Josephine Taylor studied Religion and East Indian Languages as an undergraduate at the University of Colorado before pursuing a graduate degree in Fine Art at the San Francisco Art Institute. Taylor creates narrative drawings on enormous sheets of paper using diluted permanent ink washes. She prefers to install this work unframed. Her work primarily examines the emotional and psychological remnants of the childhood and adolescent experience. Though her subject matter is intensely personal and rendered with a tender fragility, her large-scale paper works defy any assumption of intimacy.
Taylor was a recipient of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art SECA Award and was included in the California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art in 2004. Her work has been on exhibition all over the United States and also internationally at the Nordic Watercolor Museum in Sweden in 2008. Her work is in the permanent collections of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 2013 Taylor’s work was featured in OFF-SPRING: New Generations, a group exhibition at 21c Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. Most recently, her work was included in an exhibit curated by Brett Reichman at CB1 Gallery titled, Tight Ass: Labor Intensive Drawing and Realism. She lives and works in San Francisco and has shown with Catharine Clark Gallery since 2003.
Notes: For this interview Josephine Taylor has kindly selected a song that accompanies each work. Please listen along as you read through the interview. Taylor has also made a Spotify playlist to serve as a portal into her’s and Kaveh's sonic world for you to listen to anytime.
HP: Tell me about the concept and material process behind your exhibition ‘Beside Me’?
JT: This exhibition is a multi-pronged portrait of my friendship with my dear friend, Kaveh Rastegar. We met when I was in sixth grade and he was in eighth. We grew up together and have been friends for 29 years.
Kaveh's an extraordinary musician; when we were kids, my forte was visual art and his was music, but we both loved both things, so we had these shared passions that formed the foundation for our friendship.
To make the work I just used pencil and paper. I hung the paper vertically on the wall of my studio space; however, my wall isn't big enough for these large pieces of paper, so I have to unroll as I go. I don’t like working from photos. I work from my memory; actually, not just one memory, but many, many, many memories stacked and woven together to make a plausible image that at once did exist and was also entirely imagined. I like that saying, ‘greater than the sum of its parts’.
I explain it this way: you know those clip-on sunglasses? Imagine you have regular glasses and then, instead of putting on just one shade, you layer 40 or 50 of those. Now imagine that each lens has a specific memory on it, a slice of a time or place or feeling etched on the lens. That’s what I’m working with, in my mind’s eye. Visual memories seen through the lens of other memories, on and on. So, you know, these different memories collapse upon each other and the sense of time gets confused, and that’s close to my personal reality and so that’s reflected in these drawings.
HP: Specific records and musical artists feature throughout all the work in this show. Looking at the work and taking hints from some of the titles I was led down a youtube rabbit hole that went beyond a single genre or era. So in a sense your drawings continue away from the paper and have the capacity for creating new memories for someone else or linking with a viewer through cultural collective memory.
In my mind, the drawings function as playlists and to me your role as artist is also as librarian; the act of drawing being a type of organising process for yourself to create a visual archive. I feel this is most clear in the drawing ‘Verse 1’ that we see first when we enter the gallery. Can you identify the specific references in 'Verse 1' and talk about their meaning to you?
JT: That’s interesting and you’re right, there are tons of references. 'Verse 1' is based on my memory of Kaveh's bedroom, at his mum's house.
I have a memory of this very specific day, driving to his house, and going to his room. He picked this album and put it on his turntable and laid down and just listened to it; it was Joni Mitchell’s ‘Don Juan Reckless Daughter’ with Jaco Pastorius playing bass. Listening to that album with him, on that exact day, was one of the most poignant experiences of my youth. I honestly don’t understand why...I just knew that something was changing as we listened. The music transformed me. So, yes, this is the record that is playing on the turntable in this drawing.
