Three recent MFAs talk about their graduate school experience and how it has or has not affected their work and processes. Curtis Ames and Kojo Griffin just completed their degrees this year and recently participated in two-person ping-pong event called weak hand for “Double Date,” a series of one-night shows spearheaded by MINT Gallery’s Candice Greathouse (Ames’s wife). Andrew Boatright, whose work was just on view in “Be Here Now” at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, finished his degree in 2013.
They discuss failure and transition, materials and theory, and grad school v. the real world.
Curtis Ames: This is our first chance to all sit down together and talk shop since our studio days at GSU. I was hoping we could take this opportunity to reminisce a bit as we discuss what role, if any, the MFA program played in our artistic and professional development. We can also catch up on some of the recent shifts within each of our practices. Could you share your thoughts about the MFA experience?
Andrew Boatright: Getting an MFA is important if you want to be a certain kind of artist. I feel like after getting an MFA, I realized that I didn’t need an MFA to be an artist. But if I wanted to have any idea about what’s going on outside of my own interests and proclivities, an MFA education lets you in on certain conversations outside of that. I think that’s the best thing that comes from it. But I think that there’s still a sort of stigma in the art world toward artists who only have a BFA, which I don’t think is right, but an MFA does make certain people hold the work in higher esteem.
Kojo Griffin: It can legitimize you professionally but there’s also a lot of development in terms of the conceptual shit you’re learning and the practical things about how to build the work.
AB: It also gives you more intentional time and space to make work—an incubation period. That is one of the main reasons I continued on and got my MFA, because I knew I wasn’t quite ready to put my stamp on my work, and I wanted to spend a little bit more time developing things.
KG: The big factor is that you want to learn and get better—whatever that means. That was what I was primarily after. I think it was equal parts being in the classroom, constantly reading and writing, and just being around other people who were driven by the same thing.
AB: People who weren’t expecting you to do the same thing you’d already done.
KG: Well, yeah. When I started making my first real body of work [in the 1990s], I was in a community of artists in this huge warehouse studio over in southwest Atlanta. There were five of us—myself, Jeff Conefry, David Eisenhower, Lance Lamont, and Charles Nelson. So that type of environment, where we were all bouncing ideas off each other, partying together, working together, was a big part of how I developed that work. It was an incubator. Over the years, with the success that came from that work, I started to lose that community. I became isolated. I built a studio that was attached to the back of my house, and when I tried to change that work, I didn’t have friends around me to talk to, to connect with.
Coming into the MFA program at GSU, I had that kind of community again—being around you guys and other people in the program, especially the professors, many of whom I had shown with in the past. I respected them and I came to GSU specifically because of that professional history. They pushed me to learn so much more and so fast. On my own, I had always read—psychology, some philosophy, and esoteric stuff like the Kabbalah and I Ching, but that was what I used as sources in the work I was making before grad school. I had read some Sartre, some Heidegger, but I wasn’t deep into the philosophies that have informed contemporary aesthetics. Basically, as a self-taught artist, coming from a background in graffiti, I hadn’t been exposed to the standard critical writings that are part of the MFA curriculum. So this process helped to provide me with the language and the context with which to better explain my work to myself. It pushed me that way but it also gave me the freedom to play.
CA: For me, it was a space that helped foster the type of self-criticality I desperately needed. I don’t think I would’ve gotten so much out of grad school had I jumped right in after my BFA. I needed some time outside in the world of the real to make some mistakes and to gain some perspective. I used my time in grad school to focus on experimentation and to let experiments sit there for awhile in my studio so that I could glean what they were about and how they related to themes I felt were recurring and constant throughout my work, regardless of the format. That shift in my process, that slowing down, ultimately helped me become more efficient at determining what was essential to my practice and how to best express that.
AB: Yeah. It teaches you to really pay attention and focus on what you’d been taking for granted. You know, like, what can a painting be, what can a sculpture be, what are you doing with materials, is it important to what you’re trying to get across, could you get it across in a better way? A lot of times, you find out that what you have been doing is not the best or only way to say something. When it’s not, then you find new ways to do it.
