ST. LOUIS — Nicole Eisenman and A.L. Steiner’s current exhibition Readykeulous by Ridykeulous: This is What Liberation Feels Like™, at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, is a heady riot of neon, smut, Sharpie scribbles, editorial angst, lesbian supremacist propaganda, and impassioned ink-on-paper correspondence by over fifty artists from Jack Smith to Kathleen Hanna. Even those left numb by Howard Beale’s cri de coeur may find their inner fires stoked by this raging chorus of queer voices. The two Ridykeulous co-founders/conspirators recently sat down with me in their St. Louis “office” to officially parse the current state of artistic, emotional, feminist, and phonetic-French affairs.
* * *
Nicole Eisenman: We’re doing this. Should I shut that door?
Jessica Baran: Yes — this is serious business.
NE: [to Steiner] I’m coming around to your side.
A.L. Steiner: We want a hierarchy. We’re not democratic.
JB: Because this is about lesbian supremacy.
JB: I lowered my chair, so I could sit properly below you.
ALS: Our motto is: ‘Curating with the Iron Fist of Ridykeulous.’
NE: We’re not hands-off, we’re heavy hands-on.
NE: We actually write on people’s hands — we forge signatures.
ALS: We’ve written on everything.
NE: But the archival stuff we revere.
ALS: But what’s authentic and what’s not —
JB: Who knows?
ALS: Everyone knows.
NE: All artists are notified or invited, and some we’ve specifically asked to write letters.
ALS: The original show [READYKEULOUS, The Hurtful Healer: The Correspondence Issue; Invisible Exports, NYC, 2011] sparked new letters and new work. Glen Fogel’s is now a giant painting.
NE: And we asked Nicola Tyson to write a letter, and she wrote ‘Dear Man On The Street’ — which then compelled her to write ‘Dear Picasso’ —
ALS: And now it’s an amazing, giant book.
NE: Other letters we just knew about, like Zoe Leonard’s.
JB: So, this show is all about editorial constraints — taking agency over the editing process, editing them, showing what’s been excised from certain dialogues. That you even edited the exhibit’s wall text is probably the greatest thing I’ve seen in a long time.
ALS: This show is called ‘This Is What Liberation Feels Like,’ and we’re not really joking.
JB: I’m interested in this liberation / supremacy dichotomy. There’s a hierarchy, but there’s also an open call to everyone?
ALS: That’s an illusion.
NE: The hierarchy is kind of a joke, because we frequently are, and can easily be made, powerless and voiceless in our culture. So, we’re giving ourselves permission to be dictators. Because nobody else will.
ALS: We’re creating our own hierarchy. In order to believe you have a right to speak, you need confidence and agency, right? This is an example —
NE: A poor example.
ALS: Par exemple.
NE: Excuse my French.
ALS: Of agency. Ah-gence. François agence. Our name is now François agence.
JB: So this [pointing to the hand-edited Guerilla Girls poster] is not simply about feminism, it’s literally about lesbian supremacy.
NE: That piece points to the fact that this is all an ongoing conversation. It’s open, and everything can and should be edited. These artists should be able to come back and edit their or anybody else’s work.
ALS: It’s all dialogue. Certain works might appear to have singular, autonomous voices, but they don’t, necessarily. Kathy Acker and Dennis Cooper’s letter exchange is the only actual response piece we’ve included, but it’s really important.
NE: Dennis Cooper, in those letters, criticizes Kathy Acker for something he then takes from her and does in his own work.
JB: The Guerilla Girls have long since been canonized, and Ridykeulous is now having its first museum exhibition. Is all of this institutionalization disempowering?
ALS: The Guerilla Girls are now historical, yes — and, of course, there are pros and cons to being historicized. Something others call feminism, we call feminisms, because it’s a plurality that continually evolves. When we first showed this piece in 2006, there were several people who found it rude. Not the Guerrilla Girls, they didn’t contact us — though, years later, they did and asked if they could put it in one of their shows. Both the criticism and acceptance are okay. That’s how art operates.
NE: You know, I didn’t think of Ridykeulous as art when we first started. I thought of it as Steiner and I hanging out at my house having fun. For me, it’s really opened up what an act of art-making is and how it happens.
ALS: Which is why we desperately need each other.
