has Wally Hedrick.

HLIB: You mention danger. How so? Did you find that loyalties to other artists became an issue? Or is this more like stage fright for a rookie curator?

It’s a lot easier to dismiss crap on the internet than it is in the physical world. Because venturing out of your house or job to see art in galleries or museums is a real commitment people tend to demand a specific value for their effort. The danger to which I was referring was the possibility of my not being to live up to that demand.

HLIB: An excellent point regarding the dismissal of art works. That’s a discussion in and of it self.

HLIB: In music life, there is the notion of being a ‘selector’, especially within DJ culture. Do you see this as your point of departure more than the traditional idea of a curator?

Well, I think the traditional notion of a curator is someone that has a specific agenda they want to explore, like second tier AbExers or female performance artists of the 70s. Which is cool, and certainly necessary. Curators have so much to offer, to teach us about ourselves.

But, I am way less like that and waaaaaay more like the DJ. The DJ -- I’m thinking of the one in a nightclub or party setting -- wants everyone to experience a moment that they’ve created using the works of others. Their skill comes to play in their choices and the mixing. A good one gets the crowd moving together. To me that is amazing. Someone like Josh Wink or Gilles Peterson, I can't understand their intuitiveness but I am really in awe of it. I want My Certain Fate to be like that. I don’t have an agenda that relates to a past era or movement. I want visitors to feel what the art offers when grouped together.

HLIB: Yeah, I often heard artists complain that curators get all the attention in what can be a limited field of visibility. Do you feel as an artist that this is a hazard in a crowded market place or simply a battle of egos or should I say easily bruised egos?

Well the art world like life has a bunch of people in it who complain at the drop of a hat. Some of the bitching is valid. Some is based on backbiting. I tried to be as sensitive to all of the artists’ ideas, needs and concerns, but I’m male. So I’m sure I’ve failed in some way.

HLIB: How has this experience informed your own work, if at all? Do you see it more as an extension of your studio practice or simply a new way for you to expose the public to ideas and artists that you think are important? Making connections for people – bridging communities in some way?

Oh geez, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s had any noticeable affect on my work. It has made me appreciate the amount of effort that galleries afford to their exhibitions. Honestly, I was living under this thoroughly misguided notion that they mostly sit around, answering the phone, emailing invites and showing art in the backroom to collectors. So I’ve come around a lot on my view of that part of the art world. Galleries are kinda like auto mechanics, right? You find one that works for you and you stick with it. At lunch, you only talk to your friends about the mechanic that screwed you, the one that’s a real asshole. If you try to fix your own car, you learn a lot and it gives you some insight into your own mechanic.

HLIB: I think that is an important realization that many artists take for granted or are simply just ignorant on the subject. It is a tremendous amount of work and it takes a small village sometimes to get a show off the ground. Winkleman has covered this issue quite well over the years. Still, until you’ve done it, you’re not really aware.

The other thing I would say is that the artists in the show make work that I, for any number of reasons, truly believe in. And I know that if you want anything in the world, like having others experience your joy, then you need to go out and make it happen. There is no one sitting around taking note of your happiness. You gotta go out and shake them.

HLIB: That’s an excellent point. This has to be a labor of love on some level otherwise you’re in for some dark moments. Belief in the work – I like that. It seems like we haven’t heard language like that so much over the last decade which tended to favor talk of heated markets and branding strategies.

HLIB: Let’s get back to your process for curating this show. How did you come to the artists presented? Did the exhibition concept prefigure your choices or did your choices dictate the theme?

Some I went to art school with years ago. Others I’ve admired since the 80’s and they’ve always been lurking somewhere in my mind. Some are from my current batch of friends. And the rest, I’ve bumped into their works in galleries or on the 'net and lusted after it. I’m greedy so I wanted to put in everything. I didn’t though. While figuring out My Certain Fate, I was concurrently trying to figure out an abstraction-only show called Their Majesties Satanic Request, which features people not included in My Certain. I’m still shopping Satanic around.

HLIB: Well, you have included a very large roster of artists and works for this show. I’ve had a lot of experience working with exhibitions and I can tell you, this scale is a big undertaking. You seem to have handled the logistics pretty well.

Well, speaking of logistics, since you won’t help me hang the show (even though you are in LA at the time) I’m thinking about dumping you from the show. Just kidding!

I don’t know how it grew to be this big. I was keeping it all in my head until a couple months ago. I finally created files for all the artists in my computer. And I was shocked at how many there were. I called my wife and I said, holy fck I think I’ve got like 30 people in this show.

