I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
“I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man.” Artist Fred Tomaselli could have easily said this, as contemplating his body of work from the past two decades can attest, and the same goes for David Shields, who for his recent book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto borrowed from James Joyce the “scissors-and-paste man” sentence which appears among thousands of others he uses by a roster of fellow authors. A mind-boggling roster, to be sure, since Shields cares to exhibit himself more as a prodigious readerthan an original writer in his book, perhaps in a way comparable to that of Tomaselli, who relinquishes mark-making and instead establishes himself primarily as a virtuosic viewerlaboriously compiling the astounding archive he culls to assemble his works.
To be truly loyal to the spirit of Tomaselli and Shields’s endeavors, the opening statement should have been snuck in without quotation marks. “I hate quotations,” reads another entry in Shields’s book, this time by none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson, who might have found them redundant and makes a compelling case for the appropriated nature of our “customs, laws, our ambitions, and our notions of the fit and fair—all of these we never made; we found them ready-made; we but quote from them.” Possessives would have been omitted as well. The majority of entries in Shields’s Reality Hunger refute the possessives claiming the book as his, just as Tomaselli admits that more and more he sees himself as a mere “conductor to the collective voices of the various authors that combine into [his] images.”
Yet old habits die hard, and, to be frank, the utopianism of the critical theory purporting the inevitable death of the author might seem rather quaint in the 21st century. What was missing in the diagnostics of the ’60s and ’70s was an understanding of the pliability of the definition of authorship, which would come to embrace practices based on postproduction, as much as an awareness of the fact that appropriation-based art is as old as the book. It is works like those of Tomaselli—merging, among others, folk art, Romanticism, and visionary traditions—that remind us that appropriation art not only applies to the tautological practices introduced by conceptualism. It does not have to shun the sublime. In Reality Hunger we find a telling quote by Goethe: “What would remain to me if this art of appropriation were derogatory to genius? Every one of my writings has been furnished to me by a thousand different persons…”
What follows is a conversation between Shields and Tomaselli on these and other matters conducted via email in late spring. Witness what Sven Birkerts (also quoted in the section on collage in Reality Hunger) calls “the shapely swirl of energy holding shattered fragments in place, but only just.”
—Mónica de la Torre
David Shields We’re both products of the post-hippie California culture of the ’70s. I think we share a sense of emerging from a culture that had lost its idealism and found drugs to be the primary refuge. You’ve been in New York for some time now, but do you see your artistic vision as still shaped by living in California in the decayed ’70s, a “culture of the unreal” in which you had to dig deep to find your own meanings?
Fred Tomaselli California played a significant role in inventing and perfecting our “culture of the unreal,” and my sense of reality has been forever altered by growing up there. Back then, both the left and the right were actively manipulating reality in rather novel ways and a lot of those manipulations escaped like kudzu to infest the rest of America. On the right, you had the corporate-entertainment/government complex, which gave us Disneyland, Hollywood, Richard Nixon, and, of course, Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s masterful blending of entertainment and politics first succeeded in California. After he became president, our nation of toddlers would never again accept anything less than “happy talk” from its future leaders. At roughly the same time you had post-Manson/Altamont California, which was not a very pretty place. You had the Symbionese Liberation Army literally going up in flames and throngs of burned-out hippies disappearing into the New Age, but all that seemed to be happening somewhere else, like in rural communes or on TV. What I mostly saw was a baroque mix of youth culture on the skids: coked-up disco freaks, gang bangers, bikers, flamboyant glam rockers, skuzzy stoners and, a bit later, punk rockers.
Like many disaffected, white, working-class youth at that time, I was a stoner (a hippie without ideology, I guess) and then I eventually morphed into a punk rocker. While I slogged through the big wipeout of the ’70s, another crash-and-burn was going on as modernism was coming undone. All that utopianism had been reduced to smoldering rubble and it seemed appropriate to dig into this trash heap of history and see if there was anything worth saving. The one big common denominator in all of this was our culture of escapism. Even though serious artists weren’t supposed to make escapist art, it seemed that escapism was our dominant commodity—it was responsible for the shape this country was in. It was also somewhat responsible for the shape I was in, so I started there.
