Luis Gispert, Let Them Lose Their Souls, They’re Animals Anyways, 2008, Mixed media, 19×57×77 in.
JACOB HASHIMOTO: This last January, you opened an enormous two-part exhibition at Zach Feuer and Mary Boone Gallery that represented well over two years of sculptures and images and was crowned with a hugely ambitious short film, Smother. Having had the opportunity to watch you labor over this diverse body of work over the past couple of years and having visited the exhibition numerous times…and, of course, having followed your work for the past 10–12 years, I came away from this exhibition with an uneven sensibility of the exhibition on the whole. That’s not to say that the shows weren’t conceptually coherent, consistent, and intriguing, they were. I think, however, that I felt like a lot of the work relied heavily on obscure or hidden references that made the work somewhat opaque for the me conceptually. How do you feel about this assertion? Have others expressed such concerns? How does this opacity or ambiguity function within your artwork and when do you think it becomes problematic?
LUIS GISPERT: The work always starts as a personal exploration of themes, ideas, or feelings I’m wrestling with at the time. Like stumbling in a dark room looking for the light switch, you reach out hoping to make interesting connections or juxtapositions with the ideas rattling around your head. By the time the work is finished a world is created with references and markers interesting to me. As I work in the studio I think about the audience but at some point you have to follow your own intuition with a piece and hope it connects with other people. Some might say it isn’t generous work. I don’t try to make ambiguous work, but I might like making labyrinths of meaning. It could be like a game, it’s art that makes people work for meaning – they can play the game if they care enough to do so. People probably don’t get half the references but respond to my work on a visceral level and that satisfies me. The work has a certain attitude. It’s like a stranger that you meet on the street who’s giving you a dirty look.
Luis Gispert, La Historia Me Absolvera (History Shall Absolve Me), 2007, C-Print.
JH: I feel like I’ve had a lot of opportunities over the years to “scratch” beneath the surface of your work and feel like it’s sometimes difficult for me to do any more than scratch. Complete excavation seems difficult, if not impossible. I see your work generally (and this applies to the film work, flat work, and sculpture) as a collection of references that have an implied narrative that is essentially the core of the work…Sometimes I feel like I can glean a sense of the narrative, while other times, I feel like the narrative is buried so deeply in references that I don’t understand or am not aware of the overall message of the piece. This is frustrating. Regardless, the formal elements manage to convey a sense of the emotion of the artwork—the work “feels” a certain way…How much am I missing as a viewer if I’m not equipped to decipher your references and I’m only able to scratch under the surface at a few of your metaphors while being overwhelmed by the overall formal sensibility of the works?
LG: That’s unfortunate if my work frustrates or bores people. What can I say; I probably don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just throwing a bunch of stuff together trying to make meaning or create new metaphors out of shit that’s already out there. Working like a hack DJ with a terrible record collection. Art that interests or moves me has to intrigue, confuse, or challenge me. For anything to have resonance with me it can’t come easy. It must be some latent blue-collar complex that hard work equals truth. When I finish a piece it makes sense to me and I hope some of that information is transferred to the audience. If not all the information is exchanged it’s okay, I don’t understand why some people want to “understand” everything about a piece of art. It’s not like a relationship with a person you love where there can be no secrets. Art is allowed to be secretive and vague, advertising and design are not.
Luis Gispert, Untitled (Escalades), 2007,
JH: But, you really didn’t answer my question. What am I missing? Does it matter if I’m put off by my inability to get at the meat of your work and am reduced to basking in its formal glory? You may very well be personally interested in making “challenging” work for yourself and as an artist, I hope that you are. I guess that I’m curious that you don’t seem at all concerned about approaching your audience in a more generous fashion in terms of building entrances into the work—places where they can access the work, learn about the work, explore your metaphors and ideas. Nobody likes easy, pandering artwork, but nobody wants to feel shut out just because they aren’t in the cool club.
LG: People get what they’re going to get from it. Just like when people meet me in person. I’ve been accused of being a poor communicator, even though as a person I try to please and accommodate people. It seems that some of the artwork doesn’t…but it’s funny that you say that because some of the work has been called too accommodating and too eager to please. Some people have stated that there is no difference between some of my photos and what you see on the side of a bus. There is no cool club or secret decoder ring, even though some critics and artists would like you to believe there is.
JH: So given that you make what you make for those who get it and that you don’t agree with my assertion that the work is often problematically opaque…and I must say that I agree and don’t think that the work is always impenetrable—often, it is very generous and very open—I don’t think that it is, however, “too eager to please”…I think that it is simply direct and clear and is dealing with subject matter that is easy to persecute.
Luis Gispert, Piss Pool, 2006, C-Print, 40×60 inches.
LG: It’s true.
JH: So, let’s talk about audience a little more. My feelings aside, I’m curious how you think about your audience in general. Who is your target audience…or do you even think that that is a relevant question?
LG: I don’t like the term target audience. It sounds like commercial advertising nomenclature. I would venture to say that all artists start work for themselves first. How could you not if you have to deal with yourself in the studio all day everyday? I mean we are all aware about who is going to see and buy our stuff, but to go back to the relationship parallel; we are allowed to be a little selfish with the art. I don’t recommend doing that with someone you care about though…
Luis Gispert, El Mundo Es Tuyo (the world is yours), installation view.
