Art-Rated’s Jonathan Beer and Lily Koto Olive recently interviewed LA-based artist Kristen Morgin about her solo show “Kristen Morgin: The Super Can Man and Other Illustrated Classics,” currently on view at Zach Feuer Gallery in New York.
Art-Rated: Your exhibition at Zach Feuer feels like looking at a slowly sifted memory, something assembled by randomness but entirely representative of a particular moment in American culture. Why does this particular part of American visual culture – Disney cartoons, Ed Roth, West Coast Art, Vintage design – interest you?
Kristen Morgin: My home is in southern California. Southern California is particularly steeped in Walt Disney, Ed Roth, West Coast Art and vintage design not to mention Hollywood (both old and new), true crime, film noir and legend after legend. It is Blade Runner, next to the Kardashians, next to Disneyland, next to Raymond Chandler next to low riders next to the hotel where Janis Joplin overdosed, next to the Brady residence and so on. I live a stone’s throw away from Compton. If you threw the same stone in the opposite direction it would land at the beach. I can buy piñatas here. The Goodyear blimp is parked close by. The weather here is 70 degrees, sunny and cloudless every single day of the year. Time has a weird way of not passing when the weather is the same day after day.
The buildings, streets and neighborhoods here are all oddly familiar because you’ve seen them all before in the movies or on TV. All of the streets and buildings are reused, repurposed and out of context. I am tall, blonde, tan and beautiful. I spend most of my time surfing and hanging out with movie stars. (I’m not really but it kind of amuses me to say that I am.) The people who live here are all talented, creative, and hard working. They have all come here because they don’t fit in anywhere else and because they want to make a better life for themselves. A very small percentage of them will be successful. Of that percentage, the majority of the success is short lived and much of it ends tragically. Almost everyday I have a cup of coffee in the morning and I watch cartoons while I drink it. I haven’t always lived in southern California and I hated it when I moved here. In the years that I have lived here it has grown on me. I think the objects that I make are a quiet homage and a reflection of my endearment and disgust of this wonderful, horrible place.
Perhaps I am interested in this particular moment in American culture because it is my moment or it is just slightly out of my grasp (that is, it belongs to my parents, my grandparents or younger sisters in some instances.) I tend to jumble up the decades. I think what I am most interested in is finding out what happens when “Rat Fink” is in the same room with Doris Day, Frankenstein, the Smurfs and The Beatles and yet the year is 2014.
AR: Looking at your work for the first time feels somewhat like unearthing a time capsule discovered in someone’s attic or forgotten and buried by a child in a backyard. There is an obvious nostalgia and nod to the past in your works that runs as an undercurrent theme. What about reliving and reviving past icons and memories fascinates you?
KM: Nostalgia comes up a lot when people talk about my work.
For a time, I was choosing to make nostalgic objects because I was envious of somebody else’s nostalgic feelings for things that were not a part of my own history. A good way for me to understand an object more deeply and comprehend its history and the culture around it was for me to make the object myself. In that way I could create my own nostalgia on my own terms. Surprisingly, you learn a lot about a thing when you make it.
That said, I do not think my work is merely an examination of nostalgic objects for the sake of conjuring up nostalgic feelings within myself. In fact, when I looked into the origin of the word and how it was first coined I began to think that my work was more closely related to the word’s original definition. Nostalgia was first coined around the time of the First World War. It was used to describe a paralyzing fear that soldiers felt before they were set off to war. More specifically it was a deep foreboding fear that one would never return to his homeland again. Although I am home the feeling of home is not always with me. In that respect, although I am not going off to war, I do feel that when I work in my studio and I make the kinds of objects that I make it satisfies (perhaps only momentarily) a psychological desire to return home alive.
There is one more thing about nostalgia in my work and reviving past icons that I think you should know. I am using nostalgia as a starting point or a place of recognition but then from there I am trying to make something new out of it.
There is something lovely and pathetic about an object that has stood the test of time, been passed down to younger siblings and then to children and then to grandchildren, and has fallen out of favor and has been repaired, and put up in the attic and found again and then repurposed and then someone’s stupid little brother gets a hold of it and then the dog gets a hold of it and it is left out in the rain and then it suffers the indignity of a garage sale, only to then be sent off to goodwill and then was finally thrown out only to be found by somebody else who tries desperately to keep this thing in the world with its tape and glue and it is saved and treasured and forgotten over and over and over again. In another way, the questions that I ask myself when I am in the studio go like this: what would a comic book look like if one was given “Casper the Friendly Ghost” when he actually wanted “Superman”? What would become of Casper?
We don’t really have icons any more. Angelina Jolie is no Bette Davis. Brad Pitt is no Humphrey Bogart. Obama is no John Kennedy. And when you look at the two of them you might say that Madonna has Doris Day beat by a long shot. But sometime when you are real bored listen to “Material Girl” again and you’ll see it doesn’t hold a candle to “Que Sera”. But really what I’m thinking is why not Frankenstein them all together and make some kind of uber-icon? Take the thick with the thin and make something really, really rich out of it.
These are the kinds of objects that I am trying to get close to.
AR: The way you paint and sculpt seemingly dusty objects that present as old tattered pieces of paper, cardboard, and printed comics and books are astonishing. The term ephemera came to mind at first, but the unfired clay you sculpt into these relics is in and of itself heavy, organic and certainly grounded. Can you expand a bit more on these ideas and if you feel they are tied into your work?
KM: I haven’t really ever thought of unfired clay as being grounded. In fact when the conversation comes up about material more often than not I am asked to address the ephemeral nature of my work. I don’t think the objects that I make are ephemeral or grounded I think they are just precarious teetering between being real and unreal; between being whole and being dust.