HLIB: You’ve mentioned on your blog that for a lot of the people in My Certain Fate, music is an important part of their lives, and of course the evidence is sometimes right on the surface of their work. Other times it's more obscure. So, I’m interested in your relationship to music as an artist. Can we talk about your relationship with music and art?

I love music. A while back, my Mom gave me her diary. There is an entry from when I was three years old. She and my father were concerned because they felt I spent too much time in my room listening to my record player and drawings with crayons. That’s been my life.The music that I enjoy the most always seems to have some kind of twist to it. The music strays too far from the lyrics. The mood changes abruptly, whatever. I’ve always tried to do that in my paintings -- offer an image, tie it into color and then spin the whole thing to somewhere else with the title.

HLIB: Can you imagine making art without music? I know that I can’t really imagine such a scenario. I might go mad without it.

Last week, my kids wanted to know if I would rather be blinded or deafened at that moment. They were all excited because they had decided that if they were deaf they could still watch TV and get around town. I upset them when I said I wanted to be blind because that way I could still touch art and remember what it looked like, but since I can’t remember sound that well I would be really upset if I couldn’t hear music anymore. Eight-year-olds can be really pragmatic.

HLIB: It’s obvious that recorded music is an essential medium to the contemporary artist as it saturates our lives both in and outside of the studio. It is a tradition that began early in the 20th century. We’re quite aware of the influence Jazz had on the Ab-Ex generation and how Pop and Rock melded perfectly with Warhol and so on down the line to each of us. I think for a lot artists music not only acts as a creative driver but also as a companion for long hours of independent work. Any thoughts as to how this might be molding artistic decisions? Has music actually become more influential on artists than other visual art?

It seems that artists working to music is not so special. Many people listen to music while they work, not just the art world. And I think everyone works along to it for different reasons – distraction from the mundane, awakening feelings of nostalgia, keeps your body moving, etc.
I listen to music when I work because it’s the perfect lover – I can always switch to something that says just what I want it to say when I want that said.

HLIB: A mood enhancer.

Plus its prevalence throughout the art world gives you something to talk about besides art.

HLIB: yes, a get out of jail free card when cornered or bored.

What’s interesting to me about the whole of pop music is how in adolescence (either in high school or art school) music was used as a way to sort people. Knowledge of certain bands and specific moments had cachet. I remember going to parties and people would quiz you on what music you liked it, and then maybe ignore you if your answer wasn’t hip enough. I’ve done that more than once. Music as a dividing force is about as influential as it gets on the personal level.

HLIB: I remember all too well. It was a filter – even a caste system at times. Still, like you, I think it provided a way of looking at the world and finding your place in it. It helped in understanding social strata and the inherent biases.

But is music any more influential in the world than visual arts? I don’t know. How influential is any of this stuff outside its small group of admirers?

I would say that the nostalgic element, and the hipster quotient, of pop music have recently given risen to a large number of shows that feature titles from 80s songs.

My Certain Fate comes from part of a Mission of Burma song. You can’t get more 80s than that. I think I’ve seen Smith’s songs used five or six times as exhibition titles in the last year. (Btw I would love to do a show titled “Barbarism Starts At Home” there are so many ways you could go with that, right?)

HLIB: Ok final question and cheap self promotion at that. Assuming the show is your ‘mix tape’, what song/artist would I be?!

I think you would be something from the 4AD label. Say, Dead Can Dance, Wolfgang Press or maybe Scott Walker. Those artists are all kinda mysterious and beautiful to me, and I don't really understand their music but I really like it anyway. That is also how I look at your work.

HLIB: Glad to see I’m confounding! Scott Walker is a nice reference but I confess, I was hoping for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds or something more on the drone end of the music spectrum. I can live with 4AD though which was a formative label for me. I’ll even reluctantly share that I’ve been on a Cocteau Twins binge lately. So you’re perhaps a clairvoyant after all.

The Cocteau Twins’ Garlands is amazing. I mean where did that come from? Amazing. A.R. Kane’s i records is pretty great as well (Guthrie produced it).I guess your work could be like early Nick Cave, when he still had some of the chaos of Birthday Party on his sound. For the last decade he’s kinda become a parody of himself. Your work is more unique than that. I think about as drone as your recent work gets for me would be Spiritualized -- maybe their single version of Feel So Sad.You know what, WhiteNoise No. 6 is Exit Music (For a Film) covered by Kolacny Brothers & Scala.

HLIB: Comparisons I can certainly live with. Thanks again for taking time to talk about the show Timothy.

My Certain Fate, curated by Timothy Buckwalter opens May 14 (6-9pm) at Pharmaka, downtown L.A.

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