Bad at Sports

Interview with Aaron GM and Ginger Wolfe-Suarez

By Bad at Sports May 18, 2011

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.

Image: Aaron GM. IMOM-M, 2011 (performance still); performance, Green Gallery, Milwaukee, WI. Courtesy of the Artist.

The following excerpt is from a conversation that took place on January 28, 2011, at the Art Los Angeles Contemporary Fair between Art Practical contributors Zachary Royer Scholz, Elyse Mallouk, and Patricia Maloney and artists Aaron GM and Ginger Wolfe-Suarez. This was one of several conversations held over the weekend of the fair as part of “In and Out of Context: Artists Define the Space between San Francisco and Los Angeles,” a program that invited artists to consider the two cities as a continuously evolving constellation of dialogues, shared interests, and overlapping approaches. The full interview can be heard as Episode 299 on Bad at Sports.


Zachary Royer Scholz: My interest in this topic comes from what’s often talked about as a gestalt. Somebody will see a show and say, “Oh, that’s so L.A.,” or “This is so San Francisco.” And my not really believing in those sentiments, but feeling the pull of a dialogue within California. The sense of place being this broad term, an amalgam of where your specific location is, and why you’re living there, and what your larger artistic community is. I feel there are these ties between San Francisco and L.A., and each of you have spent some time based in both of those cities. As the framework for the conversation, let’s start with your experiences in each [city] and what prompted you to transplant between them. Hopefully that will raise some issues about the overlaps and dichotomies that exist.

Aaron GM: I went to school at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) for roughly two and a half years. It was a formative time for me, being exposed to the contemporary discourse in art and to all different kinds of practices. I have very fond memories of that time, of San Francisco. Initially, I went there as a painter and then, of course, I shifted to New Genres.

My take on the Art Institute was that there were all of these older European artists that were coming there to do grad school, and they were totally bummed because there wasn’t anything to support their practice beyond the school. And then you had the out-of-touch moms and all the kids who were moving to San Francisco to live out their diary. So it was the coolest energy in the world because everyone was tripping out, and they were really doing it to the max because there was no connection to a gallery system there. There was no belief that a gallery could pick you up and you could do something.

It was a super-experimental time. We created a really tight discourse—the students there—and then you had this lingering heyday of Bay Area figurative painting and that bravado. Sammy “the Bull” Tchakalian and the conceptualists, specifically Doug Hall, Tony Labat, and Paul Kos. The way the campus is set up, it’s a big open space so there was this free exchange happening.

But then we got to a point where we decided we wanted to make a career and be part of a dialogue, so a bunch of us moved down to L.A. That was a total shock because L.A. is such a spread-out place that there wasn’t that tight discourse that we experienced in San Francisco. And I was still in school. It was around the time when Chinatown was becoming really successful, so you had these galleries plucking people out of school. A lot of painting, and really conservative work. There wasn’t the naked freak-out performances anymore. There wasn’t people activating spaces and exploring that.

Ginger Wolfe-Suarez: The place that was most formative to me was actually Chicago. I moved to Los Angeles just after undergrad, and I lived out here for a number of years and made work here and wrote here. I was the cofounder and editor of a journal called Interreview, and when I moved to the Bay Area, I sold my archive to Harvard University.

My life changed a lot when I moved to the Bay Area and I had a child. I wasn’t writing as much because I was able to close Inner Review down. So I started making work in a more ambitious, but totally different way.

We wound up in Richmond. It takes me over an hour to get to San Francisco, and really, I’m only in San Francisco maybe a couple of times every month at tops. And when I moved to [the Bay Area], I didn’t know a soul. I had one friend who is a neurologist. So I didn’t have a lot of contacts here, for sure.

A lot of my support has always come from artists, and that’s a really interesting thing about how both of our practices unfolded. Another group of people who have supported my work are writers, and a lot of them aren’t in San Francisco. Maybe that’s both a benefit and a challenge. And I teach—philosophy of aesthetics and art theory, and history of art criticism. So there’s a community built around that throughout the country.

But certainly there has been a logistical benefit to living in both places, and definitely having spaces that will work for you in both cities. It’s been really helpful to me. But it is also important to keep in mind that not everyone has the same career trajectory, and I’m always telling my students and trying to train them and show them that they can create their own independent projects. In a way, that’s what I did. What I attribute some of my success to is starting my own platform for a discursive conversation.