When I was making this drawing, I asked Kaveh to give me his most foundational albums ever. He said, “My DNA Records?” I liked that term. I wanted to know what records really influenced his life, so he made a list and I did the same. The records in the tall stack to the left side of the drawing are our combined ‘DNA records’, a few of them were overlapping; I think we shared Dylan’s ‘Blood On The Tracks’ , Prince’s ‘Parade’, Stevie Wonder’s ‘Innervisions’, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’, definitely some John Lennon, Springsteen, Zeppelin, etc. Anyway, if you peel away everything else, these are the records that founded our separate musical archives and also a point of connection.
The posters drawn on the wall are all the actual posters in his room in his mum's house; we’ve got Samantha Fox, Sex Pistols, Skateboarding magazine covers, The Beatles photo montage, Nick Cave, Fugazi, a Porsche poster from middle school, I think, and a Norman Rockwell poster from elementary school. These hanging lamps are from this place I stayed at in LA, over the past year while developing this project in sketches and photos and videos and stuff. So there are elements in this drawing from 1989 all the way through to 2018.
HP: What exactly was it about listening to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter’ that made it the most important day of your youth?
JT: I don’t really know! There was nothing else happening, the room was still and we were just lying there. I remember that there was snow on the ground outside the window, it was dirty snow, not freshly-fallen, and the sky was white--I remember those details very clearly. I also remember that we ate Snickers bars in the car driving to his house after school. But lying there listening, I just remember watching dust particles falling through the air all around us. You might notice there are tons of strokes through the air, of pencil lines and erasure, in this drawing. I wanted to capture that movement in the air, the dust falling, the music swelling, and at the same time, the stillness on the bed. I still can't stay what the change was, it was nothing outwardly tangible; but inside, it was like an earthquake.
HP: That's so interesting, there is also something about what you are saying that I think directly relates to essence of Joni Mitchell’s voice, it’s wailing timbre that people either love or hate. I think you have to understand how hard life is or can be, to really resonate with her sound on a deep level.
JT: Yes, well that's true. The general audience loved Joni’s earlier work, like ‘Clouds’ and ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, when she was more sunny and optimistic and folk-pop driven---that's at least how I see it. Those are great and easy to digest, for sure. But then her music turned; she became more melancholic, more deeply resonant. I’m talking about the shift to her album 'Blue'. When she was young, Joni left home to be a singer, was busking in coffee shops, living hand-to-mouth, got pregnant and the guy didn’t want to stay in the relationship. So right after the baby’s birth she gave her up for adoption. When Joni’s career really took off, her grief about giving up this child was compounded. If you listen carefully to songs like ‘Blue’ or ‘Little Green’, you’ll hear that they aren’t sad love songs, but instead mourning songs for the loss of her child. Of course she’s also got plenty of songs declaring her own self-possession and will and affairs and what not. Joni was never afraid to talk about the highs and lows that come from love and loss. Even the timbre of her voice is unafraid and carries so much emotion in it. I think it can feel confrontational and exposing to some people....but I love everything about her music. Especially that.
HP: I think there is also a connection between the rawness of the human voice and pencil, mark making and line, both being something very primal. What do you think about the act of drawing as an action in itself ?
JT: Yes, our impulse to make sounds with our voices and our impulse to record our experience with movement (in this case, the hand) are primitive. We need to look no further than cave paintings to see that humans have been inclined to draw for eons. Both with sounds and with pictures, we’re looking to record, to communicate, to express, to contemplate, and also to mark our existence. Both say, I am here. I was here. Both are declarations of embodiment, at the most primitive level, if that makes sense.
I give an exercise to my college students on the first day of class. I ask them to do a bunch of loose gesture drawings for the first hour of class. Then we plaster the walls with all of these scribbly drawings. Funny thing is, it’s very evident who made which drawings. You can always group the drawings together, not because of what object they are drawing, but the length of mark, direction of mark, the pressure that the artist was exerting on the drawing tool, etc. Those are the qualities that define one’s drawing “style”. So even when they are basically scribbling, they are affirming their existence through the work. I think about drawing "style" as how you touch the material and how you approach the page. It's not about what you draw, but something more bodily than that. It’s about how you touch, I guess.
In terms of value, I rarely use a full value scale. I stick to very light greys, even for dark shadows. I think about the value scale like a keyboard...I stick to the right side of the keyboard, and the higher the note, the better in terms of reflecting my experience. I don't really see in dark values; i actually experience the world in all these subtle variations of pale colors and greys. So I draw this way. If something appears black to you, my eyes translate that value to a midtone grey. If I were to adjust the value to your value scale, the way you see things, I would be faking it. My least favourite thing in artmaking is to feel fraudulent.
HP: Was music a part of your family life?
JT: I grew up in a household of people who loved music. My mom was a hippie, she lived in Haight Ashbury in the 60’s and that's where she got to see Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Joni, The Dead, and Dylan, all playing live. We had a record player in our house and she would always play her records from the 60's. When I was little, like, 6 or 7 years old, I got really into Janis Joplin and I would sing ‘Ball and Chain’ word-for-word on our drive to school. My mom was convinced that I was Janis Joplin reincarnated. It's funny, too, because my children started calling me 'Pearl' out of nowhere, a few years ago, which is the title of a Janis Joplin album.
The collaborative video piece in the show, 'Dylan Diaries', which was a combined effort between me and multi-disciplinary artist Jon Bernson, features music by Bob Dylan. My mom played Dylan more than anyone; she was and still is obsessed with his music. His voice was omnipresent--kind of like a god in our household, a bit like it is in this exhibition (the sound from the video room carries throughout the gallery). But her musical inclinations were solidly seated in the music of the 60's, whereas I loved that music but also music that came before, especially Jazz/Blues singers Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Etta James, etcetera, and music of the 70's, 80's, 90's. I loved it all. I also had a huge collection of Afro-pop records; that was the first section I would visit any time I went to a record store. I pretty obsessively listened to music at all times, which is still the case. I also used to sing a little, and this one time I sang Billie Holiday's 'Lover Man' and Kaveh played the stand up bass. That was special.
HP: I'm curious, can you recall your first impressions of each other?
JT: Kaveh remembers when I was in 6th grade and came to visit his science class with my sister, Chelsea (Kaveh and my sister were in 8th grade at the time). He says I had this huge, infectious smile on my face, and that it continues to be the same smile he sees in me, my sister, my mom, and my daughter today. One of my first memories of Kaveh was seeing him playing in the Jazz Band for our high school’s morning assembly. I was sitting crosslegged on the ground, just like I am sitting there in 'Verse 4'. I obviously loved music and I knew Kaveh was going to play, so I sat in the front row, and I remember looking up at him. I remember looking at his hands playing bass and thinking they were the most beautiful hands I had ever seen, they were like poetry, they were really, truly, exquisite. They were moving like they had their own intrinsic intelligence, and I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I think it was so meaningful because it was the first time I actually saw music. Up until that point, I had heard music, but as an extremely visual person, it really impacted me to have the visual image of his hands to connect with the sounds, to put a picture to the intangible.
HP: Can you talk more about the ideas behind 'Verse 4' ?
JT: This piece is a montage of many places and memories. There is this music venue in Denver called The Mercury Cafe; it's this great hippie place with health food restaurant downstairs and upstairs there is a stage. In high school, Kaveh had a band called 'Retrospect' and they would play with a band called 'The Psychodelic Zombiez'. The Merc was Kaveh’s favourite place to play. In this drawing, I imagined the back door of the Merc, and merged it with these stairs behind the LA apartment I stayed in several times over the past year. I would see these back doors glowing at night, below the staircase, and something about that reminded me of the glowing sign in front of The Mercury Cafe, as well as The Diamond Cabaret, a strip club in Denver that I knew pretty well. So I just smashed all of those places together in this piece.
Several months ago, I was playing the song 'Then She Did' from the Jane's Addiction album 'Ritual de lo Habitual'. I sent it to Kaveh and he was, like, "oh man, yeah, that's one of my favorites". From there I went on this whole Jane's Addiction listening spree, the whole time I was drawing ‘Verse 4’ I was strictly listening to Jane's.
