Phone Tag: Interview with Trevor Amery

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Work in progress (kayak), wood, 33 branches, artificial sinew, boiled linseed oil, turpentine, ballistic nylon

For the inaugural interview of Phone Tag, I Skyped with Trevor Amery in his studio one evening. His studio is a white room almost entirely filled with the half-finished wooden hull of a boat. Trevor works in the domain of installation and social sculpture, a combination of people, object, and context. Recently, he moved to San Diego to join the M.F.A. department at the University of California, San Diego. I know Trevor and his work because we both received Fulbright grants to Hungary in 2012-3.

Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and/or inspiring, who I will then interview with the same five questions.


Linnea West: “What are you working on now?”

Trevor Amery: “Since I’ve gotten here to San Diego, you know I brought the boat with me, and it was maybe a quarter of the way there. But I’ve done an insane amount of work on it since I’ve been down here. It’s about 17 feet long. I’m trying to mirror it, so this is a Mylar skin that I’m playing with now. This is the bow. It was this piece that got me going in the studio.”

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LW: “It also takes up your whole studio.”

TA: “Yeah, it’s a pain in the ass. But it’s an enjoyable, meditative pain in the ass. This is a 2,000 year old boat design. It’s actually a combination of an Aleutian island design and a Greenland design. Now, few make these, and it’s a leisure thing for people in the Pacific Northwest who are able to pay for someone to make half the boat for them and then get the experience of putting together a kayak. That feeds into some of my interests: this whole post-knowledge, weekend warrior, we-can-learn-everything-in-a-weekend kind of culture. I love that kind of access to information, and so for me, that this was a pdf off of the internet that I constructed the boat from, is an important relationship.

These boats were used to hunt. So I’ve been thinking of ways to mirror the boat, in kind of a low-tech way, as camouflage. They used to create a camo effect using different color seal skins. I’m going to be using it as kind of an experiment.

It’s really evolved now, as I’m using it as like a prop for photo shoots now. I’m interested in, to quote from Ricardo Dominguez, a San Diego-based artist, ‘creating a unique context where truth and lies can exist where otherwise they could not.’ I really liked that idea, of creating a fiction, or creating a fictional history. So I decided to create the photo shoot where maybe I make the props for it but then I try to make things somewhat real, but then play with what’s real and what’s fake and sort of complicate it all.”

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LW: “I want to ask who has influenced your practice. But also if anything or anyone during these past few months of starting grad school has been a new chain of thought for you.”

TA: “Well first, to be super cheesy and a bit romantic, of course, Katie—”

LW: “And Katie is your fiancé”

TA: “Yes, my fiancé. She’s an artist and she’s brilliant. Her work is better than anyone I know. To be honest, in the five years, it would be insane for me not to acknowledge the fact that she has been such an amazing influence. She’s made me a more critical thinker.

Other than that, so many friends, like peer groups. When I was at Skowhegan, people like John Dombroski, he was just so in line with being present and aware of this world and tapping into that presence to really make such delicate and sensitive work that’s really powerful and evocative. Ian Jones, who’s a friend from there. We had so many amazing conversations over beer about correlationism and constellationism and kind of the conversation between objects in proximity and of creating conversations through proximity or almost like constructing context in a way. Lilly McElroy for her humor and her honesty with an action that I think is really inspiring. And just, you know, formal studio visits. Byron Kim, kicking my ass and telling me not to be so precious. Sheila Pepe telling me to do everything and more.

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LW: When did you first begin to think of yourself as an artist?”

TA: “I don’t know. I always did. Like a lot of people, I always did it. Am I still? Am I now? Yes, I am told by the institution I am in now that I am. I have put in my cultural dues, I guess you could say.

I never had a specific moment where I thought “I’m an artist,” but for me one of the biggest shifts was when I stopped painting. I painted until four or five years ago. I flew to do a residency in Finland, and en route Ryanair confiscated my oil paints. I got to the two-month residency without my materials and definitely without the budget to go rebuy oil paints in Finland, which is a very expensive country. So I had to figure out how to make there. I ended up doing all these sculptures and installations with found materials, firewood, and all these things. This is going to sound really romantic, but I was in a canoe on a lake with firewood piled up on either side of me as high as my head, front and back. I was paddling out to this floating platform to do this site-specific installation. I just stopped and thought ‘Holy shit, this could be my work.’ That to me is probably the biggest eureka moment.”


Raft, 2011, Site-specific installation firewood, floating dock

LW: “What would an ideal day be like in your studio?”

TA: “One thing I try to do is make every mental state in the studio productive. When I wake up, I need my coffee. So, early, in my brain-not-firing state, starting with things that are maybe more physical like grinding or lathing or knots. When things really start going, writing down thoughts, taking those moments to read as much as I can, work on my ideas, and be open to whatever. Reading around lunch. Concepting. Questioning what I’m working on and thinking about where it could go. Seeing what it needs to become. Having that space in the day is really important. Definitely some bullshitting with some people. I need humans in my life. A coffee break or beer or whatever with whoever is around. And the freedom to let it inform me.

I guess the ideal day isn’t always in the studio. That’s one day. An idea I’m working on now just came out of waking up really early one morning to go hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail to get some headspace outside of my studio. An ideal day in the studio is a lot of things.”

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PCT Artifact, 2014, recovered branch from a burnt out section of the Pacific Crest Trail, steel, spray paint, vinyl

LW: “When you think about where you’ll go next and your career as an artist, do you think it is important to be in a big urban center where there are more opportunities but are also more expensive, or is it better to be somewhere lower cost where you can focus on making work?”

TA: “That’s the question of my lifetime. I think about this question all the time; Katie and I talk about it all the time. We’ve been transient, her since 2010, me since 2011. We have not had a stationary home since then. We’ve done residencies internationally, nationally. We’ve done the really difficult process of saving up as much money as you can so you can go off and do this thing or that.  Return and repeat. I guess for me, ideally, stability is important but with enough exploration and transience. I’d love to have a few bases of operation. Maybe one in L.A., one somewhere in Europe. You know, spending the majority of the year, eight months, somewhere and the rest maybe in remote studios and getting into as many conversations and ways of seeing as I can. For me to try and retain a level of presence and awareness and not create in a vacuum.”

LW: “Maybe our generation is the first to feel comfortable living with that idea of mobility. To not have a home, that one thing that is home. There’s this Korean artist who makes these wonderful houses out of silk—“

TA: “Do Ho Suh

LW: “Yes, and he builds his New York apartment out of fabric and it’s to the specifications of the walls and the bookshelves and the fireplace, but when he takes it to an art fair, he packs it in his suitcase and he just goes there.”

TA: “Yeah, it’s incredible to think about that—architecture as safety blanket.”

LW: “For sure. Well, this concludes the official part of the interview.”

TA: “I hope I answered everything.”

LW: “That was awesome. Thank you.”


Egon Schiele at the Neue Galerie

Egon Schiele_Portrait of Dr. Erwin von Graff_1910  schiele self-portrait with arm above head

Up through the holiday weekend, “Egon Schiele: Portraits” at the Neue Galerie was a surprising favorite show of mine last time I was in NYC: surprising because it’s not my era or area of interest. But Schiele’s portraits stand in graphic, psychological counter to the museum’s stunning portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer by Gustav Klimt. Klimt’s ornately decorative mode gives way to a bare, introspective style by Egon Schiele, who looked up to the older artist as both a father figure and a rival who he must supplant, as is appropriate given the theories Freud was elaborating on, also in Vienna, at this time. Room after room of portraits provides insight into Schiele’s interests (people, preferably lean and contorted) and working methods (a traditional command of draftsmanship and anatomy pointedly given over to more expressive lines). Well-worth a look if you have a chance this weekend.

Gustav_Klimt_Portrait of Adele Blauch Bauer




Unlimited Metaphor: Robert Gober at MoMA


At least one person I know hates the way American artist Robert Gober’s work is displayed at his current retrospective at MoMA (up through January 18). Granted, she knows his work far better than I do, but I beg to differ. Perhaps because this exhibition was my first introduction to Gober’s strange sculptures, I appreciated the installations in themselves, not least because they often mimicked the highly specific way that works were originally displayed. The visitor gets a hint of this dynamic in MoMA’s atrium, taken over by a plywood enclosure, resembling a house’s unfinished walls, whose interior is only accessible from inside the exhibition.


Inside the show, careful facsimiles of sinks, impossible cribs, and anonymous limbs are the order of the day. It’s no wonder that Jerry Saltz describes how critics often have no idea what it means. The show’s title–“The Heart is a Metaphor”–speaks to the logic of dreams by which Gober seems to operate. Although it is difficult to nail down any specific meaning, certainly notions of home are evoked by his utilitarian constructions, and of the body by those limbs, often sprouting out of walls seemingly at random. A gay artist in the 80s, his works (such as the non-working sinks or Untitled (1989) featuring an empty wedding dress) are often seen as responding to issues such as the AIDS crisis or gay marriage, and certainly pieces like the chapel interior (Untitled, 2003-2005) in wake of September 11 attacks would also support a socially engaged reading. At the same time, his tubs and sinks suggest a more general cleansing just as his candles might suggest spirituality or hope. Such metaphors are multivalent, and it is hard to limit the possible significances.


What I found most moving about both sinks and limbs is the care with which the artist replicated both. On close inspection, they are clearly handmade, imperfect, but great care was taken with them. It produces an uncanny resemblance to the real, as if the artist was trying to create some Platonic ideal of a sink. At the same time, returning to this mundane object again and again in his work suggests some kind of idée fixe. Like a murderer who revisits the scene of a crime, I wonder what obsession brings Gober back to these things–what sort of totemic status must they have? Humble. Clean. Functionless. Yet there lurks some darker implication and some deeper function. But like in a dream after one wakes, it is unclear what that function is. Rat bait suggests something ugly but unseen. Bars on windows suggest home might be a prison, or a prison a home.



Some of the more complex works, such as an open briefcase on the floor through which flowing water, moss, rocks, and a tiny bit of bare feet can be seen, suggest the elaborate visual pun of Duchamp in Etant Donnes. What is evoked is the Surrealist language of Magritte et al. in contemporary and mundane guise. The domestic objects of sinks and cribs that formed the beginning of Gober’s career are circled back around to at the end of the roughly chronological exhibition, where a dollhouse sits in the middle of the room, a token from Gober’s initial livelihood in New York. The painting below, the final work in the exhibition, continues to focus on houses and interiority, echoed on a larger scale for the viewer, who is inside an exhibition space painted the pale blue of a baby’s nursery. Throughout, the contained spaces suggest a continued interiority of the mind rather than actual space, and these general symbols, rather than feeling like tropes, seem both personal and poetic, if not immediately fixed in specific meaning.