By MICHAEL ANDERSON and LEIGHANA WAIGHT, JUL. 2016
This conversation between collage artists Derrick Adams and Michael Anderson took place at Tilton Gallery, October 19, 2014. Collage artist Fred Tomaselli was a surprise guest later in the conversation.
Michael Anderson: When was the last time you had a solo show?
Derrick Adams: I had a solo show here [at Tilton gallery] two years ago. I had a solo show in London at Hales Gallery, last November; one in Paris, last Spring; and I just had a solo show this year  at Rhona Hoffman in Chicago. I've been showing more outside of NY in the past 2 or 3 years since the last show I had here.
MA: And was the work similar to this?
DA: It's more extended from work that is using architectural spaces and people kind of fuse into the building. That's the kind of stuff I was working on. But for this show, and all the work that I do, I start with an idea and try to make all the work based on an idea and then I try to think of it as a conversation in each piece. This show was very much about this space and having a conversation with this work. I've never shown this series of works until this show.
MA: You are a multivarious artist, I like that about you.
DA: I don't want to be bored. I get bored easily. So I'm always thinking about how to do things that I’ve never done before. I believe there is no real failure; it just has to do with experimentation. It can never go wrong.
MA: Some fresh mistakes never hurt.
DA: You don't have any over exaggerated expectations. You just have fun. I want to make these things: I want to make these frames, these TV things, I never did this before — and it was not easy. Certain things were very particular, very exact. Certain things were very sporadic and improvisational. So it was a combination of both and that made me want to do it, because I never did it before.
Sometimes, when you are making stuff, you are thinking about it when you are putting it together. Usually, when you are making collage, you are putting it together now, like you are doing a drawing. You are not thinking: will it hold up physically? A big part of making art is the longevity of the object. I am thinking about that a lot more.
MA: The work also has a relationship to African masks.
DA: Yeah, I was thinking about African masks. I was thinking about the perception of color and being colored. What does that mean, being colorful? The masks also acts as camouflage. The mask acts as two things — it acts as a shield, to camouflage, to blend in, and also…
MA: But it also gives you power, too.
DA: Yeah, yeah, exactly. It's to separate yourself. While things are going on, you separate yourself and look outside of something, like a spectator. It's like a superhero costume; it's a mask, but it gives you power.
MA: It's like African superheroes!
DA: (Laughs) Yeah. I was thinking how different people can look at the same thing and get different things out of it. That’s why I didn't have any linear narrative in this work. I was thinking about the subject; I was thinking about the environment; I was thinking about the structure. The black image on TV — that was pretty much my narrative. Other than that, I responded really formally. I was not telling the story and meaning of the work. It was more like, what if this figure operated in this space, in some way, suggesting certain things? This image right here — of a woman behind a counter — it's just like the service industry. Images in sitcoms are funny because there's always this thing, in the '80's, where the person had to get a job and work after school at some silly fast food place. And they would show the absurd costume they had on at the job. It became about all of these different things.
MA: It's nice that you have this template for the work. You decided to create these televisions and have the picture being displayed. It's almost like a frame you created for the work that places it in society. It puts it in a certain time, too, because of the type of television they are.
DA: The framing was really used, the idea is used, to suggest a portal.
MA: Well, it really is, like television, very transportive.
DA: Yeah, exactly.
MA: I knew some people from Africa told me, when they first came over, they had never seen a TV before. And when they saw a TV, they were like "What?!"
DA: Now, because of HD and all of these different things, it's so much a part of making things seem real. Kids now, when they look at TV, just generationally, they probably see things differently than what we see. We see the mechanism of the TV, the mechanism of media. And they are in it, you know? It is designed for them.
(Enters Fred Tomasselli)
MA: Mr. Tomaselli there too, what do you know!
FT: Derrick, my pleasure. Great show.
DA: Thank you, I really appreciate that coming from you. Certain artists say that and you are like, "Alright," but then other artists say it and you are like: "Ok, I believe it."
DA: I mean, I always study your work, just from grad school and stuff.
FT: Good I was an influence on somebody with my art.
MA: Oh, you got me too! This is like collage corner over here.
DA: You being here right now is really good. I am good for the rest of the day.
FT: Oh good, yeah, good.
DA: When I finished in '03, I lived in residencies after, and then I ended up having a show 2 years after I finished.
FT: That's good, you need to like have it all percolate.
MA: Everyone wants to have a show immediately.
DA: You are supposed to have fun. Have fun. I'm teaching a little bit now at NYU and all the students just want to be famous.
FT: I know…
DA: It's really gross.
MA: You've got to put the work in first.
FT: This whole idea of art as a career…what the fuck is that?
DA: Exactly. Why aren't you just having fun?
FT: Art is an avocation, not a vocation.
FT: Now, if you don't make any money, it's stupid.
DA: If you want it, you are still going to do it.
MA: Hopefully you make art because you have to do it.
MA: It can't be because you want to do it or something else, you know. Like, Miley Cyrus, or something.
FT: (Directed at DA) Do you watch TV?
DA: I hate TV.
FT: Ok, yeah, I can tell.
DA: (Laughs) I hate and love it.
FT: But you watch some of it?
DA: I watch some stuff. Like, I watch Gotham. It's about Batman when he was a little kid.
