In Conversation: Keith Walsh and Brad Spence

Left: Brad Spence and Keith Walsh in front of Astral Body Compound Space/Threshold of Movement; Right: Brad Spence's painting, "Van" 2010

Left: Brad Spence and Keith Walsh in front of Astral Body Compound Space/Threshold of Movement; Right: Brad Spence's painting, "Van" 2010

WEEKEND artist Keith Walsh talks with Brad Spence about things. Lots of very cool things. You should read it. Keith’s show, Stealth Space,  took place from August 5th-28th, 2011, at WEEKEND. Brad Spence is a Los Angeles painter. His work can be seen at Shoshana Wayne Gallery, here.

BS [pulls Gravity’s Rainbow from the bookshelf]

KW I think Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is an interesting way to start. When did that book come out?

BS I think ’72…

KW That’s three years after the Americans landed on the moon, and all the particular documentation that had infiltrated American culture. As an American it seems very intrinsic to my sensibilities. As I was born at the tail end of the Kennedy era, so I feel informed by the space race and secular progressivism. That shapes my futurist kind of direction, which is a tricky thing to talk about in these times. I’m always trying to create something that hasn’t completely been seen before.  This project emerged in 2009 after I finished the CAB series of white sculptures.  They were very much in response to the Bush era, the rigidifying of culture and politics, refusals of scientific facts, and war mongering—so the work was bunkeresque. The Stealth Vehicle began as an Obama-era exploration of “what kind of future do we have in front of us now?”

BS You announce that very clearly with the piece, “A Text That Does Not Yet Exist.” I read that piece as a kind of manifesto … one with far-reaching implications. We can talk about the impasse of the Bush Era in terms of politics but also art education and art theory. To use the word ‘text’ signals to me the impasse that much theoretical writing was reaching at the time. I think of Derrida’s “nothing outside the text” and “always already” as mottos for a culture that had run its course and wasn’t going to produce anything new.

KW Right, the end game.

BS Yeah, and for as much as we can never quite tell when your tongue is in your cheek, I read that as a very sincere manifesto of trying to reach some new space. One strategy is to ask us to participate in the sculpture. This is something to be used rather than something merely for aesthetic contemplation. On the way over I had this memory of my son’s preschool and a controversy that ensued there. There was an art teacher that had an all in all conservative presence at this co-op and her rule was that anything that you make on the art table can’t be played with on the yard. The kids were supposed to be learning the idea of aesthetic contemplation. Art should only be a symbol. It shouldn’t have a use. I guess it would be pretty obvious where you would fall in this debate.

KW While aesthetic contemplation is an important aspect of my work, much of my background in art school has been in conceptualism, performance art, and process art.  So, I’m always trying to question what I’m doing, to check what’s coming through, and to check on what my visual language points to. I like the Kandinsky route, but I’m thinking more of a Kosuth-like route because I believe art really is a proposition.  It’s a premise for the viewer or participant to try to accept on some level, which is always up for question.  I would rather provide questions than answers.

BS One of the things that seems to get lost in the art theory that prevailed in the Bush Era is the ability for art to step back and kind of look at the big issues, like where we fit into the cosmos.  I share the kind of nostalgia you alluded to, of wanting art to deal with existential issues.  And I feel like you’re kind of asking us to go ahead and think the bigger thoughts here.  And you even offer a kind of demonstration piece with your travelogue. I interpret it as, we can reach some new territory but we’re going to have to get delirious…

KW I think delirium does occur for me through the process of making the work over time.  I did get “out there” from breathing the sharpie fumes for hours while drawing inside its tight space.  Another person might gain a certain understanding that the sculpture is a perceptual instrument simply by sitting in it.

BS There’s this Kafka quote I’m trying to remember about using writing as an ice pick to break up the frozen seas of our souls.  We need to produce a new text to break up our thinking that has become rigid and territorialized.

KW With the collage piece “A Text That Does Not Yet Exist” I’m trying to avoid having a rigid ideology to fall back upon, to construct the new.  So that piece becomes a sign that informs the show.  The travelogue pieces done with the marker inside the Vehicle become a real-time acting out of that sensibility that also shifts constantly in perceptual time. The gallery space has a role too in this matter of creating this kind of space. I’m very intentionally co-opting Robert Smithson’s idea of the non-site, where the gallery acts as a force for distancing and consciousness.  I’m asking people to have, in an immediate and an imaginary way, a feeling of distance when they sit in the sculpture or when they look at the collages or when they look at the written texts.  The gallery is a propositional zone and a strange no man’s land of opportunity.

BS So let me ask you about Stealth.  What is the radar that we’re trying to fly under?

KW I think we’re trying to fly over the radar actually—beyond the navel gazing that occurs to a great degree in art today. I’m not just interested in abstraction, or I’m not just interested in text.  I’m interested in how they relate to different paradigms of our understanding of the world, even if it’s collapsed like a supernova into a small collage, like the one above you.  Its short name is “Two Finger Cosmos,” which links the immediate scale of your two fingers touching something, and an illusory majestic zone that really can’t be touched at all.

BS Maybe the most pointedly satirical place in the show is headgear that resembles a mortarboard in the trunk of the vehicle. For me the territory we’re trying to fly out is the dreary academic version of that…universe and university…

KW It’s a moment of comic relief, about the didacticism that has now become part of the conceptualist paradigm.  I’m interested in how people can slip through the system.

BS I wonder if we can take this further astray and bring your musical practice [The Keith Walsh Experience] into this, which I see as a really interesting synthesis of progressive rock and punk. In their day they could have been opposites on some sort of spectrum.  I think of Sid Vicious wearing the “I Hate Pink Floyd” shirt.  Prog rock certainly wants to entertain the most cosmic thoughts while punk participates at a much more angry street level of the social and the political. You’re able to make them merge into a kind of interesting synthesis.  There’s a reason why people tend to look down on progressive rock for being overly cerebral and punk is the right antidote for that.  But you bring them together in a political awareness that can also imagine its place within the larger cosmos.

KW Progressive rock or psychedelic rock often had cosmic content, and sometimes tried to induce that content in an existential way.  Prog rock was viewed as a highly technical music compared to the DIY Punk thing.  I’m a one-man band, I can’t read music, and my performances are loud and raw.   However, after many years of playing, my 12-piece kit has become this ergonomic matrix that induces different kinds of physical and mental states of awareness.  So, I’m having my Prog and my Punk at the same time.  My music dances on the margins of recognition.  A parallel in the work here is that some of the image sources for the collages are actually the color margins of ads from magazines such as Artforum.

BS Are the star fields lint in the carpet?

KW Yes, there’s this dialogue between the near and the far.  Scientists, occult people, and religious folk will talk about how the universe is manifest in microscopic ways here on earth and within us.  That sensibility got translated when I started photographing the rug of the inside of the vehicle. A star field emerged from the wood dust and lint on the floor.  So the near and far sensibility was something that I could engage with conceptually and literally.

BS You are putting the sculpture to use to produce new work and new possibilities. That really fits in with the ethics of your art making.  So let me ask you why such a solitary practice in both your music and your art making?

KW So far it’s been easier for me to do it myself.  The process of building the Vehicle began with only a few rough sketches and a cardboard mock up. It was linear process but very improvisational, which became an existential process.  There was no way that I could say to an assistant “today you’re going to do such and such,” because there were so many odd technical challenges that had to be solved, which took lots of time.

BS It’s kind of an unplanned conceptualism.

KW It starts as an idea and a vision and maybe a set of words. And then I just ran with it through its logical sequence of construction. It came out better than I envisioned it.

BS I enjoyed the Ornette Coleman reference in your travelogues. I was recently making lists of all the things I want to channel into my new paintings and one of them was Ornette Coleman playing on a plastic sax and it seems that that sensibility relates to what you’re doing here, the plastic sax, I thought about one of your songs, “Nu Age,”  where it sounded like you were playing a toy plastic sax…

KW It was even better–it was a party squawker.   I could modulate the tone depending upon how I blew into it, so it became an Ornette Coleman and Pharoah Sanders kind of free jazz.  I love free jazz, so it taps into the zeitgeist of what’s in the gallery.

BS Can you talk about the aesthetics of shrillness. Does that resonate with you at all?

KW Yes, it seems like something I can’t conquer, it’s an edge that keeps me awake.

BS It is also possible to look at this sculpture through a grimmer prism? It has associations with coffins and targets. Do you want to talk about the darker, militaristic side of your proposition here?

KW It’s one of my means to keeping that edge.  The sense of the militaristic emerges through the Vehicle’s shapes, the overall form, that weird claustrophobic interior, through all the screws and the finishing washers that for me impart a bit of a heavy metal feel.  The darker side is both functional and imaginary.  Black is slippery.  A participant can slip into the space through a suicide door and replace me.

BS This is one of Pynchon’s themes in Gravity’s Rainbow. He takes Freud’s deathwish and really runs with it as a kind of explanation of the destructive impulse that is initially erotic but ultimately has a kind of vanishing point toward oblivion and destruction. It seems that that’s hinted at in your sculpture. There’s no steering mechanism.

KW One does not have control. What does one do with their hands when they’re inside of the Vehicle?  Also, the instrumentation pods are manipulated marksman targets, so the sense of direction becomes a conceptual question. When I was building this sculpture it felt at times like it was my last project, my endgame. That’s a very illusory thing because all I needed to do was just wait a day or so and everything would be fine.  There’s different ways of keeping things going… yet I’ve destroyed a lot of work through the years.

BS So we’re optimistically shooting into the future but destruction could be just moments away…

KW Yes it is!  I suppose that’s happening on a secular plane with the US debt, the lowered fiscal rating, unemployment, corporate control, and Conservatism. Religious apocalypses however don’t relate to my personal experience of things. I’m more interested in Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Beckett, and Burroughs.  I think that LA is a really good place to talk about this sort of thing because there’s Hollywood and the aerospace industry.  Living in LA is also a kind of fragmenting experience.  I think that I wouldn’t be making this work anywhere else.

BS One thing we haven’t really talked about yet is the body. As you are sending us out into cerebral space to think the limits of the universe, it seems like you’re asking us to have a bodily awareness, a more punk version of our lived experience.  In the travelogues there’s like a cataloguing of urination and bodily functions.  Do you want to talk about your depiction of the figure?

KW The figure [The Astral Body/Threshold of Movement] is an interlocutor, existing somewhere between the sculpture, a participant, and myself.  It’s based on an anthropomorphic schematic by Henry Dreyfus used for automobile and furniture design that matches my height and my width.  All the points of bodily movement have gained vectors of energy emission.  The figure is probably the closest thing to a spiritual piece in the show.  The black and color areas are from photographs of the Vehicle or destroyed collages.

BS How did you wrestle with gender in that piece?  There are warm spots for the genitals…

KW It communicates a kind of cyborg quality, a future question.

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