ZRS: In both of your comments so far, you’ve raised many of the—typical is not the right word, but this drum beat of stories from people who have transplanted between the two cities. There are aspects of each that people gravitate to. Outside of my own practice and interest in being based in San Francisco, I’m interested in the way it operates as a creative space. Aaron, in your description of it, you hit on the notion of a paucity of galleries and any commercial avenue. That isn’t what defines [San Francisco] as an art town. In that sense, it is up to the participants in the creative discourse to set the tone and to generate something out of what they’re interested in and out of what they’re doing.

AGM: I’ll see an artist and be really drawn to them, and find out they spent time in San Francisco. There’s a real quirky sense of arranging things or formal structure or having to do things yourself, so you gain a lot from that. Maybe that’s what you’re experiencing when you’re in Richmond. You’re in your own space there. But there is a sensibility I can’t quite put my finger on. I used to think it was because the city was built on a Native American burial ground, but there’s something infused in the work developing there.

ZRS: A lot of what people associate with California has a pejorative connotation: a non-intellectual engagement with material and experience that is spiritual. It’s crappy to use that word at this point, but I think you have to, in the way that there’s something about the qualities of an experience or engaging in artwork that is ineffable. That’s why I would compare it to spirituality. This existence of content within the work that can be understood and felt at a haptic or bodily level that you can’t necessarily articulate. At the same time, I liked that you brought up San Francisco’s conceptual art history, because rather than the normal notion of conceptual art coming out of New York, it’s object-based and almost illogical conceptualism. Conceptualism that makes sense, but you can’t make sense of.

AGM: There was a lot of that happening in L.A., too. I’m personally interested in that work. It’s really rich.

Patricia Maloney: Who are you thinking of in particular?

Aaron GM. Cooking Salmon, 2003 (performance still); private performance, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Artist.

AGM: I’m thinking of sitting in the library at SFAI and thumbing through early Dennis Oppenheim performative work or the Wegman videos. There’s Marioni, and then there’s David Ireland. We were like, “Who is David Ireland? Is he crazy or is he super-interesting?” There’s also the filmmaker George Kuchar.

PM: The intersection for you in San Francisco was the school. That defines a lot about how the Bay Area art scene operates. You have people that you access via the classroom, and the conversations that you’re having there are really intended to be experimental and open-ended and investigative. Ginger, what you said about your students who are now finding their own paths, it’s always interesting to trace those paths back and to realize how many people intersected via a classroom situation.

AGM: That focus on the academic is a commonality between the two cities. San Francisco and L.A. are structured around their schools more than most art centers—maybe L.A. even more than San Francisco. Correct me if I’m wrong. I feel a lot of the very prominent and visible artists in L.A. are actively teaching within the schools here, which is a rarity. In New York, a lot of the most active artists are not teaching. I don’t know if it’s the generosity of artists within California who are successful but who feel an imperative to contribute to the evolution of the upcoming discourse in schools, not just through their work being visible, but actually taking a more hands-on, rigorous, molding role, and pushing [students] toward the ideas that are informing them so that they can really find their own path.

Ginger Wolfe-Suarez. Looking at the mountains while laying in the grass, 2011; hand-built lightbox with Duratrans; 29 x 21 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.

GWS: In L.A., both camps exist. There are people who walk away from wonderful teaching jobs because they don’t have to and it’s too much work.

I was thinking about CalArts when you were talking, and I feel that CalArts created a community that has been formative to Los Angeles as a place, and to all of California, really. There are a lot of examples of important models of teaching that have come out of L.A. I know when I teach, I think a lot about Michael Asher’s post-studio class.

PM: Could you talk more about that class?

GWS: Well, I never took the class, but I’m friends with Michael Asher, and he’s actually one of the reasons I initially moved out here. He is someone who did have to teach, because if you think about his projects and how they unfolded, it’s not really an economically viable practice. Staying at CalArts was strategic for him, also. His students have become amazing educators and really significant artists. He is someone who continually comes up. His post-studio course was what happens after studio practice. He also thought a lot about the slippage between object-based work and non-object-based work, which is something that both Aaron and I think about, and it’s really one of my interests in Aaron’s work.