CA: Definitely. In my case, I was doing a lot of figurative, representational work in my first year of grad school. I was directly referencing specific artists and artworks (Velazquez, Gericault, Brancusi, etc.), co-opting them while also inserting some sociopolitical commentary.,Technically, they were successful as paintings, and wit, a constant in all of my work, was incorporated, although maybe a little too much in some cases. I enjoy painting, but I soon realized that the process of representational painting could no longer sustain me. It started to become more about skill and mastery than about the content. And that process felt dishonest. I was covering up mistake after mistake until I arrived at something that looked like a “finished” painting, and that just didn’t seem genuine. There’s a tedium associated with that process,uy too. In the end, I found I needed the content to be less about the image and more about the gesture, and after that, things got a whole lot simpler. There was more of an immediacy and efficiency to this process but it wasn’t about rushing. It became more of a restrained speediness.
I had to take the time to figure out how to do that, to find a way to allow my practice to change with me. I now tend to isolate aspects of change within my studio practice and by making that part of the process; it becomes part of the content. I started to sort this out shortly after that first year of grad school, which I think is possibly the most crucial year within any three-year program because you come in and it’s exciting but also kind of frightening. You’re the new kid, and you feel like you have to prove that you deserve to be there. So you go and piss in your corner, and you’re so naïve, you’re like, “Yeah, check this shit out.” And your professors and classmates are like, “Great. You have some chops, but who cares? There’s no theory. You really don’t know what you’re doing or why.” Essentially they rub your nose in your own mess. It’s great, because after they knock you down, you’ve got two more years to flounder around before you pick yourself up. That kind of critical yet extremely supportive environment was really helpful.
There was a lot of feedback that helped me adjust my working process and also to deal with the significant amount of upheaval I was experiencing in my personal life as well. I had a lot going on in my second year, and a lot of the time I felt shitty and like a failure in a lot of ways, and sometimes I didn’t even want to look at myself in the mirror. All of that definitely fed in to my work, which became very specific and directly referenced these personal experiences and sentiments. I think in some ways becoming more vulnerable made my work more relatable, and therefore maybe more successful.
AB: But these personal experiences aren’t what the work is about, is it? Your biography isn’t what you want people to take away from your work, right?
CA: Oh, god no, it’s not. I think personal experiences can’t be completely separated from the decisions I make in my practice, but there’s no allusion, no metaphor there. But through that earlier, more personal work I was able to hone in on what I found to be essential, which was that I couldn’t think of my life in terms of absolutes. I couldn’t take stock of my life through arbitrary measures of success and failure because these two binaries (or any two binaries for that matter) and the nature of their antithetical relationship, represent a set of ideals, or absolutes. For me, absolutes, while they can be conceived of—that is, we can form the idea of what these mean for us on a personal level—in the world of the real they don’t really exist the same way. They’re really just opposite ends of a theoretical spectrum. So, these personal failures in my life were important to realizing this, but they were also no longer necessary for the work to continue. And they couldn’t be. Hell, I couldn’t keep turning my life upside down just to create fodder for art.
AB: So, it’s about the material now, isn’t it?
CA: Yeah. But, it’s also about the ways in which I engage with the materials. Often, but not always, there’s an emphasis on the performativity of the gesture enacted upon a specific material. Mastery plays little or no part in process, or at least it’s not privileged. Rather, my work now highlights some aspect of the attempt to interact with materials. Since there’s not a preconceived idea about what the work should look like in the end, there’s no goal to work towards, so there can be no measure of success. In the end, everything is either a success or a failure … or neither. This aspect of the process is important for me. It goes back to my big issue with the notion of the masterpiece and mastery, technical or otherwise, as a measure of success, and whether you can apply that same measure of success, which is predicated on notions of progress and productivity and ideals and absolutes, to your daily life? I came to the conclusion that you can’t. Or, at least I couldn’t. I came to the personal conclusion that no matter what you try to do, compensations are made until you achieve an approximation, a compromise, of what you wanted to achieve.
AB: Yeah. For sure. For me, there’s always an idea about what the work should be in the beginning, and instantly, as soon as you start to work with materials, they push back and don’t behave in the way you imagined. Working with the material and the process is a way for me to make that failure work—being open to the possibilities that occur once my ideas and sketches hit the push-back. Your expectations are shattered. When you open yourself up to that, I think that is where process comes in and things can become less contrived.
CA: You experiment a lot within your studio practice, Kojo, and there are a lot of stylistic shifts that accompany that experimentation. Change seems like a natural part of your process and that you just kind of go with it no matter how varied your creative output becomes. Is there ever a time when you fight against it?