DS In the recent monograph of your art, you say, “I take mundane objects and charge them with new meaning.” I suppose you might think of that as a kind of escapism—or simply a reimagining. It’s a key element of Reality Hunger as well—the idea of taking pieces of the world and using vision and intelligence to make a new statement from found objects. Why do you choose a certain object to use in your art? How do you know whether you’ve chosen the right one?
FT Initially, I was very self-conscious about how art functioned and I used specific objects to illustrate my concerns. In the mid-’80s, I was making installations that were modeled after theme parks. I was primarily interested in delivering an immersive, escapist experience to the viewer while simultaneously commenting on that experience. These installations often attempted to emulate the modern landscape with the trash that was assaulting it. For instance, in 1984 I made a work entitled Current Theory, which consisted of hundreds of tethered, undulating Styrofoam cups blowing in the breeze of electric fans. A lamp raked light across the cups as they swayed back and forth on the floor of the darkened space. This light accentuated the highlights and shadows of the cups, making them look a bit like white caps on the ocean, or the garbage floating on top of its surface. The soft hum of the fans, the low theatrical lighting, and the cups’ rocking motion helped to create a meditative and hypnotic environment. By the way, this work was really indebted to the installation art that had been kicking around LA for a while—Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Bruce Nauman, and Ed Kienholz were all big influences.
After doing these installations for a number of years, I started thinking about the rhetoric surrounding premodernist paintings and how it dovetailed with some of the language around psychedelic drugs. (A topic an ex-stoner like myself would know something about.) Both trafficked in escapism, the sublime, and altered consciousness. Both required the consumption of fetishistic commodities dependent upon surplus wealth and leisure time. I was thinking about the premodernist ideal of pictures as windows to other realities, as transportation vehicles to other worlds, versus the modernist ideal of pictures as mirrors to this world. In an attempt to bring the two ideals together, I eventually started inlaying pills into my pictures in order to rearrange their use value. The way I saw it, all drugs had the potential to alter reality and it didn’t matter whether they were recreational or medicinal. To that end, I used everything from over-the-counter drugs, like aspirin, to more powerful psychoactive substances, like OxyContin. In these works, instead of traveling through the bloodstream to alter perception, these objects traveled through the eyeballs. It was a different route to the brain. A few years later, I started laminating pot leaves into the work because I wanted to insert objects with subcultural associations. The funny thing was that I really liked how the soft shape of the leaves contrasted with the hard, geometric shapes coming out of the pharmaceutical industry. That opened my work up to the shape of nature. Before too long, all kinds of images started accumulating into the work, including photo collage and, eventually, paint. I should mention that I preserved all this ephemeral material under tamperproof epoxy resin. It’s a material I’ve been using much of my life, having grown up in the surfing capital of America. This resin also had the added benefit of being an extremely seductive surface, which seemed to work perfectly with the content I was after.
DS You’ve mentioned the importance of earnestness in art: seeking a utopia, attempting transcendence, delivering a message to the world. But also how oftentimes this search doesn’t achieve very much. So being aware of that problem, that difficulty, do you still try to advance social goals with your art? Or is that a dead end?
FT I am cognizant of the inherent limitations of painting and act accordingly. One of the great things about a good picture is ambiguity; a painting hanging on a wall should be able to resonate with different meanings over time. The problem with pursuing social goals through painting is that the directness needed to convey a political agenda is often at odds with the ambiguity that pictures need to be worth looking at through the years. The other problem might be that the rarefied art world is too small a place for a message to resonate to the wider world. Maybe mediums that are cheaper and easier to copy and disseminate might be more effective at pushing forth a political agenda. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t insert social content into the work, it just means that I’m careful about the kind of content I let in. When I access the personal, I try to bracket it within a larger social context and then find analogies to that social context within art history. That’s the kind of content that my paintings are capable of handling. My long interest in dystopia, for instance, starts from my own personal history, which I then link to the unraveling of the ’60s and then to the wreckage of modernism.
