Bay Area Now 8 Interviews

Charlie Leese

Q: What is your relationship to these -ennial type of exhibitions? Have you seen many of them here or elsewhere? Did you like them?

A: -Ennials have their place like all other major facets of the art world. Overall I like them, similar to art fairs it seems there is a new ennial cropping up daily in cities worldwide.  I’ve been going to the Whitney Biennial since 2006 and always enjoy them but am also aware of how limited a scope they provide. I think it’s interesting that we expect so much from the WB – it is always scrutinized and plagued with extreme criticism. Side note I’m not against criticality but it seems every WB is worse than the one previous from many perspectives. The public’s expectations are high and you can’t please everyone especially with such a broad survey of art in the USA. In contrast to art fairs we have such a low expectation that often times they are commended for minute successes. I do not mean to make a direct comparison between institutional programs and capitalistic art fairs, but I went there because they are both ways to see and digest a lot of art in one place.

Q: The Bay Area Nows of the past have always focused like SECA on artists at a very specific point in their career, those with fairly lengthy CVs, widely known etc. It is I think safe to say that they've gone a different way this year, with your practice being relatively fresh on the scene here compared to those of past entries etc. For your practice then, what does it mean to get this kind of broad institutional support?

A: Local institutional support is really important especially in the Bay Area. It’s really hard for Bay Area artist to get seen outside of the bay. This is due to many factors. We don’t have as robust a system that creates markers or steps for artists as other cities do and that is coupled by very little institutional support. This creates an imbalance between the actual quality of art in the region and an outsider's perspective of the Bay’s art scene. As you are well aware, there is a small but thriving scene here and we have some incredible programs that pack a major punch for their footprint i.e. The Wattis, Kadist, and De Rosa to name a few. New contemporary programs happening at 500 Capp St and the De Young are great platforms for the Bay to operate as a leading contributor to contemporary art programing.  In the past year we have had amazing artists come through from Sarah Lucas at the Legion to Michael E. Smith at 500 Capp, as well as local artists Anthony Discenza and Ranu Mukherjee currently at the De Young. This is thanks to leadership at both places.

For my practice, being included in BAN8 at YBCA is major. This is the first opportunity at this kind of institution and first “ennial” so I’m very excited and honored to be alongside so many very talented artists.

Q: Your recent piece at Southern Exposure was quite large, setting the stage in a way for the whole exhibition. How do you feel about that kind of collaboration?

A: That show was very special for me. It was the first time working this closely with a curator and exhibition space from the beginning of a project. Mik Gaspay (artist/curator) and I had many conversations about the concept of the exhibition. The dialogue was very open and through his critical feedback the work evolved.

It was a group of 13 artists and from the beginning everyone had a collaborative spirit. We all debated the color of the walls together at the first meeting. We selected gray as part of the concept of the show dealing with architecture and space and choose a section of the raw interior concrete building to color match so that the whole interior was a reflection of sorts of itself.  The color was METASOEX Gray.

I am really drawn toward installation and in most cases this type of working does not lend itself well to group exhibitions but in this case it worked thanks to Mik and the collaborative nature of the group.  Much of my work shown in the Bay has been focused on more self-contained sculpture toying with sculptural tropes. It’s exciting to be getting back to larger installations and to have great platforms to exhibit through.

Q: I might be wrong but your gallery Cloaca is for you a first foray into curating, or at least into running a gallery. How do you approach your work with Cloaca in respect to your own experiences as an artist?

A: Cloaca is the first space I’ve been involved in with continuous programing. My own experience as an artist has been the ultimate guide for my contribution. It’s a unique partnership with Marcella Faustini who became involved in the art world originally as an artist. Our sensibilities really align as organizers and facilitators of artists rather than as curators.  We are drawn to the larger voice of artists and their interests rather than a specific works of art that we want to use as a word or sentence in an exhibition. For that reason we focus on solo presentations and engage with artists we find interesting and with unique visions. These narratives are reflected by the artists’ use of the entire space. In my own work I am very interested in having complete control over a space, so in many ways cloaca is the exact type of atmosphere I would like to exhibit in. As one of the founders it’s been really rewarding, I am constantly having really great conversations casually and critically surrounding the space . It has also opened me up to many new perspectives and approaches to art making.

Q: Other than other art and artists, what are some major influences on your practice?

A: It's cliche but true that art is a reflection of perspectives unique to time and place. It’s a constant negotiation, whether negotiating the sidewalk by lifting your feet over cracks, stepping over shit and needles, or it’s listening to negotiations on global trade deals. All the negotiations of living are contributors to form. I’m drawn to the political nature of the sidewalk and how the human condition is expressed all around us. My surroundings have always been a major influence and ever since I moved to my current studio in Bayview in 2012 I have been taking almost daily walks on the “Public Shore(s)” of the Bay. These are amazing spaces where the city meets the bay (often crumbling into it). These locations are the visual confluence of many systems converging. The closest one to me is Islais Creek which has an incredible history.  Visually you can see a snapshot of the entire metropolis and its inverse, including two intersecting highways, the Caltrain tracks, the Third Street rail, the decrepit concrete silo, the operational concrete manufacturing plant, the produce warehouse district, the city skyline 3 miles in the distance, the sewage treatment plant, the single stream water and sewage overflow drainage, and consequently a now world-known skate spot. Everything comes in and out of this area of the city.

Q: There is a sense of humor, maybe more of a gallows humor, to your work. To what extent does humor or in a broader sense narrative underlie the sculptures?

A: Humor is very important and yes, gallows humor, the James Ensor kind. I use humor not only as content but also as a means to initially access the work. It can lead into more subverted and dark subjects but also lead the viewer back out as a mechanism for optimism. It is serious but not taking itself too seriously.  Broad narratives connect all my work and are always present, yet I don’t expect viewers to read the narrative in the work like a book. Viewers often want to read it this way and get hung up on “knowing the answer,” which can frustrate them. The “answer” is that the sculpture is more of a freeze frame of one moment rather than an ultimate lexicon. I think a lot about the viewer and art as communication so I don’t seek to frustrate. Much of the story is told by how the sculpture guides the viewer through it. Forms are never arrived at to represent one thing but are always intended to be evocative of many forms familiar to us in the world. In this way they are very abstract and open to what the viewer associates the forms with.

aaron harbour