Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
New York Live Arts presents
Michael St. John’s work is concerned with America’s relationship to politics, desire, and violence. He uses techniques including trompe l’oeil and visual puns to redirect our attention toward what would otherwise remain unseen. He works with imagery appropriated from pop culture and the street—advertising, fashion, politics—to create a language that has no hierarchy and explores the way we create history by documenting it.
Suzanne McClelland thought our work had many similarities and introduced us over email last year. Michael and I kept in touch and, a few months later, he dropped by my studio while in New Orleans on vacation. We went out in the French Quarter afterward. What follows is part of an ongoing conversation started there and continued this fall over the phone.
When visiting New Orleans, Stephen and I went drinking and eating one night from Canal Street to Esplanade (the length of the French quarter). We spent hours talking about the city and art, both of which I love.
Here are two individuals with similar cultural and iconographic interests, employing and enjoying the freedom of art to completely different ends, in a city known for its individualism. Ya can’t ask for more!
Stephen’s immersion in art—with his practice in sculpture, painting, photography, and video, and his being a founding member of Good Children Gallery—is as intoxicating as the magnolia of New Orleans.
—Michael St. John
Stephen Collier Are you there?
Michael St. John Yeah, I’m here.
SC Let’s talk about location. I know that you were in New York for almost twenty years, but you moved to rural Massachusetts.
MSJ It’s not really rural. As a friend of mine described it, it’s like the country, but very civilized. (laughter)
SC A lot of your work has to do with New York City. Has your work changed much since you left?
MSJ I did do that series about the country called Country Life in 2013. A lot of my work has New York references, because I spent most of my life in the city. It’s mainly about culture in general, you know.
SC How do you go about documenting the urban landscapes that you work with?
MSJ I started with a tiny Polaroid digital camera. I would take pictures and then download them and print them out. I used them as references, ’cause I kind of think of myself as an Ashcan School realist artist. I don’t make up stuff—I don’t have any imagination. I generally make things of what I see. Since I moved up here, I just look at everything online. You can pretty much live in a cave with your computer at this point and see the world.
SC It’s all about the hashtag now, right? I get a lot of my images from the Internet, and Instagram too. And I find images as I walk through environments, or if I’m looking through books or magazines. If I see something I think is interesting, I’ll photograph it and save it and put it in a database. I have hard copies too, and use a file system. Do you do that as well?
MSJ I collected magazines for years and years. I had stacks of pictures. We had just moved here and the basement flooded and soaked all of them up. Previous to that, I’d used a lot of pictures on my paintings. I covered the whole surface in pictures that I’d collected, then I hung another layer on top of that—just hanging like leaves. I had used up the ones from years past. By the time we moved to Massachusetts, I was already using the Internet for all pictures, pretty much.
SC Before you visited last year, my New Orleans basement studio flooded. The landlord had warned me that it would get a little water in it once or twice a year during flash floods. I was nervous at first, and placed all my work on cinder blocks. But I got lazy and started leaving things on the ground. Eventually it flooded, but luckily I didn’t lose too much.
MSJ I am curious: Do you use American history and politics a lot in your work?
SC Well, American history is not a long history, but it’s a pretty interesting one, as far as violence and the ideal of the American dream. It’s constantly evolving. There’s a lot of rich material in our history, and in how people try to control it for their own interest—usually for power and/or money. My work is concerned with how people’s lives correspond to history and how they maneuver through it psychologically through symbols, objects, and rituals.
MSJ The way I think about it is that we are making history now. Not in a grandiose way, but our documenting of things, like saving those pictures—that is making history. Right?
SC That its making history. It’s funny how history just repeats itself. You figure we would learn from the past. It’s the same things happening over and over. (laughter) In this new election cycle the politicians are saying the same things they said twenty, thirty, forty years ago. It’s like a broken record.
MSJ Did you ever see The Candidate with Robert Redford? It’s from the 1970s.
SC I don’t think I’ve seen that one.
MSJ He’s running for senator of California. “We need to help the poor. We need to reform education. And we need to reform the government.” His speeches are the exact same speeches of politicians right now.
SC Your work taps into that, especially the political stickers and the buttons, relating to Reagan, Bush, Obama, and now Sanders … It’s the same with advertising too. People are still saying, “Buy this, your life will improve.” (laughter)
MSJ Advertising is more about creating desire and people buying into it. We’ve talked about trompe l’oeil and the real versus the fake. It’s an interesting metaphor for our times.
SC What is real and what is fake?