For example, at the show you had at ltd los angeles, I appreciated that there was a sense of humor to the show that was quiet and thoughtful, but I also really appreciated the slippage between the performative and the object-based. That was handled really well, and that’s something I also think about in my own work, right now, I think that slippage in representation is something that we could possibly tie back in to the place of California.

PM: I’m glad that you brought that up because I wanted to talk with both of you about the relationship between performative work and object-based or sculptural work, particularly the projection of movement in experiencing object-based work and what you described as the slippage between the two.

AGM: Yeah, that’s the space that I dwell in and that I’ve been thinking about. I trace it back to ’70s conceptualism, the way that they presented the document as the work of art itself, and it was self-contained. It took up this space in my mind. It became huge. And then I would flip through these books and in one performance after another performance after another performance, I was super-interested in that space.

I got interested in Andreas Slominski and these singular gestures he was doing and the way he usually would see this object as a remnant or a signifier of an action that took place. There was a lot of humor in that work. I was doing these riffs on Slominski in San Francisco, and then Jason Rhodes came and spoke. He insulted my idea of art. He was fumbling through this lecture, and he was fucking up; he was saying terrible jokes, but he kept this whole ball of composition moving. I later began to think about it and thought, “Wow, he’s really working with space.” I took it to be that he’s multiplying this gesture of something that was happening. Something that could happen. Something he was going to do.

I came from painting so I tend to construct spaces. The question is how do you document it, because I’m working with really ephemeral, slippery materials, and with emotions or all kinds of movements. Because I want to create a very agile space, a space of great dexterity. I want to reflect life or this affirmation of life. You know, this optimism of transcendence in the mundane and in the domestic. That’s the space I like to dwell in, reinvent and play with. There’s a lightness and playfulness in that space.

It’s a place of non-duality. But how to formalize that? I usually have a place in my spaces for improvisation, for me to be able to whip this whole thing into a composition. What I usually do is build a narrative armature. I don’t really care about it, but it serves its purpose to get from one place to another. It snowballs and brings with it all these activities, and then I chop it up and throw it into this space.

Ginger Wolfe-Suarez. Memory Objects, 2010; installation view, ltd los angeles, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Artist and Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.

GWS: In my work, I’m interested in the slippage between permanence and impermanence. That comes across a little bit in my material palette, which right now includes things like mint oil but also objects that are cast out of concrete. I just finished casting a concrete jacket, and so I’m really interested in the idea of fragility and fragile structures as well as hard structures.

It’s funny because when people talk to me about my work, and write about my work now, I’m finding that there’s a continued reference to minimalism because, for example, I worked for Sol LeWitt. I was his assistant for awhile, but what I’m doing is more about an undermining of minimalism. Especially when we’re talking about California DIY and legacies and precedents for our works, particularly within this idea of the sensorial field and the slippage of the ephemeral.

The artists that I think about include Lina Bo Bardi, who is an architect who worked in Brazil. I think about that space a lot when I think about my own work. I’m married to an architect and I’ve been collaborating with him for seven years. So I think more about those kinds of spaces and the body and the environment and what kind of relationship that contains.

I’m also interested in Lee Ufan, who didn’t have much exposure in the United States until recently. His work might appear very minimal, but when you spend time with it, as I did in London in the ’90s, and you read his writings, there’s a very strong underpinning of how one might de-Westernize the art object. That’s one topic I’m very interested in as well.

PM: Maybe a lot of the references to minimalism come into play because there is this sense of the interaction with and relationship to a viewer that becomes a much more performative, interpersonal relationship.

Ginger Wolfe-Suarez. Theory of a Family, 2010; installation view, Silverman Gallery, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artist and Silverman Gallery.

Elyse Mallouk: When I was writing about [Ginger's] show at Silverman Gallery last year, I found it difficult to remove the word “you” from the review because it seemed that another person in the room was really a necessary part of that work—that there was a performative aspect to the show, but it was the viewer’s performance in the space. This idea that the viewer is a performer is much more common now than it was maybe even five years ago with the explosion of socially engaged practice or participatory practice. But your show at Silverman didn’t look like any of that work. The show was primarily object-based, but then there was this space for the viewer that was so active and so necessary. There was this sense that there needed to be a person in the room to activate those objects, but it was this magical place where it was ready to happen.

