I’ve been following the work of Loren Munk for years and had the pleasure of seeing the work currently on display at Lesley Heller in his studio years ago before most people even knew they existed. Today, Munk has been exhibiting regularly and developing a following for his map works that document art world scenes in New York and elsewhere. There is a frenzy of color in his paintings and the choices are obviously subjective (and rife with personal politics) but they are intense explosions of information carefully organized and constructed like a spider web in paint. I spoke to Munk about his latest show, Location, Location, Location, Mapping the New York Art World, on the Lower East Side that continues until this Sunday, October 16.
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Hrag Vartanian: I was thinking about your paintings the other day and I wondered if you could call them a contemporary form of “landscapes” or maybe “urbanscapes” since they often involve geography and the placement of important points of interest that mark the land. What do you think?
Loren Munk: I think the most accurate designation for the map paintings would be “conceptual topographies.” Calling them “landscapes” seems to imply that they are some kind of illusionistic scene, whereas I would consider them more diagrammatic, in a way, more reality based than a picture.
HV: But these are a subjective reality, correct? They’re not a definitive list?
LM: Actually there are definitive lists that have been created by art critics, historians, curators, dealers, academicians, the art media and institutions, and most of us are not on those lists. This is where your point of “subjectivity” comes into play. All history is created through a subjective lens. Although I’d like to be totally objective and establish a “definitive list,” that’s impossible. No matter how inclusive one tries to be, there are always going to be artists or galleries that are left out, and that’s part of what the paintings are about too, history’s fallibilities. But I thinks it’s important for members of the community to wrest control of the history of their tribe away from those who have vested interests that lay outside those of the tribe
HV: I have to admit I often look for people I know on your maps first. You must get a lot of people complaining that someone they know or maybe even themselves have not been included on your maps. How do you deal with that and do you ever edit or correct them?
LM: That’s one of the funny “hooks” the maps have. They get more attention for their few mistakes or omissions than for all the accurate information they contain. There must be an editorial gene floating around among art viewers, because people love to correct spellings or street numbers, it’s like they’re amending history, and I encourage viewers to participate and give me whatever info they want. I try to design the paintings so they essentially paint themselves once I get the data, and usually they’re finished when they’re full. It’s an unusual way to make a painting, and goes against all the standard expressionistic credo of adjusting the composition as you go along until it feels right. I’m constantly making corrections and trying to squeeze in more info, and I remind people who feel left out that I’m always adding more names and addresses to the database and creating bigger maps, just give me a bit more time.
HV: I wanted to talk about your colors. I often look for harmony in your colors but never find it. They feel deliberately jarring in the way they are juxtaposed. Why is that?
LM: Because I’m using color as a conceptual designator rather than as a decorative element, the contrasts are important. For the mind to perceive information, it’s more efficient if it’s presented boldly and clearly. Without the strong and “jarring” juxtaposing, the hundreds of bubbles and lines of color would be less distinct. It’s also a way of using a less aesthetically based means of choosing colors, and surprisingly, there are some relationships that happen that, because of taste or habit, I would never have picked intentionally. To paraphrase Thelonious Monk, when asked about the discordance of his music he said, “sometimes it sounds pretty good, then there are other times.” Despite all that, I’m still hopping to make the pictures beautiful.
HV: Many of your paintings focus on scenes, like Williamsburg or the Lower East Side, but you never place yourself in these works. Where do you think you fit in?
LM: I don’t “fit in.” Although I acknowledge that all art is “artificial” it’s important to try to maintain the illusion of scientific or critical distance. Many artists, like William Powhida, Cindy Sherman or Matthew Barney use themselves or their surrogates as the subject of much of their work. Attempting to operate from an objective analytical position, I am on a different level, and maintain distance, but because I’m creating the paintings, collecting the data and designing its presentation. I’m all over the works whether my name is in them or not. One should also note that whatever your self estimate is, regarding relevance to the art world, it’s only through the recognition and a consensus of others that any relevance exists.
HV: For all the years I’ve known you, I’ve always been impressed that you’ve never gotten down on the art world but maintained a kind of optimism about making it and having your voice heard. Where does that come from?