MSJ José Freire had a gallery back in the ’90s that was called Fiction/Nonfiction. Part of what I do with realism is try to bring out that tension and uncertainty and use it as a metaphor. Realism accommodates that easily, given the tools available from the history of painting, from illusionism to assemblage (and fiction to factual materiality). Reality becomes a slippery slope. Who knows if anybody ever knew what was real?
SC It takes some examination, right? Looking and thinking…
MSJ Yeah, like going down the rabbit hole. It is more like you accept “the reality” that you live in. It could be real. It could not be real. It’s all sliding in and out of each other, you know what I mean?
SC I think I do. In a psychological way, it has to do with role-playing and masking and how people take on different roles as they maneuver through their days and deal with power dynamics.
MSJ Do you mess with power when you make stuff?
SC I don’t think so. I just try to harness it, in a way. I go to estate sales where I find objects, so a lot of my work is about past lives and the power that objects hold. Images are the same way. When you see a certain thing, you can feel the life it’s had. Sometimes I try to incorporate it into my work.
I am interested in objects that have been neglected, that are filled with pain or heartache. There are subcultures that use candles to cast spells for love, marriage, to ward off evil spirits and such. The candles come in different shapes and forms, with human figures. I was casting these partially melted candles in aluminum, attempting to freeze this moment of longing and desperation. The ones I melted myself could be seen as self-portraits.
MSJ I have a similar interest, but I think you’re more interested in whatever that thing possesses. I am very drawn to the overlooked—the dirt from the street, the things that people don’t notice in everyday life. I have this great love of William Eggleston for that very reason. He’s taking pictures of things that nobody else would ever notice. The formal attributes of the picture make it riveting to look at.
What you were talking about is like the markings on walls, or the way people carve into a tree. They make you go, There was a person here!
SC It’s possessing the thing, in a sense. Not unlike what cats do when they mark their territory. When it comes down to it, we’re just animals.
MSJ Somebody said to me recently, “The difference is we know we are going to die.”
SC It’s a great slogan. Words to live by.
MSJ Right. What was I going to say? I paint lost dog posters sometimes. Something about the way they’re handwritten and their urgency is very moving. They’re so sincere.
SC People are creating these extensions of their emotion. I actually have a collection of lost pet flyers that I’ve been putting together for a while. I may have mentioned it to you last time you were in New Orleans. My favorite one is for a lost parakeet.
MSJ Oh yeah, that’s nice.
SC It‘s funny how their styles change as technology changes. Now a lot are digitally made. Every now and then you find a handmade one. I found this gem—you could tell it was done in a frenzy. It said “Lost Female Boxer” and had a telephone number. It was made on corrugated plastic with stick-on vinyl letters and numbers. Each letter was a little bit crooked. It reminded me of a Mark Flood painting, minus the paint. I made a replica of it.
MSJ (laughter) I like the idea of recording, which is why I like Pop art so much. I don’t see it as a consumer thing; I see it as a great record of a time. The best thing I could do is commemorate our time. What was 2015 like? I have this documentary impulse, and my art is my subjective recording.
SC I see formalism going on in your work, with the way you place images on the picture frame, but there is all this antiformalism happening as well.
MSJ I like the combination. The content is informal but then I take it and formalize it. Formal choices, color, size, time, composition, etcetera are good tools to keep the viewer around.
SC Or are they entry points?
MSJ Yeah, entry points, or holding points. Form holds the whole thing together. I’ll go back to Eggleston—he takes a picture of nothing, but he formalizes it so beautifully that you’re compelled to look at it.
SC Speaking about entry points, I like to use humor as a way for viewers to enter the work. Once they get in, there are other things to keep them there, hopefully. That’s the intention. You have a lot of humor in your work as well.
MSJ I like to think of it as dark humor. I found all these selfies with homeless people, and selfies with people at funerals. People taking pictures of themselves beside the body—or with a person’s head peeking out from behind the coffin.
SC That’s not new, though. Families used to pose in front of a loved one’s body and take one last family portrait before it went into the ground.
MSJ The humor that I use is kind of in that vein, where there is tragedy and indifference. That’s where we’re at—sincerely insincere, sincerely ironic, or truly, uncomfortably funny. It’s not even funny. I don’t know how to describe it. Then there’s just chaos. I’ll embrace something that’s just totally crazy, such as these selfies. It’s almost like slapstick: you’re laughing when somebody falls down. Or something is so absurd, that you just put it there in the work.
SC Like good comedies or horror films. They have this absurdness and, at the same time, other things that can make you think, if you want to think, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to.
MSJ Right, you could just laugh it off and be cruel.
