Bad at Sports

Interview with Michelle Blade

By Bad at Sports February 24, 2010
Music from the Mountaintops, 2010 (still). Courtesy of the Artist.

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.

Brian Andrews and Patricia Maloney sat down with Oakland-based artist Michelle Blade on February 20 in her storefront studio, which is also the location of Sight School, the alternative space she created in 2009 to encourage dialogue around the connections between art and life. It was the day following the opening for her solo exhibition, “Blow As Deep As You Want to Blow,” on view at Triple Base gallery in San Francisco through March 21. Their conversation tackled a range of topics, from the economic realities that perennially plague artists in the Bay Area to the pleasures of walking across a painting. This is the second collaboration between Art Practical and Bad At Sports.


Sight School

Patricia Maloney: Can you tell us about the concept for Sight School?

Michelle Blade: Before Sight School began I was very interested in creating a space to use as a platform for engagement, and the opportunity for supporting artists and the community with it seemed very exciting.

Because I felt I couldn’t afford to live in the city any more, going to Oakland seemed like a good idea. In this neighborhood, the Golden Gate District, there are a handful of new artist-run spaces popping up; people are excited about the growth that is happening here. So when I came across the space, I moved in, and starting building and planning immediately. Much of the concept quickly grew into blending the line between art and life.

PM: Do you have ideas about the type of work by other artists that you’d like to show here?

MB: I’m definitely interested in doing site-specific exhibitions and various events that promote sharing knowledge; events that cultivate a public within the community that’s open, versed, that wants to share, learn, and grow together. That’s why I wanted it to be more of a school. I want the space to embrace people, and to grow naturally into whatever it’s going to become. I’m trying hard not to tie it down to something really specific right now. But in terms of who is going to exhibit, I’m starting with local artists and people I find inspiring to come and do projects and hopefully take risks here.

PM: I attended the first project that took place here this past December, which is actually a project created by Temporary Services, based in Chicago. You hosted a reading of different essays and articles from this newspaper that they are distributing online and for free that’s entitled Art Work. Can you talk about how that came together?

MB: That evening was really brought together by Matthew Rana. I have to give him a lot of credit for that. Temporary Services reached out to him early on, and we were excited about the project. Once the space was built, we knew we wanted it to be one of the first things that we did. It felt important to get this conversation going.

Brian Andrews: What was actually presented, as part of this inaugural idea of a school?

Zachary Royer Scholz. Art Work public reading, 2009. Photo by Michelle Blade. Courtesy of Sight School, Oakland.

MB: There were various readings, some from the actual newspaper itself, as well as other readings. Then there was a town hall‑style discussion afterwards that was based on questions around what art workers are entitled to, what they should be entitled to, what injustices people feel they’re experiencing by working in the art market. It kind of exploded into this really fiery, passionate conversation.1 It wasn’t controlled at all; there were a lot of people yelling back and forth; it was kind of exciting. I can’t say there were any conclusions made that night, but it was definitely clear that people are unhappy in their situations, and it was very clear that we needed to have more conversations. I hope that something, perhaps a panel discussion with a moderator this time, could encourage a more helpful conversation.

BA: I want to dig into that deeper because that is an issue that has been burning in my mind also as an artist. You describe this place as coming in part from not being happy as an artist.

MB: It is really difficult in the Bay Area. I enjoy the quality of life here— it’s wonderful—and I think that’s why some artists do choose to stay. I automatically think about the article Renny Pritikin posted on the blog Open Space. I think I had to open this space in order to stay. I had to make my niche in the community or dig in and make a reason for myself. I don’t see collectors supporting Bay Area artists; there’s not a lot of money here for art; there’s no sales, which people do need to survive. Jobs and teaching opportunities are really hard to find as well. There was that Dynamic Adaptability conference that took place a couple of weeks ago. They were trying to discuss job opportunities for artists, and none of the speakers addressed what it was like to be a young artist in the art market, or how they made money. There’s just not a lot here right now; it’s hard.

BA: Absolutely. I think this isn’t specific to the Bay Area; it’s just being an artist. Even in New York, London, L.A., most artists aren’t being bought either, but certainly less here, because we’re not an international art center.

MB: But even in good times, people don’t support the artists that are here.

BA: Maybe I am going to make enemies with this next statement, but as an artist who moved to the Bay Area, who was already established somewhere else, I’ve had my own peculiar experience with the Bay Area art community. I’ve found that the biggest problem is that artists aren’t open and accepting. In the years I’ve been here, I’ve found it’s typically people in nonprofit spaces, gallerists, and curators who are friendlier than artists are to each other. Artists feel more coolly competitive, strangely territorial. There is a pervasive anxiety about that, versus other communities, like L.A., Chicago, or New York, where artists at least seem to want to engage in other people’s studios.

PM: To elaborate on that, one of the things that I think distinguishes the Bay Area—which is somewhat contradictory to what you just said— is a drive toward collective activities, but that those activities happen around spaces. I think it makes a lot of sense that, Michelle, you would talk about creating your niche in the Bay Area via creating a space. Because there are these places external to people’s studios where they find their community in the Bay Area. Brian, what you are describing is something that I’ve also observed living in Chicago and New York. There isn’t the same sense of collective engagement that happens around alternative spaces or institutions there, and so you find these networks that develop via people engaging with each other in the studio. Both those things came out very strongly in the conversation that took place around Art Work. People do give so much time to each other and to spaces, and yet that doesn’t seem to come back to artists individually.

MB: When I moved up here from L.A., the openness I found from the artists I was connecting with was huge. I don’t know that I agree with you, but we have had different experiences. I’ve just felt that there’ve been more opportunities than what you describe. Maybe it is the collective attitude and nature of people, and how they gather together. Maybe it is not so studio-based. But I shared a large studio with several people, and it was very close for a while.

Sunsets and Mountaintops

BA: I am really interested in this idea of calling it a school, especially in light of this new interest in schools—the Mountain School in L.A., Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School, 16Beaver—which makes me wonder if there is some form of curriculum that you are developing?

MB: If there is a curriculum, it is not a strict one right now. My attitude is to leave the space as open as possible, to let it become what it will become. I’ve looked at different spaces; I’d really like it to become something similar to Machine Projects in Los Angeles, where there are different artists or musicians who can come in and teach classes and workshops. I’m really looking forward to planning that, in the near future. But as far as a strict curriculum….

BA: I didn’t think you were grading or issuing transcripts.

MB: [Laughs] No, it is more just an attitude of being open, to be able to respond to artists utilizing the space, to visitors, or to the community.

BA: Doesn’t it imply an act of participation that’s different? If you come to a gallery as an audience member, there is a certain amount of passivity that’s inherent, whereas being a student implies a participatory engagement.

MB: Definitely.

PM: I think that is a great way to describe your own practice, as being open, receptive, and participating in a collective.

MB: That is another reason I wanted to start the space. I was doing a lot of performances where I was acting more like a curator than anything else. I was gathering together these amazing people I know, many who are artists and musicians, and I would set up propositions for them. I became the passive one, in a sense. In starting this space, I can see it coming alive on its own, just through the people who are taking part in it. I’m not completely passive, because I want to be involved, but I see it as something that can come together naturally. I like seeing how that happens in my work, and think it could happen here, too.

PM: What generates the idea of congregating people together, since that is so visible in the paintings you produce and the activities that you do—this striving or yearning toward a collective experience?

Aurora Borealis, 2010; acrylic on paper; 20 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Triple Base, San Francisco.

MB: For me, that just seems so simple. It is just something I want and am really interested in. I mentioned earlier that I didn’t feel that in L.A., and when I came here, it became like a force. I felt so strongly that I wanted to be part of this community, and my work became about creating opportunities for that to happen, and encouraging that as much as possible.

PM: Can you describe some of the projects that you’ve done?

MB: I am doing one right now that I am really excited about that’s going to open at Southern Exposure in a couple of weeks. It’s Music from the Mountaintops, which is a project I am doing in San Francisco about the hilltops that all face each other: Twin Peaks, Bernal, Mount Davidson, and Corona Heights. I’m not a musician, but I’m really interested in the idea of jamming, and how that works, in terms of being connected with somebody. So I’ve invited specific musicians and asked them to choose a group of people that they would want to make music with on different mountaintops.

