Shana Lutker


Props from Shana Lutker's The Average Mysterious and the Shirt off Its Back, 2015. Pérez Art Museum Miami. Photo: Devin Christopher.

Los Angeles–based artist and 2014 Smithsonian artist research fellow Shana Lutker here speaks about “Le ‘NEW’ Monocle: Chapters 1–3,” her exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, which runs from October 29, 2015, to February 15, 2016. The show includes a performance, The Average Mysterious and the Shirt off Its Back, 2015, on Thursday, October 29, at 6:30 PM.

OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS I’ve been creating a body of work titled Le “NEW” Monocle. There will be eight chapters when it is complete. At the Hirshhorn, chapters one to three will be on view. The subject of all of the chapters is the history of the fistfights of the Surrealists—a story that hasn’t been written yet, as such. Not long ago, when reading Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton, by Mark Polizzotti, I kept stumbling across these fistfights instigated by Breton and his compatriots. They were always somewhat theatrical and very content-driven—they were fistfights about art and ideas.

I’m interested in this moment someone’s fist hits someone else’s face—when ideas exceed the limits of the body. The Surrealist fistfights I study were all recorded in the papers and the literary journals of the time. They were . . . let’s not say staged media events, but they were covered in the news, and they were strategic. The aim was to establish Surrealism as the premier art movement of the time.

Each chapter of Le “NEW” Monocle includes a piece of writing, a group of sculptures, and a performance. These three modes are parallel; they don’t depend on one another. At the Hirshhorn, there will also be three research tables. Each one is associated with one of the chapters, and each shows images and objects I’ve collected and attached to each fistfight and that, in some cases, were the sources of the artworks in the adjacent gallery—for example, a picture of a wall grate on the building that used to be the Bureau of Surrealism I saw walking around Paris, or a photo of a discarded ladder on the street. There are also pictures of archival materials I sought out in DC and Paris. The Library of Congress holds the amazing personal archives of Bronislava Nijinska, who was a longtime primary dancer and choreographer at the Ballets Russes. That material relates to chapter two, which concerns the collision between the Surrealists and the Ballets Russes in 1926, when the Russes was no longer the radical Russes of Rite of Spring in 1913. By 1926, it was more like the Ringling Brothers, and the Surrealists thought it was commercial sellout bullshit, which they didn’t want associated with their avant-garde brand.

The performance I will stage at the Hirshhorn—which premiered in May at Pérez Art Museum Miami—is associated with chapter three. It collages together pieces of the story of a fistfight at a lecture about literature by Robert Aron (who was not a Surrealist), which was to be followed by a play by Louis Aragon (who was a Surrealist)—Au Pied du mur (Backs to the Wall)—directed by Antonin Artaud and starring Artaud and Génica Athanasiou. There is some mystery as to what ignited this fistfight, but based on my research I think it’s a collision of factors including the Surrealist play slotted to follow a lecture on mediocre literature and Artaud’s recent ousting from the group. But I’m drawn to the bigger picture, how Breton was establishing a new philosophy for art and politics and revolution and gathering a team of people around him. Of course, the Surrealists were also childish, impetuous, authoritarian, macho, remarkably sensitive, and overreacting to most everything.

For the performance, I’ve rehearsed with actors in Los Angeles to present three scenes from the play that I believe were performed on the night of this fistfight. I’ve also included contemporaneous piano music by Arthur Honegger and scenes from Germaine Dulac’s La Coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman), a 1926 proto-Surrealist film, originally written by Artaud.

Grounded by the foundation in research, ideas come to me about what I want to make. I allow myself to intuitively make decisions about materials, using shapes and forms from the archive of images. In one way, the things that I produce are straightforward; I work with solid, often singular, materials like lead or felt, that I shape into seemingly familiar objects that are literally or associatively linked to the research, like a sculpture of a foot or a cone of sand. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know that the pile of sand is a reference to a Joan Miró drawing, you can make your own interpretation.

— As told to Marcus Civin

Jack Whitten


Jack Whitten, Apps for Obama, 2011, acrylic on hollow core door, 84 x 91".

Jack Whitten is a painter who lives and works in New York. Here, he reflects on how he developed as an artist, his cross-generational exchanges, and three paintings from very different moments in his life, all on the occasion of his retrospective “Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting,” which was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, traveled to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, and is currently on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis until January 24, 2016.