Some of my paintings come out of my fascination with watching humans accidentally create hell in the pursuit of earthly heaven. For instance, in 1997 I made a picture entitled New Jerusalem that explores how American society imposes ideology onto landscape. The flowery outer edge of the work frames an oval center that depicts what looks like a peaceful little town at dusk. These homes, however, actually depict radical, oppositional ideologies. You have the Unabomber shack, next to the Aryan Nations compound, next to Thoreau’s Walden, next to the Branch Davidian compound, next to a Shaker meetinghouse, next to the Drop City commune, next to … well, you get the point. What looks like a cute, peaceful little town is really a town of suspicion and hate! A recent work entitled Burning Tower of Peace Towers continues in a similar vein. It’s a burning megamonument that’s composed of downloaded images of various peace monuments from throughout world history. It was inspired by my involvement with Rirkrit Tiravanija and Mark di Suvero’s Peace Tower project that was at the Whitney a few biennials ago. Their/our flaming monument crowns the top of my burning mega-monument.
DS You emphasize how important openness and freedom are for an artist. In Reality Hunger I take up that cudgel; I argue that copyright law stifles the freedom to take pieces of the world and use them in one’s art. As I wrote the book, the stifling often took the form of my having to count up the words I’d used from another writer, so I could figure out if I’d gone over an apparently arbitrary quotation limit. Of course in visual art, you don’t have to do that. But have legal concerns over ownership disrupted your work as a painter and installation artist? Have you ever had to call in the lawyers?
FT No lawyers yet, but I once received an angry letter from a bird artist who protested my use of his images. I think his images comprised 1/5000th of my final work, so I was probably under the legal limit, but who knows? Although artists do on occasion get sued for copyright infringement, most are too marginal to the culture to be worth the trouble. Yet when an artist who appropriates reaches cultural prominence, like say, Shepard Fairey or Jeff Koons, watch out!
The only time I’ve had legal trouble was in Paris in the mid-’90s. French customs were concerned that I was attempting to get American pharmaceuticals into the country without paying the proper import tariffs. It was eventually resolved, but I ended up having an opening with none of my art hanging in the gallery. That was fun. Some have questioned the general legality of my work, but it’s my position that when I get done with a piece, it’s just visual art and nothing more. And I don’t just mean that I transform objects merely by declaring them art, like Duchamp did. The objects I use, once encapsulated under resin, are physically transformed and can only be accessed visually.
DS Here’s a quote from you: “It is my ultimate aim to seduce and transport the viewer into the space of these pictures while simultaneously revealing the mechanics of that seduction.” That idea of “revealing the mechanics of that seduction”: it’s part of the core aesthetic you and I and a lot of other contemporary artists share. What do you think an artist gains by “revealing the mechanics” of a piece of art?
FT It’s important to have full disclosure, to be honest about what you’re trying to do and the history you are wrestling with, and to let the viewer in on it if you can. I was initially self-conscious about the limitations of art and burdened by the immensity of its history. (So burdened, in fact, that I quit making paintings for a number of years.) For me, making pictures was predicated on an enormous amount of doubt, so I initially made that doubt the subject of the work. Part of it had to do with the inherently manipulative nature of visual seduction and the problematic social structures that painting required in order to be seen. Since I’ve been at this for over 20 years, that doubt may not be the most important aspect about what I’m doing now, but it’s still there under a palimpsest of newer information. Then again, there are always new doubts.
DS You use a lot of collage techniques in your work. What sorts of implications and connotations come from incorporating outside materials into your art? What energy gets created by juxtaposing materials from seemingly disparate sources?
FT These disparate objects and images bring their own kind of social content to the work that can soup up the image beyond the formal. They help form a text behind the image that can build meaning in ways unimaginable when separated from each other. And some of those juxtapositions can also be quite funny! Ultimately, it’s all in the chemistry. Also, some of my viewers have a hard time figuring out which parts of my images are real things, photographs, other people’s illustrations, or my own painting. I love it when they can’t figure out the nature of what they are seeing! Art, after all, is all about perception.
Oh, and there’s something else: even though I’m basically an atheist, the way I use these materials might have something to do with my Catholic upbringing. These pictures don’t function all that differently from religious reliquaries. As with fragments of the “true cross” or the bones of saints, the viewer’s understanding of the “real” things embedded in my work is integral to their meaning. Also, to take the notion of my religious background a bit further, it does appear that my work toggles between the apocalyptic and the ecstatic. I guess there are some things you just can’t shake.
