Hex Outpost/Post Hex: Conversation With Jason Urban and Leslie Mutchler

This conversation took place via email between Ephraim Russell and Austin based artists Jason Urban and Leslie Mutchler, on the occasion of their exhibit at Grizzly Grizzly Gallery, December/January 2016.

ER:  I am very intrigued by your current exhibit at Grizzly Grizzly after attending the first iteration on December 4th. I found your Pennsylvania Dutch Gift Haus construct a fascinating, as you put it, “jumping off point” for the development of a body of work and its retail outpost. The hex and fraktur aesthetic are both such a distinct part of this region’s cultural and physical landscape, so I would like to begin our conversation by asking you both about your connection to this cultural history and visual nomenclature.

JU:  We met in Philadelphia a decade ago and we’re both from Pennsylvania originally. We’ve been based in Austin for eight years now but we get back to the region regularly. Our work is focused on handcraft and the relationship of analog to digital. The notion of looking back to a not-so-distant time to examine cultural connections, albeit somewhat idealized, to labor made sense to us. While neither of us can claim any direct ties to the Pennsylvania Dutch, it’s something we’ve been exposed to since childhood having grown up and lived in Pennsylvania. The iconography was familiar to us but we knew relatively little about its meanings and history. This project was an excuse to research.

LM:  We also noticed on our research trip (summer 2015) the abundance of printed ephemera at the museums, shops and historic sites we encountered. Handmade and simple publications, such as “Idioms and Expressions of the Pennsylvania Germans” to “Butter Tools and Processes” to “Popular Home Remedies and Superstitions of the PA Germans” became important fodder for the publications we made for HEX Outpost. We became engaged in processing this culturally-specific material though a more contemporary lens (i.e. The Modern Day POWWOWING publication which details a couple PA Dutch remedies with the aid of Amazon.com to purchase otherwise difficult to obtain supplies.)

ER:  The irony of using Amazon to obtain supplies to concoct a pre-modern Dutch remedy represents a powerful intersection of old and new practice. It always feels a little awkward when the two come together; it also has a strong undercurrent of humor. It also brings to mind Atelier Van Lieshout’s “A Manuel” and the book I had growing up, Foxfire, which is a practical introduction to Appalachian culture. There seems to be a similar complexity in this installation, in that it’s very serious looking, but in actuality it is interactive, fun, and affordable. Would it be a reach on my part to think of Hex Outpost as a sort of PA Dutch “Non-Site“, in the Smithson tradition?

JU:  Smithson never came up in our discussions but I can see why you might bring up his notions of “Non-Site.” We consciously went into the real world looking for material to assimilate and distill. We traveled around Pennsylvania over the course of a few weeks visiting historic sites and some cultural centers. It was a cross between scholarly research and local tourism. That said, HEX Outpost isn’t recreating a specific stand or location- it’s a composite structure built from lots of source material. We invented it as a vehicle to house our research-based publications and materials. Actually, the second exhibition, Post-HEX, will break down the first one and provide more of a direct window into the research. Thinking of Smithson again, Post-HEX will place an emphasis on documentation in a way that the HEX Outpost definitely doesn’t.

LM:  I have never heard of Foxfire- but what an amazing publication! Did you grow up in the south? How did Foxfire fall into your hands? (I’m excited to look into this publication a little more). When we began our research we came across the Pennsylvania Folklife magazine: a publication dedicated to preserving all things PA Dutch started by the Pennsylvania Folklife Society in the late 40s. It’s something akin to Foxfire, albeit produced by leading researchers in the field and not students, and it chronicles stories, letters, fraktur, folksong, religion, furniture, etc. It’s a pretty comprehension and once we found out that the entire collection existed at Ursinus College, we made it a point to visit and “archive” the archive. The librarian was so taken aback that someone was actually interested in the collection. I think it will continue to be a rich area for us to mine.

You’re right about the current iteration of HEX Outpost, it is designed to be serious- an art object unto itself. Upon returning from our research trip this summer, Jason started to design his own blackletter type and I couldn’t resist utilizing the typeface as an abstracted, repeat-pattern, wallpaper-type graphic. It’s intentionally graphic and binary, yet minimal and economic in design. We were thinking about current design trends in graphic design (specifically related to signage) and also the concept of dazzle camouflage. The disruption of the image/ object. The hands-on, interactive part is more playful, perhaps more lowbrow, and certainly more accessible.

