Cliff Hengst & Scott Hewicker

Between You and Me

Cliff Hengst & Scott Hewicker

By Cliff Hengst, Scott Hewicker October 30, 2018

Between You and Me is a series of dialogic exchanges between artists and their collaborators and peers to materialize the countless conversations, musings, and debates that are often invisible, yet play a significant role in the generative space of art-making.


This column is funded by the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, a private family foundation dedicated to enhancing quality of life by championing and sustaining the arts, promoting early childhood literacy, and supporting research to cure chronic disease.

________

Dear Scott,

For the first time, it feels like autumn. The light has a gold hue, and the shadows are elongated and vertical. I noticed it when I got up this morning, while I limped into the kitchen to put the water on. It all felt slightly different.

I noticed it as well coming home from SFAI later that evening. The evening chill was pronounced and long. As I exited the bus, I noticed the Flood Building and the Gap across the street. I hadn’t shopped there in years and needed a new shirt to make me resemble a normal person. I remember when that place used to be Woolworth’s—the biggest five-and-dime in San Francisco. They had a counter and sold coffee and food; they had a wig section, a candy section, a small pet department that sold goldfish and hamsters; they had dishes and clothing and shoes—all in one place. It smelled like metal and plastic and sugar, and you could easily get lost. It felt cheap and poor and cool, and I had no idea it would soon disappear forever.

But now it’s the Gap, one of the last ones in SF, where the chain originated. When it first opened in 1997, it was the flagship store—so popular and sleek and very busy. When I walked in, it was almost empty—just me and a few other shoppers. The escalators were decorated with Gap ephemera from when it first opened in 1969, when they sold only Levi’s and LPs. There’s a picture of Doris Fisher, ringing up a customer; there’s Don Fisher, looking kind of cool, his hair slightly shaggy. How crazy to think this one person in jeans and glasses would one day amass so much art that he would have to annex an additional building on an already existing museum to showcase his collection of contemporary art.

Where was I? Oh, right. What I wanted to point out was that every shirt in the men’s department was plaid. PLAID. Tartan, in tasteful color combinations, as far as the eye could see. Was this what most men wanted? I asked myself walking from one kiosk cluster to another. It all felt so regressive, like the last bastion of heteromasculinity represented in a pattern—a harkening to the days of the past, when we couldn’t imagine a ignorant racist con-artist as our president. I started thinking about the guy that made the news a few weeks ago, who the media dubbed “the plaid guy.” He stood behind the president as a human backdrop during one of his monthly jingoist rallies. As the President spoke, he reacted with facial expressions and eye-rolling, and was immediately singled out, eventually replaced by someone less opinionated. For a week afterwards, “the plaid guy” became an internet sensation before disappearing just as quickly as he appeared.

Is this what is considered political dissent these days?

Cliff

________

Dear Cliff,

In San Francisco, the light either shines on you or it doesn’t.

Autumn used to be my favorite time of year, but it never quite happens here the way it does everywhere else. It does feel different this time, and I’m kind of unnerved by it. The late summer we usually get is a nice buffer of heat, energy, and activity; however, there’s been an encroaching chill in the air that is all at once brisk and unsettling. Like the grasshopper in that fable with the ant, I’ve been struggling to prepare for what seems will be a difficult season.

By the way, Happy Anniversary! I’m grateful that for the first time in our twenty-eight-year relationship, we are both teaching. There’s nothing quite like commiserating over the joys, pains, and frustration of contemporary art-school education together, and it’s nice to not feel alone. But why on earth are the incoming students so boring? Maybe their shells are just harder to crack, but I’m finding it really difficult to get my students excited over the things we found exciting when we were in art school. No one knows quite what to do with their newly-forming freedom, and no one wants to look bad. They all seem to play it so safe.