NE: We do, because, for me, making a work of art is a super deliberate – it happens in a very specific place at a very specific time under certain conditions.
ALS: Which you can see [in Nicole’s mid-career survey, Dear Nemesis] downstairs. Par exemple.
NE: Par exemple, the show downstairs. But Ridykeulous is what’s really opened my art practice up. I said to Steiner the other day that all I want to do now is collaborate. This is so much more interesting of a conversation, and I also feel like we are the funniest people in the world.
JB: You are funny [pointing to a large black book titled About Nothing with a red note on its spine that reads ‘by Late Capitalism’]. Your [to Nicole] new interest in printmaking seems related to this collaborative urge and also Ridykeulous as a whole. Historically — at least in the past two centuries — printmaking was an activist craft that circulated outside the institution. It’s a form that was omitted, like so much of what you’ve collected here. I love reading all the rejection letters — especially those collaged into Kathe Burkhart’s piece. One letter calls her submission ‘too slice of life’ for publication.
NE: ‘Too slice of life’? Whose life?
JB: The emotive and biographical always seem to be omitted from ‘serious’ work — artistic or otherwise. Here, you’re letting it rule.
ALS: Kathe is par exemple of freedom. She is freedom exemplified. Kathe doesn’t give a fucking shit what people think.
NE: That piece challenges everything. It challenges decorum, taste —
NE: Everything. I think it’s one of the most challenging pieces in the show.
ALS: For the audience or for us?
NE: For me. The aesthetics of the piece are really challenging to me. It’s a real piece of agitprop, but it’s also super personal.
ALS: Right, the personal is political is embodied in it in a way you can’t ignore.
NE: It’s really aggressive — but it’s heartbreaking, too.
JB: It is heartbreaking, but I feel it. It makes me feel a sense of agency again, as the rejected. You think it’s supposed to make you reflect on how rejection suggests you’re not good enough, but —
NE: But she’s actually just saying fuck you, fuck it.
ALS: Her piece also radically amplifies the amount of shame that female-identified bodies walk around with in the world. CAM asked if we’d be willing to do an event where people could write their own angry letters, and we said no, because we would only allow people to write angry lesbian feminist letters. We’re not interested in everyone’s anger.
JB: Who’s this exhibit for, then?
ALS: It’s for everyone.
NE: There are plenty of public forums for people to write angry letters. Like the US Senate. Or the Texas Senate. If you’re not interested in something, you can go online and get into a fight with anybody.
ALS: Or you can just get really, really angry in a generalized way online. This project is really directed.
JB: I get it — by cordoning-off this specific type of anger, it’s both exclusive and inclusive. It creates a space for something that’s otherwise marginalized, and then it also creates an empathetic model for all brands of ‘other.’ You’re usurping a platform but also showing how it’s done.
ALS: Here’s the thing about supremacy: using that language, especially in the show’s introductory wall text, doesn’t do what it looks like it’s doing, which is to highlight our version of it. It actually highlights all versions of supremacy that are invisible.
JB: Do you have certain roles in the Ridykeulous supremacy or is it more of an organic exchange?
ALS: 100% organic.
NE: I’d say Steiner does more of the heavy lifting.
ALS: I do a lot of the emailing. This particular show gave us a lot more freedom, as we’d already done that earlier version of it. It was actually really awesome to think about how to revise it, add to it.
JB: That seems perfectly in keeping, since it’s all about ongoing conversations.
ALS: Exactly. We could actually fill this entire museum —
NE: With angry lesbian feminist letters. It’s true.
ALS: Maybe next time.
JB: [to Eisenman] How do you feel about having this show juxtaposed next to your solo show downstairs?
NE: It’s wonderful and fascinating. I think it clarifies how my practice is bigger than one single approach. [The solo show] feels more private, while [this show] feels more public. They’re both related but completely different.
JB: This project seems to involve personas — such as how you chose our seating arrangement, and —
NE: This isn’t about personas. I feel totally inhabited in my role as a possessed-like lesbian authority. Somebody’s got to step up and do it.
ALS: This is pretty real for us.
JB: I was talking about the office, the desk, the chairs —
ALS: We were born to be bossy.
JB: Did you have a friendship long before this?
NE: Yes, but this cemented it.
ALS: This definitely brought us much closer.
NE: I just found these photographs of you. [Points to a photo taped to the desk telephone].
ALS: Oh my god, in the bathtub?
NE: Yeah. There’s another picture from around ’98 of Steiner in London reading Kierkegaard in a bathtub. Look at the little mustache I was working then — do you see it?
ALS: Did you draw that on?
NE: No, I had it. I should work it, again. I could totally work it.
JB: You [Steiner] sitting in a tub reading Kierkegaard makes me think of how books are so prevalent in your [Nicole] paintings — and, now, this notion of the archive seems to be very real and literal to both of you.
NE: Yeah, the books and that shelf are in both shows. There’s a painting [downstairs] called Worst Case Scenario, where I’m a psychiatric patient in my father’s office —
ALS: ‘Worst Case Scenario’ [points to board game on the office shelf]. We found that at the Goodwill.
NE: That game is also in that painting.
JB: There’s also something in the salon-style presentation of your works on paper that’s similar to the curation of this show.
NE: That’s the maximalism we aspire to. Which relates to what we’re working on next. I could give you a preview …
ALS: This is exclusive information.
NE: We are curating a show called Minimalizm, The Soulless Form.
ALS: Ridykeulous Does Minimalizm, The Soulless Form.
JB: I love it.
ALS: It’s tentative, just so you know.
NE: No, it’s going to happen.
JB: Is “minimalism” spelled conventionally?
NE: With a ‘z.’ There’s a great piece in the display case [in the Ridykeulous exhibition] that says, ‘Thank god it’s not abstract.’ We believe this show and mine should be approachable — that anyone should be able to come to this museum and understand what’s going on here and downstairs.
ALS: I have several friends who work with autistic children, and faces are their prime point of contact. For people with limited communicative abilities, the eyes and face are largely what they focus on. Seeing that reiterated in your solo exhibition and also thinking about this show as coming from the mouth — a verbal conversation — makes them feel importantly connected, to me.
NE: That’s such a nice tie — that’s really beautiful. It’s about being embodied.
JB: Embodying text. The prevalence of handwriting overtaking printed text in this exhibit also feels really important.
ALS: Entering an archive is always interesting. As we said earlier, some of the work here is reprinted, but I’d say 90% is not. It’s really intense to get someone’s actual archival letter.
NE: Incredibly personal. The paper holds real energy.
ALS: And the newer letters that were sent or that we talked about and then suddenly were in a show — each has such an incredibly long and powerful story, whether it’s in the letter or outside the actual object.
JB: What will the Minimalizm show be about?
NE: Well, we were talking about how deeply maximalist we are, and how it should be our challenge, then, to clarify formalism and minimalism, and how minimalism has been used politically —
ALS: For the erasure of identity.
NE: What does pure formalism really look like? How do we possibly understand that?
ALS: The formalist erasure of the 20th, late 20th and early 21st century is the erasure of subjectivity. This is the ultimate male philosophical idea.
ALS: Male-lieu said that subjectivity was dead.
NE: I love it when you speak French.
ALS: The vichyssoise? The vichyssoise of subjectivity. Maybe that should be the next exhibition’s title.
JB: ‘Ridykeulous’ looks slightly French, actually.
ALS: Can we borrow a piece of paper?
JB: You can have a piece of paper.
NE: We’ll make you a Ridykeulous piece of art. How do you spell that ‘vichyssoise’ business?
ALS: I think you should spell it the way you feel it.
NE: That’s what I would say. That’s how you spell it in French, right?
JB: Yes, with lots of X’s. Very powerful. Thank you. This has been such a pleasure and honor.
ALS: And if we’ve been annoyed by any of your questions, it serves you well, because —
JB: That’s the operative affect here?
ALS: Yes. You can call this piece ‘The Operative Affect of Ridykeulous.’
NE: I’m going to sign it.
JB: Thank you, thank you.
ALS: Hey, we’re dykes.
JB: And it’s trademarked! Oh, good — it’s about the nothing of capitalism, too. Amazing.
Readykeulous by Ridykeulous: This is What Liberation Feels Like™ is on view at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, alongside Nicole Eisenman’s mid-career survey Dear Nemesis 1993-2013, through April 13.
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