Threads can be long and winding, in fact it can be an effort to keep them straight. They tie things together and they also get into perplexing entanglements. Conversations are threads sometimes, where surprising connections are possible. Instead of writing about art, I feel the more urgent question is how to live an examined life as an artist? It’s an old question but hopefully not a redundant one. In the course of two months, I will invite artists to talk about what nurtures them as people. What sort of communities do they seek? How do they support art making? What are their current concerns and challenges? If you’d like to engage in a conversation and wrestle with these questions, please do write to me email@example.com.
Thread 1: Qiana Mestrich
Qiana Mestrich is a photo-based visual artist and writer from Brooklyn, NY. Founder of the blog Dodge & Burn: Diversity in Photography History, her Namesake Series is on view at the RUSH Arts/Corridor Gallery through May 17, 2014. She graduated from the ICP-Bard’s MFA program in 2013.
Group of Five Mugshots from The Namesake Series (2013)
“Untitled” from The Mist in Mystic series (2012)
“Tear” from the Trust Your Struggle series (2010)
History of the World (2012), Altered book
Recently, I spent the afternoon with one of my favorite humans on the planet, the talented artist Rachel Styer, in her studio talking about the therapeutic quality to making art, levitation, and falling in love. Rachel and I recorded our conversation, and despite the quality not being awesome thanks to the hum of the AC and my shoddy equipment, we wanted to share parts of that conversation.
Rachel started out as a writer before realizing that visual art, and specifically photography, better expressed her thoughts and ideas. In this audio clip, Rachel explains why she found writing to be limiting:
Her love of writing led her to start a blog, and that led to taking pictures for the blog and buying her first camera, the Canon AE-1, and learning how to process and print black-and-white film at the Harvey Milk Recreation Center in San Francisco. Here Rachel describes printing at the Center’s darkroom amongst other beginning photographers and her shift into working with color:
Around the time she made the shift to digital color images, Rachel met her now husband Dave Richard (who is also a super talented artist) and began shooting s series of staged self-portraits with Dave out in nature on their weekend day trips around California. “The Weekenders” feels like a grimy tattered paperback copy of Pablo Neruda’s love poems that you’d find at a garage sale. The photographs are beautifully composed and the sometimes blurry focus and lens flare act as a metaphor for the blinding drunkness of falling in love. In this audio clip, Rachel and I discuss “The Weekenders,” photographing long-term relationships, and how grad school can be a blessing and a curse when it comes to our own engagement with our work:
Rachel and I both started grad school in 2009 at SVA’s Photography, Video, & Related Media MFA program. A year into the experience, Rachel was diagnosed with lymphoma and spent the last two years of her three years in that program going through cancer treatment and recovery while also working on her thesis body of work, appropriately titled “Treatment.” For anyone who has been through the physical and emotional trauma of cancer or the obviously far less intense but still stressful rigors of a masters program, the fact that Rachel did both at the same time is an impressive feat in and of itself. The fact that Rachel made this beautifully inventive project that not only comments on her own treatment, but that also helped her heal and come to terms with this experience, thereby becoming its own form of treatment, is why she is one of my favorite artists around. In this clip, we discuss the theme of flight and levitation in “Treatment”:
“Treatment” explores the paradoxical relationship between the physical body and the self through self-portraits in nature, photographic records of organic sculptures that represent both the body and a state of mind, as well as light-exposed damaged negatives that resemble blood cells seen through a microscope. There’s a performative and physical element to the work that Styer has describes as her attempt to visually represent the biological battle raging through her body and her emotional state during that time:
Now in good health and cancer-free, Rachel’s art process really helped her put that experience into perspective. While talking about the crumpled film images and pantyhose-as-muscle fiber sculpture images, Rachel talks about her anger post-treatment and sympathizes with Martin Short’s character from the movie “Innerspace“:
Rachel and Dave were recent artists-in-residence at C-Scape where they lived in a shack on the beach and made art. During that time, Rachel began making artist books, including a handmade book documenting her treatment with a page to represent each day. Similarly, her latest work continues her exploration of the physical nature of photographic film. Through a camera-less process, she crumpled and damages negative film and exposes it to light to see what results. As a finalist in CCNY’s Darkroom Residency, she was given access to their darkroom facilities to continue this work. In our final clip, she offers that rare glimpse into the trials of making new work:
Sarah Charlesworth left us a week ago today. I didn’t plan on beginning my run as CCNY’s guest blogger on such an unexpectedly sad note, but here we are. I guess I should start by saying that I had the great honor of having Sarah as my thesis crit teacher at SVA’s MFA Photography, Video, & Related Media program from Fall 2010 till graduation in May 2011. Over the past seven days, I’ve shared a lot of somber and loving texts with my fellow crit members and read every tribute to Ms. Charlesworth that I can find online. These articles tell of Sarah’s amazing accomplishments as an artist and speak of her as a loving mom and good friend. What also get mentioned, but not nearly given as much attention as I think it deserves, is Sarah’s role as a teacher and mentor and her devotion to her students. Matthew C. Lange, my friend and former classmate and Sarah’s assistant, said it best: “I think that the influence she had on younger artists was not only a large part of the legacy she always wanted to leave behind, but also an important part of her practice.”
