Phone Tag: Interview with Walter Scott

Walter Scott, Excerpt from Wendy

Walter Scott, Excerpt from Wendy

The former Phone Tag participant, Tiziana Le Melia, put me in touch with Walter K. Scott, a Canadian artist perhaps best known for his Wendy comics. Walter speaks with me about creating Wendy, a fictional character trying to navigate the art world; his sculptural practice; and his recent move to Guelph, Ontario to pursue an MFA in this Phone Tag interview.

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 inspiring, who I then interview with the same five questions.

***

LW: “If you had to briefly say what your practice was, what kind of work do you make?”

WS: “I started making comics again in 2011. I have this comic series called Wendy. It’s a fictional narrative of a person named Wendy who strives for art stardom but her life keeps getting in the way. She tries to access the art world and continually try to define herself as a successful artist without really knowing what that means. So it’s the story of someone’s personal life but it’s set in the art world.”

LW: “Does this relate to what you are seeing in other people when you were out at openings, or is this more a personal feeling as well?”

WS: “Wendy is based on me. Wendy started as a story of a girl who wants to be an artist but she lives in this punk community like I did in Montreal. As Wendy’s adventures have continued, they are inspired by the things that have been happening in my life, to me. They go from the punk loft to galleries, openings, parties, conferences, all the art milieu places.”

Walking Across Campus With a Form to Fill Out, Acrylic and Watercolor Pencil, 14x17", 2016

Walking Across Campus With a Form to Fill Out, Acrylic and Watercolor Pencil, 14×17″, 2016

LW: “In terms of who has influenced your practice, are you looking at other comic books? At life?”

WS: “My first influence was Kathy Acker. The first Kathy Acker book I read was Don Quixote. I like how the main character speaks but then the dog will speak, and the prose was inspiring to me. I wanted to channel that punk spirit. But at the same time it was influenced by Legally Blonde and the idea that a person on the surface can be conventionally attractive and well-dressed but in fact is a mess. That’s where Wendy came from. Formally, because I picked up drawing comics where I left off, when I was 16 years old, the same formal inspiration is there. Like Matt Groening’s Life in Hell or Ren and Stimpy.

Then from comics, I started to make sculptures. But I wasn’t totally sure where the sculptures were coming from. They felt a little bit forced and too autobiographical. But then I had a really good studio visit, where this curator said, since I already made this fictional universe with Wendy, that it was actually totally OK for me to jump from fiction into sculptural practice, and that it didn’t have to be a sculptural practice that was a direct one-to-one translation of my life. In that way, it’s more interesting because it gives a third space for both me and the viewer to draw from and more opportunity for complexity in the reading of the artwork.”

LW: “Yeah. I could imagine—or you could tell me—that you chose a comic format because you wanted to use narrative. But then, narrative doesn’t always work the same way in sculpture. Do you think about narrative with the sculpture?”

WS: “I do. Although, because Wendy is about a person, Wendy has an emotional dimension to it. Each of the characters in Wendy are a different representation of me—different facets of my identity—so I think there’s a kind of shape shifting or drag performance going on in a way, some process of embodiment or transformation. With my sculptures, I use the opportunity in working with physical materials to draw out that relationship more: between the artwork and between the body and transformation. For instance, I had a sculpture that I made in 2013 that was called Wendy’s MFA Application or I think it was called MFA Application 2016. It had this weave hair attachment all around the outside of an envelope. It pointed to this idea of the physical embodiment of fiction, or how I use fictional characters as a costume or a cosplay of myself. I’m trying to play with ideas like that in my sculpture. Lately I’m realizing while I’m doing my MFA that I’m more interested in the embodiment of fiction and visual metaphors and allegories for embodying fiction, where intestines can also be a line coming out of a pencil, and things like that.”

Excerpt from Wendy

Excerpt from Wendy

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

WS: “Maybe when I won a drawing award or something? When I was like 3 or 4.”

LW: “That’s super young. So you were always drawing as a kid?”

WS: “Yeah, I was the one in school that could draw. That was my thing.”

LW: “And you were making comics when you were 16, and then you stopped for a while?”

WS: “I was drawing since I was very, very young and then maybe around 14 I started to make my own zines. Later on I would start selling them at school. I had these comic series I would make, editions of comics, and I would Xerox them on my lunch break in high school on the Xerox machine at the corner store down the road. So, yeah, that was my thing. I think I really needed it at that time to define myself.”

LW: “Did you go on to get an undergraduate degree in painting, drawing..?”

WS: “I got an undergraduate degree in studio art at Concordia University in Montreal. I graduated in 2009. I specialized in printmaking. I was interested in the screenprinting process. During undergrad I was also interested the punk DIY music scene. I was making posters for events. I wasn’t screenprinting them, so they were either photocopied or colored digital images, but they used the screenprinting process in the way that they images were layered.”

LW: “That’s a solid gap between undergrad and grad.”

WS: “2009 to 2016…oh my god, yeah, it’s been seven years.”

In the studio

In Walter Scott’s studio

LW: “Do you have a new studio at the school? What’s an ideal day like in the studio?”

WS: “I have a pretty big studio. We all have pretty nice studios here. I’m slowly breaking it in. I’m kind of welcoming the mess. A perfect day in the studio is not very long. I don’t like to work very long. Maybe I’m lazy, but if I get four hours in the studio, I’m OK.

In the four hours, there’s room for sitting and staring and walking away and then toward the objects and textures and stuff that I’m working with. I like to collage or edit. A lot of my sculptural practice, the first parts of it are me drawing textures or using watercolors or acrylics on paper and then putting them on the wall alongside fabric or material. Then walking away from it, moving around, and walking around my studio moving pieces and seeing the relationship. Just trying to feel out the spatial relationships between the objects, the textures, the fabrics and then how they exist in the space also—whether something is better lying on the ground or hanging off of the wall or somewhere in the middle. Because these things that I’m making will eventually determine their own space in the gallery in the way that only they could.”

The Pants of Law and Order, Acrylic and Watercolor Pencil, 14x17", 2016

The Pants of Law and Order, Acrylic and Watercolor Pencil, 14×17″, 2016

LW: “Do you feel it’s more important as an artist to be in a city, where its expensive or tough or whatever, but there’s a strong cultural scene where you can see art and you can show art; or, like you are now, to be a small town, a quieter place, where you can really focus on making?”

WS: “I think it’s OK to have both if you can manage to do both at different times. Because I see people in cities struggling constantly and I see more isolated rural people struggling in a different way. My solution has been to try to do a little of both; it’s almost like seasons in a year where I will try to spend some time in cities and some time more isolated. It’s not easy to do because people have different responsibilities.

But I work best when I know that I can enter and exit. I’ve been a nomad and home has been a difficult thing to define. So I decided that every place I’ve been in, is just another room in my house. When I go back home, to my hometown, I say, this is one room, like the guestroom or bedroom. And a big city like Toronto or L.A. is like the living room, and maybe Vancouver is the bathroom…I don’t know. Because every city also has its own spatial, empathetic, psychic character. You know how, when you walk into a church, there’s a certain protocol? It’s just like in a city, there’s a certain protocol in the way that you behave with others. Somewhere like New York it’s crazy and you just could do whatever…that’s kind of like being in a nightclub. Yeah, every city is kind of like being in a different room. I’m not really settled anywhere, nowhere is home right now, just yet. The way I try to feel at home now is to imagine that every city is just a room in the home of myself.

So after the last 3 years of being in these huge random cities, I really really welcome these two years in this small town. I think that I’m going to draw a lot from these experiences I had being in Chicago or L.A. or Tokyo, and really put it to good use while I’m hunkering down in Guelph, Ontario.”

LW: “These past few years of moving around—presumably a lot of it was residency driven—this is a strange model for a lifestyle. I know other artists who cobble together different residencies and they do it for a few years. Its sound really amazing but really draining.”

WS: “Oh, it’s difficult to get any work done! I expect to not. Sometimes I see a few months coming up for an arts related residency but I don’t expect to get any work done there and then I’m going to be in this other city, and I’m definitely not going to get any work done there. You sort of have to decide that some cities are more for experiencing than they are for actual production. It’s a matter of balancing out when during the year you have time and space to be productive, if you can, and when you’re going to say OK, these next few months are for experiencing life only and logging that and later maybe turning that into an artwork.

It’s kind of why I started to make comics again—the beginnings of this nomadic life. I stopped having a studio and I stopped having space to create larger psychical objects. I would literally just plop down in whatever bedroom I was staying in at the time. It didn’t take that much space to take out a notebook and a pen and an eraser and make artwork in a very transportable modality.”

Live Culture: Slavs and Tatars at Tanya Bonakdar

downstairs_installation_101

Reader, I drank it. A gallery employee filed a copper tumbler with a ladle of thin white liquid topped with an airy foam he especially fished out for me from the metal cart pictured above. This is the last week to visit the exhibition “Slavs and Tatars: After Pasteur” at Tanya Bonakdar gallery, where the artists have installed a bar of drinkable Turkish yogurt in a room of playful sculptural objects (don’t sit on the cots!) lit by pink and green neon. This interview with the collective Slavs and Tatars explains its origins as a reading group in 2006 interested in historical political and cultural threads in the Balkans and Caucuses. From those activities of reading, publishing, and disseminating texts developed the method of artistic presentation for trans-cultural histories on view here: a method that is playful rather than pedantic and associative rather than analytical. At least, this is part of the context for “Afteur Pasteur,” which claims to “challenge our understanding of the self through the unlikely relationship with bacteria and the microbe, the original Other or foreigner.”

upstairs_installation_041

On the upper floor of the gallery, the artists show works from two ongoing series among others. Pictured above on the left, the Kitab Kebab series offers books as a “talismanic digestive, a mashup of narratives and texts to be appreciated as much through the gut as the mind.” If it’s not clear from the image, the books have been pierced through with a skewer, brutally violating and connecting texts from different cultures in a mock up of the region’s notably violent history. So, not just a light lunch for a bookworm. Pictured above on the right, colorful plastic plaques riff off of Marcel Broodthaers’ “Poèmes industriels” in form, but do so to compare the inherent power dynamics of languages through semantically off-kilter juxtapositions and one-liners.

img_0989_1

With all the value there is to a more playful approach, I wonder who is getting the joke? All the objects in the exhibition are beautifully produced and cleverly described. But the jokes rely on a cross-cultural knowledge of complex regions of the world that are difficult to make sense of, even for the people living there. Thus the original book club, with its research and publications, seems very much missing from this exhibition and very needed.

Constriction and Anxiety: Rashid Johnson at Hauser & Wirth

download

Rashid Johnson’s large exhibition “Fly Away” takes advantage of monumental spaces of Hauser & Wirth’s gallery on 19th Street where the artist tries to confine broad, unsettled themes of race and distrust to the work of art. Yet their implications seep out, notably in the dramatically different opening and closing rooms of the exhibition. The opening room of black and white images hung on the wall read as overblown inkprints or cartoons at first glance. Between the somber palette, the loose grid, and the orderly arrangement across wide open concrete floors, the effect is stark, even before one gets close enough to reckon with materiality and influence, abjection and horror. In contrast, the final room is devoted to a large black frame installation dominated by plants and the jazz notes of a pianist encased inside the structure, like a living room TV stand run amok under the influence of the the 1970s and the jungle. “Fly Away” feels particularly timely with it’s Afro-centric cultural evocations citing the pressures on the black figure and the black person in the world. As others have noted–including the artist, the missing faces and erasures are poignant and pointed in light of recent events related to police brutality in the United States.

img_0979

The living plants and live music of Antoine’s Organ (2016) in the last room are almost the elements of a garden party, a contradiction with the serious implications of the installation. The black metal scaffolding contains books, video screens, mounds of shea butter, and plants in ceramic vessels built and decorated by the artist. Details such as copies of the satirical novel The Sellout by Paul Beatty suggest a darker element. The exhibition takes its title from the old hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” which ties into the performances of Antoine Baldwin, also known as Audio BLK. The pianist activates Antoine’s Organ from a perch for upright piano built within. When I visited, Baldwin’s playing was more melancholic than triumphal, avoiding the more transcendent note that the title “Fly Away” might otherwise suggest.

img_0980   img_0981

The underlying limitations and negative significance underscore the stark impact of the first room, where six large-scale panels of white ceramic tile covered with dozens of agitated faces scrawled in black soap and wax. Johnson uses black soap as a paradoxical material: it is a cleansing agent that, especially when applied to white ceramic tile commonly found in bathrooms, resembles shit. Connotations aside, the texture contrasts between shiny ceramic and rich matte soap is elegant. The unhappy sketched faces recall Jean DuBuffet.  I felt there was poignant contrast between the black soap faces with mouths scratched across as if silenced or ravaged and the live notes spilling into the room from the artificial domestic jungle structure. The series builds on previous work called Anxious Men; these are called Anxious Audiences.

img_0986

In tandem with anxiety, constraint is the tenor of the show, as Johnson highly controls the tools of the trade within the confines of the traditional art surface. His cultural commentary, like his material fascination, is decorative re-presentation, a re-use of signifiers to touch on themes of escape and identity. While there is value in creating a space for reflection, and today’s political context demands just such reflection, it offers no alternative vision of what could be, and the music echoes off the cavernous white walls rather than finding or offering a way out.

Up through October 22 at Hauser & Wirth.

img_0983