SC You see so much of this behavior on the Internet: trolls that go around provoking strangers.
MSJ I’m reading this book by Maggie Nelson called The Art of Cruelty. Her references range from movies to dance to literature to art, and I’m like, Wow she has an encyclopedic brain! It seems like cruelty has evolved into indifference. If you could be sincerely ironic or ironically sincere, now you can be cruelly indifferent or indifferently cruel. Or both of those things simultaneously.
SC Humans have always been cruel to each other, it’s just that the Internet helps it spread now. A lot of it is learned behavior.
MSJ The Internet has brought it to the fore, but I see it on television, in movies, and even in a word like whatever. Your friend falls drunk on the floor and passes out, “Whatever.”
SC Or, “Let’s draw on ’em with a sharpie.” And photograph it and post the image on the Internet.
MSJ You know what I’m talking about, right! It’s all in that “whatever”—the politics of disaster, nihilism, violence, indifference, tragedy, comedy, narcissism, and mayhem.
SC Last time we spoke you mentioned you had a eureka moment putting all these aspects together into one piece.
MSJ Yeah. I had been doing these singular paintings for a show at Karma. I’d lined them all up to put them against each other. Then I came upon this idea—you know when you’re walking down the street and there are construction walls and people post shit all over them? They become almost like Rauschenberg’s Rebus painting.
SC I totally see that.
MSJ Going back to realism, I thought I could start making paintings of walls in order to include all these things—movies, politics, celebrity, fashion, music, television. It’s all advertised on walls. I could make, to use Philip Guston’s phrase, an “assembly of mayhem” or Jim Morrison’s The Soft Parade. Instead of doing individual paintings, I could make these diptychs of walls where eventually—if I made enough of them—I could have a parade of all this stuff that I’ve been working with.
I am totally into these pieces, because there’s no end. Also, there is always a really interesting formal problem that I get to solve. That’s the artist’s job, to make up a problem and somehow solve it. I get to include all the stuff that I’m interested in, use a lot of the same things that I’ve used before, and add new things that when shown do make a kind of parade.
SC Almost like individual floats lined up together.
MSJ Yeah! Like individual floats at Mardi Gras! I hadn’t thought about that.
SC You have the collective theme of the parade, and each float is a take on a subject in the theme.
MSJ That’s true. As I’ve been working on them, the same themes are recurring. I can expand on subjects I’ve taken on before and make them a bit more open. They’re not so iconic. I get to play with Warhol’s repetition with the posters on the wall; I get to play with Rauschenberg’s Rebus ideas; I get to do Ashcan School realism.
SC One-stop shopping!
MSJ I just can’t believe I fell into this. I love the way they’re going. It was also—you’ll like this—simultaneous with learning that I could live stream WWOZ from New Orleans. I love New Orleans music, all kinds, so I get to listen to that crazy music while I make these paintings.
SC My favorite is this great show on Wednesday nights, “Records from the Crypt.” It’s 1950s and ’60s New Orleans R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and swamp pop.
MSJ They have a really good blues show too, and I love that old traditional New Orleans music, the Cajun music, and the crazy jazz that’s all over the place. It’s been a great inspiration to listen to that. It’s like early cartoon music or something. I don’t know if people even like that station in New Orleans.
SC They love it. It’s an institution. Is music a big part of your practice?
MSJ Yeah, when I can find the right music, things kind of kick in. When I was making all those singular paintings I usually listened to talk shows and stuff.
SC Same here. In the studio, I like to have stimuli everywhere. I’ll have the TV on, and music playing while I’m working. Sometimes I’ll have a radio in each room on a different station, so I’m getting all this diverse and segregated information as I maneuver through the space. It’s probably not the best way to concentrate, but it forces my mind to change gears, to look differently at things.
MSJ For a long time I listened to movies, because I would record directly from them. I have all these tapes of movies. I like the narrative thing.
SC What kinds of movies?
MSJ A lot of classics; any well-written movie that translated well into audio.
SC Old black-and-white movies?
MSJ With the snappy dialogue? I didn’t record those. It’s more contemporary movies like Apocalypse Now or The Shining. There must be about thirty movies that I used to listen to.
SC I also used to play Apocalypse Now while I was in my studio.
MSJ The part where he talks about the horror is the best. “The horror!” (laughter)
SC Colonel Kurtz’s moment of clarity.
MSJ So how do you feel now that you’re in Los Angeles?
SC The combination of light, urban space, and nature is pretty exciting. I live in Eagle Rock at the moment, so I have hiking a few minutes away. The house has a giant covered patio that I’m using as a studio. The kitchen is outside, so it’s almost like living in a camp-house in the woods, but the woods are LA.