ER:  Leslie, to answer your question, I did grow up in Virginia but I can’t remember specifically how I was introduced to Foxfire. Regardless, it definitely made a mark on me and carries a cultural/collaborative/DIY sprit that I innately respond to, especially the chapter, Moonshining as a Fine Art. The teaching lesson that Foxfire coveys, tends to resonate with me as well.

Well, I greatly appreciate being able to frame my experience of your work through the collaborative process you’ve outlined. Especially through the language you are both using to describe your process, e.g.; “part scholarly research part local tourism”, “archiving the archive”, “assimilating and distilling”, “ a composite structure from lots of source material”; I get such a strong sense of the aesthetic and investigatory decision making that went into the various zines and hex templates you developed.

Now that the original Hex Outpost structure has been dismantled and the Post Hex phase of the show has begun, as a viewer, I almost feel like I’m working backwards through your physical and mental research as you deconstruct/reconstruct the materials in the show. But, maybe more importantly, you also seem to have changed the context in which I’m examining things. Would you both talk about the Post Hex transformation?

JU:  Well, “backwards” is probably a good way to think of it. I think there’s a strong narrative element inherent in the sequential nature of two back-to-back exhibitions. In a lot of ways we put the cart before the horse by showcasing the more commercial outpost first. Part of that was the timing- why not make a piece about commerce around the holidays- but on some other level I hope that it is good storytelling. The viewer finds a situation in the first exhibition and in the second gets the back-story and conclusion. The two things are intrinsically linked so either is incomplete without the other. Post-HEX definitely showcases the research leading up to HEX Outpost but it is also built from the physical remains of HEX Outpost. We turned the stand into tables and piled the signage as evidence of the original form. The two works have an ambiguous relationship to time.

LM:  I would agree; “backwards” does seem appropriate. But logistically speaking, we started with research so why not end with research? The collection of photographs, books and materials exhibited in Post-HEX is in no way finite or definitive of our research. It begins to paint a picture, and as Jason said, has an ambiguous relationship to time. This is a collection that I imagine will grow as we continue to conduct research as well as seek other opportunities for exhibition/ conversation. The modes of representation we have chosen for each photograph or object varies based on our personal relationship to the environment/ moment/ experience we had while conducting research this summer. For a long time I’ve personally been interested in the archive, and perhaps more specifically the design of the archive. From 16th century Wunderkammers to the 21st century tumblr Things Organized Neatly we, as humans, are fascinated with our own collections. Curation of materials, images, and objects has come into play in my interactive work over the last few years (and I’m not unaware that it’s paramount to how I teach in the classroom). Finding modes of representation appropriate for collections, ways in which to organize, to clarify, or to tell a story with the design of a collection is of upmost importance.

ER:  Things Organized Neatly is a great reference! It brings to mind Karsten Bott who, according to his writing, is “trying to evenly collect and archive all existing things”. Conversely, your use of archiving seems to be more about generosity than it is about catharsis. Post Hex really did inspire me to investigate the material you laid out and to attempt to cognitively link it back to the zines and structure that came before. As Jason mentioned, it does unfold as a story telling of your investigatory process. Out of curiosity, in the case that a viewer was not able to see both parts of the exhibit, would you consider their experience to be truncated, or incomplete?

JU:  I don’t think seeing only one or only the other is an incomplete experience. They relate and are more complex as a pair but each should stand on its own merit. Having the two sequential shows allowed us an opportunity to dissect our own studio practice in a way that a singular exhibition wouldn’t. In some ways, I think we were allowing the audience to “watch” us learn and in doing so, maybe they can learn as well? As Leslie mentioned, our identities as artists are influenced by teaching.

ER:  Having viewed both parts in sequence, I think your explanation is apt. My understanding of your larger investigation was very much directed and enriched by Post Hex but it by no means diminished one or the other experience. I think that we naturally intertwine or conflate things when given the chance, which is why I was wondering about the shows as dependents. For me, the relationship between the parts really came down to access; access to ideas, ways of working, etc.

Because the evolution of the work and learning process for both you and the audience is so relevant, is there a possibility of another iteration of this investigation, perhaps a Post/Post Hex?

LM:  Definitely. We have already been discussing other ways in which to interpret and reproduce the research. Both of us are excited to keep pursuing work in the form of publications (accessible multiples) but we have also started a slower process of laser cutting and relief printing birch substrates of simplified geometric patterns (in reference to hexes) as well as letterforms. So I think it’s safe to say another iteration is inevitable as the subject is rich for mining.

