Everyone likes a good origin story:
1. Rothko Chapel
In the mid 1990s I attended undergraduate school at Rice University in Houston, Texas. As part of that time I lived just north of campus, not far from the Menil Collection and the Rothko Chapel, which is adjacent to the Menil. During my time at Rice, while not studying art directly, I took a series of art history classes that provided a selective but powerful introduction to art, including by the legendary Thomas McEvilley (who blew my mind, lecturing about Paul McCarthy “fucking a jar of mayonaise”), Melissa Hyde, whose Feminst Art History class created the foundational way in which I have approached art ever since, and William Camfield, who at the time I just thought was a cool guy but I have realized since was a pivotal figure in studies of surrealism and dada.The Rothko Chapel was of particular appeal and became a frequent destination. The immediate hush and sacredness of the space, and the canvases and their rich, dark color, so human and so enveloping. For an urban anthropology class, I wrote a paper with the subject of tracing an urban walk, in which I walked from campus, past my home, to the Rothko Chapel, a kind of mini-pilgrimage, from private institution through wealthy neighborhoods (featured in the Wes Anderson classic Rushmore) over raw freeway overpasses, past ragged mini-marts and strip clubs, and back to quiet neighborhoods. The walk culminated at the Chapel, and (true story) ends with me entering the Chapel and finding a man in a full suit, socks and shoes off and folded neatly at his side, legs crossed on one of the purple cushions that matched the paintings, headphones from a yellow Sony walkman snaking to his head. Something out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel perhaps. I sat quietly and watched for a long time as he sat completely still, meditating. Something about that experience, the juxtaposition of the saturated space of abstraction and the precise contemporary objecthood of the businessman and the walkman, has resonated within me ever since.
2. The Clock
In grad school, in 2005 I was given a clock by my now-Mother-In-Law, as I understood it at the time as sort of a gag gift. It was a clock which featured the anti-depressant Zoloft, and was given to doctor’s offices as a kind of promotional item by drug representatives, who would visit offices to pitch the doctors on new pharmaceutical products. This one was cheaply constructed of blue plastic, with a white background and featuring the white Zoloft cartoonish blob which was ubiquitous on television commercials at the time. The cute white blob in the commercials bounced along and moved from sadness to joy, emitting small groans, murmurs, and squeaks, accompanied by the soothing voice of the narrator.I initially hung the clock on the wall in my studio as a convenient way to mark the end of studio visits or let me keep an eye on when my next class started, treating it as the functional object that it was. One day I had made a fairly generic formalist abstract sculpture out of red wooden 2 x 2 x 8s, with my typical mediocre craftsmanship (accurately labelled “mid-tech” by one of my teachers Timothy Martin). I made the gesture of shifting the clock from functional object to readymade art object, and hung the clock on the wooden frame and did some studio visits and had a sculpture studio crit.The clock provoked an unexpected instant series of strong responses from peers and instructors alike. The content immediately altered the otherwise unimpressive abstract sculpture. Some took it personally, reflecting upon their own experiences with antidepressants. Others found it to be a loaded corporate sign, either pointed critique or deflated emptiness. Some were bothered by it, some found it to be the only thing of value in the sculpture. We were students of the post-Pictures, post-Conceptualist generations. We knew the drill, we knew the meaning of symbols. It was a meaningful one. No image exists of this sculpture, but adjacent is the follow-up sculpture I made with the clock, a kind of quasi-architectural model for a clock tower.
3. Antagonistic to Design
The graduate school I attended was Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, CA. While known most for its prestigious design programs that produce car, product, and graphic designers, it also has a Fine Arts program that takes a somewhat less commercial perspective. In my thesis exhibition, I created an installation of digital and physical collages, paintings, sculptures, and videos of pharmaceutical ads using appropriated commercials, sculptural objects with the palette of corporate colors. I spent a fair amount of time in there after it was completed, having meetings, looking, thinking, making notes, and documenting (and let’s be honest, feeling anxious). One day a woman came in that I didn’t recognize, said hello, and spent considerable time looking around. After a while she introduced herself. I don’t recall her name but she was a professor of design there. She asked a few questions and then pointed something out through a rhetorical question, which I am definitely paraphrasing through memory: “Do you realize that what you are doing is pretty much in direct critique to everything else happening in this school? This work is highly antagonistic to design.” I gave a fumbling answer but it was a startling realization. I hadn’t realized it at all, but that was precisely what I was (awkwardly, in a grad student sort of way), critiquing, or at least pointing at. I knew I was investigating the mechanics of advertising, and of course it was a result of the program itself, but I hadn’t realized in its own way that it was a target upon the very institution that our department was nested in.