DS When you’re choosing objects to use in creating your collage works, are there any concerns about proprietary repercussions from the source, owner, or manufacturer of the items you’ll use in your art?
FT It’s funny, but my sense of individualism has been diminished by my use of collage. I increasingly see myself as merely a conductor to the collective voices of the various authors that combine into my images. This sense of collectivity doesn’t just stop with the combination of images—it extends to the various pictorial traditions, manifestos, and philosophies that I weave together. I want these various traditions, with their oppositional ideologies, to fight it out in my work. I’ve found that when I let the conceptualists brawl with the folk artists, they’re both made of similar stuff. Throw in some pop, Persian miniatures, surrealism, abstraction, Tibetan tangkas, and German Romanticism, and you’ve got yourself a real free-for-all! In that one respect, David, you and I are very different. You just wrote a manifesto, and I’m totally post-manifesto.
DS Folk artists down through the centuries apparently haven’t had any hesitation about borrowing and appropriating work by their predecessors. Why do you think that is? And why is our culture so far removed from that basic, free-assimilating folk-art aesthetic?
FT If you take the term folk art literally, it might mean people’s art. That implies a degree of collectivity in how the images are made and understood. Motifs keep coming up through various histories and cultures, and people keep remaking them because they mean something. That goes for me as well, as I’m also a re-maker of those same forms. I do it even when I don’t mean to, which leads me to suspect that these forms might be deeply encoded.
Within our consumer culture, there does seem to be this fiction about the rugged individualist creating unprecedented things, and this myth works really well with capitalism and the cult of celebrity. Perhaps, when the borrowing is too obvious, it can be seen as damaging to the image of the creator as genius. This, however, seems to be changing, what with the popularity of mash-ups, sampling, and other forms of cultural archeology. All authors steal and borrow, that’s the nature of culture. But of course, there’s nothing like being sued to shut somebody up!
DS What was your experience in collaborating with the writer Rick Moody? What gets produced by juxtaposing different art forms in a piece of art?
FT Let’s not forget you, Jonathan Lethem, and the various musicians I’ve worked with over the years, like Wilco, Laura Cantrell, Grand Duchy, The Melvins, and the Magnetic Fields. And those projects have resulted in everything from album covers, books, and light shows to T-shirts and web designs. Here’s the thing: I never know when I’m revealing too much about my work. (As a matter of fact, this whole interview might be too much information.) Like I said earlier, I believe in ambiguity, and I don’t want to be overly intrusive when it comes to the feedback loop between the object and the viewer. When I’m working on a publication, one of the ways I’ve tried to get around this is to ask writers to write whatever they want, and not necessarily about me, or my work. Maybe this juxtaposition is just a continuation of my aesthetics. Maybe what I initiate is just another form of collage, where, hopefully, some new meaning can occur between these disparate modes of expression.
This is not unlike the juxtapositions that happen to me daily in the studio. One of the great joys about being an artist is that I can listen to music through my ears, while making art with my hands. I get to consume and create culture simultaneously and sometimes you can really see it in the work. I’ve explored the idea of synesthesia in works like I Could See Your Voice or Echo, Wow and Flutter. I’ve titled work after songs, such as Expecting to Fly or Shiny Beastand explored my own personal history with music, such as the drawing Every Rock Band I Can Remember Seeing. One example of how music and literature have come together to influence my work can be found in 2003’s Airborne Event. I know it might sound a little crazy, but I was cross-referencing toxic chemical clouds, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and alien space abductions as all conspiring to capture the female figure floating in the night sky at the center of the picture. My reference to an “airborne toxic event” comes right out of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, while the references to alien space abduction probably come from me listening to the cosmic triumvirate of Sun Ra, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and George Clinton.
DS Harry Smith was an American archivist, ethnomusicologist, student of anthropology, record collector, experimental filmmaker, artist, bohemian, and mystic. In 1952 he put together his well-known Anthology of American Folk Music. In 2002, you said about him, “The fewer cumbersome things to get in your way, the fresher the mode of expression will be. Harry seems to have been one to not want to be too encumbered. There were laborious processes involved in his work, but there were also immediate ones that had to do with the moment he was in. I can relate to that. I use whatever I can, whatever works to make a thing.”