GWS: I live with all my work. I make my work at my home and I live with it all for about a year or more before it goes out into the world, and so it’s funny because I think of it as I see it at home, which is my kid playing on it while we’re eating breakfast or whatever.

One of the reasons, incredibly, that I feel fortunate that I’m in the Bay Area is despite the fact that there are a lot of academic and theoretical readings into my work, which are often appropriate, really my work is just as much about hippie-dippy healer stuff, you know? It truly is. And that comes from a very real place for me.

ZRS: You mentioned, Ginger, the idea of making art that was de-Westernizing art. And I’m struck by that, within the context of California and my own sense of minimalism. This break from the European history of image-making and historicity and what the hell all that means to a more ineffable sense of objects and auras. You could go in a very hippie direction with that, but at least to the sense of things in space being more than what they point to, and being unintelligible entities in themselves that produce experiences in the people that interact with them. Almost giving agency to both the artwork and a viewer simultaneously. We talk about the erasure of the author, but you have the artwork and you have the viewer, and the maker in some ways has stepped offstage.

I feel you both are treading a really similar ground, even though maybe, Aaron, your work is more performative and the objects exist more as documents or residues, and with you, Ginger, it seems you’re inciting your audience to be the performer of your work. But [you share] that release of authorship, in setting a thing in motion that then is continually authored anew by whoever experiences it or the performance—whatever level of remove they are from the documentation. There’s no place you can put your finger that says, “This is the work.”

AGM: Well, it’s non-duality. It’s “this is this, this isn’t this.” It’s that open-ended space.

GWS: Sometimes it seems there’s a bit of a discursive failure within art criticism and within art history to talk about space in a different set of terms, which has to do more with the body and the built environment and that contextual space, which is really the space that I’m interested in.

EM: I don’t know if either of you have thought about this in relation to your work before, but there is something cinematic about both of them. I was struck, Aaron, by the project you did where you were kicking a soccer ball. You bought a soccer ball, kicked it into your crit and then the ball is there as this object, but then you played the video as well. So I imagine that that object was probably infused with this energy of having been part of that performance.

Aaron GM. NADA Art Fair, 2010 (performance still); performance with ltd los angeles in Miami. Courtesy of the Artist.

AGM: I’ll take a bunch of my old materials and box them and then insert them into a piece, and I think about it as emanating stored energy. So I work with that all the time. This is what I did, and now it’s totally obscured in these boxes. You can’t see it, and this is my plan. That’s a way to keep it open-ended.

ZRS: I’m interested in that notion of stored energy.The normal conception of how an artwork functions is as aware of its viewer, and the determined success or failure of it is in its ability to communicate. I don’t necessarily agree with that. But the idea of you embedding stored energy in a piece; I wonder about how legible you want that to be. On the one hand, you could make that stored energy be the whole piece or almost a secret life of the work—where the work starts being something outside of a viewer’s experience.

AGM: Completely. That’s the beauty about art. It can be a real one-to-one. It’s you sitting next to somebody and then you leak out the story. It’s up to you how much of the story you want to leak out, and also, as you get closer, you develop a real intimacy. So the idea of not showing stored energy follows my interest in how closely you want to lead the viewer into the piece. How far away they need to stand to look at.

PM: Going back to what Ginger said earlier, at a very basic level, the idea of having an architectural reading of the work comes down to understanding the relationship as an experiential one or constructed one. Am I constructing this relationship, or am I the recipient of it? Am I experiencing it?

GWS: It’s really important to me that people experience the work as they experience it. Generally, I will only walk the people who are really close to me through the spaces. In my work, I personally don’t think of the viewers as performers. I think of them more as people who experience the work in what I hope is a thoughtful way.

PM: If the viewers aren’t performers, is there any intention—I don’t want to use the word narrative, but that’s coming close to what I’m thinking of.

GWS: I think that’s an apt term. One of the reasons I brought up this idea that minimalism doesn’t quite fit with my work is because it implies an absence of “narrativization,” which I think is present in my work.

EM: [There] is the sense that I get from your work, Ginger—and I haven’t experienced Aaron’s in person—that this thing was made for me, and maybe that there’s something required of me, that there’s a place for me in it. That’s the feeling that I get sometimes when I watch movies. You know, this is something that I can use in my life. Or this is a place where I feel comfortable. Or not comfortable, but there is something for me here.



Listen to the full interview as Episode 299 on Bad At Sports.

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