Perhaps I’m waxing nostalgic, but in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it felt like there was more at stake. I remember arriving at school with little experience and no practice, but so many desires. I was closeted then without much measurable technical talent, but something difficult to quantify was driving me through my clumsy efforts. I never doubted wanting to be an artist. Later, after we first met, many in the queer community we embraced were dying and we had to fight hard against the indifference. We, too, thought we might not survive it. Yet, in art school there was this big mess of unhinged emotion and wild energy. The instructors just offered us this open forum to present ourselves, with all of our wounds wide open. Outside of school, we were in the streets or in clubs, slowly building a scene, not waiting for something to happen. It was a scary difficult time, but it was also exciting and electric. Of course, screens and the internet weren’t really a thing yet, but is technology the only culprit for a nagging pervasive passivity?

The political atmosphere now is the worst I have ever experienced, and it seems hardly anyone at school wants to make a real effort. The competitive spirit also seems to be lacking. Where’s the urgency? I suspect it all might come down to their levels of privilege. Or is it mine? Are my expectations unreasonable? My freshmen students over the years have just wanted to make their comic book or video game, get hired by Disney, and make money. The other day I gave a prompt to them to make a protest sign, and they all failed miserably. They really couldn’t express any viable form of dissent or even wit. You would have been horrified.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I love my students with a passion, but every year I have to make a bigger effort to shake them out of their complacency. It’s already so difficult to shake myself out of my own. It’s exhausting!

I keep thinking of Prue Leith from the Great British Baking Show (one of the few things these days that calms my rising anxiety) when she says knowingly to the contestants, “It has got to be worth the calories.”

I’m sure there’s a metaphor for art school in there somewhere.

Plaid? The Gap? Normal? I thought you told me you were entering your Iris Apfel phase. Please, please, PLEASE, let’s see much more of that!

Scott

________

Dear Scott,

To follow up, I didn’t buy a thing that day at the Gap. I figured I would have to search elsewhere for what I wanted, that no chain store would carry what I wanted. It’s a tricky thing to shop for men’s clothing. Everything is black, or gray, or navy blue; no colors, no patterns; nothing that makes you stand out—just blending in and being normal. Making a statement is discouraged. Men have to be creative and shop around—two concepts that do not come naturally for the average older man. Most of the time, we want to get in and get out. No wonder so many men are frustrated. We have disappeared from the world of style and creativity! Homogenization and apathy will be the death of us. Like Tim Gunn once said, “If you want to dress like you never got out of bed, then don't get out of bed—stay in it!”

But getting back to the whole political atmosphere thing, it is a difficult time to make work that is reflecting current events. I asked my class why they weren’t more active in taking a political stand in their art, and many said they didn’t like the way it looked. They would rather spend more time exploring work that didn’t look like it had a point of view. But then I remembered what Philip Guston once said about creating work under turbulent times, “What kind of a man am I sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything – and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?” Yes, making work about politics isn’t easy, but I must find a way to take a stand in my art practice. Our current government is working overtime to create life unbearable by stripping the rights of women, people of color, immigrants, our transgender, gay, and lesbian brothers and sisters, Muslims, the disabled, and everyone else not deemed “normal.” I want to be on the right side of history when we look back on this era. Speaking up is not a luxury, it is a necessity! I will not be silenced by this current administration, and I will find a way to voice my opinions.

Lately I do this thing where I think, “I must be informed,” then I go to various newspapers and websites on the interwebs and then think, “oh my God, it’s all so hopeless.”

“What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love, and understanding?” indeed. The world has suddenly gotten incredibly hard, as if we all just stopped loving each other. It gets to you and makes it difficult to create anything of worth. The work that does manage to get out of the studio is made under duress, and sometimes, that works. Often it weighs me down, and I don’t seem to be enjoying the process as much as I used to. Oh, I’ll keep going to the studio to try and make things, it’s just that now it’s all covered in a flimsy gray film.