FT I’m glad you mentioned the Anthology of American Folk Music, as it’s been an enormous source of inspiration through the years, especially when I was dealing with some personal issues related to mortality. I channeled those songs about death, murder, hardship, sorrow, and cosmic weirdness into a bunch of pictures that I made between 2000 and 2005. A piece like Field Guides, which depicts a naked farmer being devoured by bugs while toiling in a field of mushrooms, probably wouldn’t have happened without those songs. But anyway, to get back to your question; I suppose I could laboriously paint facsimiles of images I find, but what would be the point? God knows my processes are laborious enough as it is. There are objects that go into my work that could never be better than the way I find them, so I use them exactly the way they are. They sing in the authentic voices of their creators and there’s something beautiful and real in that. But if it’s easier to paint something, I’ll do that too—whatever works. The great conceptual artist Douglas Huebler once said, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” While I appreciate the purity of his intentions, I’ve also added more than my fair share of objects to the world. Those objects, however, are primarily amalgamations of other objects that already existed before I found them.
DS Over the years you’ve assembled a sort of archive of materials to use in your collages. Interview magazine called it “an herbarium of sorts—of weeds, plants, pills, speed, insects, flowers, birds, and anatomical illustrations, carefully cut from books and digital scans.” Is there a collection system, or do you just bring home what strikes you as interesting and put it in the archive? And how much of the work of being a collage artist is simply the collecting of things?
FT I used to get most of my drugs from my doctor, who was inundated with free samples from Big Pharma. Every now and then I would go over to his office and fill garbage bags with the stuff and bring it all back to the studio. Then I would pop the pills out of their packaging, sorting and cataloguing them into various clear bottles. Now that I’m no longer using pills, my poor doctor is drowning in free drugs! Most of the other things I continue to use are by-products of my various hobbies and interests. The plants are all grown in my garden where they are eventually flattened by plant presses. Body parts come from lifestyle magazines. My use of field-guide imagery actually comes out of using those books when I’m in nature. I don’t know why it is, but I need to know the names of things in order to properly appreciate them and I’m like a Victorian when it comes to classification systems. The collection of raw material in my studio is organized according to genus, species, size, color—you name it. There are flat files filled with stacks of precut images, acetate binders filled with flattened leaves, neat rows of bottles filled with pills, and lots of painting supplies. When I combine these little chunks of information, it’s not unlike the way nature stacks up genes to build everything from viruses to humans. I tend to see each small bit like an individual cell, a piece of binary code, or a strand of DNA that accumulates, accrues, and grows into my images.
Having my wonky organization system in place allows me to use the objects more intuitively. Prior to assembling my work, I lay all this stuff out on every table in my studio, turn on the music, and then I let it rip. It’s not a cerebral process at all; it’s all gut instinct and intuitive responses to evanescent impulses. While I’m working, I make a huge mess and everything becomes completely disorganized. I change my mind, scrape things off, paint over stuff, and drill things out. When it’s all over and I’ve wrecked everything, I neaten things up. I eliminate all evidence of struggle, both in my work and in my studio. A few people have expressed surprise that I make up my stuff as I go along. They think I’ve figured out my pictures before I pick up an X-acto. That might have been the case when I initially started in the late ’80s, but intuition has become increasingly important over the years.
In the studio, a lot of the thinking in my head gets replaced by thinking with my fingers.
DS You get artistic energy from the contradiction of the larger image being a composite of small images—superimposing the micro and macro on each other. What gets produced by that multiplicity of levels, of influences, of media, in a work of art?
FT Complexity has its own potential to create a multiplicity of meanings. It seems like the more information I pour into the work, the more varied the individual experience of the viewer. My primary intent is to create an engaging world that is so complex that viewers feel like they can’t ever get to the bottom of it. Hopefully, when a work is bottomless, you feel like you can look at it forever. Later, you can think about the meaning behind the images. For me, the melding of the conceptual and the visual has the potential to create a fully engaging mind/body experience. But if a viewer just wants to experience the work visually, that’s okay too. I’m not here to be anybody’s cop.
David Shields’s most recent book is Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. His previous book The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, was a New York Times bestseller. He is the author of eight other works, including Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season; Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity; and Dead Languages: A Novel. He is based in Seattle.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee