Portrait Darren Bader
"Shelf life is always an issue – I don’t like seeing the grapefruits wizen", commented American artist Darren Bader in an email-conversation with critic Bruce Hainley. On food in the arts, Zeitgeist, and the profundity of ancient and bad curators.
I first met Darren Bader when I agreed to rendezvous with him for a studio visit on a picnic bench in Griffith Park in Los Angeles. At the time (a decade ago?), he was considering applying to some MFA programs; after the studio visit, I strongly advised him against it, basically saying, Kiddo, what would be the point? I loved his work from the get-go, and its strange "unplaceability" (of genre, of media). Everything that made his work special would have been ruined by school marms, academic dudes of the worst type. As much as he is known for his interventions into and expansion of white cubes, Bader is admired for his writing. His first book, the impeccable James Earl Scones (2005), opens with a letter addressed to Tom Cruise and NASA. On the back cover of his second tome, pulturebook (b&w version) (2008), the artist announces, in another letter, this time addressed to “everyone”, that he will be “spending a year inside a horse used by the Mongols on their conquests”, and ends with a list of things he’ll be taking with him on the military journey, including a biography of Genghis Khan, “1 lychee (invisible)”, and “life”. From our opposite coastal aeries, we carried out a conversation about his recent activities, his newest publication, oaint, and ways to get over our mutual funks.
BRUCE HAINLEY: Given the crappy and/or craptacular cultural moment we live and work in, how do you wrap your head around something like "shelf life" in proximity to art? You have an abiding interest in food and digestion as part of your aesthetic horizon (food at the Louvre, to nutshell it), and your last show (at Kreps) – to remove the concept from the supermarket – included live miniature goats and kittens. My working hypothesis is that things have to engage in and/or syncopate some youtube-like rhythm of instantaneity and everywhereness or tap into something really, really ancient. In terms of the former (instantaneity), something like this, which I’m not ready to argue for as art, although I’m totally ready to say that it’s more compelling than, say, video the Dia Foundation supports. What I admire: its simplicity; its mainstreaming; its zeitgeist-tackling. But tomorrow? Next week? Next month? I might not remember it, not think about it at all.
DARREN BADER: I like this video quite a bit. I’d almost consider it art – better than what Karen Kilimnik tries to do (not sure why she comes to mind).Yeah, the really, really ancient is what I try to anchor myself to amidst the vertigo I get from trying to understand what art might be. I love what art has meant to me as a consumer, as a museum junkie, as a power-pop addict, as a certain type of smut collector. I don’t care if we’re talking Burke’s sublime, Kant’s sublime, Lyotard’s sublime (none of which I can recall the “verbal-specific” qualities of), but I’m talking about art as I wish to define the word as I have learned to worship it. It all comes down to bridgeable abysses (empyreal or stygian): the improbable and extraordinary coalescence of elements, so the ancient is inherent to a large degree. Trying to find formal vessels to tap the bowels of the ancient (hopefully not the bowels of the Ancients) is what I’m constantly looking for. Food is nature’s impeccable sculpture – as seen through my formalist, or more to the point, minimalist, lens. Shelf life is always an issue – I don’t like seeing the grapefruit wizen. But rather than ingratiating myself to the instantaneity zeitgeist, I’m actually removing myself from it in search of elusive and illusory constants. Goats and cats that have philosophically-minded titles but obviously are goats and cats and move people accordingly go to show that there will always be something that moves us even when we can’t but inundate ourselves with what we hope might move us more.
HAINLEY: Remind me of the highfalutin, philosophical titles, please.
BADER: I don’t know about high falutin…Words fail the idea – or at least economy of words here do, maybe. I often imagine philosophy restricted to the realm of words. Ideas [words] as presentation:
goat made out of banana
goat made out of lamb
goat made out of lentils
goat as microprocessor that vomits blood
to grow basil
cat made out of crab flesh
cat made out of human flesh
cat filled with dirty laundry
cat made out of donkey
cat made out of chicken
cat made out of orangutan flesh and VitaminWater®
cat from a long time ago
cat who used to date Don Henley
HAINLEY: Inundation. Onslaught or barrage. Let me brew a pot of Constant Comment – the tea my mother drinks, the name of which has, since I was a tyke, fascinated and perplexed me – to rouse my spirits and/or calm my nerves. I just reread the publication you assembled with Urs Fischer for "Regarding Henry’s Show" (2009), Fischer’s exhibition at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center. I say "assembled" due to the fact that pictures do as much commenting on the constants as the text – they are not "merely" illustrative. The book seems to operate under dual titles: The Artist Laments and The Bearded Island. I could spend a lot of time unpacking all that’s conveyed by those titles – the mood of your thinking (lament) as well as the at least triple duty of the concept of bearded: giving more than theoretical five-o’clock shadow to the actual beard of the lady on the publication’s back cover, besting Mona Lisa’s ’stache; invoking the woman who "covers" for some supposedly straight dude’s homosexuality; and, because of the way you deploy frutti de mare as a suitable metaphor for one aspect of the art world, the "beards" of mollusks, which help them hold on for dear life, so they’re not immediately gobbled up – as a complicated adjective for the Big Apple’s island of loneliness. One part of the manifesto- like energy of your inquiry focuses on what it wouldmean to distinguish “mythos” from “ethos” re: aesthetics. The aegis of the penultimate section’s headlined “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”, which I always misconstrue as “Art, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”. Sheesh, I’m going on and on, so let me snap this into place: specifically, a) why “lament”? and b) how is the juxtaposition of picture and text and/or picture and picture within a publication still a zone of discovery for you?
BADER: a) Lament because as an artist I (and I believe the same goes for Urs to the same and also different extent) often find myself feeling naked in a very uncomfortable way, naked as some sort of anomaly in a time that doesn’t entirely feel like my own. Like I said, I worship art. I’m not interested in worshipping Kippenberger or the foibles of the Bourriaud-set or the trans- Atlantic faux-politic of so many artists of my generation. I’m interested in the backwoods and frontwater of art being a force of nature. The lament [in the essay] – and the use of Rauschenberg as paragon for what “Contemporary Art” has come to mean in many of its senses – comes from a lack of intimacy with what I feel art can and should be. It’s a fucking desert out there. There are good image makers/finders. There are good formmakers/finders. There are good compostionalists and/or orchestrators. There are good ideas. But the good art is somewhere – usually elsewhere. The lament is twofold: 1. art as defined by the snooty ken and necessary market of the art world is not how (Urs or) I wish to define art. 2. It’s fucking lonely out there. 3. This loneliness might never be abated due to my own limits of understanding what art might be/mean!
b) picture and text are each entirely dear to me. They are what I gravitate towards most: word and image. Their intermix is becoming less and less important for me in any strict relationship to either one. I stand by my words here … intermix was at times a strict relationship to both-as-each-one, now it is more an ascetic practice for me of trying to tap each one’s lymph on its own terms. Word, image, audio, hyperlink: each are quantities that are fundamentally interchangeable to me. They’re all sculptural entities, each occupying space (sensory-cum-cognitive), cognitive/ aestheticizable space.
And lastly: Constant Comment is a revelation.
HAINLEY: Just a minute. Let me get some tweezers so I can pull the cactus thorns out of my side…It is a desert out there. I was talking to someone earlier today about how art should be or could be something to which we are beholden. Art is so much larger than any mere self – or can be. My only point of contention with your and Urs’s essay is how you construe Sturtevant’s work. She has nothing to do with “art history” or “canonic logic” (that would be the realm of Sherrie Levine). Sturtevant plumbs “the interior of art”, its “silent power of under" contradicting the “voracious noise of surface.” That’s how she put it in a statement at the time of her crucial 1995 show, "Powerful Reversals". In any case, yes, what tool shall we create to dowse for the artesian water source beneath the desert?
BADER: Is this your dog Petunia in the picture you sent me? Petunia is awesome. No deserts, only promises, equations and acceptance (who knows who was allotting who which …) Is Petunia love or just rich symbol or are they somehow intermittently interchangeable [I wrote this when I got home at 3 AM [drunk] last night – not sure what it means entirely.] Beholden. I like that word a lot. It’s a big word, it’s an honest word. It’s a human-social word. I in no way wish to challenge you on the redoubtable Sturtevant! My "inclusion" of her work was very cursory – she seemed the ideal candidate for a cameo within the context she made a cameo in.
HAINLEY: I was struck by the – press release (?) – that arrived today from Gavin Brown, penned by one "Darren Bader". After I was pleased to find that it wasn’t for Rob Pruitt’s Andy Monument, I could settle down to consider how and why, nevertheless, you summon a Warholian future world of chrome. At least for one of Warhol’s possible apprentices, Rirkrit Tiravanija, "chrome is too grand, too easy". Am I misreading if I conclude that Rirkrit’s inability to say yes to Warhol’s apprenticeship has something to do with fear?
BADER: Well, the Rirkrit show has a full scale replica of his first show at Gavin Brown on Broome Street back in 1994. The original show (and this is what I gather with little research to corroborate it) included some Rirkrit stuff (sleeping mat, wok, etc.) and a couple Warhols: a Brillo box and a small Mao painting. So the Warhol theme comes from there. “Chrome” comes From the Rirkrit title, The Future Will Be Chrome. I don’t See Warhol as a chrome-ist at all. Warhol suspends the “beholden” while universally deploying it. It’s a great ontological WTF. I’m saying Rirkrit (and so many others) are scared of it. I’m scared of it. Warhol can be god (and/)or demiurge in too many situations: "Fine Art" both soars and is eaten with him.
HAINLEY: I almost think I might have reviewed that Rirkrit show – which, in my memory, included a small Mao and a stack of empty beer bottles (Rolling Rock?) in wooden beer cases. I know it was at Gavin’s wonderful and dinky first space on Broome Street. Funny. I loved that show and love the tiny Mao by Warhol – the idea of it – even more now than I ever could have then. But I also want to go on record, despite of, or especially because of, the fact that I’m currently teaching a course "on" Warhol, and declare that if I have to hear another fuckin’ thing about Warhol from anyone – and I love him and the work – I might have to lobotomize myself to be able to carry on. That is Petunia. Although not wracked with tears anymore, I do miss her. I’ve purposefully resisted using the word "curating" in relation to your work. What do you make of that word/concept of curators (in general, as a type) in relation to your pursuits?
BADER: Indeed I think you reviewed that very show. Nice full circle action. I’m guessing I was listening to a lot of Pink Floyd at that point. Just want to say that I very sincerely would never want to take your Warhol class. I would be terrified to have you school me.
The first two things that come to mind are:
1. Curators are a type of mercenary.
2. Or they are a type of moldy mandarin [not supposed to be a fruit metaphor].
HAINLEY: [Laughing] Well, perhaps a moldy mandarin peeling a mandarin …
BADER: Or that, you know I can’t say no to a citrus fruit … I like curators when they have access to time and money and discipline: I like the "Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914" show at the MoMA right now for instance. But generationally, the word "curating" doesn’t seem to reflect the bookish and sedulous pursuits affiliated with that sort of curating anymore. Curating now means fucking the audience and hoping for a return fuck. Curating is porn. Really, I’m serious. Being on email lists of curators-for-hire or being on the ground in NYC and seeing what’s been going on at the New Museum for the past 3 years…Occasionally the curation is hot hot hot, but usually it’s some nasty, sloppy nut-busting on some awfully standard sofa. And then the condom porn: curating that attempts to corral history and its offspring with an air of authority and savoir faire and it’s really only smoke and mirrors. Speaking of which, and getting to the point, I wonder if what I do is all smoke and mirrors, too …
I don’t like the word “curating” for what I do. It might be porn, but it ain’t curating.
It’s a way to gather and force and assimilate and share and imagine and invite. Maybe it weaves in and out of the didactic, but its didacticism is meant to evanesce as quickly as the viewer finds any merit whatsoever in any of the presentations couched in the work. Basically, I’m at a loss for words … but the point is that there is no need for curating, per se. There is certainly a place for it. But unless the curator has a boring-but-historically-thorough and/or truly philosophical thesis, then s/he is not a curator, rather just a fanboy and jerk-off artist. Smoke and mirrors can be devastating in a good way, but it’s more often just a cheap excuse to make oneself feel important.
HAINLEY: If I were totally tone deaf, I’d write: Word. (Does anyone say that anymore without a killing irony?) Instead, I’ll leave it at: exactly, and exactly why what you’re up to isn’t curating. Perhaps it’s helpful to look at something directly related to – and part of – your pursuits. J’adore and admire your book oaint – from the Leonardo DiCaprio cover to the truly unbelievable (but there it is!) Serena Williams Tampax ad. While I understand it operates, in one way, as a survey of your work thus far, it’s also obviously more than that (a codex or illuminating manuscript of the zeitgeist). I wonder if you could walk me through a two-to-four-page spread, in terms of how you think about what goes next to what and what you wish to make clear and what you hope remains beyond easy traction or verbalization? Maybe the four pages that begin with a picture of what is textually printed, matter-of-factly, on what the photo itself is of, “tennis racket bag with/and paper towels” superimposed on an American Spirit cigarette ad and across the gutter from a painting of a doe-eyed lass. Turn the page, and the lasses aren’t so doe-eyed and I can suddenly think of at least one use for the paper towels. I understand that these pages relate to what immediately precedes them: a slightly more stabilized spread from your collaboration, Odeon (2009), with two of your, I think I can call them, homies, Ara Dymond and Uri Aran – all of which simultaneously loans pertinent necessary didactic info about the doe-eyed lass (who is – and this is part of your paradoxical magic and why you’re not curating – both not herself nor strictly any longer a George Condo, neither in Odeon, but especially not by the time she graces an entire page by herself against a starlit (?) field). Dislocated from the spacetime of Odeon, the pictures in oaint – the equivalent, in cinematic terms, of a zoom freeze? – become both unlatched and, well, off-the-hook. Foreground and background shifts, and what the psychic finds in the prism of her crystal ball has changed.
BADER: I’m truly touched (and relieved!) that you like oaint that much. You are my most meaningful critic.
BADER: Yeah, that Serena ad: Holy Wow. Each spread was conceived according to two criteria: 1. that the left and right background images have to look good together and that 2. the images put on top follow the (boring) law of chronology (because yes, it was conceived as a survey of my work). I love that you’re gleaning so much from El Oaint, but in truth Jesse Willenbring [my design man extraordinaire] and I really just worked on each page according to those two criteria. It was a visual adventure that seemed very natural for both of us … American Spirits looked good next to "starlit field" so we did that. It’s really very boring. But it was our explicit intention to create these visual layers and see how they’d feel in the world. My work is often very boring to look at, I think, so we made the book an artwork to de-snooze the conceptual hi-jinks (and awful photography) that pervade a lot of the work featured in the book …
"I can suddenly think of at least one use for the paper towels" – yeah, that work isn’t so boring – that picture is a gift that keeps on giving. But, like I said, or have been trying to allude to, rather, oaint is supposed to be about you, the reader, making connections, feeding impressions, enjoying or not, etc. The world of images can never really be organized according to any law except that of the experiencer’s needs/impressions/ whatevs – that’s what I try to deal with when I deal with images. I love an image (for ancient qualities, or color scheme, or …) and then I just want to throw it out there to share. Saw the Stan Douglas show at Zwirner the other day. Stan Douglas has never been of much interest to me. The labored intention behind his new show is no exception, but he has created a series of images that really made me excited. I have no problem saying that his show is one of my two favorite shows in Chelsea right now. Similar to a good Christopher Williams show, but better. Images are always smarter than the words foisted on them to obey some brittle law of artist-ego. I don’t understand why artists dress up their ideas as photographs or paintings (Cheyney Thompson and Co. come to mind) and expect anybody to give a shit about their ideas. Of course, if their idea is more artistic than the image-fields, then the idea is the beautiful thing. Just started reading Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition and that man is art-making, my fucking god. Whoa, that was a long one.
HAINLEY: … and … scene. —––
Darren Bader was born in 1978 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He lives in New York City. He is represented by Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Sadie Coles, London. He was one of the featured artists in the Spike Annual Edition Portfolio 2014, which is available to buy here.
Bruce Hainley lives in Los Angeles. He is the author of Foul Mouth (2nd Cannons) and, with John Waters, Art – A Sex Book (Thames & Hudson).