ER:  I like your term “accessible multiples”. In general, there doesn’t seem to be enough affordable/accessible work being made. In the recent past GG and TSA adopted the CSA (Community Supported Art) model here in Philly with that same notion of access and affordability in mind. Too often artists follow a standard commercial sales model that can make it next to impossible for most people to buy work. Regarding multiples, I really look forward to seeing how the laser cutting work unfolds. I saw evidence of that thought process in the small laser cut forms in the current work and it seems to make a lot of sense in terms of pattern making and the print context of the hex symbols.

It has been a pleasure having this conversation with you while watching your work unfold in the gallery. Just this week I just happened to re-read Duchamp’s Creative Act, so I found myself actively thinking about the role of the spectator, regarding the meaning of work. It was particularly interesting for me to think about the points in which my questions or thoughts about your work both merged and, at times, diverged with your explanation of things. I learned a lot about your work and practice and thank you for sharing your ideas with me, and the Grizzly Grizzly community.

JU:  Thanks.

LM:  Yes, thanks so much Ephraim. And thanks to Grizzly Grizzly for the opportunity; it’s always great to be back in Philadelphia to make new and strengthen old connections.

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Speak Speak: Peter Crimmins on Grizzly Grizzly for CITYWIDE

This month we present 3 audio compositions by Peter Crimmins made to accompany Grizzly Grizzly’s exhibition, “B-Sides,” at Rebekah Templeton Contemporary Art for the CITYWIDE collective exchange.

In Peter’s own words:

The audio pieces I created for Grizzly Grizzly play with — and hopefully expand — the tropes of a museum audio tour. The pieces start with the voice (I interviewed all six members of Grizzly Grizzly on tape) but are not necessarily linear. Each of the three stops pairs two members of the collective talking about their work.

I started with the material of my own art: sound. Based on what they said on the recordings, I searched for connections. Then, as though it were paint on a canvas, I pushed the sound around until it felt right.

I discovered that all of the members of Grizzly Grizzly struggle with narrative. They all harbor a compulsion to tell stories, and they fight to free their work from the constraints of storytelling. A work that “makes sense” usually makes a single kind of sense, keeping it from working on you, abstractly.

Likewise, the Grizzly Grizzly tour does not attempt to describe the art, explain what it means, or tell the story of the artist. Rather, the audio tour is a sonic extension of the artist collective’s process.


Peter Crimmin’s full statement accompanying his audio pieces can be read at NewsWorks: When Art has no Story to Tell, It Doesn’t Need to Make Sense

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Speak Speak: Three Questions for Tom Lauerman, Fabio Fernandez, Colin Keefe

Image credit: Tom Lauerman.  Gemini.  2013.  Wood, ink.  3 x 3 x 5.5".

Tom Lauerman. Gemini. 2013. Wood, ink. 3 x 3 x 5.5″.

‘Urban Environments’: Colin Keefe, Fabio Fernández, Tom Lauerman
Curated by Jacque Liu
Exhibition Dates: September 6–28, 2013

Curator Jacque Liu spoke with the three artists about their working processes.

Tom Lauerman

What role do you think architecture plays in your work?

These days, the subject of Architecture provides me with some clear limitations for this body of work, as I’m often asking myself “what has this got to do with Architecture?” I have a tendency to over-complicate my work and follow tangents so its always a great pleasure and challenge to return to this collaborative body of work which in it’s title lays out somewhat strict parameters.

For some time I worried that perhaps I should have studied Architecture rather than Art, as I find myself consistently drawn to Architectural subjects. Over time I’ve spent enough time around Architects to recognize that their field is not what I had imagined it to be. Tony Hepburn, an artist who has had a huge impact on my work, said to me “Your work isn’t Architecture, it’s about Architecture”. Simple as this sounds, it has affected me tremendously.

Most built structures aren’t about Architecture. They are a reflection of the needs of a client, the realities of a budget, and the coordination of multiple agendas of which the Architect’s is just one. In contrast, work that is about Architecture would allow narrative elements to dominate practical concerns. It allows for an emotive or intellectual response to the questions of function.

What role do you think the built environment plays in your work?

There is an unfortunate and persistent tendency in some circles to always want to wipe the urban slate clean. The architect Le Corbusier famously advocated for the bulldozing of Paris in order to renew it, and more recently the Museum of Modern Art plans to demolish the American Folk Art Museum in a forthcoming expansion (reason given: “. . . the opaque facade is not in keeping with the glass aesthetic of the rest of the museum. The former folk museum is also set back farther than MoMA’s other properties, and the floors would not line up.”).

