As a self-described storyteller, you create visual stories that teeter between fact and fiction. How do you collect disparate ideas and composite them into one drawing?
I usually begin with a central premise, for example my show in New York City (at Winston Wachter) revolves around forecasting and weather. I am always looking for topics where I find fact and fiction meshing together in extraordinary and disastrous ways. This is where we see humanity facing conflict and compelling stories starting to develop. Much of my recent work walks right into issues of land, climate, and folklore, so I am always looking out for tidbits that might mesh with these topics. Recently, I came across a story on Wikipedia about the great auk, an extinct bird that once roamed across the northern Atlantic:
“On the islet of Stac an Armin, St. Kilda, Scotland, in July 1844, the last great auk seen in the British Isles was caught and killed. Three men from St. Kilda caught a single 'garefowl,' noticing its little wings and the large white spot on its head. They tied it up and kept it alive for three days, until a large storm arose. Believing that the auk was a witch and the cause of the storm, they then killed it by beating it with a stick.”
This treasure, which narrates human frailty, brutality, a desire to survive at all costs, and a need to find the funny in the awful to be able to go forward, perfectly represents the kind of moment I try and construct in my work. I feel the need to expose humans for what we are: bumbling, dreaming animals who are capable, in equal parts, of greatness or incompetence. This tale also may or may not be true, which just makes it richer from my point of view because most readers would probably agree, it may not have happened but it easily could have!
A snippet like this leads me to think about place, character, the quality of the moment itself, and, of course, the ways in which this blip in history has been told and retold. So I begin to look for images that seem relevant to this moment in time. This might be quite literal as in searching for buildings and huts on Scottish Isles or more general as in looking for images of people in moments of pure stress and anxiety. I explore tangents and crossovers, for example, this story makes me think of the Salem witch trials (also fraught with fiction) and other moments in history when suspicion overrides sensibility. We see this happening every day.
Working from a list of notes, I build huge image banks, from historical archives, Flickr, and so on. Some are just for reference; others get used in digital collages. Sometimes, I also shoot my own imagery (as with Plethora) when I have something very specific in mind. Regardless, the process of building a digital collage is like a form of sketching for me, and I will often go through days and days of editing and proposals to myself before beginning a drawing. It takes many stabs and options to get to the final idea. For example, with Plethora, working with a team of photographers, we shot almost 600 images, of which only a few were used in the end to form the final mock-up.
My analysis and editing revolves around some central goals. A primary one would be formal, as I consider composition, light and shadow, depth, and so on. Then I weigh how these formal choices impact content depending on what the goal of the image might be. Then I project on the wall big and start to sift through the options, mulling over the choices and looking for imagery that makes me stop and pause, either because it has a pleasant awkwardness or beauty to it or because I can't quite explain the effect it has and thus feel the need to make the work so that I can discover the conclusion. (Spoiler alert: that doesn't always work!) Finally, I start to weight the image in relation to the other imagery in the show or in the case of Jacksonville, in relation to space and installation. Throughout all of this, I keep asking myself again and again, “Does the work itself ask questions and are those questions meaningful?” I need the answers to be yes to both of those. This is one of the reasons I am so interested in the realm of fiction and a narrative tipping point in the work. My hope is that by creating scenarios that cause viewers to weigh preceding actions and outcomes, they are beginning the process of story production which leads to judgments, tangents, answers, and questions. Hopefully, this implicates them in the work and builds connections beyond my own intent.
I once had a graduate mentor tell me that all artists are collectors, and I took it literally and thought I must be doing something wrong since I try not to be a pack rat. It took me quite a while to brush away my naiveté and realize that I was also a collector, of things read and seen, of image files, of anecdotes, and so on. My images come from these disparate collections.
I have a particular interest and concern in issues of climate, so stories about the atmosphere and our ability to understand and explain the changes we have caused are always front and center in my mind. Humans are very good at inventing things, telling stories that embellish, cover up, exacerbate, lay claim to, or reveal things about who we are and what we have done.
Much of my recent work has dealt with the extremes of climate and landscape, so this topic grows out of that extended conversation.