JH: You know, do you think about who is going to see this stuff and do you shape the work in such a way as to better connect with them? If so, who are these people? Collectors, other artists, designers, film industry people…? And, just to bog you down a little bit more with this: Do you have different audiences in mind when you work on different projects?
LG: Sometimes I think about how I can antagonize certain audiences [laughter] which is probably not always the best way to start the day! Maybe I have a lot of anger towards the gang of future political science majors that beat the crap out of me in the parking lot behind the gym. Seriously, of course I think about my audience every day and it’s all those guys; it’s a little absurd to expect me to be able to reduce it to one or another demographic specifically. I’m still discovering my audience with every project, and I’m constantly surprised at its depth and variety. Of course, different projects are geared to different audiences. When making things to be seen in a fine art context you have more freedom to experiment and push the meaning of things. Art audiences are very jaded and have the highest threshold for pain.
JH: So do you shape the work to seduce this jaded art audiences into engaging in your work or are you even so calculating or manipulative when you’re thinking about studio projects?
LG: When working for a fine art context I have the greatest freedom. I do like to work with the conventions of popular film and photography and subvert or manipulate how a viewer lets their guard down when they see something familiar. That’s what interesting to me about using certain popular references or tropes—they give audiences a doorway into the maze.
Luis Gispert, No I’m Not, 2008, Mixed media 72.25×18.25×12 in.
JH: That kind of makes me think about that dude that made that Caligula trailer. Who was that guy?
LG: Francesco Vezzoli.
JH: What do you think about his stuff? Does that relate to what you’re doing or is it an entirely different creature?
LG: It’s kind of similar. It flirts with notions of mass media, celebrity, access, popular culture, and some satire. But his stuff is too cynical, too smug. It’s too 1-to-1; sometimes I fail to see Vezzoli effecting the source he is citing. It’s a quote of a quote and I was hoping my generation had already gotten over that. Let’s leave that level of cynicism to those artists from the ’70s and ’80s. For example the Caligula trailer that you were talking about is basically a boring, flaccid, impotence-inducing carbon copy of the Bob Guccione original skin-flick from the ’80s, with updated celebrities and Gore Vidal thrown in for political gravitas. It all feels like widow dressing.
JH: I know that you’re currently developing a feature-length film project. Are you, and if so how are you changing your attitude as you shift from the insular, reasonably hermetic artworld into a product that is clearly targeted at a more massive, general audience? What kinds of changes do you see as necessary in order for your work to reach and resonate with a larger audience, and what do you expect to gain or lose?
Still from Luis Gispert, Stereomongrel.
LG: Feature narrative film is a completely different beast from studio-based art because of the potential of reaching a huge number of people—broadcasting vs. narrowcasting. I’ve toyed with cinematic conventions in the short films that I made to be exhibited in an art context, but these films would fail in a broader cultural arena. When I make my feature film it will be a narrative with a three-act structure designed to work within the cinematic context. Having the opportunity to work with such a conventional structure is exciting for me. Like Stravinsky said, ‘Once you have the structure set, the possibilities for experimentation within are infinite.’ I do not want to make a film that will be lost in a grey purgatory between art and cinema.
JH: Oh! You mean like Piotr Uklanski’s Summer Love, which failed because it didn’t contribute anything to the canon of the western genre; instead, it was just a bunch of self-referential, smug calisthenics, which were neither here nor there.
LG: Yeah. I remember seeing that thing at the Whitney. The theater was absolutely full when the movie started and when the lights came up, I was the last man standing. Seriously. Everybody left. I stayed out of respect for the medium and for Uklanski as an artist. I feel like his film failed because he couldn’t negotiate the territory between art and commercial cinema. His indecisiveness rendered his project meandering, often boring, and ultimately unsuccessful. Bottom line: it wasn’t manipulative enough.
JH: What exactly do you mean by “manipulative”?
LG: Manipulative in the sense of narrative cinema, where every second of screen time is considered to push the audience through the film’s narrative.
JH: So you’re saying he didn’t commit to making a movie. He made the mistake of approaching his movie as if he were building a giant and pretty fucking amazing sculpture of a fascist bird or maybe painting some super-sexy Polish abstractions.
JH: Do you think that there is more legitimacy culturally to working in mass media as opposed to working within the obviously rarefied arena of the artworld as it is today? (Even as the artworld gets less elitist, it still represents an amazingly small percentage of the world population…rarefied is still pretty accurate as far as I can see.)
LG: It’s all part of culture’s lower intestine. Does the information trickle up or down? I don’t know. It does seem that for my generation film has become some kind of vicious chimera that is composed of everything, consumes everything, and shits out everything—the art world included.
Jacob Hashimoto and Luis Gispert are long-time friends and former college roommates. Today, they both live and work in Brooklyn and happen to share studio space in Bushwick. This interview took place over a couple of days in Jacob’s apartment in Williamsburg in late July, 2008. All images courtesy of Zach Feuer Gallery.
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