I’m interested in the opposite of this tendency. I enjoy seeing individuals and small groups intuitively adapt existing structures for new uses. The narrative of a particular building becoming richer as a result of having multiple lives.

In this series of artworks “Sculptures in Love with Architecture” we have made variations on ventilation ducts, bollards, pilotis, parking structures, and any number of anonymous industrial stacks and heaps. Its the result of the two of us constantly seeking out all the structures that are not presentational in their design. Fabio and I share this inclination to re-create, celebrate, and catalog these otherwise mute remnants.

What role do you think abstraction plays in your work?

As a kid interested in art I was scared of abstraction. I perceived abstraction as a destructive force that invalidated the work I tended to like. Fortunately it became apparent to me over time that all art is abstraction and this terrifying conflict in fact did not exist.

In this body of work we have an interest in dealing with archetypes. Perhaps we might rename the series, Sculptures in Love with Archetypes. Anyhow, if these little objects get too specific or realist in nature they devolve into a space that has more to do with souvenirs and nostalgia. We’d like to keep the focus on architectonic potential, expression of material, and an evocative character that is a result of formal clarity.

Fabio Fernandez

What role do you think architecture plays in your work?

During the course of any given day, I occupy a variety of different architectural spaces and try to be aware of how they affect me. Do they elicit emotion? Do they dictate how or where I can walk, talk, stand, or sit? Are they beautiful, ugly, light-filled or dark? As an artist, I am particularly interested in the formal properties of architecture and in the sculptural possibilities of architectural elements and details like columns, bollards, and vents. Like art, architecture requires careful observation and reflection. My pieces in the Sculptures in Love with Architecture are the three dimensional results of some of these observations.

What role do you think the built environment plays in your work?

My colleague Tom Lauerman and I have been collaborating on our Sculptures in Love with Architecture series since 2005 so we have a pretty good grasp of each other’s artistic interests. A few years ago Tom observed that my work rarely deals with natural or organic forms and suggested that the Woody Allen quote “nature and I are two” also applied to me. Tom led me to the realization that in fact I am not terribly interested in nature. Now the built environment is a different story…

My sensitivity to the built environment – the objects and places designed and built by man – became heightened during my first semester in graduate school, at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia, Eero Saarinen, Florence Knoll, Niels Diffrient… all taught and/or studied at Cranbrook and they helped shape the course of 20th and 21st century design. While pursuing a graduate degree in Sculpture, I became interested in this aspect of the school’s history and in particular to the contributions that Cranbrook people made to chair design and production – form and ergonomics, innovations in material manufacturing processes… Studying the Eames LCW can teach one a lot about art and architecture.

What role do you think abstraction plays in your work?

While most of my individual pieces in the Sculptures in Love with Architecture series are abstractions of existing architectural forms and elements some are what I consider more literal interpretations of the same. Current art trends do not favor art that is too literal as it is often judged as lacking the poetry associated with abstraction, I tend to disagree.

Colin Keefe

What role do you think architecture plays in your work?

My father was an architect, mainly Catholic churches in New England, so I grew up with Maylines, scale rules, and a sense that the places in which we lived were an outcome of design. Later I began to see that the role of architect was a minor player in what really caused cities to change over time – that these changes were as much about human needs and nature, changes in technology, in markets, and social structures as anything else, and that urban planners and architects only influence those things to the extent that they are actually aware of them.

In my own art practice I became interested in the organic qualities of human habitation in the aggregate – that if the centuries of a city’s life could be observed over a compressed time period, like time lapse photography, one would see the city as a living, breathing organism, and its inhabitants part of its whole.

What role do you think the built environment plays in your work?

The built environment serves as a physical representation of what the human experience is. If we understand dinosaurs from their fossils, we also understand a bit about ourselves by examining the places in which we live, work and play. In my work I try to inject changes in how cities grow and change by taking some of the metaphorical rhetoric around “evolution and growth” of cities and literalizing them. What if the houses in which we lived were themselves organisms of a kind? Cellular clusters in some grander arrangement, fluid and mutable?

What role do you think abstraction plays in your work?

