Interview ~ Lorem Ipsum with Ben Lima

Ryder Richards interviewed by Benjamin Lima

November 2015

This interview was conducted via Google Docs on the occasion of the exhibition “Lorem Ipsum” at the Pollock Gallery, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, November 7 to December 12, 2015. “Lorem Ipsum” was curated by Danielle Avram, Pelican Bomb (Cameron Shaw and Amanda Brinkman) and Ben Lima. Ryder agreed to participate in the show at Ben’s invitation.


sketch book image

General Questions

Where were you born? What was your family like? What was school like?

Roswell, New Mexico.
Perfect, in that beautifully annoying, ultra-conservative Christian way.
Uncomfortable, most of the time.

Was there a single moment when you decided that you were going to make art? Or was it more of a gradual process?

My mother is an artist, so I think it was always there. I didn’t consciously decide to really care about art until I left architecture school. Later in college I remember this epiphany moment where I thought, “Oh, shit, this is going to be the rest of my life. I better work harder.”

Could you talk about your formal (and/or informal) training in art? How did that shape your approach to your work?

Formal: I went to school for architecture, switched to art and ended up with degrees in painting and drawing, after which I received a Master’s degree in painting. Along the way I made a couple trips to Europe and studied there. I can paint and draw pretty well.

Informal: I built cabinets and flipped a couple houses for money, so manual labor is part of my training. I started and ran 2 galleries, a truck gallery, then a college gallery. In the last four years I decided to be smarter, so I have joined reading groups and started writing.

As you know, this exhibition generally addresses questions of exhibition-making. For my part, in contacting you and the others, I invited you to address the question of how you make decisions. As a viewer of art, I always find this question has an intriguing mystery. How do you respond to this topic?

Well, I tend to overshare, often responding in an obliquely banal manner with anecdotal stories about travel and my previous bodies of work, and then reference something I read or some recent conversation. This type of lengthy, roundabout response seems diversionary, but it is the most honest: the decisions coalesce from an eclectic amalgam of content. To condense your response to a flippant elevator pitch is probably wiser, because it can add mystery rather than revealing my immature flailing about, exposing everything from my conceptual miscalculations to shoddy cost-benefit analysis.

Upon consideration, my decisions often seem reactionary in hindsight. Somewhat well-informed usually, but in the moment they are soft, instinctual investigations that can only firm up in the studio.

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Here at the Pollock Gallery, you may find viewers who drop in–students or others–who have no familiarity with any kind of conceptual art. What would you say to such a viewer who might be baffled by art that is not made in a “traditional” format?

Ah, I would take them out for a beer. I would suggest the book “Beer, Art, and Philosophy” by Tom Marioni. I would talk about how we already have lots of traditional art, and while it can be awesome, there is a whole history of people who have broken away from traditional art in order to have more exciting conversations… even if the work looks dumb and boring.

 


Work/Play: Fence
Work/Play: Fence

Some More Specific Questions

When we met, you were talking about the role of the “white cube” (O’Doherty) and in particular its corners, as a non-neutral display environment. How the white cube/white box can give identity to a work, or strip identity from a work. Could you discuss that a little bit?

Right, I have been thoroughly enamored with the way 3 white walls can garner legitimacy, appearing as a “nowhere space” or “international gallery.” However, O’Doherty and Robert Irwin had issues with corners as points of focus causing problems with perceptual neutrality. The notion that a corner of a painting, or white cube gallery interior, is troublesome is an amazingly specific aesthetic concern from a time when art/artists had different goals.

I think this notion of a white-walled “nowhere space” frames the work in a sanctified manner, but in so doing it also removes context, so the “story” of the work must be gleaned from gallery text and mysterious fragments. In this way, the galleries position themselves as the mediator, the middle-man, setting up a vacuum allowing for fresh re-explanation and re-creation of identity for the work. ~ Not that artists do not know this, plan for this, and operate with this neutrality in mind, but the difficulty comes when the vacant space is populated with conceptual-minimalist gestures that require either an enormous cultural vocabulary to decipher or they are impossibly opaque.

In a blank space a subtle work can have poetry, or it can seem intelligent because of it’s indecipherable nature. As such, the space can activate hidden resonance or can empower a lame piece to speak. If done even moderately well, nothing can fail here, which is not to say that it is any good.

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You also discussed the difference between art that tries to seriously address the questions of power in society (i.e. the role of the police), and may get ignored for that reason, and art that is just entertaining (for example, paintings of big smiley faces!) but for that reason gets a lot of attention. How do you negotiate this challenge?

I don’t know if I do negotiate it very well. Yes, that conversation was all about my recent stay in New York. It seems that the more galleries you see the worse it gets: a cruddy smiley face painting is given top billing in a high-level, pristine space, while a tiny show in a cruddy space may be fantastic and culturally relevant. At the end of the day there are so many people making art, serving these spaces and this capitalist machine, and the content is being consumed and forgotten so rapidly. Having a conversation about race relations or governmental privacy abuses or even the impossibility of flatness in a painting is so taxing compared to laughing at a splayed-legged superhero with rainbow genitalia knit from yarn. And thus humorous porn wins most of the time.

So, here is the challenge: how do you make something “smart” that can still appeal on multiple levels? How can it be “easy” enough to start the conversation, but “good” enough to say something relevant or meaningful, something not just about spectacle or nostalgia? How do you make it feel fresh, timely, yet worth pondering? Or do you just say “fuck it” and make deeply profound work, hoping that eventually the world will wake up and pay attention? Or do you just say “fuck it” and make fun work, realizing that maybe that is profound, but in a completely different way?

What I have been doing lately is making a body of work that heavily considers some topics, reading and researching and carefully considering the processes. Then, as a sort of vacation from intelligence, I attempt to simply react with instinctual play, making work that feels “right” or “meaningful” as a way to tune into all the non-frontal cortex desires and concerns, yet I know it is still working its way into my processes. It is almost like sports, where you have on- and off- season regimens of conditioning and playing: both are serious, but the actions and results look much different.

Concrete Action_ book, plaster, aquarium
Concrete Action_ book, plaster, aquarium

 

lawn-traffic

In relation to this particular work, you referred to “emergency preppers” (which, I confess I didn’t fully register), and the experience of Home Depot — thinking that, being an individual artist (compared to, say, the multinational Gagosian Gallery or Jeff Koons empire) is something like being an individual DIY homeowner, as compared to the kind of multinational construction firms that build highways and stadiums. As an individual artist, is being the “little guy” inspiring, challenging or other?

Well… I don’t know. Sometimes in my post-modern cynicism I feel like a reactionary archetype or meme: a little David swinging at Goliath, but unwilling to become the King, because they are all predictably flawed positions. The beauty of the “emergency preppers” is that they are are taking action towards a non-future… devoid of kings and most of us and filled with self-sufficient redneck engineers. They convert knowledge into practicality, avoiding large-scales and ‘soft’ electronics. The survival method is to turn your back on the game, but Home Depot is this odd commercial source drawing you back in for all the tools to do it. It’s ‘caution orange’ logo representing a light-consumer industry of hobbyists, working away towards mostly pointless self improvement and perceived growth.

So, yes, if the world would survive we have massive industries (like the highway and sewage systems) that actually change things for the whole populace, yet there is a dreamy undercurrent of human scale as our true salvation: somehow more relevant, more reliable, more agile and creative.

Perhaps in art it is the same? What I find amusing is to present the grand, the well-made object in the white cube, built with my hands and labor: the sheetrock James Turrell, a Brancusi tower of tires, or a Larry Bell/Judd/Irwin stack of batteries and plexi boxes, or lit 5-gallon buckets vibrating with harmonic sounds. There is this mimicry of the institutionalized on a humble level that I find charmingly reaffirming, yet the ideas presented are often big… much bigger and more complex than the art works I reference.

Shield: Charged
Shield: Charged

We talked about being “insiders vs. outsiders” in viewing art — not in those words. For example: a stack of tires. You and I can talk about references to John Chamberlain, whereas a random person on the street might notice that the tires look like the roadside markers in West Texas and New Mexico. (Or: another example that we didn’t discuss: the orange chevron-shapes refer to the police or construction markers, and also to Kenneth Noland paintings.) So: are both valid? Are you thinking about both levels at once?

Yes, I think on both levels, which in some ways validates each direction of thought, or they validate each other. Those orange stripes intuitively recall Stella, Newman, or an Al Held alphabet; and at the same time I am influenced daily by construction zone striping, the bumpers on the back of police SUV’s, and an HGTV tile pattern.

Naturally, I think they work best in combination, but if someone only has the West Texas visual vocabulary then perhaps a stack of tires work even better: a surreal familiar out of context. They could be so bizarre with no validated, foundational sources from which to draw comfort and tidily position them. But I am so heavily entrenched in the art world (and my world) that it feels impossible not to assign a multitude of referential contact points.

stack

Ideas. As a historian, teacher, writer, I am predisposed to look for ideas and be oversensitive to the presence of ideas in anything. But we need a rule by which to judge the validity of different ideas. You suggested that about four ideas per work is a good upper limit, and I agree. There’s also the question about whether an idea needs to be present before you make the work, or if it is also valid when it occurs to you after you finish making the work. How do you evaluate different ideas in relation to specific works (your own, or others’, or both)?

Ha. Oh, boy… as previously mentioned, I also tend to seek ideas and assign ideas. So, how about a story?

I had a visit with a curator last year who asked why I put 3D printed stairs on top of monogrammed granite chopping block that was propped up by a football. I replied that the chopping block was given to me by my dad’s girlfriend, obviously avoiding a direct response. He said, “ok, but you must have had a reason for doing it: the thought comes first.” To which I said something dumb like, “That is an academic conceit. Everyone knows we are emotional creatures who rationalize our behavior.” Needless to say, I did not get offered a show from this person.

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However, the truth is, I did have a thought before I made the piece, but it was an instinctual type of feeling to balance biographical failures and glories in a fucked-up manner, to create a shielded and non-critiqueable format. But, to reveal this undermines the power and mystery that drew him to the piece.

The revelation of ideas… Lately, I am thinking it is a flaw: as much as it feels like communication it might be the only thing that can destroy a piece. Not that I heed my own advice on these things, because I am an emotional creature despite my robotic disposition.

Grad school. We swapped war stories about grad school (MFA vs PhD), and the better and worse things that it does for you. I’ve been very interested in reading accounts of art MFA programs (Roger White, Sarah Thornton, Howard Singerman) since I’ve never been in one myself, and I sense that the experience is obviously very relevant to understanding how art gets made. So: do you want to comment on your experience as an MFA student?

Ha. Yeah, well… I remember getting along with everyone fine for the first year, then it all got tense and serious and a bit hostile. In hindsight what can you expect? You put a bunch of people together and train them to be hyper-critical, they will begin tearing each other apart as much as the artwork they critique.

I find, now that we are all out, we only want the best for each other, to help each other. The art world is too small to remain on bad-terms with someone you have so much in common with. Not that petty jealousy isn’t alive and well in this field, I just happened to be lucky and went to school with good people. (I am currently in a show at deadWEST, co-founded by a former grad school compatriot.)

Can you discuss a bit the work that was shown at Public Address in Brooklyn? You mentioned “predatory silhouettes,” camouflage, pimped-out cars, cop cars… And on that note: power. Power is of course appealing, but also threatening. Is it the job of artistic freedom to test the limits of authority?

Shield: Predation 2_ Acrylic, resin, image transfer, shaped panel 48”x40”x3”
Shield: Predation 2_ Acrylic, resin, image transfer, shaped panel 48”x40”x3”

I think that used to be the role of some art. It seems like since post-structural philosophy all positions are flawed and suspect, and no voice is without fault, so we keep our heads down and quietly murmur our dissent or opinions lest someone point out our privileged positions. (Have you seen the meme #TakeUsDown?) Not only that, but the art world is now designed to welcome dissent, to embrace “limit pushing” as a commodity that will draw interest, which makes it scarily close to a cliche. So, perhaps art has stopped pushing these limits, and is more interested in having philosophical conversations.

I think the thing about power is to recognize it, the signs of it, the forms it takes, which is what I tried to do in my show. But even when you do it isn’t like we are unaware of Google, the Government, or Police abuses. We just don’t know what to do about this breach of trust: scream and riot all you want, the system keeps morphing and stays in power, still spying and abusing their power. So, there is this return to the human, the local, the things we can control, and a tendency to turn our back on the system. You don’t raise your voice, you just try to opt out. Go to Home Depot, get some rain-water collectors, raise bees, talk about getting rid of your iPhone…

Shield: Burn_ graphite, lamp black on paper_38.5x 50 in
Shield: Burn_ graphite, lamp black on paper_38.5x 50 in

You have probably seen the movement in the last 5 years towards “casualist” art? Super humble and often un-skilled pieces. It feels like the manifestation of a reaction against the grand or powerful, the hegemony, the fabricated fetish-finish. And, even that has been commodified, so now that movement is suspect. How’s that for a Machiavelli power trip? Even the work trying not to be powerful has been claimed powerful, and interlopers are mimicking weakness to gain power.

One more thing I found profound when researching power: Kenneth Boulding in his text “Three Faces of Power” says that occasionally power will be exercised for its own sake, without any object, simply because by its nature must be used.

Shield: Defense_ Kevlar hoodie_ 36x30x20 in
Shield: Defense_ Kevlar hoodie_ 36x30x20 in

History / Career. We discussed how, as a younger artist, you might want to plan out decades of your career in advance, plotting out each move in the total grand sequence; whereas, as you get older, you might find it easier to just do what you want to do.

Right, totally. I actually did map out my career in 5 year increments until I was 40. By then I will have made it as an artist. Ha. Oddly enough, I have accomplished everything on the list, which shows you how humble my 25 year old self must have been, or how success is an ever receding point, always in the future.