The following is excerpted from Conversations with Artists, a collection of conversations by Heidi Zuckerman with thirty-four contemporary artists.
Your work is extensive and takes many diﬀerent forms. How do you respond when people ask you what you do?
It gives me pause when people ask me what I do, because there are so many diﬀerent avenues that my work has gone down. Photography being one avenue, film and video another, more recently—over the past five years—drawing, using inks, and collage.
Although I’m trained in diﬀerent areas, I gravitate more toward the photographic arts. I’ve always left it open as to how I work in diﬀerent mediums and try not to put too many boundaries on what I do. It’s more about experimenting or the process of making that matters.
Do you consider your works to be narrative based?
Many, yes. My earlier works from the eighties and midnineties are very narrative based. But even more recently, the work has an undercurrent of the narrative of the archive, of found photographs, implied narratives, and fictions.
Maybe it’s because of the stage that was set by your earlier pieces, but there’s something about your work that allows viewers to figure out what their relationship is to the image that’s presented. There’s comfort in establishing some idea of a story line, whether it’s there or not.
True. There’s some context, history, or implied narrative that exists in the things that I find, and in some of the more recent work, my own memory gets played out. At the same time, not everyone is going to interpret the work in the same way, which I find interesting—that’s the area where it seems more open because I don’t try to force an interpretation on those metanarratives that are operating.
Right, it’s surprisingly open. Sometimes you depict yourself in your work, sometimes you don’t. When do you choose to use your own image?
More recently, I’ve been in my work, but in the past, I’d always used surrogates or even friends of mine to pose for me. A number of years ago, I found a photograph of a woman from 1950s California who was an actress or wannabe model. I found one or two of those photographs, then bought an entire collection of them on eBay.
Sometimes, when I find these things, I put them up in the studio and wonder what I should do with them. And when I include my own image, I have to pretend it’s not me to a certain extent.
The dogma of my own work—of what I do, what I don’t do, how I interact, how I am in the work and not in the work—can be confining and sometimes I want to open things up. In looking at the found image of the actress, I decided it would be interesting to imitate her and all the artifice that she is enacting, even though I hadn’t done that in any previous work. Completely breaking from the work I’d been making over the years and doing something that was the complete opposite was liberating.
Are you comfortable placing yourself as the protagonist of your own work?
I hate being in front of the camera, but I’d committed myself to doing this series and I had to fulfill it. Once I got over that, it became this interesting look at portraiture. Having a daughter who’s an actress and likes to be in front of the camera also unconsciously informed me. She also made me question why it’s so taboo to be in front of the camera. Ultimately, there were a number of reasons, but not being so dogmatic or formulaic in the work over the course of time was crucial.
It’s interesting when someone who is so close to you can point out something in a way that makes it so obvious. It allows you to cross that boundary you have set for yourself and realize that maybe it’s okay to change your thinking.
It might be painful or uncomfortable, but you can do it.
When you look at the trajectory of your career, what things stand out for you as the key elements that allowed other things to happen? Have you had the opportunity to step back and think about that yet?
I got a lot of attention very early on and had museum survey shows of maybe ten or fifteen years’ worth of work, but amassing all those pieces as a young artist and then standing back from them made me want to switch up my work. I realized that I’d gone down all these avenues and explored these things in such particular ways to the point that I’d leave the exhibition feeling like it was time to turn over a completely new leaf. That was unexpected. Having had several shows since then has continued to have the same eﬀect. It isn’t out of not liking the work, feeling that it’s dated or old, or because of the period of time that’s elapsed but because it becomes this freer thing where I’m less attached.
All artists have diﬀerent relationships to their work. But mine is out in the world, I barely hold on to it—I don’t have an emotional attachment to it. It’s something I have to move on from and do other things. At the same time, when I look back at the work I’ve done, it becomes a language for me. There is diﬀerent visual iconic imagery or things that I can reexamine in diﬀerent ways. It’s quite multifaceted and beautiful.
We have talked about photography, but we haven’t talked about your use of text—another key element in your work that sneaks in and has a multitude of meanings. Can you describe the associations between text and image in a work such as Waterbearer from 1986?
At the time of making Waterbearer, I was thinking about photography in terms of how we take so much for granted—the way we read photographs and what we want from them and how we are supposed to infer something about the person who’s pictured with some kind of clarity, narrative, or truth. In some ways, I wanted to question all of the ways in which we look at photography and look for meaning and replace it with something else.
In the works from this period, the figure’s back is turned to the viewer—you don’t see the face, you can’t identify who it is, but it’s not representative of everyone. It’s also not black women in a monolithic sense, but it uses a figure of a woman of color as a kind of universal symbol like, say, Kiki Smith would do. Race isn’t questioned here and it’s taken for granted that the figure is black. The text in Waterbearer reads “SHE SAW HIM DISAPPEAR BY THE RIVER, THEY ASKED HER TO TELL WHAT HAPPENED, ONLY TO DISCOUNT HER MEMORY,” which ties into a thread running through many of the works. They address memory either being aﬃrmed or discounted, how unreliable memory is, and how we construct our own narratives based on our own subjectivity. Memory is a complicated thing, and truth and narratives are double-edged swords that serve many diﬀerent kinds of interests and viewpoints.
These black-and-white photographs with text question what it is that you’re actually looking at—particularly in terms of viewers desiring the image to be of someone, as well as in terms of the text taking a completely diﬀerent path or narrative process. A photograph is worth a thousand words, but then it can be very specific or open-ended, without leaving it completely open to interpretation—just a little bit of a narrative in a particular direction.
Another work that incorporates text is Stereo Styles, from 1988, a black-and-white Polaroid piece. Can you talk a little bit about how you put this together and what your ideas are behind the language?
Alva Rogers—a performance artist, singer, and actress—posed for this at the Polaroid studio in SoHo. It was great having friends posing for me because it would create an exchange. I would also take portraits of her while she was doing diﬀerent performances in and around New York—in the East Village and up in Harlem—for her own career. We worked on all these diﬀerent hairstyles over the course of a day in the studio. The text reads, “Daring, Sensible, Severe, Long & Silky, Boyish, Ageless, Silky, Magnetic, Country Fresh, and Sweet”—colloquial advertising lingo for stereotypical descriptions of women or women’s hair.
But the compression of the words, in terms of their spacing in relation to the photographs, leaves it up to viewers to ask which one is magnetic, which is sensible, or what it means to be daring with your hair or daring as a person.
Or daring as a woman.
Exactly. It’s not prescribed or didactic. It’s open-ended. Another work that incorporates hair is 1978–88, from 1990, which veers away from advertising language and moves toward more functional hairdressing language.
Right. It includes images of braids and then plastic plaques above them that, again, imply a narrative about the nature of a relationship. The first is from 1978 and reads underneath, “Tangle, split, cut.” Then 1982, “Tie, tear, knot, weave, tug.” And from 1988, “Twist, part.” They are all descriptors of things that people would do with their hair, but also seem metaphorical for the nature of a relationship and an emotional entanglement that grows apart.
Is it a portrait?
Yes, in a certain way. At the time, I was thinking about building these poetic narratives with just single words. It looks like a barber- or beauty-shop list of ways of manipulating hair, but at the same time, it reads very much like the nature of relationships—which would be my own subjectivity.
Wigs have also played a key role in your work, such as in Wigs II (1996–2006).
I recall shopping in Brooklyn on Fulton Street Mall—which used to have dozens of wig shops next to one another—and going into each shop and picking out the most interesting, exotic, or stereotypical kind of wig I could find. At the time, I didn’t have a studio, so I pinned them onto the wall at home and photographed them there.
The piece considers the construction of gender and sexuality, with diﬀerent types of wigs and netting highlighting a part of the construction of our selves, hanging on the wall as though they are suspended, unoccupied shapes. As human beings, we construct who we are and there isn’t a set of rules or a territory we should occupy—it’s up to man to control.
I also lifted text from historical moments where people shifted their identities in terms of race or gender—either to escape slavery or cross-dressing laws in 1950s Los Angeles—or from a mother’s anxiety over the sexuality of her son, given that he likes stockings and mannequins.
Can we turn briefly to another medium that you have worked with—film—and your first project using that form, Interior/ Exterior (1997)?
Coming from photography and knowing so much about its history, as well as how to create and compose images in a historical context, and being able to work with a director of photography and film and lighting people, I found I could speak the language of film. I was quite surprised how fluid it was in terms of collaborative energy. Working in film and video is a high for me. As a process, it’s like jet fuel.
Interior/Exterior included intimate conversations taking place in domestic spaces, where the characters were talking about one another or diﬀerent people. It goes from being film noir–ish to TV commercial–ish in terms of the setting and the way it looks, but the conversations remain very intimate. As a viewer, you’re like a fly on the wall.
We’ve been talking about work made in the earlier part of your career. Maybe we could move on to discussing work that was included in your exhibition “Works on Paper” at the Aspen Art Museum, and some pieces that were made specifically as part of your residency. When I invited you initially, I wanted to focus on your most recent work, which isn’t even just one body of work—it’s actually four or five bodies of work, which hadn’t really had a close examination up until this point.
It was such a great opportunity to have a curatorial lens on that work and take stock of where it’s come from. It was surprising how much of it there was and how many roads I’ve gone down in a short period of time—maybe only five or six years.
We chose as a starting point your series “Barbara” (2007–9) and “Actresses” (2007). For people that know your practice well, there were some obvious connections to your other work, but there were also some clear ways that these series diverged.
In one image of “Barbara,” I was really struck by the fact that you rendered her eyes in a way that she’s really looking at the viewer. It’s interesting that the bodies of work that we started with had some viewer interaction, and the ones that we ended with did, too. In the middle, however, the pieces were more typical of the work that you had done previously, in terms of the women—and some of the men—all looking away.
“Barbara” and “Actresses” came out of a video installation called The Institute (2007). When I was thinking about the stills from that, which consisted of found footage, I realized they would be amazing drawings, but I didn’t draw at the time. In terms of my own practice and process, it was interesting to be able to play with this medium, which means using my own hands. It was really liberating in comparison to taking photographs or working in video or other mediums that require more collaborative or technically process-oriented results. I started drawing heads as well as the backs of heads. It allowed me to be more playful in the way that I approach the other things that I do, which is really important.
Did you study drawing?
When I went to art school, I took painting—I took all the classes—but in terms of using my own hands and drawing, I hadn’t done that since I was eighteen or twenty years old. I abandoned it immediately because I was surrounded by other people who were so talented at it.
But you’re clearly very talented at it.
I guess so. I would say that they’re really fun to make. It did take me a little bit of time to figure out what a charcoal stick does, what ink does, what watercolor does, et cetera. I had to get back to the very basics of what would fit my own hand.
How did the works in the following series in the show, “Heads” (2008), develop? Are they from a specific source?
In a video piece called Jackie that I did a few years ago, there is footage of these young boys drawing. The main child, Jackie, is not cooperating and refuses to draw—he’s the example of a child that needs help. The other kids in the background are really strenuously drawing and making their marks so loudly that you can almost hear them as part of the soundtrack. I added in found drawings as well as made my own drawings of diﬀerent types of sketches you would expect these children to make—of their fathers, their homes, or their houses—idyllic scenes, essentially, that lean toward how to draw as therapy and the positive images that should be created at the end. I looked for a lot of drawings online and finding other people’s drawings of heads inspired me. Of course, using my own library, work, and aesthetic, it seemed to make sense as an unexpected return to the hallmarks of my earlier work.
Right. One of the things that you really notice when you look at these pieces in person is the diﬀerent palette of the hair and the skin, and how that changes in each one.
Yes, they go from grayish brown, brownish gray, darkish, lightish, to almost disappearing.
Exactly, both the hair and the skin. Some of them don’t actually have any hair, while others are really animated, where the hair is in a very active form.
I really played with the drawings in terms of the way that the marks are made and in terms of the hair activating them by wind, motion, or structure. Playing with something that is so concise and repetitive is another hallmark of the works, and without laboring over any of them, it became really freeing.
Your work in photography also has a serial component to it, and photography as a medium has that possibility of endless repetition. To be able to pull those elements, which aren’t even the formal mechanical elements, from photography and then appropriate to another medium is really interesting.
Exactly. I didn’t realize that when I was doing it. It was only when other people pointed it out that I noticed how similar they were. This kind of serialization that occurs is part of my DNA—it’s uncontrollable and shows up everywhere.
There are commonalities between the works and there is a repetitive nature, but they’re not repetitive per se, and that’s one of the things that’s interesting about seriality—you start to notice the variations and the distinctions when you’re in a comfortable place. It’s like humanity, too.
I am really taken, also, by the eyelashes. When I was growing up, my parents had these novelty silhouettes made of us, and you can tell who is who largely through the chin or the eyelashes. I always think about that in these works. Is that important to you?
It’s a small detail. The heads are positioned at such an angle that you don’t see the whole face, you just see one aspect of it. I wanted it to be just anonymous enough, but at the same time, just a little hint of something that would shift, like you said, between each one.
And then there are the gold heads.
Of course. They came out of a video called Momentum (2011), which opened me up to working in a more autobiographical vein than I’d ever been comfortable doing before. Momentum is based on a fragment of a childhood performance I did at Lincoln Center with a dance company where we were painted in gold body paint with gold Afros. It is a re-creation of the hardest part of the performance, and the only part that I remember—the pirouettes. I had dancers in gold paint re-creating everything. I don’t think I’ve really worked with an idiosyncratic memory fragment before, but there was something so satisfying and beautiful about re-creating it for myself. And having the drawing under my belt, I thought it would be interesting to make these heads that are in concert with the video.
The way that the hair is rendered is also very gestural and expressive. And the spinning pirouettes are reflected in the hand motion of the paint application, too.
Right. If you had told me five years ago that I would be making work like that, I would not have predicted that kind of trajectory. I’m making things that are surprising even to me.
In terms of titles, the “Barbaras” and the “Actresses” have specific names, titles, et cetera, the heads are called “Heads,” and the gold heads are called “Gold Heads.” But when you start the collage works, some of them start to have titles.
In terms of process, all of the collages are lifted from Jet and Ebony magazines, from around the thirties up until the seventies. As I was looking for diﬀerent images or reading through texts in these magazines, I became completely fascinated by the perspective—who it’s written for, the audience, the way things are written, historical context, et cetera. Lifting out segments of text doesn’t occur in all of them, but the titles are very much influenced by the sources that they are taken from.
How did you come to work with these magazines?
I think I was just cleaning up the studio when I found my grandmother’s Ebony magazines. As I was organizing the place, I was worried about messing them up, and wanted to put them in protective acid-free paper. But then I started looking at them and realized how interesting they were, so I started buying them at flea markets.
When you are looking through the magazines, what catches your attention?
Partly, I want to keep individuals who appeared in ads for diﬀerent products. The Shorty (2011), for example, is actually also a descriptive term for a kind of wig. The work either has something to do with the product or it has something that was part of it. Some pieces do use actual text or news blurbs that appear in the magazines, but sometimes it’s just the play of advertising.
I try to keep the collages very simple, as well as the character, the facing, and all the tropes of advertising from those particular moments. In a lot of the advertising from the sixties and seventies, there’s this whole focus on before and after in terms of makeup and appearance. The forlorn, concerned expression is before the makeover. They are amazing portraits, even for that time, because there is a subtext of political strife in terms of the before and after during the civil rights era. You have these expressions of concern that appear in advertising that are somewhat parallel to what’s going on culturally.
Heidi Zuckerman is the Aspen Art Museum’s Nancy and Bob Magoon CEO and Director. She established the Aspen Art Press, which has produced over forty exhibition catalogues distributed nationally and internationally.
From Conversations with Artists, published in October 2017. Reproduced with permission.
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