I came to architecture from a sculptor’s perspective. Initially these drawings grew out of a series of working sketches for city sculptures I was making in the 90’s and early 2000s. Prior to that point I had never really focused much on drawing and sketching as anything other than a mark making process in support of another practice. But I began to become very interested in the formal properties of these sketches, and over a period of years the drawings became my main body of work.

Abstraction is a great tool for dealing with concepts like these because it allows me to subtract away unnecessary details, and turn the study of the artifacts of human habitation into a form of play.

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Speak Speak: Jason Varone and Michael Konrad

This month’s Speak Speak presents a conversation between artists Jason Varone and Michael Konrad regarding Jason’s work and his current videopainting installation, ‘It Isn’t Always Going to Be This Great’ at Grizzly Grizzly. The conversation was conducted online via web chat on May 17 while Jason was in his New York City office and Michael was in transit from Philadelphia to NYC.

Jason Varone & Michael Konrad in front of Jason's wall painting.

Jason Varone & Michael Konrad
in front of Jason’s wall painting at Grizzly Grizzly.

Michael Konrad: I’ve known you and your work since 2000 and have seen it progress over the years. Let’s start with your installation at Grizzly right now – “It Isn’t Always Going to Be This Great” –
you merge various elements that you’ve used in previous pieces to create an entirely new installation: smoke plumes, falling/dying animals, appropriated war video, streaming news headlines, and the soundtrack.

Jason Varone: Yes, this installation is consistent with several of my recent site-specific works, with a couple of key differences:
I used sound, more specifically music, for the first time in almost a decade. And I’ve introduced color in the cartoon-like plumes of smoke that I have been painting on walls for a few years now.

MK: I immediately noticed the addition of fluorescent pink smoke plumes in addition the black-outline-on-white-wall smoke that you usually draw.
How could you miss it really? — that color, POW!

JV: The use of pink is essentially symbolic. I went through an orange period years ago. Orange is the “least likely color to be found in nature”, according to Jean Des Esseintes, a character in a late 19th Century French novel “À rebours,” by Joris-Karl Huysmans. There was an entire chapter in that book about why the main character decided to paint his living room orange.

I began using orange as a symbol to represent technology. I am introducing pink in a similar way. I am thinking about what color would the ether be if you could see it, or what color would ooze out of computers if they bled.

MK: I love that thought, color representing the guts of technology. Tron used neon green.

JV: I have a jar of some beautiful neon green in my studio now.

MK: There’s something kind of chemical or nuclear about the pink as well.
Then again, dirty bombs are sooo early 2000s (haha).

JV: Yeah, but Kim Jong Sun just detonated a nuclear weapon underground.

MK: For real? Probably a media stunt, faked.
But speaking of color, you also introduced washes of colorful splotches over the otherwise dry and detached b&w aerial drone bombing footage…

JV: Yes, the drone footage is something I’ve been collecting and wanting to work with for some time now. The colorful splatters of paint and the Henry Mancini cocktail music are strategies to take this violent footage out of context.

MK: Yes! the music! I want to talk about that some more…
sings: Jimmy rolls jimmy rolls jimmy rolls

JV: These elements create a safe viewing distance to the drone attacks, psychologically at least. The colors are beautiful, and move to the music and have a rhythm of their own…so its a bit mesmerizing, and the music has a blissful quality….but before long, the viewer begins to internalize what s/he is looking at and is confronted with Power , exercised in their name by the their own government.

MK: It’s so absurd & really darkens the mood in a way.
It brings a Kubrick-like humor to the violence: I’m thinking of A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove.

It simultaneously lightens the gravity of the footage, but also draws the viewer in to actually consider the carnage that is otherwise so easy to dismiss — it looks like a video game.

JV: Yes, perhaps I’m emulating Kubrick a bit here.

MK: Yeah, it’s really a major feature in all of his movies actually.

JV: He used music to add content to his scenes, and sometimes not even obvious choices of music, but they always seem to be playing an active role in the film.

The video game analogy is right on. This is not war footage. There are people in offices that are operating this technology in Washington or Virginia. For all we know, the drone operators are drinking Martini’s while doing surveillance.

That’s not actually fair…

MK: True, very true. but there is still a realness to it and the drone operators know it. They even suffer from PTSD and they are awarded medals of honor.

JV: Medals of honor, that is insane.

MK: It’s an insane world. Would it really be that shocking if animals actually fell from the sky? I think it may have actually happened with cane toads in Australia.

JV: Yes, I think it’s insane that joystick operators are getting Medals of Honor. It’s insane that I can download all of this footage of a supposed secret drone campaign to my personal laptop. It’s insane that I can buy an actual drone on the Apple website, complete with a HD surveillance camera and I can fly it with my iPhone. It’s insane that bees, and all sorts of animals, are dying in large numbers (and in some cases falling from the sky).

‘What isn’t insane?’ is really the question.
Years back I made a piece entitled “The Long and Continuous Emergency” and in a way I think I’ve been making work about this same idea ever since

MK: Actually, to clarify my previous statement, crows were killing the cane toads and dropping them from the sky.

JV: There’s this too:
2,000 red-winged blackbirds fell dead from the sky in a central Arkansas town (2011)
2,000,000 Dead Fish Wash Up in Chesapeake (2011)
100,000 fish were reported dead in an Arkansas river, and then 100 miles away, thousands of birds fell from the sky just days later on New Year’s Eve

MK: Great title btw, we don’t think of emergencies as “long” or “continuous…”
but the urgency of the situation is real and ongoing = emergency.

JV: An emergency is not something we normally think about as lasting forever. How could it? How could we possibly endure that? But I think that is exactly what we are living through, and we’re just getting used to the speed of it. As of now, we’re living in a kind of slow motion emergency…I predict events will begin to overwhelm us more as time goes on. Hence the title of my show “It Isn’t Always Going to Be This Great.”

MK: But it doesn’t really seem like its all that great now, does it? Certainly not as presented in your work…

I am really depressed for the future of my 4-month old twins,
but at the same time I sort of wish I could be my son.

JV:  I worry more about the environment than anything else, and that is where the animals come from in my work. That’s what the kids will have to deal with more than anything else, a climate that can’t really support humans anymore.

But how bad could it be if I’ll be drinking Manhattans later today discussing the art world with a friend, then I’ll go home and watch Basketball on TV. I mean, that is sort of what I’m getting at with the drone footage and the Henry Mancini music – we are all living large as the world burns.

MK: There actually isn’t much of those “good times” evident in your installation, besides the Mancini “jimmy rolls” cocktail music — and that is used in a very different way as we discussed before (absurdity, darkness, & irony).

It all looks pretty bleak (although you make that terrible landscape seem really engaging to be in).

JV: There are some entertainment related headlines in the text scroll. And I think the music is functioning on two levels. But, the fact that we can even have an opening, drink beers together and talk about the world is very “good times” in my book. So that’s inherent in the work isn’t it? There’s the pink too…it’s pretty.

Yes, It’s bleak. I have a bleak view of the world, but I don’t think things seem so bleak to the average American.

MK: So these are the good times: sit back, watch some color splashed video, listen to the cocktail music, and ‘oh, what an interesting arrangement of painted & moving images on the walls? Would you like another drink while the world as we know it crumbles around us?’

JV: Exactly. But we are kind of responsible for the crumbling, that’s the dark side. Maybe not us personally so much, but our society, our government.

MK: We ARE our society, our government.
We choose to not participate, to ignore, bury our heads in the sand, and hold imaginary beliefs & ideology as our reality.

JV: It’s going to be hard for me to enjoy a drink tonight.

MK: Sometimes you don’t need to enjoy it, you just need to drink it.

To view photos of the exhibition ‘It Isn’t Always Going to Be This Great’ and find out more about Jason’s work, please visit our website.

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Notes on April Speak Speak

Every month, Grizzly Grizzly posits questions to our exhibiting artists. These are big picture questions, designed to give context to their work and working process. 

This month, we have made the decision to include two texts that feature in the publication that accompanies Victoria Lucas’ show ‘Interruptions’. The Introduction is written by Grizzly Grizzly co-curator, Jacque Liu, and the essay is by British sound artist and professor, Dr. Mat Gregory. 



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Absence as Landmark/Vacancy as Monument

Market East, Philadelphia 2013 Digital Photograph 46 x 31” Victoria Lucas

Market East, Philadelphia
Digital Photograph
46 x 31”
Victoria Lucas

Genuine stillness is… the stillness of a weight on the end of a pendulum that has barely stopped swinging and is still vibrating imperceptibly. It is the stillness of time in the instant… It is this stillness things dream of, it is this stillness we dream of …the highest point of drama.[i]

The presence of a subtle tension, of an emptiness so recent that it still vibrates with the echoes and energy of movement, resonates deeply in the seemingly unpopulated spaces of Victoria Lucas’ U8 series. The series consists of over thirty photographs that document the stairways of every station on Berlin’s U8 underground line, from Wittenau to Hermannstrasse. Each staircase and escalator is presented in moments of apparent stillness, unpopulated in that brief instance, yet acutely defined by traces of human activity.