Literally my works are painted dirt. They are extremely fragile. There is little more than spit and paint holding them together. They wont go away if you blow on them however I wouldn’t stand so close if you have to sneeze. What I think I am really after is the playful rhyme of making something valuable and meaningful out of something that is inherently worthless.
Within the ceramic tradition, unfired clay is considered unfinished. If you want to split hairs over it, technically speaking, clay isn’t even ceramic until it has been fired.
Within the contemporary art world ceramics is currently having a little bit of a Renaissance. However for eons it has been way down at the bottom of the art medium food chain. It has been regarded as the stuff dishes are made of. Or it has been a means to a much more important end (i.e. clay is the stuff they use to make cast metal sculptures).
I am interested in making things that are smart, meaningful and profound. By the same token, I am equally invested in making things that are cute, stupid and lack depth. I think both kinds of things have merit. I am trying to make things that look like they were desperately needed. Whatever they are or how ever they come is enough.
The pieces, whether assembled into singular units or multi part arrangements all capitalize on the randomness of detritus; the unplanned accumulation of so many chance elements maintains a sense of pure play. That is no easy task. Can you talk about how and when chance and decision making influence your practice?
While I do try to make it look like my pieces were casually put together, I can’t say there is a lot of chance involved in making my work. There is some spontaneity that happens when I am painting or sculpting objects but for the most part I work things out with knickknacks, toys, cardboard, books, comics and the bits of what-have-you that I keep in my studio. It is not unlike still life painting. I set up still lives in my studio or loosely collage things together and then, instead of painting them, I make them.
I do tend to use the same toys and the same stickers or collage elements in many different pieces. At this point, especially with reusing toys and brick-a-brack in different still lives they begin to seem like actors making cameo appearances or playing different roles in different movies.
AR: I cannot help but connect the trompe l’oeil effect present in all your works to a much larger philosophical idea about the nature of culture in the US. There is a kind of physical insignificance associated with much of the visual culture produced for the consumer, in packaging, advertising, or illustration that gives our reality a special kind of thinness, where only symbols remain as markers of experience. Is that something you think about and do you see your works relating to those kind of ideas?
KM: Initially, about eight years ago, when I was looking to change the way I worked, on a whim I picked up a Monopoly game and began to make all of its parts. I just wanted to see what would happen.
At the time, I remember thinking a lot about what this mass produced game was going to look like after I made the sum of its parts by hand. Every Chance card, every $500 bill, every property deed I examined and duplicated as best I could one little line by one little line at a time. It took me about a year to complete and although I came close, I didn’t make everything. I learned a lot about Monopoly.
I liked the effect and moved on from there to making things that I personally collected. The things that most often moved with me from place to place were books. I’ve never been much of a reader and I think the reason why I kept so many books was because I liked the pictures. So in effect, by recreating my books line by line and crease by crease I got to spend a lot more time looking at the pictures that I liked so much.
When you work that way for a while that kind of quick scan of objects and things in the world really slows down. The juxtaposition of things starts to mean something. You find all the sex in advertising but also much, much more. And for me I could really get caught up in it all. And even the most insignificant things in our particularly thin, desensitized reality are completely significant because if it didn’t grow there someone put it there and if someone put it there they took the time to do it and when we give up our time to do things that is the most significant thing we have and it means something when we give up our time.
Since I have been making this work I have noticed that there is a lot that people miss. In fact, on more than a few occasions I have had to explain to viewers that with the exception of an occasional piece of wood there are no found objects or “ready-mades” in my sculptures. And even with that caveat the response is still; “… oh so you made everything… but not the bottle caps, those are real, right?”.
Sometimes I have noticed that when people get my work, when they have that first realization that the cardboard they are looking at isn’t what it appears to be, one of the first things they do is slow down, look again, and reexamine things line by little line. People really get to see what I have put there. If they look a little longer they get the irony. They sense the time that I spent. It puts people on their guard and heightens their perception.
I can’t say that I have really spent much time thinking about the physical insignificance of our visual culture. I don’t think it is particularly thin but rather it seems fantastically rich.Perhaps the thinness of things changes when you imagine it all made by your own hand.
AR: Have you ever dabbled in animation or filmmaking? Some of your pieces emanate with potential energy that it seems like a natural extension.
KM: Well no, I haven’t but I have fantasized about it from time to time. I am a bit of a Luddite and the thing that most often frightens me off is the technology. I’ve never had the knack for photography. If I dabble in it I think it will be by way of the flipbook or better yet, old-timey Mutoscopes.
AR: What’s next for you?
KM: Running concurrently with my show at Zach Feuer, I have another show that is up at Greenwich House Pottery. It will be there until May 10th. I am represented by Marc Selwyn Fine Art in Beverly Hills. I may be doing a show with him in the near future other than that nothing is set in stone.
I work in my studio most everyday. Lately I’ve been thinking I want to make a still life as a shooting gallery.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Jonathan Beer is a New York-based artist and writer. He began to write critically in 2010 while attending the New York Academy of Art for his MFA in Painting. His paintings have been exhibited at Miami Dade Museum of Art & Design, Tripoli Patterson Gallery, Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts, Flowers Gallery, Boltax Gallery and Sotheby’s. Jon is also a contributing writer for The Brooklyn Rail, ArtWrit and for Art Observed.
Lily Koto Olive is a New York-based artist, writer and musician. She began to write critically about art in 2010 while attending the New York Academy of Art for her MFA in Painting. She has exhibited her paintings at the Dumbo Arts Center in Brooklyn, NY, HERE Arts Center, Sloan Fine Arts and ISE Cultural Foundation in NYC and Marketplace Gallery in Albany, NY. Lily is also a contributing writer for The Brooklyn Rail.