LM: Love and maturity. I spent decades as an “angry young artist” cultivating bitterness and getting pissed off at my own failure of reception and envious of others and their successes. In many ways the New York art world is very narcissistic, and encouraging of over inflated egos. Because the life of an artist is, in many ways, brutal, some think it requires a total focus on self to survive. It wasn’t until I realized the importance of the artist’s community and the individual’s part within it that I began to make some headway in my personal investigations. This has very little to do with competition, commerce or the market. Also, working as a critic has made me appreciate the value of “seeing,” of perceiving the efforts of others. Many artists don’t understand that before they can be seen, they have to first see. Criticism is important. Without the observer art can’t function. There’s an artistic aspect to seeing and thinking about what is seen that’s just as important as making the stuff to look at.
Having lived through Soho’s heyday, seen the East Village boom and collapse, the phenomenal rise of Chelsea and Williamsburg’s developments, there’s been a long-term perspective that’s evolved. I’ve seen a lot of tragedy, as well as comedy, but it’s all a part of what it means to be an artist. To waste my time baring a grudge or getting down on the New York scene would seem to squander what little energy I’ve been blessed with.
HV: How has your online work (James Kalm Report, your Facebook following, etc.) informed your offline work? I feel like there’s more there than you’ve discussed in the past.
LM: Let me fess up. Initially I was a luddite, in no sense a tech geek. I only got to know my way around a computer by, thanks to my kids, becoming addicted to a game called “Doom.” I did however, realize early on that there was an incredible potential for presenting, selling, researching and experiencing art on the internet. But, there are challenges as to how one can employ this marvelous potential in the most creative and advantageous way.
I’ve always considered myself first and foremost a painter, a throwback to the New York School cliché of the lone genius, slaving away, slinging paint in a Soho loft. The problem is, how does one break out of the isolation, and expose their work to the masses longing for aesthetic sustenance? I began writing art criticism around 1996-97 as a means of getting out of the studio, making new acquaintances and entering into the critical dialogue. Being a college drop out, I have no academic background in aesthetics or criticism, I began a self-directed educational program which continues to this day. This opened up a whole spectrum of possibilities, and caused me to reevaluate my practice and begin a new body of work. Through visiting some of the early art sites and blogs like PaintersNYC, Anaba and Ed Winkleman, I was able to come into contact with a group of hyper-aware art-heads. The ability of readers to post comments began a conversation that I’m hoping to extend with projects like the “James Kalm Report.” It also increased my exposure to a whole community of artists that I hadn’t been aware of.
Once I began to collate this information, I realized there was a great big pile of material that could somehow be turned into paintings. I decided to take Ad Reinhardt’s quip “All art comes from art and nothing else” literally. It became apparent that if I could collect enough information and design it’s presentation in the proper way, it could help de-mystify the New York art world. Over the course of several years I devised ways of depicting aspects of the art community and its history, while eliminating a lot of the extraneous content. Nobody was interested in showing or looking at the work for about ten years. I’m stupid and stubborn, so I just kept going. The connections I was making through my online activities added to the database, and the work became almost self-perpetuating, encompassing a broader and broader slice of the art world. It reflects physics in that at some point the work reached critical mass creating its own gravity. Like the interactivity of a blog, people began to provide information rather than me having to elicit it. My current show with Lesley Heller (my first Manhattan show in nearly a decade) is made up of some of the early maps I’ve compiled.
HV: Who is the artist that inspired you to become an artist? Is there one?
LM: Michelangelo, hows that for a cornball answer. It would probably be just as important to know that there aren’t any artists who inspired me not to become an artist.
HV: What do you think is the biggest injustice in the art world?
LM: You mean aside from the fact that I’m not the king of it? Because the art world is a perfect reflection of “the world” there is no injustice in the art world that isn’t an echo of the real world. So take your pick–ignorance, intolerance, poverty, greed, selfishness, egoism, vanity, me not having a one-man show at MoMA?
HV: Ok, one final question. What reaction do you typically get from people who look at your paintings and know little or anything about art history and art?
LM: One of two answers. First, they say they like the colors, lines and compositions as abstract design regardless of the content. Second, they’re befuddled, incensed and they shield their eyes and move on as fast as their legs will carry them. I personally feel no obligation to explain or to try to encourage some kind of universal understanding. The content embodied within the works has been distilled over decades, and is of a very specific and specialized nature. If it has value to you, you’ll recognize it. If you don’t recognize its value, I can’t explain it. Thanks Kate.
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Loren Munk’s Location, Location, Location, Mapping the New York Art World at Lesley Heller Gallery (54 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) continues until October 16.