This essay will explore the U8 series within the context of key cultural, philosophical and art historical discourses, from the writings of Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard and Frederic Jameson to the work of artists such as Leszek Brogowski. It will examine some of the themes that underpin Lucas’ work and suggest a theoretical and critical framework for Interruptions at Grizzly Grizzly, where images from the U8 series are juxtaposed with new works by Lucas documenting the underground stations of Philadelphia.

Continue reading

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April 2013: Victoria Lucas, ‘Interruptions’

34th Street I, Philadelphia  2013 Digital Photograph 46 x 31” Victoria Lucas

34th Street I, Philadelphia
Digital Photograph
46 x 31”
Victoria Lucas

The place around us is shifting.

There is never just one sense of time that prevails – especially in the art-making process.  What the audience sees in the gallery is the result of a constellation of objects, images, ideas, and sounds that push and pull against each other for meaning.  The best artists allow for this conflict to happen, distill it into an art experience, and then hope for even more conflicts to take place with the audience – something we often call “dialogue.”

The U8 photographic series by Sheffield-based artist Victoria Lucas negotiates this process through the use of compare and contrast.  It starkly juxtaposes function, memory, time, and place through images of unpopulated subway staircases.  The objective truth is that the U8 subway line in Berlin, Germany has 24 stops, is 11.8 miles long, travels north-south, was originally called the D-line, and is home to numerous secret unused stations and tunnels.  It is part of one of the most complex and efficient subway systems in the world which according to Wikipedia has a daily ridership of 1,360,000.

When I think back to when I lived in Berlin in 2002, the U8 conjures images of Turks, Americans, Brits, Kenyans, and native Germans – a real “Ich bin Berliner” sensibility.  The train and its ridership remind me that Berlin is a metropolitan city above all else; it is a place where people live so that they can chase ideas and dreams.  For anyone who has been to Berlin, they know that subway system and its staircases are integral to how the city functions.

But Lucas’ staircases are empty.  By focusing her imagery on the built environment, the work moves away from what the story is to what the story could be.  This idea of potential complicates how the audience is to infer intent from Lucas.  With or without knowing the pre-text of Berlin, the images fall into the territory of ambiguity.  Why is this place abandoned?  What do the signs of life (graffiti, trash, electricity) indicate or reflect?  Is this monument or narrative?

Alexanderplatz, Berlin  2012 Digital Photograph 46 x 31” Victoria Lucas

Alexanderplatz, Berlin
Digital Photograph
46 x 31”
Victoria Lucas

In the end, we need only to realize that memory is curated and therefore is always wrong just as it is always right.  Either way, it cannot be trusted as objective.  But while memory is fallible, it is true and necessary to how we interpret things.  As such, it is essential to how we develop our perceptions.  It is in the space between the interpretations where interruptions such as Lucas’ work lives.

As a point of understanding, everything in this work deals with transition despite its stillness.  The emptiness of the photographs emphasizes the ephemeral nature of experience.  The nature of the metropolis – that being, the large-scale community – paradoxically dictates that people must consistently engage with one another in order to make decisions to that will compel us to leave those same people, situations, places, events, ideas, and so on.

In March 2013, Lucas will come to Philadelphia for ten days and photograph staircases along the Market-Frankford subway line.  In April 2013, she will present three of these images alongside three U8 images at Grizzly Grizzly for her exhibition, Interruptions.  This exhibition furthers her investigation by extending her site to a global scale; drawing parallel similarities and differences between cultures.

Grizzly Grizzly is a Philadelphia-based artist collective with monthly exhibitions and programming.  As practicing artists ourselves, we hope to create innovative shows by playing with our own curation process.  With Lucas’ exhibition, we saw the opportunity to pair two cities, Berlin and Philadelphia, and to create a dialog about memory and the built environment through a very still aesthetic.

We view the work that we do at the gallery as an extension of our individual artistic practices.  Utilizing many of the same creative problem-solving skills that we use in our artwork, our intimate understanding of the studio drives our discourse.

We would like to thank Victoria Lucas for sharing this body of work with us.

Jacque Liu

Grizzly Grizzly, Philadelphia, PA

March 2013

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