Interview with Richard Humann
In Articles | Interviews6 December 2011
R: What were your first meaningful experiences with art and when did you focus on becoming an artist?
RH: My first “profound” experience with art was coming down to the Museum of Modern Art sometime before I was ten years old, and encountering the works of Donald Judd. Judd’s work made an indelible impression on me. The shape, form, color or lack thereof, resonated with me on almost a spiritual level, even at that age. The next time anything like that happened to me, was over ten years later when I saw the Jonathan Borofsky retrospective at the Whitney Museum. I honestly hated the Borofsky show so much that I walked out of it the first time. But somehow it stuck with me. By the time the show came down, months later, I must have gone five or six more times. Each time I went back, it was like peeling a new layer of his work for me. By the last time I went, my art work had changed dramatically.
DR: How has Fluxus influenced your approach to art making?
RH: I have always been a huge fan of the Dada movement. I’m drawn to its quirkiness, seriousness, craziness, and ability to communicate directly with its audience, even if it sometimes seems unintelligible. When I was young, I would read about the movement and could picture myself living in that moment: the moment of Dada. I sometimes bring that romanticized notion to the table when I think of Fluxus as well. It’s easy for me to do because the gallery that represented me for many years, was located George Maciunas’ former loft in SoHo. There was a constant flow of Fluxus artists, albeit older by this time, coming in and out of the gallery space. Artists such as Nam June Paik, Shigeko Kubota, and Larry Miller, I have been lucky enough to call my friends. Their work, like Dada, is intelligent, quirky, hard-hitting, serious and always surrounded by the sense of real community—the Fluxus community. There have been many times I’ve thought of an idea that I believed was original, only to find out, luckily before I created it, that someone in the Fluxus group already had – or at least some derivation of the concept. I hope that my work expresses Fluxus qualities.
DR: Your exhibition A Childish Fear explores issues of time, mortality and the possibility of turning back the clock. Can you discuss the role of time and memory in this work?
RH: Regarding A Childish Fear, which is an exhibition I did in 2003 at the Lance Fung Gallery, I was trying to reach back to childhood and recapture both the carefree attitude and anxiety-filled moments of that period of my life. I put up a number of pieces in the exhibition. The center piece consisted of three dog houses in the middle of the gallery. The piece is entitled In Dog Years, because dogs supposedly age at seven times the rate of man. I grew up in a small town in upstate New York called Stony Point. We had a house, a big yard and, of course, dogs. My first encounter with death was when our dog died when I was five years old. It left a huge vacuum in me and it was the first time that I realized how permanent death is. In the piece that I built, there is a television monitor in each of the three doghouses and on the video is a puppy. The same puppy making the same movements in all three doghouses. In one doghouse, the video runs at seven times slower than real time. In another doghouse, the video runs at real time and in the third, seven times faster than real time. In some way, I guess I was hoping that the time would even out and make the dog’s time equal to ours.
In that exhibition I also cast the plastic army men that I used to play with as a child, but instead of plastic, I ground-up baby aspirin and with a gelatin binder, was able to cast an army of baby aspirin soldiers. The piece is called Chewable Relief and is, in fact, edible. War is a serious thing for children to be playing with. Two other pieces in that exhibition are The Reversal of Time and Lift Me Higher. In The Reversal of Time, I put six clocks under sound-tight plexiglas and captured the sound of the hands ticking on all the clocks inside the enclosure with a very sensitive microphone. The sounds of the ticking hands were then run through a computer processor as files that made the sound come out backwards from the speakers mounted on the wall.
DR: Works from your exhibition Evidence of my Being seek to break down physical documentation of your life into bare elements. What draws you to the physical traces of this personal data and information?
RH: The piece you are referring to is Curriculum Vitae. In this piece, I cut-up everything ever written about me; my birth certificate, passport, high school diploma, college diploma, any and all art reviews… everything. I spent hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours cutting each letter out with a razor blade and pouring them into a glass urn. I destroyed all my original documentation and in many cases, had to go and have it replaced. By the time I finished cutting, the volume and weight of the cut-out letters basically equalled that of my body if it were to be cremated. I don’t honestly know if I’m drawn to the physical traces of personal data and information as much as I was trying to decipher what it is that makes-up a person. For Evidence of My Being, I created a series of works, each of which dealt with an aspect of the answer. I thought at that time that part of what makes-up a person is what is said and what is written about them. Other pieces addressed physicality and actions.