Anyway, there was this unique time right around 1990, I'd guess, when some people were still listening to music on cassettes and others had changed over to CD's. So in this drawing, Kaveh and I are listening to 'Then She Did' by Jane's Addiction. I am playing the song on a CD Discman and he is playing the same song on a cassette deck, but if you get up really close to see the numbers on the players, you'll notice that they are at the exact same second of the song on both players.
This piece is essentially about parallel lives. During the course of this project, I tuned into weird overlaps in our experiences, a kind of metaphysical crossover of selves. Even when he was touring in Asia and I was at home, teaching at Stanford, it felt like we were psychically connected. In part, it was because of this project, I suppose, since we were in touch every day so we were continuously aware of each other via text. But, it’s also something I’ve felt for a long time, almost like, if we were represented by a Venn diagram, we would certainly have an intersection wherein there lies no separation of self. I guess that’s the definition of friendship; something that does not negate the individuals but allows for this deep intersection. So, in this drawing, ‘Verse 4’, I imagined Kaveh taking a pause outside the back door of this music venue, and me taking a break outside of The Diamond Cabaret, in close proximity and listening to the same song, these overlaps in existence, but not totally aware of the other. Parallel lives. I think this project confirmed, for me, that if we all could look a little closer, we are more connected to one another than it might seem on the surface.
HP: Listening to you talk about Verse 4, I am amazed at the level and attention to detail in your work and I think it can get lost in the sauce. Does this bother you and how do you decide what to leave out and what to include?
JT: Yes, there’s an abundance of detail. I’m never sure how much other people will pick up on; I think the majority of it is for me, to properly reflect the things I was visually aware of in these moments. So, for instance, this thread dangling off Kaveh’s bass guitar bag actually exists. Those are the kind of small details that I record visually, and they even though they might not matter to a viewer, or even be seen by a viewer, to me that thread is an important piece to the puzzle. The thread is as important as the chair he’s sitting on, or the stairwell, or the figures. Another example is the freckle on his neck - some people might think it’s an accidental mark or they might not even notice it; for me, I remember seeing that freckle on his neck in high school, so it has been a landmark for so many years, and is another puzzle piece. And his shoelaces are untied, which might seem arbitrary, but actually relates to the lyrics of this verse in ‘Tangled Up In Blue’. Viewers who look more closely at all the details can start putting the puzzle together, and there is a reward in doing so. There’s an understanding that will occur, but only if one looks into it enough.
HP: Apart from the obvious musical reference, is there a more specific reason why each of the large drawings titled Verse 1, Verse 2, ect?
JT: ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ is a Dylan song from his album Blood On The Tracks. The song is about an enigmatic relationship. I think it’s between two people (after a lot of research, I think that's the consensus) but he never really confirms that. Anyway, he tells this story in a non-linear way, flipping from present-tense, to way-back and then to recent-past, etcetera, so throughout the song you are trying to figure out where you are in time and space. It’s disorienting. You’re also trying to figure out whether the woman he is singing about in one verse is the same one as in the next verse, because the circumstances of their meetings are so different, their relationship has phases and eras. It’s really about the collapse of time in an enduring relationship, one that you keep coming back to again and again. One that keeps giving and unfolding.
Last year, one morning, when we were trading some music, Kaveh said "I’ve always thought that ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ was the song that tells our story”, or something like that. So I broke down the song, verse by verse, and realized that Kaveh and I had experiences that paralleled several of the verses. In the first verse Dylan is lying in bed thinking about the person, the second verse is about being in a car together, the fourth verse is about meeting at a nightclub, of sorts, and the fifth verse involves a kitchen and reading poetry. All of these threads applied. It also gave me the opportunity to show how music serves as a vehicle by which we can explore and understand ourselves. Once we imbibe a song, it becomes wholly subjective. It becomes our story.
HP: The car is a fascinating symbolic object and here you focus on it’s interiority. I imagine as teenagers a car was the only autonomous space you and Kaveh had access to. Can you talk more about these experiences?
JT: The drawing 'Verse 2' is about sitting in a car together, listening to music, drinking coffee. I have many memories like this, so this drawing is a compilation. I love cars. I think of cars as personal UFO’s. You don’t even have to be moving. They transport you just by closing the doors to the outside world. There you are with another person and everything else is exterior, distant. Being a car is an intimate experience. It’s so private. For me and for Kaveh, we listened to a lot of songs together in our own separate cars, in different cities, over the past year. But because the outside world was shut out for a short period of time, it was a very connected time. It’s hard to explain in words, which is why I drew a picture. But obviously, yes, we definitely sat in cars together in high school. The car in this drawing is a dream car, it’s a Camaro.
HP: I think your work is an example of the personal as the political. Do you intentionally set out to convey a body or social politics?
Sure, yes, Body Politics have always played a huge role in my work since the very beginning. As a female survivor of sexual abuse and assault, a woman living in a largely misogynist society, a female artist in a historically male-dominated field, a working mother, a person who has romantic histories with men as well as women, etcetera, Body Politics are the warp and weft of my life and work. These politics make some viewers uncomfortable, more or less depending on how overtly I address them in a body of work. In ‘Beside Me’, it’s more subtle than previously, although it is there as subtext; challenging the assumptions that people make about gender and relationships, the idea that a married woman belongs to her husband, or vice versa, and in ‘Dylan Diaries’, a woman not apologizing for crying, for feeling, for hurting. These are all there, and more, just from a different angle, with a softer focus.
But, I don’t think that we, as artists, should feel pressured to make every piece we make political. We have the right to make the work that best represents our experiences and our lives at any given moment, and not every moment is political. I think we should strive towards a diversity of voices in the arts. It's hard enough to find the time and space to make work, to support oneself financially; then you add this insane pressure to make overtly political work or to fall in step with current stylistic trends within the art world. It’s too much. We need to affirm everyone’s voice.
So, I’d say that what I know best is human connection, body language, how body language conveys emotion and gravity between people. I'm just interested in humans, period. I look at each drawing as an impossible challenge to capture this intangible stuff in pictures. How can I take something that has no body and give it a body?
HP: Are there any particular references in ‘ Verse 5’ that you would like to share?
JT: I think of this drawing as a Pandora's Box. If you focus on any one area, it unlocks a bunch of stuff. For instance, here, at the top right, there is this fish tank. You might think there are two fish, but if you look closer, you’ll see that they are Siamese fighting fish. Siamese fighting fish can’t live in an aquarium together because of territorial aggression and violence. So because of their own natural tendencies, they live a solitary life. However, they also have this extraordinary breathing organ called a Labyrinth Organ. Unlike most fish, it allows Siamese fighting fish to live outside of water for periods of time. They actually can breathe oxygen from the air. They are pretty magical. So, if you go back to my drawing, and look at the fish tank again, it means more. There actually was a Siamese fighting fish in the LA apartment I stayed in, but in the drawing it also functions as a metaphor. Either there is one fish and the other one is just a reflection, or there are two fish who are able to co-exist despite the expected status-quo. Both of these are plausible metaphors for this friendship.
The record player in ‘Verse 5’ is playing 'Visions of Johanna', an amazing Dylan song, here covered exquisitely by Marianne Faithfull. In this song, the protagonist yearns for a woman named Johanna, even while he is with a woman named Louise. It’s a pretty tragic but it feels so honest. In one verse, he sings “jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule” and I think he must be talking about the way we dress-up fairly run-of-the-mill horses to pull carriages in Central Park, but at the end of the day, it’s just superficial, we’re just decorating mules. It’s a metaphor for how we try to convince ourselves that our lives are enough, when really, down deep, we know that we don’t have what we really want. We can temporarily fool ourselves into thinking it's a royal horse, but it's actually a mule. One of my favorite moments in the song is at the beginning, when the protagonist describes “Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it”. I love this as an image and also as a metaphor; like we try to hold onto something that is inherently fleeting. In ‘Verse 5’ I drew a painting that Kaveh's daughter Elena made last year. She’s a really talented young artist. It’s so amazing to be able to share this art and music connection with our respective kids.
HP: Youth has been a subject in your work before, especially in your show ‘Teenager’s are Beautiful’. Youth being a time when we are forming identity, there is space and time as well as often a naivety and malleability. I am curious about what your thoughts are concerning Social Media in relation to experience and memory? I wonder if it is something you have noticed is affecting your children’s sense of identity?
JT: I'm learn a lot everyday via social media but I also think it's important that it doesn't take over real life. It can be so dangerous to self-perception, and that’s especially worrisome as it relates to younger generations. I’d prefer to have my children to make stuff instead of look at stuff. But if they’re going to look at stuff, I want them look at good stuff, not just surf pretty pictures or silly nonsense. I’ve never been the type of parent that has strict limits on what music my kids can listen to or what art is “kid-appropriate”. I think that’s real shame, because we are subliminally conveying an idea that art should have limitations, that art should be controlled, and I think that’s dangerous. I try to encourage them to make tangible things. For me, I’m so grateful I kept all of these written/collaged journals when I was a kid. Each one is a talisman, after so many years of pouring myself into them, revisiting them, treasuring them. I just have to touch it and I get a sense of the past. I remember when I was really young, maybe 5, holding my mother’s hand mirror, putting my nose right up to it so it was touching the glass. I remember staring at my eyes in the reflection, and asking " who are you?" I couldn’t find the connection between the voice asking the question and the eyes looking back at me. I remember being so confused, so disoriented, and that was a defining moment. From then on, I’ve always had this sense that world is more mysterious than it appears.
HP: I have noticed often bodies in your work are centralised and almost collapsing out off the paper. Whereas in this project the objects and elements that make up the environment take up the majority of the pictorial field and the people seem small within their environment, almost like ghosts inhabiting the space. Would you agree?
JT: Yes, you’re right; the figures aren't primary. They are the experiencers of the space, and the space isn't space, it's time. We move around, city to city, apartment to apartment, gain and lose objects. These tangible things go away, and what's left is the memory and the connection. The things that are left have no body, just like these pencil marks have no body; but both are elemental. So, yes, there is a sense of ghosts and apparitions, a lack of physicality under the guise of arranged objects and environments. But the work is really about the inexpressible parts, the parts that we can’t put our finger on. I only draw what I remember. I have no interest in filling space. If I don't remember it, I don't put it in. I just leave it as negative space, a place-holder.
HP: The smaller works appear more cryptic, perhaps because of the absence of the figure altogether. They are clearly diary entries, but I wonder what the significance of them is to you? Were they a way of digging deeper into those early memories? Let's talk about about 'Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)’.
JT: The smaller works are drawings of pages from my high school journals. These are real pages,like, they exist in object form. All of the pages I re-drew directly refer to Kaveh (I embedded the pages with the initials of the person I was writing about at that time, so all of these pages have a “KR” in them somewhere). So, in some ways, these smaller drawings are far less cryptic than the larger ones. When I was in high school, I organized my personal journals in the Zuihitsu style (otherwise known as a Pillow Book style). It’s a method of loosely organizing writing and pictures around a theme. So each of these pages are thematic. I’ve always loved making photo collages with pictures I took. We had a darkroom in my high school, so I would take these photos, develop them in the darkroom, collage them using tape, put them in my journal and write song lyrics that related to the collage and/or my life on that day.
‘Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)’ has a collage of a hand and a sweater. I remember taking the photo of the hand...I think it was my friend Kathleen’s hand, and I believe that the black-and-white patterned sweater in this collage was Kaveh’s, which is one reason why I picked this page to draw for ‘Beside Me’. I remember choosing this Brian Eno song to write around the collage -- I chose it because the exterior border of the collage reminded me of mountains. The song is five and a half minutes long, and just repeats the same cyclical refrain “We climbed and we climbed/ Oh, how we climbed/ My, how we climbed/ Over the stars to top/ Tiger Mountain/ Forcing the lines through the snow” over and over and over. I don’t know, I think even when I was a kid I recognized this kind of Sisyphean tragedy in life, that we just keep trying and climbing but it’s a never-ending cycle with no real journey’s end.
