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Munro Galloway is a New York-based artist and, along with Annette Wehrhahn, Pat Palermo and Paul Branca, a co-founder and director of Soloway, an artist-run gallery occupying a former plumbing supply store in the East Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Dushko Petrovich is a painter and art writer. He is, with Roger White, the co-founder and editor of the annual contemporary art journal Paper Monument, whose fourth issue will be published in Fall 2011.
This past May, Galloway and Petrovich presented You Must Change Your Life, a two-person exhibition of their work at Soloway titled after the closing line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” The exhibition was accompanied by a reader published by the gallery composed of excerpts of several texts selected by the artists, ranging from Rosalind Krauss’s “Formless” essay to an appendix from the Journals of Lewis and Clark Expedition.
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Rachel Wetzler: My first thought has to do with the relationship of text to the show. Strictly speaking, neither of you use text directly in your work, but the exhibition included references to a variety of existing texts: for one, you created a reader instead of a catalogue with information about your work, but also the title of the show, which is drawn from Rilke, and the press release, which offers a narrative of ambiguous origin instead of the standard fare. I’m curious about how you conceive of the relationship between text or literature to your work.
Dushko Petrovich: Speaking for myself here, I usually start painting about things I can’t quite articulate in words, but often as I’m working a phrase will appear — could be from something I’ve read, but more often not — and these words can end up as the title of the picture. “Persian Rose,” for example is simply the name of the paint used in that painting, and “Insomnia” is about not being able to sleep. Even literature is taken more as an everyday event, so “Reading the Classics” is just my attempt at that distant-yet-visceral feeling you sometimes get while reading something from another time.
Munro Galloway: I began by making collages out of cuttings from magazines, catalogues and art books — any kind of colorful printed material. The collages allow me to work quickly and freely, to add or subtract large areas of a form or pattern or color. I’m looking for unexpected visual relationships, in terms of color and texture. I largely ignore the content of the cuttings. Once the collages are fixed, I use them as departure point for drawing. Although the drawings are loosely based on the collages, it tends to be more of an improvisatory, experimental process in which line, form and color are re-organized on the paper. I make hundreds of drawings and only save a small number. Many of the discarded drawings are cut up again and used to make collaged drawings.
My lines are color pencil, so the color gets put in at the same time as the line and the shape; color, line and form occur simultaneously. I think this happens in painting, but not as often in drawing. Drawing usually adheres to the old hierarchy of line before shape, shape before color. I want to put color out in front, not just as an expressive or disruptive action but as a structuring or organizing force.
MG: At the time I was making these drawings I was teaching both drawing and color theory, and was intensely focused on reading about Cezanne. In particular, I became interested in Rilke’s encounter with Cezanne in 1907. This led me to Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” There was one line that seemed to related to my drawing:
Otherwise this stone would stand deformed and curt, under the shoulders’ transparent plunge, and not glisten just like wild beasts’ fur” (trans Edward Snow.)
I pictured the glistening fur as iridescent, as color rippling across the surface, detached from the object and refracting outwards. In this sense the “wild beast’s fur” suggests color free of constraints, moving and shifting throughout the drawing. That’s what I’m looking for in the drawings, by letting the color loose. I think this is the sense, for me, in which the text gets the closest to the drawings.
RW: There’s something rather enigmatic about the way the various texts you’ve selected relate to the work in the exhibition. The fact that you’ve chosen to use them suggests that they have some significance or relationship to the work on display, but that connection isn’t ever made explicit. Does this hint at a particular way you want viewers to approach the work?
DP: Without writing a press release for our press release, I’d like to say, yes, we wanted to have something stimulating and suggestive, rather than conventional and didactic. It’s such a sad genre, the press release, so we had the story and thought, let’s just leave it at that. (Later, we spent any free moments admiring the usefulness of the standard press release.)
MG: The press release is a sad genre! It seems like such a tired routine, a kind of empty language that circulates endlessly through gallery print-outs and e-blasts. Dushko and I were trading shaggy dog stories at one point and he told me the story of the birds. I thought it was beautiful and tragic, like walking thought a rose garden and stepping in a pile of shit. It seemed to me like a metaphor for what painting can and should aspire to — seduction and repulsion — the things that attracted me to Dushko’s paintings in the first place.
RW: I think it says something about the way the art world functions today that the lack of something as inane as a press release would be notable. They tend to simultaneously dumb down the work, packaging it neatly into one more-or-less coherent idea that can be easily digested and circulated, but as a genre, it also has its own very strange, idiosyncratic language. What I thought was intriguing about the way you approached the press release for the show was that you chose to have one at all, but did so in a way that undermined its typical function; it seemed like an acknowledgement that the press release is a kind of necessary component of exhibition infrastructure, so to speak, but with a measure of resistance.
DP: You’re right. They are one of those things “nobody likes” and everybody makes fun of, but then everyone uses them. I’ve certainly written conventional press releases, so it’s not like I’m above it. But when you’re writing your own press release, as we were here, it’s harder to muster the impressed-but-impartial third-party voice they all use as a default.
MG: I think it’s important to acknowledge that we’re not the first to experiment with the press release as form. I think the difference is that we didn’t attempt to make the press release into a piece of art. I just thought of it as a piece of writing that conveyed the humor and sensibility of the work and also the process of putting the show together.
RW: There’s a similar sensibility in the reader: you’ve presented excerpts from a wide range of materials, without much in the way of context or explanation to why or how they’ve been chosen, which puts the person confronting it in a position of having to draw his or her own connections.
DP: They can interpret them in their own way, yes, but they can also simply enjoy them, or ignore what they want to ignore.
RW: These days, we’re quite accustomed to walking into a gallery and receiving a great deal of information about the work, the artist, the show’s aim and so on, but here, you’ve gone almost the opposite route: there’s a lot to take in, but the connections remain elusive. All of the various elements of the exhibition insist that the viewer do the heavy lifting of interpretation rather than relying on any kind of authorial intent. We’re never told how exactly you two, as the artists, wanted us to see things, or what they’re “about.”
DP: And we’re not about to tell you now! Personally, I get a little sleepy reading wall texts and statements. I find it odd that we attach so much explanation to contemporary art. It makes sense for distant times and places, but for our own culture, I lean with Sontag against interpretation. (A piece we had in the reader, but took out.)
RW: Was there any particular logic behind the texts chosen for the reader, and their organization within it? I noticed immediately that they hadn’t been arranged alphabetically or chronologically.
DP: We made it like a collage, putting the fragments next to one another to see how they felt. As with the paintings and drawings, we each brought our own pieces, and then arranged them together.
MG: I think we tried to bring the same sensibility to the readings we chose for the reader, but not in a literal sense — we didn’t select works based on their profanity. We didn’t select texts based on any specific criteria, but in looking back at the reader I think it’s fair to say that we chose texts that brought out both the beautiful and repulsive aspects of the work in the show. For instance, I chose a passage from Winesburg, Ohio describing one character’s grotesque and monstrous hands, something that I like to think is also at work in the drawings. But I also chose this work because Dushko is from Ohio, and I lived there recently. In this way it was also a nod to a shared experience of place. Once we had decided on the texts, I handed the project off to Dushko to decide on the ordering, then he handed it back to me to design the reader.
RW: In terms of the reader’s presentation, you also chose to use scans of the various texts from existing sources, which adds an interesting visual component in terms of all the various typefaces and layouts, but also emphasizes the indexical link between the excerpts in the reader and their original sources. Was this more of a pragmatic choice, or an aesthetic one?
DP: It started out as a practical way to send each other the texts, but then we liked it, for the reasons you mention, and probably because, when it comes to reproduction, we’re part of a generation that spans the mechanical-digital divide.
RW: I’m curious about the relationship between your respective works in the show. There’s an obvious resonance between the way you discuss your respective artistic practices: you both describe a process involving a kind of intuitive reaction or interest in a feeling or impression rather than necessarily having a preconceived idea of exactly what a painting or drawing will look like from the outset. When I walked through the show, even though I knew that these were two separate bodies of work rather than a collaborative effort, they seemed to make a lot of sense together — certainly in the use of color and texture (the thickly applied paint in Dushko’s work, the heavy lines of the colored pencil in Munro’s), but also the often ambiguous anthropomorphic shapes. I don’t think you’d necessarily ever mistake them for being by the same artist, but there was plainly a shared sensibility.
MG: I think we start with the same premise — intuitive, formal experimentation as opposed to working it all out in advance — but that our studio practices are quite different. I work quickly and end up discarding much of what I make and my impression is that Dushko takes a slower, more incremental approach to his work. I think there is a biological term for this — convergent evolution — like birds and bats.
DP: The drawings and paintings also ended up the exact same size, which we didn’t plan. We worked on them separately and for our own reasons, but then when we put the show up, we hung things together that seemed to resonate. The shared content is there, and maybe hard to put into words, so we used juxtaposition.
RW: In addition to being practicing artists, both of you interact directly with the art world in other ways: Dushko, as an editor of Paper Monument and an art writer, and Munro as a founder and director of Soloway. How do you see the relationship between those roles? Are they integral aspects of your artistic practice, or are they separate activities?
DP: At various times, I have thought the activities were discreet, overlapping, symbiotic, convoluted, natural, idiotic, etc.
It’s hard to step outside oneself, and out of time, to look at the overall cause and effect, but here’s an example: I met Munro because he did a portfolio for Paper Monument. I didn’t work with him directly, but I liked what he did, and when they were starting Soloway, he got in touch and put me in their first group show. We talked casually at various times about running magazines/galleries, and we looked at one another’s work in the studio, and at a certain point, Munro asked me to do a show together. We continued to wear several hats as we made the work, prepared the press release, planned the book, and organized the various events. I am nominally an editor, but certain points, Munro was the editor, and likewise, Munro runs Soloway, but I helped make curatorial, and even beer-buying decisions.
You do gain an awareness, often a frustration, by playing different roles, but I don’t know anyone who is “just an artist.” I guess it’s a question of how you present yourself. I try to offer what’s appropriate to the situation.
RW: I’m also curious about what compelled you to engage with the art world in this way, beyond making your own work and focusing on your own careers: was it a sense of wanting to have more control or direct interaction — wanting to do something outside of the existing channels — or a sense of a certain gap or lack in the art world, that the things you wanted to talk about or exhibit didn’t have a venue?
DP: When Roger White and I started Paper Monument, we simply felt like we should make the kind of magazine we ourselves wanted to read. We didn’t hate the existing magazines, but we didn’t really like the way they did things, either. We wanted to try it another way. We have a lot of freedom with the way we do it, and we also see now why the other magazines do things how they do.
MG: My friend Pam Lins just sent me this quote:
“All artists are alike. They dream of doing something that’s more social, more collaborative, and more real than art.” — Dan Graham
RW: That quote seems in line with what Dushko said about not knowing anyone who is “just an artist,” though I think there’s a difference between dreaming about doing something else — like say, starting a magazine or an exhibition space — and actually following through, which requires a certain level of commitment and dedication, especially to sustain them for any prolonged period of time. I know many artists who occasionally curate, occasionally write, and so on, but to actually commit yourself to the realities of running something in a serious way seems to indicate a real desire to make a contribution to a kind of community or discourse.
DP: Dreaming is a lot more fun. I’m now dreaming of doing a soccer magazine. But yeah, we’ve done Paper Monument for a few years now, and we’ll keep doing it, mainly because we let ourselves do it in a way that doesn’t become rote. Roger and I were in bands long ago, and we treat each issue more like an album than anything else. But yeah, we’ve had to learn about copy editing, 501c3 status, and all the un-nameable things you have to learn to do something seriously. We were never interested in the “notion” of a magazine.
MG: I don’t know that I ever dreamed of starting a gallery, although I definitely dreamed of being in a rock band. The gallery came about because we had an opportunity and had to make some very quick practical decisions. We opened the first show, Parts and Labor, two weeks after signing the lease and while we were still remodeling. The space was a former plumbing supply store and much of the old shelving and wall panelling went into a cabinet sculpture that was part of the first show. The dreaming came later, dreams of shows, projects, performances, screenings, readings …
RW: One of the things that stands out about venues like Soloway is the sense of community: creating a space where artists can show their own work, that of their friends, peers, mentors, or simply people they admire, with a certain degree of freedom, not only in terms of determining how they want it to be displayed and interacted with, but also a kind of freedom from the professionalism of the typical gallery environment. That’s not to say that Soloway is sloppy or the exhibitions done haphazardly, but there’s something incredibly generous about an artist [Annette] letting people traipse through her apartment every weekend; it feels more like a social space. There’s also a kind of generosity inherent in artists giving their time, money, and resources to one another in terms of running the gallery and putting together exhibitions — the same goes for Paper Monument.
MG: Part of what I see as our role at Soloway is questioning and re-thinking received ideas about what a gallery is, including the architecture of the space, the presentation of the work, and the written documentation of what happens in the gallery. Clearly there are many precedents for what we are doing — for me they range from Ferus gallery in San Francisco in the 1960s and Food in New York to galleries like International With Monument in the 1980s East Village. But any visitor to the gallery will bring their own set of associations, and that is what we welcome.
RW: Based on what you’ve both described, it seems like the process of putting the exhibition together was a collaborative one without clearly defined, separate roles of curator, gallery director, exhibiting artist, allowing everything to come together somewhat organically, which is certainly not the case with a more conventional gallery or institutional space. I keep coming back to this idea of professionalism: we tend to associate the label “unprofessional” with something being done poorly, but I think in this case, with regard to the art world, it can also be a means of doing something well, but without necessarily following the typical structure or hierarchy of a gallery or exhibition.
DP: I may be misremembering Max Weber, but I recall him talking about vocations not in the sense of “vocational school” but in the sense of being called to do something.
I also remember being at a Chuck Close lecture where he said that “inspiration was for amateurs” and I remember thinking, yes, and you sound very … professional.
MG: I think that the shared philosophy of Soloway is that the gallery should resist setting a specific ideological agenda that would determine what we show or how we show it. I think that running Soloway is like telling a shaggy dog story — a long and winding narrative with occasional diversions that doesn’t have a clearly defined end point. The show following ours, Feelers, organized by Annette Wehrhahn, very much captures this sentiment — an evocation of the blind groping that is my experience running a gallery.
This is not to say that we aren’t willing to do shows or projects that directly engage with aspects of the contemporary art world. For instance, we did a show called The Best of 2011 in the first week of 2011. It was a riff on the Best-of-The-Year lists and round-up exhibitions that happen at the end of the year. We thought we would get a jump on everyone else.
DP: One through-line that comes out in the work, the reader, the release, along with Soloway and Paper Monument is this: we are both interested in texts in writing, in language — we just to shift these things around a bit, not with any overall agenda, but variously out of curiosity, impatience, a desire to actually communicate with people. A press release isn’t really about communicating personally, but I often feel that even conventional catalogues, art school discussions, magazine articles settle into a language that isn’t very well considered, or considerate. This happens for all sorts of reasons — habit, desire for money, simple lack of concern, deadlines — but when you have a show, or open a gallery, or publish a magazine, it’s worth looking at the conventions and questioning them a bit. Or else why do it?
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You Must Change Your Life was a two-person exhibition at Soloway (348 South 4th Street, East Williamsburg, Brooklyn), which ran from May 1 to June 5, 2011, and featured the work of Munro Galloway and Dushko Petrovich.