MSJ That’s good.
SC It’s a good change. I’d been in New Orleans for twenty years—things were very familiar. Now everything is somewhat new to me, including the roads and landscape. It’s important to remove yourself from your comfort zone. I’ll most likely be relocating my studio here on a more permanent basis.
MSJ Oh, really?
SC Or I might go back to New Orleans in a couple of months and see what happens.
MSJ I wouldn’t leave New Orleans if I lived there.
SC I have a house you can move into. You could also use my studio, on the other side of town.
MSJ I might take you up on that. You’d do the whole thing where you rent both spaces? You own the house, right?
SC I own the house in New Orleans and I’m renting the studio. But I might hold onto it, even if I stay out here, because it’s cheaper than storage. I’ll just have to build platforms for any flash floods.
You were talking about moving your studio last time as well; you were in the basement and you were going to move it to the top floor.
MSJ I’m waiting to build out my garage into a real studio. Are you worried that LA is going to catch on fire and burn?
SC I thought the fire threat was more for outside the city, but it doesn’t matter where you are. There is always some sort of threat.
MSJ Yeah. What are you working on out there?
SC These smoke-stain paintings. I’m staining canvas with smoke, and then painting imagery on top. The imagery I’m using is influenced by different sources: protest buttons, wartime Zippo lighters, counterculture zines, punk flyers, and hiking trail signs. I’m also looking at a lot of modernist paintings, and mixing those in.
MSJ Which modernist paintings are you looking at?
SC Charles Green Shaw, Judith Lauand. Geometric abstraction from the 1940s and ’50s. Artists such as Mira Schendel, Paul Thek, Wally Hedrick, and the Situationalist International. I just saw a great show of Robert Overby’s work. Some of this is new to me because my background is in photography.
MSJ When you talk about Zippo lighters and stuff, I assume it is more like a subculture thing.
SC Total subculture. Not many people know about these lighters. They were good luck charms—almost like talismans, sometimes, serving as beacons for these soldiers. They hold this power.
MSJ I saw these lighters at Will Boone’s studio. He had this collection of lighters from the Vietnam War.
SC My father served two tours in the Vietnam War and I remember seeing his old lighters when I was younger. I am fascinated by them; I showed you some images and books in my studio.
MSJ There are all kinds of weird stuff on the lighters, correct?
SC Yes. Soldiers used to have them personally engraved with images, slogans, or whatever they wanted to express. They were an extension of their identity and a way to say something personal—protesting the war, for example—or simple reminders of better times. Nonsmokers had these Zippos as well. Some were used to burn down villages. The messages and images were diverse: some being profane, with drug references, while others had girlfriends’ names. One of my favorite images is a walking hand shooting the bird [as in “Fuck you”]. Soldiers called it a one-finger salute. Another favorite is of Snoopy lying on his house saying, “Fuck it.”
So when I stain the canvas with smoke and holes get burned into it, it’s forever scarred. It now has a past life. It turns the imagery more into objects.
MSJ I saw some of these down in your studio, didn’t I?
SC You did. I’ve also been collecting political and humor buttons here and there, and have been using that imagery as well, sometimes intermixing it with modernist painting too.
MSJ You can find all kinds of political buttons on the Internet. I just can’t believe there are people out there—maybe I should be thankful—sitting all day long, putting pictures of all their buttons on the web. It’s like a great little encyclopedia.
SC Thank God for all these collectors who like to organize and share!
MSJ They make my life so easy.
SC I’m working on this new project for a show that opens here in LA in a couple weeks [at Champions of Culture]. I’m taking the Harvey Ball smiley face that he designed for an insurance company, I believe, to boost morale. And I’m defacing the image by folding, cutting, and mark-making. I’m approaching this almost like it’s a Mr. Potato Head, thinking in terms of what can be added and/or subtracted.
MSJ That’s good! (laughter)
SC A smiley face can be sad as well. There are more emotions than just happiness, right? So I’m investigating that, in a sense, through this iconic corporate image that’s really overused today.
MSJ I was just up in Provincetown and there was this shop that had cool modernist furniture. In the back, someone was manufacturing huge buttons—like a foot across. They hang on the wall, like Richard Hamilton’s giant button. If Hamilton had his button standing on the ground, it would come up to about his neck. The button said “Slip It to Me,” like for the expression “Flip It to Me,” like pass me the drugs, or whatever that expression was.