These are video projects; so I am recording each one, which will then be shown on monitors facing inward in a circle, almost like a campfire. They’ll all be playing at the same time, becoming a cacophony.

BA: I’ve actually spent a lot of time hiking through Corona Heights and Twin Peaks, to have an urban hiking experience. There is a shift in the connectivity of the city, as you have these vertical pockets that take you out and offer you this visual connection. Bernal feels so far away from the Haight, but as soon as you climb Corona, it is more immediate than anywhere else. There’s a remarkable reframing that happens.

MB: Last year, I was commissioned to do a six-month project through the San Francisco Arts Commission that I called The Sunset Talks. I would ask an artist to choose a location in the city from which they would want to watch a sunset with me. I had open-ended criteria for discussion, including the sunset as a symbol of the West and what it means to live in a time without a frontier. I asked each person to recommend the next one who would do the project. It was lovely in how it linked me to all these people I didn’t know, from different backgrounds and ages. This personal geography of the city developed, because I didn’t know any of these places I was going to, and it was a nice way to experience the city. Each person had a story and a reason why they had chosen their space.

Magic Carpets

PM: That experience of the land comes up again and again in your paintings; it is part of your imagery, as well as this congregation of people, often with their backs to the viewer, and facing toward some moment.

MB: I do use these back-turned, silhouetted figures; called the rückenfigur. When Caspar David Friedrich would make his epic landscape paintings, it was almost as if you could enter the space through the figure he placed there.

BA: A universal audience…

MB: Exactly. I was tapping into that. But also, it is very tricky to depict entering into nature as a painter. Going on a hike in the city is not getting in touch with nature, but it is the closest I can get. There is a blurry line between depicting what really is there and what I put psychologically onto the landscape.

BA: This interesting inclusion of a viewer attracted me to your paintings, specifically things like the magic carpet, or other installations you’ve done, in which there is a painted carpet on the floor, in front of wall work. The audience has to stand on the work, and be given a point of viewership. It’s very direct, but also a radical way of viewing painting in a gallery space.

Circular , 2010; acrylic on DuraLar; 55 in. diameter. Courtesy of the Artist and Triple Base, San Francisco.

MB: This is something that happened in the last year and a half, in which I’ve asked people to stand on work or manhandle it, to start thinking about participating with a painting, and what that role is. I think it happened because I was doing so many social projects at that same time. I started to question what it meant to be isolated in a studio. How could I change what I was making in that space, and include it more in the communal activities I was organizing? The first interactive works I made were the magic carpets that I asked people to step on. I was excited about the marks people would make by stepping onto one, and in wearing it down they were essentially making a new work. The rugs I depicted were the literal rugs I painted over on my hands and knees in my studio. Because of the way I was working I felt they were similar to prayer rugs.

PM: Let’s talk about the work that is up right now at Triple Base, which contains a lot more historical, literary, and mystical references.

MB: This work is more about an individual’s quest for knowledge, about my role as a painter, and using art-making as a tool to learn. I also wanted to push how I treated painting as a sculpture as well as a social tool.

PM: I am curious about what you’re reading, because of this overt trend toward mystical imagery.

MB: I think the book that got me going for this show was The Golden Bough. It is an anthropological study of magic, but not “rabbit in a hat” illusions. It starts out by describing a Turner painting and goes into describing these early forms of magic, including voodoo, what people did to attempt to control the weather, and the roles of a shaman. Then it explains where that line crossed over and became first mysticism, then organized religion. I thought it was really interesting how the book described magic like this bastard form of science. Magic was the way early humans tried to understand nature; by creating specific interactions and ties but without ever testing it. I felt in many ways, as a painter and a person involved in social interaction, that I do that. I felt a kinship to faith and this way of inventing understanding.

Listen to the conversation with Michelle Blade on Bad At Sports: Episode 235.


Michelle Blade holds a BA from Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles and an MFA from the California College of the Arts. Her work has been featured at Triple Base, Jack Hanley, and David Cunningham Projects, San Francisco; the San Jose ICA, Carl Berg Gallery and Broad Art Center, Los Angeles; Space 1026, Philadelphia; Union Gallery, London; V1 Gallery, Copenhagen; and the Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Stüttgart. She is a 2007 recipient of the Murphy-Cadogan Fellowship. Blade lives and works in Oakland.


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