A CONVERSATION BETWEEN JAMILEE LACY AND AMANDA SCHMITT ON THE OCCASION OF THE SPLIT AT GRIN
Jamilee Lacy: Let’s begin with the word “primal”. Besides obvious definitions of original and primeval, primal often describes something as fundamental or of first importance. Though primal and its significations are not necessarily crucial to the overall curatorial premise for The Split, their context in The Primal Scream, Primal Therapy: The Cure for Neurosis and 1960s countercul- ture and beyond sets you on a course of research. In your search for and identification of artists to include, what became fundamental?
Amanda Schmitt: What became fundamental in my search and identification of artists to include in The Split was that the creation of each piece work fulfilled some sort of absolutely necessary action for the artist. a primal need:
What distinguishes psychosis from neurosis is the degree and complexity of symbolization. In neurosis, there is still an ample hold on reality. In psychosis that hold may be lost, and the person may be enveloped by symbolism, no longer being able to differentiate between symbols and reality.
—Arthur Janov in The Primal Scream, Primal Therapy: The Cure for Neurosis (1970), 352
For example, dozens of drawings by Sofi Brazzeal are displayed across the wall of the gallery. In her studio, through thousands of sketches on paper, the artist illustrates fantastical and surreal —as well as banal and inane—scenarios involving a range of characters in a myriad of landscapes. Brazzeal leaves the compositions loose, and seemingly unfinished—certainly never canonized on canvas. The artist continually draws, always moving to the next leaf of paper, at an anxious pace, both needing those figures and fending them off by representing them. Sofi needed these drawings to be realized, almost possessed by an urge to communicate almost as if through repetition an answer will reveal itself.
The exhibition also includes a 1963 audio recording of Musique Barbare, an album produced by Danish artist and COBRA co-founder Karel Appel. This is a cacophonous example of a visual artist (most well-known for his brutish abstract paintings) working with sound. Drums are banged, metal objects are clanged and cranked, bells are smashed, jars are tinkered, wires are slapped, all leading to a psychotic crescendo in which the artist screams in what seems almost like an exonerating release: "I don't paint, I hit!" [is] repeated over and over into oblivion. The artist is not articulating, he is screaming, and by doing so, reinforces that his actions arise from a primal force.
Lacy: And this notion of separation you mention in your curatorial statement:
My main interest in Janov's unique view is how early childhood trauma is experienced (both in minor and severe forms) and how, to cope —as a protective maneuver— the organism instinctively splits, thus suppressing unfelt feelings and creating unreal needs.
Can you point to work or two in the exhibition, or to relationships between works that manifest this idea?
Schmitt: A centerpiece of the exhibition is a video by Michel Auder, Talking Head (1981, converted to video in 2009), in which the voyeuristic camera peeks in on a private conversation that a young girl is having with herself. In her monologue, she reminisces about a 'thing', a thing that is loved but is never coming back again. The repetition of her longing for this 'thing' invokes a trauma; the young girl is unable to fulfill her desire to have this wonderful 'thing' and obsesses on the fact or fantasy about the thing’s possible or impossible pending return. This moment enacts "The Split", the moment where trauma is split from one's consciousness.
Lacy: Yes, Michel Auder’s entire oeuvre aptly demonstrates the inherent need of many artists to make life into work and work into life. I suppose this is why his work, which spans decades and subject matter, lends itself well to so many contexts.
Schmitt: Many artists create their work out of a need to accomplish or realize an idea. Through the lens of The Split, I wanted to look into whether these are real needs or perceived needs. In many instances, such as the case with Brazzeal or Appel, I believe these are real needs. Howev- er, some are straightforward and openly “perceived” needs (that is—unreal needs), that have been designed in order to explore a particular idea.
“Neurotic needs are unnatural ones—they develop from the non-satisfaction of real needs.” (Janov, 23)
For example, Jason Loebs' documentation of the results of rolling a twenty-sided die over and over again is an unnatural need. The toss of the di exists only for the artist’s desire to document the results. For the purposes of this exhibition, a hyper-repetitive and compulsive act such as roll- ing a dice thousands of times simply to document the results, represents a symbolic behavior in defense against excessive psycho-biological pain. In the process of creating this work, Loebs tossed and recorded the results of the dice nearly 500 times. This is self-perpetuating, because symbolic satisfactions cannot fulfill real needs. “In order for real needs to be satisfied, they must be felt and experienced” (Janov, 23). If those needs are not met, the pain is suppressed and tension endures, leaving the individual seeking to satisfy those needs in any way possible. Of course, a criteria for mental health does not translate into a criteria for art in a linear manner. It’s just that perceived or created needs are often the premise for great pieces.
Lacy: Not so long ago, art history would have us believe that “psycho-biological pain” is behind all great works of art. It’s interesting to see it manifest here as something beyond the romanticized suffering artist. With Janov’s framework, Loebs’ work contextualizes emotional turmoil and/or mental suffering as an element of the human condition to be regularly addressed and, perhaps, harnessed and transcended...
Schmitt: “Anxiety is felt but not correctly focused fear. Anxiety is evoked with the defense system is weakened, allowing the feared feeling to near consciousness.” (Janov, 50)
Dawn Kasper's painting, Chance Operation (2014), is an abstract composition which seemingly was created by random scratches and scrawls across the surface of the panel, mixing white paint and black graphite. This work, as in many of Kasper’s work, evokes the feeling of anxiety, if not defining anxiety itself.
Then, we have an artist like Ebecho Muslimova, who enacts various outrageous scenarios through the guise of her alter-ego, Fat Ebe, who has let all traces of “proper femininity” go as she farts, burps, bleeds, and lets the curves of her body roll into every nook and cranny of her environment, endlessly acting out against normative ladylike behavior. These drawings are an effective symbolic way to act out a desire for catharsis, like the primal scream, without breaking into a full psychotic episode.
Conversely, art is not a means to project mental health diagnosis, or at least it is not my place as a curator to do so. I simply use this as a method to illustrate how artists, and specifically artists in this exhibition, are in a unique position to vocalize, or present inner desires and needs which we can easily recognize and identify with.
Lacy: Did origin story—whether that of the artist or the work—come into play?
Schmitt- I am looking at the origin story of the work that was created for this exhibition: was the work created by an impulse to control, or an impulse to amplify? Is the work trying to communicate some- thing much larger than what it can? And within those restrictions, does the work seem to be burst- ing at the seams, or has it already exploded?
Lacy: Do you spend a lot of time in artists’ studios? If so, what have you observed?
Schmitt: Yes, I am in a different artist’s studio on average a few times a week. On top of that, I live inside of an artist’s studio (my partner is an artist and keeps their studio in our living room). It is so difficult to summarize any observations as every studio is wildly different and there are no norms. Furthermore, a studio can be a physical place or a mental space.
Lacy: Do you think an artist's studio practice, such as the artist's setting(s) and routine(s), impacts the content of an artist's work? I wonder if, in the context of the exhibition premise, notions of origin and essentialism form in the studio or elsewhere.
Schmitt: I absolutely believe that the setting of an artist’s studio can impact the content of their work. I’ve often seen an artist’s immediate material and immaterial surroundings (such as neighborhood, access to materials, disposable income, neighboring artists’ studios, etc.) enter their work. Perhaps the greatest challenge for an artist is to escape cultural influences, which are all-encompassing and rigid realities to shatter.
On an optimistic note, I also believe that artists are able to transcend physicality, geography, and time, and thus can block any of these elements from affecting their work, if they so choose. Will to power at its best.
Lacy: In this Internet age of comprehensive websites and high-resolution images, are studio visits elementary to your work?
Schmitt: In answer to your question, in the age of the Internet, I believe that studio visits, and/or meeting the artist in person, is absolutely elementary to the work I do as a curator. That being said, I also believe it is possible to have a studio visit with an artist without actually stepping inside their physical studio space. I realize this refutes the essence of your question; however, I seek to expand these definitions.