KG: I don’t. That’s the funny part, fortunately or unfortunately. People look for consistency in artists, either conceptually or formally, and that has been a struggle for me these past few years as I’ve wanted to explore so many different ideas. Eventually, there’s got to be something that allows people to see a thread, I suppose. Man, I was in Kansas City a few years ago for a show at the Kemper Museum, and I got to hang out with Trenton Doyle Hancock and have a beer and shoot the shit, and we talked about the same thing: how to process and respond to that need for change artistically. He’s managed to make these gradual shifts from where his work was and where it is now and there’s been a smooth transition. I admire that. I think I’m slowly finding a way to incorporate all the experiments I want to do into my studio process. That’s the fun part. The part that’s hard is the transitioning from one experiment to the next. But it’s important to slow that process of change down so that people can see the common thread. For me, it really just boils down to communication. How effectively I’m able to communicate. And if that’s not working, then I keep looking at it I guess.
CA: Andrew, what transitions have taken place over the past couple of years within your own practice? What’s remained constant? What’s changed for you, and why?
AB: One thing I experienced after leaving the MFA program was having some time to think by myself, so that I could try and discern what I wanted from my work without the voices of people constantly critiquing it. I was able to sit with myself and say, “Self, what do you want from this? Does it matter that it has to do with deconstruction? Does it matter that this is very object-based? Does it matter that it looks cool like what’s in the art magazine?” And so, even with the Twin Kittens show, I was able to return to some things I was doing while still in school, when I was very interested in grotesque portraiture, which was very representational. But then, I began taking that same concern with the body, the gesture and the form, into more of my “material” pursuits, using cast-out materials around the studio and various construction items. This work became the focus of my graduate thesis exhibition.
Then with the Twin Kittens show, I was starting to discern more what I wanted from my work, what was gratifying and touching the nerve I was constantly searching for. The departures of my work since the MFA show have been a distillation of the themes that were most important to me. I’ve tried to let in everything I wasn’t necessarily interested. Even works that were successful … you can have works which are successful in ways—formally, conceptually—that you might not be all that concerned with. So, some of the object-based works were very successful, but when I sat with myself, outside the range of voices of approval or disapproval, I was able to hear what I was wanting … always trying to figure out.,I’m trying to get away from all the other feelings that might or might not be successful, because after a while they cease to matter or actually get in the way of what I’m trying to do.
KG: When I think of your work now, I not only think of them as these life-size, almost Giacometti-like figures, but also as these monsters, these demons, or these grotesque spirits. Do you think there’s a connection between your faith and the exorcising of these forms? Is there a connection between grotesqueness and monstrosity in some of the work? Maybe some of those ideas about heaven and hell, good and evil?
AB: Possibly. I think of my fascination with failed figures and grotesquery can be seen in a religious light. There’s a huge history of the grotesque and its religious implications. But they’re almost more related to a general sense of overwhelming tragedy that I feel when trying to find meaningful explanations in a world where, for the most part, there seems to be only smothering imminence and conflict. My sculptures sort of seem to lack a fullness, a completeness. They seem to be fractured. Stricken from flourishing.
CA: They seem to be an exaggeration of that sentiment. They’re not dissimilar from figures of horror or even superheroes in that they are “othered” because they are both less than and more than their human counterparts.
AB: Yeah. They’re very failed, pathetic. In a way, they’re self-portraits because this sentiment is something that sits with me. I feel like I can very much relate to those things.
You mentioned Giacometti, Kojo, but he’s too representational for me, too determined. Using abstraction in my sculptures is something that is extremely important to the “not quite getting it” feeling that I embrace. This is more interesting than any kind of overt representation. But I do still rely on allusions to the human body. I’ve referenced crucifixions in a lot of my work, abstractly or obliquely referring to the failed, feeble figure of Christ on the cross. That figure being enacted upon by the world.
KG: That’s what makes me think of Giacometti. Although your forms don’t look like his forms, there is a certain failure of the form that reminds me of his work, but in a heroic sort of way. So, even though they’re failed, there’s a grace in that. They endure despite their being pathetic. With the larger works, their heroism is aggrandized.
AB: Well, yeah. I think there is something kind of heroic about failing big. These things, my sculptures, they’re undertaking very well intended gestures, but ultimately, they’re reaching—a lot of the gestures are reaching.
KG: And that’s where I see the heroism. It’s in that gesture of reaching.
AB: But it’s a failed gesture. They are reaching out and completely earnest in their reaching but failing at it. I think it’s cathartic for me to empathize with the forms and all the feelings they evoke.