I’ve been thinking about the ways I have been receiving information on current events, and lately a lot of it is through comedy. I watch Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Late Night with Seth Myers, as well as listen to Frangela: The Final Word podcast. I love the point of view from these comedians, and through the lens of humor, the dose of the reality of our times is easier to take. I wonder though if this method is ultimately doomed. Sometimes I think that as the edge of seriousness gets dulled, and as each horrific story ultimately gets turned into a joke, we are laughing our way to Armageddon. The momentum to react and do anything is being slowly terminated. I mean, why bother screaming, when you can get a laugh, right?

Cliff

________

Dear Cliff,

I wonder if it’s a fuzzy perception of what exactly is “the political” in the work that makes students wary of attempting and/or appreciating it. Maybe they see it as too topical or requiring a measure of gravity they aren’t yet capable of. Or, that it has to be directly about a specific issue or a cause, and they are not allowed to be neutral about their position. Perhaps they feel they must court controversy and shock for the work to be effective. But, who are we kidding? It’s terribly hard to out-shock this present administration.

Yet, I can understand the students’ hesitation. Blatantly didactic work does nobody any good. Cleverness counts, but it requires a light touch and can’t be too relied upon if the work is to last. For some, it just may take experience and deep attention to one’s development of their own conscience to find adequate and useful attitudes. That’s not a short-term strategy, though. We also desperately need urgent responses and actions right now, and not necessarily with art. Likely the students won’t respond with any real meaning until it begins to hurt them directly.

We can’t wait.

Curious though, how can an artwork not have a point of view?

I have been telling my students that you can ignore politics all you want, but politics will never ignore you unless your privilege protects you from it. Political power thrives on your unawareness and nonparticipation, and even counts on it for its survival.

Voting is a performative act.

Lately, I keep coming back to something David Salle wrote in his essay “A Talk For the First Day of Class” which I assigned to my first year students this semester:

It’s often the case, especially with art made in art schools that something is missing—an absence that the artist tries to make up for with a kind of wishful thinking. The wish has to do with the power of ambiguity, the wanting a work of art to do something, but not to do it to completely, lest it be the wrong thing. Wishful thinking is powerful; it blinds us to what is actually there. Or, we fall in love with our intention, or our lines, shapes, colors, and images, thinking we have something to protect. But there’s another way to look at it. What do we have to lose?1

Twenty-six years out of art school and this is a question I still continually ask myself.

Getting back to your comment on comedy, I did enjoy this take on politics and privilege from local San Francisco comedian, Nato Green:

Nato Green. "What Do Politics Have to Do with Me?" 2018.

However, I do find it bizarre that comedians are doing much of the journalistic heavy-lifting that we used to expect from the mainstream media. Yet, I’m not surprised. Corporate news has largely been empty calories for years, and it seems to spend more of its time glossing over important issues than actually doing any reporting on them. With comedy, it seems we can only accept a bitter pill as long as it comes with a thick coating of sugar, and more and more bitter pills are being prescribed to us every day. I fear you may be right about the model being doomed. I wonder if politically driven art is in the same position?

So much riding on the midterms.

Scott

P.S. Faye Dunaway in the latest Gucci ad is giving me life. Thank God for small miracles and divine cheekbones!

________

Dear Scott,

Getting back to art, I want to see more political art shows. I need the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to show more work with a stronger political point of view, not just a vitrine of protest posters from the past fifty years. I need to see political work from the many for-profit galleries in this town. This isn’t the job of a few non-profit spaces in SF. Everyone needs to take a closer look at our world situation and reflect it in their work. The days of making art for art’s sake are over. No one has that kind of luxury anymore. We must all remain vigilant in our resistance to the growing fascism that is sweeping this country. How we can successfully make art and remain relevant in these trying times will be our greatest challenge. I for one am ready to face the music.

OK. I gotta close this letter with something uplifting, otherwise I’m afraid these correspondences will be viewed as a total bummer.