HP: Has your undergraduate studies in Religion and East Indian Languages informed your artistic practice?
JT: I don’t consciously mimic traditional Asian Art, but in terms of flatness, or the lack of depth of field, I see the influence for sure. When I see the world, it seems flattened, two-dimensional, like it’s all composed on a single picture plane. I don't care about perspective or rendering just for effect. The second that I am drawing something for effect, I feel like I am trying to fool people, so I stay away from it. I see commonalities in Indian Miniature Paintings (primarily Mughal and Rajput varieties) as they are really heavy in narrative. Also, the flattened patterns in Japanese Ukiyo-e paintings. And definitely Ancient Egyptian paintings, which were heavily symbolic. I love all of those.
Bigger picture, in terms of language, I’m creating a visual language. Certain body gestures, hand positions, song titles, objects, etcetera are all just symbols for something else. The viewer has to start asking, what does this mean? What does this other thing mean in relation to the thing that came before it or after it? That’s all language is, really. Understanding symbols within the context of other nearby symbols. It’s all just study and translation.
Your work 'Ametron' which is a music industry store I was not previously aware of, made me think of a time in the not so distant past where people would have gone and got a bunch of instruments and started a punk band or an Indie band with their mates. What’s your connection to Ametron and how did this juke box that looks like an eccentric Victorian invention come to play a part in your memoryscapes?
Totally! Ametron is this amazing vortex of a store in Hollywood. When I was down in LA over the past year to work on this project, one time Kaveh needed something for a show or something so we went to Ametron to get it. It’s like a very small Home Depot for all-things-music. Ametron has a whole zone just for music stands; there must be 50 or so all in a group, like people, standing there in a crowd. It's incredible. There is also a zone just for foam acoustic panels for soundproofing, and to me they looked like miniature mountain ranges. Ametron is just a visual field day for me. There is this Pepsi machine in the foyer of Ametron that is featured in 'Verse 4'. It's a Pepsi machine that sells Coke products for a dollar; it also looks like it could, at any moment, start shaking and smoking and explode and have Gremlins inside of it, or something crazy like that. Ametron also has this defunct "music juke box", which is a towering and beautiful object in its own right. It always has an “Out Of Order” sign taped to it, which is fine, because sometimes the way we imagine things working is more magical than the way they actually work. I don't know what this music machine says about the chemistry between the musician and their instrument...clearly if the juke box were to work, it would be more of an 'instant-variety' than real, live music.
HP: It's interesting that you talk about this very physical connection between the instrument and the body. On a philosophical level, what are your thoughts on music’s role within contemporary society?
JT: Well, music is a force that affects us on both a biological and emotional level. Anyone to who hasn’t felt that at some time must have a serious inner block. I think most of us are desperately grasping everyday for control. Music, and obviously any sound, enters our bodies through our ears. All of this movement happens; the ear drum vibrates, the fluid inside the cochlea ripples, the tiny hair cells move up and down on these waves, and all of this generates electrical signals that our brain perceives as sound. So, quite literally, it moves us. It destabilizes us. The effect that music can have on us, both sonically and lyrically, in any moment, is hard to predict. I think it’s scary to most people to feel these changes, these accelerated emotions, whether they're high or low, so they keep music at a safe arm's reach. For me, though, I thrive on those highs and lows. My artwork comes from that rollercoaster, so for me music is a vehicle of change and a direct pathway to creativity.