AB: Curtis, failure is a big word for both of us, and I think there’s a lot about this in your work. I know from talking to you that your work is all about the failed gesture. While I present that gesture in sculptural form, you actually enact that upon your materials.
CA: I do. I exploit the material facture of the objects I choose, and while I work with both traditional and nontraditional materials, the objects I tend to be drawn to are often pulled from the fragmentary salvage of the world and …
AB: Like the failures that have been left behind?
CA: Right. These materials have a functional history. There’s this ideal way that they were used; they have inherent properties, potentialities, and limitations that I exploit in order to isolate degrees between success and failure. Because it’s not so much about failure, or success for that matter, but rather more about the space between these two, and any other set of absolutes, all of which only exist as something external to us thanks to our shared notions of language and time. For example, for the past couple of years, I’ve been collecting these abandoned athletic balls and using them in my work. They are these pathetic, partially deflated objects that are neither empty nor full, and by presenting them as such, I’m referencing their failure to live up to their full potential.
Or, this piece, Unbent Aluminum, for instance. This is a piece I made from a really long, thin strip of aluminum that I found one day lying outside my studio. I had never really noticed before. It was so thin and nondescript that it just sort of blended in. So I don’t really know how long it had been there, two days, two weeks, or two years. I don’t know and I guess that doesn’t matter, but one day I finally did take notice of it. I remember I was looking down as I was walking, thinking, and then I saw it: Unbent Aluminum. Well, not yet, but essentially, because as soon as I saw it, I knew what I was going to do to it. I didn’t know what it was going to look like, and that didn’t matter anyway. I knew that I was going to bend it, and I was going to bend it over on itself, all the way, and then unbend it, all the way back. And, well, I picked up that piece of aluminum and I took it in my studio and I did just that. I bent it all the way over on itself and then I unbent it all the way back. Well, sort of anyway. And when I was done with the bending and the unbending, I propped it in the corner of my studio and I just sat with it for a while, for a really long time actually.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I kept coming back to this notion of, or this condition of, “all the way.” I kept thinking about how I couldn’t conceive of this notion of “all the way” without language and without time. I’m talking about linear time here. I’m talking about being able to conceive of a point in time in which it wasn’t bent, a future point in time in which it is bent “all the way,” and then another point in time in the future in which it is unbent “all the way.” I realized that, yes, it’s possible for us to conceive of the notion of “all the way,” and we can set out to achieve goals based on this notion, but there are always obstacles that prevent the full realization of doing anything “all they way.” So this piece, Unbent Aluminum, is an artifact of that gesture, that attempt to do something “all the way” and failing at it, For me, it is and was a pathetic attempt and, in terms of scale, a very human one at that.
KG: That’s one thing I’ve always liked about your work. You can see your hand. I can see that it’s not this perfect thing, and even if it’s the illusion of something falling apart, I like to see the hand. I like to see that a human being intervened and there are flaws evident. When it’s about the perfection of the process, it runs the risk of entering the realm of decoration. The failure, and highlighting the failure, and factoring that into your process, and making the fucked-up part the art is really cool to me.
CA: I think my process inherently highlights the flaws. And, why not? Perfection rests in compromise, approximation, obfuscation, and illusion, so even when they’re covered up, under the surface the flaws are still there.
AB: You’re expressing this failure you feel in life, and I think feeling failure is the failure to achieve an ideal, which is kind of transcendence.Reaching out for things futilely. This frame that keeps us … as “modern unbelievers”… as Vampire Weekend has described us … there’s nothing to give us hope.
CA: That’s definitely one aspect of many that I’m highlighting in my work, but I don’t put much faith in this thing called transcendence, so my work isn’t about a search for that. It’s more about kind of revealing the universal aspect of the human condition.
KG: Andrew, when you talk about that aspect of transcendence within your work, I’m reminded of Christian ideology and the inherent idea of becoming better and more Christlike.
AB: The cultivation of what was intended for human beings.
KG: The idea is that you are Christlike in your nature. You are not the sum of this broken thing but a transcendent being. I’m not saying that’s what your work is about, but it gets to a huge difference in that you are making these huge, ugly, grotesque things whereas Curtis is taking ugly parts that are left over.
CA: I think that maybe it’s through its negative presentation, but there’s this conception of the ideal within all of our bodies of work. You can call this ideal whatever you want, but there also seems to be recognition of the impossibility of its attainment.
AB:We’re all coping with this. We know this, but we still have to deal with it. The inability to satisfy all our needs and wants leads us to merely cope, albeit futilely.