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.
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.