When I saw these buttons in Provincetown I thought, Oh my God, these are so great! Why didn’t I think of making big buttons? If you made a cast, you could make the most fucked up ones. Actually all the junk in Kmart and Walmart gives me lots of ideas—all the crap that people buy.
SC Usually they’re impulse buys, so they have this very seductive quality.
MSJ I feel the same way about commercial posters, because the people who put them together are super smart. I’m a big fan of formalism, so I love to look at stuff when the design quality is good.
I just used the Mad Men poster for a painting. I forget what season it’s for; it’s a body falling.
SC The silhouette?
MSJ Yeah. I just used the poster across the middle of this painting for 9/11 and Katrina, because the anniversaries are pretty close in time, actually.
SC You still see markings on some houses in New Orleans ten years later. That’s another part of your work that I see that corresponds with John Frederick Peto’s [American trompe l’oeil painter]. He too kept images and objects in his work life-size.
MSJ I try to use life-size versions of things. It’s hard for me to blow things up or make them tiny.
SC When I make replicas, I change them a little bit, but for the most part, I keep them the original size. Once I made a replica of a fingernail that Lindsay Lohan wore in court. She had the word fuck and the letter u painted on her middle finger, on top of a candy background. It was subtle, but the press picked up on it.
I put it in this piece called Concealment Wall, a collaboration with Brett LaBauve. I was researching mummified cats. I don’t know how I got to that, but they were finding mummified cats and shoes in the walls of houses in Massachusetts built around the 1800s. People would put objects in the walls to ward off evil spirits. This came from the prehistoric tradition of putting human sacrifices in the foundations of homes, for good luck.
MSJ Oh, wow.
SC They adjusted the ritual for modern times. They would use an object as a stand-in for the human body.
For our piece, I framed out a wall in the middle of the gallery space and filled it with objects. Plexiglass was used on both sides of the wall instead of Sheetrock, exposing many hidden objects, which included playing cards, a leather glove, porn, a bottle of urine, written messages, and Lindsay Lohan’s fingernail. There were objects on the outside of the wall as well: framed pictures and light fixtures.
MSJ Okay. I made a painting of it using a little peephole. I cut a hole in the painting and behind that was Linsday Lohan’s fingernail with “F you.” I made it in response to Duchamp’s Étant donnés piece, in Philadelphia, which I consider a horrible rape scene. It’s the most sexist thing I have ever seen. It makes Paul McCarthy look tame. Talk about the art of cruelty!
SC How big is your painting?
MSJ Like three by four feet, but I made the fingernail really big. Often I’ll take art historical things and will respond to them with a painting or a sculpture. The Whitney Museum had a show called Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era. They had everything happy going on in the ’60s, but at the same time JFK and Martin Luther King were shot and every major city in America was burnt. They left that part out of the show. So around the same time as that show, I made this series of little paintings called Cities of Fire. How could you leave all that out?
SC The dark side of love.
MSJ New York was on fire, and you’re going, “Oh wasn’t this a happy time.” Really? Revisionist history drives me crazy.
SC Are you going to come back to New Orleans in the winter?
MSJ I am, in March.
SC Okay. I am curating a show at Good Children in March. Would you be interested in having a piece or two in the show?
MSJ Sure! I could drop them off! What are you gonna do for the show?
SC I’d like to do a show about signs or messages left in public spaces that contain emotional baggage.
MSJ I’ll stay there for like five days and then I’m going out to California and then, on my way back to Massachusetts, I’m going to stay in New Orleans again.
SC Well, I might see you in California too. We won’t be able to drink on the street out here, though.
MSJ Are you going to be in California in March? You’re gonna leave New Orleans and move to California!
SC Not for good. This is my second attempt at being bicoastal. I tried it with New York and New Orleans for a bit, but I think this is going to be a little more successful as far as living and working.
MSJ You could drive across West Texas, it’s beautiful out there!
All right, we should get going. The crazy lawn mower guy is here and I don’t have a room to get away to. He zooms around the house making a lot of noise.
Stephen Collier is an artist, curator, and musician. His work has been exhibited at the Bronx River Art Center, the Soap Factory in Minneapolis, the Contemporary Art Center of New Orleans, Lincoln Center in New York City, and numerous galleries in the US. He cofounded the cooperative art space Good Children in New Orleans. His band, Blood Blog, recently released its self-titled album. Collier lives and works in Los Angeles and New Orleans.
Michael St. John lives and works in Sheffield, MA. His work has been included in solo and group exhibitions across the US since the early 1990s, including a solo exhibition at Karma in New York in 2013, for which his first major monograph was published. St. John has held numerous teaching positions, including that of adjunct professor at New York University from 1994–2010.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby