Interventions: The Nexus of Art, Fiction, and Authorship – Interview with Tabitha Piseno
Introduction by Tabitha Piseno
“Scratch a conceptual artist, find a painter” is the cover quote placed underneath the title of the ghostwritten semi-autobiographical memoir – Hirsch E.P. Rothko’s Hirsch E.P. Rothko. The invented character/device Hirsch E.P. Rothko served as the epicenter of production for Christopher K. Ho’s recent exhibition, Regional Painting, at the Winkleman Gallery. The 89 page personal vignette, was the backbone and backstory of the exhibition. The text reflected the time Christopher spent living in a license plate covered shed in Telluride, Colorado. It was during this time that he allowed himself to paint freely after a 10-year hiatus from the medium, as a conceptually-driven artist, and to develop his proposition for Regionalism. I had the opportunity to speak with Christopher about his recent work, his collaboration with his own fictional character, and his experiences while spending a year in a shed in Colorado.
TP: What is your perspective on the reception of Regional Painting?
CKH: The reception of Regional Painting differed from the reception of previous work, especially Happy Birthday, my first solo show in 2008, which generated three reviews: New York Times, Art in America, and Art Review. First, the press was thin. In part, this was because it was a second show, which, like a second novel, suffers from being neither new enough to be exciting nor established enough to warrant routine review. In part, it was a matter of timing: Regional Painting opened just before the two-week hiatus of Thanksgiving and then Miami Basel.
But the thin reception had to do with Regional Painting ’s structure, too. As Julian Kreimer, a painter friend, astutely observed, the exhibition occupied the axis between deniability and vulnerability. The use of the pseudonym – the anagram Hirsch E.P. Rothko – and the exhibition’s more self-reflexive moments – the tinting of the walls, the framing of the paintings and, most of all, the semi-fictional memoir – all allowed for a degree of deniability. I could safely embrace being a romantic artist (despite hitherto being conceptually oriented), paint intuitively (despite not having painted for a decade), and revisit all of the values that my education and previous practice had embargoed.
This deniability – which is, after all, modernist reflexivity turned a notch up – may not have gone over well with audiences, who read it as insincerity. For instance, several bloggers found my commitment to regional painting to be invalid, since the work ends up in a New York gallery. What was discouraging was that regionalism, as explored in the show, was defined precisely as fiction (which is not the same as insincerity): fiction is that space of temporary, contingent freedom where we can self-invent, transcend our education, experiment, and occupy positions that we normally could or would not. The year in Colorado during which the history of conceptual art was suspended paralleled the novelistic space of the memoir, in which the irrefutability of biography dissolved.
This perhaps goes deeper into the exhibition’s substance than the question, about reception, warrants. In short, reception was rough, because few took the show at face value, and addressed the thesis. Most were sidetracked by whether the show was ironic. If a painter or a regional artist decided that the show was indeed ironic, then it seemed as if I was making fun of them, so they, understandably, reacted negatively (most bloggers fell into this category). If a conceptually biased audience member thought I was being ironic, then Regional Painting would be just another show in a long line of prankster art going back to Duchamp (this category would include most professional print critics, who then felt the show, lacking both novelty and dimension, didn’t need to be reviewed). In fact, I approached painting sincerely and seriously – perhaps more seriously than its own adherents – and proposed regional painting as a salutary route for a conceptual art become one-liner and a critical art become rote.
TP: Your utilization of “deniability” as a mitigating factor for allowing yourself to experience being a “romantic artist” is what I think was the most interesting aspect of the show. What your friend, Julian Kreimer, said about the show “occupying the axis between deniability and vulnerability” really hit the nail on the head, and it’s that exact territory that makes the experience so rich. That process of flux is something that isn’t achieved with success very often.
How and when did the frame for the exhibition develop, and at what point did Hirsch E.P. Rothko emerge?
CKH: The exhibition developed late, in mid 2009. I was pursuing another solo show involving a bronzed manatee and Mozart’s Jupiter symphony. Four factors at least prompted the direction, and made spending a year in a mountain shed not just possible but interesting:
1) Nationally, the United States reeled from economic calamities that foreground, again, “simple living,” and conjured, perhaps for the first time since the nation’s maturation, a future in which we would be a regional, rather than an international, power.
2) Personally, I turned 36. It was the last chance, I felt, to fulfill the youthful fantasy of being a ski bum. Next time, it would be called “retirement.”
3) Art historically, DIY practices, to which regionalism presents a critical response, continued ascent. Simultaneously, as commercial venues shuttered and museums lost funding and even closed, institutional critique became inappropriate if not irrelevant. Art that courted the ridiculous – of which the bronze manatee was an example – also seemed more befitting a pre-downturn age.
4) Regionally, Telluride local Hilary White [Grace Mullican in Hirsch E.P. Rothko by Hirsch E.P. Rothko] saved the License Plate Shed from the developer’s wrecking ball. I knew Hilary through, Max Cooper [Captain Mal]. They had fallen in love during a ski trip I organized to Telluride in 2009.
So it came together. Max/Mal and Hilary/Grace told me about the shed, and it would take but a prod (from my then assistant, Matthew Schrader), to move out and join them in the mountains. That became the centerpiece of Regional Painting. In rapid succession the other components fell into place: first the book (prompted by a timely viewing of Polanski’s The Ghost Writer), then the anagram (how felicitous, this name with such romantic, and tragic, connotations!), and finally the paintings (my own love in high school, but which I had long since jettisoned, facilitated by my college and graduate school professors).
TP: What was it like spending a year in the shed? I love how the representation of Telluride in the memoir is also a significant reflection of a certain degree of Regionalism. How did your surroundings influence the development of the characters and the scenarios in the book, and how did the ghostwriter transmute this? Please tell me there was really a group of people who called themselves the “Stomparillaz.”
CKH: The Stomparillaz are indeed real. You can check out their website. They are scattered over Colorado – Carbondale, outside Aspen, is another node. Their main activity is biking. When I asked a group of them for a definition, they said that they were there to “stomp.” The book’s locations are real (though intersections of homes were changed), and the characters based on a group of friends I met out there through Max. Most events actually occurred to a certain extent, except the handing over of the shed’s keys, the mushroom ingestion (I’ve never tried hallucinogens – like Hirsch, too neurotic), and the stock tip scene (though the hot tub setting at Don Hannah/Dom Pfeiffer’s is real). Because the time frame is Fall, my experiences on the slopes were changed from skiing to biking. People always ask if I was fired from RISD; I wasn’t. I am, however, an insomniac; take Ambien; and organize my books in a bird’s eye pattern. I also hope that I am more sympathetic in person than my anagrammatic alter ego is in words.
People who have lived in ski towns – Aspen, Sun Valley – or have watched movies like Aspen Extreme or Out Cold recognize the oddity of the characters. The combination of tiny town, liberal people, high altitude, and visitors who are mostly on vacation, and thus less restrained, make for scenarios that would be unimaginable elsewhere. Telluride, geo-physically, at the end of a box canyon, is an idyll that is precisely a space where rules are suspended and wild occurrences become common. It is regretful that most of my experiences – the 26-year-old town councilor who gave me a two-hour Burning Man slide lecture (and who owns the Steaming Bean), the fire at the bakery Baked in Telluride, the pot wafting daily from the high-end gallery, the community radio call-ins about lost children, and the FBI arrest of the taco-cart owner for running a major cocaine ring, to name but a few – did not make it into the book.
If Telluride provided the memoir’s odd characters, it also provided a setting that highlighted the difficulties of making art in non-urban contexts – and, in turn, the basis for my argument that regional painters are the most committed of artists. One myth of modern art is that great art is universal, timeless; a Mark Rothko, for instance, supposedly transcends the particularities of its time and place. But what is art’s timelessness compared to nature’s geologic time? More, we are not taught to approach nature – which is the dominant force in Telluride – critically. (Who ever says that a sunset needs more orange?) Nature’s majesty renders us passive, and passivity is antithetical to creation. Finally, as one local artist, Meredith Neminrov, explained, people in places like Telluride live in their bodies, not their minds. Life is about climbing, biking, skiing and paragliding – but not artmaking. There is no audience; there are few peers.
Despite this, painters like Meredith still make art. Regional Painting is a way of thinking about art made in such a discursive vacuum as interesting, even critical (if accidentally so). On the one hand, the isolated artist is but a romantic trope (this is why I had to have a ghostwriter and invent the shadow character Hirsch E.P. Rothko – to acknowledge that the sojourn in Telluride was the playing out of a fantasy). On the other, I really did spend a year in Telluride living in a shed covered in license plates, and while there met real artist – Max/Mal is but one. There are thousands of artists like these, for whom isolation is a daily fact. Still, they find the wherewithal to make art; and this art, collectively and abstracted into a position, constitutes a critical comment on and alternative to Artforum art.
TP: Can you talk about your relationship with the Winkleman Gallery, and how you feel about the specificity of that context?
CKH: If anything, Regional Painting conceded to the commercial system. It consisted of modestly sized and priced paintings (that gallery cliché) that, moreover, captured the trend of abstraction with triangles. A passage in the book dismisses the conflict between commercial and critical success as outmoded and a hindrance [on page 61].
When Ed Winkleman, the owner and director, first spoke to me about a second show, he mentioned that second shows often fail because the artist, emboldened by his first, believes incorrectly that he has an audience who is interested in him, rather than his art. I took this as a dare. Was it possible to do an autobiographical show without falling into indulgence? What if autobiography became the very basis for the show’s thesis, the core of the show’s polemic? Didn’t autobiography intimate that which was disallowed and disavowed in my own artistic training, which was historical, conceptual, and critical, rather expressionistic, intuitive, and emotional? And, as such, wouldn’t autobiography be a rich and even necessary arena to mine, especially if abstracted into being a model?
This last question determined the role that Winkleman Gallery would eventually play. In real life as in the book, the gallery is the crucial link that connects Colorado to New York, thus allowing the character Hirsch E.P. Rothko to be more than merely a quirk, an idiosyncrasy, a fantastical and ultimately irrelevant invention. Only when regional painting is placed in relation to existing discourse – i.e., when Hirsch E.P. Rothko returns to New York – can it become an alternative model to more traditional institutional critique.
TP: I think that’s why there was so much room for misinterpretation, or the negative responses that resulted. It seemed as though it was a bold claim to make – that regional painting (and, in a sense – autobiography as model) could only be legitimized via a New York gallery; that without that placement, it would otherwise be irrelevant. It also seems as though that maneuver was confining. Would you say that Hirsch is/was dependent/sustained by that confinement – that he was allowed to be because of specific social paradigms that are implicated by institutional relationships? And do you think that negates the more intimate realizations of being “liberated” from conceptual practice that Hirsch made? Or was it that precise maneuver that was elucidated – as a sort of institutional critique?
CKH: You’re right that it is confining to claim that only when placed in a New York gallery can the figure of the lone painter coalesce into a productive alternative model, rather than merely instantiate a default, or thoughtless, position. But it is a necessary claim, because any autobiographical practice hovers on the precipice of narcissism and self-indulgence. More, the threat of irrelevance is particularly strong with the subject of regionalism. Regionalism’s strength – its separateness from reality – also may consign it to frivolity. Several of the book’s passages acknowledge the pitfall of disengagement. In the chapter “I Paint,” Hirsch turns on the TV and mistakes footage from 9/11 for a “Roland Emmerich apocalypse.” Likewise, in “The License Plate Shed,” Dom Pfeiffer gets into a Halliburton jet that Marco thinks is the snowboarding company Burton’s. The chasm between the world-at-large and Hirsch’s world is regionalism’s primary blind spot.
One way of addressing and countering this blind spot is to insist on contextualizing regionalism within the existing discourse of art, and on abstracting a personal journey (moving to the mountains) and enterprise (painting) into a model that could be relevant and applicable to others, even at the risk of losing some of the nuances and subtleties of the experience. But this is not the only option; there are at least two others. First is to engage directly with the region at hand – to get involved with Telluride arts organizations like Stronghouse Studios, to solicit the participation of southwestern Colorado artists, and to exhibit at the local Ah Haa School for the Arts. I only half-heartedly explored this option, because it seemed that any relevance wrought by means of direct engagement came at the cost of the scope of that relevance, which would be necessarily local and limited. (This is my problem with many community-based projects in general.) This option would best be pursued via a curated exhibition of regional art, which I am interested in doing in the future.
The second option, which I did explore with more commitment, is more sophisticated, and as such, may or may not have been successful. This was for Regional Painting to imagine the actual context in which it is located – in this case a commercial gallery in New York. In the last chapter, the character Ed Winkleman expresses interest in Hirsch’s triangle paintings, paving the way for the 2010 show Regional Painting. In the epilogue, Hirsch tells Mal that he plans to return to the city and use a pseudonym, an anagram of his name – presumably Christopher K. Ho. Thus it is not Hirsch E.P. Rothko who is my invention so much as I am his. The paintings, their titles, and their installation do not contradict this reading. By in some sense “fictionalizing” Winkleman Gallery, this option opens up fact – what you call “specific social paradigms that are implicated by institutional relationships” – to imagination, and thus to possibilities hitherto unexplored. I hope that this opening up presents a different kind of institutional critique, not confining but freeing – a kind of creative critique based on invention and synthesis rather than negation and deconstruction, and in which individual imagination erodes and questions established realities.
TP: Yes, I think that process of fictionalizing did present unexplored territories, and there were significant moments of opening up – of found freedom via divergence from institutional critique – to what you called “creative critique based on invention and synthesis.” To me, the most interesting aspect of that proposition was – in order to receive it, everything about the exhibition had to be literally navigated. The discovery of Invention and Synthesis were maybe even experienced sequentially; first “invention” via the experience of the physical context, the alterations within the exhibition space itself, and the presentation of the paintings; then, “synthesis” via the experience of reading the memoir. For me, it was while reading the epilogue when synthesis was experienced. The way in which the writing became a vehicle for expressing the implications of regionalism was, in my opinion, incredibly profound. The memoir then became the most active aspect of the exhibition, the paintings just artifacts.
Now, this was your proposal for regionalism as an alternative model within the specific context of the Regional Painting show; now that the show is some time behind you, do you have new insights in regards to that proposal? And do you have plans to implement those ideas elsewhere? You mentioned that you have interest in engaging Regionalism again via a curated exhibition of regional art. Do you think Hirsch will re-emerge again at any point?
CKH: Well, the Times did not review the show, perhaps indicating that there is much more work to be done, that the case for regionalism could be made again and better. I would like nothing more than for a venue to ask me to remount and expand the show. I envision it with the shed itself in the space (with the paintings inside or around), and with many more works (originally, there were to be sculptures as well as paintings). Other ways to extend the show include an informal residency program in Telluride at the shed, which I’ve already started with a few curator friends (it’s called the Critical Research Artist Project, or C.R.A.P.), and a curated exhibition of regional painting. There is still much to be explored on the topic of regionalism.
Regional Painting began, in fact, as a curated project. I was thinking about the scores of dedicated artists across America who are technically adept but not necessarily discursively engaged and, because of this and other reasons, never fully achieve a national, or an international, platform. Often, these artists have taught for decades – and thus impact contemporary art’s direction in significant, if mostly unacknowledged, ways. They, I thought, are the real avant garde. My own high school teacher, Marjory Reid, to whom Hirsch E.P. Rothko by Hirsch E.P. Rothko is dedicated, is one such artist. Why is such a superb painter not far better known?
But how to approach a regional artist without offending him or her? What gives me the right to label them “regional,” even if only for the duration of a show, and to appoint myself curator? And even if an artist agreed to participate, should the exhibition be in New York, and why? The tangle of questions was similar to that which an ethnologist or anthropologist faces. One solution was to become an amateur regional artist myself (“amateur” here modifies “regional,” not “artist”), like Thierry de Duve’s gambit in Kant After Duchamp, when he describes moving from being an ethnologist to a sociologist to an amateur art lover.
But being an amateur regional artist is one thing; being an amateur curator of regional art, with responsibility for others’ work, is more problematic. This is also why I disagree somewhat with your estimation that the paintings are artifacts. There is immediacy to the medium that allows for being an art lover. To be sure, the book gestures towards amateurism – the cheap green newsprint, the pocket paperback scale, the breezy style. Still, it was not writing, nor the mountain sojourn itself, that gave me (as the maker) the sense that you (as the viewer) experienced when reading the epilogue: synthesis. It was in the act of painting – an act from which I genuinely derived pleasure – that allowed for a momentary suspension of criticality, which is one definition of “amateur.” This might be one of the unique properties of painting as a medium.
So perhaps I am a convert, or never really strayed from the medium. But this doesn’t mean that I’ll continue painting as Hirsch E.P. Rothko, or even Christopher K. Ho forever. I would love to re-mount and expand Regional Painting should I be given the chance by another institution. But it is but one component of a suite of four planned exhibitions, only two of which I’ve executed (Happy Birthday in 2008 was the first) that aim to map a coherent field around four axes. The next one will likely parallel the expense of artmaking with the expenditure of collecting.
You’ve curated and written about exhibitions. How would you – or would you – organize a show of regional art?
TP: Yes, I would organize a show of regional art. In fact, I’m in the process of organizing one right now. The pop-up gallery project I’m currently conducting in Providence is a very specific regional project. The goal is to offer an alternative model to the sparse exhibition venues that currently exist there, and allow for a new context to view art that is made by both emerging and established artists – most of which work or reside locally. We utilize vacant commercial and industrial properties by curating shows that emphasize the location/space they are exhibited in, or vice versa—the location/space will emphasize the content of the work. Site-specific curation, I guess you could say. By doing so, the project throws light on the relationships between the artists making work in Providence, the city’s relationship to “art” (Providence is called the “Creative Capital” of the U.S.), and the economic climate of the city and state (especially the city’s financial dependence on the academic institutions that reside there – RISD and Brown University). The most challenging part of the project is not confining – or defining rather – the work we show as representative of “regional art,” but instead allowing the location, the Pop-Up model, to define that instead.
CKH: You’ve astutely connected regionalism to site specificity – which no one else has noticed. My pre-2008 studio practice was site specific. Regionalism is the logical conclusion of the transition of site specificity from institutional critique to, in its later years, a kind of valorization of uniqueness and place. For some, like Miwon Kwon, this transition was highly problematic: modernist notions like uniqueness, authenticity, and authorship, against which site specificity was initially posed, returned. Regionalism is a more positive take on site-specificity’s later history. Under regionalism’s rubric, the valorization of uniqueness and place is pushed to the point of fiction – Telluride is both authentic and “authentic” – and synthetic narrative becomes a critical counterweight to analytic institutional critique.
TP: Throughout your career as an artist, you’ve also been entrenched in academic institutions. How has that affected your identity? Does it make you feel obligated to play certain roles as an artist?
CKH: In many ways, academia is, like regionalism, a kind of eddy, or wade pool – a place of relative calm that allows for reflection on social realities, while remaining semi-autonomous from them. Semi-autonomy implies semi-engagement, and it is semi-engagement that I find more difficult as an academic. It is far too easy to become part of the closed, self-sustaining system of academia, in which intellectual pursuits are so idiosyncratic and obscure that there is not collective recognition beyond the immediate world, usually a single school or city.
This is not to argue for an easy art, or a marketable one, or even work that is broadly appealing. For total imbrication – in the marketplace, in popular consciousness, in the social context – is also not the goal. Rather, it is to ask artistic practice and investigation to be in some sense diagnostic – to identify a problem external to its content and form alike, and to have the work constitute a solution for it. This is art’s public dimension – not an actual audience so much as an adventitious problem that concerns art in general, not just the specific work at hand. Regional Painting was set in 2001 (the book) and 2010 (the show). Both years were fraught years: 9/11 and the economic collapse. Both meant that the commonplace targets of traditional counterculture – American hegemony, capitalism – were no longer the robust forces that they once were. This in turn led to a crisis in critical art – the “problem” – for which Regional Painting proposed a solution.
Your question’s wording (entrenched, obligatory) suggests a more negative view of academia, and you would be right: it was obligatory at a certain point. Thus Regional Painting was also an anecdote to that highly analytical process of diagnoses and solution. As Hirsch E.P. Rothko, I could make paintings with little or no worry about contemporary painting’s state; each painting was about just that painting, and nothing else. I (temporarily) quit teaching at RISD – to Painting Department Chair Dennis Congdon’s understandable annoyance – to execute the show, literally shrugging off artistic as well as pedagogical responsibility. But this only could have happened with the safety net of the exhibition’s frame. It would have been indulgent otherwise.
TP: I’ll shortly be interviewing the Scottish painter, Callum Innes, and the Irish writer, Colm Toíbín, who recently collaborated on a show called water/colour, at the Sean Kelly Gallery. This exhibition also revolved around a piece of narrative fiction that was specifically written in response to a series of paintings. It will be an interesting follow-up.
CKH: The intersection of biography and art is one of Regional Painting’s cornerstones. Hirsch, for instance, grabs Rosalind Krauss’ The Picasso Papers (which he is on the last chapter, “Dime Novels”) and Boris Tomashevsky’s short essay “Literature and Biography” just as he leaves his New York loft. Both Krauss and Tomashevsky’s essays rethink the relationship between biography and art, re-ordering them, so that biography, or life, follows art. Tomashevsky recounts how in the Romantic period, it becomes “difficult to decide whether literature recreates phenomena from life or whether the opposite is in fact the case: that the phenomena of life are the result of the penetration of literary clichés into reality.”
This is a long way of saying that I think that Innes and Toíbín’s complex sequence of writing and watercolor dovetails perfectly, and that I’m very much looking forward to reading your interview with them.
Tabitha Piseno is an artist and independent curator based in both Providence and New York. She is the Co-Founder and Director of R.K. PROJECTS, an experimental and nomadic exhibition platform focused on site-specific curatorial projects and events.