DR: By alluding to ash, does it reflect Vanitas?
RH: I didn’t truly consider being influenced by Vanitas when I created Curriculum Vitae, but in truth, yes, the work could fall into that category. As you know, Vanitas means “emptiness” and at that time, having just endured the passing of my mother, I guess emptiness is a word that I could categorize of that period of my life. Of course that’s a more personal reference but the imagery is of funerary art, which is, of course, the prevalent imagery of that genre, and I guess since I was a small child, Memento mori is a phrase that I could clearly identify with.
DR: Why do you associate carnival rides with implements of torture and execution in “You Must Be This Tall?”
RH: I wanted to take a digression away from the work that I had been doing for so many years and needed to physically remove text from my pieces at that time. I had just done a solo show at the Elga Wimmer Gallery in Chelsea and would then go to my studio every day and not create work, but basically think about what I was going to do next. I thought that by going back to early influences, I might find a new path to walk down. So I went back to the Donald Judd plywood boxes – work I first saw when I was very, very young. My first idea was to create a box, open-face, and to hang it on the wall and on the inside put a miniature electric chair and a small television screen that played cartoons. I never actually made the piece, but that was the beginning of the new series of works. The melding of torture and execution devices with carnival rides, I think, brings together two elements of both fear and fun. I wanted to make the rides fun in a way so when they’re first viewed, you see objects of childhood that would be found in an amusement park or traveling carnival. Again, growing up in the small town, we had a carnival come into town every year during the summer and as much as it was fun, there was always this scary and kind of haunting element that hovered in the air around it. The rides were old, rusted and there was always a feeling that you put your life on the line to ride them. These feelings were the impetus for the pieces, but I also wanted to try to capture the elements of private and public spectacle. That’s why most of the pieces are fenced-off. In real life, of course, they’re fenced-off for security reasons, but they also create a delineation between the people experiencing the ride and the ones looking in. There is also the influence of when executions were, in fact, public spectacles. Though the work here can be construed as macabre, I wanted to approach it through a fun way.
DR: Would you discuss Delicate Monster and your feelings as an artist about 9/11?
RH: The Delicate Monster exhibition was commissioned by the Tampere Art Museum, in Tampere, Finland. When I first heard of the theme, I honestly didn’t know if I could do an exhibition based on September 11, 2001. It’s not something I would normally do and I honestly came very close to not accepting it. After grappling with it for a while, I did finally accept it and decided what I wanted to do was capture the uncertainty, the confusion and the emotions of that day. I didn’t want to make a piece about politics. I live and work in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and was here the morning of September 11th. With my own eyes, I saw the second plane hit the tower and watched both towers fall. What I did for Delicate Monster was interview many people on video, from all walks of life, about their experience on that day. The video was then distorted and the audio files from all of the people played simultaneously. I was given an entire floor of the museum, thus the installation was quite large. The viewer would walk into the space and be confronted with huge multi-channel projections of the people speaking. The audio was played loud and the combination was very, very disorienting. But once inside, if you listened closely, you could pick-out the individual stories of that day. Shocked, sad, frightened people recounting the loss of lives and the buildings in the city that they love so much.
DR: Can you speak to the genesis of Lift Me Higher and the role of spirituality in your work?
RH: Lift Me Higher is a very personal piece in which I stacked ten Bibles together, and poured encaustic wax over them. On the spine of each Bible, I stuck letters from one of my pieces of writing. The title of a poem that I wrote was Lift Me Higher, and after the loss of my mother a few years earlier, my younger brother, Joseph, turned to God. I don’t consider myself an Atheist or an Agnostic because I’d have to care enough about it to even apply those labels. The concept of God, in my life, simply does not exist. But I don’t feel so strongly enough about it to call myself anything. Having said that, my brother and I used to have very intense discussions about religion in my art studio, often ending in loud arguments. One day our argument went over the top and he stormed out, and we were both devastated by it. That’s when I wrote the poem and decided to create this piece as some kind of offering to this eternal argument. The title of the exhibition A Childish Fear comes from a line in this poem.
Writing Credits: Daniel Rothbart is an artist and writer. A former Fulbright Scholar, Rothbart is the author of Jewish Metaphysics As Generative Principle in American Art (Ulisse e Calipso) and The Phoenix (Ulisse e Calipso). His work can be found in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Orsini Foundation in Milan and numerous public and private collections.
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