As a teacher, Sarah had a reputation among the students for being tough, and she was. Like a mama bird in a pencil skirt that pushed her babies out of the nest whether they thought they were ready or not. The work being made in our class was all over the map, but somehow she was able to lead us each down our own path. Before grad school, I had trouble finishing projects. I was a terrible editor of my own work. While working in Sarah’s class on my project that would become “May the Road Rise to Meet You,” Sarah once met privately with me and we laid out over 250 small 3×5” photos along the edge 4 big tables. She circled the table a few times, pushing certain photos up into the center of the table, while I followed behind her arguing for certain images that didn’t make the cut. It took us over an hour, but eventually we had a final edit and sequence for the book. Watching her edit and seeing my project come together through her eyes taught me how to tell a story through sequencing. Then, she sat with me helping me tape them together and fold them like an accordion while explaining that she saw this project wherein I followed my dad on his travels as a telephone pole salesman as “eulogizing and celebrating something.” That phrase struck me so much that I wrote it down. I’m looking at it in my notebook now. Boy, she was good. I could go on with more stories, but I’d like to open up the discussion. If you are a former student of Sarah Charlesworth and have something to share, your comments and stories are welcome.
Thank you, Sarah, for giving me and all your students something to eulogize and celebrate.
By Jorge Alberto Perez
Ali Van enters first, slides her shoes off and glides onto the carpet. She sits like a geisha, legs to the side crossed at the ankles, back perfectly erect. There is something utterly feminine in her body language, beguiling in both senses of the word and though she may appear demure, she is in total control. This is her orgasm after all. Hers to do with as she pleases.
Three men appear from different directions and also approach the large square of gray carpet that dominates the 3rd floor space at the Fisher-Landau Center for Art where Van has positioned herself. She holds an i-something in her hand from which a splitter dangles with three bobbing receptors. The men also remove their shoes and sit as if in a dojo, seiza style. Despite the strong sense of ceremony, and the fact that we the spectators are here to experience a performance, nothing feels overt. The lights do not dim, but they feel as though they did, no more or less noise permeates the space as the foursome sit to face each other, but the present silence becomes more distinct. These are the elusive factors that matter to Van, a 2013 MFA candidate at Columbia University, near-invisible markers of time that she, with her subtle curating of objects, and now performance, weaves into highly dispassionate deeply personal work.
The men unravel earphones and each in turn inserts the male prong into one of the female receptacles. They close their eyes and she looks intently at each of them, her acolytes who have dutifully come for her today. Van presses play and manipulates the volume on her device and the men are seen to listen, wrinkles between closed eyes. A long and narrow groove in one, a short deeper trench in another, a gentle pulling inward of the eyes in the third. Though we can assume they are listening to the same sounds, each man appears to respond differently to what he hears by his outward expressions. It happens slowly, and builds on itself. They are climbing the same ladder, they help each other, though they don’t seem aware of it. One man is all breath, shallow and superficial. The next is a low moan, a growl that rumbles in the chest. The third is higher pitched ecstatic releases. Together this chorus performs a unique rendition of what can only be the complex aural orchestrations of the female orgasm. But not just any, it is hers, the action, the reaction and the reenactment. Possibly her most personal experience repackaged as a product for consumption.
From one vantage point Van has an open computer on a mid-century desk playing a clearly dated video of a brain surgery. When I first saw the video the week before this performance I thought it was a document of a wartime operating theater. It seemed so improvised and shoddy. Later I learned it was her father’s footage, who, wanting to see the operation for himself was only able to experience it when mediated by the camera. Today it waxed sexual. The wet, bloody sulci of the brain being probed gently by anonymous hands whilst in the room a trio of breathy moans burst like smoke-filled bubbles. As in most of Van’s art, the tidy compartmentalization of individual elements create untidy relationships in her tableau, discordant notes that when experienced together somehow create an unforeseeable 3rd thing.
This reenactment of her onanistic behavior slowly becomes unhinged somewhere between a science experiment and a defiant stance against male domination as the pitch slouches toward release. It is a petit mort syncopated both in duration and stress to better understand what it is not rather than what it is. Likewise, the fragments of other objects mostly in the periphery of the rug speak to the partiality of any experience, whether intentionally mediated or not. What tooth is this? Is it a human incisor or that of a wild animal? It bothers me to not know. The bag of what I think are desiccated figs, might be tangerines. A mound of lint from a dryer with a streak of pink in it begs to reveal something. A framed image of a foggy field is the 25-year-old blotter from her father’s desk. Every object asks a question, a single compulsive question. There are many objects, and if you let them they will haunt you. For a moment, however, they are held at bay, as most mundane matters are when we succumb to corporeal needs.
After reaching a pitch, a height, a precarious angle from which one can only fall, the breaths, growls and moans come together again in silence. The men emerge from behind shutters, looking guilty despite their best efforts; is that a self-congratulatory grin? We all smile, there is relief in the air. Almost in ostensible synchrony the men unplug and wind their now flaccid wires back into tidy little squares. Van stands and proceeds to the edge of the carpet where she puts her shoes back on and walks away. The men follow her example. We are left to our own devices.