In terms of broader society, these days music is primarily ambient and most people will listen to a song while they are on the phone, driving, doing a million other things, whereas before you had to go find the record, buy it, get it home (you couldn't play it on the way home), once home you would open the record, see if it had liner notes, lyrics or no lyrics, etcetera. And there was no better or worse; sometimes it's better not to have the lyrics because makes you listen and that active listening is an opportunity to have the music enter you and change you. Once that change happens, in my experience, it's there forever.
HP: Your work is full of subtlety and I wonder if you could speak on this and where the impulse to remain in this literal grey area is coming from?
JT: I'm interested in making things that are not clear, both in terms of content and value. To me, life is full of questions, not declarations. I think a great deal of suffering in the world is due to people making declarations and definitions, rather than learning to see beauty in the indeterminate. I guess there’s some irony in this work, because the drawings kind of look like photo realism; they look clear in some ways, you know that's a person, that’s a record, that’s a plant, etcetera. It looks like a domestic interior populated by two humans. But what I’m really interested are the inexpressible elements that are inhabiting that space. It’s about the intangible; about feelings, about connections - even if they sit outside of society’s expectations or understanding. Again, that’s what my experience of the world is like, so I like having things be unclear, or shifting, or transparent, or emerging; I want people to have to look harder, whether it's with their eyes or brains or hearts. I think art can help people feel things, even if they don't understand exactly what they are feeling.
HP: In this climate of the art market where it seems that there is a lot of very loud work vying for attention, your work in it's sincerity is rebellious and punk in it's defiance, would you agree?
JT: I'm aware of it for sure. In terms of sales, it’s impossible to compete with these works that are easy, colorful, and pop-driven. I’ve never made work that larger audiences casually pick up to put over their sofa. I want viewers to work to see and understand my work, because for the people who do, the work starts unfolding for them. That's the kind of work I want to make. I don’t make pieces that are one-liners. My work considers human relationships, and we all know that relationships are exceedingly complex. For me it would be inauthentic if the effect of my work was instant. I pose a lot of questions in my work, so the answers come in time, not quickly.
The morning after the opening of this show, my son, who's in 7th grade, asked, "so were you guys boyfriend and girlfriend?". I said “no, we weren't”. He couldn’t understand that. It was this awesome opportunity to explain to him that friendship can be much deeper than playing a video game with someone or talking on the phone to someone. I explained that, in my experience, my closest friendships don’t fit nicely within one cubby. It’s something expansive, undefined. And I wasn’t talking about physical boundaries; I was talking to him about emotional and spiritual boundaries, about not limiting oneself to surface-level friendships. This project taught me so much, it taught me how deep a friendship can grow if I welcome that. It’s scary, though, because that means destabilizing norms around this topic. It means pushing boundaries. In some cases, it requires setting aside the presumption that two friends of opposite genders cannot be so close without being romantic. This idea is very confusing for most people.
Bio: Kaveh Rastegar is a Grammy nominated Electric and Upright bassist. In the years since moving to Los Angeles, California from Rochester New York where he graduated from the Eastman School of Music, Kaveh has enjoyed success playing, writing and recording music for a wide array of artists, projects and films.
Kaveh is a founding member of the Grammy Nominated Jazz quintet Kneebody. Kneebody has toured the world and recorded a number of albums. Most recently they have signed to Concord records and have toured Australia, Japan, Europe and the States in support of their new album “The Line”. Kaveh is also bassist for acclaimed singer songwriter John Legend and has accompanied him on tours worldwide since the summer of 2014. Kaveh is also bassist and musical director for singer and smash songwriter Sia.
A playlist by Josephine Taylor
Nomadic Press Artist to Artist Interview Series is created and produced by Harriet Poznansky. Poznansky is a British artist based in Oakland, CA. She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art London and School of the Art Institute Chicago. She works from her studio in Oakland, making paintings, music, and writing short stories. Her co-curatorial project, Trap, Trauma and Transformation has received funding from Oakland Cultural Fund and will be on show in February 2019 at Cove Studio, Oakland.
To find our more visit her website - www.harrietpoznansky.com
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Read past Artist to Artist interviews - Molly Zuckerman-Hartung