Mood Allowing for Power, a joint exhibition that opened March 23 at Camayhus, brings together two artists—Hannah Tarr and J. Michael Ford—whose work is preoccupied with form and line. Artist Holly Coulis sat down to talk with both artists about linear work, poetry, Georgia dirt, and living in Atlanta.
Holly Coulis: Last week I had the pleasure of seeing your two-person exhibition at Camayuhs with J. Michael Ford. Your work is sympathetic with their lyrical, elegant sculpture in a wonderful way. It seems like you each have a foot in each other’s medium. Their sculpture references drawing and yours includes 3D elements and a sense of depth. In addition, you both have an aesthetic that is organic and meandering. Did your thoughts about your work shift, having it in proximity to sculpture? What was the conversation between the two bodies of work like for you?
Hannah Tarr: Before the show was installed, I definitely connected J. Michael’s work and mine through our use of the line. I’ve since read some of their writing on the work where they’ve described their use of the smaller objects that hang with the pipes as serving to “clear the austerity” of the piece. I see the choice to cancel out one object’s energy with another as something we both do though our use of found objects. Just when I think I’m taking myself too seriously I’ll throw in a cut out of a dog as if to say, “I’m just playin’, y’all!” I often think of Barbara Kruger’s permanent installation at the Hirshhorn Museum that was formerly titled ,“Belief + Doubt = Sanity.”—a phrase that has stuck with me that I think of almost daily. The unexpected elements humble the world in which the piece lives in a visual yin and yang. A mantra I use is “Soft and Strong” and I think it applies here.
HC: As I mentioned to Hannah, there is an evident relationship between your sculpture and her paintings. I think this exhibition brought out specific components in both bodies of work, namely a relationship to drawing and decoration. How did you feel about this pairing with Hannah? Did it change how you looked at your own work in any way?
J. Michael: I felt that the pairing made sense, that the similarities in the work became more evident when they were placed alongside each other. I responded to Hannah’s attitude; the vulnerability and emotional tone of her paintings, but also the nonchalance in the style and application of materials. The spark for me came when seeing the objects on the surface of the paintings. There is something deceptive in this; the way a butterfly wing interrupts the field and brings you into the present when you’ve almost lost yourself in a dream. I am interested in this rupture and overlapping realities. Where objects in the world ground our experience in the physical. That in combination with the expressive line penetrates a push and pull of memories and emotions. I see a parallel within what a loose and definitive line can imply; the confidence in suggesting or withholding. So to decorate then becomes a powerful gesture in that it allows one to oscillate between multiple realities simultaneously. We are crafting experiences and I think Hannah understands that.
HC: Hannah, your work gives the impression that you have stores of stickers, cut-outs, dried flowers and glitter in your studio. Are these additions collected specifically for each piece, or is there a more general gathering of items that may have a future? What dictates the appeal and use of these items?
HT: I began as an oil painter, and relied heavily on the juiciness of the medium to make these wet-on-wet painty paintings. When I began a home-studio practice I wanted to switch it up- get out of my comfort zone and work with to less toxic materials. I had put myself in a box as far as how the painting would happen and wanted to bring excitement and surprise back into the process. Most the items I choose because they remind me of my childhood and they’re still things I want to play with. I’ve always been a collector and did a lot of crafting as a kid. My whole life I’ve struggled with depression, and going to make a painting and being surrounded by sweet or weird things creates space for joy and levity, something that had been missing when I was focusing too much on what a Painting should be. I think that can happen when you study a medium in the way I did, but the work really shifted when I started focusing less on outcome and more on playfulness and healing. I’m excited to share that most of the flowers in the pieces came from my yard, as well as the red clay that I made into paint by mixing it with some Elmers glue and water. They feel charged with meaning as I grew/dug them myself on land that I own in the city where I was born. I made my own terra cotta clay from the same red clay. I like the idea of being able to mine my own materials.
HC: J. Michael, your sculpture has an affinity to drawing in that it is linear. How did this evolve? Did you start as a sculptor trying to reference drawing? Or did your drawings turn into 3D objects?
JM: I have always considered a drawing practice as a way of looking and organizing this way of seeing in some fashion. This began for me in early undergraduate experiments where I studied painting, fiber, and sculpture. I began working with yarn as a measured material: Four foot long strips strung along mesh grids which could be tailored along metal armatures. I began watching these masses accumulate over time and how the armature became the defining aspect. This slow and repetitive building also left me a great deal of time to meditate on things happening in my life and I feel somehow that too made its way into the work. These structures followed me into my graduate program and the idea of the armature as a framing device, a container, a marker of time, or a mode of expression seem consistent with this evolution.
HC: The lines of your sculptures are vine-like or serpentine. These curves feel purposeful. Can you talk a little about this?
JM: A subtle bend can communicate more than the destination of an angle, it leaves a trace of itself as it travels. Much like a snake chasing its tail, it reverberates and echoes its own movement. I find enough there, that a series of gestures respond to further gestures, developing over time. Each piece elaborates on this actualization of form and feels related to my own life experience and wanting. This pursuit defines us and cultivates our experiences. The work itself is a handling of something real, something rigid. But the handling of that resistance can be fluid and intuitive.
HC: Can you address the more decorative elements of your work? The jewelry and the flowers specifically. What meaning do they carry in these otherwise minimal pieces?
JM: My tendency to decorate is more relating to a different conception of time and space within the work. The additions are more of a response to something that has already happened. I think of minimalism as an acknowledgment of a viewer’s experience in time. For instance, walking around a Donald Judd can offer the possibility for one’s subjectivity to populate the work. Perhaps the decoration is an offering to my own experience; a retelling of something vulnerable or delicate. A worn shoelace wrapped around a fake flower conflates a moment, freezing time: me on a walk witnessing a flower in full bloom. I look to communicate different emotional tones by punctuating one’s own experience.
HC: Your sculptures carry a sense of poetry. Is this something that you are interested in? If so, how does it influence you? Do you have a favorite poet?Which artists have influenced you the most?
JM: I am interested in non-verbal expression and what can be communicated in the abstract. Much like dance or music. I speak to my father a lot who is a pianist and composer. We have long talks about what it means to create. We can be simple people who go to emotional places, reliving memories, experiences, colors, smells, and textures. His work is highly visual yet based entirely in the invisible: sound. One form translates into something else. Poetry is found when one is looking. I don’t have any favorite poets on the tip of my tongue, but really I try to just relay something human without getting in the way and ruining it.
I appreciate the uncanny directness in Fred Sandback’s forms, and how he challenged the conception of one’s experience of space. Doing so with so little, it’s like he figured something out and we are figuring out how and why. It’s hard to shake. I think of an indulgence in this brand of minimalism, like I can’t get enough so I have to twist and contort it. A “baroquing”. His medium is the negative space, yet only we as viewers generate this with our eyes and through movement of our bodies. The zen in Richard Tuttle’s making and communication of making astounds me. The immense feeling found in the gesture of hammering a nail, stacking foam, or tying a knot. His work seems like a lifetime pursuit of being human.
HC: A number of your paintings are of faces. Do you think of them as portraits, or do the eyes, noses, mouths function as structures to create psychological or emotional spaces? Are they inspired by particular people? Are there specific states of mind that interest you?
HT: I think of them more as psychological and or emotional spaces than portraits. I’ve written about them as portals to alternate realities. I think of the work as tied to my spirituality and in it I’m always trying to express the divine and the infinite. Portraiture and landscape are simply my way in.
HC: There are very funny moments in your work. I love the painting where the tip of the woman’s nose is a collaged on fluffy dog. Or there’ll be a floating fried egg somewhere. These feel instinctive. Is humor an important part of your work? Are you using it to disrupt something?
HT: Something I say to myself when I work is that I want it to feel both goofy and ancient. I think the humor disrupts the seriousness of the figuration—portraiture and landscape being old/classic/serious benefit from surprises in the composition.
HC: There is so much layering in these paintings, particularly in the newer ones. It’s difficult to see in a JPEG, but there are layers of gauze with collage elements over and under the material, pieces are sewn together, etc. It’s a lovely effect. How did this come about and how do you see it developing in the future?
HT: It began because the cheesecloth is something I use in my day job—I am a scenic artist for film and television. We use the cheesecloth for glazing walls to make them look old. I started recycling the used rags by gluing them over some small boards that I then painted on and really liked the texture. I want to play with stretching the gauze over non traditional supports and see what happens. I’ve also thought about using a gel medium on the cloth itself and making it into its own object somehow.
HC: How has living in Atlanta fueled your career? Do you feel invested in the city? What do you hope for the future of its art community?
HT: I feel invested in Atlanta. I mostly hope Atlanta feels invested in me? I am from here originally, I was able to afford to buy a house here five years ago where I now make all my work. Working out of my own house, on land that I own, affords for a huge amount of agency in the process of creating that I’ve never felt before. I hope Atlanta continues to come into its own—a balance of awareness while not focusing too much on what’s going on elsewhere, casting off nepotism, not feeling bound to the way things have been done in the past, and not catering to what people expect.