FT: Oh (laughing), that's good!
DA: It's really, really good. They have some really good people in it. It's really dark, and really sinister. It has a lot of killing.
FT: Oh really? Oh, that sounds good.
DA: It can be a bit much. Now, TV is making me feel anxious. Everything in TV and movies is making you feel like an actor. In everything.
MA: That's the reason why kids want to be famous in 2 seconds.
FT: They do.
DA: I had one student tell me he was graduating and he wanted to do some outlandish project, and I said "Is that really necessary? What is it about? Maybe you should figure out what it is about and you can save yourself some money." How about something very small and gestural, instead of doing some huge whatever? You know what he said to me: "You know, I need to make my big splash." Who would say that?
DA: It's so much better to simmer than to crash and burn. I'm hoping to simmer a little bit longer. But that's all people like right now: the top 30 blah blah blah, or "people to watch." That’s the thing now.
FT: Well, you can't say that anymore, you are one of the "people to watch."
DA: I can't say that I don't want to be that person anymore.
FT: Because you are that person.
DA: That's scary, though.
FT: They'll cheer your demise.
DA: "Yeah, I'm tired of him." And it's most of your friends that will say that.
FT: These pieces are very beautifully considered, congratulations!
(FT leaves, just DA and MA)
MA: That was pretty cool. That made my day, too! The three of us standing there, you know?
DA: It was pretty great!
MA: (In reference to a collage) I like how you left some space open.
DA: Yeah, I decided to leave some space open. Like with these two pieces, they felt like when a TV glitches. I was thinking about the Glitch as the operator throughout the whole work. I was thinking about me looking at the image and how to capture that in a collage.
MA: Collage is pretty easy to capture that.
DA: But you have to have that rigid structure first in order to have Glitch, you know?
MA: Right, right.
DA: The thing that I like about collage, about putting information out — sometimes, you can go all out, and sometimes you can pull it back.
MA: Yeah, like different materials, more materials. These ones here seem like they have more material than the other ones.
DA: They do. These particular balloon structures broke it up, created a dimensional structure, and made the figures seem like they are moving through or bumping into each other. A lot of the balloons are bumping in the wind. As an artist, I feel content is something you bring with you, like in general. You either have content, or you don't.
Even when you are working formally, based on you being open and being exposed to the real world, and living in the real world like a real person — you can do something really formal and still have that bite to it.
MA: Right. It also has a beautiful kind of simplicity, which gives it content on its own. These have mystery to them, a little bit. The content is what you decide it is. You can look at it and make a decision. I think with the dioramas, too, it's very much like that. You can decide whatever is going on in these.
DA: They are open, and somewhat like the idea of the talking head.
MA: How did you come up with the idea for the shape?
DA: Well the shape was all based on drawing. These particular pieces were made with the computer — into this structure. The drawings were made by hand, imported into the computer and pulled into the program to make these exaggerated shapes. Then, after they were made, they were cut out and wood structures were attached. That was kind of the under painting of the sculpture. Putting it all together was the more complicated part. It became the identity of the piece: trying to keep it as collage.
MA: I think artists make rules, and then break them. You make your own game, then you change it.
DA: Yeah, yeah, you have to. Even though you know those rules can be broken or extended. I kind of want everything to be in conversation with each other and not be weaker because it is relying on it. I wanted this whole show to appear as one piece, in order for the show to have a conversation.
MA: It totally does. It's very strong.
DA: And I love this piece right here, with the funness of it and also the weirdness of it. The way her head is shaped — all of it is weird and off the side. It's interesting to me. And I was able to really have fun with the fabrics, because all the sculptures and collages have fabric swatches on them, which were collaged on. The way I wanted to use the fabric, I had to flatten everything out. I didn't want it to read as fabric.
MA: This has a real geometry to it.
DA: I really had to flatten out the texture of the fabric, so it would be juxtaposed with the paint and juxtaposed with the other paper material and shelf liner. And for the viewer, it would be more provocative to come in and not have the fabric being so isolated from everything else.
MA: I like the decision, too, of using the lighting clips. It's like set paper or the way photographers do backdrops.
DA: Exactly, it is.
MA: And it's nice to see outside the frame of the picture, you can see the machinery.
DA: That's what I'm talking about. When you see a set, one person looks at a show and sees the actual thing and then you understand. I was also researching entertainment and the educational program and everything that happens behind the scenes, the structural part of it. I felt like with this, I wanted to show that same conversation that I was always interested in. With this work, you can like this part and also understand how it came to be; I am giving you that too. It's not a mystery or anything like that.
MA: Right, because it would have been really easy to cut out something, and put it on the back there. But this is more interesting.
DA: Yeah, and these clips are really great. It was something I was really excited to come to. That was not an initial thing, I wasn't thinking about that until I was actually installing the work. I was installing the work and I was attaching these backdrops, this gradient backdrop paper. I was attaching these and it was kind of moving and I was like: let me put these clamps on until they dry. And then I was like: "Oh, this is part of it! I knew it was missing something."
MA: It's really smart.
DA: So I really feel like, when making art, up until the point that it’s being finally presented, you are still making it. You always can improve, there is never an ending to something being finished, until you are done with it. And once I put those clamps on, I was like: "This is done, this is perfect,” you know? WM