The other day I was walking down the hall of SFAI, and as I approached the café, I remembered Cowboy Rod. Scott, you remember Cowboy Rod? He was there when I started back in 1987, and I think he was getting his MFA when you were attending in the early ’90s. Rod was a well-known character on campus, a big queeny gay man that made serious abstract ceramic work during the day in the ceramics department. At night, Rod would get all dolled up with these amazing country western shirts that he would bedazzle with rhinestones and glitter (believe me when I say these shirts were a body of work unto themselves) and teach the two-step at the Rawhide on 7th street, the only gay country-western bar in the city. As an icebreaker on the first day of school, Rod would bring his portable record player and his square-dancing records, and through sheer force and charisma, would gather students that were lounging around and make them participate in square dancing. Rod would grab anyone sitting around in the courtyard, so the dancers would be loners covered in paint, goth kids, punkers, thrashers, Latinos, visiting Icelanders, queers, artsy cool kids, and so much more. He would call out the directions, and the kids would stumble around, trying their damndest to do-si-do or promenade to Rod’s lilting voice. After a few songs, everyone started getting into it, and the sight of so many different types of students dancing together under Rod’s direction was truly magical. You would lose your self-awareness and simply have fun. It’s times like that that make me love the Art Institute and how I knew I found my home when I first arrived here in the big city. Beautiful Rod, wherever you are, I remember you, and I wish you were still here. I want this world to be just like that, all types of people that realize we are different yet the same, and that if need be, we can be forced to dance the Virginia reel in the sunlight and love it.

XOXO
Cliff

________

Dear Cliff,

Yes, I remember Cowboy Rod and his square-dancing antics fondly. It is an indelible memory of SFAI in 1990 in that I knew I landed somewhere truly special. Those shirts with all of their blindingly blingy accoutrements were amazing to behold, and I remember when they were all on display at his memorial that we were perhaps witnessing in its totality the remnants of his truest art. I miss him, too.

This gets me thinking that perhaps radical acts of generosity and being true to oneself are the hallmarks of what we should be looking for in political art. What brings us together? We definitely could use more voices being included and represented, and I'm not sure SFMOMA is ever going to be an exemplar of that. I mean, come on, they built a new shiny temple to favor their growing collection of largely white, largely male art. (And let's not forget the troublesome relationship of the art world's donor class to the Republican Party, ugh!) I'm ready to shake up the canon.

But yes, let's finish this on a high note. Institutions won't save us. We only have our community to empower us, and we have to stay closer than ever. So to close, I'd like to give a shoutout to a few of our allies who are making it happen here in the Bay—some with fierce dedication—and despite all the hardships, creating and supporting beautiful and better worlds for us all:

Irwin Swirnoff
Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy
Brion Nuda Rosch (MSP)
Margaret Tedesco and [2nd floor projects]
Wayne Smith
Yedda Morrison
Land and Sea
Lindsey White and Jordan Stein
Chris Sollars and Allison Pebworth
Kari Orvik and Vero Majano
Griff Williams and Gallery 16
Anne McGuire
Karla Milosevich
Craig Goodman
Katie Bush
Kate Rhoades and Maysoun Wazwaz
Jill Reiter
Gary Gregerson
Christian Frock
Stephanie Syjuco
Rumi Koshino
Larry Rinder and Colter Jacobsen
Alicia McCarthy and Sahar Koury
Rebeca Bollinger
Alice Shaw
Sydney Cohen
Jaime Knight
Amy Rathbone and Nobuto Suga
Mads Lynnerup
Bob Linder
Norma Cole
Bob Gluck
Saif Azzuz
Tara Daly
Bonanza!
Jean Henry School of Art
Alley Cat Books
Adobe Books
Clarion Alley Mural Project
Right Window Gallery
Artists' Television Access
Redstone Labor Temple
Dena Beard and the Lab
Southern Exposure
and
The Stud

Much love,
Scott

Notes

  1. David Salle, How to See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking about Art (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016), 238-239.

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