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32-year-old Brooklyn-based sculptor Graham Collins offered an unexpectedly alluring yet amusing view of the contemporary art object as both concept and decoration in his exhibition “Civic” at The Journal Gallery, which closed last weekend. Consisting of six reductive paintings (which are more objects than paintings) and two sculptures (which consist primarily of said paintings), the show nevertheless appertained to Sol Lewitt and Damien Hirst as readily as Crate & Barrel and AutoZone. Whitewall caught up with Graham to speak with him about his work.
WHITEWALL: The first work I saw of yours was in a group exhibition at Soloway in Brooklyn and was curated by Paul Branca around the concept of labor in the art world. Those sculptures were entirely made out of the detritus of exhibitions at your former place of employment, the gallery Untitled in the Lower East Side. How did making that body of work alter your artistic approach going forward?
GRAHAM COLLINS: Well the premise of that show was how people with jobs in the art world might be influenced by what they saw or learned on the job. The work I was making at the time didn’t really fit, but I think Paul is brilliant, so it made me wonder why it didn’t. So I started to look at the stuff that I had experience with–framing and display conventions, making stretcher bars, stretching canvas, installing art–and decided to make some work that consists of just these basic, limited elements of art.
WW: Your work seems to have a natural balance between mundane labor and fine art, as well as a knack for inextricably linking the two. Even the title of your show “Civic” alludes equally to ancient Greek democratic institutions and cheap Japanese cars. What do you attribute this characteristic to?
GC: Right. Fully enmeshed. I can’t even tell if I’m talking about cars or cities. I also like that there’s this major DIY performance mod-scene with Civics… I guess I take it for granted that I can identify with both abstract painting and Criminal Minds–and really value them both. A cautious sincerity may be a real hallmark of our cultural moment.
WW: Your work at The Journal acts as–for lack of a better word–a parody of Art. The reductive paintings, both on the wall and as part of the sculpture, are cobbled together from sundry, menial materials like carbon fiber or window tint, yet they safely occupy places within traditional, highly-crafted exhibiting devices, like wood frames and vitrines. Would you say that the show is a send up of modernist art or a loving recreation or both?
GC: It’s definitely not a send up…well, maybe a little bit. The first time I showed these paintings was at Soloway in a show titled “Shade Tree,” and I thought of it as something like a sculpture of an art show. “Civic” is more like a collection of residuals from a performance where I go into a studio and make art. But when I’m making the pieces I’m really trying to do the best I can. I just have this system that incorporates some elements that are funny or destined to fail, so it’s easy to project a critique of modernism onto the work, though I’m not making an explicit judgment. I’m more about investigating the idea that things usually don’t work out as planned, but maybe what comes from that is better.
WW: Your process sounds like a multi-step endeavor: making the decisions beforehand, then quickly assembling the piece later, letting chance somewhat determine the final outcome, and then framing the object with care. Can you name any contemporaries or influences that you feel have a kindred process?
GC: Right. That comes from working too much and having way more time to think about making art than actually making it. I’m constantly going over possible projects in my mind and, when I finally get to the studio, I don’t have to think too hard. I can just get to work. I like to give myself these moments where I get to just indulge in energetic, hands-on, fully subjective art making. Historically, I like the image of Morris Louis in his home studio making huge paintings that he couldn’t even see until they were exhibited. People working today that I relate to are Adam Marnie, Sam Moyer, and Eddie Martinez.
WW: Do you have a newfound respect for professional window-tinters?
GC: I think I’ve always been fascinated by weird fields like that, like the people who replace the ads in the subway, storefront window washers, Formica fabricators, and IKEA furniture installers. There’s a great kind of romance to the highly specialized skill that is still menial.