SUN RA WAS RIGHT ON THE MONEY; humans came here from outer space as minerals and chemicals. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, everyone began looking for their roots. This was when Afrocentrism was blossoming; I was just getting started as a painter with an interest in our intergalactic roots. I wanted to activate human perception, both from the micro and macro dimensions, with paint as a means to transmit the content. I wanted a narrative, but one that was built into the materiality of paint. When I was an art student at Cooper Union, the world was in chaos. In 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, the atmosphere was intense. My early paintings came out of such heightened experiences surrounded by the politics of race, territorial geography, surveillance, and technology.

My heroes were artists Norman Lewis and Willem de Kooning, who were dealing with gesture. Norman took me under his wing, and as a student I got an invite from a friend to a party at Bill de Kooning's studio. I had to get around these artists because their influence was so great; it forced me to get rid of the brush. In 1970, I started making paintings with Afro combs and serrated tools. That was effective, so I built larger versions. The concept was pure systemic painting where the plane was compressed into a single gesture. After several experiments, I built what I called the Developer, an analogy to photography, which was meant to rebuke the notion of touch. At first it was a piece of two-by-four wood and later I attached a piece of thick neoprene rubber, which made it operate like a big squeegee, after which came a piece of sixteen-gauge sheet metal. When it got to be over twelve feet wide, I rigged it with wheels. Then with additional five- to ten-pound weighted metal rods, I could calculate pressure and figure out how much paint I wanted to remove. An early important painting in the show, Prime Mover, 1974, was made with the Developer. The marks in this work came from objects or pieces of wire, which I tacked beneath the canvas. When the Developer came across the surface of the canvas, it revealed the drawing underneath, very much like a wet frottage. The paintings from this period and before I called my slab paintings, which referred not only to the way they were made but also to the fact that the skein of paint measured 1/4 to 3⁄8 of an inch thick.

Slab could also have topographical connotations. My first trip to Crete was in 1969, and I met a young French geologist who explained the rock formations in the surrounding hills of my village. One can see the temporality of human existence in the rocks and the soil: fossils that came from the sea ending up in the mountains, for instance. Those kinds of experiences led me to the idea of molecular perception in art, and they also spurred my reading of philosophy: the writings of Husserl, Hegel, Heidegger, and more recently Édouard Glissant. The narrative, meaning, content, subject matter, and location of symbols are all compressed into my paintings.

Black Monolith III for Barbara Jordan, 1998, which is also in the show, is from my “Black Monolith” series—my way of saying thank you to black artists, writers, thinkers, and poets. It is a way to honor our own and to grieve our own. When you look at the surface of Black Monolith III, it is not by accident that the tessellation looks topographical. The painting is the reproduction of a concept. It appears to be Xeroxed or scanned from a satellite photograph, but it is all acrylic paint. In the paint there is the suggestion of mica, ore, iridescent rock, and mineral deposits: things that have been dug up from the ground or spun off from a meteorite. Geologic remains are like that, artifacts, which carry with them the psychic and physical data of our existence.

In our world, capitalism is in a cannibalistic cycle, which can lead to the loss of hope. In Crete they have a local word for this, φάωόλα or fataoula, to “eat it all,” which is from the verb φάω or na fao, which means “to eat.” Capitalism is an extreme form of greediness, because it works by eating and digesting everything. In Greece now, people have lost hope, and that is a scary thing. I still think about technology, about fracture, and about racial politics. My Apps for Obama, 2011, is a bright and cheerful painting that nonetheless features the debris of our age as attractive on a digital screen: an interface that fluctuates between imaging and materiality, but above all else is paint.

— As told to Andrianna Campbell

View Whitten's 2012 portfolio for Artforum here.

A still from Rebecca Patek's Back to the Source (work in progress), video, color, sound.

Rebecca Patek is a New York–based performance artist and choreographer whose work combines elements from dance, comedy, and the visual arts to create often uncomfortable theater and performance situations that involve instances of satire and violence. As part of MoMA PS1’s latest iteration of “Greater New York,” Patek was invited to perform a new work for an upcoming Sunday Session, titled “The Cringe: Performance and Anxiety,” along with the artist Ieva Misevičiūtė, who will also be presenting on October 18, 2015. Here, Patek discusses the precarious development of her new piece.

I’M INTERESTED IN the highly choreographed ways in which porn is edited and shot. My original idea for this piece was to have a porn shoot in the VW Dome, which is located outside the museum. I was going to have a live-streaming camera shooting during a panel discussion—actually the panel was going to become the porn shoot and the actors were going to be played by PS1 staff. There were also going to be actors playing security guards; one was going to be an escort named Hunter. The male escort service Cowboys 4 Angels has a cowboy named Hunter, and I wanted to hire him but it didn’t work out. (I actually met with him and he was kind of a jerk.) My idea had been that Hunter would say to me, “Excuse me, ma’am,” and make it obvious that he’s not a guard, and then we’d have sex on the panel table. I planned to edit it as “MoMA Porn” and post it on pornography websites. Part of this idea was about looking at the live thing and then realizing that the live thing is for the camera.

Sex with consenting adults is something the art world can handle. I’ve been to MoMA and I’ve seen mainstream porn repurposed as art—cutouts from magazines and so forth. To me, that could be considered more offensive than what I wanted to do, which was actual, real sex but in a way that tears down porn, that makes it awkward and uncomfortable but also maybe pleasurable. It wouldn’t be functioning as glossy and glamorous—I wanted to undercut that version of pornography.

In the end, MoMA HQ rejected most of my ideas. Slowly all the elements in the piece had to be stripped away and I realized all I had left was a panel talk. So I made a documentary about the three months of making the piece, which is what I’ll show.

Rebecca Patek discusses her upcoming performance at MoMA PS1.

I understood that the staff being involved was a no-no, but I still wanted to use the museum logo in the edited porn videos I ended up making. The dome itself also just seemed so good for porn, especially with the gray carpeting and lighting. And I think a table with water and mics would be a funny setting for a shoot. Since the whole thing was going to be set up as a scene for something else, with the final product being a video that could be uploaded to other sites, it wasn’t actually a performance; it was just a shoot. The audience would have been voyeurs and there would have been close-ups projected onto the dome walls. Of course, I didn’t expect the museum to say yes to everything. It was just my fantasy idea. But what I didn’t realize was that this piece would become so much about the institution. I never planned to make a performance about PS1’s rules—that was never my intent.

There are so many unknown factors in performance, especially when you’re commissioning a work that’s never been seen before. The museum didn’t really know what I was going to do, and so there was a fear both of the unknown and of bodies. I made the people at the museum anxious, from the beginning, I think, just because most of the work entering a museum has been made already. So it was the not knowing in addition to the fact that I had proposed something sexual. Oh, and also that it could fail—that it could be both bad in quality and offensive at the same time.

Maybe they should just disown the dome—it’s already outside the museum, anyway. Maybe they should just let it be a place where things happen that we don’t have control over.

— As told to Samara Davis

Syd Shelton


Syd Shelton, Specials Fans, RAR Carnival Against the Nazis, Leeds, 1981, gelatin silver fiber print, 16 x 20".

Syd Shelton is a photographer who first started working with the Rock Against Racism activist group in 1977, when racial tensions were at a peak in the UK. At a time when right-wing media attacks on the black community in southeast London were common and discriminatory policing was taking a toll on that community, Rock Against Racism brought together antiracist activists from across the country to attend concerts, exhibitions, and protests. Now, as racial tension and a refugee crisis grow again in both the US and the UK, Shelton’s photographs from his time with the group are on display at Rivington Place in London, ‪from October 2 through December 5‬, 2015.

I BECAME INVOLVED with Rock Against Racism after the Battle of Lewisham in southeast London in 1977. This was when a racist march by about one hundred National Front supporters was met with five thousand antiracist activists who had traveled down from all over the country. The Metropolitan Police were determined that the National Front be able to march, so they deployed a quarter of their force, suited with riot gear. This was the first time the police in Britain were militarized, and the officers’ use of riot shields really shifted the goalposts for activists—we were up against something different now. At the same time, Eric Clapton had just delivered a horribly racist tirade onstage, in support of Conservative politician Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech.

We realized we needed to grab the headlines to counter the right-wing media’s high profile, and our first major event was a carnival in April 1978—a huge concert in the Victoria Park in Tower Hamlets. We didn’t want it to just be a free rock concert, though; we wanted it to be a demonstration. So we organized a march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park, which is about six or seven miles. It took us around six hours. It wasn’t just a straightforward march, though; every few hundred yards we’d have bands. The Ruts and Misty in Roots played on the backs of trucks in the march, and the Clash and X-Ray Spex played from the stage in the park. It was the largest antiracist demonstration since the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 between the fascist Blackshirts and antifascists.

What we did in Rock Against Racism was use art—music, photography, graphic design, fashion, style—to make our arguments. We used culture as a weapon. We wanted the music itself, and practices such as having black bands and white bands performing together, to express antiracist ideas and give them real weight and meaning, rather than using the crude slogans that so often caricature mass movements. That’s also why we didn’t look for a different title for this exhibition—we just named it after the group.

One of my favorite images from the exhibition is of three young black kids at a Specials gig in 1981. They’re wearing Ben Sherman button-down shirts, Harrington jackets—total skinhead gear originally. The whole thing had gone full circle, because skinheads appropriated their style from the rude boys in Jamaica, so it was like a new generation of rude boys had reclaimed the style back from the skinheads. This picture is a really good example of “style-activism,” to use a phrase from one of the show’s cocurators, Carol Tulloch. Another important image that’s included is of Jimmy Pursey at our second carnival in Brixton, also in 1978. He had had to pull out of performing after a gang of racists threatened to kill him. But in the middle of the show, I was backstage reloading my cameras with film and suddenly Jimmy charged onto the stage, grabbed the microphone, and made the most fantastically brave and passionate antiracist speech. Then he turned around, literally shaking with emotion. He looked at me for a second, and I got the shot. I still feel that I’m putting the antiracist argument forward using art. But this exhibition is not about me as a photographer; it’s about making a statement in the streets of Shoreditch.

— As told to Ashitha Nagesh

Hannah Black


View of “Hannah Black,” 2015, Arcadia Missa, London. From left: Black Quadrilateral 4, 2015; Black Quadrilateral 2, 2015; Black Quadrilateral 1, 2015; Black Quadrilateral 3, 2015.

Hannah Black’s writings and artwork address race, gender, class, pop culture, and geopolitics, among other things. Her first solo show at Arcadia Missa in London, which she discusses here, opened on October 2 and runs through October 31, 2015. Black is also currently participating in two group shows: “Workland: the fence is a narrow place” at Chateau Shatto in Los Angeles, on view through October 31, and “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” at the Yarat Contemporary Art Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, which runs through January 7, 2016.

THERE ARE SEVERAL DIFFERENT types of objects in this exhibition—airline blankets, a video, and big paintings that operate as space dividers, like you might find in an office. But the show was conceived as a single installation about a dialectic between block and flow, which I think is fundamental to how capitalism works. Capitalism imposes extraordinarily stable racial and gender identities in a market-forged world that values transformational processes such as exchange, progress, and growth. Goods and money move more freely than people. But some people can also move very freely: rich people with certain passports, for instance.

I was interested in relating these ideas to a contemporary discourse around the relationship between blackness and abstract principles of capitalist accumulation and social control. What happens when these principles of accumulation are given flesh and walk around? The gallery space is related to the same entanglements all my work addresses: the white art world and contemporary art as a social form that pantomimes ideologies of global flow and global subjectivity. For a lot of leftists there’s this outraged cry: “What do you mean that there are limits on my knowledge?” But maybe knowledge gets more interesting, not less, when we recognize its limits across subject positions, when we don’t make it subordinate to a blanketing, universal subjectivity.

The video, which shows images of trade, flight, and circulations of all kinds, addresses this most explicitly, and the airline blankets evoke individual discomfort, the care of people’s bodies, and mass circulation at the same time. I read that metabolism comes from the Greek metabolē, or “change,” but that the word could also mean exchange or trade. Between the body and the ordering of the world there are all these ideological conflations—if someone says “blood circulates” or “commodities circulate,” in a way the relation is totally metaphorical but it’s also made real through different forms of control: threats of violence or exclusion or poverty. In every case, living is at stake.

Frank B. Wilderson III’s ideas have been helpful to me in thinking about this show. He comes out of a Marxist tradition, but his political desire is bound up with black liberation. He talks about how blackness, understood as a kind of permanent negation of subjectivity, is the disavowed heart at the concept of “subject” or “citizen.” Since I first read Wilderson, I’ve also become interested in theorists like Sylvia Wynter, Saidiya Hartman, and Fred Moten, but I really value Wilderson’s punk negativity because it contrasts with the positivity of activism. It refuses to respond to the demand that we have to be able to describe alternative worlds before we have the right to desire them. Part of me is just in a long tantrum about having to live with all these crazy traps of race and gender, and Wilderson speaks to that. Also, in Jared Sexton's 2008 book Amalgamation Schemes, he talks about race as a scratch, a line going astray, so in the show I scratched these crude smiley faces into brown paint on the dividers, because I wanted to ruin the surfaces and make the objects abject with these grotesque, ingratiating smiles.

I think this show is a little despairing, but despair about politics isn’t despair about the world. I’ve carried around race and gender like a stone in my throat for a long time and now I am giving more credence to this stuck stone—in fact it’s the only thing I’m giving credence to. I like Wilderson’s stance on art as a place where you’re allowed to want the world to end, and I want to distinguish it from a bratty insurrectionist stance. I think the desire for this end is about mourning, just as the 2011 London riots could be understood as mourning, and so could everything that happened in Ferguson and after. I’ve been thinking about how mixed up the desire to live and the willingness to die are, and how they don’t need to name themselves as political.

— As told to Paige K. Bradley

Gabriel Sierra, Untitled (o(op(ope(open)pen)en)n), 2015, MDF and burlap, dimensions variable. Installation view, SculptureCenter, New York. Photo: Kyle Knodell.

Gabriel Sierra is a Colombian-born artist whose site-specific installations and performances aim to create environmental “intrusions” within space. “Numbers in a Room,” a solo exhibition of his work, is on view at SculptureCenter in New York from September 20, 2015, through January 4, 2016. He will also have a solo show at the Kunsthalle Zurich from November 21, 2015, through February 7, 2016.

I’VE BECOME OBSESSED with how we experience the present. For example, I can’t help but think of how this interview is happening in real time, for something that will be transcribed and read at a later date on the Internet, which will ultimately describe an exhibition opening on the twentieth of September, and which someone might not read until years after the show has passed. We live in a complicated era in which time has become almost irrelevant. This is why my recent work experiments with the exact moment when a visitor enters the gallery. I’m interested in how a body moves through the space, and the idea that the work can become the space itself. So when I change the title of my exhibition every hour, as with my recent exhibition at the Renaissance Society in Chicago, I aim to focus on the moment in which the visitor steps into the show. Depending on the title at the time of your visit, you’ll have a different experience. I’d even go so far as to say that the title of the exhibition is more important than the show itself.

In “Numbers in a Room,” my exhibition in SculptureCenter’s lower-level galleries, I’m drawing attention to the particularities and physicality of the building’s architecture. While most galleries aim to be as neutral as possible, this space is unusual: It’s a catacomb-like warren of small rooms, dark narrow corridors, with no natural light. I’ve installed pieces that will act as intrusions, and which ask visitors to modify the way that they would normally navigate the space. Other works in the show are signs and numbers from the New York City subway, shown for varying times throughout the exhibition. These allude to the architecture of SculptureCenter, which was once a trolley repair shop. My work is very quiet. It’s not spectacular. What I’m thinking is that people will walk through the show and notice only a few changes.

For the project in Zurich, which opens in November, I’m re-creating a déjà vu experience, and I will materialize this phenomenon of how we perceive space, time, and memory. In the show, there will be three identical rooms with the same objects in the same places, repeated three times. The idea is to re-create a fake déjà vu; it could be completely boring, but just because a phenomenon is mundane does not mean it doesn't exist.

While in school I studied architecture and design, and my work reflects this training. However, I find that the responsibilities of an architect or designer are far more complex than those of the artist. There are, of course, many security reasons for this. There are safety concerns and restrictions in the more practical realms, while an artist is allowed the freedom to play and perhaps have a more imaginative approach. As an artist who trained in these fields, what I’m most interested in is how the environment affects you—how architecture controls your behavior, for instance, even if you are unaware of its effects.

— As told to Gabriel H. Sanchez