Much of my curatorial practice has been shaped by restrictions in geography: when I first started curating exhibitions, I was working mostly with video, or non-visual work like sound, simply because these were mediums that artists were able to share with me despite not being able to schedule a studio visit. We could correspond via email, phone, and video chat. This has opened up limitless opportunities [for me] to work with artists from all over the world working in a variety of media. I don’t like to think of time or place as boundaries within my curatorial practice.
Finally, as a curator I believe it is essential to know the artist in order to know the artwork. On the contrary, however, I don’t believe it is necessary for the viewer to know the artist on a personal level. It is at this level that we say “art speaks for itself.” It is thus part of my role as curator to translate what I learn about the work meeting the artist in the exhibition format.
Lacy: Do you have a primary conceptual interest or an essential curatorial ethos?
Schmitt: As a curator, I don’t have ideas, I have opinions. Artists have the ideas; I examine them and recontextualize them in order to suggest different readings of the work.
Lacy: Is there something you linger on or consistently circle back to?
Schmitt: I am interested in art as artifact. I am interested in how that work will resonate in ten, twenty, 100, 500 years... It’s extremely difficult to step outside of one’s own perspective to posit future readings of an artwork, artist or exhibition. On top of that, it’s even more difficult to treat time-based or immaterial work as artifact.
Thanks to the internet and the digitization of art (and its archives), we are able to compress centuries’ worth of art into very short segments of time and compact spaces, such as a web page or catalog. I see my research as an exercise in constantly expanding and contracting: expanding my knowledge to think in thousand year spans while contracting time so that I am able to view hun- dreds of artworks in a single afternoon without leaving my desk, and then using this to develop the foresight for contextualization of the artists I work with.
Lacy: Let’s wrap up with that idea of separation again, of splitting, as you say. In many respects, your professional life is seemingly made up of many binaries, or in other words, a series of splits. Most notably in this sense: On the one hand, you move in artist circles and author creative content as a multi-hyphenate curator, programmer, writer, educator, and more. On the other hand, you play multiple roles as mediator and facilitator, moving in market circles and developing opportunities for gallerists and others, who in turn, provide various platforms for artists. Is there indeed such a division? In a time when there appears to be increasing fluidity between high and low culture, between lived and fabricated experience, such separations are somehow both necessary and superfluous, both intrinsic and superficial?
Schmitt: I don’t see any of my many roles in the art world as being contradictory, binary, or split. Rather, I believe each of my roles compliments the other, contributing to a more well-rounded or holistic career. The spaces and boundaries between those roles is increasingly porous. I’m comfort- able in my chameleon skin.
Jamilee Lacy is the director and curator of Providence College—Galleries in Rhode Island. Before relocating to Providence, Lacy worked in Chicago as a curator of education at Northwest- ern University and independently as an arts writer, curator, and founding director of Twelve Gal- leries Project (2008 - 2013). She has also worked as a writer and the managing editor for Bad at Sports, a leading international arts journal and podcast, and is currently producing (with Meg Onli) Remaking the Black Metropolis: Contemporary Art, Urbanity and Blackness in America, a forthcoming research survey and digital archive. Formerly, she was the inaugural curator-in-resi- dence for Charlotte Street Foundation in Kansas City, Missouri; a curatorial writer for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Illinois; and a curatorial associate for the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague, Czech Republic. Lacy has independently curated exhibitions and presented public programs around the world, and in addition to numerous catalogue essays, interviews and articles, she has published Color: Fully Engaged, a book of interviews and essays on contemporary art and color, and rises Zora: An Exploration of the Urban Labyrinth, which posits Kansas City and its artists as adventurous partners. She has engaged in solo and collabo- rative curatorial and writing projects with Academy Records, A+D Gallery at Columbia College Chicago, The Black Visual Archive, Chicago Artists’ Coalition & Hatch Projects, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Hyde Park Art Center, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, New Art Center in Boston, Quite Strong and the Sister Cities of Chicago (for Bratislava, Helsinki and Prague), among others. She has also written for Flash Art, Umelec Magazine, Art 21 Online and Art in America Online.
Lacy holds two undergraduate degrees in art history and studio art from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Master